January 20, 2021
I recently received a reader’s question asking: “Whatever happened to the ‘police load’ of a 200-grain lead RN for the .38 Special?” The question brought up complicated matters of terminal ballistics, market pressures, and manufacturing constraints that are still valid today. And it presents a broader issue: why we test.
Before the 1960s, there were few factory loads for .38 Special. We had the ubiquitous 158-grainers at two velocity levels and sporting either a lead RN bullet or a metal-capped bullet. There was the 148-grain full wadcutter for paper targets. And there was the 200-grain LRN; Winchester-Western boxes for this bore the moniker “Super Police,” as shown on the box in the above photograph.
Until the 1970s, the only terminal performance information was typically represented in ammo catalogs by penetration of pine boards. Modeling clay was sometimes used, but it will expand bullets that tissue never could. Other than confusing the issue, clay did little more than make cool photos for adverts. In that data-free environment, the 200-grain version was commonly assumed to be the more effective stopper by virtue of a heavier bullet.
Then came data. Our gelatin testing at the Dallas County Crime Lab began at the request of the Dallas Police Department. Besieged by ammo salesmen with photos of gut-shot modeling clay, the deputy chief in charge of procurement called me. “Can you put some numbers on this mess and clear the air?” he asked. We set up a technical study based on military research using gelatin blocks rigged between chronograph screens.
If you missed my first Shooting Times column in 2008, here’s a quick refresher. Military research in the 1970s showed that the volume of a bullet’s temporary wound cavity was directly proportional to the energy transferred to ballistic gelatin. Our tests, the first for police handgun ammo done that way, determined average energy transfer to 15cm of 20-percent ballistics gelatin. For .38 Special 158-grain LRN standard-velocity loads, that transfer averaged 75 ft-lbs. That became our baseline. We used a police 4.0-inch service revolver, not a “test” barrel.
After establishing our baseline, we tested 15 different .38 Special ammo types. The Remington and the Winchester versions of the 200-grain load had different nose profiles, so we tested them separately. I wasn’t expecting “amazing” but, being a heavy-bullet guy, was disappointed with the resulting numbers. Low-velocity bullets have trouble making big cavities regardless of shape or weight.
The 200-grain LRN loads bracketed the terminal performance of standard-velocity 158-grain LRN ammo from our test revolver. Average launch velocities were similar, but the cavity volumes were disappointing.
At this point I’d like to add that although I’ve never been shot at, I have been hit by a bullet—a 200-grain .38 Special bullet. In addition to service revolvers, we used 2.0-inch snubnoses for one test series. With much lower muzzle velocities from the short barrels, the 200-grain bullets were grossly under-stabilized and tumbled on entering gelatin. One bullet changed direction inside the gelatin block by 45 degrees, shattered the light that illuminated the photocells, and cracked the screen case before reversing direction and whacking me in the foot. No damage beyond bruising, but it really hurt.
So the heavy-bullet .38 Special winced in the light of hard data. Realistic testing, along with the evolution of high-performance hollowpoint loads within every maker’s line-up, put pressure on old loads that underperformed or sold poorly.
To put a date on when the 200-grain police load was discontinued, Winchester still listed it in 1981 and Remington had it in 1989 but not 1990. From a CCI-Speer perspective, the question of “whatever happened…” is intimately tied to 1989. That was the year our production of 9mm Luger ammo outstripped that of .38 Special—by a massive margin. Demands for loading capacity to meet 9mm orders meant low-selling .38 Special loads were pushed aside and ultimately dropped. From my industry contacts, I know this was also the case for the other “majors.”
So in answer to this very astute question: Low performance was part of it, but more importantly, the 9mm Luger happened.