In Review: .38 Special Defensive Ammo Testing

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Copyright 2009 Brasstard.com

Here is a report on the testing of 4 different types of defense-grade ammo for the .38 Special. From left to right, the Remington 125g Golden Saber +P, the Buffalo Bore 158g LSWC-HP, the Buffalo Bore 150g Wadcutter, and the S&B 158g JSP. I fired them all from a S&W model 637-2 AirWeight 5-shot revolver with a 1 7/8″ barrel and a 0.005″ B/C gap…

The range was 7 yards and the test medium was 3 wet phone books back to back…

The first cartridge was a Remington 125g Golden Saber +P. This ammo performed well, though total expansion occurred only about half the time. The other half of the time the rounds deformed into nasty looking blobs with sharp petals sticking out randomly on the sides. Even the ones that didn’t expand completely still looked like they would do the job. The rounds all fully penetrated one phone book and were found in the middle of the second book. This equates to between 12″-15″ of actual penetration, which is about perfect for CCW in public.

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Copyright 2009 Brasstard.com

Accuracy with this load is very good, and all rounds fired on first strike without any failures. One thing I noticed after firing is that I had a cracked case on one of the spent rounds… from the case mouth about half way down the case wall. This is pretty rare for new brass in a revolver, but I have been told that Remington brass is not the best. It looks like the heat treatment process was not done correctly and the brass became brittle. So, if you reload, you may want to toss out these cases after use. Aside from that minor issue, I would have no problems with carrying this ammo for daily defensive use.

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Copyright 2009 Brasstard.com

The next cartridge I tested is the Buffalo Bore 158g Soft-Cast Lead Semi-Wadcutter Hollow Point “LSWC-HP” (20C/20). This stuff is also offered in a +P loading, but honestly the standard load is plenty of bang for me. I never really cared for the heavy recoil of the +P version in my little 15oz. J-Frame, but this standard pressure load is just about a perfect balance between power and shoot-ability.

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Copyright 2009 Brasstard.com

As you can see, expansion was good with the occasional shedding of the mushroomed nose mass. Penetration was deep too; I found most of these in the rear of the second phone book… in other words between 15″-18″ of actual penetration. Accuracy was quite good overall. Just keep in mind that any soft lead bullet generates significant lead fouling in the barrel. If you can afford to shoot a lot of these these at a range session, make sure you bring your cleaning kit… after 20 rounds of these, my barrel was thoroughly gunked. Buffalo Bore ammo is pretty expensive, and I still debate with my wallet over whether or not it is worth the cost. But it does work, and it works well.

The third cartridge in today’s lineup is another hard-hitter from Buffalo Bore, the 150g Hard Cast Wadcutter (20D/20). I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical of using wadcutters for self-defense until I saw these in action. They are loaded to similar velocities as the cartridge above, but having the solid, wide flat face makes them hit with a nasty slap. They created entry wounds that could rival some exit wounds. They also dug deep… very deep; most of these were found in the first half of the third phone book. that means 20″-25″ of actual penetration!

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Copyright 2009 Brasstard.com

This hard cast load from Buffalo Bore did not deform on impact at all, they were highly accurate, totally reliable, and they hit like a heavy, blunt object. I now use these almost exclusively in my daily carry revolver. Also, if you lack a good mountain gun for the woods, these would make a decent alternative (in all but the large bear territories)… at least until you get your hands on a more capable caliber.

The final load I tested in this lineup is an import from Sellier & Bellot. The 158g Jacketed Soft-Point (SB31102) drew my interest because I always wondered if a heavy JSP would deform from a snubby .38. Being a rabid .357 Magnum fan, I have seen the carnage that this bullet configuration can reap upon unsuspecting game. However, we are talking about a standard pressure .38 Special in a sub-2″ barrel here, not a 6″ GP100 stoked with Magnums. Well, as you can see below they did not deform much, if at all.

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Copyright 2009 Brasstard.com

The velocity not nearly enough to deform the tip, therefor the rounds penetrated pretty deep; they easily passed through the first book and were found in the back of the 2nd book, some even making it to the first few pages of the 3rd book… or about 18″-22″ of actual penetration.

Though the S&B’s are not my first choice for .38 self-defense loads, they are also not my last. I like to use them in my extra speed-loaders as a cost effective alternative to higher-priced ammo. They function flawlessly, shoot consistently, toss a heavy chunk of lead, and are quite accurate… that’s good enough for me. Lets not forget to mention that they only cost about 1/3 the price of “premium” defensive ammo. Whats not to like?

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Copyright 2009 Brasstard.com

Chronograph Velocity Results 5-shot Average @ 10 Feet

  1. Buffalo Bore 158g LSWC-HP – 821 fps / 236 fpe
  2. Buffalo Bore 150g HC-WC – 870 fps / 252 fpe
  3. Golden Saber 125g +P JHP – 912 fps /231 fpe
  4. S&B 158g JSP – 753 fps / 199 fpe

(see “Phone Book Ballistics” for info on penetration calculations)

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22 Comments

  1. I like the looks of the BB loads… may have to try a box or two.

  2. Thanks for the review. Well done. I’m glad to see some actual testing using a snubby.

  3. Good review. I personally use Buffalo Bore +P but that’s out of a GP-100 4″. They are effective.

  4. Nice write up. I think you make a great point with S&B ammo. Practically speaking, we all can’t carry top of the line stuff by the boatload and shoot hundreds of rounds of it for practice. We have to make compromises- and I think you really hit the nail on the head with that point

  5. If the Buffalo Bore 150 grain WC is what you carry in case the JHP’s fail, why not have those first up?

  6. Dan,
    I wouldn’t hesitate to fill all 5 chambers with those BB 150g WC rounds… I’m sure they would be very effective. Its just that I live in a city, and those are pretty much guaranteed to fully perforate any average sized person. I figure the expanding ammo is less likely to come out the other side. Thats why I fill the first 2 chambers with JHP or SWC-HP. I don’t really know if it is better or not… it just “feels” better to me.

  7. I understand completely. I use both BB +P and standard pressure 158 SWC-HP. However, only in full size K-frames. (Models 10 & 15) Cabella’s is having a “sale” right now on Buffalo Bore. I bought a couple of boxes of the 150 grain based on your test results. Now I need to figure out what J-frame model to get.

  8. Dan, I really like my Taurus 85 Ultra-lite. I had a Model 639 J-Frame, shrouded hammer in .357, but sold it to finance another gun. I then bought the 85 for half of what I sold the 639 for. You can shoot +P’s in it sparingly, and I actually found it to be more shootable than the S&W, and just as accurate.

  9. I picked up a S&W 638 Bodyguard last week. Using the Buffalo Bore 150 grain wadcutters was excellent. My thought is having the 638 loaded with the wadcutters and the speed loaders filled with the 158 LSWC-HP. (Easier to reload!)

  10. Dan,
    Great choice on the 638. I don’t think you can go wrong with either of those loads in that gun.
    As Will stated, the UL85 is also a great alternative… just make sure you give it a thorough inspection before you buy (this goes for any gun, new or used). My first UL85 had 2 chambers that were not headspaced properly. The cartridges would not fully seat in the cylinder and caused severe binding. As long as you get a good specimen, the Taurus models are good guns.

  11. I got a good specimen. It was my son’s BUG.

  12. I bought an older model Colt Detective special, don’t want to run +P’s through her. Just got a couple of boxes of the 158gr LSWCHP from BB. I’ll give the old FBI load a go.

  13. I use golden saber 38 + p in a 357 mag. snub(2 inch) taurus mod 617 (seven round capacity cilinder)

  14. In my country in central america, the few gunshops that exist only offer winchester, remington and mexican aguila ammunition (considered quite good here), for handguns.I use aguila 38 special standard load 158 gr.sjhp in a colt detective special from the fifties, and remington GS 125 gr,38+p in the 357 mag 2 in. barrel (28 oz weight) expecting low recoil and good shot placement at close distances.Any advice? Thank you.

  15. Hi Robert,
    Those old Colt’s are great little guns. I think you will be well served with the 158g ammo you are using. The most important thing with snub nosed revolvers (or any gun for that matter) is to keep up on your practice.
    Best regards.

  16. Only I had a S & B cartridge (wadcutter for my .38 spl snobby) fracture on me yesterday. No damage to me or the S & W, but I hesitate to use them again. Have to go to a more expensive practice ammo. Cheap is cheap.

    Reply from Admin;
    I have had “premium” ammo cases fracture as well. No brand is immune to it, but some are worse than others. A cracked case mouth is not a real concern as it poses no safety hazard… a separation of the case head is where the real problems arise. Overall, I have not had any issues with S&B brass. It could just be an anomaly.

  17. Cynthia, Ive had cases rupture(crack open ) from S&B, Winchester, and Remington. Its not an un-common problem. Like the Admin. said, its probably due to a bad heat- treating process. I personally like cheap(in price) ammo to practice with. I carry 135 gr +P Gold Dots in my snubbie for serious use. Never had a ruptured case with them; but I don’t shoot a lot of +P’s when I’m at the range. Too much of a good thing hurts after a while. If you are set on not using S&B anymore, try American Eagle. They are sort of cheap 130 gr fmj’s for practice. Happy Shooting

  18. I was told by a gunsmith that a person don’t really need +P carry ammo. He said a standard pressure LSWC would be all you need in a confrontation at snubnose range. So now I carry 4 125gr Nyclads(standard pressure), and 1 135+P GDHP. But as it has been stated many times before,practice,practice,and more practice. A snubby is great carry piece as long as you can use it efficiantly. I lucked out on the Nyclads,it was the last box the shop had.

  19. I enjoyed your review. I carry Buffalo Bore 150 gr. Hard Cast Wadcutters in my Ruger LCR. I feel confident with them.

  20. The Bufflo Bore 150 grain flat nose wad cutter is a hard cast alloy blend, it tests 15 Brinell hardness, will not lead your barrel and is an excellent choice for self defense which has tested 18+ inches in gel. It moves 1005 fps from a four inch barrel generating 336 foot pounds of energy. This speed and energy will easily penetrate bone of man or beast before continuing its travel futher past.

  21. I have a 638-3 snub and use federal hydro-shocks.. how do they compare to those listed in article?

  22. Reply from Admin,
    Hydrashocks are an old design (20+ years), but they should still do the trick if you hit your target.

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