Black Powder Cartridges Part 3

The .44 WCF
; .

This Frontier Six-Shooter from the 1890s still performs well with black powder loads (above). “

That wonderful year was 1873. To this day, it stands out as no other for the cartridges and firearms that were introduced. It’s almost as if something supernatural was going on. In that one year, the United States Military adopted the .45 Colt Single Action Army and the Springfield Trapdoor .45-70. Both the .45 Colt and the .45-70 may have started as military cartridges but they were soon embraced by the civilian population and are extremely popular today.

The third cartridge introduced in this wonderful year was the .44 Winchester Centerfire.


Some of the bullet designs that work well in the .44-40.


Winchester had begun with the 1860 Henry, which was then improved to the 1866 Yellow Boy by adding a forearm and a side-loading gate. Both of these were chambered for the .44 Rimfire. It was not a very powerful loading but was a great start.

Then, in 1873, Winchester was proud to put his name on what was to be known as “The Gun That Won The West,” the Model 1873 Winchester. Gone were the brass frames as this Winchester was made first with iron and then a steel frame. Such a firearm deserved a proper chambering and now the relatively light .44 Rimfire was replaced by the more powerful .44 Winchester Centerfire, which as its name implies was a centerfire rather than a rimfire cartridge. Being a centerfire cartridge, it could be reloaded.

There was also a very important “unintended consequence” of the development of the .44 WCF. The 1860, 1866 and 1873 Winchesters all had the same basic action. The cartridge came straight back out of the magazine tube, straight up with the lifter and then straight into the chamber. This worked well with straight wall cartridges; however, to be able to hold more powder, the newest .44 was basically .45 at the back end and .44 at the front end — a bottlenecked design. This would become very important in 20 years with the arrival of the Model 1892 Winchester.

This new Model 1892 featured twin locking lugs at the back, making it much stronger than the other Winchesters and the feeding of the cartridge was changed. Now the cartridge came back and was fed into the chamber at an angle. The bottleneck shape made this transition very easy.

One of the great advantages of the .44 Henry Rimfire cartridge was the fact it could be had in a sixgun/levergun combination of the Smith & Wesson American revolver and the 1860 or 1866 Winchester. What was needed was a sixgun companion to the 1873 Winchester. It took a couple years, but around 1878 Colt chambered their Single Action Army in .44 WCF. There was probably a little hesitation because of not knowing how a bottlenecked cartridge would work in a revolver chamber. It worked and works just fine.

So far we’ve talked about the .44 Winchester Centerfire or .44 WCF. Today this cartridge is better known as the .44-40 with the “40” designating the charge of black powder. Conventional wisdom tells us the .44-40 designation came about because Marlin wanted to chamber their leverguns in the .44 Winchester Centerfire but did not want to put Winchester’s name on their rifles. Hence, they came up with .44-40 as an alternative.

With its original loading of 40 grains of black powder, the .44-40 in a sixgun was a powerful cartridge with a muzzle velocity well above 900 fps. Using old balloon-head brass and today’s primers and powder, the original loading of 40 grains of black powder yields well over 1,000 fps from a 7 ½” sixgun.


. This .44-40 was produced in 2011, the 175th Anniversary of Colt (below).


Using today’s modern .44-40 brass from Starline, 35 grains is about the maximum charge that can be used with most traditional bullets. From a 7 ½” barrel and using 35 grain charges of Goex FFG, Goex FFFg, Goex Cartridge, Pyrodex P and Hodgdon’s Select yield muzzle velocities of 861 fps, 893 fps, 830 fps, 999 fps and 935 fps, respectively. Note the Pyrodex is the most powerful loading, right at 1,000 fps, while the lightest load using Goex Cartridge is exceptionally accurate, producing groups just over 1″ for five shots at 25 yards.

I have loaded more than a few .44-40s on progressive presses, well almost. I perform the full-length re-sizing, de-capping, expanding the case mouth and priming on the progressive press. Even though the .44-40 is a bottlenecked cartridge and cannot be sized with a carbide sizer, I find using the steel sizing die and spraying the cases with something like Hornady’s Spray Lube works just fine on a progressive press. However, when I was doing it this way, I would charge the cases separately using a powder measure specifically made for black powder, then seat the bullet with my RockChucker. These days I do it a little differently.

I’m more patient than I used to be, then again I just might be slower, so most of my black powder cartridges are now charged with powder using the Lee Powder Measure Kit consisting of a series of powder scoops of different sizes. They are measured in cubic centimeters and the kit has about a dozen ranging from .5cc to 3.4cc. The ones I find useful for loading .44-40 with Black Powder are 1.3cc, 1.6 cc, 1.9 cc and 2.2cc, which dip 22.0, 26.6, 30.0 and 35.6 grains respectively, of FFFg black powder by volume.

Just as with loading other black powder cartridges, I start by placing the .44-40 brass cases in a loading block. I use the desired dipper and a small funnel to place the powder in each case. I typically then place a wad such as Ox-Yoke on top of the powder before seating the bullet. The wad helps cut down on fouling.


This 7 ½" Colt Frontier Six-Shooter from the 1880s with groups shot using hollow base bullets.

“Antiqued” .44-40 fitted with an 1860 Army grip frame (below). The targets were shot at 20 yards.


Choosing a bullet featuring a large deep lube groove and mated with lube especially designed for black powder such as SPG or Lyman Black Powder Gold help to keep this fouling soft. If time permits, I also run a soaked patch down the barrel after every cylinder is fired.

My most-used .44-40 loads these days are assembled using 30 grains of either black powder or black powder substitutes. These loads were all fired in an “antiqued” CFA/Uberti 7 ½” Model P. In balloon-head brass with an Oregon Trail 225-grain RNFP over 36.5 grains of Goex FFFg, the round clocks out at 821 fps or right at the level of .45 ACP Hardball.

Using modern brass with the same bullet with 30 grains of Pyrodex yields just under 700 fps while with the same charge of Triple Seven FFFg, it is just over 700 fps. Switching to the 200-grain bullet at the same charge of Triple Seven gets right up to about 850 fps.

My most accurate load has proven to be the old traditional Lyman #42798 over this same powder charge, giving me 981 fps and groups of 1 ¼”. Seating depth really makes a difference in muzzle velocity as this Lyman bullet takes up more cartridge space. The same Lyman bullet over 30.0 grains of Pyrodex is just under 950 fps and shoots a slightly larger group. Both of these last two loads especially will serve just fine as every day packing loads.

Nearly 40 years ago, I purchased a Navy Arms replica 1875 Remington, nickel-plated with a 7 ½” barrel. The Oregon Trail 225 RNFP over 30.0 grains of Pyrodex gives 850 fps and 1″ groups at 20 yards while the use of Lyman’s 240 grains #429666 over 30 grains of Triple-Seven gives the same accuracy right at 875 feet per second. At this time of my life, I can’t see any way I would need a more powerful nor more accurate load than this.

Subscribe To GUNS Magazine

Purchase A PDF Download Of The GUNS Magazine February 2023 Issue Now!