The .256 Winchester Magnum


The “out-of-print” .256 Winchester is an excellent performer in John’s T/C Contender.

In the early 1960s there was a great deal of interest in long-range, small-bore handgun cartridges. Remington introduced the radical (at the time) XP-100 bolt gun chambered in .221 Fireball. Smith & Wesson contributed the ill-fated .22 Jet, and Marlin brought out a modernized lever-action rifle chambered in .256 Winchester Magnum.

Both of the latter two cartridges were based on the .357 Magnum necked down. The .256 was at least prototyped by Colt — in 1963 they produced a brochure showing four .256 sixguns — a Colt SAA, a Buntline Special and a Python, all priced at $125 each, plus their $89.95 .357 Magnum. I have no idea how many, if any, were actually produced and sold as they simply couldn’t get it to work right; case setback with the cartridge case jamming the cylinder was the problem.

Marlin’s Model 57 .256 Levermatic was a modernized, box-magazine short-throw levergun.

Ruger Hawkeye, Marlin Levermatic

Ruger made the .256 work in their single-shot Hawkeye “revolver.” Instead of a cylinder, Ruger went with a single-shot breechblock fitted to a Blackhawk frame. The cartridge is a good one, however, the Marlin Model 57 Levermatic did not go over well perhaps because it was too modern-looking a departure from the traditional Marlin levergun. The Levermatic was hammerless and designed with a short action and very short lever throw which takes some getting used to for those of us raised on standard (and far smoother) Marlins and Winchesters.

Although the operation of the action is nothing to get excited about, the Levermatic shoots quite well with the .256 — a modernized version of the old .25-20. It was made to be scoped and gives me excellent results for three shots at 50 yards using the Speer 75-gr. JFN over 14 grains of IMR 4227 for just under 2,300 fps and a group of 5/8". The Hornady 60-gr. JSP over one more grain of the same powder gives the same muzzle velocity and the same accuracy.

John’s preferred powder? Alliant 2400.

John’s Contender Concoctions

Thompson/Center also chambered their Contender in .256. Mine has a 10" bull barrel and is topped with a Burris 4X LER, my scope of choice. I do not know of anyone offering .256 Winchester brass today, however, I’ve always tried to keep a good supply of all pistol brass on hand and have often purchased brass found at reasonable prices long before I ever had any gun to accept it.

Since the .256 Winchester is based on the .357 Magnum case, I surmise you could make brass from the latter, but I’m guessing cases made thusly would need to be inside necked reamed. Fortunately, I have enough brass so this should never be a problem. Dies are available from RCBS and with the .256 being a bottlenecked case, only a full-length sizing and seating die are required.

My powders of choice for the .256 are the same two I use for most handgun loads — Alliant 2400 and IMR 4227. Hornady, Sierra and Speer all offer .25 caliber bullets in the proper weight range (60-75 grains). Accuracy is excellent with all loads I have used with three shots at 45 yards. They all average under — well under — 1". Factory loads from Winchester use a 60-gr. JHP that clocks out just under 2,500 fps from the 10" Contender barrel and places its shots in 7/8".

My favorite loads include the Hornady 60-gr. JFP over 14.0 grains of 2400 for 2,440 fps. One grain more gives me just over 2,500 fps with both loads grouping 5/8" for three shots. The most accurate load I’ve found is the Speer 75-gr. FP over 14.0 grains of 2400 (3/8" at 2,250 fps).

John’s favorite bullets for the .256 Winchester are the Hornady 60-gr.
FP, Speer 75-gr. FPFN and Sierra 75-gr. JHP.

Bottleneck golden oldies: The .256 Winchester (right) is a modernized version of the .25-20.

Missed Opportunities

The plan behind the .256 Winchester was to come up with a 2,500 fps small-bore sixgun load. It was an excellent idea. It’s unfortunate the engineers on the project did not do all the homework necessary to make this cartridge work in a revolver chamber. My friends Gary Reeder and J.D. Jones learned how to make bottlenecked cartridges work in sixguns, so you have to wonder why the original engineers couldn’t figure it out.
The Contender-chambered .256 Winchester is an excellent choice for small game and varmints as is the Marlin Levermatic (which is certainly more powerful than my old Marlin 1894 .25-20). The cartridge itself is quite potent for such work and — combined with its accuracy potential — gives everything needed.

This cartridge should not have died.

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