The .38-55 Winchester (.38-55 Ballard)

By Chuck Hawks

Ballard introduced this old timer in 1884 for their single shot target rifles. Its nomenclature is derived from its approximately .38 caliber bullet (actually .375"), and the 55 grains of black powder with which it was charged.

It was, and is, an outstanding schuetzen-type target rifle cartridge. In its day it was also considered an excellent hunting cartridge for animals in the deer and black bear class. The traditional "High Speed" hunting load drove a 255 grain bullet at about 1500 fps.

The .38-55 was in its hey day when Winchester introduced their famous Model 1894 lever action rifle, and it became the first cartridge for which the new rifle was chambered. Necked down, the .38-55's rimmed, slightly tapered, straight walled case formed the basis for the .30-30 Winchester case, introduced the following year in the Model 94. In fact, the entire line of early high velocity WCF cartridges, including the popular .32 Winchester Special and the .25-35 Winchester, were fundamentally based on the .38-55 case.

The much later .375 Winchester was also based on the .38-55 case and, although its brass is slightly shorter, it will chamber in a .38-55 rifle. In a pinch, .375 Winchester brass can be used for .38-55 reloads. However, .375 Winchester factory loads develop much higher pressure than .38-55 cartridges, and should never be fired in a .38-55 rifle. The .38-55 is a black powder cartridge and is suitable only for low pressure loads when using modern smokeless powders.

Old timers claimed that the .38-55 killed game better than the new-fangled, small bore high velocity cartridges like the .30-30. But as the years went by the .30-30 and the cartridges it inspired revolutionized hunting, and sales of the .38-55 slipped to the point that Winchester, Marlin, and Savage stopped chambering their lever action rifles for the cartridge. Meanwhile more modern bolt action target rifles largely replaced the old style schuetzen single shot target rifles, so the .38-55 became obsolete, and almost disappeared from the scene.

It was the revival of schuetzen target shooting that ultimately saved the .38-55 from obscurity, coupled with the interest generated by Cowboy Action Shooting. The .38-55 was a genuine western frontier cartridge, and suddenly there was again a demand for the old timer. Winchester chambered a run of commemorative Model 94's in .38-55. Marlin saw the cartridge's potential and introduced their Model 336 Cowboy Gun in .38-55 as well as .30-30. Browning followed with their Model 1885 Traditional Hunter single shot in .38-55, .30-30, and .45-70.

Winchester, alone of the Big Three ammo companies, offers a .38-55 factory load. This uses a 255 grain soft point bullet at a muzzle velocity of 1320 fps with 987 ft. lbs. of muzzle energy from a 24" barrel. At 100 yards the velocity of this load is 1190 fps with 802 ft. lbs. of energy, and at 200 yards it is moving at 1091 fps and carrying 674 ft. lbs. of energy.

The trajectory figures for this load show that with a 100 yard zero the bullet drops 8.4" at 150 yards and 23.4" at 200 yards. These figures, as well as the energy figures above, indicate that the .38-55 is about a 125 yard deer cartridge.

The handloader can achieve better ballistics than those provided by the Winchester factory load. Sierra offers a .375" 200 grain JFP Pro-Hunter bullet, and Hornady offers a 220 grain JFP bullet (SD=.223). These can be driven to about 1600 fps, stretching the effective hunting range of the cartridge to about 150 yards.

According to the Lyman 47th Reloading Handbook the Remington 255 grain JFP bullet can be driven from a 26" barrel at a MV of 1271 fps by 31.0 grains of IMR 3031 powder, and a MV of 1805 fps by 35.0 grains of IMR 3031. Remington cases and primes were used for these loads. This Lyman data is intended to be used in modern rifles, such as recently produced Winchester Model 94's, only. The sections of older Lyman Reloading Handbooks devoted to obsolete cartridges are also good sources for reloading information on old cartridges like the .38-55.

For target shooting, most competitors use cast bullets weighing around 250 grains at 1200-1300 fps. These are usually propelled by fast burning powders like H4227, IMR 4227, or SR4759.

With the Winchester factory load the recoil of a 7.5 pound .38-55 rifle is much like a .30-30, but with heavy handloads it is greater. My Rifle Recoil Table shows that a .38-55 firing a 255 grain bullet at 1700 fps comes back at the shooter with just over 15 ft. lbs. of recoil energy.

There is an old saying that you can't teach an old dog new tricks, and that also applies to the .38-55 rifle cartridge (note warning above about using .375 Winchester cartridges in a .38-55 rifle). But sometimes the old tricks are still good enough, and the .38-55 remains a good 100 yard deer cartridge and an excellent schuetzen target rifle cartridge.

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