Add some Punctuation To Your Sixgun Savvy!
By John Taffin
There was a time not too many years ago when it was possible to find small gun shops every few miles. There’s still one about 20 miles south of town and I like to go out there every chance I get to see what new items (by “new” I mean stuff new to the shop).
This particular afternoon it didn’t take me long to spot a real classic sixgun in the display case. The shop owner said it had just been put on consignment that morning and he counseled the owner: “I don’t think anyone will ever be interested in it,” because it was chambered in the “obsolete” .32-20. I was definitely interested and it did not take me long to totally disprove the shop owner’s prophecy.
The “Dash” sixguns are those chambered in .44-40, .38-40 and .32-20. They weren’t always two pairs of numbers separated by a “dash” but rather began as the .44 Winchester Centerfire (.44 WCF), .38 Winchester Centerfire (.38 WCF) and .32 Winchester Centerfire (.32 WCF). They did not begin as sixgun cartridges but just as their original name testifies, they began in the Winchester Model 1873 lever action rifle—the rifle many consider to be “The Gun that Won the West.” The .44 came first, and subsequently necked down to “.38” (actually 0.40 inch to give a flatter shooting, slightly lighter bullet.
I call these 20th century Colt and S&W sixguns “Double-Action-Dash Sixguns” when chambered in these three cartridges. In addition to the Colt Single Action, Colt chambered all three cartridges in their Model 1878 Double Action, the .32-20 in their Army Special and Police Positive, and both the .44-40 and .38-40 in the New Service.
S&W not only offered the .32-20 in the Military & Police, they also rarely offered the .38-40 and .44-40 in their Top-Break Double-Action Frontier sixguns as well as (very rarely) in their N-Frame Hand Ejectors. Basically all of these were gone before the beginning of WWII. Double actions chambered in any of these cartridges are extremely rare since the war. The only ones I can think of are the S&W Wagon Train Commemorative Model 544 in .44-40, and the Dan Wesson mid-frame .32-20, although also very rare.
Old sixguns like this 7-1/2-inch Colt New Service .44-40 are very pleasant to shoot.
The Double Action Dash cartridges, .44-40, and .32-20 are easy to reload with Oregon Trail store-bought bullets or
home-cast from Lyman molds.
I know of no post WWII .38-40 factory produced double-action sixguns, however a very few have been custom converted to .38-40 using such S&W sixguns as the .38/44 Heavy Duty. Basically, the only way to come up with a factory produced Double-Action-Dash Sixgun is to buy used.
All of the “Dash” or Winchester Centerfire cartridges were relegated to obsolescence before I was born. They saw a resurgence of popularity in the beginning days of Cowboy Action Shooting, especially the .38-40 and .44-40 among those who prefer to shoot black powder. Starline saved the brass from extinction and Black Hills was one of the first ammunition companies to offer all three in factory-loaded cartridges.
The .44-40 has been overshadowed by heavily loaded .44 Specials as well as the .44 Magnum while the .38-40 was paid the highest compliment when the .40 S&W came out as a ballistic twin to the old sixgun/lever gun cartridge. The .32-20 has remained a more popular choice than the other two cartridges simply because it is so easy shooting, accurate, and still remains a good choice for small game and varmints in a sixgun or levergun. Can we do without all three of them? Of course! However, they still offer a lot of good shooting to those paying attention.
All of these Smith & Wesson and Colt Double-Action Dash Sixguns be they .32-20, .38-40, or .44-40, are older than I am so I treat them rather gently. The Dan Wesson .32-20 is a different matter as it is an entirely modern sixgun capable of handling heavier loads without worrying. It is also an exceptionally accurate sixgun.
If you’ve read this far you probably noticed there’s certainly nothing new about reloading in this installment. That is correct as that is not the purpose of this piece. What I hope to accomplish is to encourage the more adventurous among us to actually step away from the modern world and look back at some of the wonderful choices we used to have. With all the double-action sixguns we have to pick from today, some might feel this was a waste of time, money, effort, and a good sixgun. Going back in history to enjoy what was a special sixgun is never a waste. For those who understand, no explanation is necessary; for those who don’t, none is possible.
The best reloading tips I can give is use quality Starline brass and quality dyes such as found from Lyman and RCBS. Starline solved the problem of extra weak case mouths on the dash cartridges and RCBS also has special Cowboy dies. Both Lyman and RCBS also offered an assortment of bullet molds for all three cartridges for those who cast their own. For those who don’t, Oregon Trail has excellent cast bullets for all three also.
Remember, even though the .38-40 and .44-40 Colt New Service sixguns were big and strong, they are also big and old and should be treated kindly. Just have fun!