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32-20, 38-40, and 44-40 Neck Lengths

by Harry O

Anyone who has done much shooting with any of the WCF "dash" calibers (like the 32-20, 38-40, and 44-40) knows that the neck lengths of factory cartridges are longer than the chambers that they are shot in and longer than what the sizing dies size them back to. What this means during shooting is that there is a space between the chamber and factory brass at the base of the neck (in the transition area). Since they headspace on their rim, this is not a big problem. When fired, the brass in the transition area expands to fit the larger (longer) chamber.

When resized using Lyman, RCBS, Redding, or Lee dies, the neck is only sized part way back to its original length (based on my experience with all of these dies in these calibers). Is that a problem? I think so.

One problem is that these old calibers don't have "SAAMI" defined sizes. Compare the Remington 32-20 case with a Winchester 32-20 case if you want to see how far different they can be. The Remington is about 1/32" longer than the Winchester. If you use the case fired in one gun in a gun with different dimensions, it sometimes fits tight, even after full length sizing them with current dies.

Another problem is that the neck section after firing and sizing is usually shorter than the bullets used in these calibers. With the very thin brass used in these old calibers, this means the neck tension is pretty weak on the bullet. I believe that this is at least part of the accuracy problem often reported with these calibers. Uniform neck tension (and enough of it) is important for accuracy. My understanding has always been that cartridges should have a neck length of at least one bullet diameter. For a 44-40, that is about 7/16". NONE of my sizing dies size the neck back that far.

It is also a problem with reloaded cartridges used in lever actions. Many of the "classic" bullet moulds don't have a crimping groove (Lyman 311008, 401043, 427098, etc.). They depended on a case full of compressed black powder to keep the bullets from slipping backwards in the case when loaded into a lever action's tube-magazine. When using smokeless powder (with the case only partially full), this is a problem. The thin short case necks don't come close to holding a bullet securely enough.

A few people have said they solved this problem by shortening their sizing dies in order to lengthen the portion of the neck that is resized. I decided to give that a try. Someone suggested the following method so that even a person without a lathe (like me) could do it without ruining the dies. Still, I used my Lee dies since they cost the least of any of them I own. I took the decapping pin out of the die. I have a 1/2" drill motor, but could not fit the collet-type nut in the top of the die into the drill chuck. A little work with a bench grinder, rounding off the corners of the nut, I was then able to mount the die securely into the drill motor. Then I held the bottom of the sizing die to the side (repeat, SIDE) of the grinding wheel while both of them were turning. I stopped and measured the overall length several times with a caliper-type micrometer. When I had shortened it by 1/8" (0.125" exactly), I stopped. The end was square with the centerline of the die (as near as I could measure) with no additional work. Just take your time and don't press on the side of the wheel too hard. I used 200, 400, and then 600 grit sanding paper to smooth the grinding marks off the bottom and then broke the inside edge of the sizing hole with a case neck reamer. This method is almost idiot proof. After all, I was able to do it.

After I was done, I cleaned the die inside and out with gun cleaning solvent. I remounted the decapping pin with a new collet nut and re-adjusted the larger nut on the outside of the die. Then I sized as many cases as I had around. No problems. The length of the neck is about the same length as they come from the factory, with 1-1/2 to 2 times the neck length (when compared to the unaltered dies) to grip the bullet.

There have been absolutely no problems with loading any case fired in any gun when sized this way. No longer are there a few snug ones to irritate me. There has been no reduction of accuracy. There does not seem to be an increase in accuracy either, but I spent a lot of years learning the tricks of reloading these calibers and have already worked out many of the accuracy problems (trimming to length, using a Lee Factory Crimp die, etc.) before shortening the dies.

What are the disadvantages of doing this? First, it works the transition area of the case a lot more than before. In the relatively few times I have reloaded these cases since I shortened the sizing dies, I have not had a failure there (at least yet). They still fail fairly frequently at the mouth of the neck first. These are not very long lived cases no matter what you do. Keep in mind that I had fired most of these cases several times before altering the sizing dies and I also don't push the envelope with Magnum type pressures - even with newly manufactured guns. Cracking could be a future problem, but I have not seen it yet.

Another disadvantage is that with 38-40 cases, I sometimes get a small crease or indentation in the transition area while sizing. This is similar to using too much case lube. It does not seem to be a major problem. I don't have that happen with 32-20 or 44-40 cases, though. They don't neck down as much and are thinner. The 38-40's I have are nickel plated Starline, hence thicker and stiffer than the others. If I had it to do over, I probably would have shortened the 38-40 only 3/32".

Still another disadvantage often noted is that doing this reduces the capacity of the case. When shooting black powder this is a small, but valid criticism. When shooting smokeless, it is not. There is NO smokeless powder that will completely fill these cases without excessive pressures and believe me, I have looked.

Anyway, there does not seem to be a real downside to doing this and there are some definite advantages. I wonder why NONE of the factory dies do this.





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