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32-20 WINCHESTER CENTERFIRE 1882
by Paco Kelly
There is some argument over the date of release by Winchester of the 32 WCF...but 1882 is certainly close. It was first a rifle round, six or seven years later Colt chambered itís single action for it.
I now have a S&W K-32 Frame full underlug, that was originally a 32 H&R chambered revolver mod. 16 (circa 1990)..till I rechambered it to 32-20. A Ruger 101 double action revolver (again originally a 32H&R) rechambered to 32-20, an original Buckeye Ruger Blackhawk with both cylinders..32-20 and 32 H&R, a Ruger Blackhawk that started off life in 1968 as a 30 Carbine (the fifth one released by the factory) now a 32-20 (with a second cylinder in the original 30 Carbine chambering). I have both a Marlin and Winchester in leverguns built in the 1890s...but they have become so valuable that they no longer work for a living. And I once built a 30/357 on a Winchester 92 that had been a 32-20 but shot out. The 32-20 and I have a long history together....
I was in my single years...I had just fired the first handgun of my life. An U.S. Army (Mod.1913) 45 ACP. Which my Grandfather owned...then the little 32-20 S&W with a four inch barrel. It had a nickel finish and ivory stocks...I carried, reloaded, and shot that little gun every summer around my Grandfatherís farm, for three or four years. I was supposed to reload with black powder. Right! First trip into town to buy primers and I bought a pound of Bullseye...yes 9 year olds in those days in farm communities could and did buy components. Thatís where the love affair for the 32-20 all started. In the military while a stranger in a strange place in the late 1950s I carried a 30 Carbine M-2 (full auto capabilities). In 1968 I got the above described #5 Ruger 30 Carbine S/A. I find the two cartridges very close indeed. When I was a kid, long range handgunning was unheard of except for a very few gun writers like Keith.
Standing in a field with the little 32-20...100 grain bullet over 4 grains of Bullseye, warm for the little S&W (23,000 cup)...I aimed at an old porcelain pot out around 80 yards...knowing it was too far for a handgun, everyone told me so. When the dull plunk came back on the breeze, the long range handgunner was born. Keith was right the others out to lunch.
The second 32-20 Winchester 92 I owned was found in an attic in an old house in Hanover County Virginia in 1970. The first was acquired in Texas in 1961 but was later lost in a car fire...I mourned the loss of the rifle more than the car...you can always get another car. The fella that found the second one, it was his house passed down from dead parents, he wasnít into guns, and I had a small power mower he wanted....when I got the gun it was totally wrapped in old newspapers that had been heavily oiled that had dried the paper to the gun. They were dated 1935. I had traded without taking the paper off...so I wasnít sure what I had...I thought it would turn out to be an old 30-30....getting the paper off was easy enough, it turned out to be a Winchester mod.92 in 32-20.
I probably took two dozen Virginia deer with that rifle...with a 115 grain cast bullet over 11.5 grains of 2400. Virginia deer are small whitetails, and that load from a 20 inch rifle runs close to 1700 fps. That rifle finally went to Jim Taylorís daughter.
The very best and most accurate 32-20 handgun I have had and still have is the Ruger 30 carbine with the rechambered cylinder. With the 30 Carbine cylinder in 1978 I put 5 shots into the x-ring and 10 ring of a 25 yard bullseye target but at 100 yards. Younger eyes then, but the gun can still do it with both cylinders. Many say the 30 carbine Ruger when rechambered to 32-20 distorts the fired cases because the base of the 30 C is larger than the base of the 32-20. Not true in this case, because the 30 C rounds seat on their mouth in the S/A cylinder and slightly up and out of the chambers...so the 32-20 with itís rim is a perfect fit. I have had a number of them rechambered and never had a problem.
The P.S. on this is...I have rechambered many guns..especially revolvers by hand using a rheostat drill...very carefully....but not the Rugers, especially blue Ruger gun steel, that is tough stuff to the extreme. Milling machine and indexing table for them. I now send them to a gunsmith...itís easier.
Standing on a cliff looking across a deep river (dry wash) bed to the cliff on the other side well over 250 yards or more...good friend Holt Bodinson and I were shooting at the opposite side in the late 1980s. He had a heavy loaded 357...I had the 30 Carbine Ruger. We saw every shot of mine hit and none of his. The drop difference in the two rounds was staggering...his rounds were going into the trees below the cliff...mine were chewing the cliff wall up. I load the 32-20 to the same specs in the Ruger S/As.
On page twenty of Keithís 1930s book SIXGUN CARTRIDGES AND LOADS....he states quiet clearly....."Although most authorities condemn this 32-20 for use in revolvers, I found it a very fine little cartridge when properly handloaded. It served me well, and altogether I still have a lot of respect for it.......It is a handloading proposition, pure and simple, for best results. Owing to the extreme thickness of the cylinder of the .32-20 in the S.A. Colt gun, it can be easily and safely handloaded to at least 1500 feet with 2400 Hercules powder."
With todayís strong single actions in modern steel they can be loaded beyond Keithís level, well into heavy 357 magnum loadings with light bullets. One of the best hunting bullets in my Rugers are the 125 grn Sierra flatnose H.P.s. That is a 30-30 bullet but it works well from the 32-20/30 Carbine Rugers and many rifles heavy loaded, for game up to small deer. Even though it is not .311/312 bullet it still gives excellent accuracy from the Rugerís .308/9 bore and is fine in many leveractions. For the leverguns that are older and have a bit of an overbore, the various 123 grn soft nose slugs made for the 7.62X39mm work very well. All the 110 grain 30 Carbine jacketed slugs...especially the soft round noses work well because they are stiff but open even at 1600+ fps from the Ruger S/As.
There are three levels of strength with the 32-20 chambered guns...like many manufactured in the later part of the 19 century....from 1873 thru the 1890s. They are black powder only shooters. Certainly the 1873 leveraction Winchester and todayís 1873 rifle clones are not strong enough for modern loadings...take care dear reader if you have an old black powder handgun or rifle...then black powder is best to use in it. There is one powder for loads with smokeless that can be used in strong black powder guns and the 1873 clone leverguns. These are level one pressure loads and are the top loads for my strong BP guns...donít go thinking Iím being conservative....
With a 100 to 110 grain cast bullet XMP5744...9.5 grains gives 1325 fps in a 1873 with a 20 inch barrel and around 16000 cup. With a 100 grain jacketed bullet 9.2 grains will break 1200 fps...I use WW standard/magnum primers and only Winchester brass in the black powder and 5744 loads. In all my other loadings I use Remington nickel brass...that way the wrong load wonít wind up in the BP guns like the clone Ď73s..
And that brings up a point that is important....WW brass cartridge cases in 32-20 are not very strong when you load up in pressure. But the nickel cases from Remington are very strong and the Starline are the strongest. Even with my heavy level three loads the Rem/32-20 nickel cases last well over 15 loadings or more. Now take note of the next paragraph, very important for Marlin rifle shooters.
Marlin and Winchester played a game for years from the late 1800s thru into the 1900s. Winchester comes out with the 32-20, Marlin comes out with the 32-21...slightly longer (they did it with a number of cartridge types). The 32-20 will fire in the Marlin rifles but not the old Marlin 32-21 ammo in the Winchester. This leads to a brass problem, because MARLIN CHAMBERED ITíS RUN OF MODERN 32-20s OVERLY LONG LIKE THE 32-21 OF YESTERYEAR.....and firing normal length 32-20s in the Marlin leverguns and resizing to normal length leads to quick death of the cases.....so what to do? Fireform the cases first to the chamber...I use 3 grains of Bullseye, a cull cast bullet loaded out to touch the lands, and I fire the gun straight up. Then set my dies to stop a slight amount before the new shoulder on the case. Case life will suddenly take a long jump in longevity.
Also with the level one guns, like the 1873 Winchester and itís modern clones....just because you use a small amount of fast powder, donít think that the pressure MUST BE OK...it very well could not be. For example 6 grains of #5 will hit 24,000 cup. Medium burning pistol powders? 7 grains of Blue Dot will hit higher pressure than the #5.... Bullseye with 4 little grains is also much too high. Be careful with the old guns and the old designs in modern guns. A good friend ruined the bolt in a clone 1873/44-40 chambering using Unique...He was working up a deer load, the deer around here got the last laugh.
Now the modern Colt clone handguns...the EMF clone S/A in 32-20 is an extremely strong handgun...remember what Elmer said...he was talking about the Colt S/As. EMFís Dakota is chambered in 32-20 along with the other calibers, but you might have to special order the 32-20. Mine is very good...they come in 4 and 5/8ths, 5 Ĺ and 7 Ĺ inch barrel lengths. Iím not sure if they still come in the custom engraved model they used to market...I wasnít impressed with the engraving. But the gun is fine. I load mine to 1400 fps with cast 100 and 110 grain bullets often.
I can get 17 grains of Pyrodex in Winchester neck sized cases and 100 grain soft cast bullets....and out of the revolvers with 7 Ĺ inch barrels the pressure runs around 9000 cup and 1100+ fps...not bad for a little black powder load. Out of a rifle 20 inch tube...it goes near 1250 fps. I like shooting black but I donít like cleaning it...thatís your level one loads....remember take care....
The level two guns are many...outside of the old designs like the Ď73s and such....they were manufactured into the 1930s. Most 32-20 handguns and rifles are stronger, even the so called BP only made in the mid to late 1890s. Again be sure the old gun is strong and tight. Certainly the old Colt S/As of this time and into the teens of the 1900s can take a lot of pressure as Keith said...but why do that to a fine old gun....there are modern 32-20s out there to reach mag velocities if you want. The steel in the old to mid modern guns is not like the steel of today. When you canít really rechamber a Ruger S/A or a 101 by hand without problems, because the steel is so strong...you know you are dealing with a whole new level of strength difference. The older guns right up to the beginning of WW2 cut like butter.
I have set the bolt back on a 1930s Winchester mod. 92 with loads that todayís Rossi takes in stride. So there are level two guns and then there are other level two guns. The earlier guns I keep below 20,000 cup...you will see the pressure levels in the loading tables. When the guns get from the late 1920s and on into the 30s I will go to 25,000 to 27,000 cup or so. I use fast powder loads but remember fast powders can also get you in trouble fast. 3.5 grains of Bullseye in a 38 case under a 147 grain wadcutter is a mild target load....go to 4.7 grains and you are in the 40,000 pound pressure levels. Even so the best loads for these beautiful level two guns of the early decades of the last century, is up to 23000 cup.
For example one of the accuracy loads I find in many guns for the 32-20 is 7 grains of AA#7 with a 100 to 110 grain cast slug for 1500 fps from a 20 inch barrel. Thatís Remington nickel cases and WW std/mag primers...for 21,600 cup.
Small game up to 40 to 50 lbs...I like to say to the heavy Ďyote levels...this load is very good. And one of the unknown great powders for the level two loads is AA2015...I donít know what got me started on using this powder, but Iím glad I found it. With 17.5 grains a 110 grain cast bullet will hit 1700 fps from a rifle and only 22,000 cup...very nice for the late 1890s and early 1900s guns....
Like Keith said the old Colts from the 1930s or so will take loads pushing cast 100 grain bullets to 1500 fps...but they will eventually batter the guns. Remember Keith did a lot of his own gunsmithing and back then Colt S/A parts were plentiful.
Sierra makes a jacketed 90 HP....19 grains of AA2015 will push it to 1800+ from the 92s and 1410 fps from 7 and Ĺ inch pistols for a cost of 21,100 cup...told you it was a great powder. The only one to reach these velocities without more pressure.....8 grains of AA#7 will give 1600+ from rifles and 1325 from my Ruger 7 Ĺ inch with a tight gap....I use H4227 in amounts around 11 to 12 grains but it doesnít burn well at low loadings...even though in some of my guns accuracy is fairly good. My rechambered S&W likes this powder, even though it is on the K-Frame that the 357 was chambered on...I keep this gun in the class two level.
The old standby Unique has changed a little, the clean burning stuff thatís out now...4 grains will give 1150 from handguns with my 115 grain Keith cast bullet. This bullet is from an NEI mold and is a true Keith 32-20 caliber (drops in hard lead at .312). I took the gascheck from one of the cavities and it upped the weight to 122 to 124 grains....nice.
Speer makes a 60 grain JHP...you can make this bullet scream even in midlevel loads...it is .312 by my calipers and made for the 32 auto cartridge. From my Colt clone with 5 grains of new Unique (you can use the older stuff load for load) hits 1100 fps, 6 grains hits 1250 fps, 8 grains of HS7 hits 1300 fps...10 grains of 2400 hits 1410 fps....and the bullet is a true varmint load at 1300+ velocities....from the class two rifles at close to 2000 fps it explodes little things like pest birds...crows...desert rats...snakes....and such. It blows big holes in the front lung of feral dogs and coyotes...varmint loads pure and simple. The other bullet that works like this, is also a Speer design, the 100 grain Plinker...it has a long soft lead nose set in a 3/4 length cup. With 20,000 cup or more pressure it will slug up to the .311/12 bores...accuracy is up to the gun in question. These two jacketed bullets do what the 100 and 110 grain stiff jacketed HPs and soft nose jacketed bullets wonít...act like varmint bullets. Most of the others are game bullets.
Can you really kill good sized varmints cleanly with a 100 grain Plinker at 1600 to 1800 fps?...the 357 mag light weight bullets at 1500 fps from a handgun do it all the time....your shooting accuracy is more important....a little 32-20 rifle with these two slugs loaded right will do it. So for small varmints and vermin use the 60 grainer...and for larger varmints like dogs and Ďyotes, use the Plinker 100 grain softnose, they both do fine.
As you can see by the charts most of the medium pistol powders in small amounts do well for the class two level guns...the photo of the blue Ruger is my circa 1967/8 rechambered Carbine/32-20 S/A. The dull nickel finished Ruger is the Buckeye 32-20/32H&R model S/A. No I didnít have it electroless finished, it came to me that way. Some day I will have it put back to midnight blue...and rechamber the 32 H&R cylinder to Gary Reederís 30/357 GNR. And that 30 caliber GNR is a flame thrower of a round like the 356GNR.
Two best all around cast bullets are the old standby Lyman/Ideal 3118 which started life as a 115 grain slug at the turn of the century (19/20) which now markets under the number 311008...but I have run into some molds of late manufacture that drop lighter than 115 grains. The second is NEIís mold for the 115 Keith gas checked design. My old Ideal handbook circa the teens of the 20th century show a dozen good looking bullets for the 32s. But they are gone with the winds of time.
In my photo of the bullets, the first is Speerís Varminter 115 grain JHP, the second is National Bullet Companyís copper coated hard lead 115 grainer, number three is the NEI Keith, four is a 123 grain 7.62X39 JSP. I cut the noses of the 7.62 jacketed off to the Keith bullet length...as I do for numbers five and six the two NBC 7.62X39 copper coated hard cast, and the last one is the little Speer Plinker. I use others also....there are many 308 caliber bullets that work well as game bullets. Most are for 30-30 class and 30 Carbine rifle class loadings...but the 32-20 loaded right can use them. Best to test them at what every velocity you load to, in very wet phone books.
The very best small deer bullet from a rifle is Speerís 130 grain soft flat nose. Since the modern rifles like the Browning 92s and Marlinís 1980/90s 32-20s and the later 1950s or so Winchester 92s can be loaded to outstanding velocities this bullet works very well...and that brings us to the next level.
He was sniffing around an old grave yard we had on one end of our wilderness property. Grazing on the black berries that grew there in profusion. He was at least a year old spring bear from the year before....I had been inspecting some of the front acreage...I walked our property every day. And I had a rebuilt circa 1930s 32-20 with me. It was loaded with the 3118 Lyman 115 grain flatnose bullet, hard cast with the noses softened. I really couldnít get back to the house and get a heavier caliber gun. I was behind a large oak when I heard him....and it was the 32-20 or nothing. And it certainly wasnít going to be nothing. Since the range was about 60 yards, I felt a clean shot into a vital area should do it. The little cast bullets were doing around 1800 to 1900 fps. It was my feral dog load.
The bear was small...I figured around 160/170 lbs...turned out he was even less than that. My first shot was for the head..between the eye and the ear. Either he moved or I flinched, I would find later it struck him in the neck. Even small black bears are tough...this one was no exception. He went down, rolled around...and I knew then I missed the brain...and jumped up. I put two quick rounds into the chest, and he ran. About 100 yards away I found him down and dying quickly. One lung was penetrated well and the other bullet passed thru the heart. It was not the caliber to use on a bear. The first bullet missed the spine, bears will fall at the first hit many times...donít ever believe they are down for good...lots of times they are up in seconds. Always give them an anchor shot if possible. That was the only bear I have taken with a 32-20 anything. But sometimes you have to do with what you have to do it with. Many deer fell to that little rifle, all fairly cleanly to instantly, some of them were the same weight as the bear. But the difference is in the animalís temperament, tenacity, and body muscle/strength...bears are tough.
In strong guns I start with 30 Carbine beginning loading data, I go with the starting loads and work up. The 32-20 neck sized brass will hold about 1 grain more powder. There are a number of excellent low pressure high velocity powders for this case size. For example 17.5 grains of Accur 1680 will give a 100/110 grain jacketed bullet nearly 1900 fps at a low 25,000 cup from a 20 inch 32-20 rifle. Whereas 13.5 grains of Accur #9 will give over 2000 fps but at 40,000 cup. 15 grains of H110/296 will send the same bullets at 2000 fps at around 36,000 cup....12.5 grains of H110 will push my 124 grain Keith cast bullet at 1865 fps and it is a deadly load up to small deer, (Small deer defined as around 100 lbs), at around the same pressure 34,500 cup. My Ruger 7Ĺ inch S/A will push this load to just over 1500 fps, and 640 ft.lbs of muzzle punch. Thatís in lite weight 357 magnum country. With the noses softened this bullet acts well as a game bullet.
The one antelope I took with it went long ways thru him from the chest out the rear...with a 40 cent size exit wound.....and a better turkey load is hard to find. The heaviest cast bullet I can get to stabilize in handguns is Lymanís very special 311440 which is a 150 grain flat nose...it is short and stout, built like a fist. Unfortunately I donít see it in the latest catalog. But I did pick another one up at a gun show a few months back. I have tried other 150 grainers, like the neat RCBS 30-150 but even loaded deep into the case and at very high velocity, it doesnít do well in my Rugers.
For velocities in the 2200 to 2300 fps class the little RCBS 32-115 gr flatnose with a gas check is hard to beat. And it sure will turn a Ďyote or feral dog quickly into carrion. My load of 14 grains of 2400 is a top pressure/top velocity loading with the 115 gr RCBS bullet...at 2220 fps from the 20 inch levergun/92 and 1669 fps from the long barreled Ruger. Itís hard to find a better one on longer range varmints...to 150 yards it is very deadly to 60 lbs or so.
Javelina are hardy southwestern animals that run for a good one 30 lbs...but they are tough little things. This load from a rifle or handgun will do the business quite well. Wild hogs, razorbacks, feral pigs, Russian boars, they are worse than bears...bring a heavier caliber. Even with the 150 grain 311440 from a rifle, I donít think I want to go there.
The 130 grain jacketed soft flat nose Speer bullet out of a rifle at 1900 or more fps...is a good game bullet out to 125 to 140 yards or so, up to small deer. It is a 30-30 bullet, so at top speeds and short ranges to 100 yards...it will do exactly what the 30-30 will do past 150 yards. Open to around 45 caliber and drive deep.
As I told the story in my first book, and old farmer friend of mine and I were talking guns one day....I mentioned that the gun world today thinks the 32-20 is obsolete. He looked at me strangely and said..."Paco, look in the back of my truck.." In the bed of his old chevy pick-up were a number of very good sized coyote pelts...the 32-20...Obsolete maybe but not ineffective....!