The .32 Winchester Special

By Chuck Hawks

The .32 Special had a unique property when it was introduced back in 1902. While the contemporary .30-30 cartridge was designed exclusively for use with smokeless powder, the .32 was a smokeless powder cartridge that, according to Winchester advertising, was designed to be reloadable with black or smokeless powder. To ease the problem of black powder fouling, the rifling twist in Winchester .32 Spec. rifle barrels was 1 turn in 16 inches, rather than the 1-in-12 twist of the .30-30. That is what made it "Special."

The .32 Special could be said to be based on a .30-30 case necked-up to accept .321 inch diameter bullets. Actually, both the .30-30 and the .32 Special are based on a necked-down, bottleneck version of the rimmed .38-55 case. The rim diameter is .506 inch, and the shoulder angle is about 14.5 degrees. The case is 2.04 inches long, and the maximum overall cartridge length is 2.565 inches. The SAAMI maximum average pressure is 38,000 cup.

The .32 Winchester Special has been the lifelong running mate of the .30-30 Winchester. It has never been as popular as the .30-30, but it has been popular enough to be one of the top ten best selling American centerfire rifle calibers for most of its life.

Back in about 1965 (at which time the .32 Spec. was already about 70 years old) I saw a list of the top selling factory loaded cartridges in the U.S., and I was surprised to find that the .32 Spec. was number four. I believe that the .30-30, .30-06, and .270 occupied the first three places. I remember wondering what all the gun writers and other advocates of the bolt action rifle must think when they saw those numbers. Two of the top four best selling cartridges in the country were moderate velocity, moderate caliber numbers most often chambered in lever action carbines. By then, they had been making their cases for very high velocity or very big bullets, and in either case bolt action rifles, for 60 years. And the consumers kept on using their .30-30 and .32 Special lever action carbines. It must have been frustrating for them. I don't know where the .32 Special stands in sales today, but I would be very surprised if it were not still in the top 20.

Winchester has sold well over a million Model 94's in .32 Special and I don't know how many additional units have been sold by Marlin and others, but there are a lot of well made .32 Spec. rifles out there. In 1973 Winchester stopped chambering the M-94 in .32 Spec. It was reintroduced into the line in 1982 and it was offered well into the 1990's. In 1999 Winchester does not catalog the M-94 in .32 Special, but like the Terminator in the movie, I bet it will be back.

I bought a brand new pre-1964 Winchester M-94 in .32 Special back in 1964, one of the last 1963 models sold. I equipped it with a Lyman receiver sight for hunting in the woods. It was the fastest handling deer rifle I have ever owned.

I also found that my .32 Special was accurate and didn't kick too much. Recoil amounted to about 12.2 ft. lbs. in my 7 pound rifle. I liked it a lot, and I deeply regret that I later sold it to help finance the purchase of a (then) just announced Remington Model 600M bolt action carbine in .350 Rem. Mag. I later regretted selling the M-600M, too--but that is another story.

The ballistics of the 170 grain factory load for the .32 Winchester Special are very similar to those of the .30-30 Winchester shooting the 170 grain factory load. The .32 bullet has the advantage of making a slightly larger hole; the .30 bullet has a slightly superior sectional density. The usual American factory loads give a 170 grain flat point bullet a muzzle velocity (MV) of 2250 fps and muzzle energy (ME) of 1911 ft. lbs. At 100 yards the figures are 1870 fps and 1320 ft. lbs. The 200 yard numbers are 1537 fps and 892 ft. lbs.

The trajectory of that load should look like this from a scoped rifle: +3 inches at 100 yards, -1.3 inches at 200 yards, and -3 inches at 215 yards. From both the energy and trajectory figures you might conclude that the .32 Special is about a 215 yard deer and black bear cartridge, and you'd be right.

The .32 Special is an easy cartridge to reload. Hornady, Speer, and possibly others make 170 grain flat point bullets for the Special. The Speer 170 grain flat point bullet for the .32 Special has a BC of .297, and a SD of .236. The reloader can drive these 170 grain bullets to about 2,200 fps from a 20 inch barrel with a variety of medium burning powders. My favorite is IMR 3031, which works very well in both the .32 Special and the .30-30.

The third edition of the Hornady Handbook of Cartridge Reloading shows that 28.8 grains of IMR 3031 will drive their 170 grain bullet to a MV of 1900 fps. 32.8 grains of IMR 3031 will drive the same bullet to a MV of 2200 fps.

In 1964, the Winchester catalogue described the .30-30 as an excellent deer cartridge, and the .32 Spec. as perfect for black bear. I guess that is as good a way as any to sum it up. The .32 Winchester Special is also covered in my article "Ideal Deer Cartridges."

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Copyright 2001, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.