Five of the Greatest Handgun Bullets of All-time

There has been plenty of ink spilled over which handgun is the best for this purpose or that one for decades now and frankly I’m growing a tad weary of this discussion.  Now it’s not that I don’t have my favorites, it just seems to me that, with manufacturers coming out with “new” self-defense guns every other week, debating handguns is an exercise in futility and I often get that sense of “hey, I read this before” when I come across an article on the subject.  There’s a lot more to self-defense than the gun and what is not always written about however is some of the greatest bullets that have been loaded into these rounds and how they came to be:

1.  Lyman Mould #358429, 173-grain Semi-wadcutter in .38

Lyman Mould #358429.

One of the most celebrated bullets in Shooterdom (more so because it would lead to innovation) came about in 1928 from the mind of Elmer Keith. The Lyman mould #358429 was a 173-grain semi wadcutter and it was the first bullet in .38 caliber to use a beveled crimping groove and a large capacity square cut lube groove.

This bullet was selected for the .38/44 loads that were the predecessor to the .357 Magnum. At velocities of 1,200 fps when cast correctly they work very well on big game and even though they won’t fit in the older recessed cylinders of the Smith & Wesson N-frame .357 Magnums when seated at the crimp groove, they are still popular after over eighty years.

2.  Ideal Mould #429421, a Flat-nosed SWC, in .44

Ideal Mould #429421.

Another Keith design (and one that debuted before the #358429 in 1928) was a .44 caliber bullet that would universally become known as the Keith bullet. Elmer did not like how the round nosed lead bullets performed on game though, despite the fact that he had become infatuated with how they behaved during casting, loading and shooting.  In kind, he wanted to retain the good qualities of these bullets while at the same time creating a projectile that punched larger, cleaner holes upon impact, so he designed what by the 1950s became known as the #429421, a flat nosed SWC. 

Elmer used the basic design of the 429336, preserving the bullets ogive, meplat and weight.  He, however, beefed up the rear grease groove in order for it to take more lubrication and changed the forward grease groove to a beveled crimp groove.  The bullet proved to be extremely accurate on both targets and game out to longer ranges than previously thought possible for a handgun.

The round proved itself on North American game animals, so much so that it is still one of the most popular bullets for both the .44 Special and the .44 Magnum. For those that did not like the standard semi wadcutter, Keith designed a hollowpoint that proved even deadlier.

3.  Lyman Mould #358156 160-grain Semi-wadcutter in .357 Magnum

Lyman Mould #358156.

Elmer Keith did not design all the world’s great handgun bullets (though he designed more than a few), and one such bullet, the most popular cast bullet to date for the .357 Magnum, came to shooters courtesy of Ray Thompson following World War II.

Lyman mould #358156 was a 160-grain gas checked semi-wad cutter that employed dual crimping grooves reminiscent of earlier Cramer-style bullets designed by Ross Sernow.  The concept of two crimping grooves was originally utilized to reloaders could load and crimped .357 Magnum in .38 Special brass (casings for the .357 Magnum were scarce in those days so shooters would seat with .357 Magnum bullets long in .38 brass, crimping in the bottom of the two crimp grooves).

Today, these two grooves work well for handloaders who want to duplicate the old .38/44 loads by also using the lower crimping groove.  This method saves case capacity and keeps the pressure inside the case down. The semi wadcutter has been known for its accuracy in nearly all guns that it is used for as well as its penetration while the hollowpoint version is devastating on game with good expansion.

4.  Super Vel’s Original Jacketed Hollowpoint

Super Vel’s Original Jacketed Hollowpoint.

One bullet that handgun shooters have long taken for granted though few know the history of is the classic jacketed hollowpoint and we have a man by the name of Lee Jurras to thank for what is now considered a staple of the firearms and ammunitions industries.

Though the concept of a hollow, soft alloy bullet had been toyed around with in the form of Express bullets from the late 19th century on, Lee was the first person to put a jacket on a hollow point bullet and then load them to velocities that would allow them to expand reliably.  At the time, the cartridge was so revolutionary, it would outpace even its creator in popularity, leading to both the success and ultimate downfall of Jurras’ ammunition company, Super Vel.

Lee founded Super Vel in 1963 and, in it’s only ten years of operation, the company would sell over three hundred million cartridges, outselling at times the big ammunition companies that had been around for decades. Their early jacketed hollowpoints immediately inspired copycats and led the way for a new generation—new genre even—of jacketed hollowpoints, often marketed as “humane bullets” for their enhanced lethality. However, to keep up with their own lightening growth and stay competitive, Super Vel began to rely more heavily on outsourcing and the company was forced to close its doors in 1974.

5.  Ideal Mould #452424 Semi-wadcutter in .45 Colt SWC

Ideal Mould #452424.

The last bullet is yet another Keith design and even though it goes by the same name and is as popular today as it was when it came out, these are not the same bullet. After his successes with his .44 and .38 caliber bullets in 1928, Elmer Keith set out to make a .45 Colt SWC version which would become known as the #452424 and since the 1930s, this bullet has gone through more “wardrobe changes” than Lady Gaga.

So how are the originals different than the Keith .45 Colts we can get today?  Well, the differences very much underscore the divide between the designer, an artesian dedicated to his craft and the performance of his wares, and the manufacturer, often with allegiances profitability and consistency.

Elmer originally designed all of his semi wadcutters with square cut grease grooves so the bullet could hold more lubricant in an effort to increase accuracy—which by all accounts it did.  At some point in time though in the bullets long manufacturing life, Lyman changed the grooves to a more rounded design so that they would drop from the mould a bit easier, expediting mass production. Another change later on was to make the meplat slightly smaller, likely a cost cutting maneuver.

While the bullet is still an excellent design and is great for hunting and target practice it still was not quite what Elmer had designed back in the day. However it is considered the best all around .45 Colt bullet weighing around two hundred and sixty grains.

Guns can be great and there have been many but the bullet coming out of it has to be reliable too and over the years there have been many great handgun bullet designs. Some have proven to be just as popular as they were when they were first introduced while others have pointed the way to bigger and better things that may be still to come.

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