Thursday, January 28, 2016

Atomic Ammo 38 Special +P 148 Grain Hollow Base Wadcutter Loaded Backward Gel Test and Review

While we may never know who was the first to load a 148 grain hollow base wadcutter bullet upside down, they should be credited (perhaps posthumously) with creating one of the most talked about "specialty" handgun loads of modern times.  The legend and mystique of the 148 grain HBWC loaded backward seems to have started in or around the 1970's and continues to be discussed four decades later.  Do you enjoy reading about the history and advancement of modern ammunition?  Have a few spare hours on your hands? Do a web search on "wadcutter loaded backwards" and feast on page after page of search results discussing, debating, and questioning the merits of this load.

Discovering handguns later in life than others, my first exposure to this load came from a gun-savvy coworker who told me that he handloaded this cartridge for his girlfriend's carry ammunition.  He claimed the bullets expanded to the size of quarters.  This was back in the early 1990's.  I hadn't started reloading or backyard ballistics testing yet, so I filed the information away in my head and went on about my life content with my 38 Special +P 158 grain lead semi-wadcutter hollowpoint loads.

Falling squarely in the purview of the handloader was one of the key things about this load that added to its mystique.  It wasn't a commercially available load that you could pick up from your local sporting goods store.  The components weren't difficult to find nor was the loading process difficult, but if you wanted some you had to load them for yourself or get a reloading buddy to make some for you.  That changed when Atomic Ammunition came on the scene and started offering this load as part of their handgun ammunition line.

The Copywriter at Atomic seems to have a pretty good understanding of the myths and legends surrounding this load.  Atomic describes this load on their website as follows...."Finally, a commercially loaded, 38 Special +P upside down hollow base wadcutter. This is the ammo that you have always wanted to carry but couldn’t find in stores.  This is the load that your Uncle Joe and his retired cop buddies sit around and tell stories about at the doughnut shop.  You know, that story about the time when they fired all six rounds of “Widow Maker” service ammo from their police specials, then Joe did a New York reload and drew his little 5 shot snubby and it only took one of these to put the bad guy down.  You know, the one with the bullet that the coroner said expanded to almost the size of a quarter.  Well we have it, and now you can too."

This is another one of those tests that I've wanted to do for a very long time just to see if the stories about this load are fact, fiction, or a fine blending of both.  Can this modern production of a 1970's classic really deliver terminal performance on par with, or better than, loads developed in the last 5 years?  Read on and find out.

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 various terminal test shots, with and without simulated clothing barriers, into a block of Clear Ballistics Gel that has a similar density to 10% ordnance gelatin.  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 to verify density.

Test Results:

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

My Thoughts on This Load:
All the myths and legends about this load are not positive.  I repeatedly read about the "skirt" breaking off the bullet shank as the soft lead bullet expanded.  I also read several reports of bullets being unstable in flight and keyholing on their way to the target.  I'm happy to report I noticed no evidence of either of these conditions with the Atomic version of this load.

Looking at the data, we came up quite a bit short on the 875 feet per second velocity we expected to see from our 1.875 inch test barrel.  The overall 9 shot average came in at 804 feet per second.

All of our test shots expanded to some extent.  The bare gel test shot expanded the most and nearly doubled in size from starting diameter.  The two denim test shots expanded the least and this allowed them to penetrate more deeply than the bare gel and light clothing test shots.

If you follow the blog, then you know we want to see penetration between 12 and 18 inches in our gel tests.  12 to 18 inches of gel penetration has been determined by the experts to be the ideal minimum and maximum gel test results.  We only had one of our four test shots penetrate to 12 inches or more.

Having previously tested the 148 grain wadcutter not loaded backward, I was really surprised by the limited penetration of this load.  In the previous test the 148 wadcutter not loaded backward, it was moving 100 feet per second slower than in this test, but penetrated the entire length of the 18 inch gel block.  You can see that test HERE. 

If I had more time, and better weather, it would have been interesting to see how this load performs in 3 and 4 inch barrel lengths.  I'm curious if the additional velocity would increase both expansion and penetration depth, or just expansion.

When comparing this load to more recently developed 38 Special +P jacketed hollow point loads, performance looks subpar.  If you compare these test results with the lead round nose and lead semi-wadcutter bullets that were popular in the 1970's, the performance evaluation changes a bit.  I can see why this load turned so many heads back in the day, but it appears that new bullet designs have surpassed the terminal performance of this load.

I give kudos to Atomic for commercially producing this load so we can see for ourselves how it performs.

Pick or Pan:
For me personally, I would prefer a load that penetrates at least 12 inches of gel in all test scenarios when fired through the 1.875 inch snub barrel. You can find a very limited number of those loads in the 38 Special section of the Ammo Tests Index Page.

Atomic ships all their new ammunition in nifty plastic ammo boxes.  If you reload, or plan to reload in the future, that's a nice touch.

Interesting Find:
While scanning through the Atomic website, I noticed they now offer a 38 Special 148 grain Total Metal Jacketed Match Wadcutter listed at 800 feet per second.  I'm going to be looking for that load as it may be an ideal carry load in revolvers not capable of handling the additional pressures of 38 Special +P loads.  

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. I read this post with great interest. I wonder if you have read Marshall and Sanow's HANDGUN STOPPING POWER: THE DEFINITIVE STUDY? They credit the Federal Nyclad hollowpoint round as the best non +P round for stopping power, based on its performance in actual gunfights. I would be very curious to know how it does in your testing regime.

    1. I tested the Nyclad back in 2013.

      I know that Marshall and Sanow have collaborated on a trilogy of books over the years up to 2001. While their books provide a nice historical perspective, I'd like to see something a bit more current and up to date. Then there is all the noise around the validity of their data and findings from their detractors. I prefer to distance myself from that debate and focus on my own comparative testing.

  2. Great test and comments putting it into perspective! I agree, turning a 148g wadcutter backwards in the 60's, 70's, or 80's would have been a decent play. Now, with loads like the Speer 135g +P short barrel GD, specifically made for these guns? Forget it.

  3. Thank you so much for this test. I have tried lead HBWCs and also plated versions loaded up side down. Testing in water, poor expansion with a 38 and good with a 357.