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Shooting: Classic Hunting Cartridge Revival

Modern loads and a new powder give two lever-action cartridges a boost in performance.

Shooting: Classic Hunting Cartridge Revival

The .307 Win. is essentially a rimmed version of the .308 Win. Hornady produces seasonal runs of the .307 loaded with its 160-grain FTX bullet. (Photo by Richard Mann)

There are a lot of old cartridges suitable for hunting that do not get much attention anymore. This is partly due to the lack of factory ammunition available for them. It’s also partly because many were designed for lever-action rifles and, in this day and age, it seems most hunters want a long-range precision bolt gun.

But even today, most shots at big game are inside 100 yards and some of these old lever-gun cartridges are perfect for that situation.

One is the .32 Win. Spl., which was introduced in 1901 for the Winchester Model 1894 lever-action rifle. Unlike the older .32-20 Win. and popular .32-caliber handgun cartridges of that time, the .32 Win. Spl. fired a bullet with a 0.321-inch, as opposed to a 0.312-inch, diameter. Though the .32 Win. Spl. was moderately popular with hunters, a limited selection of 0.321-inch bullets and the widely established popularity of the .30-30 Win. hampered major acceptance.

None of this should be construed to mean the .32 Win. Spl. was an ineffective hunting cartridge. Typically loaded with a 170-grain bullet to almost 2,300 fps, it produced a muzzle energy of almost 2,000 foot-pounds. Its larger-diameter bullet and slightly increased velocity meant that, theoretically, it was every bit as effective as the .30-30 and maybe slightly more so. Nonetheless, by the latter part of the 20th century, interest in the .32 Win. Spl. was fading.

Until recently there were only four factory loads to choose from, and all were seasonal, limited-run productions. Winchester, Federal and Remington all offer a 170-grain load, and Hornady has a LeverEvolution 165-grain FTX load. This sparse availability is of course problematic—and not just for current .32 Win. Spl. owners. Great, used lever guns chambered for this cartridge are often left on dealers’ racks because ammunition is so hard to find. Well, now there’s another option.

Buffalo Bore now loads the .32 Win. Spl. with a 170-grain Speer flat-nose bullet that attains 2,360 fps from a 24-inch barrel. (Photo by Richard Mann)

Buffalo Bore recently added the .32 Win. Spl. to its vast array of hunting ammunition. Tim Sundles, who owns Buffalo Bore, told me this new introduction was mostly due to customer requests, and the load uses a 170-grain Speer flat-nose bullet. I tested it in 16- and 24-inch-barreled rifles, and found the muzzle velocity to be 2,180 and 2,360 fps, respectively. Fired into blocks of Clear Ballistics gelatin, the bullet penetrated 22 inches and expanded to double its original diameter. This new Buffalo Bore load might be all the excuse you need to pull your grandfather’s old .32 Win. Spl. out of the closet.

Another classic, though not as old, is the .307 Win. Few hunters even know it exists. It was created in 1983 for the then-new and stronger Winchester Model 94AE Big Bore. Basically, the .307 Win. uses a case that’s very similar to the .308 Win. but with a larger rim that enables it to function in the Winchester lever action for which it was designed. The .307 is arguably the most important cartridge ever chambered in a traditional lever action. Why? Because other than the fact that it’s typically loaded with a flat-point bullet for use in tubular magazines, it is essentially a .308 Win. A few years ago, Hornady added the .307 Win. to its LeverEvolution line. It is loaded with a 160-grain FTX bullet and is another seasonal run. It brought the commercially available .307 Win. loads to two; Winchester offers a seasonally loaded 180-grain Power-Point load.

The Hornady load shot very well out of my rifle although the muzzle velocity was only 2,475 fps, 175 fps less than Hornady’s advertised 2,650 fps. I did a bit of research and found that with a new powder not available when the .307 Win. was in its heyday, handloading might be a better option. According to data from Speer, Alliant AR-Comp powder will push a 150-grain bullet from the .307 Win. to 2,831 fps out of a 24-inch barrel. Considering the original load for the .30-06 Sprg.—the one Teddy Roosevelt used in Africa—was a 150-grain bullet at 2,700 fps, the .307 Win. with AR-Comp would be spectacular.

I didn’t have a .307 Win. with a 24-inch barrel to confirm Speer’s data, but I found that a max load of 44.6 grains of AR-Comp resulted in a muzzle velocity of 2,703 fps out of my rifle’s 20-inch barrel. For all practical purposes, this new powder does indeed turn the .307 Win. into an original .30-06. With a 130-grain bullet, a maximum charge of 45.8 grains of AR-Comp produced 2,818 fps out of the 20-inch barrel. I tested both of these Speer Hot-Cor flat-nose bullets in Clear Ballistics gel, and measured 17 inches of penetration with the 130-grain bullet and 21 inches with the 150-grain bullet. In both cases expansion was nearly double the bullet’s original diameter, with 70 percent to 90 percent weight retention.

There may not be many factory loads available for these classic cartridges, but with the Hornady and Buffalo Bore offerings, and the new Alliant AR-Comp powder—which will improve the performance of the .32 Win. Spl., too—it doesn’t really matter. If you don’t have a lever gun chambered for one of these great old cartridges, start looking now. You know, before the word gets out.

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