The SECOND best Old West handgun cartridge.
A few months back I wrote a column saying I consider the .44 WCF (.44-40) as the best of all Old West handgun cartridges. This column is about the second best. In my opinion that was the .38 WCF (.38-40). This time we’ll consider rifles and carbines too.
First off, you must understand that the .38 WCF is nowhere near .38 caliber. It is actually .40 caliber using 0.400-inch bullets. Why Winchester named it .38 is a mystery. Furthermore, why it was introduced in the first place is another mystery. Its original black powder factory loads used 180-grain 0.400-inch bullets compared to the .44 WCF’s 200-grain 0.425-inch ones. Velocities were roughly comparable; say about 1,300 fps from the 24-inch barrel of a rifle and about 900 fps from a 7-1/2-inch handgun barrel. Neither one has a great advantage over the other.
I’ve read the .38 WCF was introduced by Winchester in 1874 as the second chambering of their Model 1873. That is incorrect. It was the second chambering offered but the year of introduction was 1879. Colt didn’t get around to chambering it in their revolvers until 1884. Another interesting fact is that Colt continued to chamber it in their large-frame revolvers such as the New Service and Model 1878 double actions. Very few other handgun manufacturers of that era made .38 WCF revolvers. S&W did so with their New Model No. 3 and later N-frame Hand Ejectors but the totals produced were meager.
Regardless, .38 WCFs sold well. It was the Colt SAA’s third most popular chambering among the 1873-1941 first generation of production. That amounted to a bit over 50,000 counting standard SAAs and Bisley versions together. Back about 1993, Colt reintroduced the .38 WCF in the SAA’s options. I had one of the very first and have owned several others. Two are permanent keepers: one with 5-1/2-inch barrel and one with 7-1/2-inch barrel. Whereas First Gen Colt SAA barrel/chamber mouth dimensions are all over the map, all Third Generation ones that I have personally measured are uniformly 0.400-inch across the barrel’s rifling grooves and 0.401-inch at the chamber mouths. Mine are among the most accurate .38 WCF handguns I’ve ever fired from machine rest.
Not to forget lever guns. Winchester continued .38 WCF as one of the Model 1892’s chamberings, Marlin adopted it into their Models 1889 and 1894 and Colt put it into their pump-action Lightnings. It is my opinion that the .38-40 moniker came from Marlin’s caliber inscription. Colt only labeled Lightnings “.38 CAL.” Winchester never put anything but .38 WCF on theirs. Taken collectively there have to have been hundreds of thousands of .38 WCF/.38-40 long guns manufactured.
Browsing through my lifelong records revealed that I’ve owned an even dozen .38 WCF handguns and an even dozen rifles and carbines. All of the handguns were Colt SAAs except for a New Service. All of the long guns were lever guns except for one Colt Lightning Pump Action. Additionally there were three Marlin Model 1894s listed, three Winchester Model 1873s, three Winchester Model 1892s, and two Cimarron Arms replicas of Model 1873s. I don’t remember there being a lemon among all 24 of the .38 WCF firearms owned by me.
Duke bought this Winchester Model 1873 in 1985. It was the first of a dozen .38 WCF rifles and carbines owned. He still has it. Beneath it the three versions of large-frame revolvers which Colt offered .38 WCF as a caliber option include (from left to right) New Service, Model 1878 Double Action, and Single Action Army.
About 5 years ago, I began trimming back my Old West firearms collection and reinvesting the funds in World War II firearms. When the excess was cut out there were still three Winchesters and three Colt revolvers left in this caliber. The Winchesters consist of Models 1873 and 1892 rifles and a carbine of the latter version. Two of the revolvers were mentioned before. The other is a New Service with 5-1/2-inch barrel.
Some people consider the .38 WCF/.38-40 a difficult cartridge to handload. I don’t. That’s because I recognize the inherent problem I will encounter. That is the bottlenecked case and in the older days of its existence there were no standards by which all companies cut their chambers. Generally speaking rifle chambers were looser than those cut into revolver cylinders. For a modern handloader to successfully resize cases so they fit in all chambers requires a die that sets their shoulders back significantly. Some modern reloading dies do not accomplish that. My set dated by RCBS in 1983 does and my rounds fall in all my .38 WCF chambers.
What else is required for successful .38 WCF shooting in lever guns is a very stout crimp of case mouth to bullet crimping groove. I learned that fact the hard way by fully loading up my Winchester Model 1873’s magazine so that its spring was compressed to the max. Upon firing the first round I heard a “plop-plop-plop” sound. It was the noise made by all bullets in those cartridges being pushed back into the cases. Each one had to be laboriously fished out of the magazine by hand.
After firing many thousands of rounds of .38 WCF handloads I’ve come to favor one bullet design above all others. It is RCBS 40-180CM. It weighs 180 grains of one part tin to 20 parts lead alloy, and shoots the sort of groups shown in the accompanying photographs. Most recently it has usually been loaded over 5.5 grains of IMR’s Trail Boss powder. That bullet design has one other benefit. It shoots extremely well from my Kimber 1911 .40 S&W.
As said earlier, the .38 WCF is actually a .40 caliber. When government agencies and Smith & Wesson all conducted expensive research and development for an autoloading handgun cartridge more powerful than 9mm Parabellum the result was .40 S&W. It is the nothing more than the ballistic twin of our ancient black powder .38 WCF put into an autoloading case.
Duke’s current Colt SAA .38 WCF with 7-1/2-inch barrel shot this 12-shot group (above) from machine rest at 25 yards. Duke’s Model 1873 Winchester shot this group at 100 yards (below).
Duke’s favorite .38 WCF bullet mold is this one by RCBS. It works just as well in .40 S&W.
By Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos By Yvonne Venturino