If you had told Oliver Winchester that the .44-40 cartridge would still be going strong 95 years after the last Model 1873 rifle came off the production line, I doubt that he would have believed you. Up until the .44-40 came along, most cartridges were proprietary. Gun companies developed them for use in their own specific guns. But the popularity of the Winchester 1873 rifle guaranteed that .44-40 rounds would be available at every general store and trading post in the country.
Other gun manufacturers recognized that readily available .44-40 ammunition was a selling point for their firearms as well, and they quickly climbed on the .44-40 bandwagon. During the last quarter of the 19th century, just about every major firearms manufacturer had at least one model chambered for the Winchester round. This makes life easier for those of us who like to shoot antique arms.
The popularity of the .44-40 cartridge started to fade after the Winchester Model 1894 rifle came out in the flatter-shooting .30-30 chambering. But the big .44-40 remained popular with handgunners as a reliable man-stopper well into the 20th century. It wasn’t until 1934, when the .357 Mag hit the scene, that the .44-40 started its slide into obscurity.
Of course, so many guns had been chambered for the round in its heyday that the .44-40 round never disappeared. It just left the limelight. The birth of Cowboy Action Shooting in the 1980s awakened new interest in the old round, especially with blackpowder shooters who compete in the Frontier Cartridge category.
If I had my way, every blackpowder competitor would shoot the .44-40 cartridge because it is far superior to both the .38 Special and the .45 Colt when it comes to handling the “Holy Black.” The slight bottleneck in the .44-40’s case, coupled with its thin brass case mouth, allows it to expand and really seal the chamber from blowback. So the blackpowder fouling goes down the barrel rather than being blown back into your action.
A lot of people shy away from the .44-40 because it has a reputation of being difficult to reload. And, sadly, that reputation is well earned. Loading good .44-40 ammunition requires more attention to technique than cartridges like the .38 Special. But, with the proper technique and attention to detail, loading .44-40 can be a trouble-free operation. I think part of the problem is that people mentally approach the .44-40 as if it was a pistol cartridge. You are much better off when you realize that the .44-40 is a bottlenecked rifle cartridge, just like a .223 or a .308, and that the same rules apply.
For instance, while most people are aware that, as a bottlenecked case, the .44-40 has to be lubed prior to running it into the sizing die, many of those same people never check for excessive case length. They really should. In my experience, .44-40s do stretch. The maximum case length for the .44-40 is 1.305 inches. I’ve found that when cases hit or exceed that length, I’ll have trouble inserting the reloaded cartridges into revolver chambers because a little of the brass case is intruding into the chamber throat. That is especially true if I’m loading with 0.429-inch bullets. I check my brass and trim any shells that hit 1.300 inches or greater. A few turns on my case trimmer returns them to their original 1.295-inch length. I use an old .44-40 cylinder as a case gauge. I drop loaded rounds into the chambers. If they don’t easily drop all the way into the chamber, I put those rounds aside.
The other factor that complicates .44-40 reloading is bullet diameter. The official bullet diameter for .44-40 is 0.427 inches. But lots of guns, especially Italian-made Winchester and Colt clones, have the same 0.429-inch bores that those gun-makers used on their .44 Special- and .44 Mag-chambered guns. When it comes to 19th century re-volvers, it seems that 0.425-inch chamber mouths are the norm. My buddy Jay Harrell, aka “Roughshod,” measured the chamber mouths on one of his first-generation Colts for me, and it has 0.425-inch chamber mouths, and I can vouch for the fact that both my 1878 vintage Merwin Hulbert and my 1882 vintage Smith & Wesson Double Action Frontier Model have 0.425-inch chamber mouths, while both my modern Italian-made, .44-40 single-action revolvers have 0.430-inch chamber mouths.
So, given all that, which bullet size should you use? I have to admit that my own thinking on this has evolved, coming full circle over the last few years. When all my .44-40 guns were Italian made, I loaded only 0.429-inch bullets. Since I also reload .44 Colt, .44 Russian, .44 Special and .44 Mag ammunition, this made life easier for me. I sized every bullet for 0.429 inches, and loaded the same bullets in every .44 caliber. I didn’t have any problems until I borrowed my friend Jay’s 19th century Colt Lightning rifle. That gun will not chamber a .44-40 round with a bullet larger than 0.427 inches. Then I got a USFA-made Lightning rifle clone. It also did not like chambering rounds with 0.429-inch bullets, though it would do it if you used enough force. So I found myself loading batches of 0.427-inch bullets just for the Lightning rifles.
After a while I wondered how much of a difference those 0.002 inches really made. So, I loaded a bunch of .44-40 with 200-grain Mav Dutchman bullets sized for 0.427 inches, and I loaded another batch using the same bullet sized to 0.429 inches. They were all loaded over 33 grains of Goex 2Fg black powder, lit off by a Federal large magnum pistol primer.
The results surprised me. The two bullets shot virtually identical groups with just about every gun that I tried. The only gun that showed a big difference was the 19th century Merwin Hulbert. Surprisingly, that gun shot much better with 0.429-inch bullets despite having 0.425-inch chamber mouths. My average groups with 0.427-inch bullets were 3.25 inches, but going up to 0.427-inch bullets shrunk groups down 2.5 inches.
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The results with the Merwin not withstanding, I thought that if 0.427-inch bullets shoot as well as 0.429-inch bullets, I might as well just load .427s because the 0.427-inch bullets chamber easily in every gun I own. So, for a couple of years I loaded .44-40 cartridges exclusively with 0.427-inch bullets. Even though accuracy is virtually identical, I did notice that I was getting more leading using 0.427-inch bullets in my Italian-made guns, and since most of my .44-40-chambered guns are of Italian origin, that was not a good thing. So last year I went back to 0.429-inch slugs for most of my .44-40s. I do keep 100 rounds loaded with 0.427-inch bullets for use in my Lightning. But, for the most part, .429 is my go-to diameter for .44-40.
Loading with 0.429-inch bullets is pretty straightforward, but you should swap out the expander plug in your die set for a .44 Mag expander plug. That will go a long
way towards preventing crushed case necks during bullet seating. Also, I recommend using a Lee Factory Crimp Die in your final loading station. With the thin brass on .44-40s, roll crimps have a tendency to bulge.
Nominally, the .44-40 designation means the cartridge fires a .44 caliber bullet propelled by 40 grains of black powder. That was possible because early cartridge cases in the 19th century had hollow case heads. These balloon head cases, as they were known, hold a lot more powder than our modern solid head cases. As I said earlier, I load .44-40 rounds with 33 grains of Goex 2Fg black powder, and that is really as much as I can get into a .44-40 case and still seat a bullet.
I know there are some people who advocate using 3Fg powder for every cartridge. But if that were really the best way to go, powder companies would make nothing but 3Fg. They make different grades of powder for a reason. I find that I get my most consistent results using 2Fg powder in .44-40 cases. Believe me, you give nothing up in the velocity department by using 2Fg. Out of the 7½-inch barrel on my Pietta SAA clone, I’m pushing a 200-grain bullet at 910 fps. That’s my idea of a cowboy load.
I’ve been loading .44-40 cartridges with black powder for 20 years, and if I had to summarize the tricks that have made my life easier, it would boil down to four things. Keep an eye on case length. Use a 0.429-inch expander plug. Shoot 0.429-inch bullets whenever you can. And finally, use 2Fg powder and magnum primers. By following these simple rules, I’ve been able to keep my replicas and my 19th century originals shooting .44-40s with no problems.
This article originally published in the Fall 2014 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.
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