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Searching for the Right 32-20 Winchester Load

1885lowwall72By Frank Mathis.  

When I retired from a large Sheriff’s Office, my parting gift was a Winchester 1885 Low Wall chambered in .22 long. As the original finish had been overlaid with a French-gray parkerized overcoat with mud fence aesthetics, the collector value was far less than a project for a re-build shooting platform.

1895 Low Wall Exploded Diagram.

1895 Low Wall Exploded Diagram.

The late Steve Moore of Ten Ring Services, Inc. of Jacksonville, Florida was contracted to re-barrel and chamber the rifle for the venerable 32 Winchester, aka 32-20. As some issues presented themselves with a barrel designed for a rimfire cartridge, the bore was drilled and a Redman .311. liner was installed. The chamber cut to close tolerances and the firing pin retrofitted for a centerfire. During this metal work period I refinished the straight grained stock with hand rubbed linseed oil.

The years have not been kind to the eyes and iron sights are nowhere near as clear as was once the norm, so glass was needed to obtain maximum benefit from the “new” rifle. A Leatherwood copy of the William Malcom short scope of three power was selected as being suitable for the period look to enhance appearance and serviceability.

Leatherwood William Malcom short scope.

Leatherwood William Malcom short scope.

That is when the fun started in research and development of loads suitable for the rifle. It is amazing at how little can be found on converting low walls and the strength of the action. It is known that many have been converted to high pressure rounds such as 218 Bee and .357 Magnum but this is my rifle and overloading the rimfire action was not a desirable outcome in a search for enhanced performance over factory equivalent ammunition.

.32-20

.32-20

Having on hand two bullet molds, Lyman’s excellent 311008 and a four cavity of mold, of unknown manufacture, a gas check design and drops semi-wadcutters of 110 grains at .313 caliber, casting began in earnest. Bullets were sized to .312 in an RCBS sizer with Lyman Moly Lube. An additional supply of Hornady .312  100gr. XTPs were acquired for additional testing.

As there are three other firearms in 32-20 Win. caliber in my safe, none of which can be fired using heavier loads with out securing additional life insurance, a method of keeping ammunition safely segregated was required. Since most of my brass is a mix of Remington, Winchester and Starline, sorting by manufacturer was not a safe alternative. Thus a quantity Starline nickle-plated brass was used as the sole ammunition for the Winchester Low Wall.

Reloading data was selected from various sources and started out very mild but showed unsatisfactory accuracy which turned out to be the fault of the reloader himself. Having loaded strictly for bolt action rifles where case length was addressed only when the bolt started getting difficult to close, little attention was paid to case length. After multiple targets with stringing and extreme velocity variances, research flipped the switch and the light was seen. After trimming all cases equally, groups were immediately improved and velocity became consistent.

Using different powders and primers with all three of the above listed bullets and being reluctant to venture into pushing pressure levels beyond about 25,000 psi, there were mixed results, none of which I was content to accept. In checking out additional powder options, A1680 was noted to achieve higher velocities at lower pressures. Intrigued, I finally found a can and commenced loading this new acquisition with surprising results. With the 110 gr. gas check SWC, a load of 15.0 gr. Of  A1680 ignited by a CCI 500 primer proved capable of very tight groups at 75 yards. Unfortunately, I was experiencing problems with the chronograph that day and do not have the velocity for this load.

.32XTP72 The next load was with the Hornady 100 gr XTP pushed with 15.7 gr. of  A1680 ahead of a Winchester small pistol primer. Accuracy was even better with frequent three-shot groups measuring around a half inch at 75 yards.

The most pleasing aspect of these two loads are that they both shoot into the same 1 inch square with room along the border even when intermingling the two. Recently the SWC loads were used to collect a dinner of fresh squirrels at distances ranging from 65 to 75 yards.

Just recently I was invited to a deer hunt in northeast Florida with a group of friends I worked with. As a challenge I carried my 32-20 1885 into a ground blind on the edge of a cypress pond in planted pines. A short time after sunset a six point (Eastern count) waded out into a clearing and gave me an opportunity to evaluate his potential as a source of protein. As the distance was around 60 yards with superb confidence in the accuracy potential of the rifle and given the terrain and light availability I elected for a neck shot. As the cross hairs settled on the buck’s neck I squeezed off the shot to which he immediately fell and remained in that spot until he was dragged back to the trail for transport. The terminal ballistics proved to be more than anticipated upon close examination although there was not an exit.

While this rifle and ammunition combination worked for a buck on this trip, I do not consider the 32-20 Winchester a deer cartridge. A precisely placed shot will put a deer down for the count but only under optimal circumstance with a confident shooter. A few years ago while hunting in west Georgia I passed up a monster buck late one afternoon because I had not developed this load at that time. The load was much lighter with the SWC gas check and the distance too far for precision placement.

All in all I have been very pleased with the performance of A1680 powder. It is consistent both in accurate metering from an RCBS powder measure and for field work. A bit of residue can be observed after a few shots but accuracy is unaffected even during extended shooting sessions and is easily removed with good bore solvent. I would strongly recommend trying A1680 in any suitable cartridge when seeking optimal performance.

1895 Winchester Low Wall like the authors.

1895 Winchester Low Wall like the author’s.

Frank Mathis served with the 3rd Marines in Vietnam in 1969 as a rifleman. He served 34 years in law enforcement including nine years with SWAT and 22 years as a police firearms instructor. He retired as Director of Law Enforcement for the St. John’s County Sheriff’s Office in St. Augustine, Florida.  He is a recognized expert firearms witness for Florida’s 7th Judicial Circuit.  An active handloader since the early 70’s, Frank currently loads for about 25 different cartridges.  He can be reached at mfmathis@wildblue.net.

The greater the elevation, the more sanitized the perspective”.