[ 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 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.
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.