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Awesome Art
Rifle Magazine
June - July 2005
Volume 40, Number 3
ISSN: 0017-7393
Number 235
On the cover...
A Daly-Sauer drilling in 12 gauge over .30-30. Photo by John Barsness. Colt Peacemaker Centennial Frontier Six Shooter with bison bone grips. Photo by Mike Venturino.
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The 1870s must have been an exciting time. For the adventurous there was still a frontier out West complete with wild Indians, cattle drives, gold rushes and outlaws, while in the East new innovations were being introduced almost daily. For those interested in firearms and shooting, it must have been like riding a roller coaster – because probably more metallic cartridges were developed along with the firearms to suit them in the 1870s than in any other single decade.

Most of those metallic cartridges of the 1870s are just historical curiosities in the twenty-first century. Who knows or cares much today for things like the .44 S&W American, .45-75 WCF or .44 Evans Long? That said, there were three rounds developed in the same year – 1873 to be exact – that are probably being fired more now than they were in their heyday. Those are the .45 Colt, .45 Government (.45-70) and .44 WCF (.44-40).

The latter we will look at and leave the .45s for other times. Why the .44 WCF first? Because it is my favorite pistol cartridge levergun caliber. Before someone gets infuriated by my calling the .44 WCF a “pistol cartridge,” because indeed it was first introduced as a rifle round, let me say I do know the difference. It’s just awkward to say “a rifle cartridge small enough to fit in handguns.” Besides the .44 WCF made a much better revolver cartridge than it did in rifles.

Of course, it would be natural to ask why someone like myself who is supposedly experienced with lots of cartridges and reasonably smart to boot would pick such an old-timer for a favorite. After all, doesn’t the .44 WCF have a reputation for being troublesome, what with its thin case walls, slight bottleneck configuration and widely varying dimensions in the vast number of guns chambered for it? Certainly, those things are true. But here is where experience and being reasonably smart comes into play. Treat the .44 WCF with a little finesse and intelligence, and it will reward you with fine accuracy and perfect functioning. Just start slapping components together with little or no attention to detail, and you will have .44 WCF rounds that may deliver patterns instead of groups or likely won’t even chamber in many types of guns.

Let me give some examples, and all the following measurements were taken by me from guns I have either owned or still own. Some Colt SAAs of the late 1800s were made with barrels as tight as .425 inch with cylinder chamber mouths correspondingly tight. Later ones were made with .427-inch barrels and chamber mouths running from .424 to .430 inch. Some third generation Colts from the 1980s had .427-inch barrels but chamber mouths running from .432 to .435 inch. Right now I have three SAAs from the 1990s with .427-inch barrels and .429/.430-inch chamber mouths. Accuracy from all the above handguns runs from dismal for those with tight chambers and large bores or vice versa to downright good for those with reasonably matched dimensions.

Among my favorite .44 WCF Colts are the 1873/ 1973 Peacemaker Centennials, which were built exactly as an 1870s Colt would have appeared. I like them so much two were bought and fitted with bison bone grips. Both have .428-inch chamber mouths and .427-inch barrels. In 2004 I bought three United States Fire Arms Mfg. Company’s .44-40s that have .427-inch barrels and .4275- to .4285-inch chamber mouths. All the .44 WCFs    mentioned in this paragraph are extremely accurate handguns. In fact I read recently where someone referred to the .44 WCF as “accuracy challenged.” NOT! Look at the photo of the 12-shot group fired with one of the new USFA single actions.

As for rifles, I’ve owned two early 1880’s Winchester Model 1873s that had barrel groove diameters of .431 inch, and still have two Model 1873s from the turn of the century that slugged dead on at .427 inch, as do two Winchester Model 1892s from the early 1900s. Currently I own one Uberti replica Model 1873 that slugs .428 inch. A recently built Marlin Model 1894 Cowboy has a barrel groove diameter of .427 inch. Those early Model 1873s were hopeless with smokeless powder loads because they would not chamber a bullet large enough to match the barrel. A dead soft bullet powered by black powder would slug up enough to grip the rifling and give at least a semblance of accuracy for a few shots before fouling built up. That was back in my younger/dumber days. Nowadays I just don’t put smokeless powder loads into a firearm that old. The rest of the rifles and carbines mentioned in this paragraph will shoot very well with handloads using proper size bullets.

Perceptive readers have by now noted that all along the term .44 WCF has been used while we all know that I’m talking about the .44-40. Why? When Winchester introduced the new cartridge in 1873, it was named .44 Winchester Centerfire and the rifles and carbines chambered for it were stamped .44 WCF. Initial factory loads used 200-grain lead flatnose bullets over a black-powder charge of 40 grains. When Colt began putting the .44 WCF in its handguns, they were caliber marked in two ways that I know of. One was to etch or stamp the left side of the barrels “Colt Frontier Six Shooter” or to leave the barrel blank and simply put a tiny “.44CF” on the left side of the trigger guard.

When Merwin & Hulbert began offering the caliber in its unique handguns, the left side of the frame was inscribed “Calibre Winchester 1873.” Then in the late 1880s, when Marlin decided to add leverguns firing pistol cartridges, they were marked “.44-40.” The second set of digits was derived from the amount of powder loaded, as was common practice in those days. Why the .44-40 moniker stuck and the original .44 WCF name faded away is beyond me, but it’s a minor point. With third generation Colt SAAs, those in .44 WCF/.44-40 caliber have either been marked “Colt Frontier Six Shooter” or “Colt Single Action Army .44-40.” I’ve got them both ways.

When introduced the .44 WCF was a first for Winchester: its first centerfire cartridge and consequently the first reloadable one. Although considered puny by modern standards, the .44 WCF offered a marked increase over Winchester’s first levergun cartridge – the .44 Henry Rimfire. That one also used 200-grain bullets over powder charges ranging from 23 to 28 grains (according to various sources). The new .44 WCF offered about 200 fps more speed, along with that reload-ability. It was an instant success and quickly found its way into the hands of such disparate groups as the Texas Rangers and Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. Modern archaeology has proven that Winchester Model 1873s were among the firearms used by the latter at the Little Bighorn Battle in 1876.

Firearms made for the .44 WCF/.44-40 probably vary more in strength than just about any other cartridge. There are those iron-frame Colt SAAs and Winchester Model 1873s of the 1870s and early 1880s on the one hand that, in my personal opinion, should only be fired with black powder loads, if at all. Then there are the modern versions of those same guns, such as the Colt SAAs and USFA handguns mentioned above and the Uberti-made replicas of the Model 1873. Model 1873s of any vintage are not strong guns; don’t get ad­venturous with them. Next rung up the ladder comes the much stronger rifles and carbines such as the Model 1892 Winchester, the Model 1894 Marlin or the Remington Model 141⁄2. Occasionally one might even encounter a Winchester Model 1885 “high wall” chambered for .44 WCF. That last rifle was even chambered for cartridges as powerful as the .30-06.

Here’s what Lyman’s newest manual No. 48 lists concerning .44 WCF/.44-40 pressures. For handguns, and modern smokeless powder handguns only, it lists no load generating pressures higher than 12,800 CUP. For weaker rifle actions, such as the Winchester Model 1873 or Colt Lightning pump action, Lyman goes up to 13,700 CUP. Then for stronger rifles such as the Marlin Model 1894 or Winchester Model 1892, allowable pressures are increased to 22,000 CUP. Back in its 1960’s era manuals, Lyman listed extra special .44 WCF/.44-40 loads that would push 200-grain jacketed bullets in excess of 2,000 fps from 24-inch barrels. I tried some of those at one time and got case life of only one or two loadings before they separated. Speer keeps things much simpler in its reloading manual No. 13. It only lists .44 WCF/.44-40 loads at or under 13,000 CUP for both handguns and rifles.

My feelings lean toward the Speer way of doing things. Back in the 1990s, I participated in a depredation hunt for South Texas whitetail deer. Admittedly only small bucks and does were shot, but I used a Cimarron Arms Model 1873 replica with black-powder .44 WCF loads on some of them with perfectly acceptable results. (Read that as through and through penetration.) I don’t see how heavier loads would have worked any better within the range limitations of the open sights. Besides, I can’t see having a category of handloads floating around my place, where, if the hotter variety found its way into a weaker gun, the results could be disastrous.

The .44 WCF/.44-40 is technically considered a bottleneck cartridge, but the bottleneck is so slight that one has to look in order to see it. Be that as it may, it still precludes the possibility of having special tungsten or titanium type resizing dies. Re­sizing lube must be used on .44 WCF/.44-40 cases, but it should be applied sparingly. Otherwise oil dents will form. The lube should also be wiped off after sizing, lest some migrate into the primer pocket. And while we are on the subject, let’s get one   thing straight: Proper primers for .44 WCF/.44-40 are Large Pistol, even if the rounds will be fired in rifles.

In size .44 WCF/.44-40 cases are slightly longer than the .357 and .44 Magnums. Case lengths are 1.29 inches for the magnums as opposed to 1.31 inches for the old .44s. As everyone who has loaded .44 WCF/.44-40 knows, those cases have thin walls. For many years only Remington and Winchester made brass in this caliber, with the former being of thicker construction than the   latter. Now we have cases also headstamped by Starline, PMC and Hornady. Lacking a ball micrometer to measure case wall thickness, I determined it by this method: A .429-inch bullet was seated in Remington, Winchester and Starline cartridges, but the case was not crimped. Then the total width of the cartridge about .25 inch down from the case mouth was measured with a common set of calipers. To determine case wall thickness then, the .429 inch was subtracted and the remainder divided by 2. That gave a case wall thickness for the Remington brass of .007 inch, with the Starline and Winchester coming out at .0065 inch. That’s not a great difference, but it can be significant with some tightly chambered revolvers.

A common complaint directed at the .44 WCF/.44-40 is that any slight bump against the side of the reloading dies as the cases are being sized or belled results in a ruined case. Nothing could be truer. The remedy is simple. Be careful as you run the cases into the dies. Besides, cases are available in bulk now at very reasonable prices, so I just factor in some minor losses as the cost of shooting this fine, old caliber.

Back when I loaded my first .44 WCF/.44-40s nearly 30 years ago, there was only one cast bullet design commonly seen. That was Lyman’s 42798 (now 427098). It was a roundnose/flatpoint with two grease grooves but no crimping groove. Nominal weight was 205 grains from Lyman’s No. 2 alloy formula. Actually it was developed in the black-powder era, meaning there would be a full case of black powder underneath to stop it from being pushed back into the cartridge by a levergun’s recoil and tubular magazine spring pressure. Crimping was over the bullet’s ogive. That kind of crimp or one applied in the topmost grease groove worked just fine for handgun shooting. On the other hand, the first time I loaded a levergun’s magazine full of .44 WCF/.44-40s with 42798 cast bullets and smokeless powder under them, there was a strange sort of “plopopopop” vibration at the first shot. That was caused by all the bullets in all the rounds in the magazine being pushed back into their cases by recoil coupled with spring pressure. Each had to be fished back out of the loading gate individually and then each bullet pulled.

The bullet situation is vastly different now. RCBS, Redding/ SAECO, Lyman, Lee, NEI and others have good .44 WCF/.44-40 designs with the crimping groove located to give the proper 1.592 inch overall length or less. Such a length is needed for proper function in most leverguns. All these current bullet designs are roundnose/flatpoint in shape and most are ostensibly intended for cowboy action shooting. They all work well enough, as do the many available from custom cast bullet companies, most of which usually are poured in Magma moulds.

The one cast bullet I have come to favor over all others is RCBS 44-200FN, which was introduced in the mid-1980s. It has given me fine groups from most of the .44 WCF/.44-40 guns that have come my way and perfect functioning from every repeating rifle it has been tried in. From my 1-20 (tin-to-lead) alloy, these bullets fall from the mould at about 214 grains. They measure .429 inch, making them suitable for sizing to fit most any .44 WCF/.44-40 barrel diameter one might encounter. The 1-20 alloy is perfectly suitable for bullets traveling at .44 WCF/.44-40 speeds in any reasonable load, and it is kept on hand anyway for my big single-shot BPCRs. Bullets cast from it give fine accuracy and less leading than with some of the harder alloys custom casters use.

For a sizing diameter, .428 inch has become my favorite for all-around use although all my half-dozen .44 WCF/.44-40 rifles and carbines will chamber rounds with .429-inch bullets. None of the dozen or so handguns give me a chambering problem with .428 inch diameter; at least they didn’t until the arrival of the three U.S. Fire Arms’ versions. Those new revolvers have tight chambers and will accept the .428-inch bullets in Winchester or Starline brass, but when .428-inch bullets are put in Remington cases, chambering can be a little “sticky.” Rounds loaded with .427-inch bullets fall in the chambers of USFA handguns regardless of brass brand.

A word here regarding custom cast bullets might be in order. At .44-40 velocities, extremely hard bullets are not required, nor especially desirable. That’s not to say they don’t shoot well. Not long ago I discovered a custom cast bullet outfit in Washington state that pours its bullets out of the same 1-to-20 (tin-to-lead) alloy I use myself. They are called Desperado Bullet Company (PO Box 242, Touchet WA 99360), and I’ve had extremely good luck with its 200-grain, .428-inch bullet.

Although jacketed bullets don’t fit into my own .44 WCF/.44-40 scheme of things very often anymore, it is perfectly feasible to use them. In fact if a barrel is a bit rough, the jacketed bullets may shoot very nicely, whereas with such roughness a lead alloy bullet might be marginal. A sample of each of the jacketed softpoint bullets by Winchester and Remington was pulled from factory loads. The Winchester bullet measured .426 inch and the Remington design was .427 inch. Years ago I loaded 200-grain, .429-inch JHPs by Speer, Nosler and Hornady in the .44 WCF/.44-40 powered by some of the charges recommended in those old 1960’s Lyman manuals. The loads shot accurately from my Winchester Model 1892. Once the realization hit that such power was not needed for any critter I was likely to tackle with any .44 WCF/.44-40 firearm, the practice was discontinued. That said it is still feasible to fire 200-grain, .429-inch JHP bullets in .44 WCF/.44-40 guns of suitable strength. Lyman’s Reloading Handbook No. 48 has loads using the Speer bullet of that type. One might question if forcing a .429-inch jacketed bullet down a .427-inch barrel is harmful. It is not as long as the loads are not working right on the ragged edge of safety in the first place.

For general interest I included in the load table one of Lyman’s current hotter loads of IMR-4227 under some old 200-grain Nosler JHPs that were still on my shelves. From a new Marlin Model 1894 Cowboy, that load put five shots into only 3 inches at 100 yards using open sights. At that velocity the 200-grain JHP should expand as well as it would from a .44 Magnum revolver.

When it comes to powders, anything in the burning rate between Bullseye on the fast side and Accurate 5744 on the slow end is feasible. In fact I have used both with good results. The .44 WCF/.44-40 case is large, and the powder charges needed to make about 13,000 CUP pressure are not. Regardless, there has been little inconsistency in most of the loads test fired through my guns. For those who fear getting a double charge in a case (as we all should), Accurate’s 5744 is a good choice. Seventeen grains of it under a 200-grain bullet just about duplicates black-powder ballistics, and the charge almost fills the space under a seated bullet. There is some unburned powder left, but it does no harm.

A couple of other good powders are Winchester 231 and Hodgdon’s TITEGROUP, even though they leave much airspace. Some of the tightest groups I’ve ever fired with a .44 WCF/.44-40 handgun have come with Alliant’s Red Dot. In other words almost every powder of suitable burning rate at the proper charge weights will give good results if the bullets fit the firearm’s dimensions. I eagerly await the arrival of Hodgdon’s new Trail Boss powder, unveiled at SHOT Show 2005. It is billed as filling up, or nearly so, large pistol cartridges with charge weights in the 5.5- to 6.5-grain range. It must be “fluffy” stuff and sounds perfect for the .44 WCF/.44-40.

Let’s not forget the powder that the .44 WCF/.44-40 was originally designed to use. Today’s brass will not hold a 40-grain charge of black powder. About 33 to 35 grains is all I can get in by trickling it slowly down a drop tube and using the thinner Winchester brass. If original ballistics are the desire, then one can switch to FFFg granulation instead of FFg. That will increase velocity about 80 to 100 fps, depending on barrel length and bullet design.

Thus far most of my black- powder shooting with the .44 WCF/ .44-40 has been with GOEX brand black powder. The Swiss brand is excellent stuff but expensive, so I usually save mine for use in Long Range and Silhouette competition instead of firing it away at short range. With black powder it is no great trick to get a 200- to 214-grain bullet traveling about 1,200 fps from a 24-inch rifle barrel and over 900 fps from a 71⁄2-inch revolver barrel. Smokeless powder loads at 13,000 CUP won’t beat those speeds.

Just for kicks I rounded up a few old balloonhead .44 WCF/.44-40 cases and crammed in a full 40-grain charge of the hot Swiss FFFg black powder with the 214-grain RCBS bullet. Those loads chronographed well over 1,000 fps from a 71⁄2-inch Colt SAA barrel. Their buck and roar were impressive.

There are several substitutes for black powder on the market now, but my feeling is that if I’ve got to clean the gun and the cases after use, why not just stick with the original stuff. Besides I prefer the way it smells compared to the substitutes’ chemical odor.

In almost any article you find on reloading black powder in cartridges, there will be mention of wads placed between bullet and powder to protect the bullet’s base. These vary from plastic or cardboard to vegetable fiber. They are indispensable for good results at long range with the big single-shot BPCRs. I don’t use them for the .44 WCF/.44-40 or any other pistol cartridge and can’t see where they make any difference.

The only other thing I change in black-powder loads is the use of CCI 350 Large Pistol Magnum primers. In my testing they have given the best results. For smokeless loads any standard strength Large Pistol primer currently on my bench serves well.

Let’s not forget the use of a black-powder lube. SPG has served me well for almost 20 years with both black powder and smokeless powder for propellants. It is applied to every lead alloy bullet I cast myself.

Here’s one little tip to save confusion. In my loading black powder, loads are put only in Winchester brand brass and smokeless powder loads only in Starline brand. That way a glance tells me which one’s which.

Aside from components there are a couple of factors to consider in the mechanical aspects of .44 WCF/.44-40 reloading. An important one is crimp. This round needs a good crimp in order to keep the bullets from moving either forward or backward in the thin-walled cases. They just don’t grip the bullet tightly enough. Also because of the thin-walled cases, if the crimp is overdone, the case mouth will tend to bulge. That makes chambering difficult or impossible.

This problem seems to evidence itself more often in handguns than rifles, possibly because the handgun chambers are tighter or perhaps because the leverage of the rifle allows for forcing slightly bulged cases in with little notice. Regardless, the crimp on a .44 WCF/.44-40 round should be firmly in the crimping groove but not overdone. Setting the crimping die will require some trial and error to get it just right. Also keeping brass trimmed to a uniform length will help.

At reloading seminars I’ve done for cowboy action shooters, this question often arises: “How do I know what crimp is enough?” My rule of thumb is not very technical. I tell them to turn the case mouth into the crimping groove so that if you run your fingernail down the cartridge from bullet to case there isn’t an edge at the case mouth for it to catch on. It works for me.

Another problem .44 WCF/.44-40 reloaders often ask about is why their bullets are obviously seated with a cant. It can be seen as a bulge on one or the other side of the case. What causes it? My feeling is that it can result from a combination of factors: thin case walls, improper fitting seating stem in the die and bullets not straight to the case when shoved into the die. The case walls are just not strong enough to right a bullet that is cocked as it starts the seating process. Make sure the seating stem of the die fits the bullet and that bullets are straight in the cases before seating, and most likely the problem will go away.

Putting together a batch of .44 WCF/.44-40 handloads does require a slight bit more time to prepare than an equal number of say .44 Specials or .45 Colts. That’s because of lubing and unlubing the cases and paying attention to things in general. Other than that there are no special requirements necessary. Keep case lengths uniform, keep the reloading dies adjusted properly, match your bullets to the gun’s dimensions and don’t bump the cases into the dies by trying to go too fast. Then the .44 WCF/ .44-40 should treat you just as kindly as it has me all these years.

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