By Mike Venturino, GUNS Magazine
Photos: Yvonne Venturino
Mostly, the guns I have truly tender places for in my heart I began acquiring in younger years. For instance: an M1 .30 Carbine at 16, a Colt SAA .45 and US Model 1911A1 .45 at 19, a US Model 1903A3 at 22 and so forth.
Ironically, a sample of one firearm type with a special spot in my affections didn’t come my way until age 34. That was a rifle chambering pistol cartridges. Before continuing, let’s get specific about what exactly is a “pistol cartridge firing rifle.” It is one whose cartridge is small enough and weak enough to become a fine one for handguns too.
Perusing my hand-jotted lifelong records of guns owned, I find over 40 pistol-cartridge lever guns have passed through my hands. About half of those were original Winchesters with the remainder mixed between original and new manufactured Marlins and replicas imported from Italy, Brazil or Japan. Most were full-length rifles but about 20 percent were saddle ring carbines. One Winchester ’73 is a full-length, military-style musket with 30-inch barrel, (said configuration comprised a mere five percent of Model 1873 manufacture).
Duke’s first pistol cartridge lever gun didn’t come along until he was 34. It was this Winchester Model 1873 .38 WCF (.38-40) rifle (above) with well -worn exterior. He still has it. Duke considers this RCBS mold 40-180CM (below) as his favorite for .38 WCF handloads. It is also a fine bullet for .40 S&W.
A window into my personal preferences is the fact 26 of the pistol-cartridge lever guns I’ve owned have been .44-40’s, 12 have been .38-40’s with the rest numbering only in ones or twos. Never have I paid money for a lever gun chambered as .357, .44 Magnum or .45 Colt, although Marlin did loan me such when I was compiling data for my book Shooting Lever Guns. I do admit one of the most enjoyable-to-shoot lever guns of my experience was a Navy Arms/Uberti Model 1866 saddle ring carbine. It was a .38 Special.
My very first pistol-cartridge firing original Winchester came in 1985 as a Model 1873 .38 WCF with 24-inch round barrel. A friend offered it to me at a good price. Initially I was hesitant because its exterior had little finish remaining and its buttstock had been broken but expertly repaired. What pushed me off the fence was its beautifully smooth bore. Its barrel proved to have a 0.400-inch groove diameter and has always shot my home cast lead alloy 0.401- to 0.403-inch bullets beautifully.
It did cause me one moment of embarrassment, which served as a life lesson. I took that .38 WCF to the 1985 End of Trail event in Southern California. The only mold I owned then was Lyman’s 401043 for a 170-grain roundnose flatpoint. It shot great from my Colt SAA (1914 vintage) revolver as well as the Winchester. However, in test firing the Winchester it never occurred to me to load the magazine with more than the usual five rounds used in group shooting. Big mistake!
This particular bullet was first offered by the Ideal Company in the late 1800’s and was meant to sit atop a full charge of black powder with case mouth crimped on the bullet’s ogive to prevent it slipping forward during a revolver’s recoil. My 1985 .38 WCF loads used light charges of smokeless propellants so there was plenty of empty space under the bullets. My first stage at that End of Trail required 10 rounds from the rifle. That compressed the magazine tube spring much more. So along with the sound of the first shot I heard a sort of clunk sound repeated nine times. It was made by all the bullets falling back into the cases, and each one had to be fished out of the loading port one at a time.
Early handloading experiences with the ’73 .38-40 taught Duke a life lesson: rounds for tubular magazine lever guns need heavy crimps.
Henceforth all my handloads meant for dual use in lever guns and revolvers have had heavy crimps. That means the case mouth turned into a properly located crimping groove so that a fingernail traveling run from bullet to cartridge case does not hang up on the case mouth. Because of the popularity of Cowboy Action competition, there are plenty of correct molds nowadays for pistol-cartridge lever guns. My favorite for .38-40 it is RCBS 40-180CM. When buying cast bullets those mold designs offered by Magma Engineering and used by most commercial bullet casters work fine too.
Nowadays upon entering my time as a senior citizen, I doubt if ever I’ll buy another pistol-cartridge lever gun but my rifle racks still hold six. Half are Model 1892 Winchesters: one each .38 and .44 WCF rifles and the third a .38 WCF saddle ring carbine. Alongside that first ’73 Winchester .38 sits the above mentioned ’73 .44 Musket and a Cimarron Arms/Uberti ’73 .44 WCF in the Sporting Rifle style with checkering and pistol grip stock. All are good shooters.