by Jim Taylor
I'm not sure exactly when the fascination started; perhaps it was when I was a little kid. I remember Dad talking with other shooters about some of the great cartridges and the names stuck in my mind: .44-40, .38-40, .45 Colt, .44 Special, .357 Magnum, .32-20the list goes on.
By the time I was 10, I had a small collection of those and other cartridges. I used to read everything I could about them. In those days there were not very many gun publications, but I devoured everything I could get my hands on.
When I was 15 I bought an old Model 92 .44-40 and carried it with me everyplace I went. It was my deer rifle, my long-range sniper rifle, and my varmint rifle. It could (at least in my mind) do anything I wanted. Never mind that the cartridge was finicky to load and that the gun had .015 inch extra headspace and would pull the brass in half if the load was too hot. This was a piece of history! And I was living it.
Over the years, I picked up other guns in the calibers I had dreamt about, but it wasn't until Paco Kelly gave my daughter a Model 92 .32-20 in the 1980s that I got started loading for this neat little caliber. Why I put it off this long, I don't know. I had read Elmer Keith's comments on it, listened to Robert Smythe tell of carrying one in the early years of the last century and using it to kill mule deer, and many other tales by shootists of the old days. I always enjoyed them. And I always got an itch to get one when I listened to them or read their stories. But I never quite got around to getting one of my own until
I was at the NRA Show in Reno in the late '80s and there, in the Marlin booth was a slick little rifle! It was a Marlin 1894CL in .32-20. And I knew that I was in love.
To my mind this was it! A cut-rifled barrel (as opposed to the micro-groove barrels), and a rifle length instead of a carbine-the only downside was the cross-bolt safety-but heck, I was in love!! Who notices the minor things? Love is blind. It wasn't too long until I had a new Marlin in .32-20.
Over the years, I packed that gun around the hills and mountains of Arizona. I had it on the horse when I was not out chasing deer and it was a great little gun for whacking javelina, coyotes, foxes, feral dogs and cats-you name it. It even took deer if pressed into service and you were careful about the shot. Of course, I did not use factory ammo for hunting applications.
The factory ammunition today is pretty light, having to be able to be used in old '73 Winchesters and small-framed handguns that were made for this caliber. With proper handloads though, the little caliber approaches the bottom edge of .30-30 power and will handle itself quite nicely, thank you.
Then a couple years ago I stumbled onto a deal that was like the ones you read about-a first generation Colt SAA in .32 WCF. The barrel had been whacked off and whoever did it sawed right down through the end of the ejector rod housing, next to the screw. The sight was a thin sheet of copper. The frame had been buffed until most of the lettering was gone, but mechanically it was sound. Serial numbers placed its manufacture in 1903. And the price was more than right. I called John Taffin to make sure and he told me he paid more than that for a good frame. His advice to me was, "If you don't want it, I do!" which settled it in my mind. The gun came home.
I ordered a first generation .32-20 barrel from Eddie Janis of Peacemaker Specialists. He had a 5°-inch barrel that was correct for the gun and was not in too bad condition. I also ordered some extra parts to have on hand. When the barrel arrived I installed it myself. While the gun was stripped down I made sure the hammer notches were safe and checked it all over. The short story is, it may be worn-looking, but it's new inside! I replaced the cylinder bushing and fitted it up tight.
When the barrel was installed I set it back one thread and cut a new forcing cone. I set up the barrel/cylinder gap fairly tight, but not so much that the gun would not work with black powder. The gun shoots well and has performed just fine at the Cowboy matches I have used it in. But I have yet to replace the ejector rod housing. I hate paying $100 for a first generation housing for a gun that is not being restored, and have not yet come up with an answer.
But, I now have my combination-rifle and sixgun in the same caliber! Both of them are pleasant to shoot with the lighter loads. While I have run heavy loads through the Colt, there is no need for it. I have a .357 if I want high velocity. Loads between 750 and 950 feet per second (fps) are plenty for what I do with the gun. My standard load is the Lyman #3118 bullet over 3.5 grains of 700X and a small rifle primer. This load does over 1,100 fps in the rifle and about 850 fps in the six-gun. It is easy on the brass and the pocketbook. Using the military surplus 700X at just over $8 per pound (including shipping), I figure that is pretty economical shooting.
Known as the .32 WCF (Winchester Center Fire), the cartridge was originally introduced by Winchester around 1883 for their Model 1873 rifle. Yep-the .32-20 is a rifle round. It is popular today to refer to it as a "pistol round" but the .32-20, as well as the .38-40 and .44-40, were rifle cartridges before they were ever chambered in handguns.
The original .32-20 was a blackpowder cartridge. The "20" in the designation was the number of grains of blackpowder in the load. The same goes for quite a few of the older cartridges, though not all. It is one of the few blackpowder cartridges that can still be loaded with a full charge of blackpowder, the modern cartridge cases notwithstanding.
Modern cases in other calibers drastically reduce the internal case capacity so that the case does not have room for the original charge. While internal dimensions have changed on the .32-20, it is still fairly easy to load a full charge of blackpowder by seating the bullet out a bit. They will still function through the action of the levergun and, in the Colt sixgun, the bullet noses come out closer to the end of the cylinder, where I like them anyhow.
Some time after the introduction of the Model 1892 Winchester, a Hi-Velocity smokeless powder load was brought out for the .32-20. It was not intended for use in the weak 1873s or in handguns, though quite a few were fired in them I suspect. The smokeless powder cartridge was loaded to a maximum of 16,000 CUP (Copper Units of Pressure) in the original loadings. The Hi-Velocity loading was loaded to 26,000 CUP. Sadly today there are none on the market and a handloader has to construct his own. All factory loads today are loaded to 16,000 CUP or less.
While it is not a difficult cartridge to handload there are a few areas to watch. The case walls are very thin and can easily be crumpled. If you do not have the cartridge case lined up perfectly to the full-length sizing die, and if you happen to bump the case mouth on the edge of the die as you bring the handle down, you will pretty well ruin the case. On a .45 ACP or .38 Special it might make a ding. On the .32-20, the case wall just collapses.
Since it is thin, the cases are prone to neck cracking from sizing, expanding, and crimping. I try to lessen the stress on the case by not overly expanding them. I use a tapered die to do the neck expanding. I ground the expander portion away just a bit and polished my neck die to a nice gentle taper. This seems easier on the case neck. All I do is flare it enough to start a bullet into the case.
I do not crimp during bullet seating. It is easy to buckle a case this way. For crimping I prefer to use the Lee Factory Crimp collett-type die on the .32-20. This die requires a separate operation anyway. To me, the best crimp die you can get for the .32-20 is the Lee Factory Crimp Die.
I find quite a bit of variation in case length between manufacturers. This necessitates case trimming. Be careful and do not trim them too short or you will not be able to crimp them correctly. Also, be careful during the trimming operation or you will tear the case wall. Yes, I have had the cutter edges bite too deeply (because I applied too much pressure) and it tore the case wall like you would tear an envelope. Easy is the word here.
Cases that are used in high-pressure loads are kept separate from regular cases. Once I have fired and loaded them 3 times, I then use them for light loads only. This requires keeping track of all cases. I have found that in my rifle, cases loaded to heavy pressures will separate in 4 to 6 reloadings.
When you fire one you will not notice the separation. However, when you go to eject it, all that comes out is the case head, the body being left in the chamber. On the range this is only an irritation-unless you left your broken case extractor at the house. In the woods, it can mean the end to a hunting trip.
The standard wisdom is that the .32-20 should be fired in dry chambers to avoid case setback due to the bottleneck shape of the beast. However, every gun can be a law unto itself. My Colt SAA has somewhat rough chambers and if the chambers and cases are totally dry, a moderate to heavy load will pull the case in half upon firing. The front part of the case locks into the chamber and does not move. The rear of the case moves back under pressure and pulls the case in half. In the Colt, a little light oil in the chambers solves the problem. (Lighter loads do not bother it either way.) The rifle with its good slick chamber gives me no problems, oily or dry.
All my loads are assembled using small rifle primers. It is a rifle cartridge after all. The single action revolver has no problem setting these off.
I shoot cast bullets exclusively in the Colt sixgun. In the rifle I use both, with a heavy leaning toward cast bullets. My favorite bullet is the Lyman #3118, a plain-base bullet of between 115 and 120 grain weight, depending on your mold and alloy. My mold runs closer to 120 grains.
This is a copy of the original .32-20 bullet and probably one reason I like it. The meplat is large enough to make it an effective hunting bullet. It is heavy enough to work well at moderate distances (150 yards) and light enough that recoil in the heavy Colt SAA is negligible.
I also have a mold from RCBS that throws a nice plain-base 100-grain flatpoint bullet. This is a great one for light plinking loads and it is an accurate bullet in both rifle and handgun.
I use the Speer 100-grain JHPs strictly in the rifle. My load of H-110 drives them near 2,000 fps at the muzzle. These have proven very effective on dogs, javelina, coyotes, foxes and cats. You can reach out quite a ways with them for they shoot pretty flat. One deer was taken using this load, though shot placement is extremely important. Since it was not over 15 yards that was not a worry. The deer was standing still and shot placement was easy. I would not try a normal "30-30 shot" with them.
For specialty loads I use the Speer 303 125-grain, .311-inch Spitzer bullet that is intended for the 7.62 X 39mm Russian (the SKS round). I load these long-too long to work through the action. They have to be fed single shot. Overall loaded length is 1.745 inches-a length I have standardized on. I tried other lengths and this one works best for me.
Loaded over 14.5 grains of H-110, they give 2,000 fps muzzle velocity. Basically they perform like a rimmed SKS round. These are a decent deer load when used within reason. I had a problem of a huge Great Dane chasing the cows one day and shot him in the chest as he faced me at 50 yards. He dropped right there, and while he took a few minutes to expire, he never moved, other than biting fiercely at the dirt.
These shoot pretty flat to 150 yards and get there with authority. I had a couple of the execs from Winchester shoot some of these a few years ago, and while they were impressed with the performance, they had no interest in trying to produce something like them. Too many liabilities.
I have loaded the Lee 95-grain round nose bullet for a plinking load and it works real well also. Instead of trying to lube the bullets with standard lube, I just used the Lee Liquid Alox on them. At standard velocities it worked quite well.
All cast bullets are sized at .311 inch except for the Lee roundnose. I shoot it just as it comes from the mold. I cast my bullets from wheelweight alloy, and drop them hot from the mold into water if they are intended for high-performance loads. For standard loads I let them air-cool.
I have tried bullets up to 180 grains weight. I found that 140-150 grains was about tops for good performance. Beyond that you get into the "Diminishing Returns" problem. You put more and more into it and get less and less out of it. In the sixgun the 170-grain cast bullets just would not stabilize. I could not get them going fast enough, I guess. I shot one at a piece of wood standing on my woodpile next to the barn. The piece of wood was about 12 inches high and 6 inches wide. I was about 5 feet from it when I fired. The bullet missed the wood completely and struck my barn, knocking a big ol' hole right in the side of it!! Imagine that! It went through and struck the barn door and then bounced out into the barn. At least no one could say that I can't hit a barn door.
I have not used any really new handloads in a long time. When I find loads that work I generally stick with them. If my loads are accurate and work well I have no interest in trying out a bunch of new powders. Some of my old standard loads for both levergun and sixgun are:
|Powder Charge||Velocity Rifle||Velocity Six-gun|
|3 gr. Bullseye||1027 fps||776 fps|
|3 gr. 700X||1020 fps||775 fps|
|4 gr. 700X||1200 fps||945 fps|
|10 gr. 2400||1695 fps||1179 fps|
|12 gr. 2400||1912 fps||1364 fps|
|Speer 100 gr. JHP||15 gr. H-110||2175 fps|
|Speer 125 gr. Spitzer||14.5 gr. H-110||2000 fps|
|(.311-inch bullet, loaded to an overall length of 1.745 inch)|
Totally Silent Loads:
These loads are very low pressure. You need to watch for stoppages with these loads. I have never experienced one but it does not mean it could not happen. Accuracy with these loads is on the order of -inch groups at 50 feet. All 3 of these loads are totally silent. All you will hear from the rifle is the hammer fall.
|Lee 95 gr. RN cast||2.5 gr. 2400||491 fps|
|Lee 95 gr. RN cast||4.8 gr. 3031||420 fps|
|#3118 cast||4.8 gr. 3031||432 fps|
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