Ever wonder how these even make it down range much-less be accurate?
Wonderful wadcutters: soft shooting, accurate… Just don't try to figure out why
Guns Magazine, March, 2003 by Charles E. Petty
If you shoot a .38 Special and want the single most accurate load you can find, there is only one choice of bullet: The 148-grain, lead, hollow-base wadcutter. If you're a handloader, there are several powders that will shoot well, but that's the bullet to use. Looking at the humble hollow-base wadcutter, they are as aerodynamic as a brick and don't look like there's a chance of accuracy. But that matters not at all.
Everyone has his own idea of accuracy, but in its purest form, the goal is to put bullet after bullet through the same hole. And there will always be someone who wants to do better... someone like me.
The first thing you notice about a loaded .38 Special wadcutter round, is that it's seated flush with the case mouth. The main objective of the wadcutter design is to cut a nice clean hole in a paper target. This makes scoring ever so much easier. The reason for seating them so much deeper than normal dates back to the black powder origins of the .38 Special.
While the nice crisp holes of the wadcutter were desirable for target shooters, the manufacturers found that better accuracy was achieved with the bullet seated to occupy much of the excess space not needed with smokeless powders.
But there was also a different reason for development of wadcutter style bullets. Not without some logic, it was considered that the wide flat bullet would be an efficient "manstopper." In Johnson and Haven's 1943 book Ammunition, the authors report the wadcutter was developed by Himmelwright in 1900 and became commercially available in 1910.
The development resulted in a mid-range target load with a 148-grain wadcutter at 770 fps. This is very much like the load we have today. However, there was also a "full charge" load that used the same bullet at 870 fps and was intended for defensive use.
Over the years, there were many variations of the basic wadcutter design, and you can see all sorts of different configurations of the nose. There were big bumps and little ones, but the basic shape remained cylindrical. The design we know today is little changed from that used in the "Police Match" ammo of the 1930s.
You may think the hollow base originated with the wadcutter, but actually, it goes all the way back to the earliest revolver cartridges that used a heel seated bullet. The only surviving example of this construction is today's .22 rimfire. Like the lowly .22, these early cartridges used a bullet with a smaller diameter "heel" segment that was seated within the case. The remainder of the bullet was the same diameter as the outside of the cartridge case.
This explains why we call it the ".38" Special, even though everybody knows the bullet measures only .357 inch. But if you measure the outside diameter of a .38 Special case, you'll find it close to .38 inch, which would have been the diameter of the old heeled bullet. The hollow base of old was intended to expand to seal the bore. And we still see smaller cup-type bases on many modem lead factory bullets.
It is unclear why the wadcutter's hollow base was made so much deeper, but it seems to have two beneficial effects. Obviously it provides a good seal and long bearing surface--but it's also thought that the hollow base shifts the center of gravity slightly forward and helps stabilize the bullet.
Not Just For Wheelguns
My first exposure to super-accurate .38s was as a young gunsmith in the Air Force. In the late 1950s, revolvers were going the way of the dinosaur in bullseye pistol competition with the exception of the .38 Special, which was often used in the centerfire portion of the match. But gunsmiths such as the late Jim Clark experimented with conversions of the .38 Super Colt Government Model to shoot the .38 Special wadcutter. This was no small feat.
By this time, the method for accurizing the Government Model .45 was well developed and would form the basis for what we called a Super Conversion... or more commonly just "Super." Everyone knew what you meant. But it was not just a simple matter of cutting a new chamber, and you couldn't call up Brownells and order a barrel.
The .38 Super cartridge is larger in diameter than the .38 Special, so the first efforts involved reaming out the chamber area and making a sleeve that was silver soldered in place. The insert could then be chambered. Another approach was to take an old G.I. barrel and cut the tube off just forward of the locking lugs. The remaining piece was then reamed out and a straight piece of barrel blank turned to fit and soldered in place. This had the additional advantage of allowing the outside diameter of the barrel to be the same as that of a .45 barrel, so normal bushings would work. It also added a little weight.
During my Air Force training, I watched as 1911 pistols were tested in a machine rest and tried to correlate differences in accuracy from one gun to the next with things I could see. Errors in fitting were pretty obvious, but sometimes a gun that looked just fine simply wouldn't shoot well. I soon learned the guns would maliciously make you look bad if you feed them ammo they didn't like. .22s are the absolute worst for this, but any gun can do it.
The .38 Special conversions, and later the S&W Model 52, were designed to work only with wadcutters seated flush with the case mouth. Of course revolvers were not so restricted. Shooters worried--and still do--whether or not the long jump through the chamber before contacting the rifling had a negative effect on accuracy.
The same question is sometimes raised about shooting wadcutters in a .357 revolver. The skirt of the hollow base wadcutter very effectively seals the chamber, and my experience tells me this long jump matters not at all. I've often observed the same ammunition fired in both pistols and revolvers, and I've seen equal or better accuracy from the six-shooter. The extra .1 inch or so of a .357 Magnum chamber doesn't matter either.