Handloading the .38 Special for Snubnose Revolvers

Plenty of components for making good .38 Special ammunition for snubnose revolvers are available, but the handloader needs to be mindful of certain concerns when assembling the ammo.

Snubnose revolvers continue to be popular for self-defense. And one of the most popular cartridges- if not the most popular cartridge- for those revolvers is the .38 Special. Plenty of components for handloading are available, so there aren't any concerns there. But handloaders need to know a few peculiarities about building the ammunition for those short-barreled revolvers. One is the need to securely crimp the case mouths to preclude the bullets from jumping the crimp.

Just about everyone reading this magazine is aware of the need to securely crimp the case mouths on ammo for heavy-recoiling magnum handguns, but how many know the same thing is necessary for a relatively lightweight handgun?

Another critical consideration for handloading for a short-barreled revolver is selecting a proper powder-and-bullet recipe. Why? Because we are trying to balance two opposing performance criteria: bullet penetration and expansion.

An FMJ bullet penetrates deeper because it doesn't expand and all of the bullet's energy is expended on penetration. Depending on point of impact, even the fastest FMJ bullet may not immediately disable the bad guy.

On the other hand, a similarly speedy bullet having the thinnest possible jacket with multiple skives surrounding a large hollow cavity in the nose, often filled with a polymer plug to enhance expansion, probably won't penetrate at all and could likely blow up upon impact. Messy, sure, but again, the bullet may not be immediately disabling.

Of course, balancing penetration and expansion is most difficult when handloading ammo for short-barreled handguns.

Even the best personal-defense bullet must be launched at a muzzle velocity that ensures it will impact fast enough to properly expand. In most handguns, the propellant is fully combusted in the first couple of inches of the barrel. However, a longer barrel allows the propellant gas pressure to continue to accelerate the bullet until it exits the muzzle. A snubnose revolver necessarily sacrifices ballistic performance for personal-defense considerations such as concealment and ease of carry.

But there's no need to further curtail cartridge performance by using less-than-optimal components, such as a bullet that's too heavily constructed to expand at expected lower velocities or a propellant that can't transfer the most muzzle energy possible to the bullet in the short barrel.

NOTES: Accuracy is the average of three, five-shot groups fired from a sandbag benchrest. Velocity is the average of 15 rounds measured six feet from the gun's muzzle. All load data should be used with caution. Always start with reduced loads first and make sure they are safe in each of your guns before proceeding to the high test loads listed. Since Shooting Times has no control over your choice of components, guns, or actual loadings, neither Shooting Times nor the various firearms and components manufacturers assume any responsibility for the use of this data.

A Word of Warning

A word of warning is in order. You must take extra care to ensure you do not inadvertently double or triple charge a case. The .38 Special was originally sized for a case full of blackpowder under the bullet. Modern smokeless propellants are much more energetic, so a typical charge of 6.0 or 7.0 grains barely fills a quarter or so of the case volume.

I always throw powder for a tray full of cases and, using a bright light, carefully inspect each one. I usually randomly select and weigh a few just to be sure. Because crimping the case mouth into the bullet is required, I also trim each batch of brass to a uniform length so that when seating the bullets I can apply a firm, uniform crimp.

As readers of Shooting Times know, SAAMI is the federation of arms and munitions manufacturers that establishes the performance and testing specifications for ammunition produced in the United States. One of the technical specifics included for each cartridge is the maximum average pressure (MAP). Originally stated in copper units of pressure (CUP), the MAP for most current cartridges has been updated to pounds per square inch (psi). The .38 Special's MAP is 17,000 psi, whereas for the .38 Special +P it is 20,000 psi. The proof pressure MAP specified by SAAMI is 29,500 psi for both rounds. Therefore, .38 Special +P ammo can be as much as 17.5 percent hotter than standard .38 Special. All newly manufactured .38 Special revolvers must be proof tested to the same higher proof pressure level.

What You Can Expect

As you can see in the accompanying chart, several of the handloads I prepared maximize ballistic performance in a short-barreled S&W Model 637 revolver. In most cases, they feature light-for-caliber bullets constructed to expand at minimum velocities. Light jackets and generous hollowpoints with augmented expansion design features are the norm. I also included a heavy but soft, swaged lead hollowpoint bullet for comparison purposes.

The results were obtained by firing three, five-shot groups at 12 yards from a sandbag rest. Almost every group was centered low and left. The Model 637 features fixed sights, so I can adjust the point of aim to compensate. However, because it's a personal-defense gun intended for up-close shooting, there's really no need to alter the sight picture. Actually, I've learned to simply place the front sight where I want the bullet to hit and squeeze the trigger. I'm confident that if any future situation warrants firing, I'll be ready.


Recommended for You


Review: Crimson Trace CTL-3420 4-20X 50mm

Joel J. Hutchcroft - April 29, 2019

Crimson Trace enters the riflescope business with the Crimson Trace CTL-3420 4-20X 50mm.


Review: Daniel Defense Delta 5

Joel J. Hutchcroft - May 31, 2019

Daniel Defense has blazed a new trail with its first-ever bolt-action rifle.


Danger Tamed: Hornady DGX Bonded Hunting Ammo

Joseph von Benedikt - May 23, 2019

A half-century in the making, the new DGX Bonded is Hornady's best-ever dangerous-game bullet.

See More Recommendations

Trending Stories


Accuracy: It's All Relative

Terry Wieland - May 09, 2019

Like situational ethics, standards of accuracy vary according to circumstances.


The Key to Shooting Far: Improving Ballistics

Rick Jamison - April 17, 2019

Improved ballistic coefficients lead to greater performance downrange without upping blast and...


Review: Bushnell FORGE 4.5-27X 50mm

Sam Wolfenberger - May 01, 2019

The new Bushnell FORGE riflescope is “the only choice for long-range hunting enthusiasts.”

See More Stories

More Ammo


The .32 H&R Magnum

Allan Jones - March 15, 2019

The littlest Magnum is a dandy field cartridge with excellent long-range capabilities.


Hornady Frontier .223 Rem. & 5.56mm Ammo

Jake Edmondson - February 12, 2019

Hornady resurrected its Frontier Cartridge line of ammunition this year. Currently, 11 loads...


The Grand Old .30-30 Winchester

Allan Jones - June 24, 2019

Often predicted to become obsolete as a hunting cartridge, the .30-30 Winchester is not dead...

See More Ammo

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction


Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services


GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.