A .38 Special Cat Sneeze Load

October 16, 2009 by  
Filed under Trail Boss Outdoor Tips

By Ed Harris

An approach I use successfully is to assemble light gallery loads with lubricated lead bullets, of minimum power to reliably exit the handgun or rifle bore. These offer very low noise and can be shot indoors using a lightweight .22 rim-fire bullet trap. Having close to normal bullet weight avoids low point of impact problems associated with wax loads, rubber or plastic bullets.

In the .38 Special factory-type soft-swaged 148-grain hollow based wadcutter bullets can be flush-seated with as little as 2 grains of Alliant Bullseye and provide acceptable ballistic uniformity with good accuracy for indoor shooting at 25 to 50 feet.  These gallery loads are almost silent when fired from my Marlin 1894 lever-action.  Because of their shorter overall length you cannot stuff the magazine tube full, because two rounds will feed out onto the lifter, jamming the gun.  The rifle works just fine, however, as a “two-shooter,” inserting one round directly into the chamber, closing the action, then shoving only one round at a time past the loading gate into the tubular magazine.  Each time you fire a shot and work the lever, shove a replacement  round into the magazine and party on.

A .38 Special Cat Sneeze Load Update In the Marlin 1894 Cowboy Carbine

I went back to the 1967 NRA Handloader’s Guide and re-read William Dresser’s article entitled “Minimum Loads In Handguns.” With the Bullseye powder then being manufactured, the author recommended 1.2 grains behind a 146-grain, flush-seated H&G No.50BB cast full-wadcutter bullet for indoor gallery shooting in revolvers such as the S&W K-38.    It has been my experience that the gyroscopic stability of wadcutter ammunition in S&W and Ruger revolver with 18-3/4″ twist of rifling is marginal below about 800 f.p.s., so I didn’t have great hopes for match target accuracy, but thought I might find something reasonable for double-action revolver practice with my “carry gun” in my indoor bullet trap at 25 feet.

I wanted a quiet “Cat’s Sneeze” load which could be used for shooting garden pests without disturbing the neighbors. Another real concern is that today’s “Big Brother” technology utilizes computerized noise sampling and direction location on cellular telephone towers around Washington, DC and some other major cities. This has been very well documented in the public safety literature and is no secret. The equipment is adapted from the methods developed by NATO to identify the sound signatures of individual submarines.

Only now we are applying the principle on dry land, and instead of scatteriong sono-bouys by P3C aircraft, they can put listening devices on a multitude of cellular towers which cover every urban area and Interstate highway in the country. The computers can readily discern the difference between a construction worker pounding a nail, and a firearm discharge.

Experimental system now being evaluated as part of the Homeland Defense program in several key cities have the ability to detect and identify a sound anomoly, and if it fits the archival data signature bank of a known weapon, it automatically “polls” surrounding tower sites to evaluate the sound and triangulate it accurately within 100 meters or so, while automating dispatch of the closest police units. A lawful firearm user having a concealed weapon permit, preventing a crime in progress may be confronted instantly by heavily armed law enforcement officers who think they are converging upon a probable terrorist. Not a pleasant scenario for long term survival.

Our only hope for continued civilian firearms useage is to remain discreet and as invisible as possible. We must refine the “silent without silencer” loads so that we can blend in with the background noise level and not attract any attention. This is why, as I quoted the late Frank Marshall, Jr.

“Silence is Golden.”

My requirement was to develop one load which I could stock in quantity for use in any .38 Special revolver or “Cowboy Rifle.” In my testing with current production Alliant Bullseye power, the lowest charge with the Remington, factory-swged, soft lead 158-gr. semi-wadcutter bullet which would exit the barrel every time (100 rounds, 50 each in rifle and revolver) was 1.2 grains of Bullseye, but only when used with a 3mm diameter enlarged flash hole.

This is about as large as you can go in a case which uses the small size (.175″ / 4.45mm) primer. This charge didn’t always exist when using a the unmodified 0.078″-0.082″ (1.98-2.08mm) flash hole, 2 bullets out of 50 rounds fired in the 18″ Marlin carbine lodged within 3″ of the muzzle.

The load was “plinking accurate in the basement at 25 feet, but at 50 yards in the Marlin groups strung vertically over a foot! NOT acceptable! Velocity averaged 300 f .p .s . in the 6″ Ruger Security Six and 480 fps in the 18″ Marlin, but velocity standard Sd was over 100, which set off alarm bells! Had I taken the velocities first I would have quit sooner… Just plain lucky I guess!

All test loads used the Lee Factory Crimp die to hold bullets securely in the case against telescoping from compression of the tubular magazine spring in the Marlin 1894 carbine. I have found that this also improves velocity uniformity, as it seems to prevent the primer blast from dislodging the bullet before powder ignition in light loads. Of course, the powder must be suitable. I have limited myself to Alliant Bullseye so far, because I have it on hand and it would appear satisfactory.

A charge of 2 grains of Bullseye very satisfactory, but much louder (500 f.p.s. in the revolver ) . Point of impact was 6″ low at 25 yards, producing a loose 4″ group with noticeable projectile yaw from the 18-3/4″ twist . Velocities were more uniform and entirely acceptable. Noise-wise in the revolver it was more quiet than a factory-loaded target 148-gr. wadcutter.

In the 18″ Marlin it was fairly quiet, producing a satisfying “thunk” rather than a crack, rather like firing standard velocity .22 LR match ammunitionfrom a short-barreled sporting rifle. Not, however, like the “Cat’s Sneeze” equivalent of Eley Tenex fired from a long barreled target rifle. The velocityaveraged about 700 f.p.s., point of impact was useful for plainking with iron sights at 25-50 yards plinking without changing the sights from my regular carbine zero for 158-gr. factory .357 Magnum softpoints at 100 yards. I got 2″ round groups at 25 yards, larger than I expect with the best loads, but reasonable.

As the powder charge was increased above 2 grains velocities became more uniform and accuracy improved. Using Alliant Bullseye of current manufacture it takes 3.8 grains with the Remington 158-gr. lead SWC to approximate the velocity of factory standard velocity lead-bullet .38 Special loads averaging 800 +/- 20 f.p.s. in a 6″ revolver and 950 +/- 20 in the Marlin.

Normal extreme spread of these loads with iron sights is “one inch per ten” (yards) in a handgun and “one inch per 25″ in the Marlin, out to 100 yards. I used Norma 158-gr. lead RN factory ammunition as a benchmark. It is repeatable at these velocity ranges and gives 1.5″ ten-shot groups at 25 yards from the 6″ Ruger Security Six revolver and approximately the same at 50 yards from the Marlin carbine.

At longer ranges I can reliably keep 10 out of 12 shots on a 12″ steel gong at 100 yards from the 6″ Ruger revolver and expoect the same when plinking at 200 yards with my Marlin Cowboy Carbine. I do not change the sights, but use “Tennessee elevation” (centering the “ghost image ” of the gong in my other eye between bottom of front sight bead and the sight dovetail base behind the slimmed portion of the front sight blade).

I didn’t load any test increments between 1.2 grains and 2 grains of Bulls-eye. I need to do that, will do so and report. The 2 grain loads I tested here had unmodified, standard flash holes. My next step is to load samples at 1.5, 1.7 and 2.0 grains, with enlarged flash holes and see how they do.



8 Comments on "A .38 Special Cat Sneeze Load"

  1. balharbour on Fri, 30th Oct 2009 5:54 PM 

    Great article Ed. I was wondering if the velocity would be high enough with your load to seat your hollow base bullet reversed and function? I suppose that the bullet would have to be pure lead to open up (if in fact it would open up at all).

    Have you ever worked up any cat sneeze loads for the .44 Special or Magnum? I have a Marlin M94 that could certainly benefit from a quieter loading. Currently have been shooting 200 and 240 hard cast bullets from Lee.


  2. Ed Harris on Tue, 3rd Nov 2009 10:04 AM 

    Factory soft-swaged hollow-based 148-gr. wadcutters are not stable when fired backwards. They yaw beyond very short range so that accuracy is poor beyond “across the bar room floor” distances.

    At low subsonic velocities the most effective bullet is a flat nose with large meplat. This gives maximum crush cavity diameter with deep penetration. A bullet of .40 cal. or larger, weighing 200 grains or more, at about 900-1000 f.ps. will perforate through a deer from any angle.

    It is difficult to get reliable expansion with conventional handgun bullets below about 850 f.p.s. At low subsonic velocities from 750 to about 1000 f.p.s. a large flat nose having a cup point of a diameter cavity about 0.6 of the meplat diameter as deep as the opening with angled sides works well, as long as the bullet is not harder than 10-11BHN. An alloy of 1:25 tin/lead or 50-50 wheelweights and plumber’s lead is about right. Pre-1900 .455 Mk. II Webley “Manstopper Bullets” were of this design, formed of nearly pure soft lead, and expanded very well.

    I have had great success using long-barreled .45 ACP rifles shooting deer in settled areas for population and crop damage control. With a long enough barrel no suppressor is needed. For lowest noise the barrel length should be 24 inches or more. With a barrel longer than 28 inches you are more likely to stick a bullet in the barrel with a light load. Best accuracy is obtained with rifling having 24 to 28 inches per turn.

    Popular .45 Colt lever-action rifles chambered for the .45 Colt are limited by the .45 Colt cartridge which results in excessive airspace in the case and sloppy blackpowder chamber dimensioons which are not conducive to best accuracy. I had my Marlin 1894 Cowboy converted to fire .45 ACP, setting the barrel back, rechambering and reworking the lifter. It now has a 22″ barrel, holds 13 .45 ACP rounds and shoots 2 inch groups at 50 yards. Using common factory-loaded 230-grain personal defense loads with jacketed hollow-point bullets velocity is about 900 f.p.s., only slightly more than when the same ammunition is fired in a handgun. Increased bore drag of the jacketed bullets fired in a rifle length barrel defeats most of the potential velocity gain. Lubricated lead bullets reliably exit the bore down to about 800 f.p.s. and can be driven to about 1000 f.p.s. from the rifle within normal limits of chamber pressure. From a The peak pressure decibel noise level of the Marlin is 85dB when measured at 1 meter from the muzzle. Another rifle I have with 25 inch barrel shows a 3dB reduction for the extra 3 inches of tube. Expected accuracy of the best .45 ACP ammunition is about 2-3 inches for 5-shot groups at 50 yards and in proportion at longer ranges.

    For my culling operations I use a 250-gr. cup-point bullet cast of pure lead and 4.2 grains fo Bullseye for abouit 900 f.p.s. http://www.hollowpointmold.com/pictures/?category=Cramer+style+molds&picture=561#561

    To obtain similar performance in a long barreled .44 Magnum or .45 Colt cowboy rifle try loading a soft-lead 240-270 grain flatnosed bullet with about 5 grains of any fast-burning pistol or shotgun powder you have lying around. Bullseye, 231, Unique, SR-7625, PB, Red Dot, 700-X will all work. Keep the velocity below 1000 f.p.s. for lowest noise, but do not go below 850 f.p.s. with jacketed bullets or 800 f.p.s. with lubricated lead ones to avoid sticking a bullet in the barrel. The report is more like a muffled “pop~!” than a gun going off.

    If you want hollow-point bullets that work you will need to cast your own. The web link where I got my mold will be happy to modify a mould for you.

  3. Ed Harris on Tue, 3rd Nov 2009 1:19 PM 

    Correction, the .455 Webley Manstopper bullet was designated as the Mk. III, this reference also has a picture:


  4. Chuck Darnell on Thu, 19th Nov 2009 5:54 PM 

    Its been well over twenty years since I last used this load.

    It was 9mm case loaded with a Hornady 158gr lead semi-wadcutter and 1 grains of Bullseye. This was my plinking round for my S&W Model 59. I also drilled the flash holes out (but only slightly larger than the original hole) just to have some uniformity in the cases I used. It reliably cycled the action and accuracy was good for the 25 yards of the target range. I did not do any serious testing with it, just plinking for fun.

    Use this load with caution in autos, as the load may have to be fine-tuned for each handgun.

  5. Zach Williams on Tue, 24th Nov 2009 1:50 PM 

    I’m interested in working up a .38 Special load/rifle combo designed to push a relatively heavy bullet around 900fps as quietly as possible (without suppression). I’ve always heard that the longer the barrel, the quieter the shot. I can get a barrel made with a 1:12 twist ratio out to 40+”. Is a bullet leaving a 40+” barrel at 850-900fps going to be noticeably quieter than a bullet leaving a 24″ barrel at the same speed? Can anyone with experience on barrel length and subsonic loads give me advice?

  6. Ed Harris on Wed, 25th Nov 2009 7:09 AM 

    A longer barrel IS noticely quieter. But tradeoffs are that a very long barrel is less handy to carry, less quick to the shot and increases the risk of sticking a bullet in the barrel. While the risk of a bullet-in-bore (BIB) is greatly reduced by using lubricated lead bullets (because bore drag is reduced), the chance of an occasional rare BIB obstruction is not entirely eliminated.

    In my 24-inch Marlin Cowboy II standard-pressure (non +P) jacketed bullet .38 Special loads heavier than 125 grains rarely, but occasionally fail to leave the barrel. The Vietnam-era Ball .38 Special M41 (130-gr. FMJ) cartridge and its current commercial equivalents are particularly risky in this respect. BIB malfunctions are well documented firing M41 Ball in M15 revolvers with cylinder gap of larger than 0.008″.

    In my experience using lubricated lead bullets in the .38 Special, the NEI #161A (190-grain) flatnose is well stabilized at low subsonic velocities with a twist of rifling as slow as 20 inches. http://www.neihandtools.com/catalog/index.html
    This bullet has a large meplat (flat nose) which gives very good results on game. When well cast and properly loaded it is capable of averaging about 2 inches at 100 yards over a long series of 5-shot groups from a single-shot rifle with Green Mountain 20-inch-twist barrel with .38 AMU-type chamber and Unertl scope. Ballistic uniformity is acceptable using current Alliant Bullseye with charges as light as 2.4 grains (26 inch rifle velocity about 800 f.p.s.) but I do not recommend further reductions. Do not exceed 3.0 grains of Bullseye with a 190 grain lubricated lead bullet in .38 Special cases for standard pressure, or 3.5 grains for +P (26 inch rifle velocity about 950 f.p.s.). In .357 Magnum brass at an overall cartridge length of 1.58″ best accuracy was obtained with a charge of 4.2-4.3 grs. of Bullseye adjusted to obtain 1050 +/- 30 f.p.s.

    I have also experimented a great deal with a long-barreled .45 ACP rifle which started with a 32 inch barrel. almost immediately I stuck an M1911 Ball 230-gr. jacketed bullet in the barrel about 5 inches from the muzzle. I cut off and recrowned the barrel at 25 inches and have been satisfied with its low noise at that length. I can now shoot either GI hardball or equivalent handloads with either jacketed or lubricated lead bullets and have not stuck another bullet in the barrel as long as I used full-charge ammunition which approximated factory service velocities.

  7. Mark Humphreville on Wed, 2nd Dec 2009 1:53 PM 

    Ed has done some outstanding work in this area and as a result I have built a 358 Winchester w/ 26″ barrel. Getting ready to order a 300 Gr. bullet Ed designed as well. Already know the rifle is going to shoot well based on another bullet I have tested but I think Ed’s design is the way to go here. I am going to have it made as a nose pour with two different meplat sizes for use in long range and a wider flat nose for hunting.
    I have known Ed about 25 years and he has always been at the forefront with unique work.

  8. Josenilo M. Reoma on Tue, 2nd Feb 2010 6:09 PM 

    can a AR 15 car rifle be licensed? how much would be the load grain?

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