THE .44-40 WINCHESTER (.44WCF)
"Winchester '73, The Gun That Won The West" had as its most serious chambering, the .44 Winchester Center Fire. Introduced in the same year as the .45 Colt, the .44-40 looks much like a .45 that has been necked down to .44 giving a slightly bottlenecked cartridge for ease of feeding in the lever action Winchester.
Something was just not quite right for the two gun man who had to buy two different cartridges for his sixgun and carbine, and since the .44-40 and .45 Colt were both loaded with 40 grains of blackpowder over 200 and 255 grain bullets respectively, and since the .44-40 brass was only .020" longer than .45 Colt, it made a lot of sense to chamber the Model P sixgun for the .44-40 and this was done in 1878. Although the .45 was never officially labeled the Peacemaker, the .44-40 Colt sixguns were barrel marked "COLT FRONTIER SIXSHOOTER".
In popularity, the .44-40 was second only to the .45 Colt in chamberings of the Colt Single Action followed by the .38-40 (.38WCF) and .32-20 (.32WCF), both of which were also chambered in the Model '73 Winchester. All three WCF cartridges were chambered in the beautiful little Model '92 Winchester carbine, but were totally eclipsed with the coming of smokeless powder and the ultra-modern .30-30 in 1894.
Colt made something over 150,000 .44-40 Frontier Sixshooters, and in 1888 introduced their Flat Top Target Model. These were simply Single Action Armys with the top of the frame flattened and the installation of a rear sight moveable for windage, as furnished on the original Ruger Single-Sixes in 1953. Elevation was accomplished by a movable blade in the front sight held in place by a screw. Very crude by today's standards, but a start towards modern target sighted revolvers. Less than 1000 Flat Top Target Models were made with only 21 being in .44WCF.
Colt also chambered the big New Service double action revolver in .44-40, and Smith made a few Frontier Models in both single action and double action in .44-40 and a few Triple-Locks also saw chambering in .44WCF. By 1941, the Colt Single Action was removed from production and the .44-40 was dead and buried and looked like it would stay that way.
When Colt resumed production of the Colt Single Action in 1955, followed by the modernized version of the Flat Top Target, the New Frontier, in 1962, the calibers were .45 Colt, .357 Magnum, .38 Special, and .44 Special. None were produced in .44-40. The Colt died again in 1974, only to be resurrected in 1978. This time before it was removed from production for the third time, it was once again chambered in .44-40 in both Single Action and New Frontier versions with a few Sheriff's Models being made with both .44-40 and .44 Special cylinders.
The Seville was also produced in very small quantities in .44-40 with a few dual cylinder .44 Magnum/.44-40 revolvers being made. All sixguns chambered for the .44-40 now are being brought in from Italy by such companies as EMF and Cimarron. I have had experience with four .44-40 Italian made sixguns, a three-inch Sheriff's Model, a five and one-half inch Dakota, a seven and one-half inch Bisley replica, and a seven and one-half inch Remington copy. All four shot extremely well with the Bisley capable of one hole groups at 25 yards and the Remington capable of one-inch groups at the same distance.
A number of years ago I read a test report on the Remington copy in .44-40 in which the author got three to four inch groups at 25 yards with factory ammo in the 1875 Remington copy. I expected the same when I received my nickle-plated .44-40, but I slugged the bore first and found it to be .431". Since factory jacketed bullets run .426" in the .44-40, it is easy to see why the accuracy was so poor. By using cast bullets of .431-432", the Remington rewarded me with one-inch groups.
Many years ago, I purchased a "patina" Bisley through Shotgun News for $160. It proved to be in good condition, but the bore slugged .432" and the cylinders would not accept bullets larger than .428". The old barrel came off, was replaced by a seven and one-half inch .44 Special barrel of .426" groove diameter and that old Bisley has given groups of one-half inch using 9.0 grains of Unique and the Lyman #42798 .44-40 flat-point bullet.
These two experiences spotlight one of the problems in loading for the .44-40. There seems to be no real standard for barrel groove diameter, with specimens running from .426" all the way up to .432". Sixguns in .44-40 chambering must be measured as to groove diameter and treated accordingly.
That is certainly not the only problem in loading for the .44-40. Since it is a bottle-necked cartridge, carbide dies, so prevalent and so taken for granted for straight-walled pistol cartridges, are out and the extra steps of lubing and then wiping the cases free of lubricant must be added to reloading the .44-40. A small nuisance to be sure, but a nuisance none the less.
The worst problem with the .44-40 is necks that are paper thin. I lose a few cases everytime I reload, always for the same reason, I ruin the case necks either by starting a bullet crooked or getting a case off center and hitting the mouth on the bottom of a die. With other pistol cartridges, one can usually stop quickly enough to keep from ruining the case. With the .44-40, the slightest mistake and the case is gone.
And I emphasize mistake; by working slowly and carefully, cases will not be ruined. I'm just not that patient and I have to pay the price of a few lost cases each time the .44-40 brass is reloaded. This week's run of 164 cases is now down to 162, one case lost as the mouth hit the bottom of the decapping die, the other crumpled by a bullet as the neck was not expanded quite enough. I started with 200 cases in 1981. If .44-40 brass was no longer available., I would certainly be more careful.
Like the .45 Colt, the .44-40 has also been saddled with the "weak brass" syndrome, and like the .45 Colt, the problem is not brass but the sixguns that these cartridges have been chambered for dating back more than 100 years. A long time standard load for the .44-40 with the Lyman #42798 bullet has been 18.5 grains of #2400. This load has been published in numerous books and magazines. This load proved to be too hot in my New Frontier and I have settled on 17.5 grains of #2400 as a maximum load with the Hercules powder.
Older relaoding manuals have seperate sections for reloading the .44-40 for the Model 92 Winchester and they list loads that use nine grains more #2400 than my maximum sixgun load and eight grains more than my maximum H4227 load. So much for the weakness of .44-40 brass, BUT such rifle type loads would be like hand grenades in sixguns. When using reloading manuals, especially some of the older ones, please make sure the .44-40 section is for sixguns.
The original loading of 40 grains of blackpowder cannot be duplicated in modern solid head .44-40 brass. The most I can get into a case and seat the #42798 bullet properly is 35.0 grains of FFFg which gives slightly over 900 fps. The same volume of Pyrodex P raises the miuzzle velocity to 1000 fps and both loads will group in two inches at 25 yards.
My favorite powders for the .44-40 are Unique and H4227. Unique and Lyman's #42798 bullet just seem made for each other and in tests with three different .44-40 sixguns, all with seven and one-half inch barrels,the following results, five shots at 25 yards, were obtained. The Remington is a replica from Uberti, the Bisley is a 1912 manufactured Colt with a new .44 Special barrel, the New Frontier is a .44 Special with an extra .44-40 cylinder.
LOAD 9.0 GR. UNIQUE
GROUP 1 1/4"
LOAD 9.0 GR. UNIQUE
LOAD 9.0 GR. UNIQUE
This is outstanding accuracy by anyone's standards for any caliber and certainly for any revolver, be it of modern manufacture, replica, or seventy-five plus years old. No one can fault the .44-40 when it comes to accuracy.
Switching to H4227, which seems to deliver accuracy nearly equal to Unique, I prefer 20.0 grains for slightly over 1100 fps. Hodgdon's H4227 has been the answer for a number of large capacity cases such as the .44-40 and .45 Colt, and 19.0-20.0 grains of H4227, like 9.0-10.0 grains of Unique, performs exceptionally well in the these two old big bore veterans. In some sixguns of these two calibers, H4227 has been the only powder that would give good accuracy.
Winchester's WW231 is another favorite with the .44-40 and 8.0 grains of this fast burning powder gives slightly over 1000 fps with the #42798 Lyman bullet and shoots into less than one-inch with the standard five shots at 25 yards.
Two "heavyweight" bullets that I use in the .44-40, are Hornady's swaged 240 grain hollow point semi-wadcutter and Bull-X's 240 grain bevel base semi-wadcutter. Surprizingly, the soft Hornady hollow point does not lead my New Frontier barrel even when driven over 1000 fps. For serious defensive work, either of these bullets at 900-1000 fps would be my choice, although the chance of ever employing the .44-40 for this would be extremely remote.
The appeal of the .44-40 is nostalgic, not practical. However, it is a favorite cartridge of two sixgunners, and fellow gunwriters, that I respect immensely, namely Hal Swiggett and Mike Venturino. When they say the .44-40 is a good cartridge, we best listen.
Anything that can be accomplished by the .44-40 can be topped by the .44 Special . However it is one of those cartridges that hold a certain fascination and if power were the only criteria in a sixgun, only magnums would be sold. Such is not the case however.
Although not thought of as a target load, my tests over the past ten years have shown the .44-40 to be capable of target accuracy even in unrefined single action sixguns. And although more deer, and larger game, than anyone could count have fallen to it, it is certainly not a good choice for hunting. However, it is an excellent small game and varmint load and I have taken many a big Idaho jack with mine. It is one of those relaxing cartridges that I find myself appreciating more and more for plinking, woods loafing, and just plain enjoyment. When the wrist has taken all the punishment it can stand from full house .44 Magnum and .454 loads, out comes the enjoyable big bore, the .44-40.
A few years back, I decided to make a thoroughly modern .44-40 by converting an Abilene to a .44 Magnum/.44-40 dual cylindered sixgun. Obtaining an extra .44 Magnum cylinder, I had it rechambered to .44-40 and J.D. Jones also sent along a .44 Magnum T/C barrel that had been rechambered to .44-40. I safely attained 1350 fps in the seven and one-half inch Abilene, and 1750 fps in the ten-inch T/C, both using a hard cast 200 grain bullet. No problems were encountered with the brass as such, but a problem did surface.
If I had done my homework first, I would have consulted a chart of case dimensions and found that the .44 Magnum measures .455" outside neck diameter, and the .44-40, with its paper thin neck and designed for .426" bullets, goes only .443". That means that any .44 Magnum that is rechambered to .44-40 is already at least .012" oversize at the neck portion of the cylinder. The constant expansion when fired, and then resizing back down, results in a high rate of brass loss from neck failure. For conversion to .44-40, it is best to start with a .357 or .41 Magnum.
HIGH PERFORMANCE LOADS .44-40 WCF
|FIREARM: COLT NEW FRONTIER||BARREL LENGTH: 7 1/2"||TEMPERATURE: 80 DEGREES|
|BRASS: WINCHESTER .44-40||PRIMER:
|LYMAN #42798/8.0 GRAINS UNIQUE||814|
|9.0 GRAINS HERCO||808
|16.5 GRAINS #2400||1206|
|18.0 GRAINS H4227||1062
|35.0 GRAINS FFFg||909|
|31.0 GRAINS PYRODEX P||1010
|6.5 GRAINS WW231||752
|5.5 GRAINS BULLSEYE||793|
|6.5 GRAINS HP-38||779|
|8.5 GRAINS HS-6||687|
#42798, NOW #427098, STANDARD .44-40 CONICAL FLAT POINT OF