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44-40 (44WCF) for beginners (like me)
* How I got started with the 44-40.
I got started with the 44-40
44-40 (44WCF) was born in 1873 along with the Winchester 1873 lever action
rifle. If you are reading this, I
am sure that you are already aware that it was the first of a trio that included
the 38-40 and 32-20. It is
sometimes called the cartridge and rifle that "won the west".
And it has reportedly killed more game, large and small, and more men,
good and bad, than any other commercial cartridge.
That is something that you can either accept or reject.
I have no proof either way, but I do like the concept.
A "real" cartridge that can be used in both rifle and handgun.
wanted to "move up" from my 32-20 for some time.
Somehow, my first big bore handgun, a 45LC Hy-Hunter Colt-clone from
Germany did not fill the void. The
44-40 had been made in lever action and handgun, which somehow really appealed
to me. The only thing that kept me
from getting a 44-40 sooner was that original ones were collectors items.
I could afford the bad looking ones, but did not want to own them.
The really nice ones cost more than I was able to afford at the time.
A few years later the Italian clones started arriving in 44-40, but the
early ones did not have a very good reputation.
For these reasons, I have not been shooting the 44-40 as long as I have
other "obsolete" calibers.
problems with Ruger
in the very early 1990's, Ruger announced that they were going to produce their
single-action Vaquero in 44-40. I
was one of the first in line to buy one. That
was a bad mistake. When I got it, I
bought some recently introduced lead CAS loads and took it to the range.
Accuracy was worse than terrible. At
its best, the "groups" were 6" to 9" from a rest at 50 feet.
Some groups were worse than that. Accuracy
was nonexistent. At first, I
suspected the ammo, so I made a quick trip back to the store and bought a box of
half-jacketed, soft-point Winchester ammo at more than twice the price of the
CAS ammo. However, the results were
I got home, I slugged the barrel and all six cylinder throats.
It was immediately obvious the problem was with the gun.
The chambers were all undersized at 0.4245" to 0.4250".
The barrel was oversized at 0.430" (they are obviously using left
over .44 Magnum barrels). The lead
bullets were inbetween at 0.427". In
its short trip from ignition to barrel, the bullet had to squeeze down
0.002" and then expand up 0.005". But it was lead, not rubber.
It did not work. The Ruger's
dimensions were the worst possible combination for accuracy.
quickly bundled the gun up and sent it back to Ruger with a detailed letter of
what the problems were. They kept
the gun for two full months and then sent it back with a completely new cylinder
instead of reaming out the old one (the markings on the back of it were
different from the one that I sent in). Nothing
was done to the barrel. I
immediately slugged everything. Unfortunately,
they just grabbed another defective cylinder off the shelf rather than fixing
the problem. The new cylinder had
throats that were still undersized and to make it worse, two of the chambers
were also tight. I had to force
factory ammunition into those chambers. It
went right back to Ruger.
only kept it about 6 weeks the second time around. However, they sent it back without doing anything at all to
it. Along with the gun, there was a
snotty letter from Dick Beaulieu of Ruger saying that my gun fully met their
manufacturing tolerances and if I wanted anything different I should contact a
"custom gunsmith". I was
thoroughly unhappy with Ruger by now, but I was not ready to give up on the gun.
than continue to try to get Ruger to do the right thing, I sent the gun to a
"custom gunsmith" who had a standard 44-40 reamer.
He reamed out all the chambers, reamed out the throats to match the
barrel (0.430"), and recut the forcing cone for lead bullets for a very
reasonable price (little more than it cost me to send the gun back to Ruger
twice). The gunsmith did nothing
that Ruger couldn't have done, but he did and they didn't.
The gunsmith also offered to replace the barrel with a correctly sized
one and to set up his lathe to ream the necks of the chambers oversize so I
could use .44 Magnum bullets. Since
the cost went up dramatically for the last two things, I declined.
Still, the reworked gun shot groups that were only 1/3 of the size they
were before (2" to 3" at 50 feet from a rest).
This is not target gun accuracy, but it is good enough for a "fun
understand from others that Ruger has partially fixed the problem with recent
production 44-40's. They have
opened up the cylinder throats somewhat, but they are still using the oversized
.44 Magnum barrels and the chambers are still snug (which rules out the use of
.44 Magnum bullets). That is a
little better, but it is still not right. Buy
a Ruger 44-40 at your own risk. I
have since bought a Uberti Colt clone in 38-40 that has all the critical
dimensions correct. If I had known
what I know now, I would have bought one in 44-40 instead of the Ruger.
figured that since I had already mastered reloading the 32-20, the 44-40 should
be a breeze. I was partially right.
It is easier than the 32-20, but it is not a breeze.
The 44-40 has a few tricks up its sleeve to keep reloaders on their toes. Unfortunately, most of the articles I read had not talked
about the real problem with the 44-40. The
main problem is that the gun may have been machined for bullets as small as
0.425"OD or as large as 0.431"OD or anything inbetween.
No gun or set of reloading dies can handle bullets that are that much
different without problems. More
than any other caliber I am familiar with, the 44-40 should be slugged before
you use it and especially before you start reloading for it.
are many recommendations for the type of powder and amounts to use in magazines
and reloading books. I will not try
to repeat them all here. You can
start with Doc Smith's 44-40 page at < http://www.reloadammo.com/4440load.htm
>. I also highly recommend the
"Pet Loads" book by Ken Water's, a reprint of his magazine articles
for Handloader magazine. It is not
cheap, but it is worth every penny.
soon as I shot some factory cartridges for the brass, I started reloading.
I bought some Lyman 427098 hard-cast lead bullets sized to 0.427"
from a local bullet caster. I would
have preferred soft-cast bullets, but they were very difficult to find back
then. They are easier to find now, but are still not common.
I had an immediate problem with the bullet dropping down into the case
while trying to seat it and crimp it in place.
The Remington half-jacketed, soft-point bullets I tried to load dropped
completely into the case just from gravity alone.
The sizing die sized down the case neck enough, but the neck expander was
too big at 0.428"OD. I talked
to the die manufacturer and found out that they recently decided to send out
their 44-40 dies set up for 44 Magnum bullets at 0.430"/0.431"OD to
match the Ruger barrels. They did
not know about Ruger's tight chambers and undersized throats.
They sent me a neck expander for a 0.427"OD bullet free of charge.
replacement expander they sent measures 0.425"OD which gives lead bullets
0.002" of neck tension. It
works great with soft-lead bullets. There
was still a problem with the half-jacketed bullets, though.
They measure 0.425"OD themselves.
They no longer dropped down into the case by gravity alone, but they
would drop down when I tried to crimp them.
I filed down the original neck expander piece to approximately
0.422"OD -- it tapers a bit (BTW, that is really hard metal).
It works great for jacketed, but did not work very well for the lead
bullets. It was too small for them
(approx. 0.005" under). The necks would sometimes crumple and looked bad
even if they didn't. Now, I use two
neck expanders, both about 0.002" to 0.003" less than the bullets they
are used for. I put the larger one
in if I am loading lead bullets and put the smaller one in if I am loading
half-jacketed bullets. It only
takes about 30 seconds to change the neck expander from one to the other.
That little maneuver has solved a LOT of loading problems all by itself.
If I had a gun that could use .44 Magnum bullets, I would have another
neck expander, the size that it originally came from the factory.
next problem was leading. The hard-cast bullets left lead the first 1" to
2" of barrel. It was not very
much lead, but cleaning ANY lead gets very old, very quickly.
Several people suggested that it was because the barrel was oversized.
The hot gas was escaping through the gap between the groove diameter and
the bullet diameter, was melting the bottom edge (base) of the bullet and
forcing molten lead into the barrel grooves.
I could not go to bigger bullets because the chamber necks were standard
size, so they suggested a soft-lead bullet.
It was supposed to "upset" or "obturate" to fill the
oversized bore. They were right.
bought some swaged (dead-soft) Hornady 205gr 0.427"OD truncated cone
bullets. These are really soft.
These bullets do not have a conventional lube groove.
They have a knurled appearance and are dusted with a light coating of a
dry white lube. I use a Lee Factory
Crimp die to crimp the mouth of the case into the soft lead bullet.
The Lee die is different from all other crimping dies.
Instead of pushing downward and inward on the mouth of the case like all
other crimping dies, the cartridge holder presses up on the bottom of the die.
This forces 4 parts of a collet radially into the mouth of the case.
The force is straight inward instead of inward and downward which causes
buckles or bulges. If you have read my article on loading the 32-20 you know
that I think anybody who loads the 32-20, 38-40, or 44-40 needs this die.
You are just making it difficult for yourself without it.
loaded some up with 8.5gr of Unique and shot them. They gave a hair less than 900fps from the Ruger.
There was almost no leading and it was about as accurate as before, but I
was still not satisfied. I gave the rest of the loaded cartridges to my son to shoot
in his Ruger 44-40 Vaquero (he got it before I shot mine so that I could reload
for the both of us -- and he had exactly the same problem with bad tolerances
from Ruger -- and the "custom" gunsmith worked his magic again).
turned out that they were the most accurate loads we had found for his gun.
I gave the loads a second look. I
had suspected before that the bore in his gun was a little smoother than the one
in mine. So I took the rest of the
Hornady bullets and poured some Lee liquid Alox on them.
As soon as they dried, I loaded and shot them. That was the answer. They
were more accurate than anything I had fired in my gun before and there was
absolutely no leading. They also
work great in my son's handgun. One
of these days I will load up some bullets for firelapping my gun, but have not
gotten around to it yet. Until
then, Alox works.
success with that load did not stop me from experimenting with other loads,
though. I have tried XMP5744,
Bullseye, 231, and 2400 along with various bullets in them, but I keep coming
back to Unique with the Alox-lubed Hornady bullets.
loading the 44-40 is a lot easier than loading the 32-20.
The case is a quite a bit stronger.
It is much harder to buckle the case of the 44-40 than it is with the
32-20. It is not as strong as
modern straight cases, though. The 44-40 case can buckle if you are particularly hamhanded
while handling it. However,
everything I learned about the mechanics of reloading the 32-20 <
http://www.sixgunner.com/guests/32wcf.htm > also works great with the 44-40.
biggest problem with the 44-40 is matching the gun (throat, chamber neck, and/or
bore), cartridge (bullet OD), and reloading die (sizing and neck expanding dies)
diameters. Different 44-40's may
use bullets as small as 0.425"OD or as large as 0.431"OD.
Sometimes the guns are not even internally consistent (such as ones with
tight chamber necks or throats and oversized bores).
I think that is the cause of at least some of the problems that have been
reported by people who are just starting to load and shoot the 44-40.
No gun OR reloading die can handle 0.006" difference in bullet
diameters without problems. Get the
gun, bullet size, and die dimensions to match and everything will assemble
easily. That may require help from
44-40 in a long gun.
that that was done, it was time to find a 44-40 rifle.
There were lots of Rossi copies of the Winchester 92 available at very
reasonable prices. In fact, my son bought one.
I did not like the wood on any of them that I had seen (it looked like
they crudely painted the wood with tar) and the wood/metal, metal/metal fitup
was poor on quite a few of them. I
had also heard that Marlin was going to make an 1894 in 44-40.
I like Marlin lever actions. Sure
enough, they did. I bought one. It is a Marlin 1894S carbine with an 18" round
microgroove barrel. This one was
from a short run that was built prior to the more recent Cowboy models.
Immediately after I got it, I mounted a Williams 5-D peepsight on the
Marlin was outstanding accurate with the Winchester half-jacketed bullets.
A real tackdriver. After all, microgroove was created for use with jacketed
bullets. It did OK with the CAS
factory lead loads. They did not
cause any leading that I could see and were only slightly less accurate than the
jacketed loads. Then I fired 5
shots with my dead-soft Hornady handgun handloads.
Only two hit the paper target, and one of those went through it sideways.
Checking the barrel I found that the first 2" or 3" of rifling
had completely disappeared. The
grooves there were full of lead. I
had heard of shooting jacketed bullets to "blow out" leading in a
barrel and still had a few of the half-jacketed Winchesters.
I shot them and checked the barrel again.
The rifling was visible now, but it was obvious there was still lead and
it was a lot further along the barrel. I
took it home and spent a LOT of time scrubbing lead out of the bore.
I believe that the jacketed bullets did not do anything other than spread
the lead further down the bore. I
certainly won't do that again.
have not spent a lot of time trying to get lead bullets to work in the Marlin,
but I know they can. I have done it
with other micro-groove Marlins. I
will almost certainly have to go to a larger diameter bullet and a slightly
harder one, too. This should not be
a problem since the chamber of the Marlin is looser than the chambers in the
Ruger. I don't know yet how large I
can go with the bullet, but it will certainly be more than 0.427"OD.
However, it is just so easy to load and shoot the half-jacketed bullets
for the time being that I have not gotten around to it yet.
I use 18.5gr of 2400 powder with 200gr Winchester half-jacketed,
soft-point bullets in the rifle. This
is more powerful than what should be used in old rifles or handguns, but the
Marlin has no problem with them. I
don't try to make it into a .44 Magnum, but pushing it up to nearly 1,500fps in
the rifle is much more satisfying than the factory loads.
It also still gives good case life.
caution: Find bullets that have a crimping groove if you are going to use them
in a lever action rifle. The
classic Lyman/Ideal 427098 has a couple of lube grooves, but no crimping groove.
When I just had a handgun, I crimped the bullet ahead of the front lube
groove on the curve (ogive) of the bullet so that it looked just like factory
loads. It worked great.
None of the bullets worked forward under recoil.
when I tried the same cartridges in the Marlin, the bullets immediately
disappeared down into their cases. Not
good. The original Lyman bullet
depended on a compressed load of black powder to keep the bullet from pushing
down into the case. No smokeless
powder I have found (including XMP5744) fills the 44-40 case enough to do this.
I notice that the new Hornady Cowboy Action bullet molds have only have
one lube groove (although it is wider than the earlier bullet), but there is a
narrow crimping groove. That should
work better in a lever action with smokeless powder.
caution is to keep the "meplat" (the flat on the nose of the bullet)
just a little bigger than the primer. Don't
go overboard with the meplat width. Some bullets (like some of the wider LBT bullets) have such a
wide flat that they are close to full wadcutters.
I got a few of them to try and loaded them for the rifle.
When I cycled some of them through the lever action, the corner of the
wide flat would catch on the top of the chamber where the 44-40 necks down.
It did not jam anything, but there was a hesitation that was annoying.
It could not have done anything for the accuracy, either.
Older bullets with a smaller flat and more curve towards the front load
smoothly. Straight cases (like the
.44 Magnum) probably won't have this problem.
took longer than I thought to get the 44-40's shooting right, but I am glad I
stuck with it.