The .32 Winchester Special, or .32 WS, has been in near constant competition with another caliber, the venerable .30-30 Winchester since it was first introduced. While the .30-30 continues to see popularity in lever-action firearms, the .32 Winchester Special has managed to hang in there despite stiff competition from its more popular brother. It continues to retain a following, even receiving a modern makeover from Hornady’s LEVERevolution line. Despite the push to bring it up to snuff with modern technology it remains a niche round that is still overshadowed by other rounds in lever-action rifles.
The Early Development of the .32 Special
The development date of the .32 Winchester Special is somewhat difficult to tack down. While the Hornady Handbook of Cartridge Reloading. vol I states that it was developed in October of 1901, other sources point to different dates.
Cartridges of the World: 14th Edition points to a slightly later date of 1902, meanwhile my Speer Number 11 Reloading Manual from 1988 points to 1895 as the start for this cartridge. 1895 seems too early for a number of reasons. First the .30-30 that it sought to replace was not around until around 1895 and this date is not corroborated by other sources, I’d wager that the actual date of creation for the .32 Special is somewhere around late 1901 or early 1902. Whatever the date that Winchester started developing this round may be, it’s managed to last well over 100 years, despite never being loaded into anything other than lever-action rifles. With most of those rifles having been phased out of production since the 1980’s or earlier.
Why .32 Winchester Special?
Winchester wanted to create a round that did two things. One, it would be of a larger caliber than the .30-30, second it would have less recoil than the .30 Army. So Winchester went to the drawing board and started work. What their R&D department came back with was a rimmed round, using a .321 diameter bullet, larger than the .30-30. Furthermore they were able to increase the case volume and generate 10% more energy at the muzzle than the competing round. In 1916 Winchester published ballistics charts showing this as well as showing that the .32 Special could keep it’s edge in performance at any reasonable hunting distance. When we look at ballistics tables today we see that around 200 yards out we begin to have noticeable bullet drop. However, the .32 Special holds onto its crown. When loaded to equal pressures to that of the .30-30 we see a more than 100 fps increase. Yet again looking to the ballistics tables we see the most likely reason for the .32 Special to fall behind, bullet drop. The .30-30 is able to travel about 50 yards farther before starting to see the same kind of bullet drop. Additionally because of the .30 caliber’s greater sectional density it has a greater penetration at longer distances. Yet, the .32 Winchester Special will still deliver a larger wound simply because it is driving a larger caliber bullet down range. There is also some conflicting information about the parent cartridge of this round. While most sources say that the .30-30 fathered the .32 Special, Shooter’s Nest asserts that both calibers are actually child cases of the .38-55.
So Old It Should Be Dead
As far back as the 1980’s people were already pronouncing this cartridge dead. My 1988 Speer Number 11 Reloading Manual notes that,
“Logically, this 1895 vintage cartridge should have been obsolete years ago, but it continues to hang on. Originally, it was brought out as a cartridge which would use smokeless powder, but would be more suitable reloaded with black powder. At that time, smokeless powders for hand-loading were not generally available. Its companion, the 30-30, with a faster rifling twist, tended to foul bores badly with black powder loads. The 32 Winchester Special was designed, like the 30-30, for the Winchester Model 94 rifle.”
It’s in this that we note one of the great debates about this round. The use of black powder.
Can I Use Black Powder In This?
Early advertising material for the .32 Winchester Special notes that it “could be loaded with black powder”. Something that has caused much debate over this round. Some sources note that because the round was originally intended to use black powder the twist rate of the barrel was changed to 1:16 for the .32 Special. As a comparison, a .30-30 barrel has a twist rate of 1:12. These sources state that this was done to help reduce fouling in the rifles from loadings using black powder. This seems to be supported by a number of things. First, Winchester’s own advertisements state that the .32 Special can be used with black powder. Secondly, at one point Winchester themselves were offering a black powder height sight for use on Winchester Model 1894 rifles. However going back to Cartridges of the World: 14th Edition W. Todd Woodard offers a different suggestion. He posits that the round was not designed from the ground up to be a black powder and smokeless powder round, but a smokeless powder round exclusively. His reason, cost.
At the time reloaders who wanted to use black powder had another, cheaper option. The Winchester Model 1984, in .32-40, at that time cost half the price and was also able to be reloaded with black powder. For Winchester, he argues, the ability to use black powder was just a side benefit that Winchester latched onto for marketing reasons, not because the round had been designed from the ground up to be reloaded with both smokeless and black powder. Reloaders at that time already had the .32-40 and Woodard argues that if they were trying to save money by reloading with black powder they would have stuck with the other round. If the .32 Winchester Special was ever loaded with black powder it was probably because that was all the reloader had. According to Woodard it can and does work. And Woodard is not alone in this. Terry Wieland at Rifle Shooter tries to also clear the air about some of the misconceptions about the history of the .32 Special. Yet, Woodard had another point that he wanted to bring up about the .32 Winchester Special, accuracy.
Some sources argue that the .32 Winchester Special has issues with accuracy once the barrel becomes worn. This is exacerbated by the slow twist rate of the barrel and the relatively heavy bullets that the .32 Special uses. Generally speaking a slower twist rate is better for lighter bullets, but it’s a bit more complicated than just that. But when combining a heavy 165 grain to 170 grain bullet with a slow 1:16 twist the accusation of poor accuracy makes sense. However Woodard has some anecdotal evidence that takes the idea of a worn .32 Special barrel being inaccurate to task. He writes,
“Much ink has also been spilled, claiming the .32 Special just wouldn’t shoot straight after the barrel got a bit of wear. Frank Barnes experimented with two .32 Special carbines, a very early Winchester and a 1936 Marlin. With bullets that fit, both shot inside three inches at 100 yards with open sights. The Winchester had been so abused that its rifling hardly showed until it was thoroughly cleaned. The bore was pitted, but the gun shot just fine.”
While three inches inside 100 yards is not exactly a tack driver, it does show that the .32 Special is still able to deliver minute of deer performance even with a highly worn barrel.
Handloading & Factory Ammo
Sadly much of the ammo supply for the .32 Winchester Special has dried up. As of this writing I can only find four major brands making ammo for this caliber. First is Federal’s Power-Shok 170 Grain Soft Point Flat Nose rounds. These clock in at about 2250 fps at the muzzle with 1911 ft. lbs. of force. Next up is the Remington Core-Lokt 170 Grain Soft Points. Remington rates these rounds as also having 2250 fps at the muzzle and 1911 ft. lbs. of force. Winchester offers Super-X 170 Grain Power-Point rounds as well with the same muzzle energy and speed as Federal and Remington. Finally and the most noteworthy of the selections is Hornady’s LEVERevolution using 165 Grain Flex Tip rounds. These rounds clock in at 2410 fps at the muzzle with 2128 ft. lbs. of force. With Hornady looking to make leaps and bounds in the lever-action world with the LEVERevolution line, cost seems to be the only real reason to consider alternatives.
Handloaders find themselves similarly limited. Hornady has been kind enough to market the same FTX bullets that they use in the LEVERevolution line to reloaders. However there are other options as well. Hornady has 170 grain InterLock soft tip bullets on offer. Speer has 170 grain Hot-Cor flat nose bullets at a number of online retailers, and finally Hunter’s Supply offers 170 grain flat nose lead hard cast bullets to round out the offerings.
The only brass I can currently find is from Hornady however dies from RCBS, Lee, Hornady, and others are all available.
As far as reloading data goes Hodgdon keeps up to date reloading information on their website for the .32 Special. Simply select the round from the drop down box and you’ll be given loading data for the desired bullet weight, powder manufacturers, and specific powder. The primers recommended are large rifle and with some of the maximum loads for Hodgdon CFE 223 reaching close to the factory velocities from the LEVERevolution line.
Despite holding out for so long, even in the face of decades of whispers about its passing. The .32 Special has a strangely limited number of firearms chambered in it. The most common that I see referenced is the Winchester Model 1894 or Winchester Model 94. However other lever guns have been chambered in this as well. The Marlin Model 1893 has a few examples that I’ve been able to find chambered in .32 Special. Finally Marlin also chambered the Model 336 in this caliber as well. Unfortunately no new firearms are being made in this caliber that I can find.
The Uncertain Future of The .32 Winchester Special
Despite getting a shot in the arm from Hornady and its LEVERevolution line, the .32 Special has no new production rifles being made for it. With the support of only a handful of manufactures I’m not sure that even Hornady can keep this round alive for much longer. The firearms that shoot this unique and great caliber are rapidly wearing out and turning into pieces best passed down rather than shot. Unless a major manufacturer such as Henry takes an interest in trying to keep this caliber alive I fear that I may soon have to move this round off of life support and list it as dead. That said, the .32 Winchester special has an interesting history and great potential to give even the .30-30 a run for its money. If only someone was willing to take a chance on it and make the caliber popular again.
Special Thanks to Kevin B. for suggesting this caliber. Since I’m always on the hunt for new calibers to write about I’d love to hear what you guys are looking to learn more about. Comment below with your caliber suggestions.