Wadcutters for Self Defense?

The purpose of this post is not to convince you to carry wadcutters or not to; it’s simply to present information so that you are better equipped to make an informed decision.

A wadcutter is a cylindrical bullet designed to punch a clean hole in a paper target. The are typically loaded to a relatively low velocity and have very mild recoil. They were not designed as a self-defense load, but are often recommended as such. One has to wonder why,  given that they have modest muzzle energy and expand little or not at all in testing.  The answer is a mix of realism, misinformation and logic.

The objective of self-defense shooting is to stop the attacker as quickly as is reasonably possible. Handguns, on the whole, are pretty bad at this. I’ve mentioned this a time or two. The most important things in stopping a person are penetration- the bullet has to reach the important bits, hit location- the bullet has to hit the important bits, and last of all the permanent wound cavity.

People used to waste a lot of time worrying about the ‘best’ bullet/caliber to produce a ‘stop’ with a single torso hit.  But as one Marine put it, “Who shoots them once?!”  It has been pretty obvious right the way along that multiple accurate hits to center mass was a pretty reliable way of stopping an attacker. Doing this with a service-caliber weapon was a useful way of going about it, and it was a good idea to use a good hollow-point.  But the most important thing was to do it multiple times as quickly as it was possible to maintain accuracy.

A .357 Magnum round, shot for shot, is pretty damned effective. But from the sort of guns people carry for self defense the recoil is brutal and slows down recovery time between shots. Most people are better off with a .38 Special +P hollow-point. But there’re people for whom even that is problematic; weak wrists, previous injuries etc. can make a person sensitive to recoil. It is in these cases that wadcutters are most often recommended.

There is also a common belief that the hard corners of the bullets cut the flesh of the target better than a round-nose bullet. The problem is that when these bullets are fired in tests using demin over ballistic gel there is no indication that this is true. The fabric crushes the corners into a slightly rounded or bevelled profile, and the wound track is similar to round-nose lead.

But this doesn’t tell the whole story. A few decades back the Army tested .38 Special wadcutters against .38 Special round-nose lead ammo by firing both into ballistic gel and measuring it’s velocity before it hit and after it exited the block. Despite starting with 15% less muzzle-energy the wadcutters deposited 25% more energy into the block. It seems to indicate that as both rounds passed entirely through the block (which was meant to represent adequate penetration in human tissue) the wadcutter delivered more damage. But no one has ever established a concrete connection between energy delivery and stopping power, not matter how intuitive it seems. There is a connection between permanent wound cavity and stopping power, and neither bullet fares anywhere near a good hollow point in that department.

They’re just wadcutters, but I am pretty sure this would do…

It seems likely that a wadcutter is more effective than a round-nose bullet, but not as good as a hollow-point. So why would anyone choose the wadcutter over the hollow-point? Recoil and  cost. The mild recoil makes them more pleasant to shoot, and that makes people more likely to practice. They are also cheaper than defensive ammo, which means people can afford to shoot more of them- which also means more practice.  Most importantly the low recoil means recovery time is shorter and more rounds can be accurately put on target faster. Yes, shot for shot they are noticeably less effective- but who shoots them once?


It can easily be argued that three wadcutters, rapidly and accurately delivered to center-mass, will be more effective than one .357 Magnum delivered to the same area. It is undeniable that three .38 +P hollow points will also beat a single magnum. What it comes to is this- if a person cannot handle the recoil of a hollow-point load it might be reasonable for them to try wadcutters. They aren’t the only game in town, or necessarily the best, but they just might do.


Michael Tinker Pearce, 14 March 2018


2 thoughts on “Wadcutters for Self Defense?

  1. Jack Connolly

    There’s also the legal issue. In my home state of New Jersey it is illegal for anyone but police to use a hollow point bullet to shoot someone.


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