The .44-40 Winchester (.44 WCF)

By Chuck Hawks

.44-40 Win.
Illustration courtesy of Hornady Mfg. Co.

The .44-40 Winchester, also known as the .44 WCF (for Winchester Center Fire), was introduced in 1873 in the famous Winchester Model '73 lever action rifle that is often called "The Gun That Won the West." It became the most popular law enforcement and hunting cartridge in North America in that rifle, and later retained that title in the highly regarded Winchester Model 1892 lever action. Many years later, after the Model 92 was finally discontinued, for a time the Model 94 was chambered for the .44-40 Win. Old timers still claim that the .44-40 has killed more deer in North America than any cartridge except the .30-30.

Marlin chambered their popular Model 1894 lever action for the .44-40 cartridge, Colt their Lightning pump action rifle, and Remington their Model 14 1/2 pump action rifle. A slew of popular single shot rifles were also available in .44-40. It wasn't until well into the 20th Century that the .44-40 finally relinquished the title of most popular deer cartridge to the newer and much more powerful .30-30 Winchester cartridge. .44-40 deer rifles remained in widespread use in North America until after the end of the Second World War.

1873 was a also big year for handguns in the US, for that was the year the famous Colt Single Action Army revolver was introduced. .45 Colt was the most popular caliber for the big pistol, but in 1878 the .44-40 cartridge appeared in the new revolver, and it quickly became the second most popular chambering. Most other handgun makers followed suit, and the .44-40 became available in a number of large frame revolvers.

The point of offering the same cartridge in both rifle and handgun was to simplify the ammunition supply problem for the frontiersman. This was a popular notion to the cowboy or trapper who might spend weeks or months away from a store where he could buy more cartridges. Strangely, therefore, two basic types of .44-40 factory loads evolved after the introduction of the strong Winchester Model 1892 rifle. There was a standard pressure load adaptable to both revolvers and older rifles, plus a higher pressure ("High Velocity" or "High Speed") load intended only for strong rifles like the Winchester M-92 and Marlin M-94.

The revolver load drove a 200 grain bullet at a muzzle velocity (MV) of around 900 fps from the 7.5" barrel of a Colt revolver. The High Velocity load drove a 200 grain bullet at a MV in excess of 1800 fps from a 24" rifle barrel. This High Velocity load developed too much pressure for safe use in a revolver. I have a feeling, though, that in a pinch this rule may have been intentionally violated more than once. For sure it was inadvertently violated by the ignorent and the careless any number of times, which ultimately resulted in the withdrawl of the High Velocity load from the market sometime after WW II.

In its heyday the .44-40 was used extensively by frontiersmen, hunters, outlaws, and lawmen. One of the many police organizations to adopt the .44-40 was the US Border Patrol, which became famous for their many gunfights along the Rio Grande.

The .44-40 became a popular hunting and law enforcement cartridge in other parts of the world as well. It was widely used in South America. In Spain it was used by the police as well as the Civil Guard. I understand that it was very popular in Australia, and that new Winchester Model 94's so chambered were available there into the 1970's.

Today the cartridge has made a comeback, fueled by the sport of cowboy action shooting. The .44-40 is now available in several replica revolvers and rifles, and many old Colts and Winchesters have been pressed back into service.

The .44-40 case is an odd one, not quite straight walled. It has a very subtle bottleneck shape with a short shoulder that has an angle of only 4 degrees. This case is known for its thin neck, so reloaders must take care not to damage it when seating and crimping bullets. The overall cartridge length is 1.529" and the maximum average pressure is only 13,000 cup. Like many cartridges from the black powder era, its nomenclature refers to a (nominally) .44 caliber bullet in front of a charge of 40 grains of black powder.

Like most .44's, the .44-40 is really a .42 caliber and was designed to be used with .427-.428" bullets. Note that the .44 Special and .44 Magnum are also .42's, but take .429" bullets. Some (but not all) .44-40's have rifling grooves that are cut deep enough to allow the use of .429" bullets, which today are much more common than .427" bullets. This is a point to remember if reloading for a .44-40 revolver or rifle.

At one time all of the major US ammunition companies offered a variety of .44-40 factory loads, most with bullets weighing between 180 and 217 grains. This included (but was not limited to) Peters, Remington, UMC, Western, and Winchester. The High Velocity rifle load was discontinued many years ago and the velocity of the standard rifle load seems to keep slipping. By the 1960's the MV of the 200 grain JSP bullet had been reduced to 1310 fps, and by the 1980's it was down to 1190 fps.

Remington and Winchester still offer .44-40 rifle loads using a 200 grain JSP bullet at a MV of 1190 fps with muzzle energy (ME) of 629 ft. lbs. At 100 yards the figures are 1006 fps and 449 ft. lbs. These figures were taken in a 24" test barrel. The trajectory of that load from an iron sighted rifle should be about as follows: +2" at 25 yards, +3" at 50 yards, +1.9" at 75 yards, -1.0" at 100 yards, and -6.5" at 125 yards. The maximum point blank range is 110 yards for a bullet path of +/- 3" from the line of sight.

This modern load puts the .44-40 somewhat below the .357 Magnum as a rifle cartridge, where 100 years ago the old High Velocity load made it approximately the equal of today's .44 Magnum rifles. At that time it was a solid performer on deer size game out to 100 yards, just as the .44 Magnum is today. But the present attenuated loads make the old .44-40 a marginal performer at any range.

.44-40 handgun loads are available from Black Hills, Magtech, PMC, Winchester, and perhaps others. The popular Winchester Cowboy Load drives a 225 grain lead bullet at a MV of 750 fps with ME of 281 ft. lbs. The mid-range trajectory of that load is 2.0" over 50 yards, or 8.3" over 100 yards. Clearly, this is not a hunting load!

Reloaders can do better than the attenuated factory loads for both rifles and pistols. The Hodgdon Data Manual #26 lists rifle loads with MV's ranging from 1140 fps using 6.5 grains of HP38 powder to 1552 fps using 18.0 grains of H4227 powder with the traditional 200 grain bullets. These loads were developed in a Winchester Model 92 with a 20" barrel.

The Speer Reloading Manual No. 13 lists revolver loads using 8.6 grains of Unique behind a 200 grain cast lead bullet at a MV of 951 fps. A lighter charge of 7.8 grains of the same powder yields a MV of 865 fps. 7.1 grains of Winchester 231 powder gives a MV of 892 fps, and 6.4 grains of 231 are good for 817 fps. All of these loads were developed in Remington cases and used CCI primers. They were tested in a Colt revolver with a 5.5" barrel.

A rifle reload at about 1550 fps or a revolver reload at 950 fps restores the .44-40's creditability as a short range deer cartridge or a viable self-defense cartridge. The .44-40's heyday as the number one deer rifle cartridge in North America and the number two pistol cartridge are gone forever, but perhaps there is some life left in the old case yet.

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