Handgun Cartridges I Admire
January 04, 2011
Allan can't explain his fondness for accurate .32-caliber revolvers other than to say they are fun to shoot.
After many decades of shooting, reloading, and developing data, I find myself with strong feelings about some cartridges. Some of it is admiration gained through wringing out the cartridge in the lab; some is plain old personal prejudice. This column covers my favorite handgun cartridges; next month I'll tackle the rifle stuff.
.32-Caliber Revolver Rounds
Don't ask me why, but I've developed affection for .32-caliber revolvers. The .32 S&W Long, the .32 H&R Magnum, and the .32-20 Winchester all get my seal of approval.
My .32 Long revolver is an S&W Model 31 with a 3-inch barrel and fixed sights. A short barrel and small, fixed sights can't keep this little gem from shooting nice groups. I like cast bullets; the .32 Long gets either the RCBS No. 32-98 flatpoint or the original .32-20 bullet from an Ideal mold, No. 3118, weighing 115 grains.
The .32 H&R Magnum is a Ruger Single-Six made back when you could get adjustable sights. This revolver and the Ideal No. 311316 gascheck bullet make a remarkable long-range combo. I can keep the majority of bullets on a large watermelon at 250 yards. For an expanding bullet, I use the Speer .312-inch, 100-grain jacketed hollowpoint over a max charge of H110 or VihtaVuori N110.
My .32-20 revolver is a Bowen Classic Arms custom conversion of a three-screw Ruger .357 Magnum Blackhawk. I shoot the same hot loads in it as I run through my Winchester Model 1892, running up to 28,000 CUP, and the Ruger handles them in stride. The new cylinder that Hamilton Bowen created has massive wall thickness--very reassuring. For this rifle/revolver combo, I usually load the Ideal No. 3118 bullet over the charges of H110 we developed for strong-action rifles in the Speer manuals. They are accurate and flat-shooting.
I am sometimes asked what's the good of a .32-caliber handgun, and I am always stretched to come up with a decent technical or social reason. All I can say is these firearms are accurate and fun to shoot. They are especially nice after shooting the big bruisers; I use them to give my shooting hand a rest.
The .38 Special was the first cartridge I reloaded. That was back when my only centerfire revolver was an old model Ruger Blackhawk .357 Magnum. Magnum cases were expensive when I made $250 a month, but I could get scads of .38 Spl. cases, and I loaded scads.
I think I've loaded just about every bullet type available for the .38 Spl., in weights from 90 to 200 grains. Working in a ballistic lab later in life made me reassess the use of jacketed bullets, though. We published safe jacketed-bullet loads, but getting there took a lot of work. I've settled on lead, taking the Special back to its beginnings. For standard loads, I shoot 158-grain cast bullets with 4.5 grains of Unique and with 5.3 grains of Power Pistol for +P loads.
I have found the most accurate cast bullet across a number of guns is the original Keith 173-grain SWC (Ideal mold No. 358429). My mold drops closer to 168 grains, and I load 5.0 grains of Power Pistol for a +P load. However, when I scored an original S&W .38-44 Outdoorsman--the heavy-frame model Elmer Keith used to prototype loads that eventually became the .357 Magnum--I could not resist trying Elmer's big charges of 2400 under the Keith bullet. I was able to reproduce and chronograph Elmer's screamers. The solid version of the Keith bullet averaged 1,130 fps from the 6.5-inch barrel of the Outdoorsman; the hollowpoint version weighing 155 grains hit 1,190 fps. Don't try this at home--not even I shoot these loads anymore. These loads exceed any modern pressure standard by a bunch and should be relegated to historical interest only.
The .32 S&W Long (left), the .32 H&R Magnum (center), and the .32-20 Winchester (right) are very accurate in the right revolver.
With sane loads and lead bullets, the .38 Spl. can provide hours of accurate and easy-shooting diversion. Although I've pretty much abandoned jacketed-bullet handloads for my needs, I like the Speer Gold Dot Short Barrel 135-grain +P factory load for "social purposes" in my special-order 3-inch Model 10.
This one is classic. I know few people who've worked with this venerable centenarian who did not fall in love. Of course, as a youth, my intense reading of Elmer Keith's tomes piqued my interests, and I managed to get my first .44--an S&W Second Model Hand Ejector--not long after starting at the crime lab. It was a tad rough on the outside, but the bore was shiny, and the action was tight. One of the most accurate loads I used in the old S&W was the Ideal No. 429215GC Thompson bullet over 8.0 grains of Unique.
I got deeply into Colt's New Service series of large-frame revolvers, and later in my lab career, I had more money and was tickled to acquire a near-mint New Service Target in .44 Spl. It is a dream to shoot. I hold the loads back in deference to its rarity, using 6.0 grains of Unique under a proper Keith 250-grain cast bullet from an RCBS mold. Another writer who has shot this combo wrote about my New Service Target "having radar." We were taking turns shooting offhand at a steel target out at 100 yards that had a 6-inch square flapper in the center. We both snaked every shot thought the flapper.
The .44 Spl. has to be my favorite handgun cartridge. Accurate and with plenty of power in the right gun platform, it never fails to please.
My first .44 Magnum was a used S&W Model 29 with a 4-inch barrel. Almost immediately, I found that shooting full-power factory loads in a short-barreled, double-action frame takes its toll on smallish hands. My handloading immediately focused on more comfortable mid-range loads, commonly the Keith 250-grain cast bullet over 9.0 grains of Unique. Today, this late-1950s Model 29 lives largely on a diet of .44 Spl. loads to save my wrist for other things.
This remained my only .44 Mag. handgun until I moved to Lewiston, Idaho, where I found that a properly outfitted gentleman should own an old model Ruger Super Blackhawk. About a year after the move, I traded into a "Super B" with enough wear to be a shooter, not a collector's item.
The Ruger let me experience firsthand the long-range potential of the hunting handgun. Its grip profile and generous heft meant I could shoot full-power loads without feeling
like the guest of honor at a train wreck. I shot a lot of 240-grain jacketed softpoints and Keith loads at informal targets out to 300 yards, and I began to see Elmer's insistence on, "It can be done." It's all a matter of firing enough shots to learn the trajectory.
One of my favorite shooting memories arises from a gathering of writers and industry people in Colorado. We got bored with the formal targets and the dirt clods on our remote range. One writer produced a box of old golf balls, and the fun started all over. One ball got bounced out to the 80-yard marker. I unholstered the big Ruger and, with one full-power Keith handload, lofted the ball another 100 yards or more. I think I picked my head up off the sights, though; I sliced the ball into the rough! If you've never golfed with a .44 Mag., you're in for a treat.
Satisfaction guaranteed! The Keith-style cast bullet and the .44 Special are a winning combo.
I have tested more powerful revolvers, including those in .454 Casull, .50 Action Express, .475 Linebaugh, .480 Ruger, and even the mighty .500 S&W Magnum. I've decided that the point beyond which pleasure turns to work is, for me, the .44 Mag. I don't need anything bigger.
I've probably reloaded more .45 ACP cartridges than all the others I like combined. I started shooting IPSC events with a parts gun, originally a Norwegian Model 1914 with a cobbled-up Colt slide with an S&W adjustable rear sight. Many weeknights were spent prepping ammo for weekend matches. My standard load was the 200-grain RCBS cast bullet over 6.0 grains of IMR PB.
In 1974, I acquired a 1964-vintage Colt Government Model, to which my good friend and gunsmith Mark Hipes added a set of S&W revolver sights, and I did the action tuning. Not only was this my IPSC gun, it was my service pistol. When we later fitted a Colt Navy-contract match barrel and the chrome bore lining showed a real dislike for bullets cast from anything softer than expensive linotype alloy, I switched to the Hornady 200-grain jacketed semiwadcutters and changed propellant to W231. However, cast-bullet loads are still the choice for my lightweight Colt Commander.
In the lab, we found the .45 ACP to be a very well-behaved cartridge when developing loads. With the wide selection of bullets and propellants today, one could make a career out of working up new .45 ACP handloads.
I remain a revolver guy, so any discussion of the .45 Auto cartridge must include the .45 Auto revolvers and their companion cartridge, the .45 Auto Rim. My first .45 AR revolver was a very clean Model 1917. It was a so-so shooter with ball ammo, but I quickly found that it wanted the Ideal No. 454424 Keith bullet. The leading band acted as pilot to precisely align the cartridge in the long throat and dramatically improved accuracy.
Still, I yearned for something with more class and adjustable sights. In 1975, a new S&W Model 1955 Target became available at the local police-equipment company where we police types spent the baby's milk money. It is a remarkable bit of work, and I customized it with a 5-inch barrel, a red ramp front sight, and basically traded out the target components like the hammer and trigger for service-type parts to make the revolver better suited for holster use. The .45 AR load with the Keith cast bullet shot even better in the new S&W. Mild recoil and exceptional accuracy make this one a keeper.
My first double-action revolver was a commercial Colt New Service in .45 Colt made in 1927. I started loading cast 250-grain roundnose bullets from the Ideal No. 454190 mold. It duplicated the profile of factory lead bullets and shot well enough, but I soon switched to the Keith 255-grain design with 8.0 grains of Unique. Considering the miniscule sights and the big grip, I could shoot that venerable old Colt very well.
Accuracy is greatly improved when the .45 Auto Rim is loaded with a Keith-style SWC cast bullet.
I own several New Services in .45 Colt, including a very nice target model. Still, the thought of owning an S&W in .45 Colt haunted my mind. Finally, S&W introduced the Model 25-5 in 1978, and I had the money in hand when they hit town. For three years, I struggled with getting the thing to shoot well. In 1981, we found the problem was the large cylinder-throat diameter and that S&W was replacing cylinders with ones having tighter throats. Mine came back from the refit as one of the finest shooting revolvers I've owned.
My time loading .45 Colt revealed a problem that still exists today: Lighter-than-normal bullets in that big case at standard pressure can produce extreme variations in velocity. Some of the worst loads I've ever assembled were with 200-grain lead SWC bullets. I didn't need a chronograph to tell these were awful--the off sounds and varying recoil told the story, and I went back to full-weight bullets. My hat is off to Hodgdon, whose Trail Boss propellant goes a long way in overcoming this problem.
Yes, there are other handgun cartridges that interest me, but these are the ones I shoot and enjoy most. In the next column, I'll have a go at the rifle cartridges that have impressed me. Be assured that it will include some interesting recent developments.