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What is a Wadcutter?

Terminology around firearms can get a little confusing, especially when it comes to pistol projectiles. Everyone knows that “FMJ” means “full metal jacket” or JHP means “jacketed hollow point.” Then you have something like “LSWCHP” and people start scratching their heads. In this case, LSWCHP stands for “lead, semi-wadcutter hollow point.”

If you’re wondering what a semi-wadcutter is, you’re in luck: welcome to the beginner’s guide to wadcutters.

What is Wadcutter Ammo?

a box of remington 38SP wadcutter match ammo

The first question we’re going to answer is “what is a wadcutter?” That’s easy. A wadcutter is a pistol bullet with a completely flat face. For example, a .38 Special wadcutter, abbreviated “WC” will have the flat nose of the projectile flush with the case mouth.

showing the clean wadcutter bullet holes on a paper target compared to lrn bullet holes

Wadcutters were originally designed for target shooting. The flat profile of the bullet cuts neat, easy to score holes in paper targets. Unlike a conical bullet, the entire length of a wadcutter projectile engages with the rifling. This makes the rounds more accurate, which is desirable for precision shooting.

What is a Semi-Wadcutter?

a semi-wadcutter round

There’s another type of wadcutter projectile, the semi-wadcutter. They are not the same thing, although they are related. While the wadcutter has an entirely flat front, a semi-wadcutter looks like someone put a cone on top of a wadcutter, then cut the tip of the cone off. The cone shaped semi-wadcutter has a flat tip, and then a very sharp shoulder.

Originally intended for target shooting, semi-wadcutters gained popularity for hunting after legendary gunwriter Elmer Keith designed a semi-wadcutter for hunting. A semi-wadcutter bullet was also the basis for the famous “FBI load” – a 158 grain lead semi-wadcutter bullet, that deleted the flat nose in favor of a hollow point. Bullseye shooters also use semi-wadcutters in semi-automatic pistols. In fact, I shot the Bianchi Cup with a Colt 1911 firing 145 grain full metal jacket semi-wadcutters in 2013.

Wadcutters for Self Defense

a box of fiocchi 32 wad cutter ammo

Why would you use a wadcutter? Well obviously for target shooting, as it was originally designed. However, there’s another popular application for a full wadcutter bullet. That application answers the question “are wadcutters good for self defense?” The surprising answer to that question is yes. Many well respected revolver experts like Chuck Haggard and Darryl Bolke recommend using wadcutters for self-defense in small guns like J-frames and LCRs.

There are three reasons you might select wadcutters for self defense.

  1. Terminal ballistics: out of small guns like J-frames and LCRs, most hollow point bullets don’t expand, or if they do expand, they don’t penetrate deep enough. Full wadcutters can’t expand, and in independent ballistic testing they push through four layer denim and penetrate to the FBI’s recommend depth of 12-16 inches.
  2. Hit where you aim: many small revolvers have fixed sights. Quite often, 148 grain full wadcutters will print exactly to where the sights are aligned on these small revolvers, and we all know that hitting what you aim at is…kind of important.
  3. Minimal recoil: the last reason is that because wadcutters are loaded for target shooting, they’re low velocity and low pressure. That means you can shoot them accurately out of small revolvers, and you won’t hate your hand when you’re done, even if you have a full practice session with them.

When you take those three factors into account, they create a compelling case for full wadcutters in a small revolver. I’ve bought into it. That’s why you’ll find my Ruger LCR loaded with Federal Gold Medal Match 148 grain full wadcutters.

Drawbacks of Wadcutters

hands holding a 32 revolver with an open cylinder

It’s not all great with wadcutters, because in one area they don’t shine at all: reloading. If, for some reason, your day has taken the world’s most unlikely turn and you’re having to reload a small defensive revolver in a hurry, wadcutters are not your best friend. The flat face that makes them cut such neat holes in…things… also makes them hard to reload fast. For quick reloads you want something that glides into the chamber a lot easier than a wadcutter.

Other than that small drawback, wadcutters make a surprisingly good choice for self defense. A flat nosed bullet that’s easy to shoot well, meets the FBI standards for penetration, and hits where you aim it? What’s not to like about that. That’s why I definitely think that wadcutters are good for self defense.

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