This article of mine previous appeared in the Cast Bullet Asociation'sFouling Shotmagazine.
A Modern Replacement for the .32-20 Rifle-Revolver Combo
I have a Marlin 1894CB chambered in .32 H&R Magnum and a companion Ruger Single Six 4-5/8.” These are favorite trail guns with good reason. The rationale behind the .32 H&R was to be a more effective defense cartridge for use in small, concealable revolvers.
This was also the concept behind the .327 Federal, but the marketing hype missed the boat because no .32 can replace a .38 Special +P or .357 for serious defense use. Because if a 90-grain .30 or .32 cal. bullet at 1400 f.p.s. was the best man killer that ever happened, the Army and all of our cops would be carrying CZ52s or Tokarevs.
Where the .32 revolver cartridges excel, is as dual-purpose small game cartridges for rifle and revolver use. The .32 H&R Magnum provides .32-20 ballistics from a modern, compact cartridge, ideally suited for reloading. Thank the fine people at Starline for the survival of the .32 H&R Magnum because Starline alone is provides readily available, long-lasting, brass, far superior to paper-thin, fragile, .32-20s and the pooor -quality Federal HRM cases which frequently suffer from body splits.
The .327 Federal was introduced about two years ago and I predict will die a quiet death, because the only source of brass cases is either speer or Federal factory ammo which costs a buck a shot. Unless Starline adopts this orphan .327, I predict that it will disappear in a few years. The only person I know who has a .327 revolver shoots the H&R Magnum ammo in his, because that's all he can get. The added powder capacity of the .327 Federal case is unnecessary unless you like to use the muzzle flashes for still photgraphy or are trying to build a custom rifle into the ballistic equivalent of a rimmed .30 cal. M1 Carbine
The capacity of the .32 H&R Magnum case is just about perfect for a small game rifle. To understand why, let’s examine the .32-20 Winchester which the H&R so efficiently replaces.
The .32-20 Winchester dates from 1873 and was originally marketed as a dual-purpose small game and “deer” cartridge, although today it’s considered too light for big game use. Most states rightfully prohibit its use for that purpose. But the .32-20 achieved instant popularity as a utility small game and varmint round for outdoorsmen. It remained popular well into the smokeless era. Production of new guns chambered for the .32-20 ceased upon WWII, but the supply of existing ones ensured enough active use to keep the cartridge alive until it was re-discovered by Cowboy action shooters.
Factory .32-20 ammunition was most often loaded with either a 100-gr. flat-nosed lead or jacketed soft-point bullet. Prior to WWII there were flat-nosed FMJ rounds and the 80-gr. high-velocity “rifle-only” loads for the Winchester 92, but these were never very common. Other than some private-label cowboy loads, the only .32-20 factory loads you are likely to find on store shelves today are 100-grain soft-points loaded by either Winchester or Remington.
Powders used in smokeless powder .32-20s were a compromise intended to perform acceptably from either rifles or revolvers. Prior to WWII Infallible (similar to today’s Unique), Sharpshooter (similar to SR4759), or SR-80 (similar to Herco) were common. Post WWII WC630 (similar to Power Pistol), W-W230 (Similar to 231), SR-4759 and 4227 have also been used to load .32-20 ammo. Among hand-loaders 4 grains of Unique with #3118 is the long accepted standard.
Factory catalog ballistics claiming 1000 f.p.s. from a .32-20 handgun was based upon solid test barrels. In my chronograph testing I never saw 1000 f.p.s. from any .32-20 handgun except for one particularly tight Colt Single-Action with 7-1/2 inch barrel. Breaking 1000 f.p.s. from a .32-20 handgun requires hand-loads which exceed factory pressures.
Typical results from a six-inch Colt Army Special I tested in the 1980s, having a 0.008 cylinder gap approached 900 f.p.s. with Remington and Winchester factory lead loads. Firing a four-inch S&W Hand Ejector with similar gap or the JSP load in a long barreled revolver drop velocity by about 50 f.p.s.
Factory loads fired in a Savage 23 bolt action with 24 inch barrel approached 1300 f.p.s. with lead and 100-gr. JSPs just over 1200. These results are modest, but the .32-20 has proven effective on small game and wild turkey over generations of field use, so these are the benchmarks against which the .32 H&R Magnum cartridge should be compared.
Some magazine articles which discuss reloading for the .32 H&R Magnum emphasize attaining the highest possible velocity and energy. In my opinion this defeats the purpose of this mild, efficient dual-purpose, revolver or rifle small game cartridge. High velocity, JHP varmint bullets, such as the 85-gr. Hornady XTP cause excessive meat damage to table game. Higher velocities also cause more rapid bullet expansion, which reduces penetration needed for killing effectiveness on larger predator animals. [/SIZE]
A flat-nosed, 100-120 grain solid lead bullet at subsonic velocity is non-destructive for edible small game and has fully adequate energy and penetration to be effective against predators such as feral dogs or coyotes. Revolver loads approaching 1000 f.p.s. provide a flat enough trajectory to enable 100 yard hits on coyotes or groundhogs. When fired from rifles, velocities of such loads approach 1300 f.p.s., which is adequate to enable some expansion with soft alloys of 8-12 BHN, giving good game performance and acceptable field accuracy while using an economical, plain-based cast bullet. Non-casters who reload can buy the Hornady 90-gr. SWC or 94-gr. Meister .312" LFN.
In my experience these bullets work best with mild loads in the H&R Magnum with 3.0 to 3.5 grains of Bullseye or 3.5 or 4 grains of Unique or SR-7625, which will be subsonic in a 4-5/8 inch revolver. Bullet casters who like a larger meplat on their bullets to better let the air out of bunny wabbits can use the 98-gr. Saeco #325 semi wad-cutter with these same charges. The Saeco #325 performs best in subsonic revolver loads and accuracy falls off when you try to “hot-rod” it. With any of these loads you can expect 2-inch groups at 25 yards hand-held off sandbags with the Ruger Single Six and the 1894CB will give the same results, but out at 50 yards.
The 1894 Marlin cowboy rifle doesn't feed .32 S&W Longs unless you the seat bullets to provide an overall cartridge length greater than 1.3”. Two proven small game loads use the traditional flat-nosed style 122-gr. Saeco #322 cowboy bullet in .32 S&W Long cases, crimped in the lubricating groove at 1.35" OAL. A “quiet” rifle charge also suitable for the S&W Models 30 and 31 revolvers is 2 grains of Bullseye for 850 f.p.s. from the Marlin or 750 in the Single-Six. If you want a bit flatter trajectory and better reach at the expense of a more noise, you can increase the charge in the Ruger revolver or Marlin up to 2.5 to 3 grs. of Bullseye for 820 f.p.s. or 1030 f.p.s. in the Marlin rifle, for 2" five-shot at 50 yards with iron sights.
I replaced the open factory buckhorns on the Marlin with the XS Systems ghost ring peep and white-line Patridge front which I can see with 62 year-old eyes! Testing indoors on a typically dark pistol range with improvised rest I can hold about an inch average over a series of 5-shot groups. If you get an inch at 25 yards with iron sights, that is a "good" load.
I have not fooled much with the slower powders, because I feel this defeats the purpose of using the same ammo in both the walking rifle and revolver. I briefly tried #2400 and 4227, as well as a compressed nominal “case full,” about 11 grains of RL-7 or 4198 in the H&R Magnum. While faster, they were louder and less accurate than my milder loads with Bullseye.
The Lyman handbook nonsense which suggests sizing cast bullets to barrel groove diameter persists in common folklore circulated for the .32 H&R Magnum. The usually-recommended .312 bullet diameter limits potential accuracy for some users. Cylinder throats of Ruger revolvers vary from .309” to as large as .314,” depending upon when the gun was made. Cast bullets intended for revolvers should always be sized so they may be pushed through the chamber from the rear and out the front of the cylinder throat with slight resistance using only hand pressure. If bullets fall through of their own weight you may as well throw rocks. If you can’t push bullets through by hand, but rounds chamber and extract freely, you can shoot them in below-maximum loads, at some expense to accuracy.
In my experience Marlin chambers run sloppy. My 1894 .32 HRM readily chambers and extracts accepts un-sized .315 diameter bullets assembled in Starline cases. It likes best the NEI #82 115-gr. FN (shortened version with GC shank removed, resembles Lyman #3118) cast 10-12 BHN with 3.0 grs. of Bullseye in Starline .32 H&R Mag. cases at 1.45" OAL, using a light film of Lee Liquid Alox.
I also have a very light single-shot walking rifle which I rechambered to .32 H&R Magnum to use more common brass and ammo. I felt the .32 HRM was a better choice than the .32-20 and this proved right. The rtiny 4.5 lb. rifle shoots inch groups at 25 yards with .32 S&W Longs with open sights. My most accurate .32 S&W Long "Rook Rifle" loads are seated out so that they will also feed from the Marlin rifle. I use the 115-grain NEI #82 seated out to 1.32 OAL with 2.5 grs. of Bullseye. This load average about 2 inches at 50 yards over a series of 5-shot groups. This is OK plinking accuracy in such a very light rifle with iron sights. The 1894 Marlin is more consistent than the fly-weight, single-shot rook rifle because it is heavier and much steadier on the bags.
Heavier .32 H&R Mag loads listed in some manuals caused ugly looking fired primers in my converted converted Rook Rifle with its large blkack podwer style firing pin and un-bushed breech face. I find this a useful indicator of chamber pressure. So I assemble no load which causes hard opening or smeared primer cups upon opening the rook rifle. Using the 2.5 grain charge with 115-grain bullet in .32 S&W long cases at 1.32 OAL velocity is 750 f.p.s. in my 3-inch S&W M31, 830 fps in my 4" Colt Police Positive, 870 fps in the 4-5/8 inch Ruger Single Six and just shy of 1000 fps from the 20 inch Marlin 1894CB and 1080 f.p.s. in the 26-inch Rook Rifle. Report is moderate, like shooting a .22 LR.