TAFFIN TESTS: THE .38-40 (.38WCF)
The .38 Winchester Centerfire first saw the light of day chambered in the Winchester '73 along with the .32 Winchester Centerfire and .44 Winchester Centerfire. If these nomenclatures do not sound real familiar, it is probably because they are all better known by their `short' names, .38-40, .32-20, and .44-40. The first two digit number represents the caliber and the second pair is the number of grains of black powder used in the original loadings.
At the same time that Winchester was chambering "The Gun That Won The West" in these three rifle cartridges, Colt was introducing the Single Action Army in .45 Colt. Since all three cartridges were approximately the same length as the the .45 Colt, and also less powerful as the .45 Colt also carried 40 grains of black powder, it was only natural for Colt to chamber their Single Action Army (Frontier, Peacemaker, Hog Leg) in these three "rifle" cartridges. The .38-40 was eclipsed in sales in the SAA only by the .45 Colt and .44-40, accounting for approximately 50,000 of the First Generation Single Actions from 1873 to 1941. Total production of all calibers (more than thirty) was 356,000 plus.
The .38-40 is a .44-40 necked down, which is basically a .45 necked down to .44 caliber, and perfectly good .38-40 brass can be made from .44-40 brass with properly designed sizing dies as offered by RCBS. The standard .38-40 sizing die does not push the shoulder back far enough, however, using the RCBS trim die and extended shell holder, .44-40's are instantly transformed into .38-40's.
The .38-40 was also offered in the Colt DA Frontier and New Service, the Smith & Wesson Single Action, Double Action Frontier, and Triplelock, the Merwin & Hulbert, and is now being offered in both Single Action and Bisley replicas from Italy. After 50 years of being dead and buried as far as American Manufacturers were concerned, the .38-40 is once again being offered by Buckeye Sports in the Ruger Blackhawk Convertible supplied with two cylinders, one for the aged .38-40 and the other for the modern up-to-date 10MM.
My first big bore sixgun was a Colt Single Action Army and a beautiful sixgun it was. I started with a Ruger Single-Six .22 and the Colt seemed the logical step upwards. At the time, new Colt Single Actions, the Second Generation guns, Ruger Blackhawks, and Great Western Frontier Models were heard of afar off, but rarely seen.
In 1957, I gladly forked over two weeks pay for a 4 3/4" Colt Single Action Army. With the standard blued and case-hardened finish, it was a prime example of the best from the Colt factory. The serial number range showed that is was made long before World War One and in spite of this it was in excellent shape. The bluing was worn in a few obvious places, the case coloring had turned a beautiful light gray, the black gutta percha grips had lots of mileage on them, but this was a gun that had obviously been cared for. It was tight, with no pitting in the barrel and no cracks in the grips.
That Single Action Colt set me back $90 and I was the proud owner of, not a .45 Colt, nor even a .44-40, but I possessed the third most popular chambering in the Colt Single Action production prior to 1941. The barrel simply said ".38 WCF" and I was the young owner of a .38-40.
It was a beautiful sixgun and amply powerful for this fledgling sixgunner, but the original Ruger Blackhawk, the Flat-top, soon became readily available first in .357 Magnum and then in .44 Magnum and I let the .38-40 Colt get away.
A look at the specs of the .old 38-40 proves quite interesting. From a black powder sixgun, the 180 grain bullet had a muzzle velocity of 975 feet per second. The .38-40 is not a .38 at all, (which is really a .358), but is .40 caliber. The ancient .38-40 turns out to be the exact equivalent of today's hottest defensive cartridges, namely the .40 S&W and the 10MM in its FBI loading, which are both .40 caliber with a 180 grain bullet at 975 feet per second. The .38-40 chambered in a modern sixgun turns out to be the Smith & Wesson Model 610 in 10MM chambering.
The present .38-40 Winchester factory loading consists of a 180 grain jacketed soft point that clocks 872 feet per second when shot from a six and one-half inch barreled sixgun and over the triple skyscreens of the Oehler Model 35P. At this speed it seems like a terrible waste of good jacketed bullets, BUT liability rears its ugly head once again and there are plenty of ancient black powder sixguns out there that could become bombs with hotter ammunition. I also clocked some .38-40 ammo I had left over from the 1950's that were headstamped Western averaging 972 feet per second and the warmer Remington UMC going 1023, all from the same six and one-half inch sixgun. ALL HANDLOADS MENTIONED IN THIS EDITION ARE FOR USE ONLY IN THE RUGER .38-40 BLACKHAWK OR THE THOMPSON CENTER CONTENDER! THEY ARE ESPECIALLY NOT FOR USE IN COLT SINGLE ACTIONS OR IN COLT REPLICAS.
The .38-40, being a bottle-necked cartridge as are the .32-20 and .44-40, is not as easy to reload as standard straight-walled sixgun cartridges such as the .44 Magnum or .45 Colt. Extra steps are added as cases must first be lightly lubed, then sized, then wiped clean, before expanding, priming and reloading. Bullet seating can also be a problem as the combination of a tight neck, or slightly oversized bullet, or both, will result in a collapsed neck unless bullets are seated and then crimped separately. This of course adds another step to the loading routine. Case necks, while not quite as fragile as either the .32-20 or .44-40, dent quite easily and if they are fed into the die at any stage off-center, it is already too late. The brass is ruined. Slow and steady may or may not win the race, but it is the only way to approach the reloading of the WCF line of sixgun cartridges.
The accuracy of the .38-40 has always been hampered by revolver barrels with oversized groove diameters. The .38-40, like the .401 PowerMag, is a true 10MM but barrels were often many thousandths over size. This of course did nothing for accuracy. The new Ruger Blackhawk .38-40 (available only from Buckeye Sports, 2655 Harrison Ave, SW, Dept AH, Canton Ohio 44706) is built on the large Super Blackhawk sized frame and has a tight barrel as can be easily witnessed by the fact that it shoots 10MM loads exceptionally well with the auxiliary 10MM cylinder installed. At last we have a properly chambered and barreled .38-40 sixgun, that is also far superior in strength to any previously offered .38-40 sixgun.
Lyman still offers one bullet design for the .38-40 , #401043. This is a flat-nosed design of 175 grains weight, which comes out at 180 grains with my alloy. The 1990 Lyman catalog also lists this bullet as a 10MM, and most 10MM bullets can also be used with the .38-40. I apply cannelures to any 10MM jacketed bullet, or cast bullet without a crimping groove, that I use in either the .38-40 or .401 PowerMag. They work just fine. Bullet #401043, as well as jacketed 180 grain bullets in both soft-nosed and flat-nosed configuration, are available from Patriot Manufacturing (Banyan Plaza Suite 334, Dept. AH, Box 9000, Sebring Florida 33870). They are also an excellent source for heavyweight bullet hunting loads and Plus P .45 Colt loads.
I've picked up two excellent, but out-of-production, Lyman bullet moulds in #40188, a 165 grain semi-wadcutter, and #401452, A Boser designed "Keith" style 200 grain bullet for the .38-40 and .401 Special. When I get tired of looking at the same guns at each of our local gunshows, I start searching out the old bullet moulds. Much cheaper and usually more productive.
The loading manuals, at least the older ones, give two sets of data for the .38-40. One will be found to be quite light, designed for older pre-WWII sixguns, and the other will be quite heavy to be used in the Model 92 Winchester. Loads for the Ruger .38-40 fall somewhere in between. I have used the heavier loads in an eight-inch custom .38-40 T/C barrel from SSK and have gone to nearly 1800 feet per second with the 180 grain Patriot Jacketed Hollow Point and 24.5 grains of #2400. This load, as all my .38-40 loads, is assembled with Winchester .38-40 brass and Winchester WLP primers. At 25 yards, this full house load is a tack driver.
Favorite loads for the Ruger Blackhawk .38-40 are assembled with either 10.0 grains of Unique or 18.0 grains of #2400. These loads are in the 1200 + feet per second category with the 165 grain cast bullet or the 180 grain jacketed bullet. Patriot has a new jacketed bullet that has more bearing surface and a concave base for increased powder capacity. With 20.0 grains of H4227 a full 1300 feet per second is achieved with nearly one-inch 25 yard accuracy. This puts the .38-40 not all that far behind the .41 Magnum.
Most accurate loads for the .38-40 Blackhawk turn out to be Lyman's #40188 with 10.0 grains of Herco (1250 fps), 10.5 grains of Blue Dot (1031 fps), and 6.5 grains of 452AA (990 fps). All of these are in the one-inch at 25 yards category. Best loads with the slightly heavier bullet #401043 are 16.0 grains of #2400 (1119 fps), 18.0 grains of AA#9 (1207 fps), and 9.0 grains of Herco (1178 fps).
Hornady's new 170 grain XTP 10MM bullet makes an excellent .38-40 bullet. I add a cannelure right behind the shoulder, load it over 18.0 grains of #2400, and the result is tight little groups at 1286 feet per second.
It is very difficult to justify the existence of the .38-40 anymore. It is not a silhouette pistol. Factory ammunition is expensive and under-powered. Most sixgunners that purchase the Ruger Blackhawk Convertible will probably use it with the 10MM cylinder most of the time. Me, I'm a little more traditional. The .38-40 in the Ruger sixgun takes me back to my teenage years. That alone makes it worth the price of admission. Add in proper handloads and I have an excellent sixgun for roaming the desert, foothills, and mountains, one that will handle anything I am likely to confront.
Since I had two Herter's .401 Powermags, I decided to have one made into a .38-40. Searching through the parts catalogs, I found a standard-sized single action grip frame and ebony grips to replace the comfortable, but cumbersome PowerMag grip frame. The .401 then went southeast to Bowen Classic Arms (P.O. Box 67, Louisville Tennessee 37777) with instructions to cut the barrel to four and three-quarter inches, reshape the hammer and front of the frame, both of which have excess metal and a massive look to them, flat-top the rear of the frame around the rear sight, and finally, re-chamber to .38-40. The result was a real packin' sized .38-40 sixgun.
HEAVY DUTY RUGER ONLY!!! LOADS
FIREARM: RUGER BLACKAWK BARREL LENGTH: 6 1/2"
BRASS: WW .38-40 PRIMER: WW WLP
CHRONOGRAPH: OEHLER MODEL 35P TEMP: 80-95 DEGREES
GROUPS: 5 SHOTS @ 25 YARDS REST: OUTER'S PISTOL PERCH
LYMAN #40188 LYMAN #401043
LOAD MV GROUP
16.0 GR. #2400 1119 2 1/2"
17.0 GR. #2400 1225 2 1/2"
18.0 GR. #2400 1251 2 3/8"
17.0 GR. H4227 1074 2 1/4"
18.0 GR. H4227 1172 3"
19.0 GR. H4227 1181 2 1/2"
17.0 GR. AA#9 1173 2 1/2"
18.0 GR. AA#9 1242 2 1/8"
19.0 GR. AA#9 1296 2 1/8'
8.0 GR. UNIQUE 1090 1 1/4"
9.0 GR. UNIQUE 1166 2 1/4"
10.0 GR. UNIQUE 1220 1 5/8"
9.0 GR. HERCO 1240 1 5/8"
10.0 GR. HERCO 1250 1"
11.0 GR. HERCO 1326 2 1/4"
6.0 GR. WW231 940 2"
7.0 GR. WW231 1049 2 1/2"
8.0 GR. WW231 1159 1 3/4"
10.5 GR. BLUE DOT 1031 1"
11.5 GR. BLUE DOT 1130 1 5/8"
12.5 GR. BLUE DOT 1209 2 1/4"
13.5 GR. BLUE DOT 1276 2"
5.5 GR. 452AA 924 2 3/8"
6.5 GR. WW452AA 990 1 3/8"
7.5 GR. WW452AA 1071 2 1/4"
9.5 GR. HS6 955 2"
10.5 GR. HS6 1069 2 1/4"
11.5 GR. HS6 1137 1 5/8"
13.0 GR. HS7 1181 2 1/4"
14.0 GR. HS7 1262 2 1/4"
15.0 GR. HS7 1356 2 1/4"
FACTORY WINCHESTER 180 JHP: 872 FPS 2"
LYMAN #40188 IS 165 GR. SWC
LYMAN #401043 IS 180 GR. FLAT NOSE
LYMAN #401452 HORNADY 170XTP
LOAD MV GROUP
18.0 GR. #2400 1394 2 1/4"
LYMAN 401452 IS GORDON BOSER DESIGNED 200 GRAIN SWC FOR THE .401 SPECIAL AND .38-40 (1930'S). HORNADY 170 XTP IS HORNADY'S 10 MM BULLET. CANNELURE ADDED FOR USE IN .38-40.
.38-40 SSK THOMPSON CONTENDER 8" BARREL
BULLET LOAD MV GROUP
180 JHP 18.5 GR. #2400 1431 1 1/8"
19.5 GR. #2400 1537 2 1/8"
20.5 GR. #2400 1587 1 3/4"
21.5 GR. #2400 1617 1"
22.5 GR. #2400 1644 1"
23.5 GR. #2400 1711 2 1/8"
24.5 GR. #2400 1771 3/4"
WINCHESTER FACTORY 180 JHP: 908 1/2"