The .44-40 Vaquero is right at home with Alfonso’s Of…

The .44-40 Vaquero is right at home with Alfonso’s Of Hollywood Western Sportsman’s Rig, along with Cold Steel’s Laredo Bowie in custom sheath. (Left) One of the most handsome leverguns around, Uberti’s 1866 Carbine in .44-40.

Because of its colorful history, many modern day buckaroos and buckarettes are grabbing onto the .44-40 revival for CAS. One of the most popular cartridges from the heyday of the Old West, in today’s milder loads from commercial sources like Black Hills Ammunition, PMC, and others, it’s not a hard kicker in a revolver and the bottleneck configuration feeds reliably in leverguns. And, it’s not hard to build your own smokeless ammo, either.

Handloading .44-40

The older bottlenecked rounds such as the .32-20, .38-40, and .44-40 built up quite a reputation for being problematic at the reloading bench. The brass runs slightly thinner, and the conventional wisdom is that you ruin a lot by crushing cases. Road apples! If you’ve put off reloading for the .44-40 because you’ve heard it’s temperamental to work with—don’t.

It does have its own character.

First, carbide dies don’t work with bottlenecked brass, so you’ll need a set of standard dies, and outside case lubing is a must. RCBS’s Cowboy Dies work well, and were used for this project. New and used brass all goes through the sizing die, lubed on an old RCBS Case Lube Pad with RCBS Case Lube-2 first.

The .44-40 commonly used a 200-grain .427-inch bullet, but you’ll see 200-grain lead bullets running from .427 to .430 advertised as Cowboy bullets, even though the .429-.430 specs are more appropriate for .44 Magnum bores. This variation in bullet diameters can combine with variations in bore diameters to produce patterns instead
of groups. Among all the various imported and domestic .44-40s, you’ll find further bore variations. Different sized expander plugs can better match brass to bullet, but the RCBS Cowboy expander head worked just fine with every bullet diameter I tried. Work the case mouth as little as possible, just enough bell to seat a bullet straight by hand; too much shortens case life. This will vary with bevel-base and flat-base bullets; the beveled bases use less bell and usually seat easier.

Crimping is very important, even in short-range CAS loads. A good crimp gives a more consistent bullet pull and powder burn. I use the seating/crimping die to seat the bullet only, and a separate Lee Factory Crimp die for the crimp. I don’t worry about the overall cartridge length, I’ve rarely had a problem in just seating a lead bullet to the seating groove provided. One of the advantages of the Lee die is a crimp that’s not as dependent on exact brass length. There’s more leeway (no pun) if brass length is not precisely the same from case to case. The “thin” .44-40 brass can sometimes cause a problem here; occasionally, a slightly longer case can combine with a slightly oversized and/or harder cast bullet to bulge the case in a conventional roll crimp die. The Lee Factory Crimp die avoids this.

Bullet Options

It’s best to get your bores slugged before you go shopping for lead, either home cast or store-bought bullets. If you’re lucky, they’ll be within a couple thousandths of an inch of each other. A lead bullet should generally be at, or one to two thousandths over, bore diameter. A hardcast lead bullet will usually work better at close to bore diameter, but an undersized bullet can produce decent accuracy by pushing it faster to force it to “bump up” and engage the rifling more effectively. Conversely, an oversized hardcast lead bullet can raise pressures at least slightly, although at typical CAS low velocities that’s seldom a problem. For CAS uses with hardcast lead, try to mate bullet diameters to the bores of your guns for best results. Editor’s Note: Use of hard cast bullets at or under bore diameter will eventually, and readily, cause extraordinary leading even though it might not be clearly seen.

Softer lead bullets are probably a better choice for ringing CAS steel; the advantages of hardcast bullets at higher velocities aren’t needed here. A softer bullet can be more adaptable to bores that may be either under or over specs, bumping up at fairly low velocity to engage the rifling in a larger bore, and squeezing down into a tighter bore without as much effect on pressures as a similar hardcast bullet. If you have three different bore diameters, you don’t want to bother using different-sized bullets for each gun. You’ll have a better chance for decent accuracy in all three with one softer bullet in a diameter that comes closest to splitting the difference between them.

Vaquero sights are large and square for good visibility.

Another bullet factor is the base. Most bullet moulds for the home reloader will drop a flat-based bullet with a 90-degree corner at the bottom. Many commercial bullet casters produce a bevel-based bullet with an angled bottom corner. The beveled base is more convenient for mass casting, and more convenient for seating a bullet while handloading. A flat-based bullet tends to be more accurate, but at CAS distances that may not matter much.

Gun/Load Combos

There are few leverguns more handsome than the 1866 Winchester carbine, and I had a chance a couple years back to acquire a replica from Uberti. This spring I finally got to work with it, and it needed a saddle partner. Ruger sent one of their last .44-40 Vaqueros.

The carbine is available from other importers and Ruger may bring the .44-40 back if enough demand materializes. There are several used examples of both out there in cowboy country, so the results of these tests should still be useful.

Finding one load that works equally well in a handgun and a rifle is not a guaranteed quick proposition. Don’t be discouraged if your first batch won’t stay on steel in all of your guns. Keep trying.

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