August 10, 2018
The Winchester Model 1894 was covered with what I imagined was trail dust, and I wondered what mountain paths the rifle had followed balanced across the swell of a saddle. Stamped on the left side of the barrel was "32 W.S." The Winchester looked like a lonely orphan standing on the gun shop rack, so I bought it and gave it a home.
Judging by the Model 1894's serial number, it was made in 1910. It's a carbine with a 20-inch barrel and full-length magazine. The gun is a saddle ring carbine, which makes its collector value slightly higher than carbines made after 1925 with no saddle ring. The ring stud remained on the left side of the receiver, but the ring itself was missing.
The gun was in such poor shape there was no concern about ruining its collector value by fixing it up some. Slow and steady scrubbing with a bore solvent cleaned the metal. Quite a bit of bluing remained on the barrel and magazine tube, but none was left on the receiver and lever.
The '94's gouged and cracked stock looked like the gun had been used to build fence. I filled in the major gouges in the buttstock and fore-end with stock epoxy, closed a split in the fore-end with glue and sanded out some nicks. Not much wood would have remained if all the scratches had been sanded out. Several coats of finish on the wood gave the rifle a satisfactory appearance.
Such a pleasant-looking rifle needed shooting. The .32 Win. Special cartridge has been gasping a dying breath for decades. Yet several hundred thousand Winchester and Marlin rifles were chambered in the cartridge over the decades, and half of those rifles are likely still being shot. To feed those guns, Federal, Remington and Winchester offer essentially the same .32 Special load: a 170-grain bullet with a muzzle velocity of 2,250 fps. Eleven years ago Hornady added a 165-grain Flex Tip bullet in .32 Special to its LeverEvolution line. Hornady lists the muzzle velocity of the 165-grain bullet at 2,410 fps.
Hornady is also carrying the freight for .32 Special handloaders—selling dies, brass and 170-grain flatpoint bullets and the 165-grain Flex Tip bullets. RCBS sells die sets, and its sister company, Speer Bullets, produces 170-grain Hot-Cor Flat Nose bullets. Winchester sells brass as well.
There are a couple of reasons for the .32's weak grasp on acceptance. Back in 1902, when the .32 was introduced, shooters were wary of smokeless powder and preferred to reload their cartridges with blackpowder. Winchester tried to accommodate them with the .32 with a 1:16 inch twist (compared to the .30-30's 1:12) and slightly larger bore that would reduce the buildup of blackpowder fouling and provide better accuracy than the .30-30 shooting blackpowder.
The .32 was also supposed to provide higher bullet energy because its somewhat wider bore diameter allowed the .32 to shoot bullets of the same weight a bit faster than the .30-30 Win.
My carbine wears the optional No. 34 Express three-leaf rear sight. The lowest leaf is stamped "50," the middle "1" and the highest "2." Those numbers mean the rifle shoots on at 50, 100 and 200 yards with the corresponding leaves when using Winchester factory ammunition of the day.
I started shooting the carbine at 50 yards, aiming with the lowest leaf. As I mentioned, Hornady lists a muzzle velocity of 2,410 fps with the LeverEvolution load, but I got only 2,270 fps out of the old Winchester. Alas, the bullets hit seven inches above aim at 50 yards and five inches high at 100 yards, aiming with the bottom leaf.
Federal Power Shok 170-grain softpoint flatnose loads had a muzzle velocity of 2,115 fps—135 fps less than published velocity—and hit four inches above aim at 50 yards. Still aiming with the bottom leaf, bullets hit only 1.75 inches above aim at 100 yards.
For my handloads I used Speer 170-grain bullets at a velocity not quite as fast as the Federal load. So how did I pick the right speed? In the foreword to the .32 Special section in Speer's Reloading Manual No. 14, it quotes the 1902 Winchester catalog thusly: '"Loaded with Smokeless powder and a 165-gr. bullet, [the .32 Special] has a muzzle velocity of 2,057 foot seconds.'"
I tried for that velocity with different powders. A charge of 35.0 grains of IMR 4064 came close at 2,042 fps, with the bullets hitting almost right on at 100 yards, aiming with the lowest leaf. Three-shot groups ranged from 1.75 to four inches. Details on all the ammo I accuracy tested in the .32 are found in the accompanying chart.
The little rifle was slick to cycle, quick to point and aim, and it will be right at home in the whitetail cottonwood bottoms.
Want a Model 94 in .32 Win. for your very own? A quick perusal of GunBroker.com shows prices hovering around the $750 mark. If you love the cartridge and want something a little more distinctive, Winchester also chambered the round in its Model 64, which was introduced in 1933. Prices for these are much higher—with new-in-box rifles commanding $3,000.