The .38-55 Winchester cartridge started out in life as the .38-55 Ballard. It’s also quite similar in appearance to an earlier cartridge called the .38-50 Ballard Everlasting, which was popular among offhand match shooters and other competitors. In June 1895, H.L. Willard used a Ballard rifle chambered in .38-55 to shoot the first perfect 10-shot score on the American Rest Target at 200 yards.
The cartridge began to be noticed by hunters in 1884, when Marlin offered it in the Model 1881 lever-action rifle. Recognizing a good thing, Winchester, Savage, Remington and Colt offered the cartridge in hunting rifles. In fact, the .38-55 and its cousin the .32-40 were the only two chamberings initially offered in the Winchester Model 94 when it was introduced in November 1894.
The original blackpowder loading of the .38-55 was rated at just over 1,300 fps with a 255-grain bullet, but later smokeless powder ammo offered by Winchester, Remington and Peters increased velocity to 1,700 fps or so.
Winchester continues to offer a 255-grain load, but out of respect for the many tired old .38-55 rifles hanging around–many of which were built for low-pressure blackpowder ammo–it is reined back to the original 1,320 fps.
This is plenty fast for rifles such as the Colt Lightning and Marlin 1881, but duplicating the performance of the long-discontinued high-velocity factory ammo through handloading is perfectly safe in smokeless powder rifles such as the Marlin 336, Winchester 94, Savage 99 and Winchester High Wall–as long as actions are tight and headspace is not excessive.
Down through the decades, actual barrel groove diameters of .38-55 rifles have varied considerably. Some are said to have measured as large as .382 inch. Best bet for the owner of an older rifle is to slug the bore and shoot cast bullets sized at groove diameter or perhaps .001 inch larger than groove diameter.
Nominal diameter for jacketed bullets is .375 inch, which explains why some rifles simply refuse to shoot anything other than cast bullets accurately.
However, I’m convinced that has as much to do with chamber pressure as bullet diameter. The barrel of my Marlin has a groove diameter of .379 inch, and accuracy is nothing to brag about when Barnes or Hornady jacketed bullets are loaded to the original .38-55 velocity of 1,300 fps.
But when bullet speed is increased to 1,700 fps and beyond, the rifle settles down and consistently shoots those bullets into two inches at 100 yards. I believe the higher chamber pressure impinging on the bullet bases causes them to obturate and fill the bore–something that doesn’t happen at lower chamber pressures.
Interestingly, Barnes’ jacketed bullet, which is available in both .375- and .377-inch diameters, produces the same accuracy with either diameter in my rifle.
But the fact that high-velocity loads should not be used in many of the older rifles pretty much rules out the use of anything but cast bullets in them. In my rifle I shoot Lyman’s 375248 bullet, cast hard, because I have a mold for it, but the RCBS 37250 bullet is quite similar and wears a gas check to boot.
Since Winchester makes only occasional runs of unprimed .38-55 brass, those who handload the old cartridge are wise to stock up at the first opportunity.
Cases can also be formed by necking up .30-30 or .32 Special brass with a series of tapered expander buttons in a .38-55 full-length resizing die (available from Redding), but doing so is quite time consuming.
The .375 Winchester case can be used, but since it is shorter and therefore less spacious, a reduction in powder charge may be necessary in order to avoid any increase in chamber pressure. Don’t forget that .375 Winchester factory ammo is loaded to considerably higher pressure and should never be fired in a rifle chambered for the .38-55 Winchester.
Standard primers–Winchester WLR, Remington 91/2 and CCI 200–are plenty hot for lighting the .38-55’s fire, and best bets in propellants are medium-fast burners ranging from H4198 to IMR-3031. My favorite is Reloder 7; it works equally well with both low-velocity target loads and high-velocity hunting loads. When used with jacketed bullets it also delivers higher velocities in my rifle than are indicated in some of the reloading manuals.
Not long back I hunted black bear on Vancouver Island with a Marlin Model 336 Cowboy in .38-55 Winchester. I handloaded 30.0 grains of Reloder 7 behind Barnes’ 255-grain Original, which consistently shot inside five inches at 200 yards. When zeroed two inches high at 100 yards it was dead on at 200. I shot my bear at less than 50 yards, and the animal dropped in its tracks–proving that then, as now, the .38-55 sure gets the job done.