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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Three powders used were Accurate #2 be-cause it meters through my RCBS Uniflow like water, Hodgdon’s TiteGroup because it uses slightly lower charge weights (read cheaper to shoot), and Winchester’s tried & true 231 because it’s tried & true. Five bullets from three makers were tested—RimRock Bullets, National Bullet Company, and Desperado Bullets. One bullet diameter was used with the NBC bevel-based bullet, two with the bevel-based RimRock bullets, and two with the flat-based Desperado bullets. The NBCs and the RimRocks are hardcast with a commercial hard waxy bullet lube, the Desperados are a softer mix (1-20 tin/lead ratio) with a tacky dark purple lube. Bullet diameters ran from .427 to .430. Primers were Winchester Large Pistol in new Starline Brass, priming was done with an RCBS hand priming tool, primer pockets were cleaned with an RCBS tool, and everything came together in my old RCBS Rockchucker press. Each charge was weighed on an RCBS Micro Pro electronic scale, and an Oehler Model 35 chronograph was used for velocity testing. Four factory loads were also used; one jacketed hunting load and three lead cowboy loads.
As mentioned above, bore diameters will vary between older .44-40 guns and new ones. If you’re lucky, as I was, you’ll only have one or two thousandths of an inch variation to deal with. When Ruger first brought out their .44-40 Vaqueros, the chamber exit holes were too tight and the guns quickly acquired something of a reputation for being inaccurate. My Vaquero has six perfectly sized exit holes right at .430 of an inch, and a barrel groove diameter of .430. Ruger had apparently decided to use the same bore diameter as their .44 Magnums, instead of the older standard .427. This is fine, as long as the chambers match up, and the right bullet is used. The Uberti carbine’s bore shows a .429 groove diameter, making it fairly easy to find a bullet that’ll work at least reasonably well in both guns.
I ran about 1250 handloads evenly divided through the two guns, with the Ruger at 25 yards and the Uberti at 50 yards, in three range sessions for accuracy, and then a chronograph session to make sure the winners didn’t exceed SASS’s speed limits of 1000 feet per second for handguns and 1400 feet per second for rifles.
By rights, the two hardcast .427-inch bullets, NBC and RimRock, should have been the least accurate at Cowboy velocities. Hard, undersized bullets at low speed are not expected to bump up well to a bore diameter that’s two housandths of an inch larger than the bullets. Still, in the Vaquero both did pretty well, with the NBC holding at 2-1/16 inches and the Rim Rock at 1-3/4 inches. They also made a good showing in the ’66 carbine at 2 inches and 2-3/4 inches. The bullets closer to bore diameter should have produced better accuracy, but didn’t consistently enough to make much of a difference in either gun. The best five handloads for each gun were not necessarily the best five loads for the other. The two soft Desperado bullets at .428 and .430 inches did very well overall. Six of the ten best handloads to use interchangeably in either gun were loads using the Desperados.
Velocities all fell well within SASS guidelines. Five grains of TiteGroup was very mild in the Vaquero, and the best bet for quick recoil recovery among these loads. Everything was very mild in the Uberti. Starline Brass typically runs a bit thicker than other brands, and that means a slightly reduced case capacity; which also means you’ll probably run slightly higher velocities than the manuals show with equivalent charges in other brass.
End Of The Trail
The .44-40 does not have to be a pain to reload, and with some attention to details it’s actually no harder than most other calibers to work with.
Although there’s nothing wrong with the hardcast bullets used here, I’d suggest you try the softcast Desperados for CAS purposes. They’ll probably work better over a range of different bore diameters in your guns. They’re perfectly cast, the soft lube tends to burn up in the bore instead of traveling downrange as some of the harder commercial lubes do, and they’ll easily handle a typical Cowboy get together. Hardcast bullets are fine for hunting, but we don’t really need them for Cowboy guns. However, as noted, it seems that any of the bullets tested can produce plenty of steel-ringing accuracy with the right powder charge.
I also recommend that Lee Factory Crimp Die, especially for those who don’t like to trim brass regularly. The Lee die is less likely to crumple a case. The cases were sized for .427 bullets with the RCBS die, but even the larger .430-inch Desperado bullet was seated perfectly straight with no odd-looking brass bulges, and every round chambered fine in both guns.
These two .44-40s were not finicky in overall cartridge length. Load development could be fine-tuned, for CAS use it’s hardly necessary. After firing over 600 rounds each right out of their boxes, neither gun had any bore leading at the end, and neither gun was cleaned from start to finish. Reliability was perfect with both, the Ruger shot itself bone dry with no lube at all on the cylinder pin, and the Uberti just slicked through the whole shootin’ match like butter on axle grease. The Vaquero shot low and 4-5 inches left, irritating but fixable by either Ruger turning the barrel or a local gunsmith opening up the rear sight notch to the right. The Uberti ’66 was pretty much on at 50 yards with its lowest sight setting, and was more limited by its sights and very stiff trigger pull than its inherent accuracy. The rear two-blade sight is small and cramped, but adequate for Cowboy distances.
The Vaquero will be getting that sight notch correction, and the ’66 will be getting a trigger job (it’s off my eight-pound scale) soon. Carried in a Western Sportsman’s Rig from Alfonso’s of Hollywood, the Ruger will ride opposite a Cold Steel Laredo Bowie in a sheath also done by Alfonso’s for me, and the ’66 will eventually acquire that fine old brass patina of the originals. Two fine arms for any Cowboy.
Call Ruger and ask for another run of .44-40s, and call your dealer for availability on a ’66 from your favorite importer. They’re easy to feed.
The .44-40 Vaquero is right at home with Alfonso’s Of Hollywood Western Sportsman’s Rig, along…
by Bob Arganbright / Jan 30, 2012