Submit a question to the Ballistic Experts in our Lab

Dear Labby Q&A

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

If you would like to submit a story related to shooting, hunting, or handloading, we would like to read it. Please submit your story here. If it is accepted, your story will be printed on our site, with your name in the by-line.

Submit your Story

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.


Letters To The Editor

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Free Trial Subscription to
Handloader or Rifle Magazine

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.


By Jim Waddell

My affinity for calibers that have gone the way of the abacus and 8-track tapes continues with a review of this old cartridge.  I previously covered oldies such as the .22 Hornet, the .25-20 and a few others but that was sometime back.  Since then I’ve been keeping my eyes open for another caliber that’s come and gone.

The only lever gun I currently own is a Marlin 1894 .44 Magnum I bought new back in ’79.  It’s seen lots of use and even today rides in a rack on my ATV as I do my daily farm chores.

My 4 shooting pals however, are waist deep in guns of early America from muzzle loaders to Winchesters of nearly every model made from the Reconstruction up to and through the world wars.

It was about 2 months ago when I got a call from one of these friends who said he had a Winchester ’94 with an octagonal barrel in .32 Special.  He said he’d let it go for $400.  My immediate reply was, “what’s wrong with it?”  Even though my knowledge and experience with these rifles is lacking, common sense told me it was a bargain price unless the gun was stolen or something else was wrong with it.  He assured me it worked fine although the finish was terrible and the stock looked like a weather beaten board from an old barn.

Warren, the owner of this rifle is a machinist and a gunsmith although he’s been retired for quite some time.   He buys, sells and trades old guns as a hobby.  Warren said he came by this rifle along with several others in an estate sale.  The others apparently were more valuable as they weren’t discussed. As I was pondering whether or not this would be a fun project, Vernon, our other buddy told me he would be willing to take the rifle if or when I decided I didn’t want it any more.  I think he has visions of turning it into a .38-55.

That did it, I agreed to take it over the phone, sight unseen, totally trusting these guys, having known them for many years.  Not being much of a big game hunter anymore, I couldn’t see where it would get much use after I played with it for a while.

Researching the history of this caliber, it was brought out in 1901 by Winchester in its Model 94 action.  Comparing it with its parent case and (not quite) twin the .30-30, the two calibers are neck and neck ballistically.  They both shoot a 170 grain bullet at around 2200 fps or higher, depending on the load or advertised velocity by ammo makers.  The .32 has a slightly larger powder capacity and a shortened shoulder due to the expanded neck diameter but to the casual view, the cases look nearly identical.

So why would Winchester come out with a caliber that was so close to a successful number that was selling very well to the shooting public and had proven itself to be very effective as a deer cartridge?

One school of thought is Winchester believed it would attract those hunters that were going after larger game than deer since it had an 8mm bullet that even though it weighed the same as the .30-30’s 170, it would punch a slightly bigger hole than its predecessor.

When the .32 WS was introduced, designers gave it a 1-16 rifling twist as opposed to the 1-12 in the .30-30.  The turn of the century was also the turning point in gunpowder as the world was going from black to smokeless.  It was common knowledge back then (as it still is today) black powder will foul barrels faster and more thoroughly than smokeless and the faster the twist rate, the faster the barrel will become so full of crud it will be useless for trying to hit anything at reasonable distances.

Winchester’s designers thought by giving the .32 the slower twist it would be a selling point with those hunters who chose to load it with both types of cartridges.  This was good in theory but in practice, not so much as once the 16 twist barrel starts eroding, accuracy is gone whereas the 12 inch twist of the .30-30 will continue to stabilize bullets long after deterioration has started.

.30 caliber bullets have been and continue to be so popular and widespread there is virtually an endless supply of weights from 110 grains up to 220 grains from every bullet manufacturer in the free world in just about any style and configuration a shooter might want.  The .32 on the other hand, with its .321 diameter is just the opposite.

When I started gathering components for this project I was only able to find two jacketed bullets to experiment with.  Both are made by Hornady.  One is the 170 grain InterLock flat point and the other is a 165 grain FTX which is Hornady’s patented flex tip.  This bullet is pointed but with a sufficiently soft (flexible) tip it can be safely loaded in tubular magazines without risk of detonation in the tube from recoil.  This pointed tip also increases its ballistic coefficient and its effective range in hunting applications.

I found some Remington 170 grain factory loads and purchased a couple of boxes along with a supply of new brass from Hornady.  In addition to the two jacketed numbers I also had access to a supply of cast bullets that were 165 grain flat points.

The lack of available bullets for handloading is what led the .32 Winchester Special to an early retirement.  Although rifles haven’t been produced for this caliber in years, they can still occasionally be found at gun shows, pawn shops and estate sales as this one was.

I retired to my loading bench to see about assembling some loads to put this old rifle through its paces.  I didn’t necessarily want to do exhaustive tests like I would a new hunting or varmint rifle but thought it would be fun to try a few of Western’s powders with the bullets I mentioned and see what it would do on the range.

I started off loading the 165 grain cast bullets with Accurate 5744 and Blackhorn 209, the popular muzzle loading propellant.  A5744 is a fast burning rifle powder suitable for small to medium capacity cases and straight wall calibers with heavy bullets such as the .45-70.

Rather than work up several powder weights for each bullet as is customary, I chose a charge about half way between minimum and maximum recommended in the reloading guide.  Following recommendations, I used large rifle magnum primers with Blackhorn but standard primers for all of the other loads.

Results using the cast bullets were a flop.  At 50 yards, the most accurate shots left egg shaped holes in the cardboard target.  The others were fully keyholed and none of them hit where I aimed.  I’ve used these powders in similar tests with other calibers and had very good results in the past but these loads were off the charts bad.

The bullets came to me in a ziplock bag that said “32 caliber, 165 grain, .322 dia.”  I didn’t “mike” the bullets before loading them but as I seated them in the cases they seemed to have the proper feel and resistance.  After the test, I checked some of the remaining bullets and they measured .318 which explains the poor accuracy.  The groove diameter of the .32 Winchester Special is .321.

Turning to the jacketed bullets, I started with the Hornady 170 grain InterLock.  I chose three powders from Western.  X-Terminator, TAC and 2200.  Using data from their latest guide, I loaded 5 rounds with each powder, choosing a charge near the middle between minimum and maximum.

Using a sandbag rest, all groups were shot at 50 yards.  30 grains of X-Terminator put 4 shots inside 1 ½ inches with a flyer an inch outside to the right.  29.5 grains of 2200 provided similar results, sans the flyer.  The best results of this trial was with 33.5 grains of Ramshot TAC.  The 5 shot group was a nice cluster measuring just under an inch.

Before moving to the 165 grain Flex tip, as a kind of afterthought, I decided to try a few shots with this 170 grain number with two Norma powders I have on hand.  Again picking random charges between minimum and listed maximum, I loaded 5 rounds with 27.0 grains of N200, then another 5 with 31.0 grains of N201.

Norma 201 put the 5 shots all over the place, as in a 3 inch group.  The loads with Norma 200 measured slightly over a half inch.  This encouraged me to load 5 more and shoot them at 100 yards.  I should have kept it at 50 as they spread out considerably to nearly 6 inches.

Saving the best for last, I used the same three powders with the 165 grain FTX.  I couldn’t find a bad group from any of them.  30.5 grains of X-Terminator, 34 grains of TAC and 30 grains of Accurate 2200 all shot extremely well at 50 yards.  So well in fact I loaded the empties back up for a go at the 100 yard target.  All three groups shot in nice clusters with no stringing in any direction.  They were all in about 1 ½ inches with no flyers.

I choreographed random shots and all of the loads were close to published velocities.  This test further illustrates how the rate of twist in barrels affects accuracy.  The bearing surface on the 165 grain FTX is distinctly shorter than that of the 170 grain InterLock.  With the slow 1-16 inch twist rate in this barrel, the shorter bullet made all the difference in the world in accuracy.

Rather than finding one powder that stood tall over the rest, the shining star of this project is the FTX bullet by Hornady.  With its shorter bearing surface and its pointed design for better flight characteristics it can be said this definitely extends the practical range of the .32 Winchester Special beyond what it was ever intended to be by its creators.

My pal Vernon was with me as we ran these tests and became overjoyed at the thought he would end up with this rifle.  He did and now I seriously doubt he’ll turn it into a .38-55 like he first thought.  He’ll be keeping his eyes peeled for another old clunker to do that with.