The Best Old West Handgun Cartridge

The .44 Winchester Centerfire.

Over the past 30 years, I’ve tried to shoot every revolver type that someone would have packed in a holster during the last 50 years of the 19th century. Such shooting has encompassed handguns from .36-caliber cap-and-ball “Navy” Colts to the big-bore double actions of the 1890s. In regards to metallic cartridges I’ve handloaded tens of thousands of rounds with both black powder and smokeless powders ranging from .38 Colt up to .45 Colt. In between have been .38 WCF, .41 Colt, .44 S&W American & Russian, .44 Colt, .44 WCF, .45 Schofield and others.

In my humble but experience-based opinion, one of those many rounds stands above all the rest both in regards to its historical perspective and modern application. That is the .44 WCF (Winchester Centerfire) more commonly known today as .44-40. Such an attitude might surprise some readers because cartridges like the .45 Colt are held in near reverence.

Evidently, I wasn’t the only one to draw such a conclusion. Consider this: during the time frame mentioned above no other handgun manufacturer cataloged .45 Colt revolvers. Virtually every maker of “belt revolvers” offered them as .44 WCF. (Belt revolvers were what we would call “holster guns” today.) Remington had the Models 1875 and 1890, Merwin & Hulbert had a couple versions of their unique twist-frame design, Smith & Wesson made both single- and double-action top-break versions of their Model No. 3 in .44 WCF and even Colt put the round in all of their big-frame revolvers introduced after 1873. Another gun’riter far more famous than me, the late Col. Charles Askins once wrote that he saw no reason for Smith & Wesson to introduce their .44 Special because the .44 WCF was already well established.

Ironically, for a cartridge, which I consider a most excellent one for revolvers the .44 WCF was actually developed for rifles. Winchester did that in 1873 for the rifle and carbine named for the year. It was their first round using a brass case with external primer; meaning it was reloadable. From the beginning standard factory loads used a 1.31″ long, slightly bottlenecked case with 40 grains of black powder under a 200-grain, roundnose-flatpoint bullet. From, a 24″ rifle barrel velocity was supposed to be about 1,300 fps.
By Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos By Yvonne Venturino

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One thought on “The Best Old West Handgun Cartridge

  1. James A. "Jim" Farmer

    The late Colonel Charles Askins as a U.S. Border Patrol Agent
    back in the 1930’s packed a Colt New Service .44-40 revolver.
    The Colt New Service (1898-1944) was a classic police type service revolver from a distant past era. Bear in mind Colt commenced chambering their Single Action Army Revolver for the
    .44-40 caliber in 1878; afterwards their revolver was roll stamped
    “Frontier Six Shooter.” Thus a frontiersman could now carry both
    his Winchester Model 1873 .44-40 lever action “saddle ring” carbine and revolver chambered for the same caliber. This simplified ammo logistics and negated having more than one gun
    chambered for a different caliber. On the 19th century Western
    frontier this was a definite advantage.


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