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The .25-20: From Black Powder to Blackhorn 209
Loading an Old Favorite: The .25-20 Winchester
By Jim Waddell
The first time I saw a .25-20 cartridge I remember thinking, “it looks just like a midget .30-30.” This little round was introduced in the mid 1890’s and designed for the Winchester Model 92 lever action rifle. Until the .22 Hornet arrived in 1930, the .25-20 was the choice of varmint shooters, farmers, trappers and small game hunters. Turkey and rabbit hunters loved it for not destroying too much meat.
Once the .22 caliber centerfires came out the popularity of the .25-20 started a slow but sure decline from that time on. The cartridge enjoyed a brief resurgence in 1989 when Marlin chambered their popular and well-made Model 1894 for the .25-20 and Kimber made a bolt action single-shot for a while but this caliber, as cute as it is, gets outperformed in accuracy and velocity by numerous other cartridges, some modern and some older.
Even though the .25-20 has gone the way of the wild goose in winter, it’s still a heck of a lot of fun to shoot and develop loads for. I personally don’t own one but one of my shooting buddies has one and I’ve done everything I can think of to buy, trade or steal it away from him. He finally told me to get lost as even though it gets little use he will never part with it as it was a gift from a very good friend. While we were talking, he was eyeballing a Garand M1 rifle I have in my inventory. Vernon likes to shoot a local military rifle competition at two local shooting clubs. He has just about every rifle our military has used since the flintlock EXCEPT a Garand.
I’m not willing to part with the M1 rifle any more than he is with the .25-20 so we struck a deal, he gets the Garand and I get the .25-20 and when one wants his rifle back we switch.
I wasn’t about to waste an opportunity so I put this Marlin .25-20 to the test with a variety of Accurate Powders using two jacketed bullets and a commercially cast lead semi-wadcutter. I had been told that the guys in the lab at Western Powders had used BH209 and had good results in a Winchester ’92 they were able to lay hands on. They said it was a really fun combination to shoot.
The jacketed bullets I tried were the Speer 75 grain flat soft point and Remington’s 86 grain jacketed hollow point. I remember a few years back shooting this gun at the range. Hornady at the time made a 60 grain bullet that this rifle didn’t like at all. Shooting it with a variety of powders, Vernon could not get it to group anywhere near satisfactory.
With the jacketed bullets, I tried both the 75 and the 86 weights with 5744, 2015, 1680 and A-9, all ignited by Remington’s 6 ½ small rifle primer. I’ll get to the details in a bit but suffice it to say, every one of those powders met or exceeded expectations.
First the Blackhorn 209 loads with the Meister commercially cast lead semi-wadcutter. Western’s lab suggested to always use a magnum primer as Blackhorn can be difficult to ignite with milder primers. For these tests I used CCI’s #450 Small Rifle Magnum.
With no load data published yet for the .25-20 using this powder, I was told to fill the case to where the base of the bullet would be once it’s seated. The lab said I could use more of this powder as it’s very safe and it would not be possible to exceed safe pressure levels. 10.5 grains filled the case to the base of the bullet when it was seated to the crimp groove. Using that as a starting load, I increased the load to 11.0 and was able to get all of the powder in the case by tapping the case as it filled and pouring it slowly from the pan through the funnel. Doing this I avoided the necessity of a drop tube.
After testing a few rounds with both the 10.5 and 11 grain loadings to make sure they functioned and there were no surprises, I loaded 50 rounds of each powder weight. The rifle had previously been zeroed with one of the jacketed loads which made it shoot low with this lighter lead load. All of my accuracy tests and bench shooting was done from a distance of 40 yards using a bench mounted tri-pod and rear sandbag.
10.5 grains consistently shot better than the heavier load of 11 grains. 5 shot groups all shot between .5 and one inch. A 10 shot group measured just under 2 inches but remove 2 shooter induced flyers, 8 shots hovered at 1 inch and 5 of those were a half inch.
The sights on this Marlin were the factory installed post on the front blade with the rear sight being a Williams adjustable peep mounted at the rear of the receiver. Both of these loads produced almost zero recoil and the report was similar to a .22 Magnum rimfire. I had no access to a chronograph at the time of testing but based upon personal guesswork which is about as reliable as water-soaked primers, I’m thinking maybe around 900-1100 feet per second.
These cast bullet loads with Blackhorn 209 were so much fun to shoot, I loaded a few dozen more and went scouting through my almond orchard for something animate to try them on. At the rear of my property is a large area of wild berry vines that’s home to possum, skunk, cottontails and badgers. The only thing I was able to bag was a ground squirrel that ventured out into the orchard, unaware of my presence sitting on an ATV about 20 yards away. The Meister cast bullet took it in the middle of the torso, punching a clean hole and dropping it instantly.
The only downside to using Blackhorn 209 is the powder residue or carbon left some prominent stains on the brass cases. A couple of hours in a rotary tumbler with treated walnut shell media took care of most of the blackened areas and what was left was faint. After each shooting session I did notice a few unburned powder kernels left in the bore and on the ground below the muzzle. This didn’t seem to be a major drawback as the loads shot very well. It did attest to the necessity of a magnum primer.
In testing the jacketed bullets with the smokeless powders, I won’t get into fine detail as all of the tested loads worked well. If I had to choose one, it would be 1680 as it shot consistently well with both the 75 and 86 grain bullets. Several 3 shot groups at 40 yards with 11.5 grains printed at or under an inch. Published velocity for this load is 1778 feet per second.
2015 is perhaps a bit on the slow side for this caliber. It performed only a little less than #9 and 5744 and if it were the only powder available it would work fine.
After the fun was over, I was able to get the rifle cleaned up rather nicely using Montana Xtreme Blackhorn 209 solvent by following the directions on the bottle.
If your quarry is bats in the belfry, foxes in the hen house or rats in the tack room, this old quarter-incher will do the trick. Granted, progress and technology has created many calibers better suited for just about any shooting need but if you’re just a little nostalgic and long for the times when life was a little simpler, and if you can lay hands on one of these, you’re in for a lot of fun.