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Top short-barrel .38 Spl. loads for the street

by Patrick Sweeney   |  July 26th, 2017 0

SnubbieLoadsRevolver? Snubbie? Aren’t those passé? Not to those who know them. A slick six-shot .38 Spl. revolver is easier to shoot than a compact 9mm with a stubby grip. And, you don’t have any worries about magazines and feeding, or what to do if a primer goes click instead of bang.

If you like the features a modern .38 Spl. snub-nosed revolver offers, then you need to consider what to load it with. .38 Spl. ammunition has improved a great deal since it was introduced in 1898. All the R&D ammo makers poured into improving the 9mm has benefitted the .38 Spl. as well.

To that end, I laid hands on a selection of .38 Spl. carry ammo and tested it to demonstrate how these modern loads perform. These are the current best of the best, with one old-school comparison.

FBI Old School

Back when the idea of gelatin testing was so new even the FBI hadn’t adopted it, there was a .38 Spl. load we all used. It was and is a 158-grain swaged lead semi-wadcutter hollow-point, loaded to +P pressures. When Dr. Martin Fackler was demonstrating that ballistic gelatin could be useful in testing handgun ammunition, the “FBI Load” as it came to be called, proved a useful yardstick.

The classic 158-grain +P FBI Load kicks hard but its soft lead bullet will expand consistently in gelatin, water and soft tissue. Barriers and bones? Not so much.

The classic 158-grain +P FBI Load kicks hard but its soft lead bullet will expand consistently in gelatin, water and soft tissue. Barriers and bones? Not so much.

For this article, I shot a Winchester 158-grain +P LSWC HP into bare gel from a 2-inch S&W Model 15. Muzzle velocity was 799 fps. Penetration was within FBI specifications at 13 inches. Expansion was respectable at .521″. You can see why this load earned its reputation.

If you or your handgun likes it, it is still a useful load, but it does have some drawbacks. For one, it’s smoky and leads up your bore. But, bores can be scrubbed, and you aren’t shooting this ammo in bursts.

It has stout recoil, being full weight and full speed.  It also, because of the all-lead construction, suffers in barrier tests. While it expands reliably in bare gel and in the heavy cloth test, it doesn’t expand in any of the barrier tests.

You get a 158-grain lead blob in the gel behind the barriers. So, if you plan on needing barrier penetration and expansion, this is not your first choice.

SIG Sauer 125-grain +P V-Crown

SIG Sauer is new to ammo making, and that can be a good thing. The new guy on the block gets to learn from the products of his predecessors. And, the new guy does not have the problem of legacy equipment.

SIG Sauer developed a bullet for personal protection called the V-Crown. It features a dual hollow-point front end, with the jacket skived and scored.

The double-hollow-point is simple, once you get the image in your head; it has a funnel-shaped hollow-point, but then the funnel turns into a small bore-hole, that goes deep into the core. The double-hollow-point allows the V-Crown to expand consistently, regardless of barriers.

The skiving and scoring refers to the shape of the jacket as it curves up to the hollow-point opening, and to the slits cut into or through the jacket, to control the expansion. SIG Sauer is not the only one to do skiving and scoring. It controls where the jacket opens up. Without them, the jacket may break at random locations around the hollow-point opening, and random is not good for consistent expansion

SIG Sauer’s offering in this caliber is a .38 Spl. +P with a 125-grain V-Crown bullet in nickeled cases at an advertised velocity of 900 fps. Out of my 2-inch M15 revolver, SIG Sauer’s load clocked 830 fps. It penetrated a respectable 14 inches in the gel block but only expanded to .486″. So, penetration was good, but expansion is on the low end.

Federal 130-grain HST

This is brand-new and a marked departure from the usual approaches. First, the bullet is the Federal HST design, a mechanically-locked jacket to core design, one that has demonstrated reliable expansion, consistent integrity, and high-scoring performance in the FBI tests.

What Federal did differently with the .38 Spl. HST was simple: they put the whole bullet inside the case. What at first appears to be a wadcutter is the HST.

Taking this approach does two things for Federal. One, it allows them to use a truly capacious hollow-point. The opening can be the full diameter of the bore, since it doesn’t have to taper for feeding in a pistol.

Two, the bullet, shoved down in the case, allows for a smaller combustion chamber, and a more-efficient loading density. Your typical 110- or 125-grain JHP, loaded in a .38 Spl. case, leaves a whole lot of dead air space. This can drive ballisticians crazy, trying to get powder to burn consistently.

Federal shoves the bullet back, and ups the weight to 130 grains, which means they need less powder to get it up to speed, and the powder burns more consistently, shot to shot.

Velocity from my 2-inch M15 was 834 fps. This load didn’t quite reach the FBI minimum of 12 inches when shot into the gel. While it came up short at 11 inches of penetration. it expanded to an impressive .623″. This is an excellent performing load.

Super Vel 90-grain +P

There are those who do not worship at the altar of FBI gel “requirements”. They want velocity, they don’t feel the need for barrier penetration and expansion, and they are happy with something that will penetrate to the back of the thoracic cavity on a normal human being.

Good news, Super Vel is back. Its .38 Spl. loading is a 90-grain jacketed hollow-point loaded to +P pressures. In keeping with the tradition of Super Vel’s super velocities, it delivers speed in spades. Even from a snubbie, it hurls its 90-grain bullet through the radar beam at well over 1200 fps. They even call it their “Super Snub” load.

That said, this is not a load for the faint of heart, or those who will complain about recoil. A 90-grain bullet at 1250 fps is going to produce some serious muzzle blast and felt recoil. Out of an all-steel snubbie, it will be brisk to shoot. Out of an airweight, it will be an ordeal to do more than determine point of impact and accuracy level. If you decide to give it a try, prepare yourself.

This 90-grain load is “marginal” according to the FBI. In my testing, it pounded out of my 2-inch M15 at 1257 fps! Penetration was just short of the FBI required 12 inches. The 90-grain slug expanded to .596″ and penetrated to 11 inches. If 90 grains of .38 Spl. bullet, arriving at 1250 fps, and penetrating a foot deep while expanding to over half-an-inch is considered  “marginal” by your standards, I think we have some ground rules we have to establish.

Speer Gold Dot 135-grain Short Barrel
Personal Protection

Speer pulled out all the stops when they came up with this one. They use their Gold Dot bullet, the epitome of bonded bullets. Then they upped the weight to 135 grains to generate penetration. They loaded it to +P pressures, to keep the speed up and generate expansion. And then they tuned the powder selection to keep that speed up even when the load is fired in short-barreled handguns, like snubbies. The result is a load that performs, but expects you to keep up.

The GDHP-SB recoils snappily, and it will get the attention of others at the range. Performance, though, is ideal. Velocity measured 840 fps from my 2-inch S&W M15 test piece. The 135-grain bullet penetrated to 13 inches and expanded to .565″. It will do this in bare gel or heavy clothing.

It will penetrate the steel, glass, wallboard and plywood barriers, and in all of them penetrate just over or just under the one-foot mark. If you want a load that offers impressive performance and meets the FBI specifications, this is one to consider.


Hornady 110-grain FTX

Not everyone wants the drama of a full-throttle load. Those who may not be fans of recoil, or have compromised hand strength might want something easier to handle. Enter the Hornady FTX, in the Critical Defense line. The Critical Defense bullet is an outgrowth of the excellent XTP, which has long been the standard against which all other handgun bullets are measured, as far as accuracy is concerned. The FTX bullet uses a polymer insert in the hollow-point to initiate expansion, and keep it open when it strikes barriers.

While the .38 Spl. FTX loading is only 110 grains, it has an advertised velocity just over 1000 fps. That’s from a longer barrel, while out of a snubbie, it generates more like mid-800s fps. This makes it a mild-recoiling and easy to shoot self-protection load.

Actual velocity from my 2-inch M-15 test gun was 833 fps. Penetration in gel was good, as it reached a depth of 13 inches. Expansion was the least of all the loads tested though, coming in at .440″, but remember it exceeded the minimum FBI penetration requirement of 12 inches.

Hornady’s Critical Defense load is perfect for someone who isn’t anticipating a gunfight in and around cars, and who wants to keep recoil low, to aid in rapid, accurate shooting.

Don’t get too wrapped up in trying to find the best ammunition, period. If a load receives top ratings, but it produces so much recoil, flash and blast that you can’t shoot it without a flinch, then it isn’t going to help you much. So, test likely candidates for yourself. See how well they group. Check the point of impact. Testing allows you to find what is best, and improves your skills. Is America great, or what?

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