Pros: A bit more regularly available than alternatives
Cons: Misfire/Dud; Round nose bullet
Let me put it this way, if I had to select just one offering in .38 Special ‘value’ ammunition, at this time, the PMC Bronze Line 132 gr. FMJ loads wouldn’t be it. In a nutshell, while I’ve found PMC Bronze Line ammo to be a ‘solid performer,’ for the most part, among value ammunitions, their .38 Special hasn’t necessarily provided the most consistent performance in my firearm. That’s doesn’t mean it’s not usable or even ‘bad’ ammunition. It means… Well, let’s see if I can explain.
What Is “PMC?”
PMC is a brand of ammunition made in the Republic of (South) Korea, with their U.S. Sales Office based in Houston, Texas and has been around for nearly half a century. The company’s “Bronze Line” of ammunition is considered to be their ‘value line.’ Take careful note of the following from PMC’s website:
“…PMC has joined forces with Poongsan Corporation of Korea to expand its markets in the Global ammunition arena. The intention is ‘Be Best in the World’… Poongsan, who is known today to be one of the top producers of quality military ammunition, has supplied PMC products since its origin. Now with the combined capacity of its Angang and Dongrae plants, the supply of hard to get PMC products should be more readily available… with its most popular items in pistol and revolver ammunition concentrating on its core market of target, plinking, home defense and law enforcement…”
The significance of this self-description in the context of their .38 Special offering is two-fold. First, despite ‘shortages,’ along with hit and miss availability of certain ammunitions over the last several years, during my searches, both locally and online, PMC has, perceptually, been the most ‘regularly’ available. At least if it wasn’t on the shelf at that moment, it didn’t take long for the vendor to acquire it. In fact, locally, it has been virtually the only ammunition available in ‘quantity’ on anything approaching a consistent basis.
Second, their Bronze Line ammunition is described in their catalog thus…
“The same quality and dependability built into our Starfire ammunition is incorporated throughout our extensive line of PMC training ammunition… All PMC cartridges must pass through the rigorous inspection of our electronic powder check station. This station accurately measures the propellant charge in each round. If the propellant in any cartridge varies by a tiny amount – just two tenths of one grain – the system stops and that cartridge is discarded. No other ammunition manufacturer can truthfully assure you greater uniformity and reliability than PMC!”
That last part is what I intended to put to the test.
Intended Use – Or – Why “Training” Ammunition?
Note the emphasis PMC places on target, plinking, and training as the intended purpose of their Bronze Line of ammunition. Their .38 Special 132 gr. FMJ is no exception. For some, this creates a certain ‘confusion.’ Why? These two quotes, bookending a 75 year time span, quickly summarize the issue…
“As a defense weapon the .38 Special is probably the most popular of all handguns today.”
- R.E. Davis, “The .38 Special and Stopping Power,” The American Rifleman, January 1935; p. 26
“While the .38 Special cartridge remains a popular caliber, clearly its heyday has passed in favor of semi-automatic pistols.”
- Michael Bussard, Ammo Encyclopedia, 2nd Edition, 2010; p. 627
Despite the fact that the .38 Special served as the primary cartridge for many law enforcement agencies throughout much of the 20thCentury, it has long been understood that, when it comes to self-defense, proper bullet selection is crucial in this caliber. You’ll note the title of the article from the above cited 1935 American Rifleman – “The .38 Special and Stopping Power.” Immediately following that quote, the following observations are made:
“In spite of its great popularity among peace officers and target shooters, however, the .38 Special cartridge has a very poor reputation for stopping power among experienced old-timers, and others… from time to time instances have been recorded in which good lives were needlessly sacrificed because the .38 Special failed to stop a dangerous adversary… Therefore, having been a user and admirer of the .38 Special for twenty-five years… I decided to undertake a bit of research work in an effort to discover why this cartridge was so lacking in stopping power, and what was necessary to improve it in this respect…” (p. 26)
In those days, bars of soap were a standard ‘test media’ and the author’s conclusions are drawn from firing into such; much the same way that ordnance gelatin is used today. It was noted that the potential ‘stopping power’ (a term I’m not in love with) or ‘shock effect’ (a bit more descriptive) is dependent upon: velocity, shape of the bullet before and after penetration, size of the bullet before and after penetration. Based on that premise, the conclusion was:
“As to stopping power, it seems to me that the only reason the .38 Special has such a poor reputation is because of its bullet… Everything has been done to increase the range and accuracy of the bullet, which has served to reduce its disturbing effect upon animal tissue… The remedy clearly lies in a different bullet. A blunt-nose or wadcutter bullet is a decided improvement: a blunt-nose hollow-point is the real answer… This bullet would transform all the excellent, super-accurate .38 Special target guns into useful weapons of defense, especially when loaded for high speeds… It is hoped that ultimately peace officers will be equipped with far more effective ammunition for their .38 Special guns than is at present the case…” (pp. 28 & 36)
What ‘standard’ bullet design was the author so critical of as far back as 1935? It was a 158 gr., round-nose (“ball”) at a velocity of 825 f.p.s. and a muzzle energy of 239 foot-pounds. Ball ammunition does not expand and, as the author noted, is designed with range and accuracy in mind. In fact, to this day, the only handgun caliber with a ‘good’ reputation when using ‘ball’ ammunition is the .45 ACP. Even the currently popular 9mm Luger does not do its “best work” (ahem) with ‘ball’ ammunition.
PMC 132 gr. FMJ Catalog Specs
If the 158 gr. round-nose (“ball”) at 825 f.p.s. with 239 foot-pounds of muzzle energy was determined to be ‘inadequate’ as a self-defense round as far back as 1935, what might that suggest for the PMC Bronze Line .38 Special given the following, catalog specs?
Bullet – 132 gr. FMJ round-nose
Velocity – 840 f.p.s.
Muzzle Energy – 207 foot-pounds
Alright. So it’s an even weaker load than was considered inadequate for self-defense in this caliber over three-quarters of a century ago. That doesn’t make it unsuitable for the intended purpose; i.e., training, target, and plinking. What criteria can we use as a ‘standard’ to measure its suitability for the purposes intended?
Good question. Even more than with 9mm Luger, it is difficult to find an historical standard for .38 Special to work with. Let’s look, briefly, at why.
An Underrated and Misunderstood Cartridge
In recent years, the .38 Special has received, in my opinion, an undeserved reputation among many shooters. As Bussard suggests, a major reason has to do with a paradigm shift. For legitimate reasons, the industry and consumers have moved to semi-automatic pistols over revolvers. Unfortunately, part of that shift is based on what I alluded to in other reviews; i.e., an erroneous re-definition of ‘firepower’ among shooters and, especially, the media.
It’s not and never has been about the ability to send “X” amount of rounds downrange in “Y” amount of time. It’s always been about marksmanship; i.e., the ability to hit the target. While the shift to semi-automatic firearms for civilians, military, and law enforcement lies in a combination of factors that would take far more space than we have in this format to “hash out,” suffice to say that none of those reasons changes the basic need for marksmanship. Thus, if the ability to hit the target is ‘firepower,’ many of the perceived limitations of the .38 Special have more to do with the individual shooter, the individual weapon, and the specific bullet.
Once again, using a couple of quotes to summarize the issue, in an overall sense…
“The 38 Special is considered one of the best balanced, all-around handgun cartridges ever designed. It is also one of the most accurate and is very widely used for match shooting.”
- Frank C. Barnes, Cartridges of the World, 12th Edition, ed. Layne Simpson, 2009; p. 291
“Like the .30-06 cartridges in rifles, the .38 Special is the standard to which pistol cartridges are compared… There are more factory loadings offered for this cartridge than any other pistol ammunition.”
- Bob Forker, Ammo & Ballistics 4, 2010; p. 338
The crucial aspects of these quotes are the following… all-around, accurate, match shooting, and more factory loadings.
Put another way, there are more factory loadings for .38 Special than most other calibers as it is an intrinsically accurate cartridge which can meet the all-around needs of shooters, from competition to hunting to self-defense. It is more controllable than 'magnum' alternatives. It is more adaptable than many, if not most, cartridges intended for semi-auto firearms. Finally, though it may not be the exact load you're looking for, it is one of those calibers which can typically be found in virtually any store which sells ammunition.
In that context, while individual shooters are often aware of and loyal to a specific load (bullet/velocity/brand/etc.) for the .30-06, there is frequently not the same level of awareness as regards the need to choose among the .38 Special loads to get the best performance from an individual weapon or use the correct bullet for the given circumstance.
As a result, misunderstanding and criticism of the caliber stems from…
1.) The 'glamour' of semi-autos and magnums.
2.) The caliber’s overall utility, in a variety of roles; e.g., a perception that it is a 'jack of all trades and master of none.'
3.) The ubiquitousness of load offerings to match that utility, but...
4.) The lack of awareness regarding the need to match the load to the intended purpose; i.e., no, single, ‘standard’ load for the caliber.
Finding a Standard for Testing
In the context of this review, the lack of a single, ‘standard’ load (e.g., 230 gr. in .45 ACP) for the caliber is the biggest impediment in terms of establishing some guideline with which to test the PMC .38 Special 132 gr. FMJ. Introduced in 1902, according to the Lyman Reloading Handbook, 49th Edition, the .38 Special “was originally loaded with a lead 158 grain round nose bullet.” (p. 352) As the PMC utilizes a 132 gr. bullet, any load information for that bullet weight would be a misleading standard.
Looking at other ‘value ammunition’ manufacturers, Winchester USA, Remington UMC, and Federal’s American Eagle offer FMJ loads in 130 gr. bullets. Unfortunately, the claimed muzzle velocities vary slightly…
Winchester USA (800 f.p.s.), Remington UMC (790 f.p.s.), Federal American Eagle (810 f.p.s.)
That would seem to provide a range of 790 – 810 f.p.s. But, the ‘test barrel’ lengths are not cited. Further, the Winchester USA and Federal American Eagle use round nose bullets while the Remington UMC has a flat nose design (not quite a semi-wadcutter).
Perhaps the best place to start is with the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute (SAAMI). After all, SAAMI sets the standards for ammunition manufactured and sold in North America. Here’s what they say…
Overall Cartridge Length – 1.4” minimum, 1.55” maximum
Test Barrel Length – 4”
Velocity (+/- 90 f.p.s.) – uh, well, ummmm…
There is no listing for .38 Special in 132 gr. bullet weight in any configuration. They do note the 158 gr. load at 750 f.p.s. and the 110 gr. load at 940 f.p.s. If we use a little ‘fuzzy math,’ usually referred to as ‘extrapolation,’ and say the ‘mid-point’ is 134 gr. with an approximate velocity of 845 f.p.s. (+/- 90 f.p.s.), that gives us a ‘range’ of 755 – 935 f.p.s. That would appear to put us pretty close to the factory specs noted above with a velocity for the PMC .38 Special 132 gr. being 840 f.p.s.
I set up a Chrony F1 (chronograph, see link below) and measured a distance of 10 feet from the muzzle. (SAAMI uses 15’ as their standard, but you don’t need to be that far; i.e., 10’ is sufficient to mitigate the muzzle blast’s potential to influence the chronograph results in this handgun caliber. Second, all testing was done offhand. Finally, if you want to set up your chronograph at a further distance and not worry about inadvertently shooting the unit while hitting ‘the sweet spot’ between the arms while shooting offhand…) The elevation was 5,500 ft., on a clear day with the temperature hovering in the mid-80’s with relatively low humidity.
The test gun used was a 1933 manufacture Colt Official Police with 4” barrel. Bearing in mind that I am not a ‘gun writer’ with access to manufacturers in terms of obtaining ‘donated test ammunition,’ the sample size is, of necessity, a bit small. Be that as it may, 12 rounds (two, full, cylinders) from two different boxes/lots of PMC .38 Special 132 gr. FMJ was used to establish the following results:
Mean Velocity = 829.8 f.p.s.
High = 864.5 f.p.s. ; Low = 781 f.p.s. - ES (Extreme Spread) = 83.5 f.p.s.
Standard Deviation (SD) = 23.0968
Obviously, the mean velocity falls within the above cited SAAMI specs; albeit a bit below both the SAAMI and the PMC cited averages. While I know of no, ‘official’ marker for standard deviation on factory ammo sold on the civilian market, an SD of around 20 has always been a bit of a rule of thumb; with low-end ammo starting to verge on ‘unacceptable’ around 30 or so and ‘match’ ammo having an SD of somewhere around 7 – 10. Remember, factory ammunition is assembly line product, not individually weighed handloads. (Even PMC’s claimed standard of “two tenths of one grain” can mean up as much as 30 – 40 f.p.s. variance depending on the powder used.)
Misfire and Ejection Issues
While generating the chronograph results, I had two issues. The first was a tight case when attempting to eject the spent brass. It was not on the hottest round and I could pull it free with only a modicum of resistance after the other five had fallen out cleanly. While the PMC brass doesn’t stick in the cylinder, it will, occasionally, fail to fall free without a little ‘assistance.’
The second problem while generating the chronograph results was a single misfire. While not unusual in value priced .38 Special, one need remember we’re talking about randomly selecting 12 rounds from two boxes and having one ‘dud.’ The round was reinserted and, again, failed to fire. The dimples in the primer from the hammer are clean and sufficient. I’ve never gotten ‘round to pulling the cartridge apart to see if a cause can be determined; e.g., bad primer, tainted or missing powder, etc. Likewise, I cannot immediately recall other misfires with the PMC; though there have been a few with at least two other brands.
Let me do my usual ‘tap dance’ and point out that I’m no longer interested in competitive shooting and it’s been over 20 years since I actively shot Bullseye and IPSC competition. While I have an handful of plaques to show for it and I still get rounds downrange, given the parameters of financial and time constraints, all I will claim these days, when asked, is the ability to hit the broadside of a barn so long as the barn is not moving and I’m allowed to stand inside. Also, in this case, bear in mind that the revolver used in the testing (the only firearm in .38 Special immediately available for use in this context) is one manufactured in 1933.
According to the son who inherited it and was trading it in for a more, ‘modern,’ 9mm semi-automatic pistol (What was that earlier discussion based on Bussard’s observation?), it served as the official carry gun for his father during his entire career. As a result, let me stipulate that you can still see rifling and the mechanics are still functional; though decidedly no longer ‘tight.’ In other words, it’s got ‘character,’ is not yet a smoothbore, but is decidedly not a safe queen. Unfortunately, its best days insofar as accuracy are behind it; but, the old girl still gets asked to the dance by more than one suitor.
With all that said, I can keep the PMC .38 Special 132 gr. FMJ inside the 8 ring on a standard B-27 silhouette target at about 20 feet with a smooth, but heavy, double action pull. In single action, at the same distance, it’s usually 10’s and X’s. (Alright. A few 9’s tend to creep in more often these days. Happy?) Beyond that, I make no claims or assertions and posit only that there are some cans which have not, yet, been relegated to the recycle bin.
I am a bit reluctant to delve too deep into the reloading of the brass. Why? There are a couple of reasons. First, I only have the one load in .38 Special that I utilize in my handloads and that involves the 158 gr. Hornady HP XTP bullet; i.e., primarily a self-defense round. Second, while I have the RCBS carbide die set, I use, almost exclusively, the Classic Lee Loader (see review link below) for .38 Special. In other words, I don’t shoot ‘a lot’ of .38 Special and what I do load is something I want done ‘right,’ which doesn’t necessarily mean fast or in bulk.
With that said, I prefer Winchester to PMC brass; though, generally speaking, PMC, in most calibers is ‘good enough.’ In .38 Special, I’ve never had any problems. Bear in mind the following as it applies to my reloading of this cartridge…
1.) The Classic Lee Loader only neck sizes.
2.) I use a ‘moderate’ powder load; i.e., something reasonably below max loads.
3.) I do not try to get more than about a half dozen reloads from any, single case.
4.) Remember that I said I only have one load, with one, specific bullet. (There are a considerable number of options out there and not all combinations of bullets and brass do well together.)
PMC .38 Special 132 gr. FMJ averages between $14.99 and $19.99 for a box of 50; which is consistent with the Winchester USA, Remington MC, and Federal American Eagle offerings. Cabela’s currently offers bulk prices on 300, 600, and 1,200 round lots at $112.99, $219.99, and $419.99 respectively; i.e., not necessarily a great savings over the 50 rd. box, but you get a ‘bulk’ lot and a dry storage box. I tend to pick mine up locally for about $17 or $18; but, have, occasionally, found an irresistible ‘sale.’ Given that virgin Winchester .38 Special brass runs about $18 - $20 per 100, I figure I’m breaking about even. Of course, that’s why many reloaders actually buy the ‘value ammunition’ in the first place; i.e., for the brass.
I guess that’s the crux of it. This particular offering seems right in the ballpark as value ammunition. Cases being a little ‘tight’ on removal doesn’t bother me since none have truly ‘stuck.’ The misfire(s) are irritating; but, since most brands, at least for me, seem to come up with a couple, it seems a problem intrinsic to .38 Special ‘value’ ammo. Consistency is within the ‘acceptable’ range for value ammunition, with accuracy likely more an issue of the specific firearm and the shooter in this case. In short, the PMC .38 Special 132 gr. FMJ is not my first choice of ammunition in this caliber. But, it’s not necessarily a last choice either.
Reviews Cited Above
Chrony F1 chronograph
Lee Classic Loader, Handgun (.38 Special)
Other Ammunition Reviews
Aguila .30 Carbine
CCI Mini-Mag (HV)
CCI Mini-Mag HP
Fiocchi 9mm Luger
Magtech 9mm Luger 115gr. FMJ (9A)
PMC .45 ACP
PMC 9mm Luger
PMC .223 Remington
PMC .30 Carbine
RWS .45 ACP
RWS 9mm Luger
Sellier & Bellot .45 ACP
Sellier & Bellot 9mm Luger
Sellier & Bellot .223 Remington
Sellier & Bellot .30 Carbine
Winchester USA .45 ACP
Winchester USA 9mm Luger
Winchester USA 5.56mm
Winchester Super-X Power Point .22 LR 40 gr. Hollow Point