Why 125-grain for .357 and 158-grain for .38 Special?


July 2, 2003, 11:20 PM
The most popular self-defense load (among us gun nuts, anyway) for the .357 magnum seems to be the 125-grain SJHP or JHP. The most popular self-defense load for the .38 Special seems to be the 158-grain +P LSWCHP.

Why the difference in bullet weights? It seems counter-intuaitive to me. The .357 is more powerful, so it can move a bigger bullet to the the same velocity as the weaker .38 Special. Why not a .357 158-grain LSWCHP?

Is this because the .357 over-penetrates in 158-grain loads? Is recoil a concern? Or is it some remnant of the largely-discredited Marshall and Sanow studies?

Your thoughts?

Jim March, I'm especially interested in your opinion.

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July 3, 2003, 12:16 AM
Can't say a word about the heavier 38 Spec but I chose 125 g 357 Mag strictly because of its statistical stopping power (and really nice snappy Cor-bon loads). I have no other good reason.

July 3, 2003, 12:23 AM
Yes and yes. The recoil is heavier in .357 Magnum, and the penetration is excessive. The 125gr. recoils as much, but penetrates rather less, due to the lower mass of the bullet providing lower projectile kinetic energy during deceleration.

The lower velocity of the 158gr. load in the .38 Special means that it hasn't got as much speed to "bleed off" (pun intended) when it strikes flesh. However, over-penetration can still be a problem if the load is hard lead that doesn't expand too well. IIRC, Remington expanded the most, Winchester the least, and Federal somewhere in the middle, when these rounds were last tested. Since the only round I can find locally is the Winchester, I have to be careful about this...

Jim March
July 3, 2003, 12:25 AM
Here's what's going on:

The 38+P 158 is dead-soft lead. It expands at speeds between 825 or a hair under on the low side, and maybe 950 - 1,000 at the high end.

Drive it faster, and two things go wrong: lacking a jacket, it'll come unglued on impact and at speeds past 1,000fps, barrel leading turns way chronic. Now, hardcast lead can go faster without leading, but a hardcast hollowpoint would be a bad joke...it would either fail to expand, or shatter.

So at 357 velocities, you have to go jacketed. And that means you need to crank up the speed to get expansion, hence the 125s are popular.

HOWEVER, the very best modern 357 158 JHPs do finally work, at least out of a 4" - 6" barrel. The Gold Dot is particularly good. I don't think it'd be my first choice from a 2" or 2.5" tube but at 4" or more, yes.

July 3, 2003, 07:30 AM
LOL! <-- @ the irony involved.
Somehow, I just know there's some stuffed shirt anti gun type in your seminary school background that would be all a twitter over your (excellent) explanation of sectional density.

Imagine using the same skills needed to delve into the mysteries of faith in the Almighty, and put it into laymens terms, to describe so succinctly the mysteries of ballistics.


July 3, 2003, 08:12 AM
Thanks for the explanations, guys. I'm still puzzled by one thing.

Jim March said:

And that means you need to crank up the speed to get expansion, hence the 125s are popular. -

But the 125s are also popular in .38 Special loads, and they seem to expand well at velocities from the high 700s to 800s, according to this:


So if 125-grainers can expand at 800 fps, why can't (most) 158s expand at 1100 fps?

Thanks again.

Jim March
July 3, 2003, 01:56 PM

OK, by all means, let's look at this. Follow along on the "chart" at the bottom:

Federal +p 129-grain H-S: FAILED. In clothed gelatin, between .358 (more or less zero expansion) and .445, which ain't squat really.

Federal +p 129-grain Nyclad: worked well. This is a plain unjacketed lead round dipped in plastic. No longer in production.

Federal +p 158-grain Nyclad: seriously failed.

Winchester +p 158-grain LSWCHP: failed. Surprising - speeds noted were around 820fps, which is known to be at the lower end of the performance envelope for this round. My snubby has a .002" gap :) and would probably do better; this round has done better in other tests.

Winchester +P 125-grain SJHP: failed. Poor expansion bare, strong evidence of clothes-clogging. Fairly old design, among the most primitive JHPs here.

Winchester +P 125-grain Silvertip HP: did surprisingly well. Data's not complete, as one round did a "screwball" and got away (not necessarily a bad thing, mind you). May indicate partial expansion (one side only?).

Winchester +P 130-grain SXT Personal Protection: strong success. This is a very recent design and has an enormous JHP cavity. This round was designed for 38snubby speeds and is one of the two JHPs I'd trust in a snubby. The speeds are still disappointing but hey, they work. Drive this same projectile in a 357 and it'd be a bad joke, would probably come utterly unglued (shredded nosecone). Not sure I'd trust it in a 6" 38.

Triton +P 110-grain Quik-Shot: marginal. One failed to come apart completely in the clothed test. Penetration sucked.

Speer Gold-Dot +P 125-grain GDHP: strong success. Along with the Winchester 130, this is one of the two most modern rounds here. Clearly, they're starting to get to where they can "tune" a JHP design to these speeds (825 or so). More good news: the Gold Dot has an advantage over all other JHPs, in that it resists "over-speed problems" where a round goes too fast and breaks up. So in a 5" or 6" barrel 38, this round would be my #1 pick. This projectile is also being loaded by Proload and Georgia Arms, with GA having an excellent rep for loading 'em hot and Proload having the best accuracy rep in the biz. Black Hills may also be loading 'em, I forget, they're a competent bunch too.

Hornady 125-grain XTP: expansion is poor, but at least there. Not surprising, as this is a hunting design originally. The good news: it IS loaded warm, all round doing more than 850. Good choice for a 4" barrel gun and has potential as a "wilderness carry load" where you might want a deeper punch on a cougar but I'd skip it in a snub.

Remington +P 125-grain Golden Saber: suffered one clog. Could be a fluke.


Upshot: yes, some very modern 125/130 JHPs are now working in snubs. This is a recent development...two or three years or so. Not enough time for a lot of stats to be compiled.

Using JHP tech of between 5 and 10 years ago, 158grain 357 JHPs weren't working well. 125s were (and of course, still do). The Remington 125grain Semi-Jacketed-hollowpoint is an extremely primitive JHP with a small hollowpoint cavity but, get that thing up past 1,400 and it just works, like it has for the last 10 years or more, I forget when it first shipped.

The Gold Dot 158 JHP is much newer, but seems to work well at 1,200+.

July 3, 2003, 02:13 PM
Anybody here still load upside down hollow based wadcutters for .38s?

(Gun mag commandos note: Please spare me Mas' Ayoob's "Case number three." Juries here in Texas really don't care if you roll your own.)

July 3, 2003, 05:10 PM
Thanks you Jim March, once again. A very thorough response.

Al Thompson
July 3, 2003, 05:17 PM
Great post Jim. Interesting that the gelatin tests were conducted by THR's Jason Weaver, aka Carbon15. :)

Jim March
July 3, 2003, 10:06 PM
If it's not clear yet: I consider it silly not to pick GOOD carry ammo. "Good" doesn't always equal "expensive", mind you.

Generalizing, yes, 125JHPs don't work well in 38snubs. But clearly, there's one (plus a 130) that do :).

There's some other points in that chart: the Federal 129 JHP+P (hydrashock) is going only around 810. The 158grain Nyclad is moving at a PATHETIC 760ish. Jesus H. Christ. Not the first time we've seen this: Federal Cartridge Company wimps out on powder charges. Not ALL the time - the 129+P nyclad is peppy.

As a general thing, you will NOT find Federals in my guns. Ever.

And look at the speed on both of the Winchester 125 "plus Ps": low 700s? HELL no.

Finally, if you're a "hardcore Facklerite" and believe in "deep punch" for cross-body shots and similar, the Hornady XTP isn't half bad. The fastest 125 round clocked, and they always expanded some. And look at the consistent 15" range punch.

Not my cuppa tea, especially in a short-range fighting gun like a snub, but to each his own. I'd go with a Gold Dot, the Win or Rem 158+P or the Winchester 130.

July 3, 2003, 10:45 PM
For some reason i tend to see 110gr Hydra-shoks at all the gunshops around here.

What is the best 38 Special round for a 4inch barrel?

I'll eventually start reloading for 38 Special/ 357 Mag, but I'm trotting on new territory and I don't know much about these rounds.:confused:

Jim March
July 3, 2003, 11:08 PM
The Federal 110 "personal defense" is yet another "wimpomatic" piece of CRAP. Sorry, but it's junk. Advertized as "tuned for snubbies", somebody clocked 'em in the mid-700s from an S&W 2" J-frame.

You won't catch ME carryin' 'em.

In a four-inch 38, just use whatever works in a 2" knowing it'll work even better.

The Gold Dots are probably the best overall for the 4". Georgia Arms loads these at very low prices and does bulk sales, so if you're of the "practice with what you carry" school, these guys are for you.

Their "good stuff" (Gold Dot projectiles):


Their "practice grade":


IF your particular 38 gun is "+P marginal", like an older piece, or alloy or whatever, you should rethink the whole "practice with full house +P" concept. I personally consider the "practice with what you carry" theory over-rated but that's my opinion based on the large-scale physical and mental changes that happen to ME in a lethal situation. Others disagree, a LOT. Follow? That said, if you don't have a lot of money and all you've got is a marginal 38 gun as your main piece, you're really going to HAVE to "baby it" with mild practice fodder and carry "good stuff" (shooting only as much of the latter as you need to check group size and where they print).

If your gun is a 357 and you're shooting 38+P just to cut the indoor noise factor and keep recoil managable, that's cool too. You can shoot as much 38+P as you want, unless it's a REALLY crappy 357 (Windicator or the horrible Argentinian "Comanche" junk).

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