LOADING THE 44WCF (.44-40)
(Revised & updated February 2011)
BY KID SOPRIS, SASS REGULATOR AND LIFE MEMBER #3290
Of all the cartridges I have ever loaded, this one excited and intrigued me the most. This cartridge was almost forgotten by many, and loading data with the most recent powders was not readily available; so I had to start from scratch.
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(This first appeared in a condensed form in the November 2001 issue of the Cowboy Chronicle.)
First I researched the bullet. I wanted a traditional that was as close to the original castings as I could find. I found in a Magma Engineering mould, 200 grain. RNFP; in my opinion, the best engineered design and best representation of this caliber’s traditional bullet. I called Magma Engineering and ordered one of their moulds. I also inquired of them which commercial casters companies were currently using their moulds in their bullet making process. I received numerous companies, both close and far from my residence and I tried a lot of them for comparison. Not just one or two but thousands in order to accurately test the quality control of the manufacturer.
Oregon Trail Bullet Company made the best for my money and they still do. I order them in the 10’s of thousand. (If this sounds like a commercial or endorsement, feel free to ignore my recommendations and do you own experimentation's. I do not receive any royalties from any of these companies, and I did most of this when things were cheaper than they are today).
The next step was to select the case. There were originally only a couple of manufacturers offering .44-40 cases. Since each manufacturer’s cases had different wall thickness, different cases yielded different performance. Winchester cases being thinner walled allowed for bullets of a larger diameter; but these larger diameters bullets would not function in all the guns, when used in Remington cases. I also use Starline now days because the yield in performance equals Winchester results and the quality control of Starline exceeds Winchester.
Some early rifles, like the Marlin 1889 and Original Winchester 1873 had diameters as small as .425 and newer guns, Marlin 1894, Winchester 1892, Winchester 1894, and Uberti 1873 and replicas, have diameters measuring .429 and .430. So I had to measure the bore of all my revolvers and rifles for accurate evaluation. That being done, I settled on my first choice of a .428 diameter bullet for my Winchester cases and .427 for Remington Cases. In reality if you use the .427 diameter bullets, even in the larger diameter bores of the newer rifles, the accuracy lost in the sport of Cowboy Action Shooting is negligible.
I decided on the Winchester Large Pistol Primers for best ignition and uniformity in size; facilitating the ease of feeding in the primer tubes of both RCBS and Dillon reloading equipment. I experimented with others, but these worked the best for me.
Next came the powders. Here lies the most difficult of my choices. My concerns were like everyone else’s; clean burning, case loading density, ease of loading, consistency in powder measuring, uniformity in pressure,( no rapid rise in pressure with small increases of powder) and finally the end result of accuracy and the chronographed results. Dupont’s IMR PB came out on top. (this powder is now being produced and distributed by Hodgdon Powder Co of Kansas). I settled on 7.2 grains of PB. (Smokeless).
You can go look up the properties of PB powder and my choice in this powder came from a recommendation of a Camp Perry Shooter, (who asked to remain anonymous for a written article), who won several first place finishes and used this powder exclusively. I tried other powders and I have support data for anyone who cares to have it sent to them and you can read through it at your own convenience.
So here is what worked best for me: Winchester/Starline cases, Winchester Large Pistol Primers, 7.2 grains of PB Powder with Oregon Trail/Laser Cast Bullets .44-40 sized at .427 inches for all guns. In the testing.
After hundreds of rounds fired from three different 3rd generation Colt Single Action Army Revolvers, .44-40, 4 ¾” 5 ½” and 7 ½” barrels, 3 different 2nd Generation Colt Peacemaker Centennial Revolvers, 7 ½“ barrels and a 1st Generation Colt Single Action Army Bisley, 51/2” barrel, the highest recorded muzzle velocity was 800 fps; the lowest was 770 fps, with a deviation of only 30 fps between the extremes. Pretty good I think.
Changing cases to Remington provided a high of 815 fps and a low of 731 fps with a deviation of 84 fps! When these same two types of ammunition were fired from a Winchester 1892 SRC of 1941 vintage, the results were just as surprising. Winchester/Starline cases showed a high of 1097 fps and a low of 1031 fps with a deviation of 66 fps. Remington cases showed a high of 1165 fps and a low of 1055 fps, with a deviation of 119 fps.
I have tried this load in barrel lengths of 4 ½”, 4 5/8”, 5 ½” and 7 ½” single Action clones of EMF, Uberti, Ruger, and even my Marlin Century Limited, my Uberti’s 1860 Henry and 1873 replicas with 24” barrels, all with the same type of results. Winchester/Starline cases produced less deviation than the Remington cases. I have also tried these rounds in the Smith Wesson Commemorative revolver Model 544, and a American Derringer chambered in .44-40.
Just for fun I ran two boxes of Winchester factory 200 grain bullets through each gun for comparison. Winchester factory rounds produced a high of 791 fps, and a low of 716 fps a deviation of 75fps. These rounds were semi jacketed rounds and were initially the only rounds Winchester and Remington offered at the time of the initial testing. Winchester now offers a 225 grain Cowboy load which I don’t care for.
Winchester 231 is a good powder, but it gave me too much deviation; the same can be said about Unique and others. There are many good powders out there don’t be afraid to experiment but do it CAREFULLY and chronograph those loads!
The published results by commercial ammunition manufacturers for the .44-40 are usually obtained from test rifle barrels and not from Handguns, as the .44-40 is deemed a rifle cartridge; it was adapted to revolvers.
When I started reloading for this caliber in the early 1980’s I was loading a box of 100 rounds for about $7.50. I still have rounds that I am shooting in CAS that I loaded in 1994 and I have way more than I need to survive an attack from the local tribes. Today’s costs are higher by a lot but still cheaper than buying factory and can produce better results and the rounds are interchangeable from revolver to rifle.
As mentioned I have data to support my claims, I have also worked on trying to develop or reintroduce snake loads for this caliber but have not been successful in reaching the desired results.
One of the main reasons was Winchester was making Blank cases for Stembridge, who some of you may recall was making 5 in 1 movie blanks. There were some special dies made to finish the process and these were the same cases used years ago by Remington and Winchester for snake loads. When Stembridge went out of business so did the secret. Winchester originally denied making the cases until I confronted the Olin Executives at a Shoot in Durango in 1996. They told me that was a privileged contract between Olin and Stembridge and unfinished products were not designed to be released to the general public. So there it sits. BUT RCBS ballisticians were helpful in providing needed info as how to acquire the desired results should I be able to complete the necessary components. The cost to do so is almost prohibitive for a one-man show.
There is my 2 cents worth of information, you can take it, leave it, share it over coffee and most likely you may not be able to produce the exact results. All Shooting was done at an elevation for testing at 6,800 feet. Expect different results at lower elevation or higher temperatures.
By no means do I consider this a definitive explanation or the defining results of reloading a specific cartridge, nor should the reader think I haven’t tried any other powders in experimentation's, even though I use PB Powder exclusively for all my target ammunition for my handguns. (I do like H-110 for those magnum loads in .357 and .44 magnum).