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The Original Silver Bullet
Rifle Magazine
June - July 1999
Volume 34, Number 3
ISSN: 0017-7393
Number 199
On the cover...
This issue is only available on CD-ROM.RCBS Cowboy Dies are designed specifically for cast bullets in a variety of older rifle and sixgun cartridges. Photo by Gerald Hudson. Mule deer photo by John R. Ford. Purchase the CD-ROM here
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There are more than a few cartridges whose reason for being has, from time to time, been called into question. Usually there is a simple explanation for their existence, even if the logic might seem a bit weak to some folks. Then too, hindsight allows us to see how some ideas lead nowhere, while that was definitely not the case when the round was proposed. Of course, there is always a possibility the application for which a new cartridge is intended might simply disappear. Shooters would then abandon it wholesale.This month's cartridge contains elements of all the above scenarios. What's more, it never gained a following or stood out for any particular task. The result is that few riflemen under the age of 50 even know it exists. What is this round? The .32 Winchester Special.

As with other cartridges that fall into the obsolete category, there is a fair amount of suspect information regarding its history. We will attempt to dispel this by referring directly to Winchester catalogs whenever possible.

One such point of contention is as basic as the date of introduction. That's easy to take care of. In Winchester's catalog No. 68 dated January 1902, we find the first mention of the cartridge in the Model 1894 lever-gun section. One full page is dedicated to describing the round's attributes. This makes interesting reading considering the .32 Special's status (or lack thereof) today. As we go through part of this, keep in mind the smokeless-powder-only .30 Winchester (.30-30) and .25-35 Winchester had been available in the Model 94 rifle since August 1895.

Catalog No. 68 states: "The .32 Winchester Special Cartridge is offered to meet the demand of many sportsmen for a smokeless powder cartridge of larger caliber than the .30 Winchester and yet not so powerful as the .30 U.S. Army [.30-40 Krag], and which could be reloaded with black powder and give satisfactory results. The .32 Winchester Special Cartridge meets all these requirements. Loaded with smokeless powder and a 165 grain bullet, it has a muzzle velocity of 2057 foot seconds, thereby generating a muzzle energy of 1550 foot pounds."

A bit farther on the catalog informs us that, "With a charge of 40 grains of black powder, the .32 Winchester Special develops a velocity of 1385 foot seconds, which makes it a powerful black powder cartridge."

The foregoing two paragraphs say a lot about the .32 Special. They also give an insight into hunter attitudes and hunting conditions of the period. When this is combined with the ballistics of other cartridges of the time, the .32 Special is suddenly illuminated in a new and unexpected light.

Winchester first speaks of a "demand" by sportsmen for a smokeless cartridge larger than .30 caliber but less powerful than the .30-40 Krag. At the time the Krag pushed a 220-grain bullet at about 2,000 fps. Energy figured to about 1,950 foot-pounds (ft-lbs). Few hunters today would consider such a figure even adequate, let alone ask for a round developing less energy! Remember, however, this was 1902. Things were a bit different then.

First off, except for very rare exceptions, telescopic sights were simply not used by hunters. The most popular hunting rifle in America was then the lever gun. Even tang and aperture sights were rather rare due to their cost. What all this means is that at the time of the .32 Special's introduction, shots at common big game animals like deer, moose, bear and wild boar were close, usually 50 to 125 yards because of coarse iron sights. Forests of the Northeast U.S. and Canada as well as much of the West also kept range down because it's pretty hard to shoot an animal at 200 yards if the hunter can only see 100.

Another interesting aspect of this business of range is that a lot of animals, perhaps most, were simply targets of opportunity. While looking for stray cattle, collecting firewood, cutting timber or just going from place to place game could be encountered. In such instances distance to target could be very short indeed. These animals were shot when possible because the meat was a welcome addition to many diets, and the price was right! Hammering a deer, for example, at 75 yards with a thin-jacketed 220-grain softpoint from a .30-40 Krag would result in more than a little ruined meat. Hunters of the time often complained about the new cartridges in this regard. They would be appalled at the destructive nature of today's hunting cartridges.

The .32 Special produced about 20 percent less energy than the Krag. Muzzle energy of the .30-30 at the time was about 1,280 ft-lbs, giving the .32 Special some 20 percent edge. Such difference would definitely be enough to notice. The second part of Winchester's description of the .32 Special refers to handloading with black powder. So loaded the new round was supposed to launch a 165-grain bullet at 1,385 fps - exactly the same ballistics as the .32-40 Winchester. Yet WRA did not load the .32 Special with black powder. What was going on?

One can only surmise that handloading was more common at the time than might be expected. Just why is hard to say. It is difficult to imagine an ordinary hunter firing more than 30 rounds a year at big game. Handloading this small number of cartridges would hardly pay. Nevertheless, early smokeless compounds were dangerous in unskilled hands, and makers discouraged individuals from using them. Black powder was the only game in town for the moment. [In the early days of smokeless powders, ammunition manufacturers were using mercuric primers, which when fired with smokeless powders, caused the case to become brittle and unsuitable for reloading. The same mer- curic primers used with black powder did not affect brass, and cases fired with black powder could be reloaded safely. Hence, the .32 Special was developed to be reloaded with black powder just before the non-mercuric primers (H-48) became available. - Editor]

Winchester was right about one thing though. Thirty-two caliber is about the smallest that can be used satisfactorily with black powder without having to clean the bore after each shot to maintain accuracy. The .32-40 was known for its target precision, so Winchester was probably hoping some of that reputation would rub off on the .32 Special.

Those who are tempted to criticize the black powder handloading angle should look at earlier Winchester catalogs. In 1899 they began carrying the statement, "Black powder cartridges cannot be used in the .25-35 or .30 caliber Model 1894 rifles." Obviously one's fingers won't fall off if the old black propellant is poured into those two cartridge cases. Velocity, how-ever, would be much lower than with smokeless, and that would drop energy - probably to 800 ft-lbs or less. Neither round's reputation would be enhanced by such performance. Realizing this, Winchester probably decided to produce a cartridge that could be loaded with black powder, if the owner wished, or used with more powerful smokeless factory rounds. Rifling twist was also made one in 16 inches in deference to black-powder fouling. It would be interesting to discover how many .32 Specials Winchester and Marlin sold in those early years.

Design of the .32 Special is pretty straightforward - it is merely a .30-30 necked up to use .321-inch bullets. This diameter is also employed by the .32-40, as is the 16-inch twist. The cartridge name comes from bullet diameter rather than caliber. A true .32 caliber would have a .328-inch bullet.

Early ammunition was loaded with but one bullet weight, 165 grains, in either softpoint or full patch design. Muzzle speed was given as 2,057 fps. Midrange trajectory was 1.2 inches at 100 yards, 5.9 inches at 200 yards and 16.4 inches at the 300-yard mark. Bullet weight was increased to 170 grains in 1904; muzzle velocity became 2,050 fps. This was increased to 2,112 fps in 1910.

Smokeless powder development eventually allowed muzzle velocity to increase to 2,260 fps prior to World War II. When sighted at 100 yards, drop at 200 was 7.5 inches; at 300 paces it was 28 inches. Maximum for the .32 Special with its iron sights was about 200 yards. Around this time Winchester offered a 110-grain hollowpoint starting at 2,630 fps, apparently a varmint-type loading. It didn't last long.

By 1961 Winchester loaded a 170-grain softpoint and Silvertip at 2,280 fps from the muzzle. Energy was 1,960 ft-lbs, decreasing to 960 at 200 yards. The Silvertip was dropped in 1998, but the softpoint remains. Remington also sells a 170-grain Core-Lokt softpoint today and Federal a 170-grain Hi-Shok softpoint. Both are listed at the industry standard of 2,250 fps muzzle velocity. Dominion of Canada also made .32 Specials as did U.S. Cartridge Co., Peters and Union Metallic Cartridge.

The .32 Winchester Special is a cartridge like the .25-35 Winchester in that it's hard to understand why factory ammunition is still made. Despite the fact Marlin also offered rifles for many years, the overwhelming popularity of the .30-30 meant the number sold had to be low. Suitability of handloading with black powder would have been important for a few years, but the justification for doing so died quickly as improved smokeless powders were developed. The round was more powerful than the .30-30 early on, yet this advantage dwindled over the years as the .30 was speeded up by new powders. The .32 Winchester Special didn't receive the same treatment. I guess we will just have to go on wondering.
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