The Snubby’s Dirty Little Secret
By Andrew Betts
Most of us who have been shooting for a while know that jacketed hollow point ammunition is vastly preferred for a defensive handgun. Pistols and revolvers do not produce enough velocity for the stretch cavity to contribute to wounding the way it does in many rifles so the size of the wound is dependent on the size of the projectile. The wider the bullet gets, the larger the hole is. JHP ammunition is designed to begin expanding shortly after impact to create a wider wound channel. With a larger frontal area, the bullet also slows quickly and therefore presents less risk to people that might be beyond your attacker. Many of us also choose a small revolver for concealed carry because, although they are difficult to master, a small revolver is simple and light weight making it very convenient to slip in a pocket. Let’s face it; we aren’t likely to need a gun. If we do need a gun, we probably won’t have to fire it. If we do have to fire it, the bad guy probably won’t be farther away than we can smell him and we probably won’t have to shoot more than once or twice. That makes a short barrel .38 Special a very reasonable choice. It’s also perfectly reasonable to just pick a quality JHP from one of the four or five big names and be done with it. Or is it?
We live in a golden age when it comes to defensive ammunition design. There are quite a few very well designed, high performance bullet designs out there. Gone are the days when there was great merit to the respective sides in the ancient 9mm vs. .45 ACP debate. Loaded with modern JHP ammunition, both 9mm and .45 perform very well, as does .40 S&W and .357 Sig. HST, Gold Dot, SXT, Ranger, PDX1, XTP, and Golden Saber all deliver very good accuracy and terminal performance and the difference between the top and bottom performers among that crowd is negligible. So why not just choose any one of them and hit the road? Everybody knows Speer Gold Dot is a top performer so if you’re carrying a 2” .38 spl grab a box of the 135 gr +P short barrel load and put it out of your mind, right? Not quite. As it turns out, .38 spl is right on the edge of the performance envelope. Some of those loads will work okay, but not through denim, or they’ll expand just fine when fired through denim in warm weather but cold weather lowers the velocity just enough to prevent expansion. The ammunition makers aren’t exactly lying to us; it’s just that the test protocol can’t always be robust enough to cover every situation. Take that highly regarded 135 gr Gold Dot load, for example. ATK (the parent company for Speer and Federal) gives test results for all their defensive ammunition on their website: http://le.atk.com/wound_ballistics/ The results listed for that 135 gr load indicate that it fails to meet the 12” minimum when fired into bare gel or through the FBI heavy clothing standard and it barely begins to expand when fired through the IWBA heavy clothing standard. In my own informal testing of the load, I accidentally discovered that cold weather can prevent it from gaining enough velocity to expand. I later confirmed that in a separate test.
Keep in mind that the testing done by the manufacturer was likely done in a laboratory environment where the test gun and ammunition were at room temperature. Also bear in mind that a gun carried on the person would be warm, as would the ammunition inside. This ammunition would function just fine at the 95° or so that it’s likely to be at if carried close to the body. If it’s carried in a purse or jacket pocket or left in a glove box though, the ammunition might not perform the way it’s supposed to. Several YouTube posters (tnoutdoors9, ScubaOz, PocketGunsandGear, 4theloveofsnub) have tested Winchester PDX1 and they have produced very mixed results. My own testing indicated that PDX1 will not expand when fired from a 2” revolver through four layers of denim.
Is .38 spl PDX1 garbage? I’m not sure it’s quite that simple. I also don’t believe that anyone’s test is necessarily flawed. I think that this load is only just barely able to expand when fired from short revolvers through heavy clothing. Sometimes. Very small variations in the test environment might be enough to make the difference between the bullet expanding and not. Of course, if it’s that unpredictable in a controlled environment with a homogenous media like gel, the real world performance is doubtful, at least through heavy clothing. PDX1 seems to do just fine through light clothing or in bare gel, though. Maybe it’s a good summertime load but I certainly wouldn’t rely on it in cold weather.
It’s not all bad news, though. To begin with, it’s not like everyone walks around looking like Jay Leno. It is getting colder out there and people do wear more clothes in the fall and winter but even if the bad guy’s heavy clothing does prevent expansion, it’s not as though your bullet magically turns into a Nerf dart. It will still poke a hole in that bad guy and still put a real damper on his disposition. There is also some ammunition out there that works well, even in cold weather, and even through heavy clothing. It’s not some high tech wizardry involving “trocars” or geometric battlespace displacement paradigm. It’s just a good old fashioned lead hollow point. The load that I’ve tested that does work well is the Buffalo Bore 158 gr LSWCHP +P. Otherwise known as the “FBI load”. I sealed the ammunition and revolver in a bag and left it submerged in ice water before shooting through four layers of denim into calibrated 10% gelatin and it did a spectacular job.
Of course, there are certainly other loads out there that can work in adverse conditions, but my advice is to do your best to verify before relying on ammunition to save the life of a loved one. If you don’t have the time or inclination to prepare your own gelatin for testing, you can always tape an old pair of jeans to the front of a row of milk jugs full of water. This method isn’t perfect but it might be illuminating. You can also research the various YouTube, blog, and gun rag tests that are available online. One thing to keep in mind with these tests is that the only way to know that the test media is valid is for it to be calibrated with a .177 BB immediately prior to each test. Look for the BB in the block and expect to see the numbers from the calibration shot. If those are missing, take the test results with a grain of salt. It’s also worth noting that gun rags exist to sell advertising and sometimes a little bias shines through. As with most things in life, a little common sense and effort goes a long way.