June 11, 2014
A fellow is always anxious when he gets a new rifle. The big question with me is how accurate it is going to be. This is the fifth vintage Winchester Model 1894 38-55 to fall into my hands. The other four have all shot very well, but how would this one do? I had sold my long-time owned 38-55 with the idea of getting one that was in higher condition, hopefully with a lot of original blueing. Here is a photo of my ‘new’ 38-55:
Serial Number: 19670
Serial number applied: 26 January, 1897
Date received in warehouse: 9 June, 1897
Date shipped: 8 July, 1897
Order #: 9428
FINDING A LOAD:
All my previous 38-55 load development had been done with a wide variety of powders, using either toilet paper filler or no filler at all. After years of load development, and measuring the velocity with powder forward and powder back, I’ve come to the conclusion that a good filler is essential if one wants consistency in the larger black powder cartridges of the late 1800’s. By ‘good’ filler, I means something that fills the space between the powder and the base of the bullet, but is very light, highly compressible, and does not allow the powder grains to work back into the filler. After carefully reading and re-reading Sherman Bell’s pressure results with various fillers, I’ve decided that cotton and kapok are good candidates, primarily because they are also cheap, as opposed to some commercially produced fillers. I bought a pound of cotton at the local fabric store and that will last me for a few years.
All this meant that I needed to start load development for the 38-55 pretty much from scratch, this time using cotton filler. My powder of choice for most of my old black powder cartridges is 5744. I can go a little slower with bigger cases, such as the 45-70, or a little faster powders with smaller cases, such as the 32-20 or 38-40. Consulting my old records, to get an idea of how much 5744 to start with, I decided to try 17 grains of 5744 plus cotton filler, under a soft cast (clip on wheel weights, air cooled) bullet from my custom brass Accurate Mould. The sized and lubed bullet with gas check mic’d at .3795 and weighed 262 grains.
I loaded up one cartridge, stepped out the back door, and fired it over my Chrony into a stump. 1,372 fps was the result. Original black powder velocities were closer to 1,320 fps so I went back into the house and loaded up another cartridge, but this time with only 16.5 grains of 5744. Another shot over the Chrony and the result was 1,361 fps. That wasn’t as low as I thought it would be so I reduced the load to just 16 grains of 5744 and Chrony’d that one …. 1,307 fps. I decided I’d stay there and loaded up two more with the same load to see what sort of spread in velocity I was getting. The three shots gave me 1,307 fps, and an extreme spread of just 3 ft/sec. That is what the cotton filler does, it gives nice burning consistency.
I took a look down the bore and noted with pleasure that there was no trace whatsoever of leading starting anywhere that I could see. That suggested that my bullet diameter was good. There were a lot of unburned kernels of 5744 strewn down the bore, in spite of the powder being held back against the primer by the cotton. I’ve learned to ignore this trait of 5744. I may try a magnum primer in some loads, however, to see what that does for unburned kernels.
Now that I had decided on 16 grains of 5744 with cotton filler as my load, the next thing to do was to test it out. Just in case the load proved to be awful, I only loaded up six cartridges and waited for a lunch break where I could make it to the range. I had to head into the city on Friday, so I stopped at the range on my way in for a quick test of my load and this vintage Winchester 38-55.
It will be a while yet before the snow is gone off our range. There was a couple inches of ice around the shooting bench. Here’s a photo looking out at the 50 yard bunker.
The main thing when walking around by the bench was not to slip and crack my skull on the ice or concrete shooting benches as I went down. I wasn’t so concerned about my skull as I was about regaining consciousness and finding out I had put a big ding in my nice condition 38-55. Fractured skulls can fix themselves, but a ding in this fine old Winchester would be a tragedy.
I decided to put a target up at 50 yards because I wasn’t sure exactly where this old rifle would shoot. The alignment of the sights suggested it should be good as far as windage went, but I had played around with the screws on the front sight and I thought it might now be off by an inch or two. I took a shot and ran down to see where it hit. Yep, I ran because I couldn’t wait to see the results. The hole was about 2” to the right in windage but about a foot high. It must have been sighted in for 150 yards. I screwed down the tang sight and took another shot. This one was still about 8” high so I went back and screwed the sight all the way down and cranked out another shot. This one was about right in elevation for 50 yards.
Now I had a decision to make. Should I take my last three shots at 100 yards or 50. If I took them at 50 yards, I would have a four shot group to look at, but 2” in windage at 50 yards might translate into 4” of windage at 100 and the cross-wind was pretty good. I decided to fire my last three cartridges at 50 yards and let ‘er rip. This time I figured I would walk, but that only lasted the first 5 yards and then I broke into a run. This was it! This would tell me how good my load and rifle were so excitement got the better of me and I ran.
The results were three shots into 3/8” and then the proverbial flyer, which extended the 50-yard, four shot group to 15/16”. Here’s a photo of the target:
WHAT IS NEXT?
Well, I’m going to load up a passel of cartridges and get the windage adjusted so it is bang on and then I’m going to shoot a few 100 yard groups. If those are good, then I’m moving over to the 200 yard range. I’d also like to try the magnum primers (I’m using Winchester primers) to see if it reduces the unburned kernels. Then I may mess around with IMR 4198 or RL-7 to see what happens. There’s going to be good times shooting this summer!
March 11, 2013
Beauty of a rifle and the promise of the group is great! I understand your excitement!
When you say, "Cotton", I’m assuming you mean basically cotton balls in bulk? I have a 45-110 that the fella before me shot smokeless in and he used Kapok with good results. I have only shot black powder in any of my old rifle calibers. Was wondering what your bullet mixture is? We use 10 to 20% tin mixed with pure lead for BPCR shooting and as you pointed out, the diameter of the bullet has to allow the bullet to bump up into the grooves to seal the bore to reduce the leading.
And great writeup.
June 11, 2014
March 20, 2009
June 11, 2014
December 30, 2011
You have an eye for picking out good shooters Kirk. Well done.
April 23, 2012
Kirk Nice gun, nice group, nice range report as per usual.
I have mainly used dacron as a filler but havent for a year or 2. I have had pretty good results without it with 5744, H4198, and with Unique , in 38-55, 32-40, even in the spacious case of the 45-70 .
This winter I have been using mostly CCI Mag primers, and they seem slightly better for grouping accuracy, when I compare them against WLR on the same cold days.
I intend to get back to using the filler. Have you tried Dacron? and how do you measure the amount of cotton to use ?
January 2, 2011
June 11, 2014
Marvin, I’m using Starline cases, the long version. The only mould I have for the 38-55 is this Accurate Mould GC one, so that is why I used that bullet. The lube is SPG. I use it for all my bullets, even my 30-03 bullets that go out the barrel at 2,200 fps.
25-20: I just pinch off a tuft that will fill the space between the powder and the bullet with only very slight compression once the bullet is seated. However, I find that it doesn’t matter if I’ve got a bit too much cotton and need to compress it a bit more. The chrono results are still the same, an indication that pressure does not vary any significant amount of a bit more cotton is used.
March 23, 2010
Always enjoy reading your test reports,Kirk.Back when I was really into Winchesters it was great to get an old rifle and get it shooting again.
Back in those preinternet days it was quite a chore to find the dies,bullets and brass for some of the old calibres.Sometimes I would have to modify brass to get it to a calibre I wanted.Seems after I would find everything and get the rifle shooting again I would lose interest in it and get another one and go through the same thing all over again.
For myself I always found IMR powders to work the best for me in the old calibres.
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