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44-40 Winchester Center Fire (WCF)
HistoryThe .44-40 Winchester, also known as .44 Winchester, .44 WCF (Winchester Center Fire), and .44 Largo (in Spanish-speaking countries) was introduced in 1873 by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. It was the first metallic centerfire cartridge manufactured by Winchester, and was promoted as the standard chambering for the new Winchester Model 1873 rifle. As both a rifle and a handgun caliber, the cartridge soon became widely popular, so much so that the Winchester Model 1873 rifle became known as "The gun that won the West."
When Winchester released the new cartridge, many other firearm companies chambered their guns in the new round. Remington and Marlin released their own rifles and pistols which chambered the round, Colt offered an alternative chambering in its popular Single Action Army revolver in a model known as the Colt Frontier Six-Shooter, and Smith & Wesson began releasing their Smith & Wesson New Model 3 chambered in .44-40. Settlers, lawmen, and cowboys appreciated the convenience of being able to carry a single caliber of ammunition which they could fire in both pistol and rifle. In both law enforcement and hunting usage, the .44-40 became the most popular cartridge in the United States, and to this day has the reputation of killing more deer than any other save the .30-30 Winchester.
The cartridge was originally sold as .44 Winchester. When the Union Metallic Cartridge Co. (UMC) began selling their own version of the cartridge, it adopted the name .44-40 (shorthand for .44 caliber and the standard load at the time of 40-grain (2.6 g) of black powder), as it did not want to offer free advertising for one of its competitors. Over time, the name stuck, and eventually Winchester adopted the .44-40 designation for the round after World War II. Winchester uses the designation "44-40 Winchester" on packaging.
PerformanceThe initial standard load for the cartridge was 40 grains (2.6 g) of black powder propelling a 200-grain (13 g) round-nose, flat-point bullet at roughly 1,245 fps (379 m/s). Winchester catalogues listed velocities of 1,300 fps (400 m/s) by 1875. In 1886, UMC also began offering a slightly heavier, 217-grain (14.1 g), bullet at 1,190 fps (360 m/s), also with 40 grains of black powder. Winchester soon began to carry the 217-gr loading, as well, but in 1905, UMC discontinued the heavier load. In 1895, Winchester introduced a 200-grain (13 g) cartridge bulk loaded with 17-grains (1.1 g) of DuPont No. 2 smokeless powder and a bullet for 1,300 fps (400 m/s), and in 1896, UMC followed suit with a 217-grain bullet at 1,235 fps (376 m/s). Soon, both companies were offering the cartridge with lead "metal patched" (i.e. copper-jacketed with lead points), and full metal jacket versions. Taking advantage of the stronger-action designs of the Winchester model 1892 and the Marlin 1894 lever-action rifles, in 1903, Winchester began offering a higher-performance version of the loading called the Winchester High Velocity (WHV), with a velocity of 1,540 fps (470 m/s) using a 200-grain copper-jacketed bullet from a 24-inch (610 mm) barrel length, UMC and Peters Cartridge Company soon introduced equivalents. Over the years, a number of different bullet weights and styles have been offered, including 122, 140, 160, 165, 166, 180, and 217 grain in lead, soft- and hollow-point, full metal case, blanks, and shot shells. The most common current loading is a 200-grain bullet at 1,190 fps.
By 1942, more modern cartridges had all but eclipsed the .44-40, but it regained some popularity in the 1950s and 1960s when Colt began once again to manufacture the Single Action Army and Frontier. More recently, the .44-40 has had a resurgence due to the popularity of metallic silhouette and cowboy action shooting, which inspired the introduction of a low-velocity 225-grain (14.6 g) gallery load, the heaviest factory bullet ever available for the cartridge.
Factory ammunitionThe two major manufacturers of .44-40 ammunition include Hornady and Winchester. Please note that individual bore dimensions have a pronounced effect on factory data versus actual results. Both brands are designed around a .427” projectile.
Winchester currently produces two loads for the .44-40. The first is their classic 200 grain jacketed soft point rifle load, producing between 1,100 and 1,200 fps in 20” barrels. This load produces rather poor expansion, resulting in proportionate to caliber wounds. Local farmers, who use this ammunition, have many times asked me whether it is possible to obtain something with ‘more punch’. This should tell the reader just about everything he or she needs to know about this load. The 200 grain Powerpoint works well for dispatching farm animals but is not much chop otherwise.
Winchester also produce a 225 grain lead bullet yielding around 700 fps from a 7.5” barrel and 1,000 fps from a 20” rifle barrel. Outside of silhouette shooting this load is best confined to utility work.
Hornady produce a 205 grain cast lead “Cowboy” load rated at 725 fps from a 7.5” pistol barrel. Depending on individual bore dimensions this load produces around 1,000 fps from a 20” rifle barrel and like others is best used on either steel or yarded game.
Buffalo Bore appears to be the only manufacturer to produce a true medium hunting bullet for the .44-40. This load consists of a 185 grain soft cast lead hollow point. I suspect that this may be the best factory option currently available for folk who wish to hunt deer with their .44-40 handguns and rifles. Buffalo Bore state velocities of 1,100 to 1,200 fps in handguns and up to 1,470 fps in rifles. Buffalo Bore also state that this ammunition should only be used in firearms built after the year 1900 and include other safety warnings that should be studied before purchasing this ammunition.
Final thoughtsThe .44-40 is almost 150 years old. While I don’t own one I’ve often tried to locate one of these lever actions as I find them rich with history. One can only dream about just how important this cartridge was in the development of the west.