Weird Bullets- .38 Special Tumblers

Currently the most popular self-defense revolvers are snub-nose revolvers like the S&W J-frames and Ruger LCR. These are most often chambered in .38 Special, and have barrels around 2″ in length.

The S&W Model 442 in .38 Special is one of the most popular self defense revolvers on the market today.

It seems the most important factor in stopping an attacker with a handgun are penetration, hit location and the permanent wound track. But while it doesn’t top the list, there’s little doubt a bigger permanent wound track is better than a small one. The most common way to produce a larger wound track is to use a Hollow-point bullet, but from these short barrels hollow-point bullets tend to not expand, or to expand and under-penetrate. There are a couple that seem to do well, but they can be hard to find, especially these days.

But maybe there’s another way…

As long as a bullet penetrates deeply enough anything that makes the permanent wound-track bigger is all to the good. What if a bullet can be induced to tumble reliably? It’s not a new idea; some say the British .38/200 was designed to do exactly that, and the King’s armed forces were satisfied with that for decades.

To perform reliably such a bullet needs to be stable in flight, but unstable on penetration; if it tumbles in flight it will be inaccurate. Making a bullet nose-heavy, like a hollow-base wadcutter, makes it more stable. Moving the center of gravity towards the base of the bullet has the opposite effect, but rifling can still make it stable in flight and this is the method most often used for things like military rifle bullets. Since pistols typically use rather stubby bullets their rifling-pitch is set up for those bullets, and increasing the length of a bullet beyond what is normal can also make it less stable.

I started with a 158gr. LRNFP, and experimented with swaging various shapes and arrived at one that looked like it might fit the bill, and in addition would work very well in a speed-loader.

On the left- the re-swaged ‘tumbler.’ On the left the standard 158gr. LRNFP.

I loaded the bullets over 4.5gr of Unique with a Federal Magnum Small Pistol primer. For my test gun I used my 3″ K-frame. I set up the chronograph in front of my much-abused Clear Ballistics gel bock covered with four layers of denim. backing off approximately 10 feet I fired three test shots.

First of all the load averaged 908 fps., producing 289 ft./lbs with an extreme spread of 21 fps. The bullets did not key-hole in flight and shot to point of aim… hardly surprising given the short range. One bullet rotated 180 degrees and ended up base-first in the block. The other two made a full rotation and ended point-forward. The wound-tracks expanded to about 1 inch at the widest. Penetration was 11-1/2 to 13 inches.

You can see the bullet at its resting place, point-forward after apparently making a complete rotation.

The ballistic gel block is so shot up it’s hard to get a good photo of the wound-track. The bullet started to tumble after about 2″ of penetration. While the bullets penetrated adequately every wound-track was curved, which given the importance of hit location is not ideal.

Bullets were loaded with a heavy crimp to make them easier to use in a speed-loader.

So, this seems to be a successful experiment. It is arguably an improvement over a standard wadcutter or semi-wadcutter, but is it enough better to be worth the effort? Really not sure it is, what with the wound-tracks curving the way they do. Still, I doubt they are worse than a semi-wadcutter.

There are worse ways to spend an afternoon, and it was gratifying to succeed in implementing the idea. That being said I’m not convinced it’s worth pursuing this.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 21 December 2020

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1 thought on “Weird Bullets- .38 Special Tumblers

  1. Conan Bolonan

    Perhaps the next step in this interesting experiment would be to try these same cartridges in a smoothbore snubby . . .

    Those pirates with blunderbusses (blunderbusi?) may have been on to something.


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