Shape Up And Fly Right

In a previous post, there was a question about how bullet shape increases stability.

It all started when Steven first mentioned the ideal bullet shape for stability as it cuts through the air

Aerodynamically, the ideal shape is blunt in the front and strongly tapered in the rear. (I know that’s counterintuitive, but it’s true.)

This prompted long time reader Fruitbat44 to ask a question

“So that’s why you get target shooters loading wadcutters?”

Okay, let us sort out the issues at hand.  What are these “wadcutters” of which Fruitbat44 speaks?

The answer is that they are bullets that are very flat at the front.

wadcutter bullets ready to be reloaded

What is the hollow you see in some of them?  Wadcutters may have a little cup shape scooped out of the back so the expanding gas from the propellent will cause the sides to swell out in order to engage the rifling in the barrel, but the front is kind of like a physical map of Kansas.

flat kansas road

Cartridges loaded with wadcutters have a very distinct look about them.

wadcutter rounds

Okay, so we have handgun bullets that are flat flat flat.  So what?  Why use them?

The answer is provided by knirirr, yet another long time reader

“I always thought that it was because they punched nice neat holes in the target which make it easier to score; the wadcutters I have certainly do that (they are flat at both ends).”

That is exactly true, as the flat face of the bullet will punch out extremely neat holes when it strikes a paper target.

wadcutter pattern in paper target

Compare this to the ragged and indistinct impressions left behind when a traditional pointed bullet passes through a paper target.

paper target with ragged bullet holes

Wadcutters are thus most popular amongst serious handgun target shooters, as the clean holes punched out of the target allows for much easier and more precise scoring.  Is that hole to be scored as an 8, or merely a 7?  Wadcutters take a lot of the anxiety out of judging bullseye target competitions.

So that is why modern day shooters might have a few hundred cartridges loaded with wadcutters in the gun safe.  But a dim memory prompted Fruitbat44 to make an observation

“… I dimly record reading about some handloaders using wadcutters for self-defence load.”

It is true that there was such advice floating around at one time, but to explore that I think it would be best to take a brief history lesson.

Big game hunters in the 19th Century were at the forefront of designing bullets to increase the lethality of each shot.  Makes sense if you think about it.  They were already carrying really large guns, firing cartridges which were extremely uncomfortable or painful to shoot.  If you could deliver more damage to the charging rhino which is about to stomp you into red paste, then they were all for that!

rhino charging out of the brush

(“Hurry up and shoot!”)

In the 1870’s or thereabouts, it led to the development of expanding bullets.  Thus were the first hollowpoints created, intended to be used in the express rifles of those who wanted to bag some of the most dangerous game on the planet.


This was all well and good, but they were rather expensive as specialty ammo always is.  How to manufacture increased lethality ammunition for less cost?

Someone who worked at the Dum Dum Arsenal in India came up with an interesting solution.  Why not take standard jacketed ammo, and snip the end off with a wire cutter?  Then you wouldn’t need any extra dies or machinery!

flat nose bullet with lead core exposed

One worker could prepare about 1,000 bullets every hour this way.  Brilliant!  Take that, fancy schmancy gun makers!

The problem is that this produced a short copper tube, open at both ends, stuffed with soft lead.  Firing such ammunition tended to result in the copper tube being left in the chamber, while the lead core popped free and ricocheted down the barrel to go God-knows-where.

Okay, that didn’t work!  Maybe investing in specialized machinery to make these bullets the correct way was the best idea all along?

So it failed, but the impression of flat-nosed bullets being ultra-lethal remained.  So did the slang term for expanding bullets, as they were known as “dum-dums” for the next century.

So far as wadcutters being employed for self defense goes, I have read about it.  A mentor bequeathed his collection of gun magazines from the 1950’s through the 1970’s when I was first starting out in the shooting sports.

vintage gun magazine cover

Every so often one of the writers would go on about how the wadcutters used for target shooting were the best for home defense.  The idea was that the flat nose of a wadcutter would pancake out when it struck something substantial, such as the torso of a home invader, and would thus create a massive wound that was sure to put a bad day on any violent criminal’s calendar.

grumpy cat wishing you a bad day calendar

So now we come to the nitty gritty.  Would wadcutters work as self defense rounds?

The answer is that yeah, sure, they would work just fine!  If we are talking about shooting distances no greater than that encountered inside of an average house, then they would actually give better performance when compared to using standard ball ammunition.

pile of 9mm parabellum cartridges

But that isn’t true if we are to compare wadcutter target ammo to modern cartridges designed for self defense.  While flat nosed bullets constructed of soft lead might expand when they strike something heavy, they are not intended to do so.  It is just a happy accident.

Defensive ammunition, on the other hand, is deliberately constructed to give the best mix of velocity, penetration, and expansion.  There really is no better choice to get the most out of every shot.

expanded hollowpoint bullets

So what is the bottom line when it comes to defending your life?  My advice is to use standard ball ammo if you have nothing else, to use wadcutters if the only choice is between them an ball, and for God’s sake be sure to use dedicated defensive ammo if you are smart enough to get some before trouble starts.

7 thoughts on “Shape Up And Fly Right

  1. Back in the 70’s, my off-duty and back-up 2″ S&W Chief was loaded with hollow based wadcutters. They were loaded upside down , so the big “hollow point” was on top with a small brass gas check on the bottom. I hand loaded these to about 900 fps at the muzzle. It was a “favorite” load of a lot of the big name gunners of the era. Wasn’t very accurate after about 10-15 yards due to the short barrel, hot load etc, but they sure would blow up milk jugs.

  2. Jim Cirillo wrote of using wadcutters a lot when he was on the NYC stakeout squad; the issue round-nose ammo was awful, hollowpoints of the time not reliable, and the wadcutter would cut a full-caliber hole on entry and did a pretty good job on the inside.

    Now, happily, we have reliable-expanding hollowpoints if everything goes to hell.

  3. Coming really late to the party I know, but still . . .

    Thanks for the name check James. My albeit hazy knowledge of dum-dum bullets goes back to introduction of the .303 in British military. (Nooooo, I wasn’t actually around at the time, just what I recall reading about it.)

    Apparently troops were finding the .303 inadequate at stopping charging Dervishes, so that they upped the lethality of the .303 by filing the ends off, or by rubbing the noses on rocks. Then the arsenal at Dum-dum began producing them on a production line basis. And the rest is history.

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