Low powder charge 38 Special


February 18, 2013, 04:02 PM
I inherited some handloads from my departed uncle, in 38 special. Never really paid much attention to them until I recently got a 357.

I decided to look up the loads today - 4.0 gr Unique w/ 158gr. bullet. Looks like it's WAY under the starting charge for 38. Maybe was "soft" loads for his kids (my cousins) to shoot? Likewise another box had an equally soft charge (about 1/2 of starting charge) on 125's.

Anyway... safe to shoot an underpowered revolvere load, or pull and reload?

(I'm curious to shoot them, to see how mellow they are, but decided I should check first.)

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February 18, 2013, 04:06 PM
lead or jacketed bullet?

lead bullet starting load is 4.0 grains of unique (lyman 49th).

jacketed is 4.7 grains.

if jacketed, and you decide to shoot, make sure the bullet comes out the end of the barrel after every shot! take a copper rod with you (or something similar like a pencil) to stick down the barrel if you're not sure.


February 18, 2013, 04:10 PM
are these lead bullets? for a lead 158gr my lee manual is showing a starting of 4.1gr. unless you really trust your wellbeing on your uncles reloads, most people here are going to tell you to pull em.

February 18, 2013, 04:12 PM

That makes sense, I looked up jacketed bullets of that weight in Sierra. I didn't even think about lead being different!

Also, I double checked what I looked at and found my Sierra book turned to 357 mag. I looked up the 357 load data instead of 38 - I guess my brain hiccuped and looked at 357 data in instead of 38, because I was going to shoot it out of a 357. Funny. :)

He also has some unlabeled 38 and 357 ammo. Plus some wadcutter rounds where the cylindrical lead bullet is pushed nearly flush with the end of the shellcasing... ???

This revolver stuff is new to me, I'd never seen something like that before.

Oh, and thanks Murf. :)

February 18, 2013, 04:15 PM
THIS particular (dearly departed) uncle was a fanatic for big boomers. He owned a 357 maximum, a 10 gauge shotgun, etc. And he stood all of 5'1 and weighed maybe 110 pounds coming in from the rain.

His loads seem good enough. (He was a meticulous person, when it came to gun stuff.)

I've ALSO inherited handloads from two other uncles, which are considerably more questionable. I keep them segregated, two inheritances for components, this one I'm considering shooting.

One of the problems I've found with growing older is you find yourself with a shortage of Uncles, and a collection of ammo that you don't have guns for. (Guns went to the kids, in each case, none of them wanted the reloading gear though.)

February 18, 2013, 04:17 PM
(The Big Boomer thing must run in the family... I blame good genetics.)

(And some of that ammo I inherited caused me to buy new guns to shoot it in; 357, 38 special, 30-40 krag... )

February 18, 2013, 04:28 PM
It's 4.0 Unique.
What could possibly go wrong?

Choot,em Elizabeth! Choot'm!


February 18, 2013, 04:38 PM
Thanks RC.

February 18, 2013, 04:41 PM
Many manuals create "start loads" by simply backing down 10% from max. They are not necessarily testing to determine what the smallest load is that reliably ignites, nor that will reliably push a bullet down the barrel.

I have found loads in one manual (8th Hornady) that are FAR below "start loads" in manuals that simply do max-minus-10%. See if you can find a manual that goes down the power curve a bit; you may well be able to find published data for what you have there.

February 18, 2013, 05:34 PM
nothing wrong with 4grs of UNI in 38spl Unique is not position sensitive. There are a lot loaders that are loading 11grs of uni in 45-70 all the way up to 500gr bullets and I called Alliant and they said CAN'T SAY THAT I WOULD RECOMMEND IT but knows of of some reloaders doing this. mouse fart loads.

February 18, 2013, 06:09 PM
OK I can't find my damn Lyman manual.

Can someone rattle me off Lyman's min/max on each lead bullet weight for Unique and Bullseye for both 38 special and 357 magnum?

(Some of his loads are decidedly not mouse fart loads, because I just pulled out a box of 38 special that was marked 6.8 gr unique w/ 158gr SWC bullet)

The ones that aren't labeled will get pulled, like I said, this uncle liked big boomers... (It takes a certain special sort of crazy for such a small fellow to buy a 357 maximum).

Much appreciated!

EDIT: Just to clarify, I'm not asking about 357 maximum here, just 38 special and 357 mag. I *have* some of his 357 maximum ammo (my cousin has the gun), but I'm pulling the components down on those.

tightgroup tiger
February 18, 2013, 06:32 PM

38 special

90 grain lead
Bullseye 3.3 to 5.3
Unique not listed

120 grain lead
Bullseye 2.8 to 4.6
Unique 4.0 to 5.7

150 grain lead
Bullseye 3.1 to 3.5
Unique 3.7 to 4.2

155 gr lead
Bullseye 2.8 to 4.0
Unique 3.4 to 5.1

158 gr lead
Bullseye 3.0 to 3.4
Unique 4.0 to 4.5

160 gr lead
bullseye 3.2 to 3.6
Unique 4.2 to 4.7

170 gr lead
Bullseye 2.8 to 3.2
Unique 3.7 to 4.2

tightgroup tiger
February 18, 2013, 06:40 PM
The formatting won't hold in my last post for the 357 so I deleted it so as to not confuse you.

357 mag.

90gr lead
Bullseye 7.5 to 9.5
Unique not listed

120 gr lead
Bullseye 5.7 tp 8.0
Unique 6.9 to 9.1

150 gr lead
Bullseye 4.6 to 7.0
Unique not listed

155 gr lead
Bullseye 4.8 to 7.0
Unique not listed

No 158 gr lead bullet listed in Lymans 49th for 357. (never notice that before)

160 gr lead
Bullseye 4.9 to 6.9
Unique not listed

170 gr lead
Bullseye 4.1 to 6.1
Unique not listed.

February 18, 2013, 06:42 PM

February 18, 2013, 07:01 PM
The loads you mentioned with bullet almost flush with case mouth are probably 148 gr full lead wadcutters. If loaded properly, they are an excellent target load.

Jesse Heywood
February 18, 2013, 07:19 PM
No 158 gr lead bullet listed in Lymans 49th for 357. (never notice that before)

So from Lee for 357 mag., 158 gr lead:
Unique 6.2 1,188 6.8 1295 33,900 PSI
Bullseye 5.9 1,211 6.5 1,320 33,900 PSI

February 18, 2013, 09:42 PM
Cool, much appreciated guys!

I went out to dinner and had a couple beers so I'm done messing with gun stuff for the day, but wanted to drop by and say thanks. :)

February 19, 2013, 05:29 PM
The loads you mentioned with bullet almost flush with case mouth are probably 148 gr full lead wadcutters. If loaded properly, they are an excellent target load.

Bingo. I found a plastic bag with a couple dozen bullets with the handwritten note "148gr wadcutters bevel base." The base kind of has a rounded dome look to it? Or maybe he was loading them backwards because he felt like it. Who knows. In loaded form, they're presented perfectly flat on front. Should punch REALLY nice looking holes in paper. :)

On another note; there was one sealed 500 round box of 158gr SWC cast lead (price sticker affixed of $11.99...), which look fine with orange lube in the channel, and another half ful box which was opened, where instead of orange lube, there's this black brittle crud... I'm taking it age and oxygen done took it's toll on those. I'll have to tumble / relube the things. :)

February 19, 2013, 05:31 PM
BTW thanks for the load data from the books. Some of his 357, as recorded, was sitting RIGHT at max. I'm going to pull those and recharge. By comparison his 38 special was all very cold, at or below minimum. Seems he kept one load for him, and one load for his kids (or practice, because there's a TON of the light loaded ammo in boxes).

February 19, 2013, 05:33 PM
I get to do this ALL OVER AGAIN soon - my wife's friend's father passed away, he was a member of our gun club and an AVID reloader. The daughter asked me to come over some time and go through his handloads, getting rid of anything that is questionable or unsafe.

This all feels too much like funeral duty.


February 20, 2013, 01:15 AM
Woot!!! I found my Lyman book buried in the back corner of my bigger reloading bench. :)

February 20, 2013, 04:42 AM
As a general rule I don't shoot other's reloads.

I'd make an exception in your case.

February 20, 2013, 09:11 AM
Sport45 - yeah, I may pull down 1 round out of a box here and there just to weigh the loads to make sure the label is right. Beyond that?

Life is full of choices, and risks. If I wanted to live risk free I'd move in to a padded room and let the nice orderlies take care of all of my needs. :)

I won't trust reloads from some random estate sale. But I've got to have a little faith in family. (My uncle was the one that TAUGHT me to shoot, after all, I owe him some trust.)

An example though, for the other side; when I had my FFL I traded in a Steyer 69 rifle and the guy handed me 50 rounds of unlabeled reloads in a box with it. He said "those are really accurate reloads! You can trust them."

Well, fast forward 6 years and I recently pulled them down.

I found that 8 of the 50 were military surplus 147 grain still sealed, with Berdan primed cases, and an unknown grain powder. 30 were 168 grain HPBT (which I greedily bagged the bullets and brass from.) However, there were THREE distinct types of powder I pulled out of those. !!!!! The remainder were mixed 147, 150, and 180 gr projectiles.

"Accurate", my ass. There were at LEAST 7 different loads in that box, all mixed up and unlabeled. :)

February 20, 2013, 11:02 AM
Sounds like you had an interesting uncle. I remember a picture you posted of some of his handiwork. Actually quite nice/esoteric. I'd probably shoot them but you can do better with your leavings.. knock on wood and all that

February 20, 2013, 11:12 AM
Yeah, the only ones that REALLY concern me are the 30/40 Krag ammo. There's not an awful lot separating a Krag bolt from your cheekbone of the lug shears. None of the Krag ammo is labeled, and there's several different types, all in crown royal whiskey bags (which I take as an uncertain omen hah!).

I'm thankful for the brass and projectiles, but I'm going to reload those on the mellow side.

One of the happiest finds so far was 30x 303 brit brass casings, and two boxes of 303 projectiles. I've had an Enfield No1 for years, but have never fired it. That's gonna change soon. :)

People today don't seem to understand what "heritage" means. But I've been living it in my basement. Hopefully my kids gain an avid interest in firearms at some point and carry it on. If not, maybe their kids will. I plan on spoiling my grandkids, when I get some. :)

February 20, 2013, 11:39 AM
Exactly.. now I remember. The fellow may well a had mad skilz. They are so "odd" I'd probably not shoot them but keep them as a.. keepsake.

February 20, 2013, 11:47 AM
Light loads of Unique and Bullseye are quite common. I personally shoot 3.2 grains of Bullseye behind a 158 frain RNFP out of a Rossi '92 rifle all the time at 50 yards. It's a nice little plinker.
You'll enjoy the wadcutter loads. Their usually loaded fairly low, for accuracy, and make a really nice neat hole in the target.

February 20, 2013, 11:52 AM
I don't mean to hijack this thread but could someone (like RC) explain why the low charges the OP is asking about are not a concern because of the "low powder can lead to a 'secondary detonation' or whatever that problem is" thing? Pardon the poor phrasing and lack of knowledge to accurately express my question but hopefully you know what I mean.

February 20, 2013, 12:02 PM
I'm certainly no RC but "secondary detonation" was discounted way back in the day.. 2.7gr Bullseye if I remember correctly.

February 20, 2013, 12:04 PM
The way I understood it, very light powder charges are only a real concern in bottlenecked rifle cartridges?

But, I figured it was safer to ask, than to find out the hard way I'd assumed wrong. :)

February 20, 2013, 12:14 PM
We are half superstitious and pray to Saint Gabriel (may God bless his soul) daily but hold that the written word was written for a reason.

February 20, 2013, 01:31 PM
It's only advisable with faster double base powders, which Bullseye and Unique are.

February 20, 2013, 01:42 PM
Here is my take on SEE, or Secondary Explosion Effect.

2.7 Bullseye doesn't, can't, and has never detonated and blown up a gun.

2.7 & a 148 WC was the standard .38 Spl mid-range match load for 75 years.

What blows up guns with light charges of fast powder is double or triple charges, or two bullets stuffed in the case with one charge.

There was an epidemic of it back in the 50's & 60's when progressive loaders first became available.

Then again more recently when the Cowboy Action guys thought if light was good, too light was even better.

Stuck bullets, double charges, and all kinds of other foolish mistakes followed.


February 20, 2013, 02:16 PM
I've heard rumors that big rifle cartridges severely underloaded with a slow burning powder can detonate. But those were just rumors, and (to the best of my knowledge) have never been substantiated in a lab environment.

Being a 50 BMG / 300 Win Mag loader, I've gone light, but not THAT light. In 300 Win mag I've loaded as little as 50% volume before, for ~1800fps mouse fart plinking loads, but never lower than that. If I want tiny charges I'll switch to a tiny caliber.

February 20, 2013, 02:22 PM
2.7 & a 148 WC was the standard .38 Spl mid-range match load for 75 years.


That explains the large volume of 148gr WC ammo and projectiles in my Uncle's chests.... he was well read on gun magazines and books (I have some dating back to the 50's and 60's).

See, this is why I come here. I learn something new every time RC, certaindeaf, and these other "old guys" on here make posts. :)

Thanks for my continuing education fellas!

February 20, 2013, 02:26 PM
Good grief, this just brought back a memory of my Uncle Joe telling me about his 38.

After I finished posting that his face and voice were clear as a bell to me.

"See, I load these real slow, the gun loves them, makes them real accurate like, it won't kick much"

We were at a Barbeque on my 10th birthday ("our birthday", Joe and I shared a birthday together) and he was teaching me to shoot with his old 38 special revolver.

Holy crap.

That made me tear up a little.

February 20, 2013, 04:09 PM
I started reloading a year or so ago, at one point I was having fun seeing how light a plinking load I could make for the .38 spcl. I remember being somewhere in the 350fps range with 150gr wadcutters, not having to wear earplugs, being able to easily see the bullet in flight, and having to hold 4' or so over @ 50 yards. It was 2.something grains of unique, don't remember, probably forgot on purpose, lol
I quickly realized the foolishness of that game after I locked up the cylinder of a 28-2 with a bullet stuck halfway between the forcing cone and cylinder.

February 20, 2013, 05:10 PM
Yeah it's all fun and games until the projectile gets lodged in the barrel. Then you've got a job on your hands!

February 20, 2013, 11:16 PM
Thanks to everyone for the replies about the 'too light charge high pressure issue'. Definitely have a much clearer understanding now.

February 21, 2013, 12:20 AM
I still won't load a big rifle cartridge with a light charge of slow burning powder.

But I'm the suspicious / superstitious type.

February 21, 2013, 12:30 AM
One of my favorite loads is "the load".. go figure.. it's 13 grains of Red Dot behind a heavy cast slug. 30-06.

February 21, 2013, 12:31 AM
Yeah but that's a reasonably bulky powder.

And it's a fast burner.

I'm superstitious about slow burning powders in big empty cases.

February 21, 2013, 12:47 AM
I hear you and so am I. Though back in the day I'd go pretty low with IMR4895 and cast slugs.

February 21, 2013, 08:13 AM
The theory behind a low powder charge of slow burning powder in a big empty case seems solid enough for me.

Pistol powder burns itself almost completely up before the bullet is through the forcing cone.

Rifle powder burns much slower.

You load a case with slow burning rifle powder and it settles in the bottom, opening up the flash hole. Now the flash can ignite the charge lengthways and make all that slow burning powder go at once.

Everything I know about interior ballistics screams that's generally a really bad idea. :)

tightgroup tiger
February 22, 2013, 06:42 PM
As far as the 38 specials go with revolvers being really light loads, I've loaded some mouse fart .38 sp for a friends wife and I made sure my friend (he) understood they were loaded for a 1 7/8"barrel. I told he to not under any circumstances shoot these out of a 6"or longer barrel because they may not exit the barrel.

Be careful when you test these, they may be the same way, especially if loaded with the minumim of Bullseye.

Take care,

February 22, 2013, 06:47 PM
I'm planning on using them for practice - I keep a 38 special snubbie in the kitchen for my wife to grab if she needs it, she's decent with it but I'm sure she'd appreciate practicing with the reduced loads!

Then I'll load 'em back up the same way they were before; he left behind a good quantity of cast BOOLITS! that I plan on making good use of.

That light of a powder charge of Bullseye ... hand-me-down cast boolits.. that's a lot of loading for the money. As long as my (dwindling) primer supply can sustain it anyway.

I'll have .4 cents a shot in these until I run out of bullets.

February 23, 2013, 04:29 AM
I still won't load a big rifle cartridge with a light charge of slow burning powder.

I won't either. Even Hodgdon doesn't promote downloading anything slower than H-4895.

I use fast powders (like non-magnum pistol powders) for light loads.

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