With their abbreviated barrels, usually about 2" in length, the little revolver's effectiveness is less than its counterparts having 3" tubes and certainly those with 4" or longer barrels. This is just one of life's compromises when going for a small revolver that is extremely easy to conceal…and therein lies the rub.
Between serious students of "stopping power," a debate rages right now concerning the "best" ammunition for carry, solid or expanding. In the past, there were few rounds that would actually expand out of the snub so proponents suggested hot loaded SWC's as the "best" load. Today, the main argument against using expanding ammunition results from most failing to expand when fired through four layers of denim. Some involved in this research have stated that the denim barrier is a "worst case scenario test" of how the ammo performs when passing through barriers. What seems to be forgotten is that the ammunition may work fine with one, two, or three layers of denim or when passing through a T-shirt or sports jacket. Some have stated that the "best" load for the snub is the lightly loaded target 148-grain wadcutter since the others don't work when fired through denim and the wadcutter has light recoil. Others may opt for this recommendation, but generally speaking, I disagree with it.
I'd estimate the velocity of most factory target .38 wadcutters to be between 650 and 700 ft/sec from the average snub-nose thirty-eight. One maker's chronographed substantially less than 600 ft/sec. Most are of soft, swaged lead, which means that "sharp" edges really aren't and they can round off as they pass through tissue. Hard cast bullets can have sharper edges, but these are not loaded by major factories as new, commercial ammunition and some forcefully suggest-that the civil aftermath can be negatively impacted by the use of handloaded ammunition. There was a jacketed wadcutter offered by Speer, but it's my understanding that it's no longer produced. On top of that, who can say that the sharper edged wadcutters would have any significant increased terminal effect?
The following shootings are not enough to be statistically meaningful in any study, but I am familiar with them and they do give me pause to reflect on this matter.
Several years ago, a young adult male athlete was shot outside a local bar during an argument. He was hit in the heart with a factory loaded .38 wadcutter fired from a snub .38 Special. I don't recall the make of the gun nor the brand ammunition, but the young man proceeded to cuss out the guy who shot him as he sat himself down on the curb. He was lucid several minutes but died in the ambulance enroute to the hospital.
An off-duty state officer lived a few blocks from me. While home, he became aware of screaming and yelling outside and when he looked into it, he found himself in the middle of a violent domestic dispute. He tried to calm things down, but was attacked by the male participant, who advanced on him with a knife. Refusing to stop, the officer shot him in the chest with his .357 magnum. On the second hit, the man dropped and died. The .357 magnum ammo was Remington 158-grain SWC and was fired from a 4" S&W Model 28. The second shot struck the man's heart.
A woman who'd been diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic decided she needed to kill her husband…for reasons only she knows. While he was asleep, she shot him five times with an S&W Model 13 4" revolver. She did this while he was sleeping and the first four rounds stitched him from the pubic area upward into the center chest. After the forth shot, he sat up! She shot him through the eye (don't remember which) and he was down for the count! The ammunition was the same brand full-house .357 SWC used by the state officer.
Though not involved nor seeing anything "official" on the following, over the years I had occasion to speak with two police officers who had shot felons with snubs. Both were using lead semiwadcutter hollow points. I believe that one had his revolver loaded with Remington while the other used Winchester. Both shot their attackers at close range, center chest, and neither required a second shot. I can only assume that these felons were not wrapped in four layers of denim…and that's my point; why limit yourself to something that will not expand in any scenario when you can load it with ammunition that can expand in at least some? In those where it doesn't, you're at least as well off as if you'd loaded with non-expanding ammunition in the first place.
Remington's 158-gr. LSWCHP +P (called LHP by the company) is certainly an "old technology" bullet. Does that mean that it is no longer effective? I think not but that does not mean that there are not other good choices for the snub 38. Based on what I've read and what I've seen in my own informal "testing", Speer's 135-gr. Short Barrel .38 Special +P and Corbon's 110-gr. DPX +P are more modern designs using "new techology" projectiles. While being "new" does not necessarily have to mean "better", I believe that these two new ones will be very tough to beat.
Would any of the immediate terminal effects in the "failure" incidents have been changed? Possibly, but maybe not; I'd still roll the dice with expanding ammo if given a choice.
The main advantage I see for the target wadcutters in the snub is reduced recoil. Most of the expanding ammunition and certainly that loaded to +P levels will have more recoil. The now discontinued Federal 125-grain Nyclad hollow point was a nice compromise round. Recoil was not "bad," and it expanded well in gelatin … until required to penetrate the 4 layers of denim first. Some expressed concern that due to its weight and rapid expansion in bare gelatin, penetration would be lacking, but for frontal shots, I suspect it would be fine. Probably the most recommended expanding ammo for the snub today from folks opting for expansion is the LSWCHP +P as loaded by Winchester, Remington, or Federal. Its 158-grain weight is sufficient for decent penetration and it's made of pure, dead soft, lead. Based on 10-shot averages about 10' from the muzzle, it chronographs at 800 ft/sec from my S&W Model 642 and just a little faster from a Model 042. Recoil is there, but is not "bad"…at least for a few shots. It would be more difficult to control than the factory 148-grain wadcutters. I think this is one of the best loads for those willing to practice with their snubs. It should penetrate plenty deep even if passing through an arm first while in route to the torso and has more weight and velocity than the target wadcutter. Under most scenarios, it is capable of expansion, but even if it doesn't, it still impacts the target with more energy and momentum than the lighter wadcutter loads and I'm not convinced that the larger meplat on the wadcutter significantly adds to its effectiveness in the velocity range to which this ammo is loaded. (A hard cast or jacketed wadcutter at 900 or 1,000 ft/sec might be quite something different, but then over penetration becomes a concern, or at least the fear of it.)
The snub is a compromise; we accept less power and usually but 5 shots before having to reload in exchange for a handgun that's likely to be with us when unexpectedly needed or as a back up to more potent handguns. True for any defensive sidearm, placement remains the primary determinant in "stopping power," and this is especially true for the snub. Though I've cited a couple of cases in which a heart shot failed and multiple torso hits with solid 36 caliber ammo were required to get a "stop," you still stand the best chance of surviving a deadly encounter if you can hit where you need to…possibly more than once or twice!
Despite the call for snubs being loaded with target wadcutters, mine will be loaded with expanding ammunition, but more importantly, mine will be used in regular practice. IF I can hit where I should, I think I'm likely to do better with either wadcutter or expanding ammunition.