COWBOY CLASSICS: .38 WCF
Created on 14th May 2009
DEREK LANDERS takes a look at the .38 Winchester centrefire - but does anybody still shoot it?
WHEN WINCHESTER introduced its Model 1873 rifle it was an
immediate success. The combination of an iron - later steel - frame and the centrefire ammunition, cases from which could be reloaded, was a great improvement on the rifle's predecessor, the brass-framed, rimfire Model 1866 or ‘Yellowboy'.
By the year 1879, the new rifle's initial .44/40 cartridge
was joined by the smaller .38/40. Some firearms authorities question why this latter cartridge was introduced, as it is very close to the .44 calibre round in both dimensions and performance. It is generally accepted that these double-number calibre identities refer to the bore size followed by the weight of the black powder charge in grains. In this case, however, that may not be correct. The .38/40 cartridge uses what is basically the .44/40 case necked down to accept a .401" bullet, making it in essence a .40 calibre, not a .38. Winchester brass for both of these calibres will hold exactly the same amount of black powder. Added to this is the fact that the original standard load produced by Winchester used only 38gn of powder*. So could it be that with this cartridge the double-number identity refers to the powder charge followed by the bore size? Maybe it was just that .40/38 did not trip off the tongue as easily as .38/40 - perhaps we will never know.
When this cartridge was chambered in the Colt SAA revolver in 1884, they used the same barrel as their .41 Long Colt models, the only difference in the two guns being the cylinder. This calibre was the third most popular choice for the Colt revolver behind the .45 Colt and .44WCF. Some 38,000 standard frame pistols were produced along with just over 12,000 on the standard Bisley frame. Although this calibre proved very popular among Colt owners, only around 4% of the production of Winchester 1873 rifles was chambered for the .38/40 cartridge. When Winchester released its superb John Browning-designed Model 1892 rifle, it was also available in the same calibres as the 1873. The two rifles were made alongside each other until 1923 when the older model was dropped. The Model 1892 continued in production until 1941, with around one million units leaving the factory. As with the ‘73, 80% of the guns were in .44/40 calibre. The rest were shared between .38/40, .32/20, .25/20 and a few chambered for .218 Bee.
I'm not sure when chronographs were invented or how they measured muzzle velocity at the time, but the 1899 Winchester catalogue quotes 1268fps for factory ammunition, loaded with a 180gn lead bullet in front of the 38gn of black powder. Mike Venturino equates these ballistics to the modern .40 S&W cartridge, and indeed both use the same diameter bullets.
As with its big brother the .44/40, this cartridge needs a little care when reloading. The thin necks of the cases can be damaged relatively easily and, being a bottleneck design, steel loading dies rather than the tungsten carbide variety must be used along with suitable case lubrication. Brass cases are available from Winchester and Starline, with the latter having slightly thicker walls. I have only seen one ‘off the shelf' bullet for this calibre (a 175gn supplied by Midway UK) but moulds are available for those who wish to cast their own. Factory ammunition is available in the United States but it is doubtful if this will be on sale over here due to very limited demand.
The popularity of the calibre in the USA is down to Cowboy Action Shooting and it is interesting to note that modern factory ammunition produced for this sport is slightly less powerful than its 1899 counterpart mentioned above. That produced by Black Hills, with a 180gn lead bullet, has been measured at 1,161fps, while the Winchester brand, with a JSP bullet of the same weight, comes out at 1,146fps. Maybe it's downloaded a little for the ‘gamers'. As all shooters here on the UK mainland are deemed by HM government to be a potential danger to the public and therefore not allowed to own handguns, interest in this calibre is limited to rifle shooters, and in particular those who shoot lever-action rifles. With this in mind it is important to note that, although the modern .40 S&W bullets may be the same diameter as those needed for .38/40, very few, if any, have a crimping groove. They are therefore unsuitable for use in tube-fed, lever-action guns. Bullets for these guns must be crimped into a groove so as to prevent the bullet from sliding back into the case under recoil. This is not a problem if you intend to use black powder, as the case should be full anyway. The position of the crimping groove on the bullet is also important to determine the correct overall length of the finished cartridge.
Listed above are sample loads for this calibre from Mike Venturino's book Shooting Lever Guns of the Old West. The rifle used for this experiment was a 1920s vintage Marlin Model 1894 with a 24" barrel. Bullets were home cast 180gn RNFP. Groups were 10-shot measured at 25yd.
The following is just common sense, but it has to be stated just to be sure: anyone wishing to acquire and shoot older rifles in this calibre should please ensure that the guns are up to the job. Have them checked by a competent gunsmith and never use ‘hot' loads in old guns.
In my 20 years of shooting and studying Old West firearms, I do not think that I have ever seen anyone in the UK shooting this calibre. Of course, now that I have said that there will be a lot of cries of "I shoot one!" Well if you do, all power to your elbow and long may you continue to do so. Perhaps it's because until recently reproductions in .38/40 were scarce or non-existent, and originals in decent condition were comparatively expensive. Uberti now has two offerings available in this calibre, models 1866 and 1873, plus a Winchester 1892 reproduction is available from Armi Sport. While the purists will opt for the '73 or the '92 as both originals chambered this cartridge, the 1866 Yellowboy is a popular choice among CAS shooters and re-enactors.
Data taken from the 1891 Winchester catalogue. This same catalogue lists the company's own brand of ammunition at $19 per thousand, with primed cases at $10 for the same quantity! Happy days.
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