....January 2006 ~~~~ Editor:  Cliff Hanger ~~~~
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 below: 

Table 1. Charge weights for the three powders used in this test. 

Powder Charge
2400 16.8 grains
AA 2015 24 grains
AA 5744 14.4 grains

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 cases. 

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 and recommends. 

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 first. 

Table 2. Measured accuracy for each bullet diameter/powder combination. 

Powder .381 Bullet .383 Bullet
2400 4", 3" 5 1/8", 3"
AA 2015 7 1/2", 3 3/4" 8 1/4", 2 1/4"
AA 5744 5" 4 1/2"
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 inches. 

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 inches. 

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 no flyers. 

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 retrieved. 

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 bullet.

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 shots vertically. 

Howdy Pards

    Way back in March of last year I mentioned a pet project I was undertaking. Construction of the “Ultimate” plainsman variant of the H&R rifle in 32-40 caliber. This project has had it’s share of ups and downs, but is beginning to take shape.

   The project barrel was to be 24 inches long, and of tapered octagon shape. The bore is cut with a groove diameter of .320”, and a twist of 1:14”. This should produce excellent accuracy with 180 to 220 grain 32 caliber bullets. All went well until the first barrel was shipped. Well, that barrel disappeared into the great “UPS Beyond”, never to be seen again. So a second barrel was started. This time I have the new barrel in my hands!

   If you look at the picture, the new barrel is the center item. Rifled and rough shaped. The top item is a piece of barrel blank. This is the way barrel blanks generally come. From 1 1/8” to 1 3/16” diameter rough rolled bars with a rifled hole down the middle ( or near the middle ).  At the bottom of the picture will be seen an H&R 38-55 barrel.

   The next step in this evolution will be to cut the chamber, just short of finished depth. Then an under lug will be made and installed, along with the forearm lug.  The next steps will be fitting the barrel to the action, finish chambering  to produce proper headspace, and test firing. The project will then be completed by cutting dovetails for the sights, and bluing the new barrel.

   Hopefully I’ll be able to report on the performance of the new rifle before long.

Old Scout

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