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. Winchester also chambered their later Model 92 lever action and Marlin offered their short action Model 1894 lever action in .38-40. 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.

The .38-40 uses a short, rimmed, bottleneck case and 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. These .38-40 specs are derived in a 24" test barrel! 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. But, the cartridge actually uses .401" bullets.

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.

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 good old boys at Speer recommend trimming all .38-40 brass to a uniform length and separating the seating and crimping operations to avoid crumpled case necks.

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 reloader to avoid. But, for the shooter who already has a .38-40 rifle or revolver and wants to shoot it, reloading data for cast lead bullets can be found in the Speer Number 13 Reloading Manual.

That data shows that a maximum load of 7.4 grains of Unique powder will drive a 180 grain cast lead bullet at a MV of 846 fps from a 4.5" revolver barrel or 1275 fps from a 24" rifle barrel. A minimum charge of 6.4 grains of Unique is good for a MV of 776 fps from a revolver or 1162 fps from a rifle. The Speer technicians used Winchester cases and CCI 300 primers when developing these loads.

Note: A full length article about the .38-40 Winchester can be found on the Rifle Cartridge Page.

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Copyright 2006, 2015 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.