Black Powder Centerfire Rifle Cartridges that Survived the Smokeless Powder Transition

By Chuck Hawks

Winchester Model 94 Sporter
Winchester Model 94 Sporter, a fine example of a modern rifle in .38-55 caliber. Illustration courtesy of Winchester Repeating Arms.

There are six survivors from the plethora of North American black powder cartridges that survived the transition to smokeless powder. Most black powder cartridges were quickly superseded by cartridges designed specifically for the new, higher pressure, progressive burning, smokeless powder. However, the most popular black powder numbers held on for many years. Of these, only six are still loaded in 2018 by at least one of the major US cartridge manufacturers (Federal, Hornady, Nosler, Remington and Winchester).

For those unfamiliar with traditional hyphenated black powder cartridge nomenclature, the first (decimal) number indicates the nominal caliber in inches (seldom exactly) and the second number indicates the charge of black powder in grains. For example, the .45-70 used a .458 caliber bullet in front of 70 grains of black powder.

.303 British

Many shooters do not realize that the famous .303 British cartridge, introduced in 1888, was originally designed for a compressed load of black powder. In 1892, the powder was switched to Cordite, an early British smokeless powder. The .303 went on to successfully serve the British Empire in two World Wars, the Korean War and innumerable smaller conflicts.

Unlike the rimless cartridges typically designed for use in bolt action magazine rifles, the .303 British uses a rimmed case. The British Lee-Enfield service rifle was designed with a fixed, slanted magazine that successfully prevents the rim of a cartridge below the top cartridge in the magazine from over riding the rim of the top cartridge and jamming the rifle.

The bore diameter is .303 and the bullet diameter is .311 inch. The early service load propelled a 215 grain Round Nose bullet at a muzzle velocity (MV) of about 2180 fps. Before the start of the First World War, a 174 grain spitzer bullet was substituted to upgrade the ballistics of the .303 and increase its lethal range, to keep it reasonably competitive with the French 8mm Lebel, American .30-06 Springfield and German 8x57mm Mauser service cartridges, among others.

Although, as far as I know, the .303 British is not offered in any modern bolt action hunting rifles, the vast number of Lee-Enfield rifles sold as surplus on the civilian market has kept the .303 reasonably popular in the US. It is still widely used in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the former British African colonies. In all of these diverse places it has a good reputation on Class 2 (deer and black bear size) and Class 3 (elk and moose size) game.

Factory loaded .303 ammunition is available from Federal, Hornady, Norma, PMC, Remington, Winchester and probably others. The most popular bullet weights are 150 grains, 174 grains and 180 grains. The highest velocity load of which I am currently aware (in 2018) is the Norma Soft Point offering, which uses a 150 grain bullet at a MV of 2723 fps. This should be a fine load for all Class 2 animals.

My first centerfire hunting rifle was a sporterized Lee-Enfield. I favored a 150 grain bullet for deer hunting and a 180 grain bullet for elk. These would still be appropriate bullet choices today.

.32-20 Winchester

The .32-20 was introduced in 1882 for use in the Winchester Model 1873 lever action rifle. Like the .38-40 and .44-40, it became popular and found its way into a variety of rifles of single shot, pump and lever action persuasion. The .32-20 was quickly adapted to revolvers, in particular the Colt Peacemaker, where it served nicely in the field and for personal defense.

Black powder and standard velocity .32-20 smokeless loads typically launched a 100 grain, .312 inch diameter bullet at a MV of 1290 fps from rifle barrels. In a revolver the MV was probably 1000-1100 fps, which is fast enough for accurate shooting at 100 yards and makes the .32-20 a viable jack rabbit and small predator cartridge for the handgun hunter.

Later, after the introduction of the much stronger Winchester Model 1892 rifle, High Velocity .32-20 loads bumped the MV of an 80 grain JHP bullet to 2100 fps. These hotter loads were discontinued after ignorant consumers persisted in trying to shoot them in Model '73 rifles and black powder vintage Colt revolvers, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Current Winchester factory loads claim a rifle MV of only 1210 fps with a 100 grain lead bullet.

Although the .32-20 has been used to harvest deer at short range, it really is not an adequate deer cartridge. However, it is a good varmint cartridge and the mild recoil makes it pleasant to shoot in either a rifle or a Colt Peacemaker revolver.

For years I wanted a Colt revolver in .32-20, but I was never able to find one I could afford. It wasn't until, much later, when Ruger chambered the .327 Federal Magnum in their Blackhawk and Single Seven revolvers that the ballistics of the .32-20 as a revolver cartridge was surpassed.

As with the .38-40 and the .44-40, the sport of cowboy action shooting has somewhat revived the .32-20. Marlin, for example, has chambered their modern Model 1894 rifle in .32-20.

.38-40 Winchester

This old timer was introduced in 1874. It was offered in both revolvers and various sorts of rifles, including single shot, pump and lever action models. It was based on a .44-40 case necked-down to accept .401 caliber bullets. This makes the cartridge an anomaly, as most ".38 caliber" cartridges actually use .35-.36 caliber bullets, while the .38-40 uses a bigger bullet than its name indicates.

It remained a reasonably popular cartridge well into the 20th Century. Rifles in the caliber were not discontinued until 1937 and factory loaded ammunition is still available from Winchester. I believe some modern reproduction firearms have also been produced in .38-40.

As currently loaded by Winchester, the .38-40 launches a 180 grain Soft Point bullet at a MV of 1160 fps. This is equivalent to the old revolver load, although at one time Winchester offered a high velocity .38-40 load specifically for use in rifles only. This used a 180 grain bullet at a MV of 1775 fps from a rifle barrel and made the .38-40 a successful short range deer cartridge.

Today, the .38-40 hangs on by its fingernails, primarily due to the sport of cowboy action shooting, where light loads of historical cartridges are the norm. Otherwise, it is hard to see where it fits into the modern shooting scene, as more modern cartridges in the .35-.41 caliber range are more readily available and offer better performance in both handguns and rifles.

.38-55 Winchester

Developed in 1884 as a black powder match cartridge for the Ballard single shot rifle, the .38-55 made the transition to a hunting cartridge. It is a medium bore number that combines good knock-down power with mild recoil and excellent accuracy.

The black powder .38-55 load used a .379-.380 caliber lead bullet in front of 55 grains of black powder. Modern smokeless powder loads use .375-.377 caliber jacketed bullets. It is my understanding that modern Winchester Model 94s use a .377 inch groove diameter. We have reviewed the latest Winchester Model 94 Sporter Rifle in .38-55 and it handles both standard velocity Winchester and Buffalo Bore Heavy factory loads with aplomb.

The .38-55 not only successfully made the transition to smokeless powder, necked-down its case served as the basis for Winchester's initial line of smokeless powder cartridges, the .25-35, .30-30 and .32 Winchester Special. Along with the .38-55, these were the initial chamberings for the Model 94 lever action rifle, which went on to become the best selling sporting rifle in history.

Before the start of the Second World War the .38-55 was offered in a variety of single shot, pump and lever action rifles. The latter included the Winchester 94, Marlin 93 and Savage 99, all of which are among the most popular sporting rifles of all time.

After the war the .38-55 was no longer offered in the Model 94 and its use rapidly declined. In 1978 Winchester introduced a Big Bore version of the Model 94 chambered for a new .375 Winchester cartridge. This was based on an internally strengthened .38-55 case shortened by 1/10 inch and loaded with .375 inch bullets at much higher pressure than standard .38-55 loads. Although they will function properly, .375 Winchester cartridges should never be fired in .38-55 rifles. Conversely, Buffalo Bore Heavy .38-55 loads may be safely fired in all .375 Winchester rifles.

The current Winchester standard velocity factory load launches a 255 grain Power Point bullet at an advertised MV of 1320 fps. This is basically a soft shooting, 100 yard deer and Class 2 game cartridge. It is designed to be safe to shoot in vintage .38-55 rifles in good condition.

The Buffalo Bore Heavy .38-55 load is an entirely different proposition. It uses a 255 grain bonded core Soft point bullet at a MV of 1950 fps and delivers 2153 ft. lbs. of muzzle energy. This is a Class 3 game load, excellent for Roosevelt elk, moose and similar size creatures. Buffalo Bore Heavy loads should be used ONLY in modern rifles. These include the current manufacture Winchester (Miroku) Model 94s and Winchester 94 Legendary Frontiersmen, Oliver Winchester and Chief Crazy Horse commemorative rifles.

In 2011, after a short hiatus, regular production Winchester Model 94 Angle Eject rifles again became available. These modern Model 94s, perhaps the best ever made, are offered in .25-35, .30-30 and .38-55. It is great to see the .38-55 again available in modern hunting rifles.

.44-40 Winchester

When the Winchester Model 1873 lever action rifle, an improved version of the Model 1866 "Golden Boy" was introduced, the most important change was the switch from the .44 Henry Flat rimfire cartridge to the much stronger and more powerful .44-40 centerfire cartridge. Incidentally, like most ".44 caliber" cartridges, the .44-40 does not actually use .44 inch diameter bullets. The correct bullet diameter is .427 inch.

The Model '73 went on to become known as "the gun that won the west" and the .44-40 went on to become the most popular cartridge of its generation, offered in revolvers as well as rifles of all sorts. It was, for example, the second most popular chambering in the famous Colt Peacemaker, giving frontiersmen and pioneers a cartridge they could use in both their rifles and revolvers.

For decades the .44-40 was the number one deer cartridge in North America. It has been estimated that only the .30-30 has been used to take more deer than the .44-40.

After the introduction of the John Browning designed Winchester Model 1892, which used a stronger action than the Model 1873, Winchester marketed a high velocity .44-40 rifle load. This raised the MV of a 200 grain Soft Point bullet from 1310 fps to around 1800 fps. Reloaders with strong, modern rifles can duplicate this high velocity load. The current Winchester factory load claims a MV of only 1190 fps with a 200 grain Soft Point bullet.

Firearms in .44-40 were discontinued around the start of the Second World War. However, the sport of cowboy action shooting breathed new life into the caliber and today a number of reproduction rifles and revolvers are again available in .44-40. We reviewed a Uberti 1873 Short Sporting Rifle and found it to be a very nice rifle.

Included among modern .44-40 rifles is the Henry Repeating Arms Original Henry Rifle. This is an absolutely beautiful and very high quality recreation of its namesake that differs only in being chambered in .44-40, instead of the no longer available .44 Henry Flat cartridge.

.45-70 Government

The final survivor of the black powder era is probably the best known of all US black powder cartridges, the .45-70 Government. It was the standard US Army rifle cartridge from its adoption in the single shot 1873 Trapdoor Springfield until the switch to the smokeless powder .30-40 Krag bolt action repeater in 1892. It was used by both sides in the Indian Wars on the Great Plains and in the far west. Custer's 7th Calvary, for example, was armed with .47-70 carbines.

The .45-70 remained a substitute standard for several years thereafter with reserve and volunteer organizations. Thousands were used in the Spanish-American War (1898) and during the Philippine-American War (1899-1902).

As with most US military cartridges, the .45-70 became very popular with civilian hunters after it was adopted by the military. (This trend continues today with the .223 Remington and .308 Winchester being our most popular sporting cartridges.) It was primarily .45-70 Trapdoor Springfield, Remington Rolling Block and Sharps rifles that were used to nearly exterminate the bison in the USA.

Of course, practically every rifle that could handle the cartridge was chambered for it in its heyday, including the famed Winchester Model 1885 single shot, Model 1886 lever action and even double barreled rifles. All North American big game animals have been taken with the .45-70 and it is still used today for hunting Class 2, Class 3 and Class 4 game.

The black powder .45-70 was introduced with a 405 grain lead bullet in front of a full 70 grains of black powder. This was the .45-70-405 load. Later, a reduced 55 grain powder charge behind a 405 grain bullet was adopted to reduce recoil in lightweight carbines and a full power load with a 500 grain bullet was developed for use in long range rifles. The .45-70 is a true .45 caliber cartridge, as the bullet diameter is .458 inch.

Modern smokeless powder loads are loaded with 300 grain JHP bullets for Class 2 and occasionally Class 3 animals. These are most common factory loads. 325, 350 and 400-405 grain jacketed bullets are for all-around use and the largest North American game.

North American hunters have taken their powerful .45-70 falling block rifles, such as the Ruger No. 1S and Browning/Winchester Model 1885, to Africa and used them on elephant, Cape buffalo and hippopotamus, usually with 400-500 grain soft point, solid or homogenous bullets.

Reloaders can have a field day with the .45-70 and most reloading manuals have three sections devoted to the cartridge. The lowest maximum average pressure (MAP) loads are for use in all .45-70 rifles, including reproductions of the Trapdoor Springfield. These are generally loaded to a MAP of about 21,000 CUP, the same as maximum black powder loads, although the SAAMI MAP specification allows pressure up to 28,000 CUP. Typical factory loads and reloads launch a 300 grain JHP bullet at about 1810 fps, or a 405 grain Soft Point at 1330 fps (Remington figures).

The next power level is intended for use in modern lever action rifles, such as the Marlin Model 1895 and Winchester/Miroku Model 1886. Such loads permit pressures up to 40,000 CUP, which can drive a 325 grain FTX bullet at a MV of 2150 fps, or a 350 grain JSP bullet at 1900 fps (Hornady figures).

Incidentally, the factory loaded equivalent of these modern lever action .45-70 reloads is the .450 Marlin cartridge, based on a belted version of the .45-70 case to prevent its use in low pressure .45-70 rifles. Hornady makes .450 Marlin ammo, which drives a 325 grain FTX bullet at a MV of 2225 fps. The modern Marlin 1885 and Browning BLR lever action rifles are chambered for this cartridge.

The highest pressure .45-70 loads are for use only in very strong, modern rifles, such as the Ruger No. 1 and Browning/Winchester Models '78 and '85 falling block rifles. These heavy loads reach MAPs of 50,000 CUP and can start a 350 grain JSP bullet at 2200 fps, or a 500 grain JSP or solid bullet at 1800 fps (Hornady figures).


The .38-40 and .32-20 have been barely holding on for years. The .38-40 has long been superseded in both rifles and revolvers by the more powerful .357 Magnum and the fine little .32-20 may be pushed into final obsolescence by the recently introduced and more powerful .327 Magnum. Remington and Winchester still offer .32-20 factory loads, while only Winchester still loads the .38-40. Their outlook for the future is not bright.

The .44-40 and .38-55 are enjoying a resurgence in popularity. The .44-40 is primarily used for plinking and cowboy action shooting in new reproduction firearms from Henry, Uberti, Winchester and others. Winchester and Remington offer .44-40 loaded ammo.

The .38-55 is primarily a hunting cartridge and it is available in the modern Winchester Model 94 angle-eject rifles. Winchester, Black Hills and Buffalo Bore offer .38-55 factory loads. The .38-55 is notable as an effective, light recoil, woods cartridge with standard pressure loads and a powerful medium bore suitable for all North American game (including the great bears) with Buffalo Bore Heavy loads. Incidentally, the Heavy .38-55 load kicks considerably less than high power .45-70 loads intended for use in modern lever action rifles.

The .303 British and .45-70 remain popular cartridges. Federal, Hornady, Norma, PMC, Remington and Winchester are listed as offering .303 factory loads in the latest (108th Edition) of the Shooter's Bible. Black Hills, Buffalo Bore, Federal, Hornady, PMC, Remington and Winchester offer .45-70 factory loads. While new .303 production rifles are not available, several manufacturers offer new .45-70s, including Henry, Marlin, Uberti, Winchester and others.

One thing is certain: all of these surviving black powder cartridges, when loaded with smokeless powder, are fun to shoot in either period or modern rifles!

Back to Rifle Information

Copyright 2018 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.