Once Upon A Smallbore

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Reloading The .32 WCF—Now Known As The
.32-20—Is Rewarding And Run.

By John Taffin

Winchester’s lever-action 1873 was the first rifle chambered for a new centerfire cartridge called the .44 WCF (.44-40), and within a few years Colt chambered the Single Action Army for the round. In 1879 Winchester necked down the .44 to .40 caliber and the result was the faster and flatter shooting .38 WCF. Colt followed suit. In 1882 Winchester decided it was time for a smallbore cartridge for their lever gun and the result was the .32 WCF (.32-20).

While the first two cartridges held 40 grains of black powder, the newer smaller .32 held half that much. Apparently things had changed enough on the frontier there was a need for a smaller cartridge for ranchers and farmers, one we would call a varmint cartridge today.

Keith & Skelton

The .32-20 holds a deep fascination for me for two reasons. My two favorite gun writers both really started their sixgun shooting with the .32-20. I was still in high school when Elmer Keith’s book Sixguns was released in 1955. Keith related how as a teenager, he broke broncos to get enough money to buy his first centerfire, a Colt Single Action. He had started with a Colt 1851 Navy cap-and-ball .36 revolver and now was time to move up. His first Colt SAA was a 7-1/2-inch .32-20. He had enough money left over to have the local leather crafter make him a belt and holster and he was on its way to becoming the most influential writer about sixguns in the 20th century.

Later, Skeeter Skelton would relate how he—still a teenager—mustered out of the service at the end of WWII and stopped off in Chicago. He found, would you believe, a 7-1/2-inch Colt .32-20, which he promptly purchased. Yes, there really was a time when Chicago was still sane.

My search for a .32-20 was nowhere near as successful as those for the two other Winchester Centerfire cartridges. Patience apparently does have its rewards as right after the turn of the present century a local friend called to tell me he had a Winchester Model 1892 in .32-20 for sale. The outside of the gun had normal wear with no dings and he told me the barrel was good. It wasn’t good, it was absolutely pristine! Shortly thereafter I received a call from a reader telling me of three Single Actions for sale. One of them happened to be a 4-3/4-inch WWI era .32-20. So in a very short time my search for original .32-20’s was over.

The Colt SAA in .32-20 had not been seen since before WWII, however in recent years Colt offered their 3rd Generation SAA in .32-20, .44-40 and .38-40. Alas, it looks like we will not see any more of these. The .32-20 I received had a 5-1/2-inch barrel.

Two more .32-20’s I found were an early Smith & Wesson Military & Police and a fine custom sixgun. About 25 years ago Hamilton Bowen told me he had never worked on any Colt Single Actions. I sent him two 2nd Generation SAA’s and they came back as a 5-1/2-inch .41 Special and an 8-1/2-inch .32-20 with adjustable sights. Several years ago I came up with another custom .32-20, this time from John Gallagher. He started with a Ruger Blackhawk and fashioned an 8-shot cylinder or this one. Another truly magnificent .32-20.

When Dan Wesson produced some of the finest and most accurate sixguns available they offered a .32-20 and an 8-inch stainless steel version found its way into my accumulation of sixguns. No one can begin to argue the finest factory produced sixguns ever come out of the Star Valley factory of Freedom Arms. They first offered their Model 97 in .32 Magnum with an extra cylinder in .32-20, and then when the .327 Magnum arrived it was possible to have one of these built-up with extra cylinders in .32 Magnum and .32-20.

A note of caution here even before we start to look at reloading the .32-20: There are two levels of sixguns mentioned when it comes to reloads. I use my heaviest loads in Colt Single Actions, the custom sixguns by Bowen and Gallagher, the Dan Wesson, and the Freedom Arms as well as lever guns from both the 1892 Winchester and 1894 Marlin. I do not allow any heavy loads to come anywhere near my older S&W M&P, or the Colt Army Special, 1873 Winchester or early Marlins.

Of the three bottleneck WCF cartridges deemed by some as “difficult to load,” the .32-20 is the most fragile and also the hardest for which to find accurate loads. Even though the .32-20 will reward you with exceptional accuracy once the right load is discovered, you still have to be more than a little traditional minded. The .32-20 is not quite as easy to load as “normal” revolver cartridges for three very important reasons.

First, there is a great variation in the length of factory brass. A quick look at Remington, Winchester and Starline .32-20 cases will show immediately why cases must be separated by brand names on the head stamps. Set up to crimp one properly and the other will be crushed. They either must be kept separated or all trimmed to the same length.

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Three of Taffin’s sixguns used with heavier loads are a Hamilton Bowen
8-1/2-inch Custom Colt Single Action, John Gallagher 8-shot Blackhawk,
and the Freedom Arms Model 97.

Secondly, just as with the two other WCF cases, the .32-20 is a bottle-neck, or tapered, cartridge which means carbide sizing dies are not available and the reloader must go through the task of lubing cases before sizing. I simply place 100 or more cases in a cardboard tray, spray with lube, shake, and spray again. They are now ready to be loaded on my RCBS Model 2000 progressive press. The .32-20’s necks are literally paper thin, even more so than the .38 and .44 WCF’s. And just like the other two switching to Starline brass has solved the problem of necks crumpling easily.

A longtime favorite cast bullet for the .32-20, one which actually could be considered the standard bullet, is the Lyman mold 311316. This is a gas-check bullet which drops at about 115 to 120 grains depending upon the alloy used, and the gas check allows successful use with heavy loads especially in leverguns. My two standard loads for this bullet, which is normally sized to 0.312- to 0.313-inch, are 5.0 grains of Unique and 10.0 grains of 2400. I have also had excellent success with the Oregon Trail 115-grain RNFP even though it does not have a gas check. My favorite jacketed bullet is the Speer 100-grain jacketed hollowpoint which is used over the same powder charges and through the Marlin 1894CL delivers 1,250 and 1,600 fps respectively. The latter is deadly on varmints. These loads are also used in all of the sixguns mentioned except the already mentioned S&W M&P and the Colt Army Special. For these two I do not go over 4.0 grains of Unique.

The arrival of the .327 Federal Magnum has probably removed the need for having a .32-20. I even had a Marlin .32 Magnum Model 1894 re-chambered to .327. So whether it is a sixgun or a levergun I really do not need a .32-20. However, if we ever get to the day firearms we use are based only on need it will be a sad day indeed. My .32-20’s are here to stay. At least until I pass them on to my grandkids.

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