Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Federal Premium 38 Special Nyclad HP Complete Test

Over the last 15 months, I've been gradually making progress on standardizing my test protocol and also my test equipment and supplies.  Things will always continue to improve and evolve, but I'm feeling really good about my process and equipment.  Last weekend I decided to do my first comprehensive test with a very special ammunition that is very difficult to find, but is a frequently requested by blog readers and YouTube subscribers.  Many thanks to Justin D. for the assist on securing a box of the legendary Federal 38 Special Nyclad HP that was used for this test.

The Federal Nyclad tested here is often called the "Chiefs Special" load as it was created for use in snub-nose 38 Special revolvers with barrel lengths of 2 inches or less, such as the Smith and Wesson Model 36 Chiefs Special.  This standard pressure load has a soft lead bullet with a very deep hollow point cavity to facilitate expansion at the low velocity generated by the snubby revolvers.  To help avoid excessive barrel leading from the soft lead bullet, Federal encapsulates, or clads, the bullet in a blue nylon casing.  The unique nylon clad bullet is the catalyst of the distinctive NYCLAD name given to this load.

Light weight scandium, aluminum, titanium, and now polymer framed snub revolvers can be a real challenge to shoot quickly and accurately with 38 Special +P ammunition having bullet weights of 125 to 158 grains.  Shooting a standard pressure 38 Special load is a good way to cut down on some of the bark and bite that you get with the light weight snub revolvers and +P ammunition.  The Federal Nyclad, tested here, has been a long time favorite standard pressure 38 Special load.  Unfortunately, general consensus is that Federal only produces this load once per year and if you miss them, you will be out of luck until the next production run.

Test Pistol:
Ruger LCR-LG 38 Special +P with 1.875" Barrel

Test Protocol:
Since this was such a frequently requested test, I decided to do my first comprehensive test that involved 3 test shots into one Clear Ballistics Gel block.  The Clear Ballistics Gel block was verified as calibrated to 10% Ordnance Gel density by means of the standard 600 fps BB calibration test.

Each test shot was set up with different barrier materials in front of the gel block as described below.
Shot 1 - Bare Gel
Shot 2 - 4 layers of mid-weight (8 oz) denim placed in front of the gel block.
Shot 3 - 1 layer of 5/6 weight Hermann Oak tooling leather and 2 layers of mid-weight (8 oz) denim placed in front of the gel block.
All test shots were fired from 8 feet over a chronograph that was 4" or less from the front of the gel block.
Immediately prior to shooting the gel test shots, a 5 round velocity average test was done with the same ProChrono Digital Chronograph used to capture terminal test shot velocities.
Immediately prior to the 5 round velocity average, ambient temperature and relative humidity were measured and recorded with a VWR 4093 NIST Traceable calibrated temperature and humidity pen.

Bare Gel Test Video:

4 Layer Denim and Leather-Denim Stress Tests Video:

Test Results:
Bare Gel Test

   4 Layer Denim and Leather-Denim Stress Test

My Thoughts On This Load:

Federal publishes 830 fps muzzle velocity on the box and we consistently met or exceeded that velocity across all test shots.  With a standard pressure load, velocity is what it is and we have to assume Federal loads this round to max pressure limits.  I did find the load to be more shooter friendly in the recoil department and overall accuracy was fantastic throughout this test.  I did note that the three recovered rounds all weighed slightly different weights.  The lighter the recovered bullet the faster the recorded velocity so I have to assume the velocity variance was directly correlated to the bullet weights.

The expansion of the recovered rounds was not surprising when you remember this loads legendary record of expansion at snub nose velocities.  The bare gel and 4 layer denim test shots both expanded well with the 4 layer test expanding less uniformly and fully when compared to the bare gel test shot.

I would have been very surprised to see the leather-denim stress test shot with any noticeable signs of expansion.  The stress test is a formidable barrier intended to represent a worst case clothing scenario.  The stress barrier completely plugged the hollow point cavity and left it slightly deformed from impact.  What was very interesting was the sizable permanent and stretch cavity left by the unexpanded tumbling bullet.  As the bullet travelled sideways, it left a significantly larger permanent wound channel in the gel block.  The stretch cavity wings were fully 1 inch deep on either size of the permanent channel

Weight Retention:
Weight retention on all 3 sample shots was excellent.  The most significant debris found in the wound channel came from the nylon coating.  The coating cracked as the bullet expanded and was stripped off by
contact with the gel.  The lead bullet did not fragment. 

Observed penetration was right in line with expectations.  With all three shots starting out at similar speeds, the lesser expanding bullets penetrated deeper.  My only question is if the stress tested bullet didn't tumble, would it have made a full 16 inches or more of penetration?  With this load you are compromising penetration depth for reliable expansion at comparative low speeds and also the benefit of reduced recoil.       
The calculated energy of the test shots never fell below the 190 ft-lbs. published on the box.  This puts the load slightly ahead of the standard pressure .380 Auto JHP loads, but significantly lower than the lowest energy 9mm JHP loads.  You could see this low energy signature in the gel block artifacts with very narrow stretch cavities for the two bullets that did expand.   

Wrap Up:
With more available time and financial resources, I would love to make every test a 3 shot test.  Seeing all 3 performance cases side by side really helps you understand the strengths and weaknesses of a specific load.  What this load does well is expand at low speed and doesn't punish the shooter when fired from an ultralight snub revolver. 

Pick or Pan:

While fun to test, I pan this load primarily due to issues with availability.  Even before the current ammo madness started, I tried very hard to locate this ammunition through most of 2012 and never found it in stock.  If I can't practice with it, then I'm not comfortable carrying it. 

The sad part is that I would carry this if I could secure enough for occasional practice.  Shot placement trumps all, and this load turned my LCR into a dream shooter.  I have no doubt that the reduced recoil would improve my ability to deliver fast AND accurate shots on target.  As a substitute standard pressure loading, I will be testing the Federal GM38A 148 Grain Lead Wadcutter Match ammunition at some point in the future.

Post Script - Please Read:
I would really appreciate your feedback on this new test format.  I really do listen and take note of your suggestions and try my best to implement them when and where I can.  Last week it was brought to my attention that Range Elevation, Temperature, and Relative Humidity would be nice things to know about each test.  It was literally almost zero effort to include this data since I had the temp/humidity pen and I just needed to drop it in my camera bag with the rest of my gear.

You guys want denim and barrier testing, but you also love the clear gel.  Barrier and Denim tests are brutal on gel clarity.  I spend a significant amount of time cleaning the gel, but I just can't get it all so it ends up back in the remelted block.  Are you willing to give me a pass on gel clarity in order to include the barrier testing all the time?

This test was really 3 tests combined into one.  I was able to cut some corners by doing both barrier tests as one video, but it was fairly close to the time that goes into 3 individual tests.  So my question for you is would you rather see more single shot tests, or a smaller number of comprehensive tests that cover all 3 test scenarios?

You guys know I don't shoot food, but I do have some clear gel blocks that are reaching 7 or 8 re-melt cycles.  They still test perfect for density, but the clarity is really starting to suffer and it's really fine dust that can't be strained or cleaned out.  What do you think would be a good bone substitute to cast into the block that isn't food?  Would a 1.5" or 2" diameter hardwood dowel work as a bone substitute?  I might even have a local guy drill it out so it's hollow.  This may end up as a 4th test I do on each load so I'd like your thoughts.

Last thing, I promise.  I want you all to know that I encourage you to link the blog and YouTube videos on the various forums you visit.  If a question comes up about a pistol, or ammo, or some other topic I've covered on the blog, please send them here or to the YouTube channel.  I've got a pretty good index system set up on the tabs at the top of the blog so I hope information is easy to find.  I started the blog to be another information resource for folks to turn to when looking for ammo test results with short carry length barrels, fact based gun and gear reviews, and general training ideas for folks that can't commit big dollars for organized classes.  I would appreciate it if you would let people know the blog is here for them.

Thanks in advance for your feedback and for spreading the word about the blog.  I really do appreciate it.

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 have several boxes of this ammo. It was available most of last year if you hunted for it so I bought a few boxes for my 11 oz. snub nose. No longer have the snub nose but have a box + of the ammo left. Am going to keep it in case I get another scandium gun although Hornday has come out with a light recoiling 90 gr. FTX bullet with a pink tip that may be a winner in a very light gun. I have since bought a 17 oz. .357 LCR and my Gold Dot +P .38's are working just fine out of it since the extra weight absorbs recoil better than my previous airlite.

  2. Sorry, but longer post was lost on publishing.

    Thanks, I've been waiting to see a 38 Special Nyclad standard pressure for years. It worked as expected and I'd have no problem using it while assuring function and practicing with something else. Lower flash and recoil would help with that.

    Regarding your new protocol, I'm for anything that allows you to keep doing this, so if slightly unclean gel is the answer, then please do so. I would keep track (though not necessarily publish) different penetration figures for shot 1, shot 2, and shot 3. There may be something we don't understand yet about gel in motion or heated from previous passage that allows shot 3 to penetrate more than shot 1; if you track that you'll be able to normalize your data later.


  3. If I practiced with cheaper available ammo of same bullet weight and velocity, or even close, I wouldn't worry about a variation in the point of impact at any reasonable distance.

  4. I have always enjoyed your videos on YouTube and really appreciate your efforts. As a retired LEO who has CCW'd since 1975 I prefer the traditional gel testing with the denim. I grant you the clear gel is "cool", but what good is a test if it doesn't tell you if the round will choke on denim? Thanks again.

  5. I have posted a video and a link to this site to my gun forum. Nice site keep up the good work. If you need to cut back on the three step testing protocol I recommend dropping step 3 unless their is a logic to it that I missed or do a few more tests with all 3 steps and from there develop a formula for predicting expansion and penetration.

    1. Since you've linked my blog to yours, which I appreciate very much thanks, feel free to mention your site via comment.

  6. I wonder if PVC tubing would work as a bone substitute? You can get it fairly inexpensively at hardware stores in varying wall thickness and density for cold/hot/waste water and as electrical conduit.

    1. I've got a pretty reasonable bone substitute in the works. I think PVC may flex too much. I was using it as frame for my block platform and it's amazing how much it flexes as the gel block absorbs the bullet energy and expands.

  7. Would like to see you test penetration of glass, specifically auto glass. My personal tests in the 90s showed the round shattering when it hit a windshield. I hope they've improved them.

    1. I appreciate the comment, but I won't be testing this or anything else on auto glass. My testing facility prohibits the use of glass targets.

  8. Anyone who believes a snub nose revolver will give any cartridge/bullet combination a "shot" at making the FBI's penetration standards is at least "overly optimistic." We just can't expect the same kind of performance from a "get off of me gun" shooting standard pressure ammo to do what a 4" inch .357 Magnum or 9mm +P "duty" gun with full blown rounds streaking for the target at 1200+ fps to do. I do like a protocol you've used before, though. Two layers of denim is a test of the cartridge/bullet's ability against attackers who are wearing a moderate level of clothing. All rounds tested against that level of resistance would at least give you a idea of it's abilities to expand and penetrate as compared with other rounds shot from a handgun of similar barrel length. Just a thought.

  9. I have some Federal Nyclads that don't look like the ones in the picture. Mine are semi wad-cutter hollow points. They have what looks to be the same blue coating, though. The "model number" is M38M and cost $29.98 for a box of 50 at Sam's Shooter's Emporium in Lake Havasu City, AZ something like ten or twelve years ago. I bought them to go along with a vintage S&W Model 60 that I bought for my wife (it "looked like what a gun is supposed to look like" to her). I'm sure that finding, much less testing, these rounds is out of the question, but I just wanted to point out to you and your readers that there appears to be at least two different rounds known as Federal "Nyuclads."