September 23, 2010
By Lane Pearce
Lane says the .32 Winchester Special can do anything the .30-30 can and even a bit more, so his hasty buy isn't such a bad thing.
By Lane Pearce
I suppose I should apologize for the title. It's purposely ambiguous because after a casual glance at an article entitled "Revisiting the Venerable .32 Winchester Special," most of us would probably hurriedly flip the page. A lot of gun scribes churn out reviews touting the virtues of the latest and greatest firearm, cartridge, optics, et cetera. However, this one is about a rifle from a nostalgic moment many years ago.
You know how impressionable youngsters are. Specific events that occur when you're growing up often stick in your memory. Since I was born and raised in the South and being that several of my relatives enjoyed shooting and hunting, one of my favorite recollections involves a gun from my family--my Uncle Levere's deer rifle.
My dad's older brother had an assortment of firearms that he used to hunt squirrels, rabbits, quail, and deer. One weekend, my family was visiting my grandparents, and Dad drove over to see Uncle Levere. I tagged along to see cousin Steve, who was just a few months older than me.
Back then, 9- or 10-year-old kids weren't the center of attention, especially when adults were conversing, and firearms fascinated us young boys, so we stood quietly while Uncle Levere showed his new rifle to Dad. It was from this moment--and for several years afterward--that I came to believe the Model 94 .32 Winchester Special lever action was the only deer rifle.
The .32 Special
For more than a century now, the cartridge has yet to make any 10 most popular list. Despite this consistently tepid regard, the .32 Winchester Special (WS) is acknowledged by some as an excellent deer rifle/cartridge combination. That's evidenced by the thousands of Winchester and Marlin rifles in .32 Special residing in homes across the country.
During the late 19th century, the munitions and firearms world experienced a revolutionary period of chaotic yet constructive change. Muzzleloaders were supplanted by guns that fired "fixed" rounds instead of the usual percussion cap, loose powder, and ball or paper cartridge. Then, myriad new, clean-burning, and more-potent nitrocellulose-based compounds quickly began to replace the centuries-old blackpowder mixture of sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter.
Blackpowder's burn rate is almost constant and solely dependent on granulation size. It's also very inefficient because only about half is converted to hot, propulsive gases when a cartridge discharges. These factors dictate that as the range or size of the quarry increases, the caliber and weight of the bullet as well as the cartridge case capacity must also be increased in order to achieve desired ballistic performance.
Blackpowder residue also severely fouls the barrel, smells like rotten eggs, and obscures your vision with a cloud of smoke after each shot. It will even cause the cartridge cases and firearms to corrode if left unattended.
When Winchester's Model 1894 debuted, it was initially chambered for the popular .32-40 and .38-55 cartridges. They were blackpowder cartridges charged with, as the hyphenated nomenclature suggests, 40 and 55 grains, respectively. The .30-30, introduced a year later, has always been factory loaded with smokeless propellant. However, in keeping with prevailing cartridge identification convention, the "-30" part of the moniker referred to the charge weight of smokeless powder. It does not suggest, as one might assume, the comparable blackpowder power level similar to the dram equivalent scheme commonly used for shotshells.
Smokeless propellants are much more efficient and, grain for grain, contain significantly more energy. Comparing the new smokeless .30-30 to the blackpowder-loaded .45-70, the .30-30's case capacity and typical bullet weight were much less. However, the .30-30's muzzle velocity was significantly greater, so downrange energy was comparable to the .45-70 out to about 200 yards.
Introduced in 1902, the .32 Winchester Special was essentially the ballistic twin of the more-popular .30-30. The .32 Special's intended purpose quickly became obscure and surely contributed to its lagging popularity. It should not be confused with its earlier and much smaller cousin, the .32 WCF, more popularly known today as the .32-20 Winchester. And, of course, it's not just another name for the also venerable .32-40 Winchester that achieved great regard for accuracy in single-shot blackpowder breechloaders favored by the period's marksmen.
The .32 Special was an alternate chambering in Winchester's Model 94. The .30-30 was the much more popular choice.
According to one reference I found, original factory ammunition for both the .32 WS and the .30-30 were loaded with 165-grain bullets. Factory specs of that period state that the .32 Special's muzzle velocity exceeded the .30-30's by up to 100 fps. That's understandable because if the two rounds are loaded to the same chamber pressure, the .32 Special's larger base diameter--base surface area--will accelerate the same weight bullet to a greater speed. Winchester may have concluded that shooters desired more power than the .30-30 delivered and simply expanded the case neck up to the more familiar .32 caliber.
Another theory was that since the .32 Special's slower 1:16 twist rate was the same as the .32-40's, shooters could handload cast bullets and blackpowder. Thirty-caliber munitions weren't very common back then, and the .30-30's 1:12 twist rate was a bit fast for best cast-bullet performance. Besides, new Model 1894s were still chambered in .32-40. A blackpowder-cartridge rifle cost much less than a .32 Special with its special, nickel-steel barrel. So why pay more and then load that dirty, smelly blackpowder?
The .32 Winchester Special can do anything the .30-30 can and even a bit more. Despite that, the .30-30 remains vastly more popular than its cousin ever will be.
A Good Deal
After that first encounter with the .32 Special, I avoided a recurrence for 50 years. While attending the Tulsa gun show in the fall of 2007, I found a Winchester collector who was disposing of a table full of nice, Pre-'64 Model 94s. During the ensuing conversation, I mentioned Uncle Levere's deer rifle story. The gentleman turned to one rack, selected a carbine, and commented, "You mean like this one?"
As luck would have it, the serial number indicated a 1957 production date. That was probably the same ye
ar I'd first learned about the .32 WS.
I'm often impulsive when encountering a firearm that catches my fancy, so after a brief negotiation, I purchased a Model 94 just like Uncle Levere's. According to the 1957 edition of Gun Digest, the Model 94 is described as a solid-frame, 20-inch-barreled carbine chambered in either .30-30 or .32 Special. It has a shotgun-type, straight-grip, walnut stock with a checkered-steel buttplate; bead front sight with a removable hood; and Winchester's 22K adjustable rear sight. It holds six rounds in a tubular magazine, weighs about 6 pounds, 4 ounces, and was originally priced at $74.95.
A half-century of inflation increased my cost nearly eight-fold. And that was without the box, manual, or hangtags.
Revisiting The Venerable .32 WS
I soon discovered that .32 Special munitions and component options were limited. I bought a box each of Winchester and Remington ammo loaded with 170-grain JSP roundnose bullets. Hornady and Speer offer only one bullet each for handloading, and both are 170-grain flatpoints.
However, soon after I acquired the rifle, Hornady surprised us with a new LEVERevolution .32 Winchester Special factory load that features an innovative 165-grain Flex-Tip (FTX) bullet. The soft polymer-pointed bullet allows cartridges to be loaded safely in tubular magazines. Hornady touts the muzzle velocity at 2,410 fps from a 24-inch barrel.
Although the .32-caliber FTX bullets are not being offered as component bullets to handloaders for now, Hornady's Steve Johnson sent me a double handful of the special bullets. He also sent a couple of boxes of the ammo and a set of Hornady Custom dies. At first, I figured I'd have to shoot up all the factory ammo to get brass to handload. Then I discovered 10 boxes of Herter's .30-30 Winchester ultra-precision match-grade virgin brass--made by Norma--at J.C.'s gunshop. I arranged an equitable trade, returned home, and reformed the cases. All it takes is one pass through the sizer die, trimming to uniform length, and you're ready to go.
Both old (cast lead) and new (Hornady Flex-Tip) bullet technologies deliver excellent performance in the .32 Winchester Special. Lane used an obsolete Ideal mold block that produces 137-grain cast bullets with gaschecks for handloading his "impulsive purchase" .32 Winchester Special Model 94. The author reformed Herter's .30-30 brass using Hornady Custom dies for building his .32 Winchester Special handloads.
Coincidentally, a couple of years ago, a friend had given me an old Ideal No. 321427 single-cavity bullet mold and handles; I cleaned it up and cast a few bullets that measured 0.324 inch. Being a gascheck design, I figured it was intended for the 8mm Mauser. That's not something I shoot or reload, but never being one to dispose of a loading tool, I had stored it away for a possible future need.
After I acquired the vintage rifle, I recalled having that old mold and wondered if it might be suitable to cast bullets for loading the .32 Special. I was pleasantly surprised when I checked Ideal's No. 38 reloading handbook, circa 1951, and discovered it was actually intended for the .32 Special.
Lyman Products acquired the Ideal reloading equipment product line many years ago, and this particular design is no longer offered, but I called Tom Griffin, Lyman's technical service manager, to discuss casting bullets with the Ideal mold for my rifle. He sent a box of 8mm gaschecks and the appropriate top punch and die assembly for my Lyman 450 lubricator/sizer tool, and he suggested I size them to 0.323 inch.
I still occasionally cast bullets when I have a special need, like the current loading project, so I dropped a couple ingots of Lyman's No. 2 lead alloy into the pot to get started. When the metal reached the desired temperature, I fluxed it with a generous pinch of Alox bullet lube to keep the tin and antimony in solution when skimming the impurities off the surface.
Caution! You should always cast bullets in a well-ventilated area--I prefer outdoors--to avoid inhaling any lead or other toxic vapors. I always ignite the fumes to minimize the amount of smoke generated while I'm stirring the molten metal. Also, wear leather gloves and protective glasses. Surely don't get water or any moisture near the pot. One drop will vaporize instantly and splash molten lead everywhere, and that will burn you badly. So please be careful!
It takes a while to cast an adequate supply of good bullets with a single-cavity block. The first few dropped from a cold mold won't fill out completely and must be returned to the pot. While inspecting my results, I found a few with defects but soon had about a hundred nice, shiny bullets ready to lube and size.
I always seat the gaschecks by hand before running each bullet through the sizer. After sizing, I checked the first few, and they measured exactly 0.323 inch--a couple thousands larger than the .32 Special barrel's nominal groove diameter--and weighed 137 grains with the gascheck.
I selected load data for the No. 321427-style bullets from earlier editions of the Ideal and Lyman manuals. The jacketed-bullet recipes I tried are found in Lyman's most recent manual (No. 49). As you can see in the chart, I fired a few rounds of factory loads just to get velocity data to compare with the performance of my handloads. The Model 94 does not lend itself to easily mounting optics, so in consideration of my age-impaired vision shooting with iron sights, I limited my shooting to 50 yards at large targets.
Unfortunately, the lightweight cast bullets were too short to obtain an overall length that would reliably feed from the magazine, so I had to fire one round at a time. The jacketed-bullet factory ammo and handloads cycled through the action without a hitch. Overall results were quite satisfactory, and as the chart suggests, my eyesight appears to be adequate.
Hopefully, my reminiscing has both enlightened the uninformed and engendered fond memories for those of us who appreciate the .32 Winchester Special's "special" attributes.