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.38 Special Ammo: Buy Winchester and Black Hills

Super Match rounds shot X ring–size groups in one gun, while Black Hills’ product led the field in two other guns.

We recently purchased and tested .38 Special
target wadcutter rounds from seven companies:
CCI, Federal, Remington, Winchester, Hornady,
3-D, and Black Hills. We liked the Winchester
and Black Hills rounds best.

Many local and regional NRA Pistol Bullseye matches, competed at 25 and 50 yards, are won by .38 Special shooters who haven’t yet taken the plunge and begun reloading pet rounds that function best in their competition handguns. The standard in .38 Special factory ammo for the slow- and rapid-fire Pistol Bullseye matches is the wadcutter round. Its flat-nose design makes a nice, clean hole which helps in scoring, and it’s probably the most accurate bullet style on a brand-by-brand basis. Also, the wadcutter is offered by a number of companies, which gives the factory-ammo shooter a number of choices for lot testing. The only trick is finding the right factory load by matching available ammo to a gun.

To save you time and money when lot testing, we recently purchased and tested ammunition lots from seven companies that offer the .38 Special round in their inventories. We tested 148-grain target wadcutter rounds that included factory-fresh ammo from CCI-Blount, Federal, Remington, Winchester, and Hornady and remanufactured rounds from 3-D and Black Hills. The catalog numbers for the ammunitions were Remington R38S3, Winchester X38MRP, Federal GM38A, Hornady H09044, CCI 3517, Black Hills 38R2, and 3-D’s 38WMD. The wadcutter bullet types loaded into these products bevel based (BBWC), hollow based (HBWC), and double-ended wadcutter (DEWC) shapes. The last bullet style can be loaded into the case either end first, which works very well in mass-production reloading machines.

At 25 yards, plinkers can expect most .38 Special rounds to shoot 2- to 4-inch groups in a revolver with a 6-inch barrel. In our tests, we demanded much better performance. The NRA 50-yard B-6 bullseye target has a 1.6-inch X ring, a 3.3-inch 10 ring, and a 5.5-inch 9 ring. To be in the running for our recommendation, an ammo had to shoot at least 10-ring-size groups, and on the whole, we weren’t disappointed. Shooting the seven rounds through three guns, we found that 16 out of 21 test-ammunition sets produced 10-ring accuracy. Winchester’s Super Match produced the tightest groups in the test, but Black Hill’s remanufactured product shot the best in two of the three test guns. 3-D’s remanufactured ammo also did well, shooting near the top of each gun’s accuracy rankings while coming in at the lowest cost per round.

How We Tested
Our test equipment included a Smith & Wesson Model 52-2 .38 Special Wad Cutter model with a 5-inch barrel, a Smith & Wesson Model 686 .357 Magnum with a 6-inch barrel, and a Colt Python Target .38 Special with an 8-inch barrel.

We used a Ransom Pistol Rest with windage base mounted on a 24-inch-square plywood base that was 1.4 inches thick. This platform was C-clamped to a 1-inch-thick steel sheet attached to a steel pipe concreted in the ground. We shot all our test groups outdoors at 50 yards. We fired 10 five-shot groups to collect our accuracy data, spotting the rounds with a Nikon 20- to 60-power Field Spotting Scope. Using a Parker-Hale cleaning rod and jag, we cleaned the guns with Pro-Shot Lead and Powder solvent between lots and then fouled each gun before shooting the next test lot. We measured all the groups to the nearest tenth of an inch using a Neal Jones benchrest-scoring device. To collect the 10-shot chronograph data, we used an Oehler Research 35P chronograph.

How They Fared: We Pick Winchester And Black Hills
Winchester Super Match 148-grain Lead Mid-Range Wadcutter X38SMRP Lot No. 57KG7165043 shot the smallest groups in our test: 1.59-inch-average clusters out of the Colt Python. It was the only ammunition to give us an X-ring group average. The Colt also shot a best group of 1.09 inches with this ammo. It also shot the second-best groups in the S&W 52—2.85 inches, with a best group of 1.57 inches. In the 686 revolver it shot better, 2.59 inches on average, with a best group of 1.55 inches, but placed in the middle of the pack in terms of that gun’s accuracy. Our test lot measured 1.16 inches in overall length with a flush-mounted hollow-based bullet. Performance Shooter Recommends: At $11.50 for a box of 50 rounds, the Winchester .38 Special Super Match 148-grain Mid-Range Wadcutter was one of the most expensive brands we tested, but it brought a lot to the party. We would buy it.

Black Hills Ammunition .38 Special 148-grain Match Wadcutter 38R2 Lot No. 0320131366. Like 3-D, Black Hills Ammunition of Rapid City, South Dakota, makes remanufactured ammunition. Unlike 3-D, it sells ammo with brass sorted by headstamp. Our Black Hills ammo, which cost $12 per 50 rounds, was all Federal brass; it produced a like-new ammunition that gave us the best average groups in our Smith & Wesson 52 (2.56 inches) and 2.04 inches in the S&W 686. Black Hills uses a hollow-based bullet with an overall length of 1.16 inches with a slight roll crimp. We had no feeding problems or misfires with this ammo. The best group we shot with the Black Hills rounds was 1.19 inches in the S&W 52. Black Hills’ product came in third and fourth out of 21 when we sorted and ranked all lots by average.

Performance Shooter Recommends: Based on its top-ranked finish in two of our three test guns and its overall high ranking in all three guns, we think it’s worth testing the Black Hills Ammunition .38 Special 148-grain Match Wadcutter 38R2 Lot No. 0320131366 in your .38 Special bullseye gun.

3-D .38 Special 148-grain Hollow Base Wadcutter 38WMD Lot No. 060615611. 3-D of Doniphan, Nebraska, produces remanufactured ammo. The company manufactures 20 million .38 Special rounds a year, much of which is consumed by law-enforcement agencies and ranges across the country. 3-D uses recycled brass from nearly all commercial case manufacturers, which accounts for its low price of $8 per box of 50 rounds for the company’s .38 Special 148-grain Hollow Base Wadcutters. The overall length average of 10 randomly selected rounds was 1.17 inches, with the hollow-based bullet sticking out about 0.025 inch. The 3-D rounds had a slight roll crimp.

Wadcutter ammo has to be seated close to flush with the case mouth to prevent magazine and feeding problems in Smith & Wesson Model 52s. We had no feeding or misfires in the lot tested. Overall average groups ranged from 2.32 inches in our Colt Python, 2.5 inches in the Smith & Wesson 686, and 2.87 inches in the S&W Model 52. The best five-shot group we fired with this ammo was 1.5 inches with the Smith & Wesson 686. This was the least expensive of our test ammunitions at $8. With fired brass bringing between 3 to 5 cents apiece, the cost of this box of remanufactured rounds now nets out between $6.50 to $5.50.

Performance Shooter Recommends: Based on its accuracy ranking and its cost factor (see Cost Per Round Breakdowns), we think 3-D’s .38 Special 148-grain Hollow Base Wadcutter 38WMD Lot No. 060615611 is a best buy.

The Second Tier: CCI, Remington, Federal, and Hornady
CCI Blazer .38 Special 148-grain Hollow Base Wadcutter 3517 Lot No. A07A3. CCI finished third with a 2.87-inch group in our Smith 52, fourth with 2.5-inch groups in the Smith 686, and fifth in the Colt Python with a 2.32-inch group average. We did record a 1.02-inch best group with this lot in the Smith & Wesson 52, the smallest in the test. CCI of Lewiston, Idaho, uses an aluminum case in its Blazer ammunition and a hollow-based bullet that is flush with the case mouth and 1.15 inches OAL with a slight roll crimp. This is a berdan-primed case to prevent it being reloaded. This was the dirtiest of all our test ammunitions. Lead buildup had to be cleared after 40 rounds from the Colt Python to enable us to finish the test on this lot. We paid $9.50 per box of 50 rounds of Blazer ammo.

Performance Shooter Recommends: In our guns, the CCI Blazer .38 Special 148-grain Hollow Base Wadcutter 3517 Lot No. A07A3 gave middling accuracy. It does feature a low price tag, but the 3-D was cheaper if you collect brass—which you should. We don’t like the litter problem the disposable Blazer hulls encourage. In sum, we think there are better choices in .38 Special ammo than CCI’s Blazer brand.

Federal Gold Medal .38 Special 148-grain Match Wadcutter GM38A Lot No. 274840Y143. Using Federal Gold Medal, our Colt gave us a 1.95-inch second-place average group, and 2.59-inch groups in the Smith 686 placed Federal fourth. The Smith 52 had a 2.91-inch group average that put Gold Medal fifth in that gun. The best group we shot with this Federal lot was 1.11 inches in the Colt Python. Federal Cartridge Co. of Anoka, Minnesota, uses a hollow-based bullet with a 1.16 inch OAL and a roll crimp. This very clean ammunition produced little fouling in our test guns.

Performance Shooter Recommends: Though Federal was the secondmost accurate ammo in the Colt, it was a middle-of-the-road performer overall. We think other ammo brands recommended above are better choices than the $12-a-box Federal Gold Medal .38 Special lot we tested.

Remington .38 Special 148-grain Match Wadcutter R38S3 Lot No. C29LB8402. Its 2.17-inch group placed it fourth in the Colt Python’s groups, and it came in second with 2.17-inch groups in the Smith 686. In the S&W 52, the Remington shot 3.13-inch groups, placing the ammo near the bottom of the accuracy list for that gun. Remington’s Match Wadcutter is a hollow-based bullet flush seated at 1.17 inches OAL. It has a roll crimp. This was the cleanest of our test ammunition, showing hardly any fouling in our test guns.

Performance Shooter Recommends: Other ammo brands costing less shot better than the $14-a-box Remington .38 Special 148-grain Match Wadcutter R38S3 Lot No. C29LB8402. We would pick them over the Remington product. Hornady Custom .38 Special 148-grain Hollow Base Wadcutter 9043 Lot No. 185928838. This lot did not do well in our test guns. Average groups of 3.52 and 6.08 inches in the Smith 52 and the Colt, respectively, placed it last in those two guns. A 3.43-inch group tied it with CCI for last place in the Smith 686. Also, we experienced our first gun malfunction using this ammo when a piece of what looked like case-polishing media got under the extractor star on the Colt Python.

We found nearly all of the Hornady bullets had this imbedded in the grease on the end of the bullets, and all of our test boxes had this problem. The best group we shot with the Custom brand was 1.49 inches in the Smith 52. This good performance was overshadowed with the largest group of 7.76 inches in the 8-inch Colt.

We trace the problem to the Hornady rounds shooting slightly faster than the others. The Custom bullets ran at an average velocity of 871 fps and a high of 902 fps in the Colt. Hollow-based wadcutters like those used in the Hornady ammo seem to have threshold velocity of 800 fps. Cross this line and accuracy will suffer. The Frontier head-stamped brass cases had 1.16-inch average OALs and a roll-crimped flush hollow-based bullet.

Performance Shooter Recommends: At $16.80, this was the highest-priced ammunition in the test and the least accurate. We don’t think this lot of Hornady Custom .38 Special 148-grain Hollow Base Wadcutters is a good buy.

Recommendations
The best buy in this test of .38 Special wadcutters is 3-D’s .38 Special 148-grain Hollow Base Wadcutter 38WMD Lot No. 060615611. It usually shot in the top half of the ammo brands tested and had a final per-round cost of 12 cents. For the recreational shooter, we recommend it.

For outright accuracy, we would try Winchester Super Match 148-grain Lead Mid-Range Wadcutter X38SMRP Lot No. 57KG7165043 or Black Hills Ammunition .38 Special 148-grain Match Wadcutter 38R2 Lot No. 0320131366. They lead the accuracy rankings in at least one test gun, and would be our first picks if we were lot-testing for a .38 bullseye competition gun.


Also With This Article
Click here to view the chronograph results.
Click here to view "Cost Per Round Breakdown."
Click here to view the accuracy data.
Click here to view the contacts and addresses.


-By PS Staff


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