They Were Good, But . . .

by Skeeter Skelton


Shooting Times Magazine

May 1969 


Epitaph For 3 Cartridges



The words said by his cohorts at the wake of a departed comrade can come nearer to describing him than the eulogy of the most golden-throated and well meaning of pastors, who maybe only met him on those rare Sundays it was too bad out to go hunting. And though some of us frostier-topped types don't want to face it, the time has come to lay away not one, but three old pards.


This hadn't dawned on me until one of the infrequent inventories of my mess of gear turned up a few mixed, partially full boxes of handgun ammunition in calibers 44-40, 38-40, and 32-20. The labels and generally scruffy condition of the cartons showed clearly that they had been around a lot longer than the glossier, styrofoam-inserted boxes that sided them. How long had it been since I owned a sixgun for these relics of a better, slower-paced time?


It was easy to remember that first handgun because it had come rather hard, costing the best part of a summer's wages. Twelve-year-olds didn't draw top money when I was young, and the 38WCF Colt single action and that first box of shells required an in-ordinate amount of flunkying about the farm.


I had been touted onto the 38-40 as the best handgun caliber going by an ex-Texas Ranger. "These automatics they carry nowdays - they's nothin' to 'em, nothin' to 'em at all," he counseled. "The Colt 45 is a good 'un, and the 44 too. But if you want a gun that shoots hard, get you a 38-40. Don't kick as much, neither."


When this old cactus jumper held forth on these three calibers he meant them to be in only one gun, the single action Colt. If he was aware of the existence of other revolvers for the loads, he dismissed them from his mind as trifles.


And there were others. Certainly the best known and most frequently encountered, the Colt Model P single action in 44-40, 38-40, and 32-20 was a quick addition to the original 44 Rimfire, 44 Colt, and 45 Colt guns. The alacrity with which the Hartford company introduced the newer, and not necessarily superior, cartridges into their revolvers was prompted by the immense popularity of the 1873 Winchester rifle in those calibers.


When the Winchester '73 first came in use it was doubtlessly a good idea to have a handgun that used the same ammunition. The little 44 rifle, however, is held by some as having been employed in the place of a handgun by many of its devotees, simply because it made use of their greater ability to hit with a rifle.


It also makes sense that if both a sixgun and a rifle were to be carried the rifle would be much more useful if it fired one of the more powerful cartridges of the day.


While the firepower of the '73 made it a more versatile companion gun to the Colt than, say, the single shot 45-70 Springfield or 50-100-500 Sharps, it certainly was outclassed for the purpose by the 1876 and the later 1886 Winchesters which threw heavy buck busters like the 45-70, 45-90, 40-82, et al.


The '92 Winchester was simply a scaled-down 1886, made for riflemen who wanted a fast shooting turkey gun. By the 90s, most serious riflemen had turned to longer ranged guns for hunting and defense, and the 44-40, 38-40, and 32-20 were used on the big stuff only by those who were too poor or too ignorant of ballistics to choose a better rifle.


The Texas Rangers were the last of the old time horseback policemen, and frequently rode far from supply sources. The worth of this combination rifle and revolver cartridge can be surmised in old photographs of ranger groups, which show that they stayed abreast of things and armed themselves with 1894 30-30 and 1895 30-40 Winchesters almost as soon as they were introduced.


Frank Hamer, the great ranger captain who rid society of Bonnie and Clyde, started his service as a very young man of 21 in 1906. Early photos show him with a '94 Winchester. He soon switched to a Model 8 Remington automatic in 25 Remington, and was armed with the same type rifle in 35 Remington  during his famous fight with the vicious pair.


Especially during the late 1870's and early 1880's, there must have been riders who carried revolver and rifle combinations in these calibers. More, I expect , in 44-40 and 38-40 than in the rather tiny 32-20. But mostly the users of the Winchester, Marlin, Colt, and other shoulder guns in these calibers employed these light rifles in lieu of a handgun. Handgunners stayed with these cartridges and the many revolvers made for them over the years because they were excellent handgun cartridges for the times.


The little Winchester rounds were chambered into a goodly assortment of handguns other than old Sam's thumbuster. In fact, Winchester made up a few single action revolvers in 44-40 which boasted one of the first swing-out cylinders. It has been said that this was done to have some bargaining power for forcing Colt from the rifle business and that a deal was made whereby Winchester made rifles and shotguns and Colt made only handguns for a long time thereafter.


After the Model P was enjoying good health, Colt in 1877 introduced the Double Action Army. These oddly shaped sixguns were on 45 frames and were originally in that calibration, with 44-40, 41 Long Colt, 38-40, and 32-20 models coming later.


A total of slightly more than 50,000 of the side-ejection double actions, in all calibers combined, were made. Their somewhat fragile locking systems and perhaps their ugly sawhandle grips contributed to their comparatively early demise.


The next Colt made for the Winchesters shells is acclaimed by some as the most rugged revolver ever made. The New Service was manufactured from 1898 until 1941, with a few wartime guns being put together as late as 1943. During this span, the big DA sixgun was offered in a great many calibers, including various British service cartridges such as the 450, 455, and 476 Eley group, but the first variants from its initial 45 Colt boring were the 44-40 and 38-40. Unlike earlier heavy frame Colts, the New Service was never produced in 32-20.


This is not to say that there were no Colt double actions in 32-20. The Army Special, a 41-framed DA revolver was produced from 1908 until 1928, when it became the Official Police. Although best known in 38 Special, these fairly heavy guns made particularly nice small game getters when chambered for the 32 WCF. Another, lighter Colt in this caliber was the Police Positive Special, found in 32-20 with 4", 5", and 6" barrels, and occasionally in a target model with adjustable sights.


The best known Smith & Wesson chambered for a Winchester rifle load is the venerable Military & Police model. Like Colt, S&W did not revive this caliber after WWII, but it remains a sought-after one in many areas, and I have seen a number of Smith 32-20 sixguns in use in Mexico. The light recoil of the factory ammunition makes it a comfortable gun to shoot, yet it is more powerful than other 32's.


About 275 of the topbreak double action revolvers were produced in 38-40 by Smith & Wesson, along with an estimated 15,000 in 44-40. These guns were made between 1886 and 1910, but it came to be generally accepted that these loads were too powerful for topbreak revolvers. Also, about 2000 of the New Model 44 Russian caliber single action Smiths were made up for the 44-40 cartridge.


The beautiful New Century (Triple Lock) double actions by S&W are best known in 44 S&W Special, but a few were made in 45 Colt and 44-40. A successor to the New Century, the Hand Ejector was likewise predominantly a 44 Special, but a number were furnished in 44-40, including a model with adjustable sights.


The 1926 Hand Ejector Model, another fine Smith & Wesson designed around the 44 Special round, was made on special order for the 44 WCF. Many of these special order guns went to Central and South America, where the 44-40 enjoyed great popularity due, at least in part, to the numbers of Winchester '73 and '92 rifles (along with their Spanish Tigre copies) in use there.


Merwin & Hulbert marketed their versions of the Winchester-chambered revolvers, actually manufactured by Hopkins & Allen. Although quite sturdy, and still sometimes found in use in remote areas, these guns were never widely distributed after one of the partners was captured and killed by Indians.


The Winchester trio were the magnum handgun cartridges of their day. Jeff Milton, the illustrious peace officer who began his long career as a teenage Texas Ranger in 1880, told of swapping his 45 Colt single action for the first 44-40 SA he ever saw. His plans for being a 19th century swinger, with saddle carbine and sixshooter using the same shells, came to an abrupt halt when his new 44 froze up after the first shot. The primer had flowed back into the firing pin hole in the recoil shield. After struggling with both hands to shear off the protruding primer and recock the gun, Milton re-swapped for another 45 and warned his companions-at-arms against the new innovation. Even in those days a closely-brushed firing pin was a necessity when shooting hot loads.


It seems likely that the 38-40, at least from about 1890 on, was a more popular sixgun caliber among western lawmen than the 44-40. I have known many of the old officers of that period who favored the gun and load, and when pressed for a reason they would like my old ranger mentor, point our that the 38-40 "shot hard" and didn't kick as much as the 45 or 44-40. This lack of recoil was due to the 38-40 being a heavier revolver shooting a lighter bullet than its two compatriots. Its 180 gr. flatnosed slug traveled almost 1000 fps, as did the similarly shaped 200 gr. bullet of the 44-40 - a respectable load even by today's standards.


After black powder had fallen into disuse, the ammunition companies loaded high velocity ammo with smokeless powder cartridges for use in rifles only. This stuff was marked on the boxes, and should never be fired in revolvers. Ammunition compounded with the older sixguns in mind was marked as suitable for use in either rifles or revolvers in good condition.


As the years went by, this dual purpose ammo was loaded lighter until it falls far below the velocity potential of good rifles such as the '92 Winchester and is considerably underpowered for a late, sound revolver.


When I was younger I handloaded for all three of the Winchester calibers. I did this because these were the guns that were available to me, and all the while I was hoping to acquire newer sixguns in 357 Magnum and 44 Special. Reloading this trio, especially the 44-40 and 38-40, was for the birds.


These two shells are heavily tapered over their powder chambers, then extend more or less straight to the mouth over the section of case which holds the bullet. Especially in the older, folded head cases, they stretch enormously, requiring excessive resizing and frequent trimming. Case life is short. While I prefer for general use the standard, original bullets, such as reproduced in the Lyman #40143 (38-40) and #42798 (44-40) molds, there are better cast slugs for reloading these two cartridges.


Lyman's #401452 and #40188 are great in the 38-40, both being of semi-wadcutter design and both having crimping grooves. Several of the similarly-shaped 44 Special bullets work fine in the 44-40 when seated over appropriate powder charges, deep enough in the case to fall within maximum overall cartridge length requirements. These crimping grooves are most helpful, since the round-shouldered standard bullets are prone to being pushed back into the case during rough handling.


The 32-20 is not as susceptible to these failings, since its case has a straighter taper, but it still lacks the versatility and ease of reloading enjoyed by the modern, straight-cased shells. The new Ruger 30 Carbine revolver supplants the 32-20 completely, the 38 Special can be loaded to equal or better it, and there is no solid ground on which to compare it with the 357.


Anything the 38-40 could accomplish is done better with the 41 S&W Magnum, and who would pit the 44-40 against the 44 Magnum?


Tough old Judge Roy Bean was a realist who sold warm beer in a saloon named after the most beautiful woman of his time, Lily Langtry. In his time, these were the best. Confronted with the refrigeration and Sophia Loren, the judge would never look back.


And if he were here today, he'd say "Vayan con Diós" to the three little Winchester shells.





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