Monthly Archives: March 2021

Reloading the Oldies: .32-20

I love old guns, particularly old revolvers, and I like to fire my guns to see what it was like ‘back in the day.’ There are some old cartridges you can still get (at a premium price) and some just aren’t made anymore. But even for the ones you can still find it’s better if you load your own.

Winchester Model 1873 rifle in .32-20

.32-20 Winchester

Winchester introduced the .32-20, also called .32 Winchester Center Fire (WCF) in 1882, chambered in the Model 1873 as a small-game cartridge. They followed this with a single-shot rifle and a few other manufacturer’s took up the cartridge as well. The original load used a charge of 20gr. of black powder under a 115gr soft lead bullet. From a 20″ rifle is made approximately 1200 fps. and 368 ft./lbs of energy at the muzzle.

Colt offered the Single Action Army in this caliber a few years later, and while it was never a seriously popular handgun cartridge it saw reasonably wide use. By the early 20th Century both Colt and S&W offered medium-frame service revolvers in this caliber, and Colt made the small-frame Police Positive Special in .32-20. Some police officers used the cartridge for a time, but by the end of WW2 it was largely out of use as a service caliber.

It was intended for small game and was a little light for deer, but that didn’t stop many people using it successfully for that purpose out to a hundred yards or so. One can see that it would be handy to have a rifle and pistol chambering the same cartridge, but with the advent of newer, stronger rifles and smokeless powder the rifle and pistol loads diverged rather sharply. Pistol loads are now limited to 16,000psi and rifle loads can be up to 40,000 psi in the more modern guns. This can create a hazard if older factory loads intended for rifles are used in a revolver. Older factory ammunition is often labelled as either ‘for rifle’ or ‘for pistol,’ and you should never fire the rifle ammunition in a revolver. If you have older ammo and don’t know exactly what it is don’t fire it from a handgun!

Is it loaded for rifle or pistol? Don’t know? Don’t risk it!

Modern factory pistol ammunition tends to be rather anemic to favor older pistols and imported knock-offs, which often had inferior metallurgy. It’s pretty similar to .32 S&W Long factory ammo in ballistics, which is fine for paper-punching and the like. Consulting Sharps’ 1937 Complete Guide to Handloading shows a variety of handgun-specific loads and bullet weights ranging from .32 S&W Long to .32 H&R Magnum in power. Unless firing a Ruger Blackhawk or Thompson Center Contender it would be best to stick to the low to mid-range loads. With cartridges like .327 Federal or even .32 H&R Magnum there is really no need to hot-load .32-20.

One thing that older sources like Sharps and modern hand-loaders agree on; with the extremely thin cartridge walls hand-loading .32-20 can be a pain in the posterior.

Reloading .32-20 (for handguns)

I don’t have a rifle chambered for .32-20, and to be honest if I did I’d probably load pistol-pressure loads to avoid problems with keeping the ammo sorted. Both brass and reloading dies are readily available online. I use Starline brass as it seems to be the least fragile of the current offerings.

Carbide dies are available from Lee for $35-$40. I recommend carbide dies for pistol calibers; they generally do not require lubrication, but it couldn’t hurt.

De-capping is pretty normal and has not been a problem for me. Flaring the mouth of the case is a bit different than other handgun cartridges I load; usually I want just enough that the base of a bullet fits snugly, but I have had better luck with a more flared mouth using this cartridge.

I’ve found this cartridge works best with the case-mouth flared a bit more than I usually do for pistol ammunition.

Seating the bullet seems to be where things get sticky. I have found that even with the relatively strong Starline brass any hint of crimp causes the case to crumple at the shoulder. It’s annoying, because any vestige of flare left will make rounds difficult or impossible to chamber in my Colt.

The case on the left was done on purpose as a demonstration of what happens when I try to crimp this cartridge in the seating die.

My work-around for this is simple. I remove the de-capping pin from the resizing die and run the loaded cartridge into the die just deep enough to straighten the flare out. This provides enough neck-tension to hold the bullets securely in place without crumpling the case at the shoulder.

This shows the case with the bullet seated over the powder, but the is still some flare at the mouth of the case. The de-capping/resizing die has had the pin removed, and running the bullet into the die will remove the flare and secure the bullet.
Handloaded .32-20, antique brass on the left and modern nickel-plated Starline on the right.

It’s best for older guns to stick to lead bullets in the 90-115gr. range. Currently I load Hornady 90gr LHBWCs and 100gr hard-cast LFPs. For a small-game/varmint load I reverse the hollow-base bullets to form a hollow-point. They expand quite well but have relatively shallow penetration; 9-1/2 to10″ fired into Clear Ballistics 10% ordinance gel through four layers of denim, so they are not best-suited to self-defense applications.

Modern Use

So what use is the venerable .32 WCF in the modern world?

First and foremost to shoot antique guns, and with cast bullets this can be done pretty economically. If all it needs to kill is paper it can be loaded pretty light. Another use is for Cowboy Action shooting, where it’s mild recoil can be a real plus for smaller or younger shooters.

It’s also a good small-game cartridge; you can think of it as a reloadable alternative to the .22 WMRF. It is not difficult or unsafe to load the .32 to match .22 magnum handgun levels of power, and with a flat-point bullet is has plenty of punch for rabbits and the like.

It is possible to hot-load this cartridge in a large-frame revolver like the modern Ruger Blackhawk, and such loads can dramatically exceed even the performance of the original black powder load from a rifle. As a hunting combo with a rifle I could see the point. But with older guns of other makes this would be dangerous; it would certainly damage the gun and might injure the shooter and/or bystanders.

Self defense? It can work; in the early 20th C. it was well-regarded in this role. I sometimes carry a snub-nosed revolver chambered in .32-20, but honestly? Even without getting into the ‘revolver-vs.-semi-auto’ debate there are better options. .38 Special is easy to get and there are a number of effective loads available. If you want to stick to a thirty-two caliber the .327 Federal Magnum is more powerful, easier to handload and will also fire .32 H&R Magnum, .32 S&W Long and .32 S&W.

Viable for self-defense? It’ll work, but you can do better. Still, I have been known to carry this 2″ Police Positive Special, but then I’m kind of a freak.
Rapid-fire at seven yards. Yeah, that’ll do.

Colt chambered it in their 1873 SAA, as mentioned, and you can sometimes find the Italian clones of this model. Colt also offered it in their Police Positive Special and Army Special revolvers. S&W chambered it in what became their K-frame revolvers. The Spanish knocked these off, but frankly I’d avoid those; their metallurgy was sometimes dubious. Ruger offered the Blackhawk revolver in .32-20, and the Thompson Center Contender made barrels that use it, which can be used with rifle-pressure ammo. You’re not spoiled for choice, but there are options available.

It’s been completely and thoroughly supplanted by other cartridges, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun; learning to reload it was interesting and shooting vintage guns is one of my favorite things. It’s also light-recoiling and accurate. If you load your own ammo and come across an old revolver chambered in this cartridge there’s no reason not to pick it up if you fancy it. As a bonus they can usually be had for less money than the same model in a more common caliber in comparable condition. Might just be the start of a beautiful relationship!

Michael Tinker Pearce 28 March 2021


OK, I guess it’s my own fault. I made the heretical suggestion that we address the causes of violence as a way to undermine support for Gun Control. I identified several of the things that I believe contribute to violence in the US. Several people found this highly offensive and ‘didn’t like my politics.’ I’ve lost some readers. *shrug*

I’m a veteran. I’m an ex-cop. I’ve run my own business for thirty years and on the whole been a success. Throughout the near sixty years I’ve been around I’ve been watching and thinking about what I see. I was taught how to learn, how to research, how to think critically; that can happen when your dad’s an engineer. I grew up in white suburbia in the 1960’s and 70’s and after the army I lived around the area where I grew up for some time. Spent about a year in NYC before moving back to Seattle. The whole time I was watching and thinking about what I saw.

Twenty-three years ago we moved to a poor, racially diverse neighborhood. I kept watching and thinking. What I didn’t see were the stereotypes. I didn’t see people on welfare. I saw hard working people trying to make their lives better and to make a better life for their children. Sure, there were bad characters in the neighborhood, but no more so than the neighborhood I grew up in.

I’ve see a lot and thought a lot. I thought critically about things, because that’s how I was brought up. I’ve worked hard; less hard than some of my neighbors in recent years; I’m not getting any younger after all.

Through it all I’ve been a gun owner and a staunch supporter of the 2nd Amendment. I’ve never seen a gun law that demonstrably made things better. I oppose them, on principle and because they don’t work.

Over the course of all of this experience and thinking I’ve formed opinions. I didn’t pull them out of my ass. I didn’t get them from Rachel Madow or Rush Limbaugh, from CNN or Fox. I didn’t get them from propaganda or the internet. I got them from observation, from life experience and sharing the experiences of others.

You don’t have to agree with my opinions. Your opinions are likely formed by your own observation and thoughts. Different people, different lives; different opinions are going to happen. Honestly I try not to inflict my opinions on you, because that’s not why we are here. We’re here because we like gun stuff. That’s our common ground; a place where we can put things aside and appreciate each other for what we have in common. It was my error to introduce opinions that reek of politics. My apologies; I’ll try to stick more strictly to gun stuff.

But if you are so totalitarian in your beliefs and opinions that we can’t even meet on that ground? Well then we are both better off if you choose to spend your time elsewhere. Have a nice life.

Me? I’ll keep watching and thinking critically about what I see, and writing about gun stuff… and try to keep politics out of this blog.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 23 March 2021

Another Mass-Casualty Shooting.

As I write this details are emerging about another spree-shooting, this time in Boulder Colorado, and I am again reminded of why I carry a concealed pistol every day. Not to be a hero, not to be the ‘Good Guy With a Gun’ that saves the day. I carry it to defend myself and other innocents if necessary and possible.

The Detonics Mk.1 Combat master .45, a legendary concealed carry gun. fast-shooting, accurate, chambered for the potent .45 ACP… and STILL not the tool to try and hunt down a heavily armed madman.

I’ve talked about this before. Self-defense does not mean hunting down the shooter; going after a madman with a rifle or shotgun while armed with a concealed handgun does not strike me as a recipe for a long life. I have a home and family, and as a civilian my first responsibility is to survive and return to them. Going after the shooter is the job for the people with training, long-guns, commo and armor that are paid for this sort of situation.

As an individual citizen it is just not my job. Sounds callous, but there it is. I am not going to try to hunt down an active shooter. I’m going to get out. If it is feasible I’m going take as many innocent people with me as possible. My concealed carry pistol is for defense, period, and that means covering a retreat. Period.

Another consideration is that the police, and even potentially other armed citizens, don’t know who the hell you are or what you are doing. They don’t know how many shooters there are. In they heat of the moment and operating with limited information if they see you ‘on the hunt’ with a gun they just might shoot you. So get out. If you can help others while doing so then by all means do, but get out.

Well, that’s the ideal. I am, unfortunately, what’s called a ‘high responder;’ last year when I observed a domestic issue I intervened despite knowing what I should have done instead. I knew better, but in the moment… OK, I can work with that. If I know I may not be able to do the sensible thing I need to take that into account and plan accordingly. So, look for a choke point and play rear-guard while others are escaping, then get the hell out myself. If engaged the idea is to disengage and retreat, which means I need to plan to do so as safely as possible. We need to learn our limitations and work around them as much as possible to achieve the desired result, which in this case is to preserve my own life for my sake and the sake of those that love me.

If you are seriously worried about being caught in a mass-casualty event a gunshot/trauma kit might wind up being more useful than a handgun.

Arguably one of the most useful things you can do in a mass-casualty event is to be prepared for the aftermath. Carrying a tourniquet or a small emergency trauma kit might save a life you couldn’t have saved by trying to be a hero. Take a ‘stop the bleed’ class. Be prepared to useful in a way that makes sense, even if you are armed. Oh, and if the gun comes out it goes away again the instant you are reasonably safe; you really don’t want to escape a life or death situation only to be shot by a cop with incomplete information.

All that being said, I feel the need to comment more broadly on these mass killings. Gun Control laws have not stopped these events in other countries, and they won’t stop them here. Despite strict gun control there was a serious mass shooting in France, and there have been in other places too. That leaves aside bombings and other mass-casualty attacks, and we need to recognize that the dead really don’t give a single shit if the instrument of their demise was a bullet, a bomb or a delivery truck driven into a crowd. Mass killings are not the disease; they are a symptom. Sadly the United States has that disease worse than most and it’s not going to go away until we address that fact.

Unequal education, lack of economic opportunity, income inequality, sexism, racism, political extremism, the deliberate and systematic concentration of wealth to a small, exclusive minority… and maybe most importantly the sense of privilege that denies these are real. Want to stop the killing? Address these things. Yes, it’s harder. Yes, it’s expensive, and yes it’s easier to slap a band-aid on the sucking chest wound and pretend you’ve done something useful. But until we address these factors and the societal illness that currently prevails the killing isn’t going to stop. It’s like people are starving and we’re arguing about the menu instead of feeding them. Deal with the disease and the symptoms will go away.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 22 March 2021