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The 44-40 (44WCF) for beginners (like me)   

by Harry O


   * How I got started with the 44-40.
* The problems with Ruger.
* How to reload the 44-40.
* The 44-40 in a rifle.
* Contact me 


How I got started with the 44-40 

The 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.  

I 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.   


The problems with Ruger 

Then 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 no better. 

When 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. 

I 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. 

They 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. 

Rather 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 gun". 

I 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. 


Reloading the 44-40 

I 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. 

There 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. 

As 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. 

The 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. 

The 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. 

I 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. 

I 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). 

It 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. 

The 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.  They work. 

Actually, 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.   

The 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 a gunsmith. 


The 44-40 in a long gun. 

Now 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 receiver. 

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. 

I 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. 

One 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. 

However, 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. 

Another 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. 

It took longer than I thought to get the 44-40's shooting right, but I am glad I stuck with it.