Vintage Revolver Defense Load — Remington LSWC Target Ammo

Before you read any further, this article is not about the 158-grain lead semi-wadcutter (LSWC) hollow-point +P .38 Special load, but rather about the plain lead semi-wadcutter .38 Special loaded to standard pressure for target shooting by Remington. And yes, we are talking about it as a specialized self-defense round.

The reason for talking about this particular load is that there undoubtedly are a lot of people who use older .38 Special revolvers for self-defense. I define “older” .38s as guns manufactured before the mid-1960s. My guess would be that these guns are employed primarily for home defense rather than concealed carry. They likely have been passed down from other family members to the current owners, who keep them for sentimental reasons mostly as just-in-case guns — perhaps without firing them. Other owners of vintage revolvers may have purchased them from friends or gun stores due to their affordability and simplicity of operation.

The problem is that these older guns are not approved for modern +P self-defense ammunition. However, I am also concerned that some non +P self-defense loads, while technically permissible in older guns, might still be a little rough for some of these pieces, especially if they propel lightweight slugs out of a 2-inch-barrel revolver at 1,000 feet per second or faster. After all, metallurgy of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s is not what it is today.

Most traditional .38 Special revolvers were built around the old standard 158-grain, round-nose lead bullet that traveled around 755 feet per second from a 4-inch barrel. The sights for these guns were regulated to that load, which was used for decades as the standard official duty load in police service revolvers. The regulation of the sights to the relatively sedate 158-grain load is why many high-velocity loads fired from .38s shoot below the point of aim. The 158-grain LRN .38 had low recoil and was very accurate. More often than not, it put an end to hostilities when bad guys were shot with it. However, there were problems.

The 158-grain LRN had a propensity to either over-penetrate in soft tissue or under-penetrate when it encountered harder resistance. A buddy of mine, who retired from law enforcement several years ago, worked at a rural sheriff’s office in Ohio. He had occasion to shoot an armed suspect who had a firearm when the suspect poked his head above the fence. My buddy fired one shot at the only target available, and the suspect immediately went down. When they got to him, he was conscious and alert. A small amount of blood trickled from his mouth, but no wound could be found. They took the suspect to the hospital for examination. An X-ray revealed that the 158-grain slug had entered the suspects open mouth and followed the suspect’s throat downward. It was found lodged in his stomach and was removed without major issue.

The late Elmer Keith, a rancher, hunter and gun writer, contributed to the development and introduction of the .357, .41 and .44 Magnum cartridges. He also is responsible for refining the semi-wadcutter lead bullet, which is often referred to as the “Keith semi-wadcutter.”

The semi-wadcutter bullet features a large flat frontal surface ahead of a sharp shoulder. It is a very effective hunting bullet and cuts a very clean hole in paper targets as well. For many years, it was the primary bullet loaded into the aforementioned magnum cartridges.

Before modern expanding hollow-point bullets came along, a number of police agencies adopted ammunition with semi-wadcutter bullets. The .41 Magnum once had a lower-powered police duty load available that used a lead semi-wadcutter bullet through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Its velocity was rated at 1,000 feet per second. I was in the police academy with a fellow Ohio officer whose agency issued .41 Magnums to its officers with this load in 1984.

The NYPD recognized the failings of the LRN .38 Special in the 1960s and changed its duty load to a 158-grain lead semi-wadcutter load. It traveled at 755 feet per second, giving its duty revolvers a boost in stopping power and improved penetration against difficult targets. The improved penetration was due to the biting effect of the bullet nose and shoulder as it entered. The 158-grain LSWC penetrated angled windshield glass, whereas LRN bullets often glanced off.

The NYPD used this round for many years, eventually adopting the Federal Nyclad nylon-coated version of the same bullet. In the early 1990s, the NYPD transitioned to 9mm semi-automatic pistols and eventually hollow-point ammunition. Interestingly, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police used a +P .38 Special loaded with a plain lead semi-wadcutter bullet as its duty load for many years.

I tested the Remington Target from my recently acquired vintage Colt Cobra .38 snubby. With its lightweight frame and grip design, recoil from more modern, standard-pressure lightweight .38 ammo could give the knuckles of the shooting hand a good rap when firing and cause the gun to shoot not quite to the point of aim.

I fired the Remington loads over my chronograph. As expected, average velocity was down (639 feet per second), but so was perceived recoil and muzzle blast. The shots landed exactly to the point of aim, and the LSWC bullets cut a nice clean hole.

I was surprised by the performance in the 25-pound block of modeling clay, which was better than I had anticipated. Back in 2014, I tested a custom-loaded 200-grain .38 Special load (which has a rounded blunt profile) that replicated the old Super Police load. Those loads averaged 572 feet per second. They penetrated the clay block and created a curved arc through the block. The diameter of the bullet path started out at a half inch and ended up with a diameter of about 1.5 inches and curved before exiting.

The Remington 158-grain LSWC Target load was a different story. The bullet punched a straight hole through the 10-inch block of clay. The interesting part was that it punched a perfect cylindrical hole two inches in diameter from start to finish — apparently due to the flat face of the bullet nose and shoulder. That demonstrates the LSWC’s modest yet significant improvement over round-nose bullets.

While the Remington 158-grain LSWC Target round is not a powerhouse by today’s standards, it certainly performs better than any plain or jacketed round-nose .38 Special load. It provides both the user of vintage .38s and people who are very sensitive to recoil with a readily available alternative ammunition choice. After all, it was good enough for the NYPD.

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