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The 32-20 WCF - More than just a Cowboy Action Cartridge?

Some time ago I was looking for another handgun barrel for my T/C Encore that was easier and cheaper to shoot than my 338 JDJ #2. The cartridge needed to be easy to work with, load data had to be readily available, and it preferably needed to be a round I already had dies for. I had a few ideas: 223 Remington, 6mm Remington, 357 Magnum, 357 Maximum, 250 Savage, and several others. During that time, I would occasionally borrow my father’s EMF Hartford Italian reproduction of a Colt Single Action Army revolver chambered in 32-20 WCF. It was cheap and easy to shoot, my dad’s handloads made a satisfying ‘crack’ at every shot, plus it was a nice change from my usual fare of 22 LR and 9mm pistols. The gun was accurate, but the tiny sights combined with my poor eyesight meant I couldn’t get the best groups, even with thick glasses. I kept using it because I liked the idea of firing a cartridge from the 19th century, and it was fun.

The load I’d been using was my father’s interpretation of an old Elmer Keith load for the 32-20: 115gr lead bullet over enough powder to make a ‘crack’ when fired (if you don’t know who Elmer Keith was, I suggest googling him, he’s basically the father of magnum handguns). For us that ended up being 4.5grs of Red Dot, any more and the fired shell’s primer would pop, effectively welding itself to the recoil shield of the gun, and making it very difficult to cock the hammer for another shot. I said to my dad once, “It’s a good thing we’re not loading this with something like H110.” That gave me an idea. Some time later I ordered two custom Encore pistol barrels from Match Grade Machine (, one in 25-06 Remington for deer season, the other in 32-20 WCF.

The 32-20 Winchester Centerfire is a bottleneck, rimmed cartridge released in 1882 as a black powder round intended for use on small game. It was basically a general purpose, shoot food for the pot type cartridge, similar to the 25-20 WCF or 30-30 WCF. The name follows the then conventional way of designating a cartridge, 32 refers to the bullet diameter (.311/.312”) and 20 is the charge in grains of black powder. It was first chambered in the Winchester 1873 lever action rifle, then later in revolvers.

As a black powder cartridge, it’s not very powerful. It’s actually rather anemic. The original loading was a 115gr lead bullet at about 800-900fps on a good day. Nothing I’d want to be hit by, but it’s not on the same level as other black powder cartridges like the 38-40 WCF or 44-40 WCF. Both fired larger bullets than the 32-20 and drove them at similar velocity, meaning more power.

As a smokeless powder cartridge, it’s still not something to get excited about, at least in commercial loadings. Because of antique and reproduction guns chambered for the 32-20, commercial ammo is kept close to the original levels of pressure and velocity to avoid damaging guns or, more importantly, people. The popularity of cowboy action shooting has motivated some companies to make even less powerful loads for use in competitions. This makes the guns easy to handle and fast shooting but makes the 32-20 mostly useless for anything else.

**DISCLAIMER** Before I get into modern loads for this cartridge, here’s a quick but VERY important note. NEVER, I repeat, NEVER put the loads described in this article in an antique or reproduction firearm. They will damage the gun, possibly beyond repair, and you might be injured as well. ONLY use these loads in guns that you KNOW can take the pressure. I am an engineer and experienced handloader, and fully accept the risks in doing this. I will not be held liable for any injury or damages from trying any of the loads used for this article. I’m using a T/C Encore frame, which is a very strong single shot design that I know can take the high pressures these loads create. If you have any doubt that your gun can handle these high pressures don’t try them. As with anything else in the world of firearms, safety is paramount. With that out of the way, let’s look at the fun stuff.

The gun I’m using is a Thompson Center Encore with a custom barrel from Match Grade Machine, topped with a 2.5-7X T/C Recoil Proof pistol scope. A few weeks after I ordered my barrel it arrived neatly packed in a cotton drawstring bag, wrapped in bubble wrap, in a nondescript cardboard box. My barrel is 10” long, has a 1:10 twist, and has MGM’s bead blasted matte finish, and their “Heavy Factory” profile. The quality of MGM barrels is excellent, and I would happily put them up against any other maker of custom T/C barrels. The scope I’m using is quite clear, has 1/4 MOA adjustments, and fine crosshairs. Depending on your eyesight, you may find the crosshair to be too thin for deep woods, but it works just fine for a range environment.

As this is a single shot pistol with a strong action, it can eat up any load I could make with ease, the barrel about ¼” of steel per side surrounding the cartridge. The Encore is an excellent platform for modernizing old cartridges like the 32-20, not only because of the strength of the action, but also because there are companies like MGM who will happily sell you a barrel in nearly any chambering you can think of. The T/C Contender would also be a good choice, as would the MOA Maximum.

When the 32-20 is loaded with modern powder and bullet its potential can really be seen. I’ve been using the Hornady 100gr XTP over 16grs of WIN-296, one of the maximum loads listed in the Speer 14th Edition manual. Listed velocity is 1600fps. Putting the original and modern loads into Hornady’s ballistic calculator ( demonstrates the difference quite well. For perspective, lets use a typical 357 Magnum load: a 158gr bullet traveling at 1250fps has 538fpe at the muzzle. The typical loading for the 32-20 of 115gr bullet at a velocity of 800fps has 163ft-lbs of muzzle energy, something you could buy today from several makers. The velocity for this load at 50 yards is 703fps for 126fpe, with a drop of about 6 inches. Compare that to my handload which has a 100gr bullet being driven at an estimated 1600fps for 568fpe at the muzzle. Going out to 50yds, velocity drops to 1420fps for 447fpe). Even with the drop in velocity that’s more than three and a half times the energy at 50 yards of the old 32-20 load. That’s a major improvement. I don’t know of a single commercially available 32 caliber handgun cartridge that can match that. The closest I could find is the 327 Federal Magnum, which throws the same 100gr bullet at about 1400fps with 435fpe of muzzle energy. That’s 200fps slower and 23% less muzzle energy than the modernized 32-20. Not bad for a cartridge from 1882.

Bullet selection can get a little tricky because of this increased velocity. My barrel has a bore diameter of .311”, but MGM also offers a .308” bore for the 32-20, which is what is most commonly listed in loading manuals for use in the T/C Contender. If you choose the .308 bore you have the option of using the wide selection of lightweight .308 caliber rifle bullets. The 110 grain Hornady V-Max would be a great choice for targets and small game. I picked the .311 bore so I could use either pistol or rifle bullets. The bullets I chose are the .312” 100gr Hornady XTP and the .311” 125gr Sierra Pro-Hunter.

As mentioned previously, I’m driving the 100gr XTP at around 1600fps. Hornady lists the effective velocity range of their bullets on their boxes, and for this bullet that’s 700-1500fps. Since it’s leaving the barrel about 100fps faster than it was designed for, it will expand too rapidly and probably not penetrate well if used on game. This is one reason why I wouldn’t use this load for large game. The other is that conventional wisdom dictates that it takes at least 1000fpe to be effective on large game like deer, so going by those numbers this might not be adequate for big game. But lots of deer have been taken with the 357 Magnum, which also has less than 1000 fpe. Yes, the shot would need to be short, and on not too big of a deer, but it’s possible. So, would this 32-20 load be adequate for deer at short range? Maybe, again if the range were short, and the deer not too big. I’m pushing this bullet to its design limits, and it is after all, still a small bullet. This would also be true of any other .312” pistol bullet, they’re just not designed to be driven this fast.

But what about rifle bullets? There are several companies that make lightweight .311/.312” rifle bullets, Hornady, Speer, Sierra, etc. The copper jacket of the 125gr Sierra is thicker, and the lead core is harder than the XTP’s, so they can be driven much faster and still work effectively. These are designed for cartridges like the 303 British or the 7.7mm Japanese, and to be driven at about 2500fps. The downside with this type of bullet (in terms of using it in a handgun) is that it’s meant to be driven faster than a handgun can really make it move. I only have a 10” barrel which means I’m not going to get anywhere near rifle velocities with any load I could make. I was unable to find velocity recommendations for this bullet, but I’m loading it over 14grs of WIN-296, which means my estimated velocity is about 1400fps. Most modern rifle bullets are meant to start expansion at about 1800fps. Because of this I wouldn’t use this on deer size game either, as I can’t drive it quite fast enough for it to expand properly.

Which leads to the question: What can these be used on? The obvious answer is targets, the increased velocity means the cartridge is now much flatter shooting. Instead of having to hold half a foot over something at 50 yards, now you need to hold a mere two inches. This is a good thing whether you’re punching paper or ringing silhouette targets. Either of these loads would be hell-on-wheels for varmints as well. Inside of 100 yards you’d be well equipped to handle any coyote or fox that came into range. An animal under 70 pounds would be small enough where the fast expansion from the Hornady XTP would have tremendous shock value. While the lack of proper expansion from the Sierra PH wouldn’t damage a pelt much. Either bullet would work well for smaller game.

If one wants to get this kind of performance, one must get into handloading. There is no factory ammo available for the 32-20 that gives this level of performance. There are numerous books on the subject of handloading, so I won’t get into detailed procedures. Hornady, Speer, Lyman and others all make good load manuals that not only contain the handloading procedures, but also troubleshooting and load data.

The 32-20 does have some specific things to look out for. When handloading for this cartridge the thin case walls can become a problem. The cases are easily crushed in a press or dented if dropped on hard surfaces. Care must be taken when setting the dies and learning to feel when the bullet has been seated correctly is also important, so as not to crush the cases.

The 32-20 uses small pistol primers and most of the load data available recommends using older flake powders like Unique or Green Dot. Small pistol primers have no issues igniting these powders, but when using more potent ball powders like WIN-296, H110, or ENFORCER, ignition issues could be encountered as the primer may not be hot enough. I’ve not had this problem with my handloads, but if it does happen switching to magnum small pistol primers should solve it.

When it comes time to seat the bullets another issue may arise, the die stem of the seating die might not work with the bullet being used. Most seating dies for the 32-20 come with a die stem that is designed for flat nose bullets, not spitzers. If the Hornady XTP or similar bullet is being used this is not a problem. However, if spitzer rifle bullets are being used a different die stem designed for that style of bullet will be needed. The proper die stem can be purchased separately and should be used so the bullets don’t deform in the die. An advantage of the Lee dies that I use is that they have a ‘universal’ die stem, meaning that it works with both flat nose and spitzer bullets. It’s important to check what type of die stem your dies have before seating any bullets. For seating depth you’ll need to experiment. The Hornady XTP I seated to the cannelure and the Sierra PH I seated so the bullet just touched the grooves of the rifling with the action closed. It’ll take some time to figure out what works best in your gun, so I won’t list Overall Length (OAL) here.

When using rifle bullets, you may also encounter difficulty crimping the bullets into the case. The majority of rifle bullets are designed to be a press fit into the case neck with an interference of .001-.002”. The 32-20 case was not designed for a press fit bullet, but rather a roll crimped bullet, and that’s how the dies are designed. This is why handgun bullets have either a cannelure if it’s a jacketed bullet, or a deep crimp groove if it’s cast lead (some jacketed pistol bullets don’t have a cannelure, and are meant to be used with a taper crimp). As I’ve said, rifle bullets can be used, but extra care must be taken when crimping the bullet. It needs to be a light roll crimp, just enough to keep the bullet from falling out of the case. If this was used in a revolver it would be an issue under recoil, as the unfired bullets could creep forward out of the case or maybe even out of the cylinder, but when used in a single shot firearm, this is not a problem. You just need to be sure it’s firm enough to hold, without crushing the thin case walls. It doesn’t take much to crush them either, I ruined numerous cases before I learned what was too much force on the reloading press.

Other than those few things, loading for the 32-20 works just like any other centerfire cartridge. Several companies make good loading dies, RCBS, Lyman, and Redding are good choices. I’ve been using Lee dies for my handloads and they work, but they are not as precise as I would like. I’ll be purchasing a new set of RCBS dies in the future.

After I’d made up a load, I took it to the range. I took along some other shells I put together based off data in an old Lyman manual with Green Dot for comparison as well. First, I touched off a few of the Green Dot load. The result was anticlimactic to say the least. If it wasn’t for the ‘pop’ you’d never know the gun had fired, there was literally no recoil. I then moved on to the modern load with the 100gr XTP and WIN-296. That was…impressive. When the hammer dropped, a softball size ball of fire came out of the barrel, the gun hopped an inch of the rest, and the blast made my eyes water. The recoil was not brutal like with my 338 JDJ #2 or 454 Casull because the Encore weighs enough with its heavy frame and scope that it mitigates felt recoil, even so it was similar to hot 357 Magnum loads.

I zeroed my gun with this load for 50 yards. I’ve put about 400 rounds made with the XTP’s and about 100 rounds made with the Sierra bullets, and accuracy has been comparable between the two. Groups range in size from about 2 inches to about 8 inches. I don’t think this inconsistency and large group size is from by barrel, bullet, or load, but rather my own lack of practice. I’ve unfortunately not been able to spend as much time at the range as I would like. Regardless of my poor practice regimen, the 100gr XTP is leaving the muzzle at about 1600fps, fast enough to make it fairly flat shooting. The 32-20 will obviously never be a super flat shooting round, but this does make it a much more effective cartridge.

Shooting these hot loads does decrease case life. The life of 32-20 brass loaded ‘normally’ is quite long, I’ve loaded some cases about ten times before they cracked. Case life with the modern loads is about two-thirds of that, I get five or six reloads out of a case before it cracks. As I’ve said the case walls are thin by today’s standards and were never designed for high pressures or temperatures. I think it’s a credit not only to the brass manufacturers, but also to MGM for making a barrel that doesn’t melt brass left and right.

The reactions I’ve gotten from people who see this fire are often of shock and curiosity. After all, most handguns you’ll see are either combat pistols or small-to-medium frame revolvers, so when a large frame handgun gets pulled out of a range bag it tends to get attention. After I said it was “Just a thirty-two,” a friend of mine said, “What? A 32-100?!” I’ve also been asked what rifle I was using to make so much noise. Many people I’ve talked to either didn’t know what the 32-20 is, or that it can be so capable. All in all, people have been surprised to see a fairly small cartridge perform so well.

Now, why did I pick the 32-20 of all things? I could’ve picked nearly any other cartridge for my ‘fun’ Encore barrel, why a little cartridge from the 19th century? I chose the 32-20 primarily because I already had brass and dies, but also because I liked the idea of “magnumizing” it. It’s cheap to shoot as the bullets are reasonably priced, and it doesn’t swallow much powder per shell. The gun is also easy to control, even with my improvements to the 32-20’s ballistics. It would be an excellent ‘beginner magnum’ so to speak, something where you could get used to the blast of a magnum pistol, but not punish yourself as you would with larger magnums.

I also have brass and dies for the 25-20 WCF, and as it would have the same performance jump as the 32-20 it may be something I’ll play with in the future. Modernizing the 38-40 and 44-40 WCF wouldn’t make much sense in my opinion, as you’d get cartridges that have modern equivalents i.e., 357 Maximum and 44 Remington Magnum. But then again there are many such redundancies in the cartridge world.

This has been one of my favorite projects, taking an ancient cartridge from the 19th century and filling it with modern powder and bullet. Put that in a gun that can take the higher pressures, and you have something that can match or surpass the newer and more modern cartridges of that caliber. Modernizing the 32-20 is not a new idea, but it is something I’ve had a great deal of fun doing. It goes to show that old cartridges like the 32-20 WCF don’t need to slide off into antiquity. All they need is a little imagination, jacketed bullets, and some WIN-296.

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Dave Stevens Pistol & 2-Gun matches 2023

The matches will be a Pistol only match on June 24th and a 2-gun match on September 9th, 2023. Registration for participation is limited to 12 members per match.


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