Who’da thunk it? As 2007 dawned, a poll to choose a “most likely” headline for the coming year would probably not have included “Radical Development Transforms .32 Special.” Except for wishful obituaries, headlines involving the .32 Special have been notable by their scarcity from the moment the cartridge was introduced in 1902.
But to everyone’s surprise, Hornady has done just that: The .32 Special will now be available in Hornady’s ground-breaking LeverEvolution ammunition, mating spitzer bullets with high-energy gunpowder to give lever-action rifles a whole new meaning for today’s hunters.
The .32 Special was not on Hornady’s original list for LeverEvolution ammo. It was not even in the company’s future plans. So it was a surprise–albeit a pleasant one–when Hornady announced it. Why? we asked. And our friends at the Grand Island, Nebraska, firm said there was a demand, a lot of it.
The .32 Winchester Special is one of the most underrated and even denigrated cartridges of the past century, and for no good reason. Authorities have delighted in dismissing the .32 WS (as its barrels are marked) as worthless. In 1965, in the first edition of Cartridges of the World, Frank C. Barnes said of the .32, “If there is such a thing as a most useless cartridge, the .32 Spl. would certainly cop the prize.”
Barnes made a number of erroneous statements about the .32, and since Cartridges became the standard reference, many of these claims have been repeated through the years. At the root is a basic misunderstanding of exactly why the .32 was developed and what it was intended to accomplish.
First of all, it was not introduced in 1895 with the Winchester Model 1894, as Barnes stated. As close as I can figure (the dates are vague), it arrived seven years later, in 1902. By that time, the ‘94, the .30-30 and smokeless powder itself were well on their way to acceptance and acclaim, and this is the root of the .32 Special puzzle. Why bring out such a cartridge when you already have the .30-30? After all, the .32 is nothing but the .30-30 necked up about .013 inch (from .308 to .321).
No records survive, so all we can do is try to fit together what we do know. For years, the explanation was that Winchester wanted to provide a cartridge to accommodate those who had a store of black powder to use up. The .30-30 with its 1:12 rifling would not work well, so Winchester necked it up to .32 and changed the rifling to 1:16. The cartridge was called “Special” to differentiate it from the established .32 WCF (.32-20) and the .32-40.
This explanation has been dismissed as senseless because the ‘94 was also offered in .32-40, which was right at home with black powder. And while the .32 Special was certainly more powerful than the .32-40 when loaded with smokeless, there is not really much difference when the two are loaded with black powder. Since a ‘94 in .32-40 cost about half as much as the .32 Special with its nickel-steel barrel, the idea of reloading with black powder for economy’s sake made little sense.
But consider this: In 1902, .308 caliber cartridges were new, few bullet molds were available, and reloading with smokeless powder was discouraged for a variety of reasons. For one thing, the mercuric primers then in use reacted badly with smokeless powder, destroying the brass, while with black powder, mercuric primers worked fine.
There were myriad .32 caliber bullet molds available, and tens of thousands of them already in use, so it made sense for Winchester to appeal to those people by offering the benefits of factory-loaded smokeless ammo combined with the ability to reload using familiar components–none of which applied to the .30-30, .30 calibers generally or smokeless powder.
From the outset, the .30-30 and .32 Special were ballistically very close. Both fired a bullet of about 170 grains. The .32 could achieve its velocity with slightly less pressure, and it is possible to load it to velocities about 100 fps higher without exceeding pressure limits.
Early Winchester ballistics tables gave a velocity advantage to the .32, with an energy edge out to every practical range. A 1938 table shows the .30-30 firing a 165-grain at 2,200 fps from a 26-inch barrel; the .32 WS fired a 165-grain bullet at 2,260 fps.
For years the real and imagined differences between the two cartridges were debated around the woodstove. Some said the .32 sold more in regions where there were black bears as well as deer, others that it made a better moose cartridge. Lovers of the .32 Special defended it; denigrators sneered and insisted there was no practical ballistic difference.
What is unarguable is the fact that while the .32 WS may be no better a cartridge than the .30-30, it is absolutely no worse–that is, until Hornady introduced its LeverEvolution ammunition in 2005. Suddenly, the .30-30 was miles ahead of its younger, bigger brother.
When this new ammo made its debut, a few lonely voices asked about the .32 Special and were rewarded with uncomprehending stares. The .32 Special was dismissed along with such seriously outdated lever cartridges as the .32-40, .25-35 and .38-55. After all, they asked, how many were ever made?
Well, no one knows exactly how many .32 Specials were made, but we do know for sure that it was a lot. Consider that it was introduced in 1902 and continued as a production chambering until 1973. During that period, Winchester produced 3.5 million ‘94s. Even if only 20 percent of those were .32 Specials, that is a huge number of rifles.
Marlin Firearms chambered the Model 1893 and its successor, the Model 336, in .32 Special until the mid-1960s.
It’s not inconceivable that a million .32 Specials have been made. Even if you cut that in half, and then assume only half of those are still in use, it still constitutes a market of 250,000 rifles–a huge number by today’s production standards.
When Hornady introduced the LeverEvolution line, it had certain expectations about sales, expectations that were quickly changed b
y, of all things, the .35 Remington.
“We just can’t keep up with demand for LeverEvolution .35 Remington,” Hornady’s Steve Johnson told me. “And that took us completely by surprise.”
When you consider that the Marlin 336 is the only lever gun that has ever been chambered for .35 Remington, such demand suggests that a similar load in .32 Special could do very well indeed.
There are two pertinent, seemingly contradictory facts about .32 Special rifles. First, not many show up on used-gun racks; second, when they do, they are priced lower than a comparable, “more desirable” .30-30. What this suggests to me is that owners of .32 Specials like ‘em, use ‘em and intend to keep on doing so; so-called desirability is irrelevant.
Something else to keep in mind, too, is that while the .32 chambering finally died in 1973, all three major ammunition companies are still loading ammunition, and Winchester is still offering unprimed brass 35 years later. When RCBS introduced its Cowboy Action dies, .32 Special was one of the calibers offered.
So what does the new Hornady .32 Special LeverEvolution ammunition have to offer? Over my PVM-21 chronograph, five rounds averaged 2,374 fps for a 165-grain bullet from my 26-inch-barreled 1894. Five rounds of factory Winchester 170-grain averaged 2,182 fps. The extra 192 fps, combined with the improved ballistic coefficient of the spitzer bullet, adds up to a significant improvement in a cartridge of this class.
Average accuracy is tricky to determine, since there are no new rifles with pristine bores and scope sights with which to test it. My rifle is almost a hundred years old and has a tang sight and large-bead front sight. It is, after all, a rifle for hunting deer and moose in the deep woods.
My 1894 has always delivered five-shot groups around 21⁄2 inches at 100 yards. With LeverEvolution ammunition, even this tightened up nicely, and it consistently delivers five-shot groups under two inches. Were I able to mount a scope, who knows what kind of accuracy I could achieve?
The genuine increase in velocity of the LeverEvolution raises one problem with older rifles equipped only with iron sights: You can’t lower the rear sight sufficiently to get on target at practical ranges.
“I probably had 30 rifles come in last year to have higher front sights installed,” says Jeff Tombs, a gun dealer in southern Ontario, in reference to the .30-30s and .35 Remingtons that have come through his shop since LeverEvolution made its debut.
In Tombs’ area, the .32 Special has always been popular, and while the new .32 Special ammunition was not available in time for the 2007 deer season, Jeff intends to order a bunch in time for 2008.