[Guest Post] .32-20 WCF: The First “Magnum” Pistol Cartridge?

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[ This guest post was written by Matt Groom. ]

Writer’s note: All views and opinions expressed or implied in this article are purely the crackpot theories of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Firearm Blog or any related parties.

I’m a big fan of the .32-20 Winchester Center Fire cartridge, introduced in 1882 as a small bore offering for the successful Winchester Model of 1873. It soon became one of Winchester’s third most popular cartridge, and like it’s siblings in the WCF family, it was then chambered in numerous pistol designs, such as the Colt’s Model P (otherwise known as the Single Action Army) and later the Colt’s Police Positive Special, Colt’s Army Special, early S&W K-Frame, and probably several others.

.32-20 Hand Ejector Model 1905, 1st Change, Target Model

.32-20 WCF is a pretty neat little round, and it’s been the inspiration and platform for numerous other successful, and non-successful cartridges alike. Some spinoffs based directly on the .32-20’s case are the .25-20 and the .218 Bee, and attempts to make a semi-automatic version for the Winchester Model 1905 rifle resulted in the .32 Winchester Self-Loading, which was the inspiration for the much more successful .30 Carbine round used in the US M1 Carbine.

A lot of people will insist that the .32-20 and some of its offspring are far too powerful for small game, and far too underpowered for medium sized game, with a bullet that’s too small for self defense. Eau Contraire, mon frère. It’s all in how you load it.

Back in the day, thirty caliber pistol cartridges were considered more than adequate for self-defense and even military service by a great many. Witness the use of the .32 ACP by the French in WWI and then replacing it with the 7.65mm MAS just in time for WWII. The .30 Luger (7.65x21mm) was adopted by the Swiss, Brazilian, Bulgarian, Finish, and Portuguese armies. The Russian’s used the 7.62 Nagant Revolver, and replaced it with another .30 caliber, the 7.62 Tokarev. Some of these countries did a lot of fighting and killing, and sometimes, they even used thirty caliber pistol rounds, and the .32-20 was more powerful than any of those.

“Oh, bull!” says you “Nobody considered those calibers to be serious rounds. They were badges of honor for officers”. Well, maybe that’s true, but consider this: before the advent of cartridges like the .38 Special, .45 ACP, and 9mm, rounds like the .32 S&W Long and the .32 Colt were considered adequate self-defense cartridges, because then as now, very few people elected to carry a full sized pistol everyday when a smaller gun was more concealable, and thus, more practical. .32’s remained popular as pocket guns until the introduction of the .38 Special J-Frame S&W in 1959. It begs the question of why no one made a ‘magnumized’ version of the .32 S&W Long until 1983 when H&R came out with the .32 H&R Magnum, and until the 2008 introduction of the Federal .327 Magnum, there wasn’t a .32 caliber, magnum length cartridge.

No wait, there was. It was called “.32-20 WCF” and people knew it was perfectly adequate for self-defense. Blues guitarist Robert Johnson even wrote a song about the .32-20 (and a cheatin’ woman):
“She got a thirty-eight special, but I believe it’s most too light… I got a 32-20, got to make the caps alright. Her .38 special, boys, it do very well. I got a 32-20 now, and it’s a burnin’!” Something tells me that when Johnson wrote that song, he wasn’t referencing a cartridge that many of his contemporaries would have considered underpowered, or one they had never heard of. He calls the .38 Special “much too light”, which I interpret as being “underpowered”. He wrote that song in 1936, after the introduction of the .357 Magnum. If he wanted to brag, he could have bragged about the .357, he could have said he had a .44 Special, or a .44-40, or a .45 Colt, even a 1911 in .45ACP or .38 Super, but instead, he choose to write about a gun he probably actually owned, a gun he knew his audience would know and respect, and that gun was a .32-20.

John Taffin, in his article on the .32-20 wrote: “Elmer Keith related how, as a teenager, he broke broncs to get enough money to buy his first centerfire Colt Single Action, a seven and one-half inch .32-20. Thirty years later, Skeeter Skelton, freshly mustered out of the service at the end of WWII, stopped in Chicago long enough to purchase, yep, you guessed it, a seven and one-half inch Colt Single Action .32-20. When two gentlemen of such sixgunnin’ stature as these two start with the .32-20, one has to take notice.”

Both of these men were pioneers in the field of magnum pistol cartridges, credited as being the co-creators of the .44 Magnum and .357 Magnum respectively, and one has to wonder where they developed their ideas about loading rounds much, much hotter than they came from the factory.

One reason you can do that very well with the .32-20 is when you have a gun designed for a rather large cartridge like the .45 Colt or the .44-40 WCF, and then you stick a tiny, narrow-hipped little number in there, you have more metal and can load to considerably higher pressures than you can with the larger bores, which come from the factory pretty close to their safe maximum for their intended designs. Even though the .44-40 and .45 Colt were more powerful than the .32-20 in factory form, they limited you to a large frame revolver, and they could not be hot loaded without endangering the gun and the shooter! This is because of smaller rounds usually have smaller base diameters, which means if you compared the .32-20 to a .38 Special in the same sized gun, you could load the .32-20 hotter by virtue of the fact that it has a smaller base diameter (.353” vs. .379”) translating to an extra .013” of metal between the chambers, regardless of the gun they were used in.

“Okay. SO?” Well, consider this: according to Glen Fryxell of Handloads.com and http://www.lasc.us/Fryxell_Book_Contents.htm, an expert on the history of cast bullets, writes “The first bullet that we might call a SWC that had a separate beveled groove specifically for crimping the case mouth into was the 311316, the GC-SWC for high-velocity loads in the .32-20 rifle.” That came out in 1906, a similar design didn’t come out for the .38 Special until Elmer Keith designed one in 1928. You need a crimp groove to keep hot loads from pulling the bullet out, and unless you were carrying a large frame revolver chambered in .44-40 or .38-40, your only option for this a mold with this feature before 1928 was the .32-20. You simply couldn’t load a .38 as hot as a .32-20 without the risk of jamming your piece!

Suitable hollow point bullet molds were available for the WCF family as early as the 1890’s (31133 for .32-20). Also note that when you wrote to a company back then you could request that your bullet mold be made as a hollow point. Think about that: In 1906, you could have a target sighted, double action, swing out cylinder, medium framed revolver that fired a high velocity cartridge loaded with Unique or Bullseye powder, firing a 115 grain, gas-checked, SWC-HP bullet at over 1200 fps, generating over 400 ft/lbs of muzzle energy. That’s [Skeeter’s load](http://www.darkcanyon.net/What’s The Best Trail Gun For You.htm) from an article he wrote in 1977, which you can assume wasn’t nearly the maximum he tried in these old guns. That load would be considered dangerous in those old guns today (and rightly so!) and it only achieves numbers that would be comparable to a .38 Special +P, but keep in mind that such an animal didn’t exist back then.

The Winchester .32-20 Rifle ammo, from the 70′s, is NOT safe to fire in it!

If you fired your hot .32-20 loads out of a SAA or other heavy framed revolver, you could easily match the ballistics of a .45 Colt! Elmer said that you could get 1500fps in a large frame, SAA. When the Luger was new, rare, and expensive, when the most powerful automatics looked like the Mauser C96, before the .44 Special or the Model 1911 even existed, there was the powerful, accurate, flat shooting, light recoiling .32-20 WCF.

Do I recommend you load your antique, S&W .32-20 Hand Ejector to 1200 FPS? No! Of course not! Not even the later K-Frames with heat treated cylinders. Quickload estimates that that load would produce around 26.5kPSI of pressure which those old timers might be able to handle, but why risk it? Nowadays, we have hundreds of calibers and thousands of models which can deliver better performance, but in 1906, 1200 FPS was really something. If you must shoot a .32-20 to the maximum of it’s potential, do it in a Thompson Contender, or some other modern design. That way, if you blow it up, at least you don’t destroy an irreplaceable piece of our firearms heritage!

So, why doesn’t the .32-20 get the respect it deserves today? Well, frankly, it has been technologically out classed several times since the early 20th century. Perhaps all the fellas who knew died in the Great War, or in the Great Influenza (which killed far more Americans than WWI did) who knows? Then again, maybe all the guys who were in on the secret and willing to experiment blew up their own guns and bought something else!
But it’s my opinion that before WWII, the .32-20 was a round to be respected.



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  • George

    Good post. Let’s not forget that Wild Bill Hickok – quite an acclaimed gunfighter – was regularly armed with a pair of .36 caliber revolvers. Don’t see any complaints from him regarding their efficacy.

  • CMathews

    Great article! My family still has my Great Grandfather’s 32-20 S&W Revolver and a lever action rifle. The lever gun was restored and is in great shape, however the pistol was carried for long hours and shows the abuse. My father and I have come to the conclusion that my Great Grandad might have fired rifle 32-20 ammo out of his pistol hence damaging it to the point that it is today. Although the nickel finish is worn and the holster is beat to death, it means a lot to my family. It’s a wonderful feeling to be the fourth generation holding a firearm that was bought ages ago. Great article!

  • Nathaniel

    It’s as hot as 1900s era 9mm Luger! Oh my!

  • armed_partisan

    The Early Luger Ammo was loaded rather hot, and if you fire a Luger today, you need to use +P ammo, otherwise it might not cycle the action reliably.

  • armed_partisan

    Also, hollowpoints. Revolvers had them, semi-autos didn’t. Reliable, jacketed hollowpoints were still largely experimental in the 1960’s, and they certainly weren’t reliable until the mid 80’s or so. Before that time, if you wanted a hollowpoint to expand reliably, it had to be fired out of a revolver. One reason most police agencies in the US took so long to switch over from revolvers wasn’t because they simply weren’t savvy on the new technology, but because the ammo hadn’t kept pace with the weapons, and switching from .38 +P LSWC-HP to a 9mm FMJ is NOT a good idea.

    What’s more, early .45 ACP was nothing to write home about by today’s standards. The famous 230 Grain Hardball is LESS powerful than the currently issued M882 9mm NATO round used by the US Military (400ft/lbs vs. 460ft/lbs). Then again, those are both FMJ, and even if you have more energy, if you don’t have a hollowpoint or a Truncated Cone, or a Flat Point, something with a nice, wide meplat, then you’re not doing very much damage. I’ll take a heavy and fast .32 caliber with hollowpoints over a slow, non-expanding FMJ any day.

  • WeaponBuilder

    Excellent write-up!

    The .32-20 is NOT to be underestimated!

    As an avid student of historical cartridge development, and bullet casting hobbyist, there are countless people these days that don’t understand how such companies used to operate.

    In the late 19th Century you could write in a letter to Ideal/Lyman, get a custom casting mold created, and even custom handloading tools machined for your particular caliber and bullet type. When writing to a Company they took the time to meet your demands and reply to your correspondence. Customers were treated with even greater respect and service than today.

    1200 FPS with a hollow point bullet was something to be respected back then, and not easily achieved.

    Great post!

  • Matt Groom

    Thank you all for the kind words. I also theorize that the K-Frame was specifically developed by S&W with the intended purpose of firing the .32-20 WCF. This is because the cylinder length and diameter is actually pretty near perfect for the .32-20, but it’s really too long for the .38 Long Colt. The .38 Special supposedly wasn’t released until 1902 (according to Cartridges of the World, 9th ed., P.275), meaning a three year gap between the introduction of the .32-20/.38LC K-Frame and the .38 Special.

    Most cartridges of the time that could utilize that length were too large in caliber to fit in the cylinder diameter. This is largely speculation on my part, since I have never seen a Model 1899 K-Frame that was chambered and marked for use with .38 Long Colt exclusively. I think that if the .38 Special really was introduced three years after the K-Frame, they were not co-developed. Usually, the round is finalized before the pistol, which only makes logical sense. Witness the .45 ACP being designed in 1905, but the 1910 and improved M1911 didn’t come out for at least a half a decade afterwards.

    For S&W, being able to use a longer .38 caliber cartridge than Colt could was just a bonus. Also note that Colt had to lengthen the cylinder and frames on their medium sized “Police Positive” models (introduced in 1905) so that .38 Special could fit, and that made them into “Police Positive Specials” in 1908.

    Also, according to Supica & Nahas in the Standard Catalog of Smith and Wesson (3rd Edition, P.130), Serial Numbers for the 1st Model Hand Ejector (K-Frame) Number 1 to 5311 were chambered in .32-20 WCF. That means that the very first production K-Frame, the first 5000 in fact, were .32-20’s, not .38’s.

    Still, the article looked like it was getting a bit long, and it was supposed to be about the .32-20, not S&W K-Frames (which I love). It’s really just wild speculation. What do you all think?

  • A french follower

    It’s “Au contraire”, and not Eau, which means Water ;)
    Good post tho

  • Nathaniel

    Semiautos didn’t? Look, the author mentions having to reload the ammunition anyway, so I don’t see why you couldn’t take a hand drill and bore out a cavity in a standard bullet, or load it with .357″ revolver bullets. The Luger may or may not feed those properly, but when you have to compete with loading your own ammo, there are plenty of options.

    .32-20 is a fine cartridge, I guess, but I don’t see why it knocks the other contemporary options on their ass. I mean, .45 Colt, .44-40 and others are all more powerful, and also had hollow points available at the time.

    And fundamentally, it’s a revolver, and it comes with all the downsides that brings with it. It would only be a few short years before a reliable, power semi-auto would be introduced.

  • armed_partisan

    Thank you all for the kind words (and the notes on my poor understanding of French!).

    I also theorize that the K-Frame was specifically developed by S&W with the intended purpose of firing the .32-20 WCF. This is because the cylinder length and diameter is actually pretty near perfect for the .32-20, but it’s really too long for the .38 Long Colt. The .38 Special supposedly wasn’t released until 1902 (according to Cartridges of the World, 9th ed., P.275), meaning a three year gap between the introduction of the .32-20/.38LC K-Frame and the .38 Special.

    Most cartridges of the time that could utilize that length were too large in caliber to fit in the cylinder diameter. This is largely speculation on my part, since I have never seen a Model 1899 K-Frame that was chambered and marked for use with .38 Long Colt exclusively. I think that if the .38 Special really was introduced three years after the K-Frame, they were not co-developed. Usually, the round is finalized before the pistol, which only makes logical sense. Witness the .45 ACP being designed in 1905, but the M1910 and improved M1911 didn’t come out for at least a half a decade afterwards.

    For S&W, being able to use a longer .38 caliber cartridge than Colt could was just a bonus. Also note that Colt had to lengthen the cylinder and frames on their medium sized “Police Positive” models (introduced in 1905) so that .38 Special could fit, and that made them into “Police Positive Specials” in 1908.

    Also, according to Supica & Nahas in the Standard Catalog of Smith and Wesson (3rd Edition, P.130), Serial Numbers for the 1st Model Hand Ejector (K-Frame) Number 1 to 5311 were chambered in .32-20 WCF. That means that the very first production K-Frame, the first 5000 in fact, were .32-20’s, not .38’s.

    Still, the article looked like it was getting a bit long, and it was supposed to be about the .32-20, not S&W K-Frames (which I love). It’s really just wild speculation. What do you all think?

  • Laenhart

    An extremely informative post. It’s very interesting to see the stages leading to the development of modern calibers, and even better to finally receive explanations for things I hadn’t understood. Thanks very much!

  • Matt Groom

    Nathaniel,
    I’m talking about before WWI, not the 1980’s. If by “a few short years” you meant “about four to six decades”, then yes, you are right. Just like a Luger is very expensive today, it was very, very expensive back in the day. They didn’t have a century’s worth of experience with semi-automatic designs back then to tell them that semi-auto’s were reliable. They were new, untested, expensive, and unreliable. Most people had probably never heard of such a thing as an “automatic pistol”, let alone know that they wanted one. The Luger and the Broomhandle Mauser were both considered unreliable by today’s standards, and they didn’t sell the US Model 1911 to civilians for many years, because the Army got first dibs on all production, and they still didn’t have enough by the end of WWI.

    And yes, they did use Round Nosed, Full Metal Jackets exclusively. You cannot drill a hole in the nose of an FMJ round and expect it to expand. A modern JHP is a very difficult to manufacture item, and if you feel like you can get the same performance by using a hand drill to make little holes in the nose of your plinking fodder, I encourage you to try it.

    Ammunition was expensive and difficult to acquire back then. Reloading dies for exotic calibers with metric designations weren’t exactly mail-order items back then. Reloading data DID NOT EXIST for exotic calibers like 9mm Luger, and you couldn’t just check a web forum or ask someone at the local gunstore about it. You would very likely blow up your exotic European semi-automatic made by Fabrique Nationale or Mauser a few months after you got it if all you had to go on was trial and error with no prior knowledge or experience.

    You couldn’t pick up the phone and call Germany and say “Hey! Send me one of them new ‘Pistols For War’!” because they didn’t have trans-atlantic phone lines until the 1940’s. If you wanted to buy something like that, you’d either have to wait until someone imported it, which didn’t happen until 1923 when Stoger got a patent so they could import “Lugers”, or learn to write a letter in German and request it. A request which they would probably deny.

    You would have to know how to do the currency conversions in your head and pay international postage. If you made the purchase, which could take months, you would have to send CASH in an ENVELOPE that entire distance, by horse, and train, and steam ship, and buggy, and bicycle. Nobody crossed the Atlantic by air until Charles Lindberg did it in 1927 in a stripped down experimental aircraft.

    This was an age when double action revolvers with swing out cylinders were NEW TECHNOLOGY, when cartridges were still new and nearly universally filled with BLACK POWDER, when non-corrosive primers DIDN’T EXIST, when hollowpoints were not used because they expanded, people didn’t know that, they were used because they reduced the weight of the bullet.

    And no, hollow points did NOT exist back then for the .45 Colt. You might be able to ask that they build one for you, but you’d have to design it first, or build it yourself. Elmer Keith designed the first hollowpoint intended for use with a handgun cartridge in 1928, the Ideal 358439 for .38 Special, and a .45 Colt version didn’t exist for years. “Express Bullets” for .44-40 and .38-40, and .32-20 were around, but in a non-heat treated handgun cylinder, they could not be loaded hotter than they came from the factory, so no, they weren’t especially powerful by today’s standards either. I once read that the hottest .38-40 loads were about the equivalent of a .40 S&W today. You couldn’t exactly hot rod them like you could the .32-20, and that’s my point. Also, and I’m pretty sure I mentioned this, they (.38-40, .44-40, .45 Colt) were only available in large framed handguns, that is, revolvers. If you’ve ever carried a revolver, you’ll realize how big it seems compared to a semi-auto, and if you carried a large frame revolver, you’d notice they seem even bigger still.

    I’m glad you like living in the 21st century, so do I, but if you want to understand history, you need to be able to understand it from the perspective of the people who lived in that period, and check your contemporary understandings and biases at the door.

  • REG HANSEN

    I HAVE A COLT THAT HAS BRITISH PROOFS THAT MY FATHER BROUGHT HAME FROM WW2 THAT HAS A P12 STAMPED ON IT 4 TIMES CYLINDER FACE YOKE UNDER LEFT GRIP AND BACK SIDE OF TRIGGER GUARD.IT LEFT FACTORY IN 1915 AND IS 455 CAL.WHAT DO YOU THINK REG HANSEN 1-509-990-1336

  • armed_partisan

    Well, it sounds like a Colt Model 1905 New Service. If it’s still chambered in the original .455 cartridge, and doesn’t have any import marks, it’s also VERY collectible. The .455’s are from WWI when that was still the standard military round. British Officers used to have to purchase their own sidearms, and many purchased S&W and Colt’s products. In 1920, the UK enacted very strict (by the standards of Americans) gun control in the form of the 1920 Firearms Act. According to the ever reliable and never, ever editorialized Wikipedia:

    “The certificate, which lasted for three years, specified not only the firearm but the amount of ammunition the holder could buy or possess. Local chief constables decided who could obtain a certificate, and had the power to exclude anyone of “intemperate habits” or “unsound mind”, or indeed anyone considered to be “for any reason unfitted to be trusted with firearms”. Applicants for certificates also had to convince the police that they had a good reason for needing a certificate.”

    During WWII, all the guns came out of the woodwork, and whoever had that probably didn’t have a certificate for it, (since you had to register the gun to get a certificate) and couldn’t legally get ammo for it. So they traded it off rather than surrender it to the government, who notoriously dumped hundreds of thousands of guns into the Atlantic post war.

    I’m not an expert on Colt’s but that’s probably the assembler’s mark. I think that’s quite a prize, and would be proud to own one myself.

  • Roger Warrington

    My Friend has a 32-20 in good cond. She does not know what she even has, I will tell her to hang on to it, does it fall under a non gun – or a collectors gun- antique, where a permit is not needed ? just wondering for her as she is from Vermont. or a state where you do not need a licence. as I have a FL. 30 state CCW.

    • armed_partisan

      .32-20 was a popular catridge back in the day, but it has seen only very limited production since WWII, which means that all guns in this caliber in good condition tend to be valuable, or at least collectible.

  • Michael

    RE 32.20 Colt.
    I own my great uncle’s WWI pistol – the Colt 32.20. couple of quick anecdotal stories.
    I was camping in a remote area when a group of drunks decided to camp about a 1/4 mile away and proceeded to start shooting their rifles at who knows what. I pulled the 32.20 and shot a few rounds into a log just to make sure they knew they were not the only armed ones in woods. A few seconds after my last round I heard one say “what’s that guy got a &^%#%#Q CANNON?.” after which they just put their guns away and focused on more serious drinking and no more problems.
    The gun is accurate. I was plinking at a coke can floating in a canal, but could not sink it. My rounds were close enough to bounce the can uof the water but no direct hits. I felt real bad about my shooting, until on the way home i realized the can had drifted with the current to well over 100 yards out, and my shots were grouping within 6-8″ of the can – and would, more or less, be lethal to a human target.
    I own a variety of revolvers and automatics from .22 to .44M & .45. My personal accuracy with this revolver is far superior to what I can do with any handgun I own or have fired. I enjoy long distance shooting with hand guns, my Dad taught me “if your gun can reach it and you can see it, you can hit it – if you practice”. Maybe its just the right “fit”, but if I had to participate in an old west ‘High Noon’ style gun fight the adage of “beware of the man with a small caliber gun – he probably knows how to use it” would apply.

    Michael

  • smilstead

    Any interest in selling the piece featured in these pictures? I assume by your post it’s quite operational without any major defects? Send me a price!

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Matthew-Groom/100000832774119 Matthew Groom

      I’m actually quite fond of it, and not looking to sell it. It has a non-heat treated cylinder, so it can only be fired with “blackpowder equivalent” pressures. I use Trailboss and soft cast bullets. It can in no way match the performance of the load I cited in the article. However, if you look around, you can find .32-20 S&W’s unloved and cheap at gunshows and pawnshops in small towns all over the US. Many have been horribly “bumper chromed”, but will service nicely as shooters, as long as you find one with a heat treated cylinder. Look up the S/N’s of production to find out.

  • Maddog

    Are the 32 20 pistol and rifle cartridges one and the same? I assume the pistol is a little lighter load than the rifle.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Matthew-Groom/100000832774119 Matthew Groom

      The rifle loads were largely the the same, just loaded to higher pressure. This may have involved use of a different powder, or perhaps more of the same powder. Older .32-20 loads would not likely be found marked “for use in pistols and rifles”, but the hotter, rifle only loads would likely be marked “Express Loads” or “High Velocity” or something like that, indicating higher pressure. When in doubt, go without. Such confusing practices were common back in the day, with the only difference between a safe loading and a dangerous-for-your-gun-loading being a nickname on a nearly identical looking box. The .38/44 Heavy Duty used “Super Police” and “High Speed” loads that were otherwise identical to regular .38 Special ammo, and might damage or destroy a smaller, non-N-Framed .38 Special. This was especially true of the early K-frames, and it was around that time that S&W started heat treating ALL of their cylinders. Ammo such as this is collectible in it’s own right now, and should not be fired anyways.

  • Chris

    I have a Colt Official Police revolver in .32-20 caliber. I understand that these were made between 1927-42. Serial
    no 569950. Do I need to be careful about the ammo I shoot in this? I see in this article there’s a chance that some ammo may be too hot for this gun.

  • lthornton

    i have a model 92 Winchester lever action rifle in the 32-20 cal. , I have had abut 45 years or so and it had a different stock with cheek plate and shot quite well at that time. Have not shot it in years, have it hanging over fire place and draws a bit of attention, old buck horn sights and you are in slight when you put it to your cheek and look down the sights, really a good feeling weapon. Had wear but every thing seems to still work.

  • dltaylor51

    I have a 32 20 SRC WIN.and a 32 20 Colt army spl.with a 4″barrel and have never felt under gunned and having a pistol that shoots the same round as the carbine is a big plus also.I cast my own 115gn bullets and load a box of 50 for a less than what a box of 22 LRs sell for so whats not to like about the 32 WCF.