Loading the venerable .38 Special wadcutter

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Smith & Wesson Model 52-2, .38 Special caliber automatic pistol firearm

There was a time, in a galaxy far away, when revolvers chambered in .38 Special were among the most common handguns in the world.

Every cop on the beat carried one, and this was reflected in the competitive shooting world.

Revolvers chambered in .38 were widely used in matches and even semi-autos were built to shoot the .38 Special wadcutter. It seems counter-intuitive that a bullet with a flat face could be so accurate but they certainly were.

Every cop on the beat carried one these–the classic Smith & Wesson Model 15 .38 Special

Over the years I’ve had a love affair with this round, particularly when shot from a semi-auto. Produced mostly in the 1960’s and 1970’s semi autos designed to shoot .38 wadcutters were quite the rage with Bullseye shooters. And no wonder. They are fun to shoot, have minimal recoil and offer great accuracy. The bullet cuts a crisp perforation on the paper, kind of like those hole punchers that we used in grammar school.

However, if not perfectly maintained and precisely hand loaded, they are finicky.

There are other reasons why semi-autos chambered in .38 are fussy.

The .38 Special cartridge case is much longer than a .45 ACP cartridge case. Designed with a protruding rim for use with a revolver, it was not intended for a semi-automatic pistol like the 1911. The 1911 was specifically engineered around the .45 ACP, which features a case rim that does not protrude, allowing for smooth stacking and feed from a box magazine.

The .38 Special Wadcutter is accurate and cuts very clean hole in the target, something like those hole-punchers we’d use in grammar school. Famed shooter Gil Hebard suggests loading the bullet flush with the case mouth with a .370″ crimp.

Some of the more popular models were crafted by the iconic gunsmith, Jim Clark of Shreveport, LA. Mr. Clark built the .38 specials by converting Colt’s 38 Super model. In addition to the Clark conversions (and those of other gunsmiths such as John Giles) Smith and Wesson produced the Model 52 (photo at top of page) a production target gun made specifically for Bullseye competition. Launched in 1961, it was based on the earlier Model 39, which was developed for the US Army.

The Model 52 was a completely different design than a 1911 but like the 38’s built from conversions, it was engineered to only fire .38 Special wadcutter bullets.

Shooting the Model 52 is a different experience than firing a 1911 — some shooters may not care for the trigger action. To quote the legendary marksman, Gil Hebard, “it is a two-stage affair with about 1/4 inch take-up before the sear is engaged”. Rather than a crisp, clean break it has a slight, perceptible smooth movement immediately before the trigger breaks away from the sear.

Colt M1911 Gold Cup National Match .38 Special Mid-Range (This photo courtesy rockislandauction.com)

Hebard called it “soft” and explained in the Pistol Shooter’s Treasury that it could be very desirable, if the shooter happens to like it. (Sort of like some of my past relationships). Despite his bias he said it was the “finest example” of a soft trigger that he’d ever seen.

There’s no question the Model 52 is extremely accurate and I agree with Hebard, it’s a challenge to shoot.

The other popular .38 semiauto of the era was the Colt M1911 Gold Cup National Match .38 Special Mid-Range, which also began production in 1961.

The Mid-Range was not a conventional Colt 1911. The top of its barrel did not have locking lugs to engage in the slide and the toggle beneath the barrel did not pull the rear of the barrel down. Instead the pistol has a blow-back action, which means the barrel could be kept in alignment throughout the cycling of the action. 

The theory is that this makes the Mid-Range more accurate. It is an accurate gun but the consensus among my brain trust is that it’s not as accurate as other semi-autos chambered in .38 Special.

For .38 semiautos, AA #5 is the ticket. For revolvers AA #2 is also excellent.

Choosing components

The most popular propellant for Bullseye shooters (both for .38 and .45) has traditionally been Bullseye powder.

I experimented with BE and others such as 231 but discovered that Accurate #5 (distributed by Western Powders) is ideally suited for semi-autos.

AA #5 is slightly snappier than BE, but in a nuanced way. Although the recoil is slightly more pronounced it’s still very, very mild compared to a .45, thus re-engaging your target is not problematic.

A wadcutter round loaded with 4.0 gr of #5 cycles perfectly and is oh so precise.

Zero’s 148 gr WCHB bullets combine quality with low price

Gil Hebard, the iconic shooter of yesteryear, suggested loading the bullet flush with the case mouth with a .370″ crimp. That still works.

The Right Stuff

Of course quality brass and bullets are necessary for this equation. When it comes to brass, none other than Jim Clark stated (in Hebard’s The Pistol Shooter’s Treasury) that case consistency is of utmost importance. He implores us to use the “same make” rather than unsorted range brass. I use Starline 38 Special, which is the choice of many competitors.

For consistency you need one brand of quality brass. Starline does it for me.

My bullet choice is Zero’s 148 gr WCHB. Zero makes consistently high-quality products at a very reasonable price. What’s not to like?

Loading with Dillon Precision and Redding Reloading Equipment

The Dillon 550 series combined with Redding’s Premium die sets are a potent combination. (Of course you can always use these dies with other Dillon presses such as the XL650.)

Their Premium Die Set includes a Titanium Carbide Sizing/Decapping Die, an Expander Die and a Seating Die.

Redding’s Premium Die Set can be easily configured to work with the Dillon progressive presses.

The chief attributes of carbide is that it’s harder, smoother, and more abrasion-resistant than steel. The downside is that it’s brittle. When using a carbide sizing die, you’ll need to set the height of the die so that there is some clearance between the shell holder and the die. Otherwise the force of the shell holder repeatedly impacting the die may cause the carbide ring to crack.

The Redding Expander Die is an animal that doesn’t exist in the Dillon universe. With Dillon you achieve the same objective, flaring the case mouth, with the powder funnel. With the Redding set you get a dedicated die to do the same job.

The die creates a smooth entry radius to accommodate the bullets which is essentially a tiny shelf to seat the bullet. This means a very stable place, a bearing surface, to align the bullet before it’s seated. (Precise alignment is especially important with new brass or it may crumple when seating the bullet).

The expander (inside the expander die) has a titanium coated plug for use before the bullet seating process. The tapered tip makes a perfect pocket for the bullet without over-flaring the rim.  It also positions the projectile for proper contact with the seating micrometer which is crucial, especially with new brass which can be easily damaged.

I also acquired their Taper Crimp Series A die specifically for the wadcutter application. Note that Redding’s Seating Die (which also serves as a crimping die) provides a roll crimp which will work for a wadcutter but is not ideal for this particular task. (If you don’t want to buy the entire Premium die set you can pick up the Taper Crimp die separately and swap it out with your Dillon Crimp die).

You get two micrometers with the set. The one on the right will accommodate a conventional projectile and the other has a flat surface for a wadcutter. You can precisely adjust seating depth with these.

Redding’s Seating Die comes with two micrometers–one that will accommodate a conventional, rounded projectile and the other with a flat surface for a wadcutter. The micrometers are adjustable for bullet seating depth, each with increments equaling .001” which equates to .050” per revolution. This feature enables the hand loader to make fast, accurate, and repeatable changes in bullet seating depth, with no guesswork.

There’s another advantage to the Redding design. Instead of locknuts, which are utilized by Dillon to secure the dies on the toolhead, Redding uses lock rings. For example adjusting the seating depth on the Dillon die means using a wrench to loosen and then tighten the nut. Not only is this less precise, it may mean scraping your knuckles on the tool head or rounding the lock nut—neither of which is desirable).

The lock rings are cinched down with Allen head screws which makes them easy to adjust.

Redding utilizes lock rings on the dies to keep them adjusted properly on the tool head.

Redding has refined this system by utilizing a tiny piece of soft lead between the front end of the retaining/tightening screw and the threads of the (steel) die body. The lead serves as a buffer to prevent damage to the threads. (To loosen it you’ll need to give the ring a tap to free up the lock ring). Once the ring is tightened down you hand screw the die on the tool head and you’re quite secure.

Two Reloading Options using Redding

Option #1 is do the entire process on one tool head. That means adding the Carbide sizing die (foreground) and the Premium Seating Die (the one with the micrometer). I also added the the special taper crimp die. What’s missing is the expander die. The advantage is that you can do the whole process in one fell swoop.

The Redding dies differ slightly in function from the Dillon set up so you’ll end up re-orienting your die setup. There are two ways to load the wadcutters using the Premium set.

The first method is to swap out the Dillon sizing and seating dies with Redding Carbide sizing die and the Seating Die. The Redding Seating Die doubles as a crimping die so you can remove the Dillon crimp die (if you already own a Dillon die set). That leaves you with two Redding dies in the Dillon toolhead. You can add Redding’s taper crimp die, which I recommend. (With this method you wont’ use the Redding expander die.)

The second option breaks down the reloading process into two steps. (This necessitates using an extra Dillon toolhead).

Alternatively, you can choose the two-step process. That means dedicating one tool head to the Carbide Sizing die and running all your brass first to decap and add the primer. The second step would be to complete the process on a second tool head. To do this simply add the expander die in place of the sizing die. (In this instance you’ll want to make sure that the Dillon powder die drops the powder wiithout expanding the case head).

The first step is to resize and add primers to your cases. That means adding only the Redding sizing die to the toolhead.

After your cases are prepared, swap out the toolhead with the sizing die and replace it with your second toolhead. This configuration will consist (going clockwise) of the Expander Die, the Dillon powder drop, the Seating Die and the Tapered Crimp Die.

Once the proper flare is established, the powder is dropped from the Dillon powder system. You’ll need to move the funnel up half a turn so that it makes firm enough contact with the case. This will allow the proper amount of powder to drop accurately in the case without expanding the flare that you’ve already established.

When you reach the seating die you’ll also turn it up a full rotation so that it won’t crimp the case. You can then seat the bullet accurately with the micrometer. This takes the guessing out of the seating process.

The final stage is the taper crimp.

If you don’t use the special die, you can use the seating die to perform the same function but it’s going to give you a roll crimp.

The Redding Taper Crimp die is perfect for the wadcutter. I suggest adding it to your system.

Conclusion

The Premium dies offer a smooth, consistent reloading experience. The Dillon dies work fine but the Redding dies allow for a more precise set up.

It may be a tiny bit more time consuming but I prefer the two stage method outlined above.

Why?

The two-stage system allows me to incorporate Redding’s (case) Expander Die. It’s easier and more precise to operate than the Dillon powder drop funnel.

Over flaring, depicted in this photo, is what you won’t get with the expander die from Redding. I prefer using it in the loading process but you’ll need two Dillon toolheads to accomplish this.

If you use just one tool head on the 550 you’re not going to be able to include this wonderful die. There’s just no room for it!

With either the one or two-stage technique you can make use of Redding’s Taper Die which I much prefer over the roll crimp.

Lastly, the micrometer on the Seating Die takes the guessing out of this process.

With good dies and the right components you’ll have a better chance to print decent groups. This was produced with a 1911 Colt “Kit Gun”, at 25 yards, offhand, using 3.9-4.1 gr of AA #5, Zero 148 gr WCHB bullets and Starline Brass.

Consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, to paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, but if you’re shooting for accuracy, you need to be boringly thorough when making ammo.

The author is not responsible for mishaps of any kind, which might occur from the use of this data in developing your handloads. It is the user’s responsibility to follow safe handloading guidelines to develop safe ammunition. You use this data at your own risk. No responsibility for the use or safety in use of this data is assumed or implied.

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