Levergun Loads: .44 WCF

Renowned round rides again!
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Targets fired at 50 yards (above) with .44-40 replica 1892 leverguns. Two of John’s most-used
powders for loading jacketed bullets (below) in the .44 WCF are #2400 and Unique.

In 1860, B. Tyler Henry received a patent for a truly landmark rifle. With a lever-operated action using a copper cartridge case, the Model of 1860 (or “.44 Henry”) was born. This first true levergun, chambered in .44 Rimfire, offered previously unheard-of firepower. When Oliver Winchester lent his name to a levergun, the first Winchester came forth as the 1866, or as it was soon called due to its brass frame, the Yellow Boy. Winchester set the stage for a whole line of great leverguns. The 1860 and 1866 were both great steps forward but the best was yet to come — the 1873 Winchester.

The ammunition for the 1873 Winchester was no longer rimfire but a reloadable centerfire, the .44 Winchester Center Fire or .44 WCF, more commonly known today as the .44-40. The .44 WCF also used an inside lubricated bullet rather than the outside lubricated bullet of the .44 Rimfire.

The .44 WCF differed in two other ways from the Henry. The case was lengthened to 1.3″ and instead of being straight-walled as the .44 Rimfire the .44 WCF is a tapered case with a slight bottle-neck. The .44 WCF in the Winchester 1873 arrived the same year as the .45 Colt in the Colt Single Action Army and it is very close to being a .45 case necked down to .44.

Marlin 1894s in .44-40. Both have octagon barrels while the bottom rifle,
belonging to John’s wife Diamond Dot, has been cut to 19-1/2" length.

Snags

A couple of “problems” surface when loading for the .44-40 but these problems can be minimized with experience. One of the problems is not cartridge so much as the leverguns and sixguns available over the previous 150 years — bullet diameter is all over the place. The early standard was a 0.426" bullet.

I have two Colt Single Actions, one a 2nd Generation Peacemaker Commemorative and the other a 3rd Generation Single Action. The first barely accepts 0.427" bullets while the other welcomes bullets with a 0.429" diameter and I have to keep both supplies carefully marked for use in each individual sixgun. This problem is not so pronounced in modern .44-40 leverguns and I have been able to use 0.429" to 0.430" .44 Magnum bullets with success in these.

Another fairly small problem is the fact .44-40 brass is tapered, basically being a .45 down to .44 which means a standard steel sizing die is used instead of a carbide version. This means cases must be lubricated before sizing but I spray lube all cases, no matter what type of sizing die I’m going to use. I also have had no problem loading .44-40s on a progressive press.

Lighter weight .44 Magnum bullets work well in loading for the .44-40.

The Loads

The standard jacketed bullet for the .44-40 has been a 200-gr. flat nose. In the past both Remington and Winchester have offered this bullet sized to the standard 0.426" to 0.427" for use in leverguns or sixguns. Using the Remington version over 9.0 grains of Unique results in just over 1,240 fps while a charge of 20.0 grains of #2400 boost the muzzle velocity considerably up to just over 1,830 fps, resulting in a very potent hunting load. At 50 yards with the standard sights these two loads group into 2-1/2" and 3" respectively so they are definitely close range propositions.

I have also found .44 Magnum bullets sized at 0.429" to 0.430" also work just fine in .44-40 lever guns. For example using Hornady’s 200 JHP over 20.0 grains of IMR4227 results in 1,375 fps muzzle velocity and just over 1" groups for three shots at 50 yards. Note the larger diameter bullet shoots tighter groups.

The Model 1873 may not be a strong action but the Model 1892 is very strong and can be used for many more varied activities. In my old Lyman Manual there are loads for the .44-40 in the Winchester ’92 consisting of a 200-gr. jacketed bullet at 2,100 fps using #2400! Times change and powders and primers change and I don’t believe I want to push the 1892 so hard.

’92 Only!

The following .44-40 loads are for use in Model 1892 leverguns only as some are much too heavy for the old toggle link actions of the Models 1860, 1866 and 1873. Groups are five shots at 50 yards: Using the Remington 200 JFP .44-40 bullet with 20.0 grains of H4227 yields 1,256 fps and a group of 1-1/4″. Going up to 22.0 grains of the same powder raises the muzzle velocity to 1,537 fps while increasing the group size slightly to 1-3/4″, still resulting in a good deer hunting load. For milder loads I use 9.0 grains of Unique for just under 1,200 fps and a 2″ group.

Switching to bullets designed for the .44 Magnum, Speer’s 200 JFP over 10.0 grains of Unique gives an easy shooting 1,366 fps and a 2-1/4″ group while the Speer 225 JHP over the same powder charge is just over 1,300 fps with a slightly tighter 2″ group. All of these are very pleasant shooting.

Until the Renaissance of things Western with the arrival of Cowboy Action Shooting, the .44-40 cartridge was basically dead. Since then we have seen replicas of the 1860, 1866, 1873 and 1892 Winchesters all chambered in .44 WCF. Sometimes progress is wonderful.

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