By: M. L. McPherson

Synopsis: Debate over the ballistic virtues and superiority of one chambering verses another are common. The discussion comparing the 30-30 Winchester to the 32 Winchester Special demonstrates that these debates have been going on for a long, long time.

Recently, I came on one of those buys that sets one's head spinning. We were killing an hour at a gun store across town - waiting for rush hour traffic to clear before heading home. I moseyed over to the used gun rack and there it was a truly special rifle!

The tang on this Marlin was marked, Model 1936. Its barrel read 32 Special. BY opening the finger-lever I exposed the serial number on the underside of the tang, 303! Overall, though obviously used, the rifle was in surprisingly good condition, with no signs of abuse.

It was one of those situations, perhaps typical. I wanted this rifle, whatever the price but, being typically broke, I simply could not afford to buy anything. After heaving a sigh of resignation, I turned the price tag over - $189. I wanted to scream.

Instead, I dejectedly made my way home. I casually mentioned the incident to my wife. She suggested hocking the car, if necessary, and insisted that I immediately drive back across town and buy that rifle. Never one to argue with the boss, I drove.

It was still there. After a few minutes of dickering, I owned it for $175, tax included.

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special3.jpg (52416 bytes)

I have long wondered why the 32 Winchester Special chambering failed to gain even a reasonable measure of popularity, while its parent cartridge, the venerable 30 WCF (Winchester Center Fire), is still going strong after 100 years.

The 30 WCF is more commonly referred to these days as the 30-30. This designation is reportedly a reflection of the caliber and the original charge of the available smokeless powder. This, in turn, reflects a carry-over from earlier and quite useful blackpowder cartridge designations, e.g., 45-70-500 for 45-caliber, 70-grains blackpowder and 500-grain (cast lead) bullet.

As with so many things in this old world, sometimes what seems an established fact turns out - upon closer examination - to be erroneous. Someone makes a statement - perhaps an opinion based on nothing but conjecture. Someone hears this opinion, assumes it to be true and repeats it - as if it were a fact. Someone else hears this "fact" and prints it. Voilą, something that started as nothing but conjecture eventually becomes a well-known fact.

Here are the basics of the oft printed "facts" explaining the impetus behind Winchester's invention of the 32 Winchester Special (WS):

It is said folks had been trying blackpowder handloads in the 30-30 and were having trouble with powder fouling because of the small bore and unusually fast rifling twist, compared to typical blackpowder bores. It is claimed that Winchester introduced the 32 WS, to provide a similar chambering that was more amenable to blackpowder loads. This cartridge, simply the 30-30 case necked up and chambered in a barrel with a significantly slower rifling twist (1/16 versus 1/12), works well with blackpowder.

The 32 WS does have a slower rifling rate - 1:16-inch compared to 1:12-inch for the 30-30 - and its bigger bore should be less prone to powder fouling. Therefore, this explanation seems plausible enough. For why else should Winchester introduce a cartridge so similar to its already extremely popular 30-30?

Several years ago, I came upon a copy of Winchester's 1916 catalogue. Imagine my surprise when I found the following detailed explanation as to why Winchester had introduced the 32 Winchester Special:

The .32 Winchester Special cartridge, which we have perfected, is offered to meet the demand of many sportsmen for a smokeless powder cartridge of larger caliber than the .30 Winchester [original name for the 30-30] and yet not so powerful as the .30 Army [now known as the 30-40 Krag].

That was the entire explanation! There was not so much as a hint about any connection to using blackpowder reloads, facilitating handloading or other such nonsense!

The catalogue went on with a simple explanation of why the 32 WS was able to deliver a significant increase in power, when loaded at the same pressure, compared to the 30-30. Published ballistics in that catalogue verified this claim. The 32 WS was credited with generating about 10.6% more muzzle energy than its progenitor.

After considering pertinent facts and upon reflection, I suspect most would agree: The evidently invented story is unfounded, perhaps even a bit ridiculous.

In the first place, why would Winchester make any effort to help anyone avoid buying Winchester ammunition? This makes no sense. In the second place, it was only very recently that any of the major ammunition manufacturers finally faced the music and joined us handloaders, rather than fighting us. To the later point, Winchester's 1916 catalogue lists and analyzes gun and shooting related items from A to Z, in amazing variety and diversity. Nevertheless, there is not so much as a single mention of handloading, despite listing of various components. Yes, Winchester wanted to be in on the sales of handloading components but they certainly were not anxious to encourage the practice.

Finally - and perhaps most telling, why would Winchester have reinvented the wheel, so to speak? From the very beginning, the Model-94 was offered in the blackpowder 32-40 chambering. The 32-40 uses a tapered version of the same basic case as the 30-30 and 32 WS - first came the straight-sided 38-55, then the tapered 32-40, then the 30-30 and finally the 32 WS. Those who wanted to save money by reloading with blackpowder most likely would have - and certainly should have - purchased the less expensive 32-40 - at $18 versus $23, the difference in cost would have paid for enough components to make about 500 reloads.

In earlier catalogues, Winchester did mention that the 32 WS could be successfully handloaded using blackpowder, they even offered a replacement sight designed to work with blackpowder loads. So what? It was true that the 32 WS could use blackpowder to advantage while the 30-30 could not, so Winchester advertised the fact. Is that equivalent to proving that they invented the 32 WS for the sole benefit of blackpowder handloaders? I think not.

Again, those with that interest would have been better served by buying the less expensive 32-40 chambered version of the same rifle, which not incidentally used the same bore and twist as the 32 WS. To me the answer is obvious, Winchester simply bored and rifled their high-strength steel using the same tooling as with the well-established 32-40 and then chambered that tougher barrel for a necked-up version of the 30-30.

The 30-30 was designed by improving and necking down the 32-40 a cartridge that was well established when Mr. Browning designed the Model-94 and the cartridge around which he designed that action. As the story goes, Browning never intended the rifle to chamber smokeless cartridges. Folks at Winchester, recognizing the massive safety margin of his design, built the rifle of nickel-steel and invented a new smokeless chambering to be co-introduced with it in 1895. It seems logical that they would modify the case design to prevent these higher-pressure 30-30 loads from being chambered in blackpowder guns. (Here, I have theorized - and I hope this does not someday become the basis of another ill-founded "fact"!)

Enough history, let us compare the 32 WS to its vastly more popular parent and see if we can figure out why the newer chambering never caught on. It has been stated by many pundits - including some who should know better - that these two cartridges are ballistic twins; this just is not true!

The 32 WS and the 30-30 use the same basic case. Both are loaded to the same nominal pressure and are chambered in virtually identical rifles. Here the equality ends.

The 32 WS bullet has an 8.6% greater cross-sectional area. Consequently, it can be loaded to generate significantly more power. This is a matter of basic physics: Equal pressure acting on a greater area through an equal distance will accelerate an equal mass to a greater velocity.

Another significant factor: The 32 WS has more usable powder capacity! This may seem odd, since the cases are nominally identical, excepting neck diameter. The explanation is twofold: When these have the same nose shape and are the same weight, a 0.321-inch diameter 32 WS bullet is shorter than a 0.308-inch diameter 30-30 bullet. Since both cartridges must be loaded to about the same overall length the 32 WS bullet does not enter as far into the case; the difference is worth about 1.2 grains of usable capacity. Furthermore, standards call for 0.01-inch greater overall cartridge length for the 32 WS. This adds another 0.2 grains to usable case capacity. This is a total difference of about 1.4 grains. Since the 30-30 holds about 35 grains of powder, this difference exceeds 4%.

Finally, the slower rifling rate in the 32 WS spins the bullet slower. Spinning of the 32 WS bullet consumes on about 60% of the energy that spinning the 30-30 does. With less energy used to spin the bullet, more is available to accelerate it. This effect, while minor, is real.

Unquestionably, and despite contrary claims by so-called experts: the 32 WS, when properly loaded to the same pressure and when used in rifles with the same length barrel, will easily generate 14% more muzzle energy than the 30-30. That significantly exceeds the difference between the 280 Remington and the 7mm Remington Magnum! External and terminal ballistics are another matter.

The following tables assume 170-grain bullets with the same nose profiles (such as the applicable Speer bullets). For this data, the 32 WS is arbitrarily given a conservative 10% advantage in muzzle energy. As noted earlier, this agrees with early factory data and theoretical results. Further, based on modern handloading data (see table one), this is a very conservative difference.

Table one (1989 Winchester data):

Load Powder Bullet Velocity Energy  Pressure
30-30 W748 170 2145 fps  1735 ft-lb 36,000 CUP
32 WS W748 170 2240 fps 1893 ft-lb 32,500 CUP

It is certainly possible that some slightly better powder choice might increase the 30-30's power a few percent without increasing pressure above this SAAMI maximum of 36,000 CUP (Copper Units of Pressure). However, it seems unlikely one could gain the full 9% it would take to equal this 32 Special load, which is fully 10% below the SAAMI pressure limit! Conversely, simply increasing the charge in the 32 WS load, as necessary to achieve full SAAMI pressure, would result in a muzzle velocity increase of 112-fps.

Modern factory ammunition data does not give the 32 WS much of an edge because current factory 32 WS loads are held to significantly lower pressure than factory 30-30 loads! Since the oldest 32 WS rifles are somewhat newer and presumably in better repair than the oldest 30-30 rifles, I can see no sense to this approach.

When of equal weight and similar shape, 30-30 bullets do have a higher BC and therefore retain velocity better. The question is, within practical hunting ranges for these guns, does this BC advantage overcome the initial velocity edge of the 32 WS. Compare the following data and draw your own conclusions.

TRAJECTORY DATA: 30-30, 170-grain

RANGE yards 0 50  100 150   200  250 300 350
Velocity   fps 2150  2021 1896 1777 1664 1556  1455 1363
Energy  ft-lb 1745 1541 1356 1192 1045 914 799 701
Path (LOS)  inches -0.7  2.1  2.9 1.3  -3.2 -10.8  -21.8 -37.1
5-mph Wind Drift  inches  0.0 0.2  0.7 1.8 3.4  5.5 8.0 11.3

Maximum range for bullet path = +\- 3-inch, 198 yards with Zero at 168 yards.

TRAJECTORY DATA, 32 WS, 170-grain

RANGE yards 0 50  100 150   200  250 300 350
Velocity   fps 2255 2111 1973 1839 1714 1595 1482 1379
Energy  ft-lb 1919 1682 1469 1277 1109 960  829  718
Path (LOS)  inches -0.7 2.1 3.0  1.6  -2.4 -9.3  -19.5 -33.8
5-mph Wind Drift  inches  0.0  0.2  0.8 1.8 3.5  5.7 8.3 11.7

Maximum range for bullet path = +\- 3-inch, 205 yards with Zero at 175 yards

NOTE: This data assumes a very conservative 10% muzzle-energy advantage for the 32 WS with identical nose profiles for bullets. If loaded to the same pressure with best modern powders, the 32 WS advantage is quite significant.

There you have it: a bullet form the 32 WS is still going faster at 350 yards, which is far beyond what most of us would consider the useful range for this type of rifle! This much is clearly demonstrated: at any reasonable hunting range, the 32 WS shoots flatter (with the traditional 170-grains loads) and delivers more energy than the 30-30.

Terminal ballistics are a bit harder to figure. With modern practices and understanding, it should be a simple matter to construct either bullet so that it provides desirable terminal performance. In the early days of the 32 WS, this may not have been the case. If 30-30 bullets were marginally stable, in terms of holding together on impact, similarly constructed 32 WS bullets may have been prone to failures. If this were true, word would have gotten around. I have no reason to suspect that this happened. It should not have - other hunting cartridges of the era worked at significantly higher velocities - but it may have been an explanation as to why the 32 WS failed to compete.

I discovered one other possible explanation several years ago. I came upon part of a box of 32 WS cartridges that must have been made in the earliest years of this century. These loads feature an oversize primer - 0.25-inch diameter, which has a window in the copper (?) cup. A brass (?) disk - with a "W" stamped on it - obturates this window. These semi-balloon head cases are headstamped W.R.A. Co. above, 32 W. S. below. Topping things off is a nickel-plated jacketed flat point bullet with a "W" stamped on the jacket. Shaking one of these cartridges reveals a somewhat loose charge of smokeless powder.

The box these cartridges came in was rotted and abused beyond recognition and I felt there was no great collector value so, just for fun, I chronographed three rounds.

Each fired with an interesting sound: "Click, bang, tu-tu-tu." Yes, every shot was an audible hang-fire and each sounded as though the bullet tumbled upon leaving the barrel - and I am certain that it did because the bullets never hit the target! All gave respectable (considering the age of these loads) and similar muzzle velocity - average MV was 1900 fps.

Why should these bullets tumble? Examination of the remaining loads revealed the puzzling answer. Maximum diameter of every bullet was 0.318 inches, which is quite odd for loads intended for use in a 0.321-inch bore. With the worn bore in the well used and somewhat abused Winchester '94 in which I tested those loads, those undersize bullets had no chance of catching the rifling without obturating. Obviously the load did not generate sufficient pressure to cause full obturation and the bullet therefore tumbled - accuracy was nonexistent.

Now the ninety-four-million-dollar question: Why should Winchester deliberately load 32 WS ammunition using a too-small bullet? As far out at it may seem, I can imagine only one explanation, that is the 8mm Mauser! What in thunder, you may ask, has the 8mm Mauser to do with Winchester loading undersize bullets in the 32 WS?

Well, here is one possibility. When originally introduced, the 8mm Mauser was loaded with a heavy 0.318-inch round-nose bullet and the rifle was equipped with a shallowly rifled barrel. When a lighter pointed-bullet load was adopted, a new rifling specification was also adopted. In the newer design, the lands were the same diameter but the groves were opened to 0.323-inch. This provided longer barrel life before accuracy dropped off significantly, this was important in those days of soft steel and somewhat corrosive and erosive loads. This design also made it possible to shoot the older 0.318-inch bullets through the newer barrel with reasonable accuracy. While European manufacturers adopted separate 8mm Mauser loads, US manufacturers stayed with the 0.318-inch bullet.

I do not know if Winchester was loading for the 8mm Mauser when they made the 32 WS cartridges I tested and measured. Again, it seems a long shot but why else should the bullets in these 32 WS cartridges be made undersize and at the exact diameter used for early 8mm Mauser bullets? Perhaps Winchester was saving a bit of money by using the same sizing dies for both 8mm and 32 WS bullets. Whatever the reason, it is likely these undersize bullets shot okay in new, 0.321-inch, 32 WS barrels. However, as noted, 0.318-inch bullets do not shoot worth a hoot in a well worn 32 WS barrel.

The 32 Special has been branded as, "Prone to losing accuracy," after its barrel sees lots of use. When undersize bullets are used, that is a fact. On the other hand, the 30-30 is said to maintain useful accuracy, practically forever - I suspect this is also quite true. However, when correct diameter bullets are used, even well worn 32 WS rifles shoot just fine. The same abused '94 noted above shoots surprisingly small groups when any correct-diameter bullet is tested, so does my Marlin 1936.

So why did 32 WS rifles fail to sell? Several market forces worked against it. First, I suspect that most folks felt no the need for more power than the 30-30 offered - of those who did, most probably wanted a lot more power. Winchester would have been better off if they had pushed 32 WS loads to the same pressure level as the 30-30, that additional 50 fps would have mattered. Second, the 30-30 had a significant marketing edge. When the 32 WS came along, the 30-30 was already well established as the original high-velocity hunting cartridge and 30-30 ammunition was much more readily available. Dealers were less apt to order 32 WS chambered rifles. Since hunters seldom saw a 32 WS rifle, they were less apt to buy one.

An similar situation exists today with the 30-30 and 35 Remington. For many years, Marlin has offered the Model-336 in both chamberings. Although the 35 Remington is almost certainly a better cartridge for the uses for which most hunters would buy a 336, I have never actually seen a 35 Remington chambered Marlin on a new gun rack! This, in spite of examining literally thousands of guns on hundreds of gun racks. Dealers just do not order 35 Remington chambered Marlins into stock. If you want one, you will probably have to special-order it. At least that is the way it is in the west.

One other factor should be mentioned, although I cannot believe it made any real difference: the 32 WS kicks harder! It shoots the same weight bullet faster and the rifle is a few ounces lighter because of the bigger bore. I know of several people today who choose 150-grain 30-30 loads because those do not kick as hard as the 170-grain load. Historically, some hunters may have chosen the 30-30 over the 32 WS for the same reason.

One final thought: Since it was never very popular, ammunition factories were not encouraged to offer different 32 WS loadings. While there has been considerable choice through the years, when it came to 30-30 ammo, one was usually lucky to find even one or two different loads for the 32 WS (all were 170-grain bullets).

What is so "special" about the 32 Winchester Special? Well, to me it is more than just its name. It is the nostalgia and mystique, the romance and speculation of days gone by, all brought into my life by this fine old Marlin.

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special1.jpg (31366 bytes)
This cartridge is rather old. 
Note window in 0.25-inch 
diameter primer cup. 
Even the bullet
jacket has a "W" stamped 
on it!

special2b.jpg (49913 bytes)

Handloads bracket very early Winchester 32 
Winchester Special. Speer's 170-grain Flat Point
has a ballistic coefficient of 0.297. Of all 30-30
bullets offered, only the Speer 170-grain FP has 
a higher BC. At 0.304 versus 0.297, the 
difference is meaningless! These Speer bullets 
are the best offered for either cartridge, the BC 
advantage is so great that these bullets deliver more 
energy at 300 yards than competitive bullets do at 
200 yards! With this Speer bullet loaded at top 
realistic 32 WS velocity, about 2350 fps, this 
cartridge becomes a legitimate 250 to 300 yard 
deer chambering.

special2a.jpg (45235 bytes)
Two factors give the 32 WS about 1.4-grains 
(4%) greater usable capacity than the 30-30: 
Maximum overall length is 0.01 inches greater 
and equal-weight bullets are significantly shorter. 
Pictured are 0.308-inch and 0.321-inch Speer 
170-grain Flat Point bullets.

specialtarget.jpg (39010 bytes)
This level of offhand 25-yard accuracy 
is all that is needed in an open-sighted
hunting rifle. With a rest, I have made 
sub-2-inch, 100-yard, 5-shot groups with this rifle.