As you are aware, there is an abundance of dedicated self-defense ammunition available from a wide variety of manufacturers. Most of these modern loads are the result of advanced engineering techniques and construction methods that provide optimal performance against life-threatening targets.
Recently, I decided to take another look at some of the best “old-school”-style defensive loads for the .38 Special and test those loads from a snub-nose revolver to get the most accurate take on effectiveness.
The 158-grain Lead Semi-Wadcutter Hollow Point (LSWCHP) +P round was likely the leading .38 Special loading for police forces across the U.S. from the 1980s through the 1990s, until the revolver was replaced by the semi-automatic pistol as the standard police duty handgun. The Winchester version of this load was the type most commonly encountered, although it was also loaded by Remington and Federal. Still loaded by Winchester today, the 158-grain LSWCHP +P load was also the standard load used by the FBI—thus it became known in law enforcement circles as the “FBI Load.”
The LSWCHP load was nothing more than a plain lead semi-wadcutter bullet with a hollow core. The semi-wadcutter (SWC) bullet features a flat nose that is narrower than the width of the bullet (unlike a wadcutter bullet) that tapers down into a shoulder. And, unlike plain round-nose lead or jacketed bullets, the SWC bullet tends to cut through tissue, rather than slide its way through, thus causing more damage than a round-nose bullet. The LSWC was the most popular bullet style used in the .357 Magnum for many years, and it was also a plain-lead LSWC bullet that was used for many years by the New York Police Department in their .38s through the 1990s. The NYPD was afraid of being criticized for using hollow-point ammo because it was against the “Geneva Convention,” so they stuck with a solid bullet format despite its tendency to overpenetrate living targets.
By adding a hollow-point to the LSWC format, the LSWCHP became one of the most effective .38 Special loadings of its time, one that combined adequate penetration with adequate expansion and easy controllability. Accuracy was good too, and the LSWCHP bullet design cut nice clean holes in paper targets, which made qualification scoring easy. As loaded by Winchester, the muzzle velocity of the FBI load was listed as 890 feet per second from a 4-inch test barrel, which produced 278 FPE. While it wasn’t a .357 Magnum, it was more than powerful enough to do the job on the street, and there were very few complaints about its lack of effectiveness.
It has been a bit difficult to find the Winchester version of this fine round these days, as it lacks the “glamour” of the new higher tech stuff, so unfortunately it gets overlooked by the uninitiated. However, Tim Sundles and the folks at Buffalo Bore make two versions of the FBI load: one in standard pressure and one in +P (which is the subject of this test).
Loaded at a stated 1000 feet per second, their gas-checked 158-grain LSWCHP Heavy load features a wider and deeper cavity and 110 additional feet per second in velocity over the original Winchester load. The additional velocity results in 351 rather than 278 foot pounds of energy, which pushes this load into .357 Magnum territory.
I headed to the range with my chronograph and a 25-pound clay block. I used my Smith & Wesson 642 snub as the test launcher. After test firing the load into a silhouette target to get warmed up, I realized that there is +P ammo, and then there is +P ammo. When fired from the +P rated 15-ounce 642, you quickly realize that you are firing some ammo with real oomph. While I doubt you would notice any recoil in a life-or-death situation, these aren’t the loads you want to use on a 50-round qualification course with a gun this light. However, 10-15 rounds at a training session are readily handled. Grouping was tight, and producing fist-sized groups at 30 feet was easy.
By the way, you can take Buffalo Bore velocity ratings to the bank! From the 2-inch 642, velocity averaged 1034 feet per second—34 feet per second more than their basic velocity rating. This results in 375 foot pounds of energy—substantial punch from a mid-bore cartridge fired from a 2-inch-barreled revolver!
When fired into the 25-pound block of clay, the results were equally impressive. The LSWCHP entered the 9-inch long block slightly off center (my bad) and produced a cavity 4.5 inches wide at its widest point. The bullet fragmented (a good thing in my book) and while the largest chunk of lead stayed in the block, three smaller pieces exited. The block may not have been penetrated if it had been 10-12 inches in length. (Inconsistent block length is a problem when using clay blocks of even the same brand.) All in all, performance was excellent, and this load should be a good performer against bad guys wearing heavy winter clothing.
If you are looking for .357 Magnum performance (without the abuse) in a .38 Special snubby, you may want to go back to the old school and look at the Buffalo Bore Heavy .38 Special +P LSWCHP load. If you want a tad less recoil, Buffalo Bore loads the same bullet in a standard pressure version rated at 850 feet per second from a 2-inch barrel. I know you will find it to be just as effective as the old “FBI Load.” For more information, visit www.buffalobore.com.
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