July 22, 2020
By Lane Pearce
Shooting Times Editor in Chief Joel Hutchcroft and I often share common interests in firearms. When he learned I’d recently acquired three early 20th-century .38 WCF rifles, he suggested I use them for a handloading column. One is a lever-action Marlin M94 with a 24-inch barrel. One is a pump-action Remington Model 14½ with a 22-inch barrel. The third is a lever-action Winchester Model 1873 with a 24-inch barrel.
Several years after the .44 WCF cartridge was introduced in 1873, it was necked down to create the .38 WCF. The “.38-caliber” designation is a gross misnomer because the actual bullet diameter is 0.400 to 0.401 inch.
The .38 WCF was originally loaded with 40 grains of fine-grain blackpowder; consequently, it is often referred to as the .38-40. The original cartridge cases were typically made of copper and are now known as the “folded-head” style. Manufacturing methods improved, and sturdier “balloon-head” cases were developed. Drawn or impact-extruded solid-head cartridge brass is used in today’s modern ammo. You definitely can’t load 40 grains of blackpowder in these cases.
Compared to modern smokeless propellant, blackpowder is much less energetic. Blackpowder cartridges typically generate pressures less than 20,000 psi. The original .38 WCF needed a full case of blackpowder to launch the heavy, cast-lead bullets to 1,200 fps or so. I used smokeless powder for my handloads listed in the accompanying chart, and safe smokeless loads with comparable ballistics top out at about half the original blackpowder charge. And there’s no tough-to-remove fouling, smoke, or smell!
Reloading Dos and Don’ts
Reloading the .38 WCF is a bit more involved than most other rounds. It headspaces on the rim, so depending on how the chamber is cut, the case shoulder may not be fully supported. Because these old cartridges existed long before there were standard specifications, the gun manufacturers used different chamber reamers. And depending on which brand reloading dies you use, the sizer die may resize the cases a bit differently.
Because the .38 WCF is a bottlenecked case, it must be lubed before resizing. I use Redding’s Imperial sizing wax—sparingly. A little dab on my fingertips is quite enough to lightly coat two cases. If the case neck exhibits a dent when it’s sized, you’re applying too much lube and/or the sizer die needs to be degreased. Set the sizer die so the neck is resized just enough to allow the case to chamber. If you have to turn the die even farther down to adequately size the lower case body, you’re likely loading them too hot or your chamber is excessively oversized.
I size the neck and shoulder no farther back than necessary. The case will expand forward when fired, and repeatedly sizing and firing it will work-harden and cause it to fail prematurely.
The nominal overall cartridge length for the .38 WCF is 1.55 inches. So, depending on which bullet you’re loading, you’ll have to determine the correct trim-to-length dimension for your brass—after sizing. When loading the Winchester 180-grain JSP bullets, I set my RCBS powered case trimmer at 1.278 inches +/- 0.002 inch. After trimming, use the expander die to bell the case mouth just enough to ensure the bullet heel will properly align during seating.
My rifles have tubular magazines, so the bullets must be crimped in place. The typical seater die can be adjusted to apply a roll crimp, or Lee offers a factory crimp die for most cartridges that will securely clamp the case mouth into a cast bullet’s crimping groove or a jacketed bullet’s rolled cannelure.
You must take special care when prepping these WCF cases because they’re not as robust as most “modern” cases. If you’re not careful, you’ll damage the much thinner case mouth and lose that piece. Fortunately, Starline has plenty of virgin .38 WCF brass for sale.
As I noted earlier, the appropriate smokeless propellant charges vary a lot.
If you’re loading Alliant 2400, Accurate 1680, or IMR 4227 (the bulkier powders), you should readily notice an overly full case. However, if you choose a faster burn rate propellant, you can double or even triple charge a case and overlook it. You have to develop and always follow rigid process controls when reloading these old cartridges.
I arrange the primed cases in my loading tray with the case heads up and charge them one at a time. As you gain experience and confidence, you may choose to do two at a time if you make sure you throw one charge into each case. When every case has been flipped over and charged, I always weigh a row along the edge of the tray. Then I inspect every case with a penlight to make sure each one has a charge that looks the same as the rest. If you suspect one, dump the charge onto a scale to check it. Do not assume. Verify!
The .38 WCF rifles performed well in my opinion. Groups measuring 2.00 inches plus or minus 0.5 inch at 50 yards seemed just fine considering the iron sights and my aging eyes. The Marlin M94’s peep sight was most compatible to my being able to shoot straight. Several of my test loads pushed the Remington’s shallow rifling beyond its limits, but when the velocity didn’t exceed 1,250 fps or so, it usually did fine. The action design of the Winchester Model 1873 is weaker than that of the Marlin M94 and the Remington Model 14½, so the handloads that I prepared and fired in the other two rifles were too powerful for it, but the one lower-powered handload I prepared just for it achieved acceptable accuracy.
Most .38 WCF factory ammo is loaded to original, lower blackpowder pressures (approximately 12,000 psi) and are suitable to be fired in Colt or Colt-clone revolvers. Most current loading data is geared toward handloads for these type handguns. They are safe to fire in original or replica rifles in good condition. However, there are a few reliable sources that provide rifle-only load data, so be extra careful when you choose your load data and don’t fire rifle-power-level handloads in any revolver.