The .38-55 Winchester

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-.379") and the 55 grains of black powder with which it was charged. The .38-55 survived the transition to smokeless powder and was the first cartridge offered in the famous Model 1894 Winchester. Its case, necked-down, is the parent case for the .30-30, .25-35 and .32 Special. Later, Winchester strengthened this versatile case and used it for their .375 Winchester cartridge.

Today the .38-55 would be considered a 100 yard deer cartridge. However, in its prime it was used not only for deer, but also caribou, black bear and elk with full power loads.

Winchester, alone of the Big Four 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 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 or IMR 4227.

Note: A complete article about the .38-55 Winchester can be found on the Rifle Cartridge Page.

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Copyright 2004 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.