I’m going to call my first reloads a success… much to my surprise! Seriously, the normal thing when I try something new is that it takes a few tries, some fiddling and fussing’ before it comes out right. This time it worked right the first time and gave pretty much exactly the results I had hoped for. I know, right? I’m as surprised as you are, believe me!

The reloading press I traded from another knife maker (thank you Jim!) came with .38/.357 dies. All to the good; I have those, and a few hundred empty cases. The powder choice was made for me when an old pal sent me a few cans of Unique that were surplus-to-need (thank you Tim!) The first rounds I wanted to reload were .38 S&W; I have a couple of these that I love shooting but factory ammo can be hard to come by and tends to be bloody expensive. One issue with these is that .38 S&W has a bore diameter of .360-.362; just enough bigger than .38 Special’s .357″ bore to cause issues like excessive leading, key-holing and poor accuracy. The only readily available, inexpensive bullets for .360 bores are 147gr. RNL. Fine as far as they go, but one hopes for better… especially when one’s wife carries a .38 S&W revolver.

After checking around I discovered that some people had good results from using .357 148gr. Hollow-base Wadcutters. The lead skirt easily bumps-up a few thousandths of an inch to engage the rifling in the larger bore. As a bonus I can also load these in my .38 Specials. So now I need loading data… Oh. None to be had for the 148Gr. HBWC with Unique powder. I did find a load for 147gr. RNL that was said to be safe for top-break revolvers so I used that, backing off a bit from the listed maximum load.

.38 Special/.357 dies are not really intended for reloading the shorter .38 S&W but it can be done fairly easily. The one downside is that you cannot roll-crimp the casing as you normally would for a revolver cartridge. As it turns out though if you set the seating die to the right length for .38 S&W you get a quite adequate taper-crimp, and at the low levels of recoil this round produces there is little danger the rounds will ‘walk out’ in the cylinder.

The rounds were loaded in new Starline brass with CCI small pistol primers. The bullets were Hornady 148gr. HBWCs over 2.5 gains of Unique. This is well below the best estimated safety threshold I could establish for use in a top-break revolver. The bullets were seated to give an overall length of .970″, so that the bullets protrude approximately 3/16″ from the loaded cartridge.

Recoil and muzzle-blast were comparable to factory ammunition, being mild and not overly loud or sharp. The first test was a single round fired from a 1-5/8″ barrel at an kiln-dried Douglas Fir 2×6 board. In the 19th century the Army reckoned that a round that would penetrate a soft 1″ pine board could produce a lethal or incapacitating wound. The 2×6 is 1-3/4″ thick and significantly harder and denser than pine, so I thought it would make an acceptable test.

The round completely penetrated the board and made a 1/2″ deep impression in the 2×6 a foot behind it before bouncing off. This result was very similar to the performance of factory RNL ammunition in a previous test with the exception that the factory bullet remained fully imbedded in the second board. The recovered bullet exhibited stria from the gun’s rifling, shallow at the front of the bullet and deep on the skirt of the bullet where it had expanded into the rifling.

Forty rounds were fired through the test guns. The primary and secondary test guns are both S&W .38 Safety Hammerless Fourth Models with 1-5/8″ barrels. The primary test gun shot to point-of-aim and the secondary test-gun shot low in the fashion that I had anticipated based on the very tall front sight. All shots struck squarely with no evidence of instability or key-holing. None of the fired cases showed any evidence of excessive pressure; no flattening of the headstamps or primers. Neither gun showed any sign of damage or excessive leading. Accuracy was within the limits I was capable of producing on the shooting day. I was able to produce decent but not exceptional groups at seven yards. I have no reason to attribute this to the ammunition rather than the shooter; I am recovering from a severe cold and am not at my best.

The group shown in the picture was fired in approximately 2 seconds at seven yards. Under the circumstances I’m pretty happy with the result.


I like this load, and I’ll be using it for both targets and as a defensive load.

What’s that? Yes, I did say I would be using hand-loaded ammunition for defensive loads. Yes, I am aware of the arguments against this, the primary one being that an overzealous prosecutor could claim that I loaded ‘special killer bullets,’ that normal defensive ammo that was OK for the police and military just wasn’t good enough for me.

Oh hogwash. If your lawyer can’t beat that argument check their pulse… then fire them. Especially in this case- these are lightly loaded target bullets specifically designed to punch clean holes in paper targets. Yes, they are likely to be more effective than factory loaded round-nose lead, but so what? They are certainly less effective than modern service-caliber factory defensive ammunition. Using target loads in an antique revolver is going to be pretty difficult to demonize.

As for reliability as long as I am mindful and exercise due care when reloading the rounds, which I should anyway, I cannot believe they will be less reliable than factory ammunition.

What about reloads? I usually carry five rounds in a speed-strip and thought the square-shouldered bullets would be problematic. Nope- not much harder than with RNL. Strange, but I’ll take it!

Anyway, success! I can readily envision vast fortunes vanishing into the rapacious maw of the reloading press… (insert evil laughter here.) I’m already thinking I want a second set of .38 Special/.357 dies so that I don’t have to mess with my settings for .38 S&W…

Tinker Pearce, 23 March 2017

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