Compared: The .327 Federal Magnum and the .32-20 Winchester (.32 WCF)
By Chuck Hawks
This is a comparison of the old standard (.32-20) and the new kid on the block (.327 Mag.). There have been a number of .32 caliber revolver cartridges introduced since the .32-20 debuted in 1882, but none of them exceeded the performance of the .32-20. Introduced 100 years later, in 1983, the .32 H&R Magnum essentially equaled the .32-20 in performance, because it is loaded to higher pressure than standard .32-20 revolver loads, but the .32-20's greater case capacity allowed it to more than hold its own with reloads or High Speed factory loads for modern firearms.
As its name suggests, the .32-20 was introduced using a (nominal) .32 caliber, 117 grain bullet in front of 20 grains of black powder. The .32-20 became popular in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries and after the advent of smokeless powder it was adapted to the new propellant. Winchester offered the .32-20 as a combination small game, varmint and deer cartridge adaptable to both rifles and revolvers. They chambered their Models 1873 and 1892 lever action rifles for the cartridge and it became sufficiently popular to be adopted by other manufacturers, particularly Marlin and Colt.
The .32-20 proved to have good killing power for small animals, but it is seriously under powered for deer and it soon fell out of favor as a deer cartridge. As a handgun hunting cartridge, the .32-20 should be confined to use only on small game, varmints and small predators like fox and coyote.
Soon after its introduction, Colt and Smith & Wesson adopted the .32-20 for use in their large frame, six shot revolvers. .32-20 handguns were produced until the beginning of the Second World War. As a pistol cartridge, it became best known in the famous Colt Single Action Army revolver. It has also been chambered in the modern T/C Contender single shot pistol and in modern Marlin and Browning rifles.
At one time Winchester loaded .32-20 cartridges head stamped ".32-20 Marlin" for customers with Marlin 1894 rifles. These cartridges were loaded with 100 grain bullets at somewhat higher velocity than the original 117 grain bullet used in cases marked ".32-20 Winchester." The 100 grain bullet eventually became more popular than the 117 grain and both Remington and Winchester .32-20 Win. factory loaded ammunition now uses 100 grain bullets.
There used to be a High Velocity version of the .32-20 for use in smokeless powder rifles only. This load operated at higher than normal pressure, driving an 80 grain jacketed bullet at a MV of 2100 fps. It was discontinued in the latter half of the 20th Century due to fears that the ignorant or foolish would attempt to shoot these High Velocity loads in old black powder guns (or replicas thereof) and hurt themselves. Modern T/C, Marlin and Browning firearms can safely use High Velocity .32-20 ammunition and similar reloads.
Like almost all .32 caliber revolver cartridges, the .32-20 uses .312" diameter bullets. The current SAAMI maximum average pressure (MAP) for the .32-20 is 16,000 cup.
The .327 Magnum was introduced by Federal Cartridge in 2008. It was designed to be chambered in revolvers with .38 Special length cylinders and is similar to the .38 Special in overall length. It is the latest of the .32 caliber revolver cartridges based on .337" diameter cases that use .312" diameter bullets. These include the .32 S&W, .32 S&W Long, .32 H&R Magnum and, finally, the .327 Federal Magnum. Any .327 Magnum revolver can shoot all of these cartridges. A .327 Magnum revolver can also shoot .32 ACP auto pistol cartridge, which is a semi-rimmed design that uses the same .337" case diameter and .312" bullets as the .32 revolver cartridges.
This is a high pressure cartridge. Hodgdon lists .327 reloads in their 2012 Manual generating up to 43,500 psi. The .32-20 case actually has somewhat more powder capacity than the .327 case, but the difference in MAP gives the .327 a big ballistic advantage. .327 Mag. factory ballistics are measured in 4" vented barrels to simulate use in revolvers.
.327 Federal Magnum factory loads from the ATK Sporting division, which are sold under the Federal, Speer and American Eagle brands, are offered with 85, 100 and 115 grain bullets. I'd like to thank our friends at ATK for supplying the ammunition used in our series of reviews and articles about the .327 Magnum.
The first revolver chambered for the .327 was the Ruger SP101, which is supplied with a 3" barrel. This is a strong, small frame revolver. It can safely handle the .327 Magnum's pressure, but the 3" barrel is insufficient to deliver the cartridge's full performance, the muzzle blast is excessive and the recoil is quite sharp.
Far more suitable platforms for the .327 Mag. are the medium frame Ruger GP100 (DA) and Ruger Blackhawk (SA) revolvers. These hand filling revolvers come with 4.25" and 5.5" barrels respectively and weigh 40-48 ounces. The .327 GP100 has a seven shot cylinder and the Blackhawk has an eight shot cylinder. Full reviews of the .327 Ruger SP101, Blackhawk and GP100 revolvers can be found on the Product Reviews page.
We will compare the .327 Federal Magnum and the .32-20 Winchester in velocity, kinetic energy, trajectory and recoil. The sectional density (0.147) and frontal area (0.076 sq. in.) of our 100 grain .327 and .32-20 bullets are identical and need not be compared. While the .327 Magnum has both personal defense and hunting applications, the .32-20 is used almost exclusively in the field and for cowboy action competition, so we will compare these two cartridges for use in the field.
ATK/Federal designed the .327 and offers factory loaded ammunition for the caliber, so we will use the American Eagle factory load with a 100 grain JSP bullet to represent the .327 Magnum. The.32-20 Winchester will be represented by the traditional 100 grain JSP factory load as supplied by Remington and Winchester.
Velocity is important for initiating bullet expansion and it is the most important factor in calculating kinetic energy. Higher velocity flattens trajectory, making hitting easier at extended ranges and particularly at unknown ranges in the field. Here are the velocities in feet per second (fps) of our comparison loads at the muzzle, 50 yards and 100 yards. Included for comparison, since the .32-20 is a combination rifle/revolver cartridge, is .32-20 rifle velocity data.
As you can see, there is really no comparison in terms of velocity. The .327 is much faster. In fact, the .327 is faster from a 4" revolver barrel than the .32-20 is from a 24" rifle barrel. This is due to the .327's modern, strong case and higher operating pressure.
Kinetic energy is defined as the ability to do work. In this case, the "work" involved is primarily powering bullet penetration and expansion. Both are, of course, necessary for lethality. Here are the energy figures in foot-pounds (ft. lbs.) for our comparison loads at the muzzle (ME), 50 yards and 100 yards. Again included for information only, since the .32-20 is a combination rifle/revolver cartridge, is .32-20 rifle data.
The full power .327 Magnum field load is in a class by itself, clearly out performing the .32-20 from a revolver or rifle.
In the field, a relatively flat trajectory is important to small game and small predator handgun hunters. Both the .327 Magnum and .32-20 are suitable for such use. For those who carry a handgun for protection against two-legged predators when camping, fishing or hiking, there is the possibility of having to defend oneself against a human aggressor armed with a rifle and in that situation a flat trajectory that allows you to reach well beyond normal urban self-defense ranges is crucial.
To take advantage of the .327's high velocity and its maximum point blank range (+/- 3"), zero a .327 Magnum revolver at 113 yards, which would mean a maximum bullet rise of 3" at about 62 yards. This will give a useful range of about 135 yards before the bullet drops 3" below the line of iron sights. At 150 yards, the 100 grain .327 bullet should hit about 6.2" below the point of aim.
To keep the maximum bullet rise no more than 3" with a .32-20 revolver, zero it at 85 yards, in which case the bullet will hit 2.7" low at 100 yards and 18.6" low at 150 yards. The .32-20's maximum point blank range (+/- 3") when zeroed at 85 yards is 102 yards, which is quite acceptable for field use.
The dark side of higher performance is increased recoil. Greater recoil is always bad. It makes accurate bullet placement more difficult by increasing flinching and also the recovery time required between shots. In revolvers of substantial weight, such as the Colt SAA or Ruger Blackhawk, both of our .32 calibers are rather docile and easily controlled. Here are some approximate recoil energy (ft. lbs.) and velocity (fps) figures for our comparison loads fired in a three pound revolver.
From these figures it can be seen that the .327 kicks considerably harder than the .32-20. However, in a 48 ounce Ruger Blackhawk it remains a comfortable load to shoot. The .32-20 is a real pussycat, an ideal centerfire handgun caliber for anyone very sensitive to recoil and muzzle blast.
Summary and Conclusion
As you can see from the foregoing, the .327 Magnum with a full power load easily outclasses the much lower pressure .32-20 WCF. The .327 Magnum's flatter trajectory and greater hitting power makes it a superior handgun predator and small game hunting cartridge, as well as a useful self-defense cartridge. Although it remains a useful rifle and revolver cartridge, I think it is fair to conclude that the .32-20 has finally met its match.
Copyright 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.