October 17, 2023
Winchester’s renowned Model 1894 rifle is forever linked with the .30-30 Winchester cartridge, but not everyone knows that the first Model 1894 rifles were chambered for Winchester’s incarnations of two older blackpowder cartridges: .32-40 and .38-55. The story of the .32-40 Winchester and the .38-55 Winchester begins in 1884 with two popular target cartridges for the Marlin-Ballard rifle: the .32-40 Ballard and the .38-50 Ballard.
In 1875 patent-holder Charles H. Ballard licensed J.M. Marlin to build his single-shot rifle design. Marlin made improvements to the original pattern, and Marlin-Ballard target models in .32-40 Ballard and .38-50 Ballard graced the firing lines at many prestigious shooting events. The “Ballard” cartridge name lived on, but Winchester adapted and renamed them for the single-shot rifle that eventually became known as the Model 1885 Winchester.
Early .32-40 Winchester ammo launched a 165-grain bullet at about 1,300 fps. SAAMI specs show it was 1,520 fps at the time it was classed as obsolete. Maximum average pressure (MAP) was 30,000 CUP. Winchester’s ammo listing for the year 1911 has a high-velocity 165-grain loading at 1,750 fps, obviously for the stronger Model 1894 and Model 1885.
SAAMI cartridge/chamber specs for the .32-40 showed bullet diameters of 0.3180 to 0.3210 inch. The groove diameter spec of the barrel is 0.320 to 0.322 inch. It also shows no freebore in the barrel. Based on my measurements of old sample cartridges, most factory bullets were stepped down to 0.308 to 0.313 inch ahead of the cannelure to clear the rifling. My caveat for handloaders is make sure bullet noses do not prevent chambering before loading hundreds of rounds.
The upstart .30-30 trounced the .32-40 as a hunting cartridge. With 8,000 CUP higher pressure than its forebear, it shot a bullet that was a bit heavier 25 percent faster than even the old .32-40 high-velocity load and with 60 percent more muzzle energy. With no new rifles being made, the .32-40 disappeared from major U.S. ammo catalogs between 1965 and 1968. The .32-40 had a brief revival around 1981 when Winchester released a John Wayne commemorative rifle in .32-40. The resurrected ammo had “Duke” in the headstamp.
Cases for .32-40 are still available from specialty reloading vendors. Proper lead bullets are available online. Hodgdon’s online Data Center shows loads for 198- to 204-grain cast target bullets that are all under the max pressure of 30,000 CUP. If you have an old .32-40 lever-action or single-shot rifle in good condition, go enjoy it!
The .38-55 Winchester cartridge was the .38-50 Ballard before Winchester got into the game. Although originally a target cartridge, the .38-55, firing a half-ounce of lead accurately at distance, doubled as an effective hunting cartridge in its time. I confess it is one of my favorites. I’ve shot my 1918-vintage octagon-barreled Model 1894 rifle for over 50 years.
Early smokeless loads pushed a 255-grain bullet at about 1,320 fps, and that velocity remains much the same today in Winchester factory loads. The pressure limit is 30,000 CUP. The 1911 Winchester ammo list showed a high-velocity loading at 1,600 fps for stronger actions, but only the slower load survives today in U.S. ammo.
The .38-55 went on “vacation” for several years, last shown in ammo catalogs from 1964 through 1967. Fortunately, CIL ammo from Canada was available for much of that hiatus and loaded to the old “HV” spec of 1,600 fps for 50 percent higher muzzle energy.
Popularity in Canada plus Cowboy Action Shooting helped with the reentry of this cartridge. Marlin and Winchester made new rifles for a while, and Winchester continues to catalog one jacketed SP load at 1,300 fps. Buffalo Bore makes a high-speed load for modern rifles that’s loaded to .30-30 pressures.
Handloading the .38-55 for a Model 1894 can safely improve performance within industry pressures. Hodgdon’s online Data Center shows 250-grain cast bullet loads at over 1,600 fps and none exceed 27,600 CUP. It also shows loads for a 255-grain jacketed bullet at 1,800 fps that do not exceed 28,200 CUP with Barnes’s “Original” 255-grain FNSP bullet, still cataloged.
Pairing the .38-55 with cast bullets is satisfying once you deal with barrel groove diameter. Although bullet diameter spec is 0.377 inch, most old Winchester rifles seem to run larger. My vintage Winchester, with a near-perfect bore, measures 0.380 inch across the grooves. A coworker at Speer had a Marlin lever gun that we measured at 0.375 inch.
Barnes sells the best jacketed component bullets for the .38-55: a proper 255-grain FNSP in 0.375- and 0.377-inch diameters. The CIL factory bullets that shot so well in my rifle also run about 0.377 inch, but the bearing surface has multiple grooves that seem to allow the thin-jacketed bullet to “slug up” under pressure. Accuracy is excellent.
Starline sells .38-55 empty brass in two different case lengths. That product webpage has a link to an excellent discussion of why different lengths are important.
Ideally, cast bullets should be 0.001 inch over groove diameter, but sometimes you can’t get there. When I started with my Winchester rifle in about 1972, I could not afford a custom 0.381-inch lubrisizer die, and my molds cast at 0.379. I bought the biggest Lyman die available (0.379 inch). It worked.
A misfit between factory jacketed bullets and bores explains so many original rifles suffering gas leakage and erosion. Wanting a shooter, I exchanged a fair bit of exterior wear for a nice bore, and it was worth it.
What can a 140-year-old cartridge, a 100+-year-old rifle, and iron sights do at the range? Plenty. With younger eyes I posted some 1- to 2-MOA groups from the bench with both cast bullets and CIL factory ammo. Later, I plucked my go-to cast-bullet HV load from Barnes’s jacketed bullet data: Lyman’s No. 375296GC 265-grain bullet over 25.0 grains of Reloder 7. It goes just over 1,600 fps from my rifle’s 26-inch barrel yet remains two grains under the published maximum for jacketed bullets. The old rifle has done some nice work at 300+ yards with that load.