Thursday, January 16, 2014

Federal Gold Medal Match 38 Special Wadcutter Denim and Clear Gel Test

The Federal Gold Medal 38 Special Wadcutter Match is a target load that is known for mild recoil, exceptional accuracy, and leaving perfect round circles in paper targets.  Internet buzz suggested this load may be a good candidate for personal defense because the bullet has a flat nose and sharp shoulders.  Folks thought the bullet would leave a more pronounced permanent cavity than a bullet of similar diameter with a rounded nose.  I've received a few requests to test this bullet shape over the last two years and I was curious to see if this bullet shape would prove to be more or less damaging than a round nose bullet.

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:
While the test was interesting, I don't think it proved the wadcutter bullet shape to be any more or less damaging than a round nose bullet.  I was surprised that the bullet cut a clean plug of denim and dragged it down the entire length of the block.  From the thread pattern impressions left on the bullet, the lead used in these bullets must be fairly soft.  A hard cast wadcutter bullet may yield different terminal performance results.

After running the five test shots over the chronograph I really didn't expect this bullet to clear the 18 inch gel block.  I was really surprised to find the bullet had come to rest between the gel block and the phone book backer.  The bullet didn't have enough energy left to penetrate the phone book, but it did put a dent in the cover.  Heavy bullets tend to penetrate deeper than light bullets so I presume the 148 grain weight helped the bullet hold momentum and clear the block.

Pick or Pan:
If you are looking for a very mild and low recoil load, then this one might be for you.  It demonstrated adequate penetration, but does not offer the benefits of expansion.  This standard pressure load should be suitable for use in all 38 Special revolvers.

I didn't see any indications that this bullet profile was any more or less damaging than a round nose or jacketed hollow point bullet.  For the recoil adverse shooter, this may be a pick.  Personally, I see no compelling evidence to include this load in my carry rotation. 

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. You may not see it in the clear gel, but the wadcutter shape has been well documented by a number of authorities, such as Dr. Fackler himself, to crush tissue much more effectively that a RN bullet.

  2. I really wish I could have seen the recoil of the pistol compared to a standard FMJ or +P. That is the main reason why people consider these for self-defense. They're great for recoil-sensitive people.

  3. The rounded leading edge is proof that it was cutting all the way through.
    You need to section the gel to compare the crush cavity.

  4. If ONLY the ammo was readily available

  5. Back in the day...we would take the 148gr (hollow-base) wadcutter and reverse it in the That was a round that would expand...very soft lead, moderately deep cavity...did not have to push it very fast...maybe 700 fps from a 4" revolver...very controllable, dead-nuts accurate and deadly. I would like to see this type of test performed with the hollow-base round.

    1. I have a box of Atomic on hand. They may be the only current ammo company loading this round. I hope to get to the test soon.

    2. The effectiveness of the reversed HBWC is mostly urban legend. When tested in defferent test mediums, half the time a reversed hollow base wadcutter will either fold inward and not expand at all or fold outward and tear off. very rarely do you get a perfect mushroom effect.

  6. All I can tell you is when I worked on the Southern Border I was issued wadcutters for practice/qualifications and +P+ JHP ammo for carry. The wadcutter loads would just flay nail a big jack rabbit, while those hit with the JHP usually high-tailed it out of sight.

  7. Years ago I attended an NRA law enforcement seminar held at the Mississipi Law Enforcement Academy, near Jackson, and heard Jim Ciriilo and Frank McGee speak about the NYPD Stakeout Unit. Back then (1970s) they were armed with .38 revolvers and Cirillo said that the wadcutter was more effective than anything else you could use in a snubby. This was pre-Super Vel. McGee indicated that they had Remington Bridgeport load full charge wadcutter ammo for practice and qualification, austensibly to have the same recoil as their 158 semi-wadcutter load, hollowpoints, not being permitted for political reasons, and after SOU used it in several gunfights, it became a favorite street load, at least unofficially. While this wasn't strictly "Kosher", the user would tell the Shooting Review Board, "we had just come from the range and that was the ammo we had", or so I was told.

  8. I've re-read this test several times--ditto for the rest of your tests, actually--and it just dawned on me that the invisible factor here might be the effect of soft lead on bony structures in the target. Of course, Bruce, that is beyond the scope of your testing, as far as I know, and I don't think that any truly satisfactory means to simulate bullet-bone interaction currently exist. I know that Brassfetcher has tried it, but I'm not sure that his bone simulant is considered to correspond to bone as accurately as ballistic gel to generic soft tissue.

    Despite all of Thompson-LaGarde's other shortcomings in 1904, one of its emphatic conclusions was that soft lead crushed its way through bone in a dramatic fashion unequaled by hardcast or jacketed bullets, which tended to drill neat, caliber-sized holes. I know I've seen similar claims elsewhere in the older literature, but can't recall specific sources off the top of my head.

  9. I noted on the Buffalo Bore web site that they offer a hard cast .38 Special +P "full charge wadcutter" which is reputedly 850 fps from a 2 inch barrel, similar to the rounds mentioned by Jim Cirillo in his book. It might be interesting to test those to compare with the 650 fps target load. Particularly in the "heavy winter clothing" test scenario.