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.32 Cal. Small Game Rifles Revisited

The .32 H&R Magnum: Our Modern Replacement for the .32-20 Rifle-Revolver Combo

© 2014 – Ed Harris

Click on Photo for larger pic

My older brother, Rick, has a Marlin 1894CB chambered in .32 H&R Magnum and a companion Ruger Single Six 4-5/8.” These are his favorite trail guns with good reason. He loaned me the Marlin to test. I’ve owned a Ruger Single Six HRM ever since they became available, which is one of my favorite trail guns. But despite my efforts a .32 H&R Marlin always escaped me. Unfortunately they are now out of production.  So I jumped at the chance to try his lever gun to compare with my custom single-shot H&R “bunny gun.”

The rationale behind the .32 H&R was to be a more effective defense cartridge for use in small, concealable revolvers.  This concept was also behind the new .327 Federal, but this marketing hype misses the boat because no .32 will replace a .38 Special +P or .357 for serious defense use.  If a 90-some grain .30 or .32 cal. Bullet at around 1400 f.p.s. was the greatest thing that ever happened, all of the cops would be carrying CZ52s instead of .40 S&Ws.

Where these .32 cartridges really excel, is as dual-purpose small game cartridges for both rifle and revolver use.  The .32 H&R Magnum gives .32-20 ballistics from a modern, compact cartridge, which is ideally suited for reloading.  We can thank the fine people at Starline for the continued survival of the .32 H&R Magnum.  Starline alone is responsible for providing us with readily available, long-lasting, brass which is far superior to paper-thin, fragile, .32-20s and the marginal-quality Federal HRM cases which frequently suffer from body splits.

The .327 Federal was introduced about a year ago.  The only source of brass cases remains in buying Federal factory ammo which costs about a buck a shot. Unless Starline adopts this orphan, the .327, I predict that the .327 Federal and will soon disappear.  The one person I know who has a .327 revolver shoots H&R Magnums in his.  The added powder capacity of the .327 Federal case is entirely unnecessary unless you are trying to build a custom rifle into the ballistic equivalent of a rimmed .30 cal. M1 Carbine.  The capacity of the .32 H&R Magnum is just about perfect for a small game rifle. To understand why, let’s examine the .32-20 Winchester which the H&R so efficiently replaces.

The .32-20 Winchester dates from 1873. It was originally marketed as a dual-purpose small game and “deer” cartridge, although today it’s considered too light for big game use.  Most states rightfully prohibit its use for that purpose. But the .32-20 achieved instant popularity as a utility small game and varmint round for outdoorsmen. It remained popular well into the smokeless era.  Production of new guns chambered for the .32-20 ceased upon WWII, but the supply of existing ones ensured enough active use to keep the cartridge alive until it was re-discovered by Cowboy action shooters. 

Factory .32-20 ammunition was most often loaded with either a 100-gr. flat-nosed lead or jacketed soft-point bullet.  Prior to WWII there were flat-nosed FMJ rounds and the 80-gr. high-velocity “rifle-only” loads for the Winchester 92, but these were never very common.  Other than some private-label cowboy loads, the only .32-20 factory loads you are likely to find on store shelves today are 100-grain soft-points loaded by either Winchester or Remington.

Powders used in smokeless powder .32-20s were a compromise intended to perform acceptably from either rifles or revolvers.  Prior to WWII Infallible (similar to today’s Unique), Sharpshooter (similar to SR4759), or SR-80 (similar to Herco) were common.  Post WWII WC630 (similar to Power Pistol), W-W230 (Similar to 231), SR-4759 and 4227 have also been used to load .32-20 ammo. Among hand-loaders 4 grains of Unique with #3118 is the long accepted standard.

Factory catalog ballistics claiming 1000 f.p.s. from a .32-20 handgun was based upon solid test barrels. Chronograph tests during my NRA days seldom saw 1000 f.p.s. from any .32-20 handgun I tried except for one particularly tight Colt Single-Action with 7-1/2 inch barrel.  Breaking 1000 f.p.s. usually required hand-loads which exceeded factory pressures. 

Typical results from a six-inch Colt Army Special I tested in the 1980s, having a 0.008 cylinder gap approached 900 f.p.s. with Remington and Winchester factory lead loads.  Firing a four-inch S&W Hand Ejector with similar gap or firing the JSP load in the longer barreled revolver drops velocity about 50 f.p.s.

Factory loads fired in a Savage 23 bolt action with 24 inch barrel approached 1300 f.p.s. with lead and 100-gr. JSPs just over 1200.  These results are modest, but the .32-20 has proven effective over generations of field use, so these are the benchmarks against which the .32 H&R Magnum cartridge should be compared.

Some magazine articles which discuss reloading for the .32 H&R Magnum emphasize attaining the highest possible velocity and energy.  In my opinion this defeats the purpose of this mild, efficient dual-purpose, revolver or rifle small game cartridge.  High velocity, JHP varmint bullets, such as the 85-gr. Hornady XTP cause excessive meat damage to table game. Higher velocities also cause more rapid bullet expansion, which reduces penetration needed for killing effectiveness on larger predator animals.

A flat-nosed, 100-120 grain solid lead bullet launched at subsonic velocity is non-destructive for edible small game and has fully adequate energy and penetration to be effective against predators such as feral dogs or coyotes. Revolver loads approaching 1000 f.p.s. enable reasonable trajectory to enable 100 yard hits.

When fired from rifles, velocities of such loads approach 1300 f.p.s., which is adequate to enable some expansion with soft alloys of 8-12 BHN, giving good game performance and acceptable field accuracy while using an economical, plain-based cast bullet.  Non- casters who reload can buy and reload Hornady the 90-gr. SWC or 94-gr. Meister .312" LFN. In my experience these bullets work best with mild loads in the H&R Magnum with 3.0 to 3.5 grains of Bullseye or 3.5 or 4 grains of Unique or SR-7625, which remain subsonic in a 4-5/8 inch revolver. Bullet casters who like a larger meplat on their bullets to better let the air out of bunny wabbits can use the 98-gr. Saeco #325 semi wad-cutter with these same charges.  I find the Saeco #325 performs its best in subsonic revolver loads. It is less accurate when you “hot-rod” it. With any of these loads you can expect 2-inch groups at 25 yards hand-held off sandbags with the Ruger Single Six and the 1894CB will give the same results, but out at 50 yards.

The 1894 Marlin cowboy rifle doesn't feed .32 S&W Longs unless you the seat bullets to provide an overall cartridge length greater than 1.3”.  Two proven small game loads use the traditional flat-nosed style 122-gr. Saeco #322 cowboy bullet in .32 S&W Long cases, crimped in the lubricating groove at 1.35" OAL. A “quiet” rifle charge also suitable for the S&W Models 30 and 31 revolvers is 2 grains of Bullseye for 850 f.p.s. from the Marlin or 750 in the Single-Six.  If you want a bit flatter trajectory and better reach at the expense of a more noise, you can increase the charge in the Ruger revolver or Marlin up to 2.5 to 3 grs. of Bullseye for 820 f.p.s. or 1030 f.p.s. in the Marlin rifle, for 2" five-shot at 50 yards with iron sights. 


Rick replaced the open factory buckhorns on his Marlin with the XS Systems ghost ring peep and white-line Patridge front which I can see with 60 year-old eyes!  Testing indoors on a typically dark pistol range with improvised rest I can hold about an inch average over a series of 5-shot groups.  If you are over 60 and getting an inch at 25 yards with iron sights, that, my friend, is a "good" load.

I have not fooled much with the slower powders, because I feel this defeats the purpose of using the same ammo in both the walking rifle and revolver.  I briefly tried #2400 and 4227, as well as a compressed nominal “case full,” about 11 grains of RL-7 or 4198 in the H&R Magnum. While faster, they were louder and less accurate than my milder loads with Bullseye.


The Lyman handbook nonsense which suggests sizing cast bullets to barrel groove diameter persists in common folklore circulated for the .32 H&R Magnum.  The usually-recommended .312 bullet diameter limits potential accuracy for some users.  Cylinder throats of Ruger revolvers vary from .309” to as large as .314,” depending upon when the gun was made.  Cast bullets intended for revolvers should always be sized so they may be pushed through the chamber from the rear and out the front of the cylinder throat with slight resistance using only hand pressure.  If bullets fall through of their own weight you may as well throw rocks.  If you can’t push bullets through by hand, but rounds chamber and extract freely, you can shoot them in below-maximum loads, at some expense to accuracy,   


In my experience Marlin chambers run sloppy. My brother Rick’s 1894 .32 HRM readily chambers and extracts accepts un-sized .315 diameter bullets assembled in Starline cases.  It likes best the NEI #82 115-gr. FN (shortened version with GC shank removed, resembles Lyman #3118) cast 10-12 BHN with 3.0 grs. of Bullseye in Starline .32 H&R Mag. cases at 1.45" OAL, using a light film of Lee Liquid Alox.

Rook Rifle Photos:

I re-chambered my light single-shot walking rifle to .32 H&R Magnum. It likes “fat” bullets too, because the .32 S&W Long reamer used to chamber it originally had a revolver-style .315 cylindrical throat.  This was larger than I wanted, so I stuck in a .32 HRM reamer, and shot it again. My reasoning was that lengthening the chamber body to enable use of HRM brass would also reduce the excess length of the cylindrical ball seat a bit and wouldn't hurt anything.  In spite of its oversized throat still being over ¼-inch long, the tiny 4.5 lb. rifle still shoots inch groups at 25 yards with .32 S&W Longs using either the 94-gr. Meister .312" LRN or the LBT .312-105FNBB with 2.5 grs. of Bullseye. 


The Saeco #325 SWC doesn’t do quite as well, but still groups under 2 inches at 25 yds.  Most accurate .32 S&W Long rifle loads use the heavier 122-gr. Saeco #322 or 130-gr. NEI #82 GC bullet shot without the GC. These are seated out to 1.32 OAL and loaded with 2.5 grs. of Bullseye.  This load shot best before in the revolver-style .32 S&W Long chamber, and grouped no better, no worse in the longer chamber. They average just barely 2 inches at 50 yards over a series of 5-shot groups. This is OK plinking accuracy in such a very light rifle with iron sights.  My brother's 1894 Marlin is more consistent than the fly-weight, single-shot rook rifle because it is heavier and much steadier on the bags. 

Army & Navy Rook Rifle:

32 Rook Rifle Target:

Heavier .32 H&R Mag loads listed in some manuals caused ugly looking fired primers in my converted H&R shotgun with its large shotgun firing pin and un-bushed breech face.  I find this a useful indicator of chamber pressure. So I standardize no load which causes hard opening or smeared primer cups upon opening the rook rifle.  My maximum load is 8 grains of #2400 in Starline HRM brass with 100-gr. Hornady XTPs. These drive nice clover-leafs at 25 yards and group less than 2 inches at 50 yards, when want something more powerful than my popgun bunny loads.  This requires a change from small pistol primers to the Federal 200 to prevent them flowing into the shotgun breech.

Federal 200 primers have a heavier primer cup of 0.020 base metal thickness, compared to about 0.015” for standard small pistol primers. This mitigates the primer cup flow problem into the un-bushed shotgun breech face.  Firing trials in my H&R quickly reveal when a load is “too hot,” because hard-opening of the shotgun occurs well before primer cups flatten visibly in the Ruger revolver.  Factory Federal loads in the .32 H&R Mag only rub a shiny spot around at the firing pin indent around the primer cup, but they open with little effort, so any hand load which opens hard in my H&R is presumed to be over 20,000 psi. 

H&R 32 “Bunny Gun” Combo:

I consider my experiment re-chambering the .32 rook rifle to H&R Magnum successful because it gives me some greater flexibility in brass and ammo. My preference remains for light, quiet loads which the .32 S&W Long does handily in the "Bunny Gun" scenario, but if you intend to buy a reamer and built a custom rifle, the H&R Mag. cartridge makes perfect sense.   

As our general purpose load for use in modern .32 S&W Long revolvers,  the Marlin 1894CB and my single-shot H&R my brother Rick and I have settled on the 115-gr. version of the NEI #82, which is plain based with the GC heel only removed.  It resembles the old #3118 being .63 long with .315 bands, .303 bore riding nose and .195 diameter meplat.  I cast these 10BHN, tumble in Lee Liquid Alox and size .314, loading in .32 S&W Long cases with Federal 200 primers and 2.5 grains of Alliant Bullseye at 1.32" OAL.  At this OAL bullets poke out the front of the cylinder of my old S&W Hand ejector. That is a GOOD thing because it keeps me from putting a too-hot load in a nice old gun.  I’ve "married" the HE to the Saeco #325 98-gr. SWC and 2 grs. of Bullseye, which shoots to the fixed sights and is "bunny wabbit accurate."

Using the 2.5 grain charge in .32 S&W long cases at 1.32 OAL for the modern .32 revolvers velocity is 750 f.p.s. in my 3-inch S&W M31, 830 fps in the 4" M31 and Colt Police Positive, and 870 fps in the 4-5/8 inch Ruger Single Six.  It gets 990 fps from the 20 inch Marlin 1894CB and 1030 f.p.s. in the 26-inch H&R.  Report from the rifles is very moderate, like shooting a .22 LR.  Velocity standard deviations are in single-digits.  This load gives inch 5-shot groups at 25 yards with peep sights in either of the rifles and "about 2 inches" +/- at 25 yards from the modern revolvers off sandbags when you can screw your eyeballs in tight enough.

For the few occasions when I want a heavier cast bullet load I use 3.5 grs. of Bullseye in Starline .32 H&R Mag. brass which gives the 115-gr. 1030 fps from the 4-5/8" Ruger single Six, 1280 f.p.s. from the 20 inch Marlin 1894CB and 1330 from the 26 inch H&R without hard opening.  This approximates standard velocity lead .32-20 loads in performance. When my cache of Midway close-out 94-gr. Meisters is finally gone, I will standardize on the 115-grain plain-based  #82 in my .32 revolvers and rifles. 




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