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New Powders for .38 Special Wadcutter Handloads

Like to load .38 Special Wadcutter? Here are some new powders that are worth trying out with tested load data.

New Powders for .38 Special Wadcutter Handloads

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Wadcutter bullets have been loaded in the .38 Special for over a century. They are commonly used in competitions, where their flat, full-caliber noses cut clean, caliber-sized holes in the paper for easy scoring. Accuracy can be excellent to 50 yards, the usual limit for paper-target pistol shooting. Alliant Bullseye gunpowder has been one of the traditional powders used with wadcutters. Winchester Super Target (WST) is another popular powder and endorsed by some shooters as beating Bullseye’s accuracy. Other popular powders for wadcutters include Winchester 231, Hodgdon Titegroup, Alliant Red Dot, IMR 700-X, and, well, several others. In fact, quite a few powders will produce excellent accuracy with wadcutter bullets.

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The wadcutter bullets tested with the traditional and newer powders are (left to right) Hornady 148-grain HBWC, Remington 148-grain HBWC, Zero 148-gr. HBWC, and ACME 148-grain WCDBB. W244 produced an amazing 1.01-inch 20-shot group with the Remington wadcutter bullet (bottom right), and W572 produced a very tight 1.16-inch 20-shot group with the ACME wadcutter (bottom left).

Most commonly used powders for wadcutters have been around for quite a while. For example, Bullseye was introduced in 1898. I wanted to see how some newer powders stacked up against the old ones, so I selected powders for which there is published load data for wadcutter bullets. These were Alliant Sport Pistol, Winchester 244, Winchester AutoComp, and Winchester 572. Sport Pistol and W244 are fast- to medium-fast burning, a common range for use with wadcutters. The remaining powders are slower burning and not generally considered candidates for .38 Special wadcutters for that reason, but I thought I’d try them anyway.

A burn rate chart gives you a feel for how they compare, but keep in mind that burn rate charts from different sources can disagree. What follows is how Hodgdon ranks them on the 2023 chart, from fastest to slowest, with a rank of No. 1 being the fastest-burning powder on their chart. I’ve included Bullseye and WST because I included data for these powders in the accompanying chart for comparison: Bullseye (14), Sport Pistol (15), WST (22), W244 (33), AutoComp (44), and W572 (50). W572 is ranked on that chart right next to Alliant Blue Dot, which is well known as a slow pistol powder.

For my tests, I used four bullets: Hornady, Remington, and Zero swaged hollowbase 148-grain wadcutters (HBWC) and ACME cast 148-grain double-end wadcutter, which the company calls a double-bevel base (WCDBB). My test gun was a .357 Magnum Smith & Wesson Model 686 Plus with a 7.0-inch barrel. The twist rate is 1:18.75. The cases were specially prepared to prevent shrinking the skirts. A regular .38 Special size die can compress the brass so much that a swaged bullet’s soft hollowbase skirt is sized from 0.358 inch down to 0.355 inch when the bullet is fully seated. This can affect accuracy if the skirt does not expand to fill the barrel’s groove diameter.

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Brad used a .357 Magnum Smith & Wesson Model 686 Plus with a 7.0-inch barrel mounted in a Ransom Rest to test the .38 Special handloads.

The cases for the Hornady and the Zero bullets were previously fired, then sized with a .38 Super (not .38 Special) size die. The wider dimensions of this caliber die don’t compress the brass as much and allow the soft swaged hollowbase bullets to be seated flush in the case without compressing the skirt. This varies with the brand of brass since they have different wall thickness dimensions for varying lengths down the case. I used Starline brass because it does not compress the hollowbase skirt when sized with the .38 Super die. At the same time, the case is sized enough that the bullets still have enough surface tension contact with the case wall to prevent them from moving under recoil while the gun is in my Ransom Rest. (This might vary depending on the brass manufacturer’s case wall thickness and the specific .38 Super die.) Fired cases were unsized when prepped for the Remington bullets. These bullets are large, with a diameter of 0.361 inch that gets sized down even with the .38 Super-sized cases. The cast ACME wadcutters are a harder lead alloy, and since they don’t have hollow bases, they don’t suffer from easy compression. They were loaded in regularly sized cases and .38 Super-sized cases. With the gun mounted in the Ransom Rest, accuracy was assessed at 25 yards by shooting a 20-shot group.

New Powder Test Results

The Remington bullets produced outstanding accuracy with Bullseye and WST powders. Twenty-shot groups were just over an inch, at 1.19 inches. Sport Pistol produced a 1.5-inch 20-shot group, and W244 produced a 20-shot group that was barely over an inch (1.01 inches), beating Bullseye and WST by a bit.

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Hornady’s 148-grain wadcutter produced the largest groups in my gun, running between 2.0 and 3.0 inches with Bullseye and WST. All four newer powders shot groups as well or better. W244’s groups were all under 2.0 inches, whereas AutoComp’s groups were more variable, but one group at 1.70 inches was the smallest with this bullet. W572 produced the second smallest group of 1.71 inches.

Zero’s HBWC proved to shoot better in my gun than Hornady’s, with only one group greater than 2.0 inches. Bullseye and WST shot very nice groups, hovering around 1.5 inches. Most groups with the other powders fit that description, too, although Sport Pistol produced both the largest group (2.19 inches) and the smallest group (1.33 inches). AutoComp shot three different charge weights into groups just over 1.5 inches, putting it in the same honored class as Bullseye and WST. Groups with W572 were 1.61 and 1.82 inches.

ACME’s cast wadcutter shot extremely well with the right powder charges. Group sizes were a bit variable, but that’s what happens when you’re searching for the magic load. Each of the newer powders produced at least one outstanding group, and W572 really shined, with both charge weights tested grouping under 1.4 inches. The biggest group here was 2.53 inches, from the lighter charge weight of Sport Pistol. Even trusty Bullseye produced a 2.07-inch group with the famed 2.7-grain powder charge, showing that what works for one bullet doesn’t always work for other bullets.

All four of the powders tested proved they could produce top accuracy with wadcutters with the right powder charge. The results show they are as capable as Bullseye and WST, which is saying a lot. Sport Pistol’s results were the most variable of the powders tested. In my gun, it appeared to prefer a heavier charge weight, at, or just above, Alliant’s maximum weight of 2.7 grains shown in its manual for a 148-grain wadcutter.

W244 gave very good results overall and produced the smallest 20-shot group with the Remington bullets, measuring 1.01 inches. It also produced smaller groups with the Hornady HBWC than both Bullseye and WST.

Recommended


AutoComp showed some variability, except with the Zero bullets, where all three groups were outstanding, measuring just over 1.5 inches. The slowest burning powder, W572, also produced nice groups and had the smallest group with ACME’s cast wadcutter—20 shots in an impressive 1.16 inches.

Points to Ponder

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Competition shooters are always concerned about recoil. Recoil is the enemy because it makes us flinch, so less recoil is always desired. One advantage of fast burning powders is that they use low charge weights, and low charge weights mean less recoil force than larger charge weights, even when pushing the same bullet to the same speed. (The gunpowder weight is part of the ejecta and figures in the mathematical formula for calculating recoil force because it must conform to the law of conservation of mass.) The slower powders tested here used more powder to reach the same speeds, so let’s see how that affects recoil force. Looking at the data, a fast powder uses about 2.6 grains for around 700 fps from my gun’s 7.0-inch barrel. The slower powders used about 3.3 grains. So there’s a difference of 0.7 grain of powder. Here’s the calculated recoil force for a 2.5-pound gun: A 148-grain bullet at 700 fps with 2.6 grains of powder produces 1.43 foot-pounds (ft-lbs) of recoil. The same bullet with 3.3 grains of powder produces 1.45 ft-lbs of recoil. That’s just over a 1 percent increase. Thus, if a slower powder is producing better accuracy at the small charge weights we’re using with these bullets, the increased recoil will be barely noticeable. Go with the powder that shoots best in your gun, even if that happens to be a slow powder. The difference in recoil from these small charge weights is negligible.

Another consideration is how cleanly the powder burns. Fast powder tends to burn cleaner than slow powder when used at low pressure, such as in the .38 Special, which has a maximum average pressure of 17,000 psi. This compares to the higher pressure limit of 35,000 psi for the .357 Magnum and 9mm Luger. And, indeed, I generally saw more powder residue in the chamber and barrel with the slower powders than with Sport Pistol and W244. In some instances, residue can impair seating a round in the chamber. This isn’t much of a problem when plinking, but it might be an issue if you’re reloading on the clock during a match. Most shooters who load wadcutters in the .38 Special have relied on fast burning powders like Bullseye and WST, and those powders produce excellent accuracy. Many fast powders do, too, and Sport Pistol and W244 can be added to the list. But slower powders also deserve a look because they prove that wadcutter accuracy is not limited to fast burning powders. They produced some especially small groups in this comparison.




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