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Case Histories: 44-40 WCF First Footing

Case Histories: 44-40 WCF First Footing

You’ve almost certainly heard of ‘the gun that Won the West’ – the Winchester Model ‘73 Lever Action. Well, this is the cartridge for which most of them were chambered. Indeed, this ground breaking calibre played a significant role in helping to establish the guns’ reputation. It is of course the remarkable 44-40 WCF (Winchester Centre Fire) aka 44 Largo.

SON OF HENRY, BORN BLACK

The double barrelled title gives us a clue to the nature of the design. A notional 44 calibre and 40 grains of black powder. However, there’s much more to it than that – this was actually the first rimmed metallic centrefire cartridge produced by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, launched in conjunction with the famous rifle. It is actually a semi-bottlenecked case with rather subtle dimensions, which can cause problems for hand loaders!

The 1873’s predecessor, the Model 1866 was chambered for a modest rimfire cartridge, the copper-cased .44 Henry of 1860. The Henry had the same pill weight, a 200gn lead truncated cone. However, and though sharing the ‘44’ nomenclature this used a heeled bullet of .446 diameter - unlike the standard .427” straight bullet design of the .44-40.

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MULTI-ROLE POTENTIAL

The performance of this rifle/cartridge combination marked a significant milestone in arms development. The 1230 fps, 675 ft/lbs delivered from the 200gn pill quickly established the 44-40 as the ‘must have’ product of the day. The prompt introduction of the Colt Single Action Army revolver, chambered for the same cartridge and giving 900 fps took the application potential to a new level. Other rifle makers were quick to grab a slice of the cake, most notably Remington and Marlin, with Remington also playing revolver catch-up with their Model 1875 Single Action.

We see, read and hear many references to American frontier use of the trusty ‘44’. In truth, that rather ambiguous title almost always referred to the .44-40. However, there were ‘overpower’ issues with some of the .44-40 product designed for the rifle but used in the revolver, not that the average frontiersman took much notice. One of the best known of these was showman and army scout, William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody who carried a Winchester Model 1873 and a pair of Colt New Frontier revolvers in .44-40 and presumably, one ammo bag! That ultimately led to a degree of product regulation between Winchester, UMC and the later makers of this cartridge. The introduction of a heavier bullet, the 217 grain and the later move to nitro propellants made this safety distinction even more important. Today, with stronger firearms, modern powders and a suitable reduction in terminal performance we’re back to ‘one round safely fits all’ again.

MAKING IT FIT

The rise of Cowboy Action Shooting has helped to refocus the attention of a new generation on this calibre. Dies and all necessary tools are widely available, together with a decent choice of commercially cast lead .427” pills, mainly 200gn but also 215 and heavier. Lyman and others offer moulds to suit. If you own a 3rd Edition Hornady manual, you’ll need to buy another one to find the calibre. With a black powder pedigree the generous case capacity offers the handloading flexibility to suit every possible barrel length. Handloading downside is the relative fragility of the case, exacerbated by extraction damage from lever action use and neck stress failure due to inadvertent, over depth neck resizing. Plus be very careful with crimping too. Buy yourself a chunk of 140-year old history and have some real fun.

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