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 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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