|Testing Two Bullet Diameters in a .38-55 H&R Target Classic
by Brian Newberry (Professor Bullspit)
A test was conducted to compare accuracy with two bullet
diameters (.381 and .383) in a .38-55 H&R Target Classic. Three different
powders (2400, AA 2015, and AA 5744) were used with each bullet diameter
although no effort was made to develop an accuracy load with any of the
powders. Instead, a single load was chosen for each powder from expert
recommendations or from established and reliable load data sources. Two
three shot strings of each bullet diameter/powder combination were fired
at targets and groups were measured and compared. No practical difference
in accuracy was found between the two bullet diameters.
The Harrington & Richardson 1871 Target Classic in
.38-55 is a popular gun in cowboy action shooting for a variety of long-range
site matches as well as the Plainsman event. This is no doubt because it
looks and feels like a19th century firearm, is American made and is available
at a reasonable price. The Target Classic is equipped with a 28 inch heavy
barrel which is topped by a Williams barrel-mounted peep site and a Lyman
aperture front sight. The rear sight is one of two flaws in the gun as
it arrives from the manufacturer because a barrel-mounted peep sight is
specifically precluded from use in SASS sanctioned events. The second flaw
that many people report is that the chamber of the .38-55 is undersized
compared to the bore, which often slugs out at .380 or larger. This means
that the H&R Target Classic often will not allow the chambering of
the cartridge with a bullet of the correct diameter for the bore. The first
flaw, that of the rear peep site can easily be corrected by substituting
an open site rear blade in place of the peep site on the Williams base
or though the replacement of the Williams unit with another such as the
Smith Enterprise Long Range site or others. The second flaw, the undersized
chamber is only slightly more difficult to correct by having a gunsmith
ream the chamber to open it up to accept slightly larger bullets.
The H&R Target Classic used in tests for this article
has had its chamber thus prepared which allows this gun to use bullet diameters
up to and including .383. This particular gun's bore has been slugged and
it has been found that the minimum groove diameter is .381 at both the
chamber and muzzle ends of the gun with a slightly looser section roughly
in the middle of the bore. Conventional wisdom suggests that more accurate
loads are found using lead bullets sized one to two thousandths larger
than groove diameter. This would suggest using a bullet sized .382 or .383
for best results in this particular rifle. However, lubed bullets available
from a local commercial caster are sized at.381, roughly equal to the minimum
groove diameter for the test rifle. In conversations with the caster it
was found that as cast the bullets are nominally sized .383 but the functioning
of the automatic lubrisizer used by this caster precludes sizing and lubing
these bullets much larger than .381 because of the mess that it makes with
the lube squeezing past the bullet as they pass through the machine's dies.
This commercial caster however very kindly donated a number of unsized
bullets for the purposes of this article, which tests the question, "will
this gun demonstrate better accuracy with bullets sized to .383 than with
bullets sized at .381 as available from the caster?" If it is found that
the larger bullet demonstrates sufficiently better accuracy, it would be
worthwhile to pursue the acquisition of a mold that casts a bullet large
enough to be resized to .383 or to continue to purchase unsized bullets
and dealing with the issues of hand lubricating them
A quantity of .381 lubed bullets and .383 unlubed bullets
was obtained from the commercial caster. A common hand-held hair dryer
was used to remove the blue wax lube from the .381 sized bullets by placing
them on a paper towel and heating them until the lube melted and ran into
the paper towel. After cooling, the .381 bullets and the .383 unlubed bullets
were measured to ensure consistent diameters. All of the .381 bullets were
within .001 (.380-.381) of the desired size and most of the .383 bullets
were found to be within .001 (.382-.383) of the desired size as well. Those
that were found to be more than .001 away from the desired size were discarded.
Image 1. Measuring bullets .380-.381
Image 2. Measuring bullets .382-.383
The remaining bullets from each measured set were then
hand lubed with Lee liquid ALOX a bullet lube that has worked well for
this author in numerous applications. After drying, these bullets were
loaded into once fired cases with three different powders (Hercules 2400,
Accurate Arms 2015 and Accurate Arms 5744) with moderate and/or recommended
loads as found in reputable reloading guides. The cases were cleaned and
deprimmed with a Lee universal decapping die. This is done to avoid resizing
the neck of the case because most resizing dies for the.38-55 result in
a case neck that is too small for even a .381 bullet. When this occurs
a significant bulge will often be noted on one side of the loaded round.
Other tests have revealed that cases with this significant bulge result
in poor accuracy, probably because the bullet is started into the bore
at a significant angle. Each charge of gunpowder was hand weighed for each
cartridge loaded. Charge weights for each of the powders is listed in the
Table 1. Charge weights for the three powders used in
The choice of gunpowder for any load is important. For
this test 2400 (from old stock marked Hercules from prior to the purchase
of this powder by Alliant) was made because 2400 is a relatively fast burning
powder often recommended for small rifle cases as well as large pistol
Image 3. Hercules 2400.
The choice of Accurate Arms 2015 was made because this
is the powder that the local bullet caster and commercial reloader uses
Image 4. Accurate Arms 2015.
Multiple charge weights for each powder were not included
in this test for the obvious reason that this was not a test to determine
the most accurate cartridge load. Rather three different powders with recommended
loads were chosen to help test the two bullet diameters in order to help
eliminate the possibility that a chance lucky combination of bullet and
powder might skew the results.
The test rifle was cleaned prior to going to the range
and the bore was fouled with a six shot string of cartridges loaded by
the commercial caster/reloader. The weather conditions were somewhat less
than ideal for accuracy testing with a 10 to 15 mile per hour, very cold
head wind blowing with overcast skies. All shot were fired over sandbag
rests at 100 yards while wearing gloves. It should be noted that the author
is not known to be a superb bench rest shooter even under ideal conditions.
The sites on the test gun were changed from the as-supplied configuration
in that a Krag rear site has replaced the Williams site and a plain .075
wide front blade was installed in place of the Lyman aperture site.
For this test, targets were set at 100 yards and each
of the loads was fired in two alternating three shot strings. That is to
say that first three shots were fired with either the .381 or .383 sized
bullet into a target. Then three shots were fired at a second target with
the other bullet diameter using the same powder. Then an additional three
shot string for each bullet diameter was fired into the corresponding original
target for a total of six shots each for all bullet/powder combinations.
This was done to help minimize the effect that a particularly good string
with any one bullet/powder combination might have on accuracy results.
A total of three sets of loads were fired like this until all bullet/powder
combinations were tested.
After firing each three shot string the bore was examined
for leading and unburned powder. After all 12 shots (six for each bullet/powder
combination) were fired the targets were retrieved and group size measured.
Following are the results of the accuracy testing. It
should be noted that several of the groups included at least one flier.
It is thought that these flyers (or vertical stringing) were caused by
one of two circumstances that are known in the H&R shooting community.
The first of these is failure by the shooter to completely depress the
trigger that prevents the transfer bar from lifting to a consistent height,
which may give inconsistent firing pin pressures to the primer. This condition
is likely because the shooting for this test was done over sand bags with
the shooter wearing gloves and making efforts to use a very fine trigger
press. In fact after the first set of accuracy testing was completed and
the flyers noted, several groups were fired with the shooter making sure
to completely depress the trigger. These groups demonstrated no flyers.
The second situation that has been known to cause flyers or vertical stringing
with this model of rifle is that of inconsistent placement of the forearm
on the sand bag or rest. This evidently can cause differential pressure
to be placed on the barrel, which results in fliers or vertical stringing
of shots. It is believed that the placement of the forearm on sandbags
in these tests was consistent however this cannot be completely discounted
as a reason for the Flyers noted in some of the test groups. Table 2 shows
the group sizes for each bullet diameter and powder combination. Groups
with flyers have two groups reported, the group with the flier being reported
Table 2. Measured accuracy for each bullet diameter/powder
||5 1/8", 3"
||7 1/2", 3 3/4"
||8 1/4", 2 1/4"
The first test set consisted of the loads consisting
of 2400. The .383 load resulted in a group size of five and one eighth
inches with one flier. Discounting the flyer gives a group size of three
Image 6. Target result with 2400 and .383 bullet.
The .381 load resulted in a group size of four inches
with one flyer. Discounting the flyer results in a group size of three
Image 7. Target result with 2400 and .381 bullet.
The second set of loads fired used Accurate Arms 2015.
The .381 bullet was fired first and resulted in a group size of seven and
one half inches with two flyers (one impacting off the top of the target).
Discounting the flyers gives a group size of three and three fourths inches.
Image 8. Target result with AA 2015 and .381 bullet.
The .383 load resulted in a group size of eight and one
fourth inches with two flyers. Removing the flyers gives a group size of
two and one fourth inches.
Image 9. Target result with AA 2015 and .383 bullet.
The third set of loads fired used Accurate Arms 5744.
The .383 bullet load was fired first with a group size of four and one
half inches and no flyers.
Image 10. Target result with AA 5744 and .383 bullet.
The .381 load resulted in group size of five inches with
Image 11. Target result with AA 5744 and .381 bullet.
Note the difference in shot placement on the targets,
which is not due to difference in loads, rather this is due to the fact
that between the fourth and fifth targets the test rifle was examined by
another shooter who changed the rear site adjustment. This was not noticed
by the test shooter until after the fifth and sixth targets were shot and
As can be seen from the results above there is no significant
difference between the performance of .381 and .383 diameter bullets in
the loads tested in this gun.
Of interest to some might be the condition of the bore
after each three shot string. Without exception, no significant leading
was noted within a combination. Loads with 2400 left a small quantity of
small particles of burned powder in the bore, which were distributed fairly
evenly. Loads using both 5744 and 2015 left a rather significant quantity
of large particles of burned powder in the bore and chamber. On two occasions
using 5744 and one occasion using 2015 this quantity of unburned powder
was sufficient to prevent the chambering of the next round, requiring the
shooter to blow the powder particles out of the chamber area before the
round could be inserted. Although not during this test, on two other occasions
with the same gun, loads using 2015 resulted in enough particulate matter
being deposited in the action of the to prevent complete lock up. This
required that the gun the cleaned before it could be safely used as incomplete
lockup resulted in the gun popping open upon firing with the case ejecting
smartly into the face of the shooter.
This test, while not without faults, has demonstrated
that .383 diameter bullets are not required to obtain adequate accuracy
for the intended purposes of this rifle. This is fortunate because the
added inconvenience of having to obtain unsized unlubed bullets from the
caster and hand lubing them is not an insignificant burden. This also means
that at this time the author does not feel the need to acquire yet another
bullet mold for the purposes of producing bullets that will result in an
acceptable accuracy for this gun. How well these results generalize to
other H&R 1871 Target Classics, or even other guns in .38-55 remains
to be seen as there are significant variances in the chambers and the bores
of the various firearms in this caliber. Additionally, no effort was made
to test multiple loads for any of the three powders used in this test.
No doubt a more accurate load could be developed with additional testing
and this may be undertaken in future trials.
As a final test, loads were created using 2400 (using
Lee dippers) and the .381 bullet with blue wax lube as available from the
caster. Care was taken to press the trigger fully and place the forearm
in the same position on the sandbags. The result was a 6 shot group measuring
three and one half inches.
Image 12. Target result with 2400 and blue wax lubed .381
This level of accuracy is acceptable with the sites installed
on this gun and with the author's shooting skills. Several shots were attempted
at clay targets placed on large earthen berms mainly to determine site
adjustments for those ranges. After three or four ranging shots which allowed
site adjustment by watching impact points in the dirt berms several clay
targets were hit at 200 yards and one clay target was either hit or dislodged
so that it was no longer visible at 300 yards.
Conducting a test like this is informative. Had this test
not been done the tendency for this rifle to exhibit flyers or vertical
stringing might not have been discovered. Knowing this, the shooter can
practice making sure to fully depress the trigger and insure consistent
placement of the forearm on any rests used. Further tests may need to be
conducted to determine if the nature of the forearm pressure differential
is critical and perhaps this may lead to development of an improved system
for mounting the forearm that reduces the tendency of the rifle to string