March 15, 2019
By Allan Jones
Size-wise, the .32 H&R Magnum is the smallest centerfire handgun cartridge with the “Magnum” moniker on SAAMI’s most recent list of standard cartridges. I’ve touched on this cartridge over the last decade, and there must be a bunch of people who share my fondness for it. Friends and acquaintances keep asking, “When are you going to tell us more about the .32 Mag.?” Okay, guys, here you go.
The .32 H&R Mag. debuted in 1983–1984 as a joint project between Federal Cartridge and Harrington & Richardson. Many compact .38 Special revolvers were limited to five shots, and their small construction made recoil with high-performance defense ammo unpleasant for some. The .32 H&R was intended to offer stopping power that approached the level of the .38 Special but with less recoil and in a compact revolver that held six rounds.
It is obvious that the .32 H&R Mag. did not supplant existing defense cartridges like the .38 Spl. Regardless, it has soldiered on, likely because it is a dandy little field cartridge with excellent long-range capabilities. It’s also more stinkin’ fun than should be legal. Other gunmakers soon joined the party, including Smith & Wesson, Ruger, Charter Arms, Dan Wesson, and Freedom Arms.
The .32 H&R Mag. is the .32 Smith & Wesson Long case extended to 1.075 inches; the maximum cartridge overall length (COL) is 1.350 inches. That kept the .32 Mag. within the cylinder length of existing H&R revolver designs without the need for a new frame design. The maximum average pressure was set at 21,000 CUP, more than the .45 ACP or the .38 Spl. +P. By comparison, its parent cartridge has a pressure assignment of only 12,000 CUP.
Federal introduced two loads: a 95-grain lead SWC advertised at 1,030 fps and an 85-grain JHP at 1,100 fps (these are pressure-barrel velocities). The .32 H&R pressure barrel is 5 inches long and has no cylinder gap. In production revolvers with barrels 4 inches and less, velocities were expectedly lower; revolvers with longer barrels fared rather well.
I chrongraphed early factory ammo in my 5.5-inch-barreled Ruger Single-Six; the lead SWC shot the advertised 1,030 fps, and its JHP cousin did about 1,060 fps. However, when we developed handload data with 100-grain JHPs and a variety of propellants, the same Single-Six consistently exceeded pressure barrel velocities by an average of almost 50 fps.
Handloading the Littlest Magnum
Let’s talk reloading. My preference in bullet weight goes to the 100-grainers. They have consistently been the most accurate in my Ruger revolver. However, the lighter JHPs are not far behind and offer extra velocity to help with bullet expansion.
The .32 H&R Mag. uses 0.312-inch jacketed bullets; cast bullet diameters should be no smaller than 0.313 inch for best accuracy. Suitable jacketed bullets are still available. Hornady catalogs two (85- and 100-grain XTP), and Sierra has one (a 90-grain JHC). Rainier Bullets lists a 100-grain JHP and a 100-grain FMJ.
The .32 H&R Mag. is an outstanding cartridge for cast bullets, but it’s not a problem if you don’t cast. I found more cast bullet offerings online than jacketed ones. Just remember to always opt for the harder alloys.
I apply a conventional roll crimp to all of my .32 H&R handloads to help ballistic uniformity. Some cast bullet designs seated to the crimp groove may exceed the industry overall length recommendation of 1.350 inches; my Ruger will accommodate loaded lengths up to 1.455 inches, and the rare S&W Model K-32 in .32 H&R has an even longer cylinder. My favorite cast bullet, from RCBS mold 32-98-FN, loads up at 1.420 inches, which is no problem for the Single-Six. If in doubt, load a dummy cartridge and test it in your gun’s cylinder.
I avoid bullets weighing less than about 80 grains in the .32 H&R. We tried doing H&R data for a .32 ACP 60-grain Gold Dot hollowpoint bullet that worked in the .32 S&W Long. The light bullet in the larger H&R case exhibited serious ballistic inconsistencies in the pressure barrel regardless of loading technique or our best ballisticians’ incantations.
The .32 H&R case is adaptable enough to enjoy a wide range of propellants. With 85- and 90-grain jacketed bullets, stick with the mid- to fast-burn-rate propellants. Alliant Unique and Hodgdon Universal did very well in pushing 85-grain bullets to safe top speeds. With 100-grain bullets, the true “magnum” slow-burners through H110 work but are best with maximum safe loads. If you don’t need the speed, you don’t need the slow-burners in the .32 H&R Mag. When loading 98-grain cast bullet loads for plinking, I use data we published for the 100-grain JHP. Standard Small Pistol primers worked best across the board.
Do not use old .32 H&R Mag. data for 0.308-inch bullets with modern 0.312-inch bullets. In lab tests I found this practice can produce pressures up to 50 percent over the limit.
People correctly state that you can shoot cheaper .32 S&W Long ammo for practice and plinking, but my Ruger revolver never shot very accurately with the shorter cartridge. I’ve also heard this from many other .32 H&R Mag. shooters, including a few lucky stiffs who managed to score the rare .32 H&R Mag. K-Frame revolvers.
I’ve often been asked why not simply choose a .22 Winchester Rimfire Magnum handgun for field use instead. Easy. I’ve never found a .22 WMR handgun that came close to the accuracy of the .32 H&R in my Single-Six.
Although only two of the biggest ammomakers still offer this cartridge, it is not dead. Federal and Hornady catalog it at press time, as do Black Hills and Buffalo Bore. This is a classic handloaders’ cartridge, and Starline continues to offer cases.