.32 S&W was introduced in 1878 by Union Metallic Cartridge for use in a series of pocket revolvers introduced by Smith & Wesson. It quickly became popular and S&Ws revolvers were knocked off by pretty much everyone, guaranteeing a market for this cartridge.
The cartridge’s original form used an 88gr. RNL bullet over 9gr. of FFg Black Powder, giving it a nominal performance of 725 fps and 103 ft./lbs of energy. Hardly a powerhouse, but its only real competitors at the time were .22 rimfires and .32 Colt, which was even weedier than .32 S&W. Oh, and 7mm Pin Fire; while it never really caught on quite a lot of pinfire revolvers were imported in the US. People weren’t exactly spoiled for choice when it came to cartridges for compact self-defense pistols and with violent crime at levels we would find inconceivable in large American cities (the ‘Wild West’ was actually safer) there was a lot of demand to fill.
Today .32 S&W is a relic of another age, long ago supplanted by more modern and effective calibers. But given the literal millions of top-break revolvers made between 1878 and WW2 there are a lot of these guns around, and the majority of them seems to tip to the .32 S&W. By and large these guns have attracted little interest from collectors and can often be had for $90-$200. People sometimes buy them on impulse and naturally they want to shoot them. That can be problematic; up until COVID several manufacturers did small runs of this cartridge and prices weren’t insane like they are for some old cartridges.
Last I checked people were still selling it at prices comparable to other small-bore cartridges but I haven’t looked into this recently. I suspect in this day of shortages many or most companies have suspended manufacture.
Alliant Sport Pistol
This powder is relatively new on the scene, apparently having originated some time around 2018. It’s designed to provide consistent results for competition in popular calibers, and from what I have been able to glean in mid-range loads it seems to do a reasonable job of this. It’s a very finely granulated powder and fairly slow-burning, so it does it’s best work in full-sized guns. I’ve also seen numerous reports that it’s accuracy and consistency improves with loads at the hotter end of the published data, though none of Alliant’s listed loads are what you’d call a ‘hot’ load.
As you’d expect there is zero data on the Alliant site for smaller, older or obsolete cartridges like .32 S&W. I have good results in 9mm and .45 ACP using both jacketed and cast bullets, though it can get very smoky with the latter. Since I had it on-hand I thought I’d try it in .32 S&W just out of curiosity.
Loading with Sport Pistol
This is a very finely granulated powder and meters very well through my lee Perfect powder measure, Since I am working in the dark here I decided to start with 1.2gr, but my powder measure wouldn’t throw a charge of less than 1.5 gr. with this powder. This actually works out decently in .32 S&W, and the powder has a relatively high volume-to-weight ratio so it does a decent job filling the available space.
I loaded a Aardvark Bullets 96gr. LFP bullets over my 1.5gr charge to see how it would perform.
Typically revolvers of this type have around a 3-1/4″ barrel, though manufacturers offered lengths from 2-6″. I’ve been divesting myself of top-breaks and keeping only my favorites, so I no longer have a 3-1/4″-barrel gun and had to use two snubbies. The first is a S&W .32 Double Action (2nd Model) with the barrel cropped at 1-5/8″, and the other is an Iver Johnson First Model .32 Safety Hammerless with a 2″ barrel. This was shortened to this length very professionally at some indeterminate time in the past, and the patination on the crown is consistent with the rest of the gun so I suspect it was quite a long time ago.
Generally speaking you expect a longer barrel to yield higher velocities, but this varies by manufacturer and even by individual guns. Not to mention there’s only 3/8″ difference between the two barrels.
Averages were established with five consecutive shots from each gun.
Iver Johnson 2″–
Averages: 472 fps. 47 ft./lbs ES: 103 fps
Averages: 478 fps. 49 ft./lbs ES: 144 fps
While the S&W posted higher figures it also had a significantly larger extreme spread, though both were pretty terrible in this regard. I don’t feel much inclined to test for accuracy; neither gun is suited to it and given the huge extreme spreads demonstrated I doubt they would do all that well even in a gun that was specialized for accuracy.
While the listed load is weedy enough that you can probably fire it safely in your antiques, the extreme differences in velocity indicate very different pressures. At this load the highest velocity achieved was only 558 fps.; this is actually a little slower than factory ammo from the same gun, and that is formulated to not blow up the worst guns ever made. I would be leery of pushing this load any hotter. Given that it’s a fairly slow-burning powder it might give better, more consistent results in guns with longer barrels; it’s really not designed for short-barrel guns.
Should you shoot this in your guns? That’s entirely up to you. I will shoot off the remaining cartridges I loaded with no qualms, but I won’t use Sport Pistol for this caliber in the future. Red Dot, Unique and Universal all give better, more consistent results.
Don’t get me wrong, I like Sport Pistol and it is well-suited for what it is made for; target loads out of full-sized pistols. I’d go so far as to recommend it for that use, and will be publishing some test data using the powder in its intended role in the future.
Stay safe and take care,
Michael Tinker Pearce, 17 August 2022