I can’t properly go shooting while we’re in isolation, but I can do a little shooting on the property if I don’t overdo it and annoy the neighbors. Having recently completed the 1848 cartridge conversion it seemed like a natural time to work up some .32 S&W loads.
Like many cap-and-ball .31 reproductions the bore is rather over-sized (I’ve seen undersized ones too.) This means that jacketed and even some hard-cast bullets don’t get a good seal in the bore, causing low velocities, leading and sometimes key-holing (when the bullet doesn’t hit the target squarely.) This plays havoc with accuracy and penetration.
The traditional solution is the use of a hollow-base bullet, these days most often a Hollow-base Wad Cutter (HBWC.) The problem is those are pretty scarce in .32 caliber, and while a few companies used to make them they’ve all pretty much stopped.
I ordered some 73gr TCL hard-cast bullets from Rimrock, and as you’d expect they are great… in my Iver Johnson and S&W top-breaks. Out of the Baby Dragoon? Not so much. Really soft lead bullets will bump up to engage the rifling, but these are just too hard. Even at five yards they were yawing or key-holing.
So, time to swage some bullets. How? Take a chunk of steel, bore a .310 hole in it, and lathe-turn a plug with a post on it to make the hollow base, and a rammer for the other end. These have to be super-snug in the holes. Insert the plug, insert the bullet (or thick lead wire) and hammer the rammer in on top of the bullet. Remove the rammer and used a brass drift to drive the bullet and plug out. Rinse and repeat. It’s not fast, but it will do for short runs of bullets.
I started with some 58gr bullets for ultra-light loads for indoor shooting. I’d show you the others, but frankly they look just like these, only slightly longer. These proved quite satisfactory when launched at very low velocity (478fps.) They were surprisingly accurate and not at all loud.
I had some thought that this gun might go out for some small-game hunting as well as target practice, so I figured some stouter loads might be needed as well. To that end I swaged some 77gr. soft lead HBWCs and upped the powder charge. Quite a difference! The velocity was much higher, both from the 3″ Iver Johnson and the 5-3/4″ barrel Baby Dragoon.
I’ll note at this point that I was using Alliant Red Dot powder, and there’s a good reason. When tested in shotguns this powder, loading the same weight of shot to the same velocity, exhibited basically the same chamber and down-bore pressure curves as black powder. It takes a lot more black powder to achieve the velocity, of course, but this would seem to make Red Dot a good choice for some black powder cartridges.
Here are the loads I came up with for the Baby Dragoon:
55gr. HBWC, 1.0gr. Red Dot, Fed #100 Primer 478 fps. 29 ft./lbs ES: 40
77gr HBWC, 1.2gr. Red Dot, Fed #100 Primer 841fps. 121ft./lbs ES: 44
Now it might seem odd that 0.2gr of powder would drive a heavier bullet so much faster, but there’s more to it than just weight and powder charge. Loaded to the same overall length the 77gr. bullet fills more of the case, which changes the burn of the powder. The soft lead bullet also expands to fill the bore more completely, using the pressure more efficiently. Based on recovered bullets, the 55gr. load barely engages the rifling, and the muzzle report is enough softer that it sounds like there is considerable ‘blow-by’ past the bullet.
I have some heavier factory wadcutters coming; we’ll see how they perform.
These weren’t the only surprises in store; when I got to .38 S&W things continued to go strangely. I recently purchased some 125gr LSWCs from Rimrock as well, and these are hard-cast and specifically sized for .38 S&W, which tends to run several thousandths larger than .38 Special/.357 Magnum. Rimrock lists the bullets as .360″, and my caliper said .361. Oh well, what .001″ among friends?
I’m trying a new powder, Universal. This is formulated for loading a broad spectrum of handgun cartridges, thus the name. Given the relative paucity or reloading data for .38 S&W I had to make some educated guesses, and initially erred on the side of caution and worked my way up. For test guns I used an Iver Johnson .38 Automatic Safety Hammerless with a stock 3-1/4″ barrel and my S&W .38 Safety Hammerless with a 1-5/8″ barrel.
A pattern quickly emerged. All things being equal a longer barrel gives you more velocity, but in this case the shorter S&W consistently produced higher velocities. Apparently all things were not equal. The Iver Johnson is a ‘slow gun.’ This is not the first time that I have encountered this; initially in my ‘How Obsolete Are They’ tests I used a Harrington & Richardson, which also turned out to be a ‘slow gun.’ So, what makes a gun slow? In a word, its tolerances.
The tolerances in the bore are often measured by a process called ‘slugging’ the bore. Basically one takes an over-sized soft lead ball and forces it through the bore, and then measures it’s diameter. The H&R referenced earlier had a .365″ bore. Firing a hard-cast .361 bullet through this allowed a portion of the pressure to force its way past the bullet rather than driving it forward, resulting in a slow muzzle velocity. I slugged the Iver Johson, and the bore measured .361, so that was obviously not the culprit.
The next thing to check was the gap between the cylinder and barrel. This is about .006″, which I did not feel was large enough to create the loss of velocity I was getting compared to the S&W’s .004″. Checking the cylinder itself revealed the culprit; the chamber throats measured .368″. This allowed considerable blow-by past the bullet before it entered the barrel. By comparison the chamber throats and bore on the S&W measure dead-on .361, resulting in more consistent and higher velocities with modern bullets.
OK, you need to understand something about these guns. These are not bad guns, and their low velocities are not always issues with ‘sloppy’ tolerances. Yes, they are slow with modern hard-cast or jacketed bullets. But these are not the bullets they were designed to fire. When these guns were made .38 S&W was loaded with very soft bullets. The variances in the tolerances on these guns may be related to that fact. It didn’t matter if the cylinder throats were large, because the base of the bullet would easily expand to fill the available space. Likewise if the bore were a few thousands over diameter it was not a problem. There was also a theory in the 19th century that the best performance in a revolver was attained by having a large chamber throat, which the base of the bullet would expand to fill, and having the bullet swaged precisely to the bore diameter in the forcing cone. In an age were ammunition dimensions were often approximates there might be some merit to this idea.
So in some cases the fault lies not in our stars… er, guns, but in our ammunition. When used with soft lead bullets and a suitable charge these guns may not be slow at all. Yep, gonna test this.
So, back to testing loads with Hodgden Universal powder. The first thing I notice was it’s brown; it looks like finely-ground medium-light roast coffee. OK, that’s weird, but not really relevant. I was able to find a few .38 S&W loads using Universal, but none with the weight and diameter of bullet I’m using. Time for some educated guessing. Comparing charge-sizes with Unique in several loads I figured a charge of 2.8gr. would be safe, but likely rather slow.,say in the mid to high 500’s in terms of feet per second. That seemed like the place to start. I worked up gradually from there to as far as I considered prudent in American antique top-break guns.
I’m omitting the results from the 3-1/4″ gun, as they proved slower than the shorter S&W for the reasons outlined above, all tests were from the 1-5/8″ S&W, and were five shot strings.
Rimrock 125 gr./.361″ LSWC, Universal powder & Fed #100 primers.
2.8gr. powder, 564fps, 88ft./lbs, ES: 11
3.0gr. powder, 598fps, 99 ft./lbs, ES: 15
3.2gr. powder, 626fps., 109ft./lbs, ES: 18
3.5gr. powder, 698fps., 135ft./lbs, ES: 19
The first two loads yield results very similar to modern Winchester and Remington factory loads, and ought to be reasonably safe in any gun in good enough order to be fired. The second two loads are likely to be safe as well, but guns vary and I would be leery of using them extensively in anything but S&W top-break revolvers or other high-quality guns, like Webley and Enfield service revolvers. Solid frame guns are generally much stouter, but a lot of very cheap, poor quality revolvers were made in the late 19th and early 20th C. Err on the side of caution, especially when dealing with guns of unfamiliar brands, or guns known to have been cheap when new.
I’ll be testing Universal with heavier bullets soon, but the loads above are more gentle on old guns. As long as you are sensible with your loads pressure is less a concern with antique guns than recoil, causing them to loosen up or break. The lighter bullets at modest velocities produce less recoil, but will still be perfectly adequate for target practice or small game.
As always, you use this load data at your own risk. The writer assumes no liability for the use or misuse of this load data. Only use these loads in a good-quality firearm that has been inspected to insure that it is safe to fire. When in doubt DON’T.
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Michael Tinker Pearce, 24 April 2020