I’ve always wanted to reload my own ammunition, but there was never room or other priorities were getting in the way. Then a couple of years ago two things happened; my workshop burned down and my wife got me addicted to S&W top-breaks.
Getting me addicted to the top-breaks meant I needed .38 and .32 S&W ammunition. These are not common and are quite expensive to shoot. Reloading was an obvious answer. I also inherited a 7.35mm Carcano rifle, and factory ammunition for that is pretty hard to come by. The shop burning down meant that I got to design my new shop, and I designed it to accommodate space for reloading.
Finances were tight, but eventually I traded for a used press with a set of .38/.357 dies, a buddy sent me four cans of Unique powder and Linda made sure that I got the other tools and sundries needed. I’ve now loaded 250 rounds of .38 S&W and shot 150 of them. Between .38 S&W and .38 Special I’ve now reloaded a total of 550 rounds. It’s been interesting, and 550 seems like a good benchmark to talk about this.
Among the sundries gotten for the purpose were 100 pieces of new Starline .38 S&W brass. For those that don’t know it .38 S&W is a shorter cartridge than .38 Special and it was the first centerfire ‘.38’ cartridge developed by S&W. This means it was originally a black powder cartridge, and of course when they were making the transition to smokeless powder the loads were formulated for revolvers originally intended to fire black powder cartridges. Contrary to the conventional wisdom most ‘black powder’ .38 S&W revolvers are perfectly safe to fire with modern factory ammunition. That being said any antique firearm should be examined by a knowledgable and competent gunsmith before firing.
.38 S&W being the most difficult to obtain and expensive .38 naturally I wanted to reload that first. Like all .38-caliber cartridges it isn’t actually .38 caliber of course- it’s .361. The more common .38 Special is actually .357. I’m not making this up! .361 diameter pistol bullets are a bit thin on the ground; generally one can get 147gr. round nosed lead and that’s pretty much it. This is a pretty unsatisfactory bullet design for defensive use, but fortunately there is an option- the .38/.357 148gr. Hollow-Based Wadcutter. In a .361 bore the pressure from the burning propellant will expand the base and cause it to ‘bump up’ to the larger bore diameter. These bullets have the added advantage that they can be loaded into .38 Special cartridges as well.
While these will not be an ideal defensive round the are markedly better than a RNL bullet. I checked around for reloading data and found that 2.5 grains of Unique should be a safe and reasonably efficient load in my top-break S&W revolvers. Testing indicated that penetration and accuracy from these reloads is acceptable, and recoil is quite mild. Out of the 1-5/8″ barrels of our guns these rounds are probably going 580-600 fps.
I should note that I was using .38 Special dies for these loads, which does not apply the roll-crimp normally advised for revolver cartridges. The theory is that the heavy crimp is prudent because otherwise the bullets might be dislodged from the cartridges as they are subjected to the repeated recoil of other rounds in the cylinder being fired. Unfortunately .38 Special dies will not permit this in the much shorter .38 S&W cartridge. Given the mild recoil of this round that proved unnecessary; the taper-crimp imparted while seating the bullet is quite sufficient.
Being a ‘noob’ at reloading I tend to be excessively careful, visually verifying the primer and powder charge before seating a bullet. When loading the first 50 rounds I actually weighed every charge. This is completely unnecessary, of course. The Lee Perfect powder measure I am using is a well-proven product and performed flawlessly. After that I was more worried about a double-charge, but these cases are short enough that a double-charge of powder would be obvious a glance. So I glance always glance.
While wadcutters are typically loaded entirely or almost entirely inside the case the .38 S&W is too short for this, so I loaded them to an overall length of 1″, which leaves roughly 3/16″ of the bullet protruding from the case.
This load is a keeper, so here is the load data. Note that this is not a max load, even for top-break revolvers, and while it ought to safe in any .38 S&W use this load at your own risk.
Hornady 148gr. HBSW, 2.5 grains of Unique and a CCI small pistol primer. Loaded to an overall length of 1.00″ with a taper-crimp.
Having fired 150 rounds of this load I am quite satisfied with them and went ahead and loaded the remaining 100 148gr. HBWCs before moving on to .38 Special loads… but that’s a whole ‘nuther blog post… and it looks like I’ll be branching out to .45 Colt in the near future as well.
Tinker Pearce, 10 April 2017
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