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38-40

I'd heard a lot of negatives about reloading this cartridge, many of those negatives being from experienced reloaders/writers. I bought a 38-40 Cimarron (Uberti) SA anyway, and I thought I'd share my own experiences.

The first issue was the supposed fragility of the cases, which were said to be very easily ruined unless special care was taken in the various stages of reloading. Granted that the case mouths are thinner than on most cartridges, but I loaded 500 rounds in new brass with no special (to me) care in components handling, and none were ruined or even damaged.

The real issue that arose was concentricity of the bullets with the case bodies. The standard seating die (Lee in this case, but I have heard that standard seating dies in this caliber from any maker are problematic in the same way) allowed the bullets (and case necks) to laterally displace a little while the bullet was being seated. This resulted in the case bodies and case necks being off-center from each other, just enough to cause chambering problems with about a third of the ammunition. The solution was a competition seating die from Redding - excellent folks to deal with, by the way - which provided for flawlessly concentric assembly of the rounds.

When fired, the cases assumed the dimensions of the chambers. The factory minimum dimensions for the chambers are quite a bit larger than the factory maximum dimensions for the cartridge (I believe this is traced directly to the 38-40's origin as a black powder cartridge, and which provides for an operability of repeating guns in spite of the presence of large amounts of fouling). Most modern reloading dies, however, do not size the cases back to factory cartridge specifications; they size them only to below the minimum chamber specifications (but with an appropriately tight neck). This results in a resized cartridge having a noticeably longer body, different shoulder, and shorter neck than an unfired cartridge. However, when sizing and seating (with the Redding die) is complete, the fired-and-reloaded rounds chamber fine in the Uberti cylinder, and in a spare cylinder that I also have.

Long story short on that part, is that with a Redding competition seating die, producing functionally perfect 38-40 ammunition, without wastage, isn't much of a trick.

I checked the loading data and related advice that is available from a number of loading manuals, and from internet sources. There is a lot of disagreement, relating, I think, to the fact that it is unknown as to just what the ammunition will be used in. Some parties recommend maximum loads that are below other's recommended minimums. The advocates of the stronger loads maintain that a load of too low of a pressure will allow case walls to collapse as the pressure drops, especially in long barrels, resulting in breech leakage (obturation failure) and a stuck bullet. But where 'The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea' scenarios may apply, the gun probably shouldn't be fired at all, and my interest was in what was right for a new chrome-moly gun of competent manufacture. I took a book load from the Lyman manual, known to be responsible in its recommendations, and that was that.

The .38-40 was the third most popular cartridge in the Colt SAA, and also sold strongly in Winchesters and Marlins. The .40 calibers have become popular again in recent times as defense cartridges, but I don't know why a break in that popularity ever occurred. Of the Winchester '73's confiscated from professional Texas gunmen during the Johnson County War, one gun short of half of them were .38-40's. And Bass Reeves, one of the more unsung lawmen who worked for 'Hanging Judge Parker', killed 14 outlaws in gunfights. Reeves used a pair of Colt 38-40's. While it's not as if the 38-40 needs to be resurrected as a defense cartridge (as there are plenty), where a .38-40 exists, especially in the form of a Colt New Service, at least one person is not undergunned.

Comments

  • RCrosbyRCrosby Member Posts: 3,784 ✭✭✭
    edited November -1
    Thanks for the info. I once had a Ruger Blackhawk in 38-40. Don't recall why I let it go. I did have some problems with applying a decent crimp without buckling cases. May just have not been careful enough with my o.a.l. and crimping pressure, but I took the easy way out and got a Lee crimping die. Problem solved. Enjoy your 38-40. It's a good'n.
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