OK, the other day I did a little rant about cartridges not being the caliber they claim to be. It’s true; many aren’t. So why do I feel like an idiot (aside from the obvious?) Because the reason for that rant… well, it wasn’t valid.
My dial caliper, used for measuring things in thousandths of an inch, is getting pretty long in the tooth, so I was using the crappy electronic caliper that I don’t normally use. Why don’t I use it? Because it’s a piece of crap and won’t hold a zero. This is not because it’s made in China; it’s because I’m a cheap bastard and bought a crappy tool.
This crappy tool told me that the bullets were actually .245″, not .25 caliber. Worse, it did so consistently enough that I believed it. So today when my new, proper, non-electronic caliper arrived I went back and measured things and lo and behold! My bullets were magically .250-.251 again.
So I am sitting here tucking into a heaping helping of crow, and the clever swage-block I made the other day based on the crappy tool is just a wee bit, what, too small you think? No! They are too large!
It’s a really crappy tool.
So I managed to swage a mess of bullets I can’t use, including some jacketed bullets. So why, you may ask, am I swaging jacketed bullets? Why, to make these of course…
Launched at about 1050fps. these could be very interesting… To make them I simply push a 50gr. FMC into the swaging die with the open end up, insert a punch with a projection on the face to make the hollow-point and hammer away. Works a treat.
I’m imagining seven of these loaded in an airweight J-frame… could be some real potential for a light-recoiling defensive pistol…
I’ll soon be testing two new loads, one using a 65gr. LSWC and another using the H&N 31gr Hollow-points. We’ll see how those work out.
OK, this blog is not going to turn into ‘Tinker Talks .251 TCR.’ I’ll keep you updated, but I’ll be resuming the usual chaotic mix next time out.
By the way, don’t look for the other article. I’ve edited it into this post so that I am not spreading bad information. Anyway, this plate of crow isn’t going to eat itself…
Regular readers will be familiar with this cartridge already, but here’s a refresher for new readers.
Earlier this year I got to thinking that maybe a center-fire .25-caliber cartridge for revolvers might be a Good Thing. The concept was to be able to load anything from indoor ‘gallery’ loads to something with a bit more oomf than a .22 Magnum. Specifically this would be developed for handguns, so it would not be as obnoxious to fire as cartridges like .22 Magnum, whose loads are designed primarily for use in rifles.
The lowest powered loads would use .25 caliber airgun pellets, possibly propelled by a primer. The highest-powered would use jacketed rounds like the Speer 35gr. Gold Dot. The intent was for this to be a cartridge with center-fire reliability and fully re-loadable, but able to duplicate or exceed the full range of .22 rimfire cartridges.
The cartridge is based on the .22 Hornet cartridge, significantly modified into a straight-walled case for use in revolvers. I decided it should use .251 bullets, the same as are used in .25 ACP. This would also make swaging lead rounds relatively simple, and allow the use of .25-caliber airgun pellets in the low powered loads.
Commercially available bullets are very limited- basically you can get a 50gr FMCRN or a .35gr. Gold Dot hollow-point. However by reaming a .250 hole in a block of steel I could easily swage 1/4″ lead wire into bullets. I did this, and made a punch to produce a semi-wadcutter profile.
The brass has an outside diameter of .275″ and is .980″ long. The rim diameter is approximately .350″.
As mentioned the selection of .250-.251 bullets is limited. To start I bought some PPU 50gr. FMCRN, a couple hundred Speer 35gr. Gold Dot Hollow-points, and a tin of H&N Grizzly .31gr. LHP airgun pellets. I also swaged some 38gr. LSWCs. I figured this to be a decent sampling to start with.
Naturally there are no guns chambered for a completely new cartridge, and I went through several ideas before settling on an Uberti 1873 BP. This is a bit of an oddball; it’s a cap-and-ball revolver built on their 1873 frame, primarily for sale in countries where modern cartridge firearms are difficult to own. I picked one up cheap, intending to convert it to fire metallic cartridges. I went so far as to make a .45 Colt cylinder for it but never completed the gun.
Let me tell you, if you come across one of these guns cheap with the notion that you can drop a .45 Colt cylinder in and fire cartridges you’ve got another think coming. Not going to go into detail right now, but Uberti has employed several tricks to prevent you from doing so. If you aren’t a skilled metalworker I would just spend the extra money to get a proper cartridge version to begin with.
The original intent was to retain the 4-5/8″ barrel, but it turned out my reamer was too short, and I had to cut the barrel top 3-1/2″. I bored out the barrel and turned a section of the barrel liner (who are they kidding? At 9/16″ in diameter this is a barrel!) and press-fit it into the reamed barrel, then cut-and-crowned it at the muzzle. I flattened the sides of the barrel to produce a ‘slab-sided’ look, then moved on to the cylinder.
I removed the nipples from the back of the cylinder, then bored the chambers out and reamed them to .454″, then turned down sections of 4140 round bar to fit, liberally slathered them with Loctite Red and press-fit them into the chambers. Afterwards I line-bored the chambers, reamed them to .250, then reamed them from the breech-end to .275 to accommodate the cartridges.
Sort of a ‘Sheriff’s Model,’ but it will do for now. I’d planned to shorten the ejector and mount it, but the chambers are so small this would entail significant modifications to the ejector… and it might not work. In the meantime the ejector-housing on the frame is in the way of simply using a rod to poke the empties out, so for now I just remove the cylinder for unloading. Eventually I plan to turn a proper cylinder for this, at which point I’ll revisit the whole ejector issue.
For test purposes I loaded the initial rounds to land in the .25 ACP power range, and miraculously it actually worked out that way. As I am convalescing at the moment, and forbidden to do heavy work, I mucked about today with various loads to explore the envelope.
The first two test loads used Unique, and the second set done today used Power Pistol, which seems to suit this cartridge very well indeed. I attempted some primer-propelled loads using the H&N Grizzly pellets, but they tended to jam in the forcing cone, so these were not a good choice. I’ll increase my pellet selection and return to this effort later.
While I think it vanishingly unlikely that anyone will run out and attempt to duplicate my efforts here, I have to make the usual disclaimer. If you use this reloading data you do so at your own risk, and I assume no liability for the use or misuse of this data.
All loads use Federal #100 Small Pistol primers
38gr LSWC- 1.5gr. 860 fps. 63 ft/lbs.
35gr GDHP- 1.5gr. 870 fps. 59 ft/lbs
Power Pistol Loads
38gr. LSWC- 2.0gr. 698 fps. 41 ft/lbs
38gr. LSWC- 2.7gr. 912 fps. 70 ft/lbs
50gr. FMC- 2.7gr. 831 fps. 77 ft/lbs
50gr. FMC- 3.5gr 1065 fps. 126 ft/lbs
35gr. GDHP- 2.7gr. 769 fps. 41 ft/lbs
35gr. GDHP- 3.5gr. 1214 fps. 115 ft/lbs
35gr. GDHP- 4.0gr. 1464 fps. 167 ft.lbs*
*This figure is suspect; I was only able to get a good reading on one round of this string. This should also be considered a Maximum Load using the Federal primer.
The goal of exceeding .22 magnum is certainly achieved! I was unable to discover a .22 WMR load that approached the muzzle energy of the most powerful load from a 3-1/2″ barrel.
It’s early days yet, but so far it’s looking like I’m achieving the benchmarks I set for this cartridge. The hallmarks I was looking for included versatility, and it seems that’s working out. I also have to say I am very pleased with Power Pistol; it seems to be a very good match for this round.
I want to try some heavier Semi-wadcutters and maybe even some wadcutters as well as the ultra-light loads, and there are interesting times ahead when I get set-up for gel testing! At this point I am inclined to call this experiment a success.
I also wanted to mention that I was surprised at the relatively tolerable muzzle-blast of even the hottest of these loads; they were nowhere near as loud and violent as .22 Magnum loads. An effect of the Power Pistol powder? I don’t know, but I am grateful! This round might even have potential as a low-recoil self-defense round.
Accuracy also was very good; at one point I realized I needed to start scattering my shots because I was slowly chewing a hole in my backstop!
This post contains load data.All load data should be used with due caution. It is common practice to start 10% below the listed load and work up, insuring that everything remains safe at each step. The simple rule of thumb is, ‘When in doubt don’t. This is especially true when loading for antique firearms. All antique firearms should be examined by a competent gunsmith prior to firing to insure that they are safe. The reader employs the reloading data contained in this article at their own risk; the author assumes no liability for the use or misuse of this information.
In 2015 Linda bought me a S&W .38 Double Action and I fell in love with these top-break revolvers, particularly the Safety Hammerless model. These guns chamber the old .38 S&W cartridge, and this is a problem; the only ammo available in factory loadings these days are round nose lead, usually 145-147gr. loaded over an anemic powder charge designed to not blow up the worst revolver ever made. This is OK if all you intend to do is poke holes in paper… and are rich. Like most obsolete/ limited production cartridges they are expensive. I’m not rich, so it was obvious I was going to need to reload if I wanted to do any serious shooting in these old guns.
Black Powder or Smokeless?
The conventional wisdom is that these revolvers should only be fired with Black Powder or a substitute like Pyrodex. This is a pretty simple proposition; fill the case 3/4 of the way with black powder and stuff a bullet on top of it. As long as you make sure there is some compression of the powder you’ll be alright.
The original cartridges used balloon-head cases, which were weaker but they held more powder. In a modern case you probably cannot stuff enough FFg of FFFg black powder in it to blow anything up or even significantly damage a gun that is in fireable condition, as long as you don’t leave an air-gap between the bullet and powder. Using Black Powder commonly thought to be the safest route for loading for these old guns, though it has it’s own issues. If you want to err on the side of caution you could do worse than going this route, just remember to clean your gun religiously right after each shooting session.
I didn’t go down this path. When smokeless ammunition became available every gun was a ‘Black Powder’ gun, and the loads were tailored to take that into account. I have never seen any evidence that smokeless loads are inherently unsafe in these weapons, but nonetheless it is best to approach loading for any antique with caution. When I started reloading a friend had sent me several bottles of Unique, and as this is one of the first commercially available smokeless powders for pistols I figured it was a good place to start.
So, let’s get on with it, shall we?
Reloading .38 S&W is not without issues, starting with the fact that while modern .38s use a .357 bullet this cartridge uses a .361 caliber bullet, and these are not commonly available. There are some people casting round-nose lead bullets for these, but they are a fair bit more expensive than more common bullets.
Antique guns vary; some have tighter or looser bores. Some people have had luck with soft lead .357 bullets ‘bumping up’ the extra .004″ in these guns. I slugged my guns and all three of my S&Ws came out at exactly .361- good quality control for 19th- early 20th century guns! I decided to go with the conventional wisdom for using modern bullets, which is to use a 148gr. .357 Hollow-Base Wadcutter (HBWC.) These are pretty soft and the hollow base of the bullet reliably expands to bore diameter, even with relatively light loads.
Reloading data for this cartridge is not terribly common; after a brief search I discovered http://www.reloadammo.com/ , the reloading pages of M.D.Smith, who lists a number of loads. Importantly he specifies which loads are safe for top-break revolvers like my S&Ws. He does not specifically list the 148gr. HBWC, but using the data for the .145gr. RNL works alright.
Smith lists a maximum load of 2.8gr. for these heavy bullets in top-break revolvers, but you want to approach this figure with due caution, and bear in mind the quality of the gun you are shooting it in. A load that might be fine for a S&W or Iver Johnson might break the rather fragile lock on an H&R. Go on then, ask me how I know…
.38 S&W is a short casing, so you don’t fully seat the wadcutter as you would in .38 Special. I found that leaving about .200″ protruding from the case worked well. Eventually I settled on a load of 2.7gr. of Unique, and this became the go-to load for the first thousand rounds I put through my guns.
Mind you, success was not instant and total. I was reloading on .38 Special dies, and while these can be adjusted to work it’s far from ideal. The seating die will squeeze the bullet enough to hold it in place even under recoil, but I was spewing a lot of unburned powder and power levels were low. Standard paper targets were tearing as often as the were getting clean holes, which indicates very low velocity.
I solved the incomplete ignition problem by shortening a .38 Special seating die so I could properly crimp the shells. The improvement was immediate and dramatic. No more unburned powder, a more authoritative crack! at the muzzle and a significant increase in recoil (though it remains mild.) No more torn bullet-holes in targets either. After some experimentation I determined that a moderate amount of crimp worked best. You’ll need to experiment with this yourself to find what works for you.
Now, I can’t tell you what sort of velocity you will get from this load; I only just got a chronograph. I can tell you that testing on kiln-dried 1-3/4″ thick Douglas Fir penetration was comparable to .380 hardball from a short-barrelled gun. I call that a success!
Use the Right Dies!
While you can use modified .38 Special dies to reload .38 S&W it’s not the ideal solution. The main issues were I had to shorten a die to crimp the cartridges properly. the other problem is brass life. The difference in diameter between .38 Special and .38 S&W is only four thousandths of an inch, but it actually makes a difference. The brass gets worked harder in both resizing and expansion in the chamber, and in my experience this has resulted in cases cracking prematurely; sometimes in as little as three loadings. In this low-pressure of a round it ought to last quite a bit longer than that. using the correct dies has eliminated that problem.
Perusing the shelves at Pinto’s Guns I discovered some .360 150gr. LSWCs. They often make estate purchases, and Lord only knows where these came from. Perhaps someone cast them at home, I don’t know. They proved to perform well loaded over the same 2.7gr. of unique as the HBWCs. Eventually I ran through their supply and was on the lookout once again.
I tried 158gr .357 soft-lead SWCs and they worked well enough over 2.5gr. of Unique, but I wondered if I might not do better. I thought a lighter bullet might perform well, but .361 bullets are rare, and if you want them to weigh less that 145gr. they are practically unobtanium… but there’s more than one way to de-fur a domestic feline.
I got a .361″ reamer and reamed a hole in a block of mild steel, then made a .361″ punch with a concavity in the nose, using a drill-bit and some grinding stones in a Dremel-tool. Drop in a .357 bullet, insert the punch and hammer it down and voila! .361 LSWC. I’ve taken to using 125gr TCL bullets from Aardvark Enterprises, and loaded over 2.5gr. of Unique or 2.0gr. of Red Dot the results have been very good. I’ve even swaged .355 115 gr. FMC rounds, which have also performed well with 2.0 gr. of Red Dot.
These have proven to be great loads for punching paper out to 25 yards. Velocity? No idea, but they punch clean holes in the paper and shoot to point of aim. Now that I have a chronograph I’ll be testing these loads, factory ammo and a few others besides. I’ll be using a 3-1/4″- barrelled Iver Johnson and my 1-5/8″ barrelled S&W, and I’ll provide the data when it’s available.
I’ll also be Gel-testing them, but that will need to wait; The Clear Ballistics Gel is not inexpensive to set up initially!
Again, I caution you to use this load data carefully, and only in revolvers that have been thoroughly checked to insure that they are safe to shoot.
I wrote this on Veteran’s Day 2016 and thought I would share it here.
We were young. We joined because we wanted to serve, because we were idealists. We joined because we wanted help paying for college. To help insure the safety of our nation, our friends, families and loved ones. We joined because we were bored. To run away from home. To see the world. To give something back to our country. To provide for the people we care about. For adventure. To stay out of jail. Because we just didn’t know what the hell else to do with our lives. We served because we could, and so that the rest of you wouldn’t have to.
Whatever our reasons we served our country. We put our lives at risk for our people, our government, our way of life. We served alongside people of all races, all backgrounds, from all different parts of our nation. We met people from other countries and learned what it meant to be a foreigner. We met people who hated us, who loved us, who needed us. Who were glad we were there even while they resented our presence. It changes how you see people, your country, your world.
We learned things. How to survive. How to try as hard as we can, how to push ourselves beyond our limits. Learned to have each other’s backs, even if we didn’t like or understand each other. We learned what we were capable of, and what we could do together. How to live, how to die, even how to kill. That changes a person.
Then we came back. Some of us came back stronger, prouder, more complete. Some of us came back broken in body, in spirit, in soul; with wounds that never quite stop bleeding. Now you look us in the eye, shake our hand and thank us for our service, and you have no idea what that means… and what it cost.
Which is as it should be. Because in the end, no matter why we joined, we served so that you wouldn’t have to know. So that our world would not become your world.
Today, on Veteran’s Day, I say this to my fellow veterans- and I say it as someone that does know- Thank you for your service.
It’s no secret to readers of this blog that I have a ‘thing’ for antique revolvers, and unsurprisingly, antique revolvers often fire antique cartridges. Most of these cartridges started as black powder and are now loaded with smokeless powders. The question that intrigues me is this: are these cartridges still genuinely useful for self-defense in accordance with our modern understanding of terminal ballistics?
For some cartridges the answer, which we already know, is a resounding ‘no,’ because they were viewed as inadequate when they were at their height of use. Things like .22 Short, .32 Colt etc. were acknowledged to be less than marginal in their period of use.
Others like .45 Colt, .44-40, .38-40 etc. are known to be effective and some are still in use today; .45 Colt can even be had in state-of-the-art modern defensive ammunition. We don’t need to wonder about these cartridges either.
By the turn of the 20th Century .32 S&W (the short one) was considered the lower threshold for a self-defense cartridge, and had largely passed from the scene in that role by the end of WW2. .32 S&W Long and .38 S&W persisted in the role into the 1970s before largely fading from the scene. .32-20, once a popular cartridge for Police, was designed to be fired in both rifles and revolvers, and there are still rifles available in this caliber. With rifle-only loads it is still used for hunting small to medium game. These loads are far too high-pressure to fire in an old revolver of course, but many loads from older manuals and reloading data are in the same power range as .32 H&R magnum out of a 4″ revolver, and that cartridge is viewed by many as viable for modern self-defense. What might this venerable cartridge achieve with a modern hollow-point?
What I propose to do is test some of these obsolete cartridges by accepted modern standards and see how they fare. I want to test them both with loads approximating their original configuration and using modern bullets and smokeless powder. I’ve done some limited testing already with .38 S&W, but nothing with the scientific rigor of an FBI standard test. I want to change that; get the gel, do the tests and see what can be achieved.
This does not mean I will be hot-loading these cartridges. I’m going to be firing the loads out of my own, mostly antique, revolvers and I am not keen on breaking them. I may push them a very small amount beyond loads that I would consider appropriate for extensive target shooting, but since these are my babies I am not going to put them unduly at risk. Whenever possible I will use loads I have already developed and fired extensively.
So, what cartridges do I intend to test? To start with no rimfires. They are problematic to reload, and the workarounds are not genuine approximations of their performance. No loads that are still in widespread use and are mass produced in modern variants. No loads developed to use a heel-base bullet, largely because their foibles and deficiencies are already pretty well understood.
So what does that leave us with? .32 S&W, the first centerfire cartridge broadly used in American pocket revolvers, .38 S&W which followed close on it’s heels, .32 S&W Long, .32-20 Winchester and .450 Adams. The first four of these will be tested with black powder that approximates the original cartridge, modern factory ammunition and whatever loads I can devise. .450 Adams is a bit of a special case (so to speak.) While it was held to be underpowered for military use it was quite popular in compact ‘bulldog’ revolvers until around WW1. I’ll try to approximate the original black powder loading and try my hand at modern loads, but the only factory ammunition currently available has a reputation for blowing up guns, so I’ll pass.
.38 S&W testing will be limited to loads typically used in small defensive revolvers; testing will not include military cartridges which use the same case, like .38-200 or later variants used in Enfield or Webley military revolvers. These loads are too robust for use in the sort of top-break pocket revolvers where it was most commonly employed in the U.S.
Other cartridges will not be tested because they too closely approximate modern cartridges. .38 ACP for example spans the gap between 9×18 Makarov and 9mm Parabellum; it would not be difficult to develop an effective modern self-defense load for this cartridge. Likewise 9mm Largo, .30 Mauser and .30 Luger are pretty well understood, and .25 ACP is still in production and is available in modern loadings.
The test will be performed on Clear Ballistics gel with four layers of 16oz. cotton denim in an approximation of the FBI’s standardized testing. Clear ballistics clear gel is slightly denser than traditional ballistics gel, but is less temperature sensitive, easier to handle and more reusable than the old formulas. Desired performance is 12-18″ of penetration. Expansion is a plus, but realistically is only likely with the .32-20; in the lower-powered cartridges expansion is either unavailable due to low velocity or will limit penetration too much if it occurs. I will test the old standard of a 148gr. hollow-base wadcutter loaded backwards in .38 S&W; I am pretty sure it will under-penetrate, but what the hell, it’ll be fun.
All rounds will be fired from guns of a size to be suitable for civilian self-defense, meaning a barrel-length of 4″ or less.
This is not going to happen quickly; there needs to be some capital investment in equipment. I’ll need a chronograph, and the Clear Ballistics products do not come cheap. It’s all coming out of my pocket, and I’m a self-employed, partially disabled veteran. In a good month we scrape the lower-edge of middle-class, so squeezing things into the budget can be… challenging.
If anyone cares to donate factory ammunition in any of these calibers it would be appreciated- the more so if it is less than fifty years old.