The .38 Special Wadcutter as a Defensive Load


Doing a bit of research lately on .38 Wadcutters as defensive ammunition. For years these have been the ‘go-to’ low-recoil defensive load for snubbies- not perfect, but better than lead round-nose or semi-wadcutters. So much of the ‘conventional wisdom’ about guns has proven to be hogwash over the years that I thought I would look into this.

First I checked for ballistic Gel tests on Youtube. Pocketgunsandgear had such a test, and the results really didn’t indicate performance superior to conventional lead round-nose. However several Medical Examiners have stated over the years that they were impressed with the wounds left by these rounds. OK, I dug further.

It turns out that the Army had actually done ‘energy deposit’ testing back in the 1970s. They fired through a 20cm block of ballistics gel and chronographed the bullets just before entry and after exit from the block. They found that .38 Special 158 gr.RNL bullets deposited 25% of their energy in the block, and 148gr wadcutters deposited 63% of their energy in the block. There is a direct correlation between energy deposit and permanent wound cavity.

The RNL bullets started with about 200 ft-lbs. of energy and deposed 50 ft-lbs. in the block. Even though it started with only 158 ft.lbs the wadcutter deposited 99 ft-lbs. of energy- nearly twice as much as the more powerful RNL round. That pretty much settles the question on that score- wadcutters do more permanent damage than round-nose lead. The conventional wisdom holds true- as far as it goes.

This isn’t the 1970s though, and bullet design has come a long way. There are light-recoiling hollow point rounds that work very well from short-barreled guns these days and one might be well-advised to research them. Still, it’s kind of nice to know the old stand-by is always there if you need it… and they are a LOT less expensive than modern defensive ammo.

Tinker Pearce, 20 March 2017

2 thoughts on “The .38 Special Wadcutter as a Defensive Load

  1. logtownacres

    I love 38 wadcutters. The first gun I shot after graduating from 22s was my dad’s 38 spl charter Arms from the 70s. We took a box of wadcutters out to the back roads and would shoot. 38 snubnose and wadcutters are still my favorite.

  2. tinker1066

    I like wadcutters too. My ‘go-to’ load for .38 S&W is a 148gr. Hornady HBWC- much easier to find and cheaper than .361 diameter bullets. The hollow-base upsets so that it takes rifling in the .361- bore. These have proven quite accurate and have adequate penetration- plus I can load it in my .38 Specials too! A good deal all around.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *