The .38-40 Winchester (.38 WCF)

By Chuck Hawks

This old timer dates back to 1874, when Winchester introduced it for their Model 1873 rifle, the "Gun that won the West." Winchester also chambered their later Model 92 lever action for the .38-40. Marlin offered their short action Model 1894 lever action in .38-40, and other rifle manufacturers, including Remington, also chambered rifles for the cartridge. There was even a variation of the .38-40 loaded specifically for the Colt Lightning pump action rifle head stamped ".38 CLMR" (Colt Lightning Magazine Rifle). The .38-40 was also known as, and head stamped, .38 WCF (Winchester Center Fire).

Around 1878 Colt followed Winchester's lead, introducing the cartridge in their famous Single Action Army (Peacemaker) revolver. The modest ballistics of the .38-40 make the cartridge more appropriate for a handgun than a rifle, despite its development for the latter, and it has generally enjoyed a good reputation as a self-defense load.

.38-40 rifles and revolvers sold well enough to have kept the .38-40 cartridge on Winchester's loading list for all these years, but the cartridge never achieved the popularity of its running mate, the .44-40. It is hard to imagine today, but this pair constituted Winchester's "all-around" cartridges of the time. I believe that the last .38-40 production rifle was discontinued in 1937.

The .38-40 uses a short, rimmed, bottleneck case and, typically, a 180 grain round nose lead or jacketed soft point (JSP) bullet. Modern Winchester factory load rifle ballistics call for a muzzle velocity (MV) of 1160 fps and muzzle energy (ME) of 538 ft. lbs. with a JSP bullet, which is considerably less than modern .357 Mag. factory loads using the same weight bullet when fired from a 20" carbine length barrel (1550 fps and 960 ft. lbs.). And, the .38-40 specs are derived in a 24" test barrel! So, by modern standards the .38-40 is by no means a powerhouse or an all-around cartridge. This load is also safe for use in revolvers designed for smokeless powder.

At one time there was a high velocity factory load offered for the .38-40, intended for use only in rifles. This was loaded with a maximum charge of smokeless powder and had a catalog MV of 1775 fps. This ancient "+P" load was discontinued because shooters insisted in firing it in black powder revolvers and other unsuitable actions with disastrous results.

One peculiarity about the .38-40 is its nomenclature. ".38" is supposed to be its bullet diameter and "40" is supposed to represent the 40 grains of black powder that constituted the standard load. (The original Winchester factory load used 38 grains of black powder, but a slightly more powerful 40 grain load was introduced later.) But, the cartridge actually uses .401" bullets and should have been named the ".40-40" or .40 WCF. Why Winchester adopted the inaccurate .38 bullet diameter designation I do not know.

The .38 WCF is based on a necked-down .44 WCF case. Other cartridge dimensions include a case length of 1.305", a rim diameter of .525", a rim thickness of .0650", and a shoulder angle of 6 degrees 48 minutes. Cartridge overall length is pegged at 1.592". The SAAMI maximum average pressure is only 14,000 cup, which explains the cartridge's poor performance.

Cowboy action shooting is keeping the .38-40 alive today. Cowboy action rules require the use of lead bullets and such loads are loaded to low pressure, so the .38-40 fits right in.

The .38-40 a relatively difficult cartridge to reload due to its thin neck and the excessive chamber dimension variation typical of .38-40 rifles. The fact that most .38-40 rifles have weak actions that allow a lot of case stretch does not help. And new .38-40 cases are hard to find.

The odd bullet diameter severely limits bullet availability. I know of no jacketed bullets available to the .38-40 reloader, who usually is reduced to casting his own lead bullets. RCBS can provide bullet molds.

Frankly, the .38-40 is a good cartridge for the modern shooter and hunter to avoid. Winchester only produces factory loaded ammunition on an occasional basis and it is expensive and difficult to find; nor is the .38-40 a good cartridge for the reloader. If you want a handy, low recoil, lever action rifle and companion revolver, buy something in .357 Magnum. But, for the shooter who already has a .38-40 rifle and wants to shoot it, reloading data for cast lead bullets can be found in the Speer Number 13 Reloading Manual.

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Copyright 2006, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.