Winchester Lever Guns & Their Black Powder Cartridges

Making Sense Out Of The Confusing
Array Of Calibers.

Some of the most often asked questions I receive from readers concern Winchester lever gun cartridges. That’s because in three decades they introduced no fewer than seven models of lever actions and by my count chambered them for 21 different black powder cartridges. And I mean different, not just different names for ones of identical dimensions.

Furthermore, these different cartridges came in a bewildering array of similar names. For instance, there were .38 WCF, .38-55, .38-56 WCF, .38-70 WCF, and .38-72 WCF. None of these were interchangeable and in fact the .38 WCF used a completely different bullet diameter from the other four.

It is a little recognized fact that when the Winchester Repeating Arms Company of the late 1800s introduced a new model of lever action—with only one exception—they introduced a brand new line of cartridges along with it. The exception was their two models chambering pistol-size cartridges—the Model 1873 and the Model 1892. We’ll cover the details of their overlap later. The other five Winchester lever gun models: 1866, 1876, 1886, 1894, and 1895 all had their own specific chamberings. Let me clarify one thing however. Not all of these cartridges originated with Winchester. They were not above borrowing other companies’ ideas and even the US Government’s.

The Henry Repeating Rifle (top) was a tremendous success and saw service during our Civil War. Oliver Winchester brought out the “Improved Henry” which became known as the Model 1866 (bottom), here in the saddle ring carbine version. Both were chambered for the .44 Henry Rimfire.

Winchester got their ball rolling with this model and chambered it for the same .44 Henry Rimfire as the earlier Henry repeating rifle had used. In fact, at time of introduction Winchester first named what became the Model 1866, the Improved Henry. As such they used a copper-case 0.88-inch long with rimfire priming and nominal bullet diameter of 0.446 inch. Towards the very end of that model’s production in the late 1880s some few were made for a centerfire version of the same cartridge. Velocity for either .44 Henry Rimfire or Centerfire with 200-grain bullets over 28 grains of black powder was supposed to be about 1,100 fps.

With this model and its premier caliber, Winchester introduced their first reloadable cartridge—the .44 Winchester Centerfire (WCF). Practically everyone now calls it .44-40 because of its 40-grain powder charge. About 1879 they squeezed the exact same case down to .40 caliber, reduced powder charge to 38 grains and bullet weight to 180 grains and named the round .38 WCF. Why they didn’t call it .40 WCF is still a mystery. Then Marlin adopted the cartridge with a 40-grain charge and started stamping their rifles .38-40. The name used still. In the early 1880s a whole new, albeit tiny round was added called .32 WCF, which actually was a .31 caliber because it used a 0.312-inch, 115-grain bullet. Loaded with 20 grains of black powder it became known as .32-20. All three of these rounds pushed their bullets at about 1,300 fps according to Winchester’s literature. Also in the 1880s Winchester marketed the ’73 in .22 Short and Long calibers.

For our nation’s centennial year Winchester wanted to introduce something new and startling. What they actually came up with could be considered their one and only failure in lever guns because the Model 1876 sold in less numbers than any other Winchester of the 1800s. First cartridge was .45-75 WCF which in no way is close to the .45-70 Government. The only way to increase power in the black-powder era was to increase powder capacity. But Winchester was limited by the length of action required in a repeater to accommodate longer rounds, so the company made the .45-75 WCF a bottleneck round with case length of only 1.89 inches. Bullet weight was 350 grains. Next came the .45-60 WCF which actually was based on the Government’s straight cased.45-70 with length reduced from 2.10 inches to 1.89 inches. Its bullet weight was 300 grains. These two .45s fired their bullets at about 1,400 and 1,300 fps respectively.

Next Winchester tried to get even more power from the ’76 by making it a .50 caliber. The basic case was the same as .45-75 WCF but lengthened ever so slightly to 1.94 inches. Weighing only 300 grains its .50-caliber bullet was about as long as it was wide. Under it was crammed 95 grains of black powder giving it a muzzle velocity of about 1,500 fps. Of course it was named .50-95 WCF.

Last cartridge introduced for the ’76 Winchester was a remarkably stupid idea. The Winchester engineers went back to the .45-60 WCF and squeezed it down to take a 210-grain, .40-caliber bullet over only 60 grains of powder. The .40-60 WCF has to hold a record for being the weakest cartridge chambered in the heaviest rifle.

With the Model 1886 Winchester got into the full swing of introducing a wide array of cartridges. Of the black powder ones there were nine. (The smokeless powder .33 Winchester came along later.) Of those nine cartridges seven used the same case head as the .45-70 Government. The two rounds that did not use it actually were exactly the same dimensionally. (I said earlier all this is confusing.)

Let’s look at the seven based on the .45-70 first. In caliber they were .38, .40 and .45. A fact that makes sorting them easier is this: regardless of caliber these seven all used either a 2.10- or 2.40-inch case lengths. So in .38 caliber there were .38-56 WCF and .38-70 WCF. In .40 caliber there were .40-65 WCF, .40-82 WCF, and .40-70 WCF. The latter two both used 2.40-inch cases but the .40-82 WCF was loaded with 260-grain bullets and the .40-70 was loaded with 330-grain bullets. The .45 calibers were the good old .45-70 Government and .45-90 WCF.

Then there were the .50 calibers: .50-110-300 and .50-100-450, both using the same 2.40-inch case. The reason Winchester considered these .50-caliber rounds as different cartridges is that the rifles chambered for each had their own specific rifling twist rates. With the 300-grain bullets it was one turn in 60 inches and with 450-grain bullets it was 1:54 inches.

Now get this: regardless of bore size, bullet weight or case length all nine of these Model 1886 cartridges fired their bullets at about 1,300 to 1,500 fps.

When John M. Browning took over designing Winchester lever guns they
increased in strength. At top is Model 1886 and at bottom is Model 1892.

Model 1892

Winchester wisely reused the .32, .38 and .44 WCFs again in their second lever gun using pistol-size cartridges. Then they added one more: the .25-20 WCF. It was nothing more than the .32 WCF cases necked down to use 86-grain, 0.257-inch bullets. Like the other small cartridges before it, nominal velocity was about 1,300 fps.

The Henry Repeating Rifle (top) was a tremendous success and saw service during our Civil War. Oliver Winchester brought out the “Improved Henry” which became known as the Model 1866 (bottom), here in the saddle ring carbine version. Both were chambered for the .44 Henry Rimfire.

MODEL 1894

With the Model 1894 Winchester entered the smokeless-powder era but it is a fact that the first two cartridges for which the new lever gun was chambered were black-powder loads. The reason was not a lack of strength in the new design. It was that the barrel steel was not tough enough for the new jacketed bullets required by smokeless-powder cartridge pressures.

Hence Winchester’s engineers shamelessly borrowed two cartridges, which had been chambered for over a decade by Marlin in their Model 1881. These were the .32-40 and .38-55. The first used a 165-grain lead bullet at approximately 1,350 fps and the latter a 255-grain bullet at approximately 1,275 fps.

So how close were the .38-55 and Winchester’s own .38-56? In power they were nearly identical. In case shape they were totally different. As said above the .38-56 was the Government’s .45-70 squeezed down to .38 caliber. Conversely, the .38-55’s case head was copied by Winchester and used for the .30 WCF (.30-30).

This rifle was designed by John M. Browning from the ground up as a complete departure from the basic Winchester lever gun look. It had no tubular magazine and so was safe to use with bullet shapes other than roundnose/flatpoints as had been standard in all other Winchester lever gun cartridges.

That said, two of the first three cartridges for which the ’95 was chambered were black-powder rounds. In fact they were Winchester’s last two black-powder lever-gun cartridges. They were the .38-72 WCF and .40-72 WCF. Both cartridges were based on the earlier .40-70 Sharps Straight case only lengthened from 2.50 inches to 2.58 inches. They were introduced with lead alloy bullets weighing 275- and 330-grain bullets respectively. Nominal velocities were considered approximately 1,450 and 1,350 fps in the same order.

As mentioned in the beginning my favorite Winchester black-powder lever-gun cartridge comparison concerns the so-called “.38s.” There were five: .38 WCF, .38-55, .38-56 WCF, .38-70 WCF and .38-72 WCF. None were interchangeable. The .38-55, .38-56 WCF and .38-70 WCF all used 255-grain flatnose lead bullets but each in a different case. The .38 WCF used .40-caliber bullets and the .38-72’s lead bullet was 275 grains.

It seems to me that a rifleman from the late 1800s needed to know his rifle and cartridge terminology very well when walking into a gun or hardware store to purchase ammunition.
Mike “DUKE” Venturino
Photos: Yvonne Venturino

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3 thoughts on “Winchester Lever Guns & Their Black Powder Cartridges

  1. Gene Haynes

    I am a regular subscriber to Gun’s.

    Gun’s and Ammo, Rifle Shooter and all of the magazines.

    Duke Venturino, had a article about Winchester
    Lever Guns & their lack Powder Cartridges.
    He listed all of the Winchster models,
    I recently purchased a Marlin 25-36, I have tried to
    find out something about the gun, have looked on the
    Marlin Forun, still cannot find anything about it.
    If you can help I would send a photo and the SN of the gun.

    Thank you in advance
    Gene Haynes


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