“Cast Bullets Turn the .32 ACP into A Bunny Buster”
© 2014 - Ed Harris
Ed’s personal Colt Pocket Hammerless .32
OK children, todays cast bullet trivia question is … Who was J.V.K. Wagar?
No, he was not a writer of children’s fiction depicting Norse mythology. If you Google Mr. Wagar you’ll find that he was a Colorado forester who was active in the Wildlife Society of Colorado A&M University and various professional organizations into the mid 1950s. He also wrote an article which appeared in the August, 1931 issue of The American Rifleman on pgs. 14-15, entitled “Almost, the Best Small Pistol.” If you own a .32 automatic you really must read it. If you don’t own a .32 ACP, I urge you to read the article anyway. If you do, you may just find yourself buying a .32 pocket pistol years later, in fondly recalling the article. That’s exactly why I did.
Let’s be clear that the .32 ACP is not my choice as a defense gun against either two-legged or 4-legged predators. However, there are times when “any gun is better than no gun.” Because I can carry legally in my home state of Virginia, and West Virginia, where I have a vacation home recognizes my permit, I do so most of the time.
It is also true that many social and recreational occasions require that I do so discreetly, lest I “scare the natives.” When or where the cylinder bulge of my usual D-frame Colt .38 Special is too obvious, a .32 automatic drops nicely into a pocket holster. I also like the fact that it makes a bigger hole than a 22 and still presents a low profile.
A .32 automatic is small, light, flat and compact. It is convenient, accessible and practical to carry during woods-loafing hikes or overnights, which may present an opportunity to shoot small game for camp meat or plink a magazine or two at cans by firelight. You could just as easily do this with a .380 ACP or a 9x18 Makarov, but the .32 ACP’s appeal for me is that used guns for it these days are plentiful and cheap, and it uses the same components I have already for the .32 S&W Long and .32 H&R Magnum, my preferred trail revolvers.
While the .32 ACP cartridge benefits from new variants in factory ammunition, US loads are more anemic than their European counterparts. Typical American FMJs feature a 71-grain bullet at an advertised “catalog velocity” of 905 f.p.s. But in my chronograph tests they actually produce velocities more like 850 f.p.s. in the average pocket pistol. European RWS, Geco, Fiocchi or Sellier & Belliot ammo really do clock 900 f.p.s. and do so with a heavier 73-grain bullet, which functions WWII-era pistols positively!
Most WWII-era FN, Beretta, CZ, and Mauser pistols steadfastly refuse to function with modern American ammo. Popular 60-gr. JHPs, are a sure recipe for a “Jam-O-Matic,” regardless of their flavor. Only the Italian Fiocchi 60-gr. JHP at 1200 f.p.s. has enough pizzazz, from the first round loaded up the spout, to positively eject and reliably chamber a hardball or cast bullet load following in the magazine. But its exposed lead nose deforms on striking the feed ramp and doesn’t permit rat-tat-tat-tat feeding any more than the anemic 900 f.p.s. American JHPs.
Expansion from typical .32 autos is a sometime thing. Of U.S. brands I water-jug tested, only the Speer Gold Dot opened up every time, but it just wouldn’t feed. The Fiocchi 60-gr. JHP is a hotter load, chronographing close to 1200 fps, and expanding reliably to .50 cal. or over in water jugs, but it doesn't rat-tat-tat either, so I limit its use to the first round chambered.
In over 30 years experience, I have found that the best small game load for a .32 ACP is assembled with a flat-nosed cast bullet, heavier than issue FMJ, to produce a heavier recoil impulse. These must be loaded to lower velocity to stay within normal pressures, and the resulting load approximates the ballistics of the .32 S&W Long or .32 Colt New Police when fired from a 4-inch revolver. We are talking about an 85 to 98 grain flat-nosed cowboy bullet such as the 94-gr. Meister, or semi-wadcutter such as the Saeco #325 or RCBS 32-98SWC (in pistols which feed them) launched at 750-800 f.p.s. How I arrived at this conclusion takes us to directly to Wagar’s article…
When I was fresh out of the Navy and an eager new NRA Staffer our Executive Editor Ken Warner asked me to assemble some cast bullet loads for an M1903 Colt Pocket Model .32 ACP. The first thought in my head was, “why the ^&*^%#!@ would anybody want to do THAT? The gun belonged to the late Harry Archer, who then worked for our government and was being sent out of the country clandestinely on our behalf. Harry needed some ammunition which reliably functioned his M-series Colt, and which would be more effective than hardball, the only ammo then available.
When I asked why Harry was packing a .32 and not something more effective, I was informed politely that it was really none of my business, but that “when in Rome, you do as the Roman’s do.” Ken explained to me that if Harry took a .45 or a .357 it would be obvious that he was “not a local.” Since “the bad guys” where he was going normally used .32 automatics, while military and police carried various 9mms, the Colt would be discreet and also “blend in.” While an FN or Beretta would have been better, we didn’t have one. Walthers, according to Harry, were notorious “hand biters,” and not an option, so ending the conversation.
Loading manuals were of little help, so I researched the NRA archives and stumbled upon Wagar’s article. It was an entertaining treasure trove of practical information on the Colt pocket model and loading cast bullets for the .32 ACP. Wagar said that, “it has proved so useful for much of the outdoor shooting in our part of the country that … I frequently leave my heavier pistols and revolvers at home…
“This is not a deep wilderness side arm…, but as a light pistol to accompany the big rifle it has many advantages… one is never hampered by its weight and bulk and it need not be left behind because the way is hard and steep or the trail long…“The .32 Colt Automatic… is the biggest pistol that fits comfortably into ones pockets… and its owner isn’t often asked by some romance filled tourist if you are a real live cowboy, so the hills are full of these pistols.”
“Practical accuracy is not of the spectacular kind… I can obtain quite good accuracy holding the pistol in both hands and resting them upon my knees I can hit a 50-cent piece practically with every shot at 20 yards. … is almost ideal for strictly small game shooting, we have shot many cottontails, grouse, squirrels… over 200 pieces of game in all--- and have found it unexcelled. It is just enough larger than a .22 Long Rifle to make it a more certain killer, yet destroys little more flesh and makes little more noise in the woods…cast bullets will give more killing power than the jacketed factory bullets. They do not expand upon flesh, but roughen when they strike bone and tear flesh rather than parting it.”
“If one has access to an Ideal No. 4 tool and mould for the .32 S&W he is well equipped… The .32 S&W bullet weighs 88 grains and its diameter of .313 inch is well adapted... I have loaded many hundreds of .32 A.C. cartridges with .32 S&W tools…If one shoots a high-powered .30 caliber rifle Marbles adapters using the .32 A.C. cartridge can be used for small game shooting or one can use the .32 A.C. cartridge in the Winchester adapters made for firing .32 S&W cartridges in the .30-30, .30-40 and .30-‘06 rifles.
In closing, Wagar summarized: "This is not a target arm, nor is it powerful enough for defense purposes against great beasts or armed men of great virility; but considering its short length, light weight, light report and recoil, and cheapness of ammunition, one will have difficulty in finding a more accurate, more reliable and more powerful pistol just to take along.”
The .32 ACP pocket guns don't have any great reputation for accuracy. The Speer No. 13 handbook states that 3-4" at 25 yards is about the best you can hope for. This is in keeping with WWII German military and postwar German police acceptance accuracy standards which allowed 5 mils or 75mm of dispersion (about 3") at 15 meters (approximately 49 ft.). Any pocket pistol which groups better than 4 mils, or 60mm (2.36") at 15 meters is said by Europeans to be quite good.
My experience with a dozen or so pocket guns over the years confirms that the most accurate pocket pistols are the Walther PP (not the PPK), FN M1922, Mauser HSc, Beretta M70, Colt Pocket and CZ27. The best pocket guns reliably shoot into about 2” at 50 feet. Any pocket pistol which does should be considered a “keeper.”
During my 1972 introduction to the Colt Pocket Hammerless, I became impressed with its instinctive pointing, reliable function and practical accuracy “for what it was.” Reading Col. Rex Applegate's close combat files and practicing WWII techniques I understood why people who have these don't get rid of them. During that era I tested just about every .32 ACP pistol made, to isolate which guns were the most reliable, accurate, and natural pointers. We fired lab specimens borrowed from the NRA museum, FBI and BATF labs as well as some unusual guns borrowed from military collections.
No hollow-point factory loads existed then, so we shot “hot” European hardball and handloads assembled with cast bullets and Winchester factory lead, 100-grain flat-nosed .32-20 slugs. These, loaded to 0.97" OAL with 2.4 grs. of Unique became Harry’s choice for handloaded carry ammo in his overseas go-bag.
Use of M-series Colt Pocket Hammerless pistols during WWII by our OSS and Britain’s SOE is well documented. Colt Pocket Models were issued to U.S. general officers well into the 1970s. A Type III Colt was Harry’s choice for discreet carry when a larger, more adequate firearm was not "mission feasible."
The various Berettas M1934/35, M70, the VZ/CZ27, Mauser M1910 and HSc, the Browning M1910 and M1922 also "made the cut" in terms of reliability, but in Harry’s eyes were only substitutes, being “acceptable, but not first choice,” compared to the Colt. I have since collected all of the .32 autos on what the insiders down “at the farm” used to call “Harry's Good List.” I've shot them all fairly extensively and the results are interesting.
I fired eight-shot groups, because that’s what their magazines hold. While these are short-range guns I shot them at 25 yards to allow comparison with typical service guns, although that represents extreme range for a pocket pistol. For field utility in shooting small game for camp meat, ten to fifteen yards is the practical limit for any reasonable expectation of "small game accuracy," which I see as a two-inch group.
In recent testing intended to refresh my memory, typical .32 autos averaged 4 inches in series of five consecutive 8-shot groups, using RWS and Fioccho Ball ammo, Fiocchi hollowpoints and my cast loads with 98 grain. lead bullets and 1.7-1.8 grs. of Bullseye, counting fliers and all, discounting nothing. Six-shot groups fired from typical snubby revolvers are no different.
This level of accuracy is practical and realistic. Dispatching trapped animals and sitting short range rabbits, sure! But no head-shots at squirrels in tall trees. These little guns are for close woods range.
Flat-nosed cast bullets are more effective than LRN or FMJ hardball. They are cheaper than jacketed hollow-points, feed more reliably and tend to be more accurate! My best gun and load combinations group around 3 inches at 25 yards. My favorite cast bullet handloads use the Saeco #325 semi-wadcutter cast of wheelweights, lubricated with Lee Liquid Alox, and loaded as-cast and unsized with 1.7 to 1.8 grs. of Bullseye, seated to the normal revolver crimp groove and the rounds taper crimped using a custom Lee Factory Crimp Die. This has a carbide full length sizer which profiles the loaded round and sizes the bullet by compression inside the case, removing any bumps or bulges caused by any mismatch of the bullet diameter to case wall internal taper. A custom Lee FCD costs $30. I highly recommend it for anyone who is serious about reloading for the .32 ACP.
I fooled around some with the MCA chamber inserts enabling use of .32 ACP ammo as sub-caliber small game rounds in my .30-30. At 25 yards it was no more accurate than the pistol, and it was tedious to extract, reload the insert adapter and manually load it into the chamber each time. A reduced load with a 115-gr. lead .32-20 bullet and 5 grs. of Bullseye pistol powder loaded into a .30-30 case was more accurate and made more sense if I was carrying the .30-30 anyway.
But I got the idea to build a light, “walking around rifle” which would be both handy and quiet. Because I usuallly carry either a .32 S&W Long revolver or .32 ACP pocket pistol around our country place, I reallky wanted to be able to use either type of bunny gun ammo as small game rifle rounds. My reasoning was that for very light, quiet “.30 cal. CB cap” loads, approximating a .32 rimfire, that the tiny .32 ACP case could have advantages, whereas the larger .32 S&W Long case would have more powder capacity if I wanted to load something having a bit more energy and range, approximating a .32-20.
I had a seldom used H&R .410 single-shot on the tiny pre-war action which weighed about 4 pounds. I contacted John Taylor, at Taylor Machine in Toledo, WA and soon had a pair of barrels chambered for .32 ACP and .32 S&W Long equipped with XS ghost ring peep sights to fit my little H&R shotgun. And best of all I still had the .410 barrel too! I opted for an 18” barrel for the .32 ACP to have the “maximum handy” configuration, and a 26” one for the .32 S&W Long to ensure “maximum quiiiieett so as not to scare the bunny wabbits!”
I fired side-by-side tests indoors comparing the .32 S&W Long and .32 ACP barrels with iron sights at 25 yards, which I consider realistic “bunny wabbit” distance. Getting inch groups at 25 yards with iron sights proved challenging for 58-year-old eyes, but I managed to do so with enough different loads to prove the concept practical.
Factory Winchester .32 S&W Long 98-grain LRN, and .32 ACP Fiocchi and RWS 73-gr. hardball averaged just under inch groups at 25 yards. The 98-gr. LRN factory loads in the .32 S&W Long with 26 inch barrel gave 884 f.p.s. and were no louder than standard velocity .22 LR fired from a sporting length rifle.
In .32 ACP Fiocchi 73-grain hardball clocked
943 f.p.s., and RWS
hardball was 1214 f.p.s. from the 18 inch barrel. Fiocchi 60-grain JHPs which gave
1199 f.p.s. from my 3.5 inch Beretta pistol screamed
out 1463 f.p.s. in the 18” H&R walking rifle. Its
sharper report was more like firing a .22 WMR.
My original goal was not high velocity, but quiet small game loads approximating the ballistics of a .32 Long rim fire (from .32 ACP brass) or standard velocity lead .32-20 loads (from .32 S&W Long brass). These objectives were met handily. If you don't cast your own bullets and want to buy some, the Meister 94-gr. LFN bullet of .312 diameter has a profile almost identical to the original flat-nosed factory bullet used in the .32 Colt New Police. Its ogive length enables a .975” overall cartridge length when taper-crimped into the .32 ACP and it doesn’t bulge cases.
Velocities of the .32 ACP cast bullet loads fired from my Beretta pistol approximate the velocities expected firing a .32 S&W Long 4” revolver using the same bullet with 2.5 grains of Bullseye. The samo ammo when fired from the 18” rifle for .32 ACP, loaded with the minimum 1.7 grain charge of Bullseye which still reliably functions my WWII-era European autopistols approaches the 900 f.p.s. This equals the velocity expected of standard velocity .32-20 Winchester factory lead bullet loads fired from a four-inch barreled revolver with typical 0.008" cylinder gap. These subsonic rifle loads gave a measured peak noise level of 90dB measured at 1 meter from the muzzle of the 18-inch barrel, this compares to firing high velocity .22 LR from a typical sporting rifle.
Attempting to drive a non-expanding cast bullet intended for small game supersonic in a small game rifle is a waste of powder. I don’t view this as a 100-yard rig. This is a “walking around gun,” so an iron-sight, 50 yard zero coupled with reliable 4 moa grouping and enough greater striking energy than a .22 LR to make reliable 1-shot kills on raccoon, groundhog, wild turkey (where legal) or the occasional marauding feral dog or coyote, is more than practical.
The .32 S&W Long barrel is 26” long and noticeably quieter, about a 5dB reduction at comparable subsonic velocities compared to the .32 ACP at 18.” While the longer 26" barrel of the .32 Long rifle balances better and is steadier for offhand shooting, its shorter .32 ACP counterpart carries like a dream for long walks along fence rows and scattered farm fields in search of furry or feathered edibles. The 18 inch .32 ACP barrel stows easily in a backpack when taken down, and carries effortlessly through mountainous, brushy woodlands of the type I often hunt. It is also faster handling in snap-shots and seems just as accurate at practical small game ranges as its longer .32 S&W Long cousin, despite its shorter sight radius.
I bought a dozen cakes of Ivory soap at Walmart and shot at these to compare the effect of bullet shape on impact. Lead round nose .32 S&W Long and .32 ACP hardball made clean, round 3/8 inch exits little different than those of .22 LR solids. Meister 94-grain LFNs fired from both calibers made larger, dime-sized exits with good small game potential. Fiocchi’s 60-gr. JHP made quarter-sized exits, too destructive for camp meat. Cast bullets are still best for small game and plinking. My little "Bunny Gun" shoots better than I can hold with iron sights, is no louder than a .22 rimfire and is more effective on edible game and varmints. Who could ask for anything more?