Winchester 1894 Rifle and the .32 Winchester Special Cartridge

Barrel stamp on the Winchester Model 1894

A frequent stop and gathering place of kindred souls is the local gun shop. We gather together, those of us with a certain mental telepathy that connects us, and we take a break from work and enjoy rubbing elbows with normal people. Well at least those with similar interests. These interests include shooting, hunting, competition shooting and accumulating firearms.

Pre 1964 Winchester Model 1894 rifle
The author’s personal Winchester 1894 is a great woods rifle even at 67 years of age.

We are drawn to the display cases as aboriginals to a ceremonial fire. A man staring into that case may appear to be motionless and doing as close to nothing as possible, but nothing could be further from the truth. As my friends Darrell, John, and Clay watch this with daily attention their customers are deep in thought.

Finally, perhaps after a number of trips to the shop, they will ask to see something from the case. More often than not, in today’s economy, the piece is laid away for weeks or even months. After all, we all have more guns than we need and less than we want. Some windfall may result in an early acquisition or perhaps the inevitable harrowing of the shelves that occurs at tax time or during the general election will speed the process up. Finally, the lay away ticket is marked paid in full, the paperwork is complete, and the new addition taken home. This is as close to pregnancy and childbirth as a man may come.

Barrel stamp on the Winchester Model 1894
The barrel stamp indicates this isn’t the common 1894 rifle.

One of my rifles was recently brought home after just such as stay. The rifle is a Winchester Model 1894. The Winchester 1894 is the brainchild of John Moses Browning. He was an extraordinary individual and inventor.

The lever action rifle was nothing new, but the Model ’94 owes little to previous rifles. Certain rifles in the blue steel and walnut age still call to us. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police had a long association with the Winchester rifle. By a trick of fate, the Winchester was used by shore patrols in England in the dark days of World War II when any good firearm was worth its weight in gold.

The rifle was used by both the good and the bad. In my memory is a case in which a night clerk at a motel took out a bad actor attempting to rob the clerk. The night clerk owned one rifle, a Winchester 1894 .30-30 WCF, and he took it to work with him and kept it in a corner.

The man he shot and killed through a car door was the primary suspect in an ambush of a peace officer. However, the majority of my memories are of deer taken with the Winchester 1894 by more hunters than I could name. Like many of you, the Winchester 1894 was my first centerfire rifle.

Hornady LEVERevolution bullet
The Hornady LEVERevolution pointed bullet is the most ballistically efficient bullet ever offered for a lever-action rifle.

None of us are immortal, but John Moses Browning’s memory and his guns seem to be. There have always been and will continue to be more cheap guns than good guns. But a few well-made firearms have become firmly respected trappings, reaching legendary status. The Winchester 1894 combined the popular lever action with a high-powered smokeless powder cartridge.

Wood and steel were the common material in the day, but today the Winchester 1894 harkens back to a time when blue steel and walnut ruled. The Winchester 1866 and Winchester 1873 may have been in action earlier, but the ’94 enjoyed a long life in the West and elsewhere. The .30-30 WCF lever-action rifle was still in use in police work, particularly with highway patrol officers, well into the 1980s and perhaps beyond.

The LAPD issued Winchester 1894 rifles during the Watts riots. The Model ’94 gained wide acceptance shortly after its introduction. While the shorter Model ’92 action had greater leverage for its short fat pistol caliber cartridges, the Model ’94 fired a .30 caliber centerfire cartridge with much greater range and accuracy. If you have ever attempted to sight a .44-40 rifle in for 175 yards, you know exactly what I am speaking of. The 1894 rifle is still in production but it stalled for a while with a hitch in production in 2006 when the Winchester plant in New Haven Connecticut closed. At that point some seven million rifles had been produced.

.44-40, .45 70, .30-30 WCF, .32 WS, and .308 Winchester cartridges
The .44-40, .45 70, .30-30 WCF, .32 WS, and .308 Winchester in comparison.

Advantages of the Model 1894

The Model 1873’s toggle action worked well enough but was not particularly robust. One reason, the military never issued the rifle. Scouts used the rifle and appreciated its firepower. The new lever-action rifle by Browning used a single operating bar in contrast to the dual sliding rods of the Model 1892. The rifle also had a greater margin for safety due to a new firing pin design.

The rifle was smooth and capable but not as fast as the previous rifles. It was more for long range, deliberate fire than the earlier rifles. While many rifles were produced with longer barrels and special stocks the 20-inch barrel carbine was the most common 1894 rifle. The new .30-30 WCF cartridge pushed a 160-grain bullet to some 1,970 fps.

No more did the western hunter have to memorize hold over or hope for the best. The new cartridge shot amazingly flat. While the .44-40 was credited with killing more men—good and bad—than any other caliber in the old west, the .30-30 put more game on the table. The rifle was particularly praised in the far reaches of the continent such as Alaska for faultless reliability.

Old Winchester Silvertip ammunition box
The Winchester Silvertip is a fine deer load that has been a mainstay of hunters for many years.

My first centerfire rifle was a .30-30 and a Winchester. We just called the Winchester a .30-30, just as we called the Colt 1911 a .45. Very few other types were seen. The Winchester 1894 suffered indignity in 1964 with production changes that were not as severe as those of the Winchester Model 70, and these changes were meant to cheapen production.

Pre ’64 rifles, such as the one illustrated, are treasured for this reason. The modern Miroku produced rifles are at least as accurate and reliable, however. The new gun also features a washer to tighten the action. The original action was plenty tight. When firing the rifle off hand, remember, do not push the lever down but forward for fast and efficient operation.

My Favorite Winchester

While the .30-30 Winchester was popular and served for many years, some shooters asked for a more powerful cartridge. Yet, with the rear locking bolt of the lever action rifle, the Winchester ’94 could never equal the .30-40 Krag service cartridge. Winchester introduced a cartridge that was billed as an improvement over the .30-30 but which offered less recoil than the .30-40 Krag cartridge. The .32 Winchester Special features a .321-inch bullet and greater powder capacity. Introduced in 1901 the .32 Winchester Special was moderately popular but never achieved the popularity of the .30-30 WCF or the competing .35 Remington. Using IMR 3031 powder and the Hornady 170-grain #3210 bullet, my handloads have delivered good accuracy and consistently clocked 2,200 fps with maximum loads. This flat point bullet hits hard and offers reliable expansion.

Front post sight on the Winchester Model 1894
The front post is easily picked up and allows windage adjustment.

Hornady’s Interlock bond features a crimp that ensures the bullet holds together during expansion. This is important during short-range hunting when the bullet strikes the game at relatively high velocity. Hornady also designed the Secant ogive that provides the most efficient profile possible for velocity retention at longer range with a flat nose bullet. The .32 Winchester Special is more powerful than the .30-30 by about 10 to 15 percent. Most riflemen will find the .32 Winchester Special is more accurate than a similar .30-30 WCF rifle, although this may be difficult to prove without optics.

Accurate, powerful and with modest recoil, the .32 Winchester Special is a great all around woods gun. Modern ammunition technology has made the rifle even better. Hornady introduced the LeverRevolution line of cartridges some years ago. The lever-action rifle had previously not been compatible with pointed bullets. The nose of the Spitzer-type bullet, set on the primer of the cartridge ahead, could result in a detonation under the forces of recoil.

Flat nose bullets were used in lever-action rifles for safety purposes. (A few enterprising souls handloaded hot Spitzer loads for the .30-30 and loaded one in the chamber and a single round in the tubular magazine.) Hornady’s LEVERevolution bullet features a polymer tip on top of a pointed bullet. This ingenious design allows the use of ballistically superior loads.

modern Winchester 1894 Deluxe
This is a modern Winchester 1894 Deluxe. While pricey, this is a great rifle.

The .32 Winchester Special offering, in the LeverRevolution line, breaks a solid 2,410 fps with a 160-grain bullet. I cannot do this with a handload. With quality handloads, the Winchester will often print a two-inch 3-shot group at 100 yards and about 2.5 inches with most factory loads.

The Winchester 1894 illustrated was delivered in 1948. It is as light, handy, flat, and fast handling as any ’94 but chambers a harder hitting cartridge. Much of the appeal of such a classic rifle is the history and the looks—blue steel and walnut. However, the practical efficiency of this combination for many chores cannot be overlooked. Classics become classic because they work, and the Winchester 1894 .32 Special is no exception.

Do you own a Winchester Model 1894? What is your favorite lever-action caliber and cartridge? Share your answers in the comment section.

About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.

Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Rifle Magazine
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns

Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (36)

  1. I’m 70 years old now and have been shooting the .32 Special since age 12,58 years now. Took my first deer, with the .32 Win Special, la huge 7 point buck with a Win Mod 94 which belonged to my Uncle Jack. I bought that very same Mod 94 from my Uncle after my return from overseas duty in 1973. I also bought a 1964 Mod 94 in .32 Special from a guy at work. I also acquired tw0 Marlin 336 SC’s, one from 1951 and the other one from 1957. All are ballard rifled and shoot my cast boolits with extreme accuracy. M7 1957 Marlin Shoots a 1s82 grain gas checked cast at .2300 fps with extreme accuracy us ing a full house charge of Leverevolution powder. I shoot more of those cast boolits with a dose of 2400 powder at 1600 fps shooting many, many one hole groups.
    Bob D

  2. I have a Model 94 in 32 Winchester Special passed down from my dad. My grandpa bought it for him in 1963. He killed one deer with it and never fired it again. He gave me the original box of ammo that he had got with it and had fired 5 rounds through it. My grandpa was an avid hunter in his younger days and I took after him. I have taken several deer with the Winchester in the years since and next year my son will hunt with the Model 94 himself. The Hornady leverevelution is incredible in this gun. Off a sled I shot 1.25″ groups at 100 yards with the old rifle. The performance of the round in a whitetail deer is equally impressive. The rifle now has probably close to 100 rounds through it and a side mounted scope. By far my favorite hunting gun.

  3. My 1949 Winchester 94 in .32 Win Spec is my only center-fire lever gun, and I have never used it except for punching holes in paper. Great fun anyway. Recently reloaded 100+ cartridges, majority with Speer .321″ SPFN 170 grains, and remainder with cast Beartooth Bullets .323″ LFNGC, but have yet to get to the range with these. Anyone else have luck with 170 grain reloads?
    And why the .002″ difference between the two projectiles?

  4. You need to update the picture of the calibers. The “308 Win” is a “30-06” for sure. The 308 is typically about as tall as the 30-30, Look it up if you don’t nelief me.

  5. Firing a 30-30 in a 32 Winchester is probably not going to harm you or the gun. And there are people on the net who say they have done so. As a practical matter the cases are exactly the same until you get to the neck. Then the 32 is bigger at .321 inches that the 30-30 at .308. When fired the case will expand to the sides and rear of the chamber and open up the neck of the case, as there is nothing to hold it in that area. The pressure should keep all the powder going down the barrel. However, the bullet is just too small and will not properly engage the rifling and should not be accurate. However, there are people on the net who claim they work just fine. The safer bet is to buy those $1 each Hornady rounds. They are great in 357, 45 Colt and 45-70. .

    1. It is ill-advised, and potentially downright dangerous, to use ammo in any firearm that it was not designed to use. Just because a round will fit, or others have done it, doesn’t mean it’s the smart thing to do. A little common sense can avoid a terrible outcome. Better to only use the correct ammo and live to shoot another day.

    2. Sam
      You are so right!
      I cannot believe we are even discussing this.
      To each rifle its own cartridge. The longevity of the gun and the shooter demand it!

  6. I bought my model 94 32 sp. in 1957. It still in pristine cond. I also have a box of W 32 sp. ammo that i bought with the rifle. The price on the box is $3.25. the trouble I find now is availability of 32 sp ammo. A friend who is very knowledgeable said I could fire 30-30 cartridges with it. Any comments on that would be helpful. Thanks, Great article

    1. Sir,

      For God’s Sake do not fire .30-30s in this rifle! That would be a disaster, if they chambered they would blow on firing!

      Hornady makes .32 Spl. A reputable shop can order these.

  7. I have both a 32-40 and a 30-30 Model 94, but I really can’t shoot the 32-40 because I can’t find ammo. I LOVE the 30-30, darn thing shoot so flat and true.

  8. I have a 94 in 32 WS that was made in 1950. I suppose it would rate 95% or better. It must not have seen much field use, if any, from the previous owner and I have used it only for recreational shooting. The wood and bluing are fine examples of the craftmanship of the era in which it was made.

  9. I inherited my grandfathers model 94 .32 Winchester. It is an early 50s production rifle. It is still a great shooter with a lot of sentimental value. I got my first deer with that rifle at 12 years old back in 1984. My kids have all shot their great grandfathers rifle and have learned to appreciate it. I reload for it using hornaday lever revolution powder and the 160 grain hornaday lever revolution bullets and it shoots great. It is a great piece of my family history and will continue to be for generations

  10. Grew up seeing and using old Winchester lever guns, but never owned a lever until 13 years of age, Marlin saddle carbine in 32 Winchestef.
    Got ifor taking swells who were clientz, friends and family out game and bird hu tinv of New Yorker who bought a large old farm.
    Brush Timberd la d and al.ost everyo e carried a Winchester or Savage lever in 30/30 or 300 Savage.
    AS a grown man son’s all got new Winchesterz o ce they mastered .y Marlin a d woodscraft.
    THEY all kicked hard,, boys began at 7 on stands, and by age 9 I said per on that they got Savage 243.
    THEY still own first rifles, but middle Boy has an extra 30-30 single shot full wood stock.
    WE sometimes get out those old lever guns and they still are fine weaponns, but not one bought their kids Winchester 30/30 S first rifle.
    WE always got game, My first bull moose was with Marlin 32, two in ribs at 50 yards dropped him.

  11. I own a Winchester Model 94 in 32 Winchester Special. If I interpreted the Winchester website correctly, according to the serial number the rifle was made around 1956. It is a real pleasure to shoot & very accurate.

  12. Should have talked about the 1894 in its original 38/55 caliber. I have rifle versions in 26″ barrels in 30/30, 25/35, And 38/55, all are great the 25/35 is my favorite, with the 38/55 being second favorite, 30/30 also very fine.
    .Hornady’s Leverlution bullets make greatly needed increases in bullet hole groups. Still need a 38/55 in Leverlution rounds

  13. I have .32 Winchester Special Model 94 and used it to bag my first buck in 1963. I learned the hard way that moving the lever forward just far enough to eject an empty cartridge is not far enough to load the next cartridge. I have to move the lever a little further forward to load the next cartridge. Failing to do that , I had an empty chamber when I turned to look behind my to see a buck staring at me about 20 feet away. I slowly swung the rifle around and squeezed the trigger, only to hear the firing pin click. That click spooked the buck and I watched him disappear off of my hill before I realized what had happened.

  14. I have 5 lever rifles. Marlin 22lr Mountie (short 39A), Marlin Limited Model 1894S 16″ 45 Colt but I shoot 45 Schofield in it (one extra round in the magazine 9 and one up the snout for a total of 10), and 3 38-55 WCF chambered lever rifles: Winchester model 94 rifle octagon barrel 24″ or better that I bought a lifetime ago from my Grandfather ($15, $2.50 more than he paid for it), Winchester model 94AE 16″ W/O that ugly scooped out lawyer proof through the receiver safety, and a Marlin Cowboy 24″. The Marlin 45 and 38-55, I removed that safety and replaced it with the faux screw replacement. Hadn’t seen 38-55 mentioned but it was the original chambering of the Win Model 94 back in the day.

  15. I have my Grandfather’s 32 special. Made in 1942 the rear buckhorn sight was replaced with a period correct Redfield peep sight. The front post is original with the cover in place. My dad and I would pour and make lead bullets and one day as a kid I put 100 rounds thru and never noticed recoil issues. I last shot the gun at the range about 6 months ago. It works like new. I understand the 32 was developed because black powder reloads of the time were fouling the 30-30. The 32 also had a slower twist rate to help prevent fouling.

  16. Luv my `94 in .30-30. Your pic of comparing cartridges has a flaw, the round on the right side is a ,30-06, not a .308. Also luv my Savage lever gun modell 99, in .300 Savage.

  17. Excellent article. My .32 special was originally my maternal grandfather’s and it’s an early 50’s carbine. When it was handed down to me, I put a peep sight on it and it would consistently give me 3″ 100 yard groups off the bench using Federal’s 170gr. soft points.

    I’ve taken two whitetales with that rifle. I couldn’t tell the performance difference on whitetails in similar situations when compared with .35 Remingtons and .308 / 7mm08s. It’s a fine whitetail cartridge.

    A few years back I switched out the peep for Burris Fastfire on a Turnbull mount that uses the receiver’s threaded holes. I also switched to the Leverevolutions. I’m consistently getting 100 yard, 1 1/2″ groups off the bench with that combination. I’ll never part with this rifle and I’m tempted to by a twin to it should the right deal come along.

  18. I am one of the obviously rare people who always wanted to like the Model ’94 and who owned 3 or 4 over the years. Never happy with them. I do not consider myself very recoil sensitive but always dislike the 94’s recoil. I routinely shoot a .300 Win Mag for my rifle and my pistol is a 10mm polymer lower. No recoil problems at all there. But, the ’94 always slapped me silly and was just not fun to shoot. I made the mistake of starting my oldest son on a ’94 and almost ruined him for hunting. He hated the recoil as much as I did. Love the looks, love the history, hate the rifle for anything other than a wall hanger.

    1. I received my .32 Winchester Special as a Christmas gift several years ago.
      My father gave it to me with this story…
      It was a gift he received from his father who had received it as a gift from his Grandfather, who was a demonstration shooter for Winchester.
      This is where it gets uncertain on the history.
      It was either a gift from Winchester as a thank you for service, or purchased at his local store in Eastern Washington. It’s unknown for sure.
      But what I do know is, it kicks like a mule, and I will pass it on to my son with the story.
      Even it it just becomes a wall hanger…

  19. In 1972 my brother bought a Marlin 1894 in .44 Remington Magnum. We could shoot through 8 and 3/8ths diameter surface pipe for wells with it. The pipe was made of mild steel about 3/8″ thick. I’m sure it knocked a chunk out of the engine block on the car. A 240 grain bullet from the Marlin was going around 1700fps from that Marlin’s 20 inch barrel.

  20. I have the 1894 in .32 Special. It was my father’s first deer rifle. When I was able to hunt, it became mine and I shot my first deer with it. Still fun to shoot and one of the most accurate rifles I have ever shot. At 100 yards we have done 3″ groups with open sights. It also was manufactured in 1954, the same year I was born.

    1. My dad bought his first deer rifle at 17 years old from Sears. A Model 1894 Winchester in .32 Winchester Special. It became his “DeerSlayer!” He used the gun yearly on the deerhunt and brought home the venison. When he taught me to shoot, that was the gun we used, and when I turned 12 I was presented that gun as my own. I shot my first deer with it, and every other deer over the years I’ve taken have been with “The Deer Slayer” . It shoots as straight as any gun I’ve ever owned. I’m now 56 and I will give it to my son…it’s more than just a gun. It’s an heirloom , a tradition, and a wonderful legacy. Does it kick? Yep. Is it a bit loud? Yep. Does it do its job flawlessly ? Every single time. I love shooting and guns of all kinds, but to me, my Winchester 1894 is The gun!

  21. This is a good article. I think the best cartridge the ’94 rifle was chambered in is the .348. They called the rifle a different name, but it was a high-end 1894. You left out a couple of Winchesters, though. The 1886 Winchester was the first Browning design for a repeater, and would handle anything up to 50 caliber. It was scaled down to the ’92 by Browning. After the ’94, Winchester brought out the 1895 rifle, which used a box magazine. It was strong enough to be chambered in .30-40 Craig, 7.62×52 rimmed (Russian), 30-06 and 405 Winchester. This rifle was a favorite of Theodore Roosevelt.
    So you’ll know, though, one of my favorite rifles is my Dad’s 1894 carbine in 30 WCF (30-30). He bought it new in 1951 or so, and my younger brother still has it. It killed my first deer. I was 18. It killed a lot of coyotes and jackrabbits on the Texas Panhandle in the hands of myself or my three brothers when we were growing up, and I think it is one of the fastest handling rifles I’ve ever had.

    1. Minor correction to my just sent reply: The Russian cartridge was the military cartridge of Imperial Russia, the 7.62X54 Rimmed, and Winchester sold a number of 1895’s to the Russian Government just before and during WWI if I remember right. Interestingly, these rifles could be loaded with a stripper clip.

  22. The Winchester ’94 .30-30 was the first firearm I ever bought, at what seems like a million years ago (when I was 18) – with fond memories of use. The first pistol I bought was another Browning great design: the Browning Hi-Power, which eventually became my off-duty carry piece in a modified ankle holster (while my on-duty piece was yet another Browning design you may have heard of: the Colt .45 1911). Great guns from the genius of John Moses Browning.

    1. I was also in law enforcement about 100 years ago and never liked ankle carry. However, I did carry a model 36, J frame smith on the ankle occasionally. But that high power is a big gun. Ever get in any foot chases with it? Also, sometime around 1972 or so, I knew an officer that carried a Model 94 Win 44 mag in his car. They had a guy run a road block and he claims a couple shots to the radiator actually cracked the engine block and caused the car to stop not far away. It was common by the way for officers to use armor piercing ammo made by speer I think. You would not want them in a tube gun as they were very pointed, but maybe in the tube. In my jurisdiction, nobody would be shooting that low if a car was coming right at you. Corse, with pucker factor and all, he may not have been aiming at the radiator either. LOL. FWIW

    2. Never had a foot pursuit while off-duty, but plenty of them while on-duty. Only wore the HI-Power off-duty (in a .380 ankle holster that I modified – it was quite comfortable). But I did carry a model 36 Smith in my weak-side pocket as a back-up while on-duty, to augment my on-duty piece (a Colt .45 1911). Now retired, I still carry a Colt .45 as my main carry piece, and carry as a back-up either a Kimber K6s .357 or a Sig P938 9mm. And, I still love my .30-30 – a great little rifle.

    3. Sorry, I misunderstood. I have carried the little Walther PPK/S in an ankle rig and it is fine. Just thought you were carrying the highpower on the ankle as a backup. The ever 30-30 is still probably the best value for the money used gun you can buy. And they do not make other folks have panic attacks.

  23. Great article, but my prior ignorance forcse me to comment. Never had a use for a 32, my cousin had one of the little wimpy guns. So, I ran the ballistics on the new Hornady round and it shows +2 at 100 and dead on at 200. It shows over 1,300 lbs at 200 and over 1,000 ft pounds at 300. Then I ran the Hornady numbers for the famous 300 BLK, wow. The 32 shoots a 165 grain at 2,400, the 300 shoot a 110 at 2,400. At 200 yards the 32 has more energy than the 300 BLK has at the muzzle. The 300 drops below that magical 1,000 foot pounds about 100 yards. if you believe in the foot pounds on target theory, the 32 special has twice the effective range of the 300 BLK. Google it for yourself.

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