.38-55 Winchester, the Gentle Medium Bore

By Chuck Hawks

Winchester Model 94 Sporter
New Model 94 Sporter rifle in .38-55. Illustration courtesy of Winchester Repeating Arms.

Medium bore cartridges (.33-.39 caliber) have not been particularly popular with North American hunters, primarily because they kick harder than most small bore cartridges (.32/8mm and smaller) and few North American big game species actually require a medium bore rifle. It has been drilled into the American psyche that a .30-06 or 7mm Magnum, with appropriate loads, will take any North American big game animal, which is generally true.

However, that doesn't make small bore cartridges ideal for every situation. When hunting big game in thick brush and deep woods, or for relatively short range protection against large predators, a medium bore rifle is usually a superior choice.

Their bigger bullets at lower velocity, particularly when round nose or flat point designs, are less susceptible to deflection by twigs and brush, and punching a bigger hole in a big animal is always a good idea. Of course, adequate penetration is required to reach the vitals when hunting big game animals, so bullet construction and sectional density (SD) are important considerations when selecting hunting loads for any cartridge.

Bullet diameter and weight do not guarantee adequate penetration without adequate SD and construction. This explains why the .444 Marlin factory load with a 240 grain bullet (SD .185) has a poor reputation on Class 3 game. (If you have a .444 rifle, use 265 to 300 grain bullets to improve performance.)

Big bullets are confidence inspiring, but the problem with the vast majority of medium bore cartridges is they kick too hard for most hunters, especially once a year big game hunters. If a medium bore bullet with a SD around .250 or more is driven to what today we would call medium velocity (over about 2200 fps) the inevitable result is uncomfortable or unacceptable recoil.

Shooters have differing levels of experience and recoil tolerance, but to generalize, recoil energy above about 15 ft. lbs. can be called "uncomfortable" and should be taken only in small doses. Recoil energy above 20 ft. lbs. can be called "unacceptable." Unacceptable, because the shooter often becomes leery about shooting the rifle and develops an accuracy destroying flinch.

Very few medium bore rifle cartridges shooting standard factory loads kick less than 15 ft. lbs. Perusing the Expanded Rifle Recoil Table, among the medium bore cartridges currently available in factory made rifles, only the .35 Remington and .38-55 Winchester kick less than 15 ft. lbs. when fired in rifles weighing eight pounds or less. Even when shooting potent Buffalo Bore Heavy factory loads, which are loaded hotter than the maximum loads listed in most reloading manuals, these two cartridges kick less than 20 ft. lbs. in 7.5 pound rifles.

The Buffalo Bore Heavy loads (a 220 grain bullet in .35 Rem. and a 255 grain bullet in .38-55) generate almost identical recoil in these two cartridges. However, using standard velocity factory loads, such as Winchester Super-X and Remington Express, the .38-55/255 grain load kicks noticeably less than the .35 Remington/200 grain load.

A 255 grain .38-55 bullet (.377 inch diameter) also has a significant advantage in both bullet cross-sectional area and sectional density, compared to 200 grain and 220 grain .35 Remington bullets (.358 inch diameter). Here are the numbers:

Cross-sectional area

  • .35 Rem. (.358 in.) = 0.1007 sq. in.
  • .38-55 (.377 in.) = 0.1160 sq. in.

Sectional density

  • .35 Rem./200 grain = .223
  • .35 Rem./220 grain = .245
  • .38-55/255 grain = .256

Recoil energy and velocity, standard factory loads in 7.5 pound rifles

  • .35 Rem, 200 gr. at 2020 fps MV = 13.2 ft. lb.; 10.6 fps
  • .38-55, 255 gr. at 1320 fps MV = 7.8 ft. lb.; 8.2 fps

Recoil energy and velocity, Buffalo Bore Heavy loads in 7.5 pound rifles

  • .35 Rem, 220 gr. at 2200 fps MV = 17.5 ft. lb.; 12.3 fps
  • .38-55, 255 gr. at 1950 fps MV = 17.4 ft. lb.; 12.2 fps

At one time the .38-55 was available in a variety of single shot and lever action rifles and it is still offered in a few single shots from small manufacturers. However, today the most available (new) .38-55 production rifle is probably the Winchester Model 94 Angle-Eject lever action, which is currently available in Sporter (24 inch barrel), Carbine (20 inch barrel) and Short Rifle (20 inch barrel) models.

In addition, the commemorative Winchester Model 94 Legendary Frontiersman, Oliver Winchester and Chief Crazy Horse limited edition rifles were chambered for the .38-55. These modern rifles are often available on the used market. Although normally thought of as collectors' models, they are highly accurate and often surprisingly inexpensive, particularly if sold without the original box. Another (discontinued) modern .38-55 rifle sometimes seen on the used market is the Marlin Model 336 Cowboy.

Over 120 years of experience in the field has proven the traditional .38-55 load (255 grains at 1320 fps) is effective on Class 2 game (deer, black bear and similar size animals) within its maximum point blank range (+/- 3 inches) of about 135 yards. According to Tim Sundles of Buffalo Bore Ammunition:

"Part of the great utility of the .38-55 is that with our full power loads they are capable of taking any North American game, including grizzly and large AK / Yukon bull moose, but they generate only about 50% of the felt recoil of our full power .45-70 loads . . . just sayin."

A few years ago Guns and Shooting Online Gunsmithing Editor Rocky Hays and I had an opportunity to shoot three classic Winchester Model 1894 rifles, all made in 1907, at a rifle range. The calibers were .30-30, .32 Win. Special and .38-55, all with standard velocity loads. We were both surprised to find the .38-55 was definitely the softest shooting of the three calibers. This began my love affair with the .38-55 and it is why I refer to it as the "gentle medium bore."

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Copyright 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.