Pistol Powder vs Rifle Powder for the 44-40 Cartridge, and others......

  • Last Post 18 February 2023
Bryan Austin posted this 03 February 2023

More vintage data on the still newer smokeless powders...only 20 old years at the time...and still confusion between fast burning pistol powders vs slower burning rifle powders being used in pistol sized cartridges.

I did not say Pistol Cartridges nor did I say Pistol Caliber, I said PISTOL SIZED CARTRIDGES

I reiterate;

The 44 W.C.F. cartridge came into this would as a black powder pistol sized rifle cartridge used in both revolvers and rifles by the late 1870's. After 1895, the 44 W.C.F., now referred to as the 44-40 by nearly everyone, was loaded with a smokeless rifle powder load and used in both revolvers and rifles.

The smokeless rifle powders at that time directly replaced black powder bulk for bulk but at nearly half the weight. For the Winchester 44 W.C.F. cartridge, this powder was Dupont No. 2. Winchester did not load the 44-40 cartridge with fast burning pistol powders until well after WWII. By 1976, the 44-40 cartridge was neutered as a rifle cartridge....and here is why.

Jan. 1918 Issue of Outdoor Life :

Editor —Just a hurried note before mail hits here....

...Just another little matter and will close for this time. This relates to reloading the .44-40 Winchester cartridge satisfactorily for a revolver which it has been intimated [to imply or hint] could not be done. With good shells, ideal tools and DuPont No. 80 powder [a Sporting Rifle Powder], I can turn out cartridges which are perfectly satisfactory for me. This is not saying the other fellow might fail to secure satisfactory results with other tools, inferior shells or any old powder he might happen to have. If , however, you contemplate loading with half a dozen different loads better get a gun using a straight shell like the .44 S. & W. Special but for full grown loads the Du Pont No.80 in the .44-40 suits me. Same when used in the .45 Colt.


[note: SR No.80 (introduced 1913) had load data for both rifle and revolver, this powder was a bit faster burning than Dupont No.2 but slower than pistol powders]


This is a perfect example on why the problem with performance back then was completely opposite than it is now. Back then the 44-40 was loaded as a rifle cartridge (rifle powder), giving poor performance in revolvers...but now it is loaded as a revolver cartridge (pistol powder)...giving poor performance in rifles.

Even during 1937, Sharpe explains the same thing that Haines wrote;

Sharpe's 1937 Handloading Manual,

" The 44-40 is capable of excellent performance when loaded properly for handgun use [fast burning pistol powders]. If, however, one endeavors to combine loading for both handgun and rifle in this caliber, he is destined to meet with only mediocre success. As in all other dual-purpose cartridges, the factory loads are only a compromise at best. Smokeless-powder loading for handguns requires a much more rapid-burning type than loading for rifle use, as the short barrel must burn all the powder if satisfactory results are to be achieved..... " Thus the reason for modern mediocre factory loads using pistol powders."

Meaning that mediocre pistol powder loads results in low performance in both revolvers and rifles, thus the neutered gem that once was a powerhouse, both up close and at longer ranges.....is nothing more than a misunderstood cowboy mouse fart!

In other words, if the shooter wants max performance in both rifle and revolver, the rifle must be loaded with rifle powder and the revolver loaded with pistol powder.




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Ed Harris posted this 03 February 2023

Applying this to the powders available today 4227 and #2400 appear the best compromise for satisfactory dual use in both rifles and revolvers. 4198 and RL7 are optimum for rifle use, and can be used safely in handguns, if you can accept some sunburned powder.

The fast-burning pistol and shotgun powders such as Bullseye, Titegroup, WST, 231, Unique, WSF, Power Pistol, Autocomp and Herco produce normal pressures and velocities, but charges must be carefully determined, to stay within safe limits for the older guns. Pressure tested starting load data developed in the .44 Magnum not exceeding 20,000 psi can be used safely in .44-40 modern Winchester 92, Marlin 1894 rifles and Colt SA clones by Uberti or Pietta.

73 de KE4SKY In Home Mix We Trust From the Home of Ed's Red in "Almost Heaven" West Virginia

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Bryan Austin posted this 03 February 2023

Excellent reply Ed, thanks!!

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RicinYakima posted this 03 February 2023

And this applies to the 38 WCF and 32 WCF, as they were rifle loads. Everything said above also applies to the other two dash-cartridges. 25/20 is the exception as it was never used in the revolver. By the late 1920's for Colt and 1930's for S&W the 32 WCF was called the 32/20, the same as the Marlin. 

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Aaron posted this 04 February 2023


I respectfully posit that "pistol sized" cartridges of the era were the size of the 38 Colt (short colt) or the 32 caliber offerings, both in caliber and cartridge length. The 44 WCF was introduced for a rifle with a 1.6" breech opening limiting its length. I believe it was, in fact, first introduced for this family of rifles (1866 & 1873) with toggle link actions thereby, by default, making it a rifle sized cartridge which eventually found its way into revolvers.

Factory produced cartridges of the day utilized propellants for their suitability in both ballistic parameters as well as steel quality of the barrels and actions. That era also saw unprecedented improvements in all manner of arms production which defied all recognized marketing trends, production methods, material quality, and of course customer expectations. I believe we saw the very first "market driven" responses by factory arms and ammunition producers to stay ahead of the competition and give the consuming public what it so desperately desired. Faster. Higher. Cheaper.

But I digress. Doesn't the fact that the cartridge was produced for the 1866 rifle make it by default a rifle sized cartridge? Albeit a small one limited in length only by the arm firing it.

With rifle in hand, I confidently go forth into the darkness.

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Bryan Austin posted this 04 February 2023

In regards to the designations, it is widely known that if the cartridge was designed for rifle use, it is designated a "rifle cartridge". If designed for pistol use, it is designated as a "pistol cartridge". It is no secret that people, over time, like to change the definition of things in order to suit them better. What is an antique?

Interestingly enough when I owned a 1937 Fairchild 24G airplane, it was considered an "antique" for aircraft category judging, but the same airplane built after 1945 was considered only as a 'classic". Some people changed the designation of antique to an airplane made before or designed before 1945. People change the definitions to better suit their needs.

In the case of the 44-40, it is a "pistol sized" rifle cartridge that can be used in pistols. In the case of the 44 Magnum, it is a pistol cartridge that can be used in rifles...same with the 50 BMG...rifle cartridge that some dare to use in pistols!  Now days, it's the same for pretty much all cartridges....a 45-70 is a rifle cartridge that can be used in a derringer!!  Length is no longer an issue when adapting nearly all rifle cartridges for use in pistols as well as intended pistols cartridges for use in rifles.

During 1879 Winchester started separating cartridges in classification "A" and "B" and added the 44-40 and 38-40 cartridges to the "A" Central Fire Cartridge "Pistol Size" classification rather than the Military and Sporting classification as a marketing technique aimed at for "more liberal discounts" were allowed the trade since both rifle and revolver could chamber the cartridge.

The below from G. R. Watrus from 1943, whom worked with Winchester since 1900. In this book, "Winchester Metallic Ammunition, Brass and Paper Shot Shells...much of the information as came from other Winchester employees;

  • Paul Bollensanger - since 1897
  • V. E. Rosien - since 1903
  • M. A. Robinson - since 1904
  • C. L. Write - since 1912
  • A. W. Earle - 1883-1919
  • John Gardner - 1883-1908
  • H. O. Whitney - 1884-1939
  • H. C. Trecartin - 1886-1925
  • H. B. Dow - 1887-1909

Thus, if not for Colt chambering both during that time in revolvers, both would have been listed under classification "B" Military & Sporting Center Fire Cartridges.

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Bryan Austin posted this 14 February 2023

Interestingly enough, here is another article...this one from 1916.

When using smokeless powders, another vintage reference to different loads for rifle/revolver (44-40) to maintain best performance from each. Several other articles I found between 1916 and 1925 also talk much about the 45 Colt, 44-40 and 44 Special, of which they typically stated that the 45 Colt ammo was much harder to find and much more expensive than the 44-40. One example, the author never could find any 45 Colt cartridges in his city thus he always suggested, when questioned, for folks to get the 44-40 chambered firearms. The same with the ammunition....44-40 chambered firearms and ammunition were all over the place but no 45 Colt revolvers to be found. Interesting!!


Fur News and Outdoor World, July 1916

Revolvers of Heavy Calibers ~ Maurice H. Decker



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Bryan Austin posted this 18 February 2023

Here is another, among many, vintage articles/Q&A, etc examples about the 44-40 as used in revolvers vs rifles.

Outdoor Life, April 1915

I am going to be on the range, where there are some wolves, coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions and once in a while a bear. I want to buy a six-shooter for carrying with me ev ery day, but consider a .38 Special too small and never see anything in these columns about the .44-40, shooting 40 grains black powder and a 200- grain lead bullet. How does this cartridge compare with the .38 S. & W. Spe cial for accuracy, penetration and killing power with same length barrel, 6 - inch? want a Smith & Wesson 1908 Model gun, double action, and will have to have one made to order, or do they put out such a gun? Have had a .38 S. & W. and find it a fine gun for accuracy, but sold it. Would like your opinion as to which you think the best for my purpose? Also would you ad vise having target sights put on when us ing the gun on the range every day? Also, what is the best length of barrel?-A. C. McFarland, Albuquerque, N. M.

Answer. The .38 S. & W. Special is unex celled for accuracy and in all probability for penetration. But you mentioned black bear. This calls for smashing power and for a more powerful cartridge. At the risk of being mobbed by the delighted owners of those weapons we pronounce the .38-40 and .44-40 decidedly inferior to the .45 Colt. The difficulty with the .38 and .44 is, they are rifle cartridges and intended to be used in a 24-inch barrel without any vent at the rear end. They are so loaded as to give the best results when so used. This involves the use of a powder of such fineness of grain as will just be nicely burned up when the bullet leaves the muzzle of that 24 - inch barrel. When we come to put the same charge in a revolver we find as soon as the bullet clears the cylinder the gas begins to squirt out between cylinder and barrel, thus reducing pressure and slowing up still more the rate of burning, while within eight inches of that point the bullet leaves the muzzle accompanied by so much of the powder as had not been burned. This shell could be loaded with a less quantity of a finer grained powder and a heavier bullet, and thus be made into a revolver cartridge, but they don't do it. The trouble encountered is the same as with the .22 Colt Police Positive when it was first put out for the .22 W. R. F. cartridge. The cartridge was made to be used in a long rifle barrel; the powder would not all burn in the short re volver barrel. For such work as you wish the writer would recommend either a Colt or Smith & Wesson revolver using the .44 S. & W. Russian cartridge in case you wish to reload your shells and the .45 Colt in case you do not. The .44 S. & W. Russian cartridge has been developed smokeless load to the extent to which the 45 Colt has, hence we know little of the efficiency of the factory load, but it is capable of being loaded to give the best results of any of our present cartridges. As a black powder cartridge it lacked powder room to give good velocity, but with smokeless powder it gives the best results for this very reason. As to the model of gun to use, by writing Smith & Wesson at Springfield, Mass. , or Colt Patent Firearms Mfg. Co., of Hartford, Conn. , they will advise you as to what they can furnish. -Editor.


On a side note, Sharp's 1937 handloading manual shows such loads and bullets used in 44-40 revolvers recommended by Hercules Powder Company. From 244gr lead to 250gr lead bullets using Bullseye and Unique smokeless pistol powders. The results are listed as 935fps and 965fps respectively with a charge of Unique smokeless powder that results chamber pressures at 15,000 cup, 2,000 cup higher than SAAMI MAP.

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Bryan Austin posted this 18 February 2023

Google digitalized library "Share This Clip" function for Text, Images and Embedded items are used in my online research, current and past. But I have to add the dates and manipulate some things for appearance and to give credit.

This is the share as an image/s function;


Keep in mind this guy is referring to bear hunting, not self defense! Shooting a bear and it running 100 yards to die is hunting...not self defense from a bear attack!


Rifle vs Revolver performance with the same rifle cartridge. Pay close attention to the editors "Note" comments.


Outdoor Life, June 1915


Also note that the Dupont No. 2 rifle powder used in the 44-40 can also be used in revolvers during the time of this article. Winchester never changed their Dupont No. 2 bulk powder 44-40 loads between 1895 and 1925. I am not 100 % sure about the 38-40 loading at the time but feel they would be the same.


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