The .38-40 (aka: .38 WCF)


This is another hundred-plus year-old cartridge that just refuses to die. Much of its continued life is thanks to the popularuty of the Cowboy Action Shooting sport and those who like to use the "old-timey" cartridges. It is basically a .44-40 that has been necked-down to accept a smaller bullet.

In 1874 Winchester added a new chambering to the .44-40 (or .44 WCF as Winchester called it) in their new and successful model 1873 rifle. They reduced the bullet diameter to .40" and necked down the .44-40 case to fit the new bullet. As with the .44-40, the case was filled with approximately 40 grains of blackpowder. But for some reason known only to marketing types they didn't call it the .40 WCF or .40-40; they called it the .38 WCF and everyone else called it the .38-40. Yes, this is actually a .40 calibre cartridge. It is in no way any kind of a .38.

When smokeless powder came about loads were developed for many of the old blackpowder cartridges and the .38-40 was no exception. These loads were of low enough pressure that they could be safely used in old blackpowder-era Colt revolvers. In the meantime metallurgy improved -- a lot! John Browning designed a new rifle for the old cartridges in 1892. It was a LOT stronger than the old model '73 and it could actually make full use of smokeless powder loads. The ammunition makers were only too happy to make two versions of the .38-40 and similar rounds. They made a traditional low-pressure load that could safely be used in both new and old rifles and in Colt revolvers. They also made a .38-40 "Hi-Speed" load that was designed specifically around the Winchester model '92 rifle and it was not safe at all to use it in '73s or Colt Revolvers. The boxes had clear warnings not to use these cartridges in Winchester '73 rifles or in any Colt revolver. Sadly, a number of shooters didn't believe the warnings and blew up their guns. The lawyers got involved and the old "Hi-Speed" loads were discontinued.

Bringing things up to the present day, the old .38-40 is a pleasant round to shoot when loaded to normal low-pressure specs. It hardly recoils at all. But if you have a late-production Winchester '92 (or a modern clone) in good condition or a Ruger Blackhawk chambered for .38-40 (with a spare cylinder for 10mm Auto) you can load it up to rather respectable levels and do it safely.
I get 2368 fps from a 175 grain copper-plated bullet out of my Winchester '92 (which is in .30-30 Rifle territory) and the same load is good in the Blackhawk, though the velocity will be a bit less of course. No, I do not give out recipes on the internet. You will need to do some research and work up your loads slowly for your own guns if you are interested.

One reloading tip I found in an old handloading magazine was concerning the scarcity of jacketed .40 calibre bullets with crimping grooves and how to prevent bullet set-back under recoil or in a tubular magazine if you must use non-grooved bullets. The thin case mouth of the .38-40 won't take a very tight taper crimp. The trick is to choose a powder that actually fills the case up to the base of the bullet with the proper load. That way the bullet has no room to move. Apparently this was commonly done in the blackpowder days when nobody crimped their reloads at all.

This is mostly just a fun round to shoot, but it would definitely stop an attacker if you hit him with it. With the high-pressure loads in a strong rifle it would actually do for close- and medium-range deer hunting. That's what the old "Hi-Speed" loads were used for.

It's one of my favourite old cartridges.


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