Thursday, February 13, 2014

Winchester 38 Special +P 158 Grain Lead Semi Wad Cutter HP Denim and Gel Test

First, a big Pocket Guns and Gear Thank You to Richard Johnson at for providing the ammunition used in this test.  You don't see this load very often and Richard provided a welcome short cut to tracking down a box with his generous donation. 

I'll avoid getting all nostalgic here, but there was a time when the 38 Special +P 158 grain lead semi wad cutter was considered a top choice for carry ammo.  Winchester, Federal, and Remington all have their own versions of this load and it's still popular with snub revolver lovers.  I've always been partial to the Remington variety because it is available in my area, and legend has it that Remington uses a softer lead alloy in their bullets.  The softer lead allows the bullet to expand to larger diameters than the Winchester and Federal loads.  I've always wondered if there was a significant difference between the three brands.

This is the first of three tests where I try one test shot from each manufacturer in the same gel block, on the same day, with the same revolver.

Test Pistol:

Test Protocol:
Step 1)  Measure and record temperature and relative humidity.
Step 2)  Run a 5 shot velocity average over a ProChrono Digital Chronograph at a distance of 10 feet.
Step 3)  Run test shot through 4 layers of 14 oz/yard heavy-weight denim into a block of Clear Ballistics Gel that is calibrated to 10% Ordnance Gel density.  Shot distance is 10 feet.
Step 4)  Run a 600 fps calibration test bb shot into the Clear Ballistics gel block and record penetration depth.

Test Results:

Video Documentation of the Entire Test from Range to Bullet Recovery:

My Thoughts on This Load:
The results of this test provide a textbook case why heavy non-expanding bullets aren't going to be the best choices for personal defense unless they are moving at a low velocity.  Our test shot screamed though the gel block and buried itself pretty deeply into the dry phone book backing the gel block.  I think the Schwartz estimation of penetration is probably quite accurate as an estimation of how far the bullet would have penetrated in a longer gel block.

Pick or Pan:
I think everyone expects hollow point ammunition to expand.  In this specific test, this load did not expand.  Instead it became plugged with denim and penetrated much deeper than the desired 12" to 18" in gel test media.  For this reason alone, this load would not be a pick for cold weather carry when heavy clothing barriers are expected.  I may circle back on this load with another test through a lighter clothing barrier to see if it might be suitable for warm weather carry.

Disclaimer....This test should not be considered an endorsement or recommendation for the product(s) tested.  All tests represent actual performance in ballistics testing media.  Terminal performance in all other media will show different results.  It is up to each individual to make their own personal decision on which specific ammunition to use for their needs.  It's also critically important to test any ammo in YOUR SPECIFIC FIREARM before relying on it for any purpose.

Ammunition labeled as +P or +P+ should only be used in firearms that have been certified by the manufacturer as safe for the additional pressures generated by these ammunition types.


  1. Try the Remington 158gr +P LWSC and report back.

  2. You might want to load your LCR with 5 rounds of LSWCHP and fire 4 rounds. Now check the unfired 5th round for crimp jump. In my LCR the Remington 158 grain +P moved forward in the case 1/32 of an inch. Not a good thing.

    1. The 5 shot velocity string in my spreadsheet is in sequence. If there was significant bullet pull, I would expect the 5th shot to be the slowest. I don't think that's an issue with this load. Appreciate the heads up because a bound cylinder due to bullet pull is the last thing you need.

  3. Wow! Too slow and too hard. The Remington load (both +P) performed fine, but this one not so good. I know lead bullet expansion can be very hard to engineer and this bullet may be designed for longer barrels shooting at animals who do not wear denim. Perhaps a test on a block with a fur coat;)

  4. Historically this load was much better from a 4" service revolver. The Remington has a softer bullet and tended to expand from the snubs, by reputation the Winchester did not.

  5. Even Remington's softer bullet needs well over 850 fps to expand with 4 layers of 14 oz denim; this is some 100 fps higher velocity than Winchester's FBI load version that was tested here. Thus it is doubtful that the rounds tested here would expand even if fired from a 4 inch barrel.

  6. I know it is not scientific but I can easily scratch the RP with my thumbnail; not very easy for the WW.


  7. In my experience, one the first shot is fired, anyone with a brain is looking for or is already hebind cover. So if 14 inchez of gelatin penetration is good, 24" is better. I want to be able to shoot through an interior wall, car door, windshield, or to skip-shoot off asphalt without the bullet coming apart, and be able to disable the guy shooting at me. The big ammunition factories all used to load "full charge" wadcutters in. 38 Special, which used the common 148-grain match bullet, assembled with the normal charge used for the standard velocity 158-grain LRN load. Remington factory swaged HBWCs will stand 3.5 grs. of Bullseye, 4.2 grs. of W231 or SR7625, or 4 grs. of Unique or PB without "blowing the skirt". No other HBWC bullets now available will. Or use a cast DEWC bevel-base bullet, such as Saeco #348, which loads easily with speed loaders, and which remains accurate at +P velocity and penetrates car doors ir interior walls and household furniture with ease. Kill the bad guy behind cover, before he kills you, and you can live to retire from the job.

    1. I'll publish this comment with a caution to all readers that they should consult a reloading manual to verify any reloading recipe found anywhere on the internet. Typos happen, so stick with the recipes found in published reloading manuals.

  8. Thanks, Bruce for the caveat on load data. Jim Cirillo used to shoot loads I was scared of and I remember Archie Dubia at S&W chewing him out when he would rebuild a gun and put all the oversized parts in it. "Sell this one and start over, I cannot fix it again!....."

    Years later I worked for a Federal agency and one of my projects was to see how hot we could load ammo to be used in an S&W Bodyguard and have the gun last for ONE box of ammo, 50 rounds, then throw it away. Got a nice post card from one of our people who got out of the embassy in Iran when it was taken over. Then Reagan wS sworn in.... those wete the good old days.

  9. We used these rounds about 5 years ago in our Dept. One hit a bad guy in the head, changed shape, curved around his skull under his skin and then left. One in a million shot. He then jumped down to attack other officers. Won't be using them.

  10. This was the top performing 2-3" .38 Spl. revolver round in Evan Marshall's study based on actual shooting results. See "Handgun Stopping Power Update" ( My test on this round was from a 2" Colt Cobra with an average muzzle velocity of 824 fps. It only partially expanded when fired through thick clothing barrier. This cartridge was the carry round of the FBI when they were armed with the 2.9" Model 13 S&W revolver. It was the "fight stopper" in the famous 1986 FBI/Miami Shootout.