The .32-20 Winchester (.32 WCF, .32-20 Marlin)

By Chuck Hawks

The fine old .32-20 (or .32 WCF as it is also called) was originally a black powder cartridge adapted to both rifles and handguns. It was introduced by Winchester in 1882. Winchester advertised it as a combination small game, varmint and deer cartridge. It 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. The .32-20 should be confined to use only on small game, varmints, and small predators like fox and coyote.

As its name suggests, it used 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.

The .32-20 was initially chambered in the Winchester Model 73 lever action rifle. Later it appeared in the Model 92, and also in the Marlin Model 1894 lever gun, Colt Lightning pump, Remington pump guns, and sundry other rifles including bolt action and single shot models.

After World War II the production of new .32-20 rifles was discontinued and the cartridge became an orphan. Marlin re-introduced the .32-20 in 1988 in their modern Model 1894CL rifle, and the combination has caught on (to an extent) for Cowboy Action Shooting. Browning chambered their modern reproduction of the Winchester 92 for the .32-20.

Soon after its introduction Colt and Smith & Wesson picked up the .32-20 for use in their large frame revolvers. .32-20 handguns were offered until the beginning of the Second World War. As a pistol cartridge it became best known in the famous Colt Single Action Army (Peacemaker) revolver. It has also been chambered in the modern T/C Contender single shot pistol.

The .32-20's actual bullet diameter is .312-.314 inch, so the British would have called it a .303 caliber. Its case is a rimmed number 1.315 inches long. The rim diameter is .408 inch and the case diameter at the head is .3443 inch. At first glance the .32-20 appears to have straight, slightly tapered case walls, but upon closer examination a small 5 degree 42 minute shoulder will be discerned. Overall cartridge length is 1.59 inches. The SAAMI maximum average pressure for the standard .32-20 cartridge is 16,000 cup.

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 in place of the original 117 grain slug 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.

Modern .32-20 factory loads are rather anemic, launching a 100 grain lead bullet (SD .142, BC .166) at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 1210 fps from a rifle, and about 25% less from a revolver. At a MV of 1210 fps the muzzle energy (ME) is 325 ft. lbs. Remaining energy at 100 yards is 231 ft. lbs. The trajectory of that load from a scoped rifle looks approximately like this (Speer figures): +2.9" at 50 yards, 0 at 100 yards, and -11.3" at 150 yards.

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 there of) and hurt themselves. The modern Marlin and Browning rifles can safely use High Velocity .32-20 ammunition and similar reloads.

According to the Speer Reloading Manual Number 13 the rifle reloader can essentially duplicate the factory load by using a 98 grain cast lead bullet in front of 3.8 grains of Hodgdon's Universal, or 3.9 grains of Power Pistol powder. The MV of both loads is approximately 1200 fps in a 22 inch rifle barrel. 3.9 grains of Power Pistol is good for a MV of 915 fps and ME of about 180 ft. lbs. in a 7.5 inch revolver barrel. The Speer technicians used Starline cases and CCI primers for these loads.

The Speer Reloading Manual also lists High Velocity handloads for modern .32-20 rifles such as the Marlin 1894CL and the Browning reproduction of the Model 92. These loads generate pressures as high as 28,000 cup and are safe only in these modern rifles. The Speer 100 grain, .312 inch JHP bullet (BC .167) can be driven to a MV of 1635 fps by 11.0 grains of Hodgdon H110 powder, or a MV of 1858 by 13.0 grains of H110. The ME of the 100 grain bullet at 1800 fps is 719 ft. lbs.; at 150 yards it is about 351 ft. lbs.

The trajectory of the Speer 100 grain, .312" JHP bullet at a MV of 1800 fps from a scoped rifle looks like this: +1" at 50 yards, 0 at 100 yards, and -5.3" at 150 yards. These loads used Winchester brass and CCI 400 primers and were chronographed in the 22 inch barrel of a Marlin 1894CL rifle.

The strong T/C Contender pistol can also safely use High Velocity loads at 28,000 cup. But since .32-20 Contender barrels have an unusual groove diameter of .308 inch, only bullets of that diameter should be used. The Speer 100 grain "Plinker" jacketed SP bullet (SD .151, BC .124) can achieve a velocity of 1734 fps in front of 16.0 grains of H110 powder, or 1908 fps in front of 17.0 grains of the same powder in a 10 inch Contender barrel.

The trajectory of the Speer 100 grain Plinker at a MV of 1800 fps from a scoped Contender looks like this: +1.2" at 50 yards, 0 at 100 yards, and -6.5" at 150 yards. The Speer technicians used Starline brass and CCI 500 primers when developing these loads.

The standard velocity .32-20 is about a 100 yard hunting cartridge; the High Speed version extends the useful range to about 150 yards. In both rifle and pistol it has a reputation for good accuracy. The .32-20's recoil is mild in either, and its report is more of a "crack" than the "boom" of more powerful cartridges. Used within its range limitations it is deadly on varmints and small predators.

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Copyright 2002, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.