Proposed: The .38-55 in Henry H009 Series Lever Action Rifles
By Chuck Hawks
Having recently suggested to Henry Repeating Arms (www.henryusa.com) that they add the classic .38-55 Winchester cartridge to their H015 Single Shot Rifle offerings, the obvious next question becomes, "Why not also add the .38-55 to the Henry H009 (.30-30) lever action series?" At present available only in caliber .30-30 the modern design, but classic looking, Henry H009 (steel frame) and Henry H009B (brass frame) lever action rifles are obviously more than sufficiently strong for the entire line of cartridges Winchester offered in their vastly successful Model 1894 lever action. These include not only the .30-30, but also the .25-35, .32 Winchester Special and the subject of this article, the .38-55.
Many shooters today do not realize that all of these cartridges are actually based on the .38-55 case. The .38-55 was introduced in 1884, near the end of the black powder era, as a match cartridge for the Ballard single shot target rifle. An extremely accurate cartridge, it was quickly adopted by hunters and became one of the most popular and successful sporting cartridges of the era.
Less than 10 years later, when Winchester went looking for a suitable case on which to base their new line of smokeless powder cartridges for their revolutionary Model 1894 rifle, they chose the .38-55 and the rest is history. The .38-55 was adapted to smokeless powder and became a mainstay in the Model '94.
It remained the only medium bore cartridge offered in the Model 94 until 1978, when the .375 Winchester (based on a slightly modified .38-55 case) was introduced in the short lived Model 94 Big Bore. (It is not generally realized that all Model 94 Big Bore .375 rifles can also shoot .38-55 cartridges). In 2011, when Winchester reintroduced the briefly discontinued Model 94, the .38-55 again became one of the cartridges offered.
The Modern .38-55 Cartridge
Between Winchester's new Miroku made Model 94 and the interest in classic cartridges stimulated by the sport of cowboy action shooting and renewed Schuetzen matches, the .38-55 is back and better than ever. Its only real competition is the .35 Remington, long available in the Marlin Model 336 lever action. However, the rimmed .38-55 case allows more positive extraction than the rimless .35 Rem. and the .38-55 handles larger diameter, heavier bullets of superior sectional density (SD). With standard velocity factory loads it kicks much less than the .35 Rem. and with Buffalo Bore Heavy factory loads it offers superior killing power at similar recoil levels.
Today there are considerable load options for a modern .38-55 rifle in three general power levels. The mildest is the Winchester Super-X factory load and equivalent reloads. The Super-X factory load uses a 255 grain Power 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 the Super-X load is 1190 fps with 802 ft. lbs. of energy. The trajectory figures, for a sight height of 1.5", show that with a 100 yard zero the bullet rises 2.3" above the line of sight at 50 yards and drops 8.4" below the line of sight at 150 yards.
This essentially duplicates the old black powder load in both pressure and velocity, although with a modern jacketed soft point bullet. It is actually loaded well below the SAAMI authorized maximum average pressure (MAP) for the .38-55 of 30,000 CUP. It should be safe to use in all .38-55 rifles in good condition. The recoil energy in a 7.5 pound rifle, per the Expanded Rifle Recoil Table, amounts to only 7.8 ft. lbs., which is noticeably less than a .243 Winchester.
The catalog ballistics of this load are not impressive. However, its 100 yard G&S Online Killing Power Score (KPS) is 22.7, almost identical to the standard .30-30 150 grain/2390 fps load (KPS 22.8). This makes it a useful deer and black bear cartridge at typical woods ranges.
A worthwhile increase in killing power is available to reloaders, who can duplicate or exceed the old "high velocity" (1500-1700 fps) .38-55 factory loads designed for use in rifles, such as the Model 94, designed for smokeless powder cartridges. Such loads do not exceed the SAAMI 30,000 CUP MAP.
Hawk Inc., Sierra and Barnes offer jacketed soft point hunting bullets weighing from 200 to 280 grains and the Missouri Bullet Company has a "Hardness Optimized" (Brinell 18) 245 grain coated lead bullet for the .38-55 (#1 Ballard). According to the Hodgdon 2017 Reloading Manual a maximum load of 33.0 grains of H322 powder behind the 255 grain Barnes Original bullet achieves a MV of 1830 fps at a MAP of 28,200 CUP.
This is a serious Class 2 and Class 3 big game hunting load. The remaining energy at 100 yards is 1432 ft. lbs. and the 100 yard KPS is 42.5. The maximum point blank range (MPBR +/- 3 inches) of this 255 grain/1830 fps .38-55 load is 177 yards when zeroed to hit 2.86 inches above the point of aim at 100 yards. The recoil in a 7.5 pound rifle is 15.1 ft. lbs. right at the level most shooters can handle over the long haul.
Even more powerful than maximum reloads is the Buffalo Bore Heavy .38-55 +P factory load. It uses a 255 grain JFN bonded core bullet at a MV of 1950 fps and muzzle energy of 2153 ft. lbs. This cartridge is loaded to a MAP of 38,000 CUP, the same as the .30-30, and thus exceeds the SAAMI specified 30,000 CUP for the .38-55. This powerful .38-55 +P load is suitable for use ONLY in strong, modern rifles capable of safely handling .30-30 pressure and back-thrust, such as the Henry H009, Winchester Model 94 Angle-Eject, Wincheter post '64 commemoratives and Marlin 336.
The Buffalo Bore .38-55 Heavy load achieves a 100 yard G&S Online KPS of 61.5 and its MPBR (+/- 3") is 188 yards. It is suitable for hunting all Class 2 and Class 3 game. Naturally, the +P pressure Buffalo Bore Heavy load kicks harder than other .38-55 loads. However, its recoil is considerably less than that of most other powerful medium bore cartridges. The Buffalo Bore Heavy factory load recoils at 17.4 ft. lbs. in a 7.5 pound rifle, or 15.3 ft. lbs. in an 8.5 pound rifle.
The Henry H009/H009B rifles
There are live links to the Guns and Shooting Online reviews of the steel frame H009 and brass frame H009B .30-30 rifles in the first paragraph of this article. (The H009 review is on the Main Site, while the H009B review is on the Member Side.) A picture of both rifles is at the top of this page. The design, operation and actions are identical. The differences are in the receiver material (steel or Henry's tempered brass alloy), barrel (round or octagon), stock variations and furniture. Neither model incorporates any plastic, or even aluminum alloy, parts.
Henry describes their H009 series .30-30 rifles thusly:
"Like every Henry rifle, it is 100% American made. With its select American walnut stock and forearm, it is a masterpiece of finely crafted gunsmithing. The Henry H009 has a steel receiver and a 20" round blued steel barrel. The H009B has a visually impressive 20" octagon barrel and a handsome brass receiver and brass barrel band. Both rifles are drilled and tapped for easy scope mounting. The magazine holds five rounds that chamber quickly and smoothly thanks to our crisp, perfectly machined action."
Briefly, these are traditional style lever action rifles of modern, side ejection design. I particularly appreciate the transfer bar in the hammer face that eliminates the requirement for an unsightly manual safety. I also like the tubular magazine that loads like a .22 rimfire, which I regard as superior for a hunting rifle, rather than via a loading gate in the side of the receiver. This makes unloading before entering a vehicle or at the end of the day easy, without having to run the cartridges in the magazine through the action. These are worthwhile safety and convenience features not available on Winchester and Marlin lever actions, or clones there-of.
With their 20" barrels, short overall length (39"), straight hand stocks and smooth receivers without a bolt handle sticking out the side, these fast handling Henry lever action are ideal for the kind of hunting where a big game animal may appear unexpectedly. This is particularly true if the animal is a large predator (cougar, black bear, etc.) at short range, or screened by brush.
In such situations a strong .38-55 rifle stoked with full power loads can be confidence inspiring. A fast repeat shot might not hurt, either.
The basic steel frame H009 is about a pound lighter than the brass frame H009B. This matters after a scope, mount and sling are installed and the magazine loaded, if the rifle is to be carried in the field all day. If you are hunting from a vehicle, or a prepared blind, the extra pound or so the H009B weighs is probably less important and it is strikingly beautiful.
Both rifles are supplied with adjustable iron sights. However, these are serious, accurate hunting rifles that deserve a good riflescope. For woods and brush country hunting I prefer a variable in the 1-4x or 2-7x range, or a 2.5x fixed power scope. This is all the magnification you need for shots to at least 250 yards, which is beyond the maximum point blank range (+/- 3") of the .38-55 or the .30-30.
I hope I have adequately made the case in this article for a Henry H009 rifle in .38-55, at least from the hunter/user's standpoint. The Henry H009 series are great lever action rifles designed for .30-30 size cartridges. The .38-55 is a fine medium bore woods cartridge, effective and versatile without generating punishing recoil. It is a match made in Heaven, or at least Made in the USA.
I realize that, from a marketing standpoint, adopting cartridges not on the Top 20 sales lists is a commercial risk. However, since its founding the modern Henry Repeating Arms Company has not shied away from taking risks on niche market products. In fact, to a considerable extent, Henry's success is based on offering what other arms companies considered niche products. (At least until Henry returned them to the mainstream.) Perhaps, therefore, there is hope that (arguably) the best .30-30 lever action on the market will in the future appear in other calibers, including .38-55.
Copyright 2018 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.