Last autumn I said that I would be testing several obsolete calibers with both factory and hand-loaded ammunition. This afternoon I went to Renton Fish & Game to start the process. Buckle up, this is a long one!
This being the first trip the results are quite incomplete; I did not have original factory-style bullets to do black powder loads for .32 & .38 S&W for example, or suitable bullets to do proper handloads for .32 S&W, and will have to come back to those.
I’d like to thank Greg Ellifritz for providing much of the antique and commercial ammunition used in this test.
I started out with .38 S&W. Introduced in 1877 for S&W’s compact top-break single-action revolver, this used a case very similar to .38 Colt Short. Instead of using the Colt’s heel-base .375 bullet, however, it used a .360-caliber bullet that fit inside the case. Initially this was loaded with round-nose lead bullets weighing 145-147 gr. over a charge of 12 grains of black powder. The British loaded this case with a 200gr. bullet for military use, and this works well enough in robust Webley and Enfield top-break revolvers, or in solid-frame revolvers, but it is too stout for American-made top-breaks designed for concealment.
Initially the cartridge was used primarily in concealable revolvers, but a number of service-sized revolvers were produced by or for the British.
.38 S&W is still commercially produced, almost entirely using round-nosed lead bullets at modest velocities to render them safe to shoot even in frail antiques. Buffalo Bore does make defensive loads, and Fiocchi still produces British military loads, but these are very much the exception, and their use should be limited to stronger, service-type revolvers.
I had a box of modern 145gr. round-nose lead Winchester factory loads, and two different hand-loads using a .357 125gr. truncated-cone lead bullet and a .361 150gr. semi-wadcutter. The test guns were my 1-5/8″ barreled S&W and my 3-1/4″ barreled H&R. I fired five rounds each of all three loads through both guns; the results are an average of those loads.
Winchester 145gr. (modern) factory ammunition
S&W- 1-5/8″ barrel: 535 fps. 92 ft./lbs SD: 39
H&R- 3-1/4″ barrel: 478 fps. 74 ft./lbs SD: 42
This modern factory ammunition is very under-powered, probably to make it safe to shoot in even the poorest-quality antique handguns.
125gr. TCL, 2.7gr. of Unique with a CCI 500 small pistol primer
S&W 1-5/8″ barrel: 621 fps. 107 ft./lbs SD: 21
H&R 3-1/4″ barrel: 566 fps. 89 ft./lbs SD: 11
This is a deliberately light load meant to be ‘top-break friendly,’ in the interest of being kind to antique guns of this type.
150gr. LSWC, 2.7gr. of Unique with a CCI 500 small pistol primer
S&W 1-5/8″ barrel: 672 fps. 150 ft./lbs SD: 14
I only had five of these with me, so I decided to shoot them out of the shorter gun as these are the loads I use when I carry this as a pocket-gun.
It’s interesting that the much shorter barrel on the S&W consistently produced significantly higher velocities than the longer barrel on the H&R; I can only presume that the tolerances on the S&W are significantly tighter.
This cartridge was introduced as a center-fire replacement for .32 Rimfire in 1878 by the union Metallic Cartridge Company, and was widely used in small, concealable pistols. Typically such guns had barrels of 2-3″ in length, though longer-barreled examples were made.
Original loads used an 88gr. lead round-nose bullet over 9 grains of black powder (measured by volume, as was customary for black powder.) This supposedly yielded around 700 fps., but we do not know the length of barrel used to arrive at this figure. In the early 20th Century the cartridge was typically loaded with black powder long after the adoption of smokeless, but since World War 2 it has been loaded exclusively with smokeless. The round remained popular for purse and pocket guns long after most manufacturers had ceased to produce firearms chambered for it, and is still commercially available.
This cartridge was used in several notable assassinations in the early 20th century, including among the victims President William McKinley, who was shot twice in the abdomen and later succumbed to infection.
The cartridge has never been considered powerful enough for police service, but many a lawman might have kept one tucked away on their person as a last-ditch backup.
I had two different boxes of ammo for this caliber, both Remington and both loaded with 88gr. RNL bullets. The Iver Johnson test gun has the standard 3-1/4″ barrel, and like the .38s it’s double-action only.
Remington Kleanbore 88gr. LRN
615 fps. 74 ft./lbs SD: 14
Remington Target 88gr. LRN (modern)
611 fps. 73 ft./lbs SD: 17
Not a nickel’s worth of difference between these two loads.
.32-20 (.32 Winchester Center Fire)
Introduced in 1882 as a small game cartridge for Winchester rifles, it was shortly thereafter adopted as a revolver cartridge, and was briefly popular as a police service cartridge. Originally loaded with a 100grain flat-point lead bullet over 20 grains of black powder, it made the transition to smokeless powders at the end of the 19th. century. Many iconic revolvers, such as the Single Action Army and Police Positive Special from Colt, and the S&W Hand-Ejector, were produced and remained popular until World War 2. It’s popularity waned in the post-war years, and few if any commercial rifles and no commercial revolvers are produced for it today, though ammunition is still available.
While intended as a small game cartridge many a deer has been taken with it since its inception. These days commercial ammunition is typically loaded to modest levels of power in deference to the antique firearms it was made for.
I had four loads to test in this caliber, two antique loads of unknown origin, a smokeless handload and a black powder handload, both using a 96gr. LRNFP from Aardvark bullets.
100gr. copper-washed LRNFP (unknown if this is commercial or handloaded.)
779 fps. 135 ft./lbs SD: 23
115gr. LRNFP (unknown if this is commercial or handloaded.)
761 fps. 149 ft./lbs SD: 13
96gr. LRNFP, 3.7gr. of Unique with a CCI500 small pistol primer
744 fps. 118 ft./lbs SD: 35
This load is rather light, as you can see. I usually load this bullet over 4.0 gr. of Unique; I’ll be testing that load in the future.
96gr. LRNFP, 12.7gr. Hodgden Triple 7 FFFg (black powder substitute) with a CCI500 small pistol primer
837 fps. 149 ft./lbs SD: 12
This powder charge is measured by weight, not volume (as was more typical with Black powder.) Triple-7 yields slightly higher velocity than black powder, but cannot be compressed as much. On the balance this load is probably a fair approximation of the original load for this cartridge.
This cartridge was the first centerfire cartridge adopted by the British military for their Beaumont-Adams cartridge-conversion revolvers, but it’s use spread rapidly to the Webley RIC revolver, the Webley Bulldog and to countless copies of the Bulldog made in Belgium. While the British military replaced it in service in 1880, it remained a widely used revolver cartridge into the early 20th century. In fact it was in use as a ‘second standard’ cartridge for the British until at least the end of WW1, as it could be fired in .476 and .455 revolvers.
It has been known as .450 Adams, .450 Boxer, .450 Corto, .450 Colt, .45 Webley and maybe even a couple others I have missed. It is out of commercial production, though Fiocchi occasionally does a small run of .450 Corto.
It’s original loading was with a 225gr. RNL bullet over 13gr. of black powder, yielding a muzzle velocity of 725-750fps. from the long-barreled Adams revolvers.
I am using Hodgden Triple-7 FFFg black powder substitute in my loads. This typically generates slightly higher velocities than black powder, but modern cartridges hold rather less powder than the original ‘balloon-head’ cases used for this cartridge, so I think it makes for a fair approximation. I was unable to obtain 225gr. bullets in time for this test, but I will be reproducing the original load and testing it at a later date. I had two loads available for this test.
138gr. .451 lead ball, 10gr. of Triple-7 FFFg and a CCI550 large pistol primer
628 fps. 121 ft./lbs SD: 16
This was made as an ‘antique-friendly’ light target load. It proved accurate at 7 yards, and ought to be gently on old guns.
210gr. copper-washed LSWC, 7.5gr. of Triple-7 FFFg and a CCI 550 large pistol primer
551 fps. 142 ft./lbs SD: 9
In the near future I will be developing more smokeless loads for this cartridge.
So what does it all mean?
This test is meant primarily as a baseline for comparison purposes in future tests. Eventually as finances allow I’ll be testing these rounds in an equivalent of FBI-standard ballistic gel tests, both to see what they were capable of, and to see what they can be safely made to do now.
I’ll also be testing .32 S&W Long, but I wasn’t prepared for that today. It’s going to be a bit catch-as-can as I work this in around my ‘day job’ and finances, but I’ll keep you updated as I go along.
As usual, all loading data contained in this post is used at your own risk. Load data should be approached cautiously, especially when it heralds from a dubious source such as the internet!
Michael Tinker Pearce, 8 January 2020