A Magnum Only by Heritage

A Magnum Only by Heritage
In spite of its name, the .256 Winchester Magnum (the three rounds in the center), which is the .357 Magnum (far right) necked down to .25 caliber, outperforms only the .25-20 WCF (far left).

It’s getting more and more difficult to remember just how much magic was radiated by the word “magnum” back in the magnum-mad 1960s. It meant big belted cases, blinding speed, and vaporized animals at impossible distances.

How, then, did the diminutive, mild-mannered .256 Winchester Magnum ever come by the name? Let’s be realistic: A 60-grain bullet at 2,750 fps is not exactly traveling at the speed of light—and that’s what you get on a good day. Of its more famous .25-caliber brethren—Savage, Roberts, Weatherby—it shades only the .25-20 WCF, and that certainly is not setting the bar very high.

Usually, the magnum name was attached to cartridges that were a more powerful version of a cartridge that already existed. The .44 Magnum, for example, is simply a longer, more powerful .44 Special. Well, back in the 1930s, Smith & Wesson decided the .38 Special needed juicing up and came out with a longer-cased version they called the “.357 Magnum.” Purists will note that it simply could have been called the “.357” as no other cartridge by that name existed, but S&W wanted the magic, and the .357 Magnum delivered it.

The .357 Magnum case intrigued cartridge designers who were convinced it could be necked down into something useful. Remington decided it could be the basis for a hot .22 to use in handguns, while Winchester leaned toward .25. The result was two cartridges that appeared almost simultaneously around 1961: the .22 Remington Jet and the .256 Winchester Magnum. Like most children, the .256 took its father’s name, and just like so many offspring of famous men, it was a disappointment.

The .256 Win. Mag. was intended as a handgun varmint cartridge, but bottleneck cartridges don’t do well in revolvers, so Ruger brought out its single-shot Hawkeye pistol chambered for it, made 3,300 of them, and called it a day. Marlin adopted the .256 Win. Mag. and redesigned its short-throw Levermatic rifle to accommodate it. It was called the Model 62, and Marlin turned out about 8,000. Universal Firearms offered it in the semiautomatic M1 Carbine, and Thompson/Center has offered it in limited quantities of single-shot Contender pistol barrels.

In the 57 years since, writers (including yours truly) have had a field day explaining why the whole idea was doomed from the start. In my own case, such hindsight has been rather rueful because I fell in love with the Levermatic Model 62 and the .256 Win. Mag. cartridge the day the 1964 Marlin catalog arrived in the mail. The word “magnum” hooked me, and the modern, streamlined look of the Model 62 seduced my imagination. Truth to tell, I still have that catalog, and when I open it to that page, I still get that tingle almost 60 years later.

Like many rifle lovers who reach a certain age and level of financial ability, I went looking for a Model 62, eventually found one, prevailed upon Leupold to make me a slightly retro 3X scope, found a period-original George Lawrence leather sling, and began the long road to securing a supply of ammunition.

Winchester produced its last run of .256 Win. Mag. around 1993, and brass disappeared from the market shortly after. Although a few independent makers have flirted with it since, including Jamison Industries (the successor to B.E.L.L.), most of us have had to acquire the wherewithal to turn common .357 Mag. brass into .256 Win. Mag. You can also use .22 Jet brass, but I found it cheaper and easier in the long run to use .357 Mag.

In the process, I learned a lot about fashioning one cartridge from another. Most valuable, perhaps, I learned that one has to be very careful how hot you load the .256 Win. Mag. because the Levermatic is not blessed with a stout extractor and cases stick quite easily. In other words, this so-called magnum cannot even be juiced much beyond its already modest factory ballistics.

What’s in a name? In this case, not much. Taken together with the rifle, though, they make a nice walking-around combination that does fine work on marauding armadillos. And you know what? The armadillos never realize the .256 Win. Mag is not really a magnum.

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