The Classic .32 ACP
These handloads were worked up for the
short barrels often found ON SMALL pocket
guns LIKE the Beretta Tomcat.
The .32 Automatic Colt Pistol has long been a cartridge of contradictions. It was developed by John Browning in 1899 for one of his semi-auto handgun designs, introduced as the Fabrique Nationale Modele 1899, and other firearms companies soon started producing .32 ACP pistols, including Colt, Savage and Walther.
The cartridge became the standard for police and military use in a number of European countries, and some famous people used handguns chambered for the .32 ACP, including American president Theodore Roosevelt and the fictional spy James Bond. (Ian Fleming, Bond’s creator, switched him to a Walther PPK .32 after noted British firearms authority Geoffrey Boothroyd said Bond’s original choice, a Beretta .25 ACP, was a “lady’s gun.”)
By the mid-20th century the .32 ACP was one of the most popular handgun cartridges in the world, but in America it’s often lumped with the .25 ACP as an inadequate “mouse gun,” and as Massad Ayoob suggests, “Friends don’t let friends carry mouse guns.” Still, a lot of people carry .32 ACP’s, including several American cops I’ve known—though as a well-hidden backup to their primary handgun, due to the tiny size of many of today’s .32 ACP’s.
My own first .32 ACP was an FN Model 1910, one of the standards for European military and police use. The 1910, like the Walther PPK, was more of a medium-sized pistol than a true pocket pistol. Mine was well-worn and would barely keep its shots on a pie plate at 15 yards, but never jammed or otherwise misbehaved. However, many if not most of today’s .32 ACP’s are much smaller, befitting their role as backups. Eventually my 1910 was transformed into a Beretta Tomcat, one of the most popular modern .32’s. This proved to be just as reliable and far more accurate than the FN.
The one “problem” with such ultra-compact semi-autos is their short barrels, usually about 2-1/2 inches, rather than 3-1/2 to 4 inches for “standard” size .32 ACP’s. This obviously reduces velocity, especially since Beretta specifically recommends against using “+P” ammunition such as the CorBon 60-grain JHP load, listed at 1,050 fps from a 2-1/2-inch test barrel. In contrast, the .32 ACP velocity standard of the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturer’s Institute (SAAMI) for a 60-grain bullet is 970 fps from a 4-inch test barrel, and available handloading data from SAAMI members Alliant, Hodgdon and Hornady adheres to the standard level.
The 00-buck practice load grouped just as well as any of
the jacketed loads, and fed and ejected perfectly.
Per usual, I gathered all the data available before running my tests, but unfortunately the present component shortage prevented me from trying all the powders listed as producing the highest velocities, especially Hodgdon AutoComp and Titegroup. Even Hodgdon didn’t have any, and a search of local stores was so fruitless I got laughed at more than once.
The shortage almost affected one of the bullets used. There weren’t any .32 ACP bullets on local shelves, but I had some Remington 71-grain full metal jackets found at a gun show a few years before. Hornady and Speer sent along some 60-grain jacketed hollowpoints, though at the time Hornady was apparently out of 85-grain XTP’s. I do have a Lee bullet mold for a 93-grain roundnose used in the .32-20, but though some handloaders report using it in the .32 ACP, there wasn’t any data for bullets that heavy, and I wanted to see if 85-grainers would develop enough zip in the Tomcat’s 2.4-inch barrel. Luckily, during my chastening powder search I came across a box of Hornady 85’s tucked away in a dark corner of one store.
One other projectile tried was 00 buckshot sized down to .311 in a Lee tube. I’ve been experimenting with shooting buckshot as bullets in handguns and rifles over the past year or so, something I’d read about here and there for years, and the present shortage of handgun and rifle bullets suddenly turned it into a good idea. Anybody who actually uses a pocket-sized .32 ACP should surely practice considerably, and the shortage doesn’t include most shotgun components.
I found a 5-pound box of Hornady 00 at a local store for $25.99 (the label even says “Hornady Bullets”) and they turned out to be pretty hard and very consistent, averaging 0.330-inch in diameter and 53.2 grains in weight. Since Montana doesn’t have a sales tax, the per-pellet price was just under 4¢ apiece, compared to over 18¢ for the 85-grain Hornady XTP’s. I rolled them in Lee Alox liquid lube and let them dry overnight before sizing, then lubed them again after sizing. After loading and crimping, I wiped the slightly sticky Alox off the exposed lead with a cotton cleaning patch soaked in rubbing alcohol.
The brass used was Remington and the primers Remington 1-1/2’s. It should be noted that many European cases are thicker-walled than American cases, apparently because some European guns have groove diameters much closer to our .30 caliber, around 0.309 inch. The Beretta’s measured 0.311, but some other brands (especially older guns) will vary more. The listed SAAMI maximum for bullet diameter is 0.3125 inch, with an allowable smaller variation of 0.006. The Remington FMJ’s and Speer Gold Dots are listed at 0.311, and Hornady XTP’s at 0.312.
The box kept brass on the left side of the bench, where it was more
easily found than in the ankle-high grass on the right side.
At first glance the case looks like many rimless handgun rounds, but is actually semi-rimmed, headspacing on the rim rather than the case mouth, so trimming isn’t as critical as with the 9mm Parabellum, .40 S&W and .45 ACP. (The rim can cause hang-ups inside the magazines of some guns and, in older guns with worn or oversized chambers, a heavy firing-pin fall has been known to punch the case into the chamber.)
Rather than test-fire at the typical 25 yards, I shot at 7 yards, the supposed average gunfight range. This is far more realistic with the little Tomcat, especially with its 3-inch sight radius—and the sights are unlikely to play any role in real-life situations anyway. Five-shot groups with all the jacketed loads averaged around 2 inches, and the buckshot load grouped similarly! It also fed perfectly, even though the overall cartridge length was over 0.1-inch shorter than SAAMI’s suggested minimum of 0.940, and didn’t leave any leading in the bore.
Only two powders were tried with the 85-grain XTP’s, because there’s far less data for 85’s than for 60- and 71-grain bullets. The super-low velocities indicated there isn’t much point in using them in short-barreled .32 ACP’s, and even the 71 FMJ’s weren’t exactly speedy. But the 800+ fps velocity of the 60-grain Speer factory load I usually carry in the Tomcat was approached or matched with either the 60-grain Gold Dot or XTP with most powders. A 60-grain bullet at 800 fps may not be a super-stopper, but as a retired law enforcement friend remarked, “With a .32 ACP you’re not exactly unarmed!”
Four of John Barsness’s 9 books are on firearms and shooting. His latest, Rifle Trouble-Shooting and Handloading, was published in 2012 by Deep Creek Press, and is available through www.riflesandrecipes.com, P.O. Box 579, Townsend, MT 59644-0579, (406) 521-0273.
By John Barsness
17601 Beretta Drive
Accokeek, MD 20607
Hornady Mfg. Co.
3625 Old Potash Hwy.
Grand Island, NE 68802-1848
P.O. Box 700
Madison, NC 27025
2299 Snake River Avenue
Lewiston, ID 83501
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