October 25, 2019
Last fall, I found a really nice vintage Marlin Model 94 .44-40 lever action for sale. Made in 1905, the color-casehardening on the frame and lever had mostly faded, but the 24-inch octagon barrel and magazine tube retained most of their original bluing. Most important to me, the bore was excellent and shiny.
A couple of months after buying the Marlin Model 94, I picked up a scarce Remington Model 14½ slide-action rifle. It was made in the mid-1920s and was chambered in .44-40. Shooting Times Editor in Chief Joel Hutchcroft suggested I include both guns in this reloading column.
Reloading the .44-40
Reloading the vintage .44-40 round is a bit more challenging than most modern straight-walled handgun cartridges, partly because it was originally loaded with blackpowder. In 1873, when the round was introduced, there were no industry standards for ammunition performance.
Today’s SAAMI pressure limits for the .44-40 and many other vintage blackpowder rounds are typically specified in copper units of pressure (CUP). Max chamber pressures are set at relatively lower levels corresponding to the reduced strength capabilities of firearms that are more than a century old. Regarding the .44-40, today’s reloading manuals usually list recipes that are deemed safe to fire in vintage revolvers that are typically too conservative when loading for similar vintage but inherently stronger rifles. I had to refer to loading manuals from the 1950s to obtain recipes for suitable rifle-only loads, but Lyman’s latest cast bullet handbook includes data (and appropriate cautions) for both rifle and handgun handloads.
Recommended powders included IMR 4227; SR4756 (now discontinued); and Hercules (now Alliant) 2400, Unique, and Herco. I also found a source for Accurate 5744 data that proved useful.
Another peculiarity of vintage .44-40 firearms is that the bore dimensions are a few thousandths of an inch tighter than today’s typical .44-caliber bullets (0.429/0.431 inch). According to one source, the groove diameter of Winchester and Marlin rifle barrels is 0.427 inch, whereas Remington rifles have 0.425-inch groove diameters. So I had to slug the bores of my rifles’ barrels just to be sure before I assembled any handloads. As best I could measure, the 94’s bore is 0.427 inch groove size, and the bore of the 14½ is a tad less.
I had some Lyman 200-grain cast bullets on hand, and I ordered a double-cavity mold block with handles from Lee Precision that made really nice 215-grain 0.429-inch lead SWCs. I easily sized them down to 0.427 inch with Lee’s bullet sizer kit.
Instead of resizing in a no-lube-required carbide die, the slightly bottlenecked .44-40 case must be lightly lubricated before full-length resizing. Too much lube will cause case dents. And if you get careless, bumping the case mouth on the sizer die as you raise the ram will likely cause permanent damage to a piece of brass. Compared with stronger .357 or .44 Magnum brass, the relatively reduced-pressure .44-40 cases are not nearly as robust.
After sizing and removing the residual lube, I checked case length to make sure they were all within a couple thousandths. If they weren’t, I trimmed them to uniform length to ensure uniformly secure crimps and to avoid crushing a case that’s too long.
Two more important points to remember when loading the .44-40 are (1) overall cartridge length is critical because if a round is too long, it will not feed and may jam the action, and (2) the .44-40 uses Large Pistol primers.
I fired all of the test loads at 50 yards because that’s the longest range my aged eyes and the iron sights of the two vintage rifles seemed to be compatible with. I was surprised that the Model 94’s 24-inch barrel usually delivered less velocity than the Model 14½’s 22-inch tube, but the Model 94 was almost always more accurate. Also interesting is the standard deviations for all loads in the Model 94 were single digit, except for one, and it was just 12 fps. I don’t intend to hunt with either rifle, but I’ll surely continue to enjoy shooting them.