Shooting Pointy, Shooting Flat

Most people are aware of the standard bullet shape.

(Please click on all pictures to see a larger version.)

standard 9mm ball bullets waiting to be reloaded

It is so common, such a well known touchstone in our culture, that things which have nothing to do with firearms are described as “bullet shaped“.

bullet shaped electric car

goblin parasite fighter plane

woman with pointy bullet shaped hair

The shape provides superior aerodynamics over traditional round ammunition, allowing modern bullets to travel further than a simple lead ball.  But is that why they started to shape ammo like this?

I have no idea if it is true or just a legend, but the story is that the bullet shape was hit upon by cannon designers in order to get a heavier shell while still using the same diameter barrel.  The obvious advantage in reduced air resistance was just a happy surprise.

picture of fort barrancas interior, florida circa 1861

(Picture source.)

Bullets shaped like this have several advantages, but punching clean holes in paper targets isn’t one of them.  The nose of the bullet splits the paper, allowing it to tear open in a ragged shape.  The edges are ill defined and sloppy.

paper target with ragged bullet holes

This isn’t a subject of concern if you are working on improving your self defense skills, as a round striking a tiny fraction of a millimeter off center just doesn’t matter.  It does matter a great deal when people are competing in handgun bullseye matches, however.

If a bullet should strike on one of the lines, the judges have to be able to carefully measure the hole made in order to see where the majority of the projectile landed.  That one extra point awarded, or one point less in the score, might just determine who goes home with the trophy that day.

And that is why we have the wadcutter bullet.

wadcutter bullets ready to be reloaded

wadcutter rounds

Completely flat nosed bullets.  There is no pointy nose, so the paper is snipped off very cleanly and precise.  The holes produced are very clear and sharp.

wadcutter pattern in paper target

There is a hybrid round called a “semi-wadcutter“.  This is pretty much a kinda-sorta pointy bullet with flat surfaces.

semi wadcutter bullets

semi wadcutter rounds

These bullets will fly farther and be more accurate at greater distance than wadcutters, but will not go as far or be as accurate at long range as bullets with the common shape.  As one might expect, they leave better defined holes in the target than traditional bullets, but the holes are not as clean and crisp as those left by wadcutters.

target holes caused by semi wadcutter rounds

(Picture source.)

I have mentioned in previous posts that the vast majority of my students have very little in the way of economic resources.  The usual way for them to acquire a firearm is to ask their family and friends for help, so most of the guns that I see during the charity course are old hand me downs that have been tucked away in attics and storage bins for decades, relics left over from a now dead relative who used to be involved in the shooting sports.  It isn’t unusual for some decades old ammunition to be sent along with the gun, which is why I am writing this post.

The question is if the type of ammunition detailed above could be used for defense, and the answer is that it certainly could.  I just don’t think it is a very good idea, is all.

Modern ammunition that is properly stored pretty much does not have an expiration date.  This means that it must be kept in a cool environment, with as close to zero humidity as possible, and guarded from extreme fluctuations in temperature.

I have personally fired ammunition that was six or seven decades old without any problems whatsoever, and it should last for more than a century without degrading.  The problem is in the phrase “proper storage“, as this is something that is extremely difficult to achieve for the very long term.

I stated that most of the guns my students rely on for defense are stored for many years in leaky attics, or kept in drafty and unheated barns and garages.  That old ammunition was usually sitting right next to the gun for all that time.

drafty old barn

So my advice has always been that old ammunition is just fine for practice and training, but new factory loads should be purchased for defensive use.

That is all well and good, but I haven’t actually addressed the main question.  Are wadcutters suitable to be used for defense?

The answer is that they certainly can be, and there is no reason why they wouldn’t be as effective as any other bullet that isn’t specifically designed for defensive use.  Anyone using such ammunition would be a far cry from being helpless, or less than adequately protected.

Just keep in mind that there are better choices, is all.

9 Responses to “Shooting Pointy, Shooting Flat”

  1. Sam L. says:

    Assuming all encounters for those you help will likely be up close, say within 30 feet, wadcutters should be excellent.

  2. Dave Adair says:

    Never shoot .38 special wadcutter ammunition in a .357 magnum revolver. The bullet scrapes lead off on the case seating rim in the cylinder chambers and makes loading .357 ammunition impossible due to the ammo case being unable to seat properly.

    • Actually, it means you need to scrub the excess lead out of the chambers. That can take a lot of work. The expanding hot gases from the shorter case can pit the surface and deposit lead there. Again more elbow grease and the use of chemical lead removers will resolve that problem.

      In my introduction to firearms courses I shoot exclusively .38 special from S&W Mod 66 (357 mag). I don’t use wad cutters because they are hard to load for new students.

      stay safe……

      • knirirr says:

        Do you happen to know if a bronze brush does much good against lead buildup in the bore, or is some sort of chemical lead remover required to keep it at bay?

        • Dave Adair says:

          They make steel bristled brushes. Perhaps that and the correct type of cleaning solvent would do the trick.

      • Dave Adair says:

        I seemed to encounter the problem in my revolver (Colt Trooper, manufactured in 1996) only with wadcutters, round nosed bullets did not seem to cause much of a problem.

  3. I think the traditional “bullet” shape for small arms ammunition begins with the Minie ball, doesn’t it? The round front wasn’t really the point; it was the indented and flared back which was critical. I imagine the front was made round partially in hopes of being aerodynamic and partially to make casting easier.

  4. Firehand says:

    Just about the best lead fouling remover I’ve tried is Blue Wonder Gun Cleaner. Put some on a brush, work it back & forth five times, repeat, then let it sit for a while before brushing again. Seems to work very well at getting under the fouling and loosening it.

    Wouldn’t do this for barrels, but for a cylinder you can use a variable-speed drill or cordless driver: chuck the base of the brush in*, then start it turning slowly and work it into the chambers, adding cleaner as needed. Works well.

    *Or you can screw the brush into a short piece of cleaning rod and lock the rod in the chuck.

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