Over the years, I have enjoyed firing the calibers popular in the Old West. Some refer to these as the dash calibers—the .32-20, .38-40, and .44-40. The .38 Smith & Wesson, .38 Special, .44 Special, and .45 Colt are also used in Cowboy Action. I even loaded the .41 Colt. (By the most accurate count, the Colt Single Action Army was chambered for 36 cartridges.)
All are straightforward to load with care taken in procedure and careful powder and bullet selection. Some are useful as outdoors calibers, particularly the .44-40 Winchester Center Fire (WCF). The .38 Special is a fine all-around handgun caliber for Cowboy Action. I even added the .357 Magnum to this report based on its popularity in modern revolvers.
I am going to go over general procedure for loading the Cowboy calibers and also specific points concerning each caliber. While I have enjoyed all of the calibers over the years, everyone may not have the curiosity and enthusiasm I once did. If Grandfather left you a .38-40, by all means enjoy it. If you are looking for a new handgun, you should purchase a practical caliber. This would be the .38 Special or .45 Colt.
Factory ammunition is quite expensive, and if you enjoy shooting, handloading is the only way to go. If you compete in Cowboy Action shooting and do not have a Brinks truck full of money following you around, you must handload. Factory ammunition is not only expensive; in some cases it isn’t the best choice for Cowboy Action shooting. Handloaders may tune the load for best accuracy and even make up loads suitable for hunting and defense against animals as well.
When choosing calibers for CAS, my vote is for the .38 Special. It is affordable (even relatively so in factory loads), and cartridge cases and components are plentiful. Recoil is modest and accuracy excellent in modern replicas chambered in .357 Magnum.
A tip: In some lever-action .357 Magnum rifles, the .38 Special doesn’t feed well. The .357 Magnum cartridge case feeds better and may be loaded to virtually the same modest velocity. Whichever caliber you choose, you will be using fast-burning powder and cast lead bullets.
The .32-20 is less expensive, but the .38 Special is plenty economical. If you have to run into a local gun store and grab a box of ammo because you ran out of handloads, there will be .38 Special ammunition on the shelf and probably .44 Special and .45 Colt—as for the rest, probably not.
The .32-20, .38-40, and .44-40 are semi-bottlenecked cartridges. The case will have to be lubricated before being resized. The .32-20 is a bit small, and when loading the .44-40, due to the design, I occasionally crumple a case mouth. I hardly ever ruin a cartridge case with the .38 Special or .45 Colt. Old-style sizing dies required all cases be lubricated. Modern carbide dies do not.
The Tools You Need
Loading gear includes a press, set of loading dies, shell holder, powder measure and powder scale, and perhaps a handheld priming tool. I used a single-stage press in the beginning—and it wasn’t Cowboy shooting.
As a young peace officer, I often fired 500 rounds a week in relentless practice and later competition. I learned the variables and became a skilled loader. The .45 ACP is more challenging than the Cowboy calibers, and I got it right.
When I was able to obtain and use single-action revolvers, I enjoyed excellent results based on acquired skills. I have my favorites among the Cowboy guns, and I also understand why some enjoy one caliber over another. Some like performance, some economy, and some a mix. Some like a challenge. I have included at least one standard load for each caliber. Use at your own risk.
You really need a Lyman American Brass Smith Loading Kit. This kit contains everything you need to get started save for the specific caliber of loading dies. I cannot recommend it enough!
All-American 8 Reloading Kit includes:
- Brass Smith All-American 8 Press
- Brass Smith Powder Measure and Powder Measure Stand
- 50th Edition Reloading Handbook
- Pocket Touch 1500 electronic scale with Funnel Pan and Dipper
- Universal Trimmer with pilot multi-pack
- Case Prep Multi-Tool
- Magnum Bullet Puller
- Case Lube Kit
- Loading Block
- Powder Dribbler
- E-ZEE Powder Funnel
- Primer Tray
Here is the sum of my experience with the Cowboy calibers.
.32-20 WCF (Winchester Center Fire)
Life was made much easier by obtaining 1,000 Starline brass cases. Matt’s Bullets offers an 85-grain wadcutter. It a little hard for my fat fingers to handle. Based on pure economy in revolvers, the 90-grain RNL bullet is good. I have enjoyed the best accuracy with 120-grain flatpoint. A full powder burn and good bullet pull are part of the package with this bullet. A flatpoint bullet is demanded if you use this caliber in a magazine rifle.
The .32-20 is a fun caliber, a crackerjack small-game load, and superbly accurate. Modest charges of WW 231 or Unique drive the 120-grain bullet to 750 fps, fast enough for most uses. I have bumped it up slightly for small game and pest control with the Colt Police Positive to 850 fps and 1,200 fps in the rifle.
.38 Short Colt, .38 Long Colt
These are neat little cartridges, accurate in the right handgun and very mild to fire. Either will chamber in the .38 Special or .357 Magnum chamber. Do not use light .38 Special data in these cases but only data specifically for the .38 Colt cartridges. Using a modest charge safe in the .38 Special would drive up pressure in the short Colt case. ACME Bullets offers a 105-grain flatpoint that is ideal for these calibers. WW 231 and 700 fps is a sweet spot.
.38 Smith & Wesson
This is a short, fat cartridge that will not chamber in .38 Special cylinders. It has been used in conversion cylinders for black powder revolvers, double-action revolvers, and small breaktop revolvers. Most revolvers chambered for this cartridge are quite accurate. It is mild, well balanced, and economical.
Bullets should be sized .360. I have used the Matt’s Bullets 200-grain RNL bullet over a modest charge of Unique for 600 fps in the Smith & Wesson New Departure with excellent results. While there are lighter bullets available, I found the heavier bullets generally strike to point of aim and really make steel targets ring.
The single most accurate single-action revolver I own is a Pietta .357 Magnum. Recoil is modest, and the cartridge is economical. It is easier to handle during handloading than the small calibers, forgiving of beginning loaders, and, if need be, can be loaded to a useful level of power. I have been using the ACME coated bullet lately because I hate cleaning and enjoy shooting, and the red-coated bullet leaves little residue.
When loading the .38 Special, it is possible to work up a load that shoots to point of aim by varying the bullet weight. If the gun shoots low, you can modify the sight. If it shoots high, regulation is more difficult.
ACME bullets offer lightweight bullets, but I am hopelessly tied to the superbly accurate 148-grain wadcutter I have used for so long. At 750 fps, this is an accurate bullet. The 158-grain SWC is the bullet I use most, usually at around 800 fps for the best accuracy. As a rule, all the fast-burning powders work well in the .38 Special.
The .357 Magnum chambering is the most popular chambering in modern replica single-action revolvers. Most of us use .38 Special loads. In some cases, especially when working up loads for use in a lever-action rifle, the .357 Magnum case is desirable.
When loading the magnum, you must not use .38 Special data. A small increase in powder results in the same velocity with the longer case. The Black Hills Ammunition factory .357 Mangum 158-grain factory load breaks 805 fps in my Traditions Liberty. I find this the sweet spot for .357 Magnum loads and mimic this load in my own efforts. Medium-burning powder such as Titegroup is ideal.
This is a .401-inch bullet that isn’t difficult to load well. I discovered that the .38-40 will do anything the .40 Smith & Wesson will do and in some cases the 10mm. Starline Brass came to the rescue on this one.
This is a .384-inch heel-based bullet. I once owned a nice 1903 Colt that drove me to distraction until I learned to handload it. (Ammunition was $50 a box in the 1980s.) I ordered a special bullet mold to cast the heel-based bullet and dies from Huntington Die Specialty.
Loading was straightforward once I fired a box or two of collector-grade ammunition for the brass. Unique provided the fuel. I ended up with a 200-grain bullet at 780 fps. Accuracy was never anything but fair. Power is in the mid-.38 Special class. Unless you have a fascination with a difficult loading process, avoid this one.
Many years ago, I owned a .44 Russian revolver and carefully cut down brass from .44 Special brass. We no longer have to do this thanks to Starline. Care must be taken not to confuse this load with .44 Special data. A modest charge of powder is all that is needed.
A correspondent wrote he used .44 Special data in his revolver and had the bullet traveling 1,200 fps rather than 800 fps! This is due to the smaller case, and pressure skyrocketed. He is lucky he did not wreck his handgun—he had to beat out the spent cases. Matt’s Bullets 215-grain SWC is ideal for this caliber. This is among the all-time most accurate combinations ever fielded.
The .44 Special was developed as a mild-shooting bigbore with modest recoil and excellent accuracy potential. It has been chambered in some of the finest revolvers ever made. I prefer the .45 Colt for sheer power as an outdoors cartridge but find the .44 Special the more accurate and milder shooting in a modern revolver such as the Ruger Vaquero.
While there are lighter and more economical bullets, a 255-grain SWC with fast-burning powder and a medium crimp seems the sweet spot in this caliber. Its 750 fps is plenty for CAS.
“Since we have the .44 Special, we don’t need the .44-40,” said one writer. This isn’t exactly true. The .44-40 was the more powerful cartridge in the original loadings by 200 fps and the superior outdoors cartridge. Today, the .44 Special is chambered in modern SAA revolvers. The .44 Special may use 255-grain bullets; the .44-40 is limited to 200-grain bullets.
For Cowboy Action, the bottlenecked cartridges, designed to feed well in rifles, are an unnecessary aggravation in revolvers. Just the same, this is an elegant old cartridge with many good characteristics, but it’s seldom as accurate as the .44 Special. A 200-grain bullet at 800 fps is a good all-around CAS load. Recoil is lighter than the .45 Colt.
The .45 Colt is the largest Cowboy Action caliber. Brass and bullets are most expensive. It is simply more expensive to ship 1,000 250-grain .45s than 1,000 158-grain .38s. I find the Oregon Trail 250-grain RN economical and easy to handle when loading in large numbers. While the 255-grain SWC is a hard hitter and accurate, it isn’t necessary for most uses.
The .45 Colt has a huge cartridge case designed for 40 grains of black powder. (Most Old West loads used 32 to 38 grains.) Blowback is common, and it is difficult to achieve a full powder burn with light loads. The case simply doesn’t expand to grip the chamber at low pressure. The big case allows powder to rumble around inside, and accuracy may be poor. When loading heavy loads—say, 250 grains at 900 fps—it is less difficult to achieve a full powder burn, as there is greater bullet pull and load density.
Try Trail Boss and a 250-grain bullet at 780 fps for general shooting as you learn how to load. I like the .45 Colt as a recreational shooter and for serious use. But then I don’t fire thousands of rounds in practice.
First, study the loading manuals—the Lyman Handbook, the Hornady Load Manual, and Hodgdon online resources. Work on consistency in your loads. Cowboy Action loads are ideal for practice and informal target shooting. Low recoil is the primary consideration.
Trail Boss is a powder that practically eliminates double-charge danger due to its high volume. When you consider that the dash cartridges were originally intended for black powder, Trail Boss makes a lot of sense.
Among the modern fast-burning powders, Titegroup is easily the best I have used when accuracy and a clean burn are figured. Universal, Clays, and Unique are good powders. Unique is a good choice if you like a heavy field load.
Bullets and Primers
Good hardcast bullets are all that is needed in the Cowboy calibers. ACME Bullets, Magnus Bullets, Matt’s Bullets, and Oregon Trail are good choices. Sometimes, local casters make a good bullet, and you do not have to pay shipping. I buy in bulk, and this saves shipping.
Two-thousand cast bullets is a good start. I generally purchase primers in 5,000 units. CCI, Federal, and Winchester have given good results. It is usually what I can obtain at a fair price.
(For SW Perfect Single Action, modern breaktops.)
Enfield and Webley revolvers and solid-frame revolvers only!
.38 Long Colt Data
|148-gr. WC||2.9 Bullseye||720 fps 2-in. Brl.|
.38 S&W Load Data
|160-gr. SWC||2.5 Unique||656 fps 3¼-in. Brl.|
|160-gr. SWC||3.0 Unique||780 fps 5-in. Brl.|
.38 Special Load Data
|148-gr. WC||3.0 Bullseye||820 fps|
|160-gr. SWC||4.0 Unique||717 fps 4-in. Brl.|
|160-gr. SWC||4.5 Unique||790 fps|
|160-gr. SWC||5.0 Unique||840 fps 4-in. Brl.|
|160-gr. SWC||6.0 Unique||1,020 fps|
.38-40 Colt Load Data
|180-gr. FP||6.5 WW 231||880 fps 5-in. brl.|
.41 Colt Load Data
|204-gr. custom||5.2 Unique||709 fps 4-in. brl.|
.44 Russian Data
|200-gr. SWC||5.0 Bullseye||790 fps|
|215-gr. SWC||4.0 HP38||699 fps|
.44 Special Data
|215-gr. FP||5.5 Trail Boss||780 fps 3-in. Brl.|
|255-gr. SWC||5.4 WW 231||760 fps|
|200-gr. FP||6.5 WW 231||800 fps 5.5-in. Brl.|
|6.8 WW 231||922 fps|
.45 Colt Data
|250-gr. RN||8.0 Unique||890 fps 7.5-in. Brl.|
|6.5 WW 231||820 fps|
Do you enjoy Cowboy Action Shooting or just guns of the Old West? Which Cowboy load is favorite? Share your answers in the comment section.
To eliminate the danger of double loads with fast burning powder, do the following:
1) Prime the cases, and set all primed cases in the loading block with mouth down.
2) Take a case out of the loading block, and charge it
3) Seat a bullet. Optionally, crimp the bullet in the same step.
4) Place the loaded case in the block bullet up, if you want to do a separate crimp step
Repeat steps 2-4 until all cartridges are loaded. Notice it is impossible to double charge because the case is never sitting in the loading block, mouth up, without a bullet. In other words, avoid “batch” loading processes.
Nice write up. I’ve been loading up .38 special cowboy loads with Bullseye or Titegroup for a while now. Nothing crazy, just enough to make sure the bullet leaves the muzzle to ring steel plates out to about 25 yards. For cheap plinking it’s perfect and like you mentioned in the article not always in your typical single action. I have a RUGER SP101 that sees alot of range time as it’s one of my main carry guns.
The anemic cowboy loads are just hot enough to allow me to work on my draw from a concealed holster and keep proficient. Every now and again I’ll throw a full house .357 in there just to remind myself the difference from mild to wild. God forbid the day comes where someone decided to try and attack me. I feel confident in my muscle memory should the need arise. Hopefully not.
I keep saying one of these days I need to add some other wheelgun calibers into the mix but for now the .38spl and .357mag have served me well. My .22lr and .22 mag I guess technically count. You didn’t mention rimfire in the article. My NAA mini revolver is almost always with me as a backup to the more potent option I’m usually carrying.
Bullseye powder is mentioned for several loads. This is one of the fastest burning smokeless powders out there, and a little goes a long way. Beginning reloaders are probably better off avoiding this one unless you’re extremely methodical and very OC about the process. A small error in measurement, or a double-throw, could be catastrophic! That said, i really like Bullseye myself for loading short-barrel (3″ and under) pistol loads for 380 and 9mm (not exactly Cowboy shooting!!) due to the very fast burn rate and reduced muzzle flash/blast. Otherwise, I load a lot of Unique.
I’m interested in Cowboy Action Shooting too. I have a old Winchester Model 1892 lever action rifle in 25-20 WCF. I hear that it’s a great caliber for cowboy shooting, but it’s very expensive commercial ammunition. What is a good load for reloading? Also, does this caliber come in a cowboy revolver like a Colt Peacemaker or other cowboy period handgun?
Just have not been using it much this year.
A great powder.
You mention that Trail Boss is a great powder to use but don’t give loads for it for most of the cartridges. Why?
I do use the .38 cal cases with Hornady 148 gr lead semi wad cutter (which Hornady no longer produces) with 4.0 gr of Unique powder. I shoot 2 Ruger 3 screw revolvers and a Marlin .38/.357 rifle. This bullet set-up works great in all my guns. I have been shooting this set-up for five years. Thanks for the approval article, and supporting my choices, you made my day.
I shoot a ’58 Remington .44 cap & ball with a .45 conversion cylinder. I load him with 8.5g of Unique that pushes a 250g SWC @ .452″. I use CCI #300 primer and this is the best combo for this revolver.
It shoots a bit high at 15′ and dead on at 20′. Love this load.