July 27, 2023
The .44 Winchester Central Fire, as it was originally called, was introduced in the Winchester Model 1873 lever-action rifle in 1873. It replaced John Tyler Henry’s .44-caliber rimfire cartridge for which the earlier Winchester Model 1866 and Henry Model 1860 rifles had been chambered. And since 40 grains of FFg blackpowder were loaded behind a .44-caliber 200-grain lead bullet, the cartridge eventually became commonly known as the .44-40 Winchester, although “44 WCF” was usually stamped on the barrels of rifles. Advertised muzzle velocity from the 24-inch barrel of the Model 1873 was 1,245 fps, with accuracy said to be five shots in four inches at 100 yards.
The Colt Single Action Army revolver was chambered for the .44-40, and Colt also offered it in the Lightning slide-action rifle and the Model 1884 lever action. Remington responded with the Model 1875 single-action revolver in .44-40, and in 1913, it became available in the Model 14½ slide-action rifle. While I was in high school, I had a Remington Model 14½ and used it to take my second whitetail deer and a bunch of feral pigs. It had what was called a thumbnail safety on the side of its bolt rather than the usual transverse safety behind the trigger guard. A collector of Remington rifles made an offer I could not refuse. Moving forward quite a few years, the Colt New Frontier introduced in 1961 was offered in .44-40 and .45 Colt, and I am the proud owner of both.
The popularity of the .44-40 cartridge eventually faded, but its health improved considerably when the game of cowboy action shooting arrived in the early 1980s. Soon thereafter, more companies began importing reproductions of lever-action rifles and single-action revolvers in .44-40. While many were bought by the “Wild Bunch,” far more were purchased by people like me who simply enjoy shooting rifles and handguns of yesteryear. Ammunition offered by Black Hills, Buffalo Bore, Hornady, HSM, Powder River, Winchester, Magtech, and Jamison help to keep the old-timer alive today.
Beginning during the late 1890s, Winchester offered High Velocity ammunition loaded with smokeless powder and a 200-grain jacketed softnose bullet at a velocity of 1,550 fps. Chamber pressure was said to range from 18,000 CUP to 20,000 CUP. The ammunition was intended for use in the much stronger Winchester Model 92 lever action, and printed warnings on the box advised against its use in the Winchester 1873 rifle and revolvers.
Due to some of the rather weak firearm designs that were chambered to .44-40 in the past, SAAMI maximum average chamber pressure for the cartridge is 13,700 CUP. The 50th and 51st editions of the Lyman Reloading Handbook have loads for 10 different rifle designs, with comparatively weak actions classified as Group 1. Included are the Winchester Model 1873 and its modern reproductions. Winchester Model 66 and 1860 Henry rifles have the same toggle-link breechbolt locking system as the Winchester Model 1873, so modern reproductions of those also belong in that group. Maximum chamber pressure listed by Lyman is 13,600 CUP, with a maximum velocity of 1,232 fps for 200-grain bullets from a 24-inch barrel.
Nine stronger rifles classified as Group 2 include the Winchester Model 92, Marlin 1894, and Remington 14½. Maximum chamber pressure for loads listed by Lyman for them is 21,900 CUP with a maximum velocity of 1,638 fps for 200-grain bullets from a 24-inch barrel. I once had a Marlin 1894 Cowboy in .44-40, and while it delivered acceptable accuracy with 200-grain bullets at 1,500 to 1,600 fps, case life was quite short.
The bottlenecked .44-40 case requires lubing prior to resizing, but it doesn’t take much. Just a trace of Redding or Hornady wax applied by the fingers and removed with a paper towel after sizing does it. I have a dwindling supply of Remington 2½ Large Pistol primers on hand, and they do an excellent job of uniformly igniting smokeless powders as well as blackpowder and its substitutes.
As mentioned earlier, the .44-40 originally was loaded with 40 grains of blackpowder, and those 40 grains filled the case to the base of a seated 200-grain lead bullet. While today’s solid-head cases have less capacity than the balloon-head cases used in the old days, suitable smokeless powders do not come close to occupying all that space. With a 200-grain bullet seated to a cartridge length of 1.580 inches, the Starline case holds 31.5 grains of water, yet the mild-mannered old-timer can be surprisingly accurate when loaded with extremely small powder charges.
I was unable to identify the powders in Remington, Hornady, Black Hills, and HMS ammunition, but respective average charge weights were 9.0, 5.5, 7.0, and 5.6 grains. Factory technicians who choose powders for .44-40 ammo obviously spend a great deal of time searching for those that are not greatly sensitive to positioning in the case.
IMR 4227 and Alliant 2400 occupy more of the case than lighter charges of quicker-burning powders, but maximum charges still rest far below the base of a seated bullet. As to be expected, this does not hold true for blackpowder and its substitutes. When dribbled through a seven-inch drop tube, 33.0 grains (by volume) of Goex FFg and FFFg are slightly compressed by a seated bullet. The same goes for 32.0 grains of Pyrodex P and 30.0 grains of Triple Seven.
Jacketed bullets can be loaded in the .44-40, but for some guns they are not an acceptable option. As mentioned in various Hornady reloading manuals, the barrel of a Cimarron revolver used by technicians for testing the .44-40 had a groove diameter of 0.427 inch, and due to the 0.430-inch diameter of the 200-grain XTP bullet, it could not be used in that gun. Another issue with jacketed bullets is that the cannelures of most available today are positioned wrong for keeping .44-40 cartridge length within the 1.592 inches maximum for trouble-free feeding in lever-action and slide-action rifles.
The original barrel groove diameter for the .44-40 was 0.427 inch, and today, SAAMI min/max is 0.4285/0.4305 inch. During the past 148 years, actual groove diameters of various rifles and revolvers have reportedly ranged from 0.424 inch to 0.434 inch. Groove diameter for the Uberti rifle I used for this report was slugged at 0.4277 inch, so cast bullets for it were sized to 0.429 inch. Chamber throats of my Colt revolver measure 0.427 inch, and barrel groove diameter is 0.426 inch. Cast bullets for it were sized to 0.427 inch. Cast of scrap wheelweight metal, the Lyman and RCBS bullets drop from their molds measuring 0.430 and 0.431 inch, so with sizing dies of various diameters for my Lyman 4500 sizer/lubricator, I am all set to make those two bullets suitable for a wide range of chamber throat and barrel groove diameters.
Even if a cast bullet is a bit smaller than barrel groove diameter, cast bullets with a Brinell hardness of 10 and less will obturate to fill the grooves whereas a jacketed bullet pushed by .44-40 chamber pressure likely will not. A cast bullet also more easily squeezes through undersized chamber throats of revolvers and undersized groove diameters of barrels without greatly increasing pressure. For those who do not make their own, cast bullets weighing 200 grains for loading in the .44-40 are available from Rim Rock in 0.427-inch and 0.428-inch diameters. Lube options are standard for smokeless powders and SPG for blackpowder.
My Redding/SAECO hardness tester indicates the lead-alloy bullets loaded by Black Hills, Hornady, and HSM for cowboy action competition are close to 7 on the Brinell scale (pure lead has a BHN of 5). Respective nominal bullet diameters are 0.428, 0.426, and 0.429 inch. (The 200-grain jacketed bullet in Remington ammunition measures 0.4275 inch.) Increasing velocity requires an increase in cast bullet hardness, with a BHN of 10 being sufficient for the maximum speeds to which I load the .44-40 for my rifles and revolvers. Bullets weighing in the neighborhood of 200 grains are the best choice. Actual weights of bullets of various alloy mixes vary, with those cast of wheelweight metal dropping from my Lyman and RCBS molds at 212 grains and 205 grains.
The wall of the .44-40 case is thinner than those of the .44 Magnum and .44 Colt cases, and in addition to being weaker, the slight bottleneck shape presents several challenges during loading. If the inside diameter of resized cases is considerably smaller than the bullet diameter, cases may collapse during bulletseating, even if their mouths are properly belled. Should this become a problem, increasing the plug diameter of the expander 0.001 inch or so can prevent it.
Keeping all cases trimmed to the exact same length can prevent collapsing of the case when bullets are roll-crimped in place, although the crimp cannot be applied as hard as on the .44 Magnum case. Even when lightly applied, the case may wrinkle when a standard crimp die is used. This is why I first seat bullets and then finish with a Redding profile crimp die. Also, during seating, the thin wall of the case can allow a bullet to tilt enough for its base to bulge the side of the case and prevent the loaded round from chambering. The competition seating die from Redding prevents this by having a spring-loaded, close-fitting seating stem that travels downward into the body of the die to align the bullet with the case.
The .44-40 became a big hit among hunters and remained so long after the .30-30 Winchester was introduced. My father took most of his deer, many feral pigs, and his only black bear with a Winchester Model 92 chambered for it. He used Remington ammunition loaded with a 200-grain jacketed softnose bullet on everything. Dad was good at still hunting (stalking), but he often perched on wooded ridges while watching trails, scrapes, and rubs. A rope and boards were used to fashion a steady machan high among the limbs of a live oak tree draped with Spanish moss.
It was from one of those that he shot his very best buck. The animal approached from behind, and as it paused directly beneath him, Dad placed a bullet dead center of its back, just behind the shoulders. After emerging from the buck’s chest, the bullet came to rest about eight inches into sandy soil. I dug it up, and except for rifling marks and a small nick on its nose from passing through the deer’s spine, the bullet was in factory-new condition. Dad shot a lot of game with Remington ammo, and despite the lack of bullet expansion, he never lost a single animal. In addition to being an excellent shot, he was a strong believer in getting close and seldom raised his rifle at a deer standing much more than 50 long steps away. Obviously, in capable hands, the .44-40 is plenty for hunting deer.