The .38-40

The ‘Frontier Forty’ — A sixgun/levergun natural


Single or double? These vintage Colts — an SAA and a New Service — still perform well with John’s .38-40 handloads.


Most of Johns loads are assembled with cast bullets, but he reserves jacketed bullets for heavy loads in his M92 Winchester.

The year 1873 saw Colt introduce the Single Action Army in .45 Colt and Winchester upgrade the Yellow Boy to the Model of 1873, chambered in the equally new .44 WCF. It didn’t take long for someone to figure out it would be great to carry a sixgun and levergun chambered for the same cartridge. Beginning in 1878 it was possible to have a Winchester and a Colt SAA both chambered in .44-40.

However, Winchester soon necked the .44-40 to .40 caliber and the .38-40 was born. The .38-40 isn’t really a .38 caliber but actually a .40 (.400-.401-diameter bullets)!

At first called the .38 WCF, the new load was Winchester’s way of offering a faster, flatter shooting cartridge than the .44-40. The Winchester M73 was first chambered in .38-40 in 1880 with the same chambering following in the Colt SAA in the mid-1880s.

I’ll always have a special spot in my heart for the .38-40 as in 1957 I purchased my first centerfire single action — a beautiful, turn-of-the-century, 4-3/4" Colt SAA so chambered.

If the world was perfect I could tell you I still own it, but in the stupidity of youth I allowed it to get away from me. As a consolation it has since been replaced many times over with several fine .38-40s, including a 3rd Generation 4-3/4" SAA, a pair of 7-1/2" Model Ps (one Colt, one from USFA), and I’ve even found a couple Colt New Service .38 WCFs.

Levergun-wise there is a Cimarron 1873 Carbine, an original Winchester Model 92 plus a newer “Miroku Winchester” with an octagon barrel. Along the line I’ve also picked up Italian-made replica .38-40s in all three of the original barrel lengths. They leave nothing to be desired when it comes to accuracy, fit, and finish.

The .38-40 is the cartridge for those who wish to stay with authentic frontier loads but don’t want the recoil of a 255-gr. .45 Colt loaded to original levels (or even the lighter recoiling 200-gr. .44-40).

The .38-40, usually loaded with 180-gr. bullets, is very pleasant to shoot even with loads of 1,000 fps or more. The lighter weight bullets combined with the slightly heavier weight of the .38 WCF-chambered single action — be it Colt or replica — gives us a cartridge shooting both “hard and easy.”

As the old Texas Ranger told me: “These automatics they carry nowadays — they’s nothin’ to ’em, nothin’ at all. A .45 Colt is a good ’un, and the .44 too. But if you want a gun that shoots hard, get you a .38-40. Don’t kick much neither.”

The .38-40 — being a bottlenecked cartridge — precludes the use of conventional carbide sizing dies. This means the cases must be lubed before sizing but much of the work and bother of this step has now been removed by the use of spray-on lubes. For lubricating .38-40 brass I place about 100 clean cases in a shallow cardboard box, spray a little lube, shake, spray again, and they’re ready to go. Thus prepared the cases are ready to be loaded and there’s no reason why you can’t use a progressive press.

For most of my .38-40 loading, I go with RCBS’s Model 2000. All three of the most popular Colt SAA cartridges — .45 Colt, .44-40 and .38-40 — will work with the .45 Colt shell holder plate. On the RCBS 2000 the powder measure stays in place when changing from one cartridge to the next and all three of these work fine with the same powder charge of 8.0 grains of Unique. The RCBS die plate requires about 20 seconds to change from one caliber to another and I keep three of these handy, each holding die sets for the three mentioned cartridges.
Brass and Bullets

Winchester Rifle

John raises the ante when loading jacketed bullets for his Miroku-made Winchester M92 .38-40 (above). Beautiful and accurate: John’s engraved and ivory stocked 3rd Generation Colt SAA (below) handles some stouter loads very well.


Brass And Bullets

In the past most .38-40 brass had very thin case mouths. No matter how I tried I would always lose brass in both the sizing and bullet seating operation, even more so than with the equally thin .44-40 brass. If the bullet was slightly tilted or the case mouth hit the bottom of the sizing die, no matter how lightly, the case would be ruined.

This situation changed with the introduction of Starline .38-40 brass. It is without the inherent weakness of earlier offerings and works extremely well on the RCBS Model 2000 Progressive. Beware of once-fired Winchester .38-40 brass: all I have encountered recently seem to have crimped in primers.

Bullets for the .38-40 — normally .400-.401 — work very well in current replicas and Colt SAAs. Early Colts made before World War II are often encountered with large chamber mouths and barrel groove diameters requiring larger bullets. If you cast your own, both RCBS and Lyman now offer .38-40 Cowboy Bullet Molds with a proper crimping groove and you can size the bullets accordingly.

Earlier bullets, such as the excellent Lyman #40188 or #401043 (a copy of the original design) do not have a crimping groove and this can be a problem in the heavier loads and/or or levergun loads if the dies don’t provide a tight bullet to case mouth fit. Most of my loads for the .38-40 are assembled with Oregon Trail’s 180-gr. RNFP designed specifically for the .38-40. At everyday working-load levels, they shoot superbly in both sixguns and leverguns.


John doesn’t push things too hard with his Cimarron Model 1873 .38-40 (above). His pre-WWI Colt Bisley (below) obviously loves its diet of Taffin handloads!


Propellants And Power Levels

My most-used powder is Alliant’s Unique, with Universal as a natural substitute while the common powder charge is 8.0 grains whether it’s .44-40, .38-40 or .45 Colt cases being loaded on the RCBS Model 2000. Normally, the powder measure remains set on this charge. Other powders I use are Hodgdon’s TiteGroup, Winchester’s 231 and Alliant’s Red Dot and Bullseye.

For heavier loads in strong guns I go with Unique, #2400, and H4227. Model 1892s, both original and replicas, are strong guns and can be used with heavier loads for hunting. My Miroku-made Winchester M92 is adequate for close-range deer with a 180- gr. JHP over 20.0 grains of #2400 at over 1,800 fps. I do not use heavy loads in my Winchester Model 1873 replica.

The .38-40 is a natural for use with black powder. However, I strongly caution against the use of black powder or black powder substitutes in conventional powder measures. Lyman now offers their Classic No. 55 Powder Measure specifically for use with black powder. For loading black powder .38-40 I normally use the RCBS Progressive Model 2000 for sizing, de-capping, priming and belling the case mouth. Once I have a quantity of cases so prepared I then use the Lyman No. 55 to charge the cases and then seat the bullets with a single-stage press. If you have your eyes on a particular sixgun and/or levergun but are hesitating because it is chambered in .38-40 instead of .45 Colt, take the plunge. With current components and equipment the .38-40 is not too difficult to reload. Recently produced .38-40s, be they Colts or replicas, are among the most accurate sixguns to be found.
(Oregon Trail Bullets)

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