The .32-20

An Acurate Gentleman’s Cartridge.

By John Taffin

The .32-20 started life in the Winchester Model 1873 and then shortly after was chambered in the newer Model 1892 rifle. The two other members of the Winchester bottle-necked levergun trio, the .44-40 and .38-40 were more serious cartridges for hunting and self-defense, while the .32-20 was obviously designed for small game and varmints. By the time it arrived the West was much tamer than it had been in the 1870’s–1880’s and rifles were needed by farmers and ranchers mainly to keep the varmint population down. Colt, just as they had with the .44-40 and .38-40, chambered their Colt Single Action and their Bisley Model for the .32 WCF (.32-20) and it became the fourth best-selling chambering behind the .45 Colt, .44-40 and .38-40 respectively. They would also offer it in their Model 1878 Double Action as well as the Army Special. Over at Smith & Wesson the number one vehicle for the .32-20 was the Military & Police.

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Above: The S&W Military & Police .32-20 is elegant, offers modest recoil and
dependable accuracy. What’s not to like about this classic gun/cartridge combo?
Far left: The .32-20 works well with both cast and jacketed bullets.

Choices

Today the .32-20 can be found in replica single actions from Uberti and in the recent past has been offered in the 3rd Generation Colt Single Action, the Ruger Buckeye Commemorative, the Dan Wesson Heavy Barrel Double Action and the USFA Single Action. When it was obvious I was not going to find the .32-20 I had long been looking for since my high school days, I had Hamilton Bowen build me the perfect sixgun. Starting with a Colt Single Action Army, Hamilton made a new cylinder, fitted an 81/2″ barrel along with an S&W adjustable rear sight and a post front sight. It shoots just as accurately as expected, too. The Dan Wesson .32-20 is also exceptionally accurate, as is the Freedom Arms Model 97 .32 Magnum when fitted with an auxiliary .32-20 cylinder.

Just as with the .44-40 and .38-40 I load my .32-20 cartridges on the RCBS Model 2000 Progressive Press using separate dies for seating and crimping. The bottle-necked .32-20 cases are spray lubed with Hornady wax-based lubricant putting about 100 at a time in a cardboard tray. They slide in and out of the sizing die even easier than if it was carbide.

For some reason there’s a lot of variation in the overall length of .32-20 cartridge cases from various manufacturers. This means they must be separated as to headstamp or the bullets will not seat and crimp properly. I only purchase new brass from Starline and keep my dies at the length of this cartridge case while separating the other manufacturers’ brass to use for loads safe in such older .32-20 sixguns as the Colt Army Special and the S&W Military & Police. For these two older sixguns my most-used load is the Oregon Trail 100-gr. SWC over 4.0 grains of Unique for right at 800 fps and groups well under 1″ for five shots at 20 yards.

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Custom 81/2″ Colt Single Action by Hamilton Bowen. Even in factory
guns, the .32-20 can offer guilt-edges accuracy.

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Getting Serious

Heavier loads are saved for the Colt Single Action, the Dan Wesson and the Freedom Arms Model 97. Way back before I ever had a .32-20 I had the load I was going to use, which was 10.0 grains of #2400 and it hasn’t changed. I use cast bullets sized to 0.312″-0.313″ with excellent accuracy. In my long-barreled Colt Single Action this load under the Oregon Trail 115-gr. SWC does over 1,450 fps and groups into a very tiny 3/4″. The same bullet using 5.0 grains of Unique results in 1,180 fps and a group of 7/8″. Jacketed bullets also perform very well with the #2400 load with Speer’s 100 JHP doing 1,313 fps and a 7/8″ group; while the Hornady 100 XTP gives 1,374 fps and a 3/4″ group. The Dan Wesson 8″ Stainless Steel Heavy Barrel is absolutely monotonous in its accuracy. Loads well under 1″ are the norm. Lyman’s #31116HP over 10.0 grains of #2400 gives 1,300 fps in the Freedom Arms Model 97 with 3/4″ groups.
For a while Thompson/Center offered a 10″ Contender barrel in .32-20 using a 0.308″ barrel. Using the Speer 110 grain Varminter JHP over 13.0 grains of #2400 (only for use in the Contender!) muzzle velocity is close to 2,000 fps with groups of 0.5″!

With the arrival of the .327 Federal Magnum, the .32-20 is not quite as necessary as it once was for those who want to shoot varmints and small game with a revolver. It is, however still an excellent cartridge which connects us to the past.

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