TAFFIN TESTS: THE .32-20
For the past twenty years or so, handguns have been modernized to the point of being chambered for many rifle cartridges. In the 1950's, who could have ever predicted that handguns would be chambered for the .30-30 Winchester? The .35 Remington? Even the .45-70? And the latter has been chambered in both revolvers and single-shots! Yes, we are thoroughly modern and up-to-date. Or are we?
More than 100 years ago, Colt started a trend that has been resurrected and continues even to this day. The popular rifle cartridges of the 1870's were the .32-20, .38-40, and the .44-40. Since they were all short, stubby, relatively low pressure cartridges by "modern" standards, it just seemed the natural thing to do to chamber each of them in the Colt Single Action Army to join with the original chambering, the .45 Colt. The up-to-date shooters a century ago could have a rifle and sixgun chambered for the same cartridge.
As rifle cartridges became more sophisticated, there seemed to be little room left for the pleasant little trio of W.C.F. (Winchester Center Fire) cartridges and all of them were dropped before World War II as both rifle and sixgun chamberings. There, that was the end of that. After the war, the watchword for both rifle and pistol shooters was Magnum. With the advent of rifle cartridges from Weatherby, Winchester, and Remington, faster was better and and The Magnum Era of handgun cartridges really blossomed as the .357 Magnum was joined by the .44 and then the .4l Magnums. Then came the Handcannon T/C's from SSK, the line of SuperMags from Dan Wesson, the Freedom Arms .454 Casull, and the custom .475 and 500 from Linebaugh Custom Guns. Yes, bigger definitely became better.
And then a strange thing happened. Shooters began to discover that there really was room for the older, milder, more traditional cartridges. And the oldies started to come back. The .45-70 and the .45 Colt are more popular than ever, the .44-40 has a small group of appreciative followers, and wonder of wonders, suddenly the .32-20 is alive and well again.
The .32-20 has always held a fascination for me for two reasons. My two favorite writers both really started their sixgun-writing careers with the .32-20. Elmer Keith related how, as a teenager, he broke broncs to get enough money to buy his first centerfire Colt Single Action, a seven and one-half inch .32-20. Thirty years later, Skeeter Skelton, freshly mustered out of the service at the end of WWII, stopped in Chicago long enough to purchase, yep, you guessed it, a seven and one-half inch Colt Single Action .32-20. When two gentlemen of such sixgunnin' stature as these two start with the .32-20, one has to take notice.
My search for the .32-20 has not been so successful as my mentors.
Have you priced a .32-20 seven and one-half inch Colt Single Action lately? Although I've seen them priced in the trade papers, I've never seen one in more than thirty years of attending guns shows. Maybe I should re-phrase that. I've never seen one in shooting shape that I could afford even in my wildest dreams.
Just when all seemed the darkest as far as the .32-20 is concerned, along came Hunter Pistol/Field Pistol courses of fire under NRA and IHMSA and the deep need was for a light-recoiling, flat- shooting, pistol cartridge for use in short range silhouetting. My Stetson is off to whoever it was that decided to chamber the Thompson/Center Contender in .32-20.
That opened the doors and Marlin chambered their handy, dandy little lever action carbine in .32-20, and finally we had an honest-to-goodness single action sixgun in .32-20 from Ruger. The Ruger .32-20's were a special run that were available only through Buckeye Sports, a Canton, Ohio distributor. As an extra added bonus, the .32-20 Ruger is a convertible, that is it comes with an auxiliary cylinder chambered for the excellent little Mighty Mouse Magnum, the .32 H&R Magnum.
Even though the .32-20 will reward the reloader with exceptional accuracy, one has to be more than a little traditional-minded to appreciate the .32-20. While it is basically the same length as the .357-.41-.44 magnum trio, it is not quite as easy to load as "normal" revolver cartridges for two very important reasons.
First, it is a bottle-necked, or tapered, cartridge which means carbide sizing dies are not available and the reloader must go through the messy task of lubing cases before sizing and then wiping them clean afterwards. Some of the new water soluble lubes really look good here.
Secondly, the necks of .32-20 brass are literally paper thin. Hit the mouth of the case on the bottom of the sizing or expanding die, albeit ever so slightly, and the brass is gone. Friend Mike Venturino calls anyone "ham-handed" that has trouble with the tapered trio of .32-20, .38-40, .44-40, as regards paper thin necks and the high ratio of case loss. As one who always experiences a high rate of case loss, I plead guilty to the charge. I lose a fair amount of brass when reloading any of these, and especially the .32-20. The solution, of course, is simply to slow down and be a little more careful.
Loading the .32-20 also requires some knowledge of the groove diameter of the barrel. The Thompson/Center chambering of the .32-20 is in reality a .30-20 as the barrel is .30 caliber, rather than .32 caliber. That is not quite as drastic as it seems as .32 barrels are normally .312-.314" while .30 barrels are usually .308". SO the difference in .30 and .32 barrels are not .020" as one might expect but only .004" to .006".
Both of the .32-20 test guns used for this edition of Taffin Tests are in reality ".30-20's" as the Ruger Blackhawk used is a custom .32-20 from Hamilton Bowen and is equipped with a seven and one-half inch .308" barrel. The Bowen .32-20 has very tight chambers precluding the use of anything but .308" bullets while the T/C .32-20 accepts both .308" and .312-314" bullets.
Both test guns are chambered for ".30-20" because of bullet availability and .32-20 dies provided by Thompson/Center are quite versatile as they have two expander buttons, one for .308" bullets and the other for .312"-.314" bullets. However, more and more suitable bullets are becoming available in .32 caliber and Speer has just announced a 100 grain .32 JHP to join Hornady's 85 grain and Speer's 90 grain .32 JHP's.
Since the .32-20 started life as a rifle cartridge, I normally use rifle primers, namely CCI's #400 Small Rifle Primers in loading the .32-20 be it for use in the Contender or the Ruger Blackhawk. And, while those .32-20 users that are deeply involved in Hunter Pistol/Field Pistol opt for a number of different rifle powders, I am more traditional and stay with the normal magnum pistol powders, namely #2400, H4227, H110, WW296, and WW680. These are my favorites for loading the Magnum revolver cartridges and while the .32-20 is more than 100 years old and arrived long before the use of the term "Magnum", its potential definitely puts it into the Magnum Class.
A standard load for the .32-20 for at least 50 years has been Lyman's #311316, a 120 grain flat-nosed gas check cast bullet over 10.0 grains of #2400. I was particularly anxious to try this long-time favorite in the Contender .32-20, .308" barrel. Sized at .312", the Lyman .32-20 bullets shoots into less than one-inch at 25 yards and moves out at a very respectable 1549 fps. A duplication of this load can be assembled with 12.0 grains of H4227 and is even more accurate, shooting into almost one-half inch at 25 yards.
In the Bowen Custom seven and one-half inch Blackhawk, this same load moves out at 1350 fps and is flat-shooting and an excellent choice for short range silhouetting or varminting.
New on the scene is Lead Bullet Technology's .32-20 bullet, #120311FN. Loaded over 15.0 grains of WW680, this bullet gets down real close to one-hole performance. Like its counterpart from Lyman, this flat-nosed gas-checked design is excellent for use on varmints be it from a sixgun, a single-shot Contender or a .32-20 carbine. Cast hard, it does the job without damaging a lot of meat should the target be small game. And both bullets are superb choices for cast bullet use in Hunter Pistol/Field Pistol competition.
Speer's 110 grain JHP known as the "Varminter" is perfect for use in the .32-20. Using this bullet over 13.0 grains of #2400 in the ten-inch Contender gives velocities close to 2000 fps and groups that run under one-half inch. This bullet's performance as to accuracy is almost monotonous as nearly every load tried with all powders used shot into one and one-quarter inches or less.
This same bullet, Speer's 110 grain "Varminter", also performs exceptionally well in the Bowen Blackhawk with either 11.0 grains of #2400 @ 1502 fps or 13.0 grains of H4227 @ 1525 fps.
Switching to more conventional rifle bullets for use in the T/C Contender really makes the .32-20 sing. Although loaded rounds look quite strange with the tiny 1.315" brass loaded with Hornady 110 grain Spire Point and Speer 130 grain Flat Point bullets, performance is the best I have ever experienced accuracy-wise in thirty plus years of handgunning. Both bullets yield five-shot groups of one-fourth inch, center-to-center at 25 yards. For the Hornady 110 SP the load is 15.0 grains of H110 for 1970 fps, while like performance comes from the Speer 130FP over 15.0 grains of WW680 for 1576 fps.
While it may not be the best choice for a self defense cartridge, and while it is definitely not a big game or long range silhouette cartridge, the .32-20, like its younger, smaller brother the .32 Magnum, it is just about as good as it gets when it comes to Hunter Pistol/Field Pistol or short range varminting.