Cartridge Discussion: .32-20
Introduced by Winchester in 1882 as a new chambering for their famous 1873 rifle, the .32-20 or .32 WCF as it was originally called, was marketed as a combination small game and deer cartridge for the sportsman. Originally a black powder cartridge loaded with a 115 grain lead bullet, it was easily adaptable to smokeless powder. It was improved further with special high velocity factory loads especially loaded for rifle use only, and then only in certain rifles with strong actions. Colt almost immediately began chambering it in their Model 1873 Single Action Army revolver. The .32-20 remained reasonably popular for the next 60 years, being chambered in both rifles and revolvers by a number of firearms manufacturers.
Colt occasionally provided arms chambered for Winchester proprietary cartridges in the later part of the 19th century, beginning with the .44 rimfire, also known as the .44 Henry Flat. This low-powered rimfire round appeared during the Civil War chambered in the Henry rifle, and was also used in the Winchester Model 1866 rifle. Colt made the .44 rimfire an available chambering when the firm introduced their Model 1873 revolver. The Winchester Model 1873 introduced the famous .44-40 (.44WCF) and followed up with the .38-40 (.38 WCF) in 1879, and the .32-20 (.32WCF) in 1882. All these cartridges were popular in their day and, as the Colt SAA could readily be adopted for them, Colt followed Winchester’s lead, providing handguns that would accept these handy cartridges.
I consider the .32-20 to be one of my very favorite cartridges. This cute little centerfire round offers a level of performance that is almost unique in any line-up of cartridges available to the shooting sports enthusiast in the 21st century. It offers low recoil in either rifle or revolver and is highly effective for small game hunting and varmint control at ranges out to 100 yards. In this modern age one must handload in order to make the best use of the .32-20. It is the handloader’s friend and may be tailored to deliver much better performance and economy. It makes a good combination cartridge for rifle and handgun.
The .32-20 As a Rifle Cartridge
I get a kick out of using such a small centerfire cartridge on my wanderings afield. The .32-20 is my favored companion at our old home place or on a deer lease. I’ve used it to take rabbits and squirrels and to lay low the varmints encountered. It won’t destroy as much meat as the .22 Hornet or even the .22 Magnum rimfire round but is just as good a killer. If one handloads, it can be a very inexpensive round to produce. If one casts his bullets, it is scarcely more expensive to shoot than the .22 Long Rifle. It may be hotrodded to the point of attaining over 2000 fps with a 100 grain jacketed bullet if one is using a suitable rifle. This brings the .32-20 into the performance category of the .30 Carbine round.
I have used such loads in a Winchester Model 92 carbine and also a scoped Marlin Model 1894 CL. These loads still wouldn’t make the .32-20 the deer round originally envisioned by Winchester all those years ago. The high velocity load gives a little flatter trajectory but still only makes the round suitable for shots out to about 150 yards. This high velocity load is not a top choice if one wants to obtain small game for the pot for it will disassemble eatable game. A better choice is a flat nosed or semi-wadcutter lead bullet either purchased or home cast, weighing between 90 grains and 115 grains. The lead SWC bullets made for the .32 S&W Long or for the .32 H&R Magnum are great in a good .32-20 rifle with a mild charge of fast burning powder. Launched at 1100 to 1400 feet per second, these are the loads I enjoy most. The .32-20 may well be the best centerfire plinking round ever though up.
I have kept a .32-20 Winchester Model 1892 carbine for many years. Back around 1990 Marlin introduced the .32-20 chambering in their Model 1894 lever-action rifle. I was one of the first in line to order one when they were announced. I thought to put the Winchester into semi-retirement and let the Marlin bear the brunt of .32-20 shooting. I also intended to mount a scope on the Marlin to see what could be accomplished with the .32-20 from the bench rest.
This was my first Marlin product and I'm sad to say that it just didn't work out. The one I received had a host of issues. The workmanship was so-so. The trigger was dreadfully hard and heavy. I put the scope on it and couldn't get it to shoot well with any load I tried. The 100+ year old Winchester with open sights and an imperfect bore would handily beat the scoped Marlin, shooting better groups at 100 yards from the bench rest. I finally determined that the Marlin's barrel had been rifled over a large flaw in the bore just in front of the chamber. Marlin offered to fix it under warranty but I was so discouraged with the rifle that I left it in the back of a closet for 10 years, finally selling it to a friend who wanted it for a rebarreling project to a .357 Magnum.
A good .32-20 rifle could be pressed into service as a short range self defense weapon. With factory loads it looks to be equal to the 7.65 Mauser or the 7.65 Tokorev. With a high velocity handload it would be similar to the .30 Carbine.
Marlin makes runs of their Model 1894 CL in .32-20 and Browning and Winchester both fielded modern versions of the Model 1892 rifle in .32-20. The Marlin may currently be the only new firearm available for the cartridge. There are lots of classic oldies chambered for .32-20. Some are pricey and some are very reasonable. Winchester, Colt Remington, Marlin, Savage and others made rifles in the round. Some attractive bolt action models may be had, along with single shot rifles, and even some slide action rifles may occasionally be found.
The .32-20 As a Revolver Cartridge
The .32-20 revolver makes a great field companion when holstered on one’s belt. I’ve taken small game and shot pests with mine. One may safely handload most .32-20 revolvers to slightly exceed the performance of the .32 H&R Magnum cartridge. I’ve noticed that the .32-20 is capable of excellent accuracy when employed on paper targets at the range. I have a load using the 90 grain Hornady lead SWC that makes satisfyingly tight, round groups and is so pleasant to shoot. It cuts a neat round hole in the paper and has cut a neat round hole in the head of a rattlesnake on occasion.
A .32-20 revolver would be a suitable self-defense weapon which could be utilized in a pinch. It can beat out the .32 H&R Magnum and can be marginally improved by handloading.
The interest in the Colt SAA replicas has benefited the enthusiast who is interested in acquiring newly manufactured revolvers chambered in the .32-20. Several Single Action Army clones are marketed in this round and I notice that the Colt Custom Shop will provide .32-20 versions of their original Model 1873 revolver. Lots of used .32-20 revolvers are out there which should be acquired and put back to work. Besides the original Colt single action, one may find other early 20th century Colt double action revolvers such as the Army Special and the Police Positive Special. Smith & Wesson provided their K frame Military and Police model in .32-20 from 1899 until 1940. A small number of these revolvers featured adjustable sights. These Colt and Smith & Wesson revolvers are not hard to come by and not expensive. A tight gun with a good bore and some honest wear is what one is looking for if one wants to shoot .32-20. Leave the condition rarities and their high prices for the collectors.
I have a 30’s vintage Smith & Wesson Military and Police .32-20 revolver with a 4 inch barrel. This is a very nice revolver, displaying fine workmanship and a deep blue finish. It is very tight and has an excellent trigger, both in single action and double action mode. It is very accurate. For many years I had a nickled companion to this piece that was made in 1906. It was also very accurate but as the nickel finish was rather ragged it went away.
The Thompson Center Contender may be had with a barrel chambered for .32-20. As I understand it, this barrel is in .308 bore diameter rather than the original .312 diameter of the cartridge. A Contender equipped with this barrel could accurately use the lighter weight .308 component bullets available.
A Cartridge With a Split Personality
There’s .32-20’s and then there’s .32-20’s! The original featured 20 grains of black powder. It was suitable for early primitive rife actions and handguns that were made of simple steels with little heat-treating processes. Mention has been made of the high velocity factory loads once available but which are now long gone. Beginning with the Winchester Model 1885 single shot designed by John M. Browning, and continuing with the Winchester Model 1892 also of Browning design, the .32-20 was now housed in some rifles that were engineered to stand higher pressures than black powder generated. In the 20th century Remington, Winchester, and Savage made some nifty bolt action and slide action rifles that were amply strong enough to take advantage of the ballistics that the high velocity smokeless loadings could afford. All factory high-velocity .32-20 ammunition is now long discontinued but some of these old higher-pressure factory loads are occasionally found and should not be considered suitable for early rifle designs or for any handgun.
Winchester Model 1892 manufactured in 1896
Good .32-20 Rifles and Handguns
Model 1873 lever action
Model 1885 single shot (Low-wall for mild loads--High-wall for HV loadings)
Model 1892 lever action*
Model 53 lever action*
Model 43 bolt action*
Model 53 (copy of Winchester Model 53)*
Rolling Block single shot
Model 25 pump*
Model 1893 lever action
Model 1894 CL lever action*
Model 23C bolt action*
No. 44 single shot
Model 1873 Single Action Army
Model 1878 Double Action
Police Positive Special
Lightning Model slide action rifle
Smith & Wesson
Hand Ejector Military & Police
Thompson Center Contender w/.32-20 barrel*
*Suitable for high velocity loadings
Smith & Wesson Hand Ejector from 1930
Some Chronograph Data
77 gr. Remington metal case (for .32 ACP), Unique, MV 1362 ME 317
80 gr. Remington lead round nose, Unique MV 909 ME 146
90 gr. Hornady lead SWC, Unique MV 969 ME 188 ES 41
100 gr.Remington JSP No. B22810, Unique MV 932 ME 215
" ", Unique+.5gr. MV 1180 ME 309
" ", IMR4227 MV 1341 ME 399
100 gr. Remington lead No. B22822, Unique MV 1249 ME 346
" ", Unique MV 873 ME 160
115 grain cast lead, Unique MV 764 ME 149
" " Goex FFG MV 846 ME 183
85 gr. Hornady JHP, H110, MV 2143 ME 865 ES 31
" ", IMR 4227 MV 1939 ME 708 ES 52
" ", Unique MV 1365 ME 351 ES 34
90 gr. Hornady lead SWC, Unique MV 1509 ME 455 ES 41
100 gr. Remington lead No. B22822, Unique MV 1227 ME 330
100 gr. Remington JSP No. B22810, H110 MV 2008 ME 890 ES 40
" ", IMR 4227 MV 1792 ME 711 ES 54
" ", Unique MV 1233 ME 337 ES 65
115 gr. cast lead, Unique MV 1180 ME 356
" " Goex FFG MV 1256 ME 402
Handgun used: Smith&Wesson Military & Police w/4-inch barrel
Rifle used: Winchester Model 1892 with 20-inch barrel
Oehler Model 12 chronograph
I dislike revealing exact handloading data on a forum format. Anyone seeking more detailed information may contact me through the Forum email feature.
Though I've experimented with handloads, I don't make use of the high velocity loads shown above as I don't want to risk firing one in the revolver. Besides, they are really outside the spirit of the .32-20 and it's use as a fun cartridge.
This Round Deserves More Attention Than It Receives.
I wish that demand would cause more arms to be offered in this round. The .32-20 is a fine cartridge with which to relax on a lazy afternoon. Sort of a centerfire version of a .22. The only other round that might be similar is the .25-20WCF but it isn’t chambered in handguns. I have firearms for various “serious” purposes. I like having .32-20’s just for bumming around when I want something more than a .22 Long Rifle. It is a good round with which to unwind, chill out, and take a break from louder, harder kicking weapons. A serious cartridge for those who are serious about their shooting relaxation.