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The 38-55 Loading Conundrum
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December 29, 2014 - 6:23 am
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Ive only been reloading for a short period of time and can’t believe I waited as long as I did to get started–I think I was scared I would blow something up. Over the last year or more I have managed to learn a lot through trial and error and with a lot of help from friends who have been reloading for years. I also read everything I could get my hands on. My goal was to load for my 1894 carbine in 38-55. Over the past 6-7 years the old 38-55 carbine became one of my favorite hunting guns. It was light weight and easy to pack through the woods. I’ve used it to kill several deer, coyotes, turkeys, and lots of hogs. When it became harder and harder to find factory ammo I decided to break out the old RCBS press and accessories I was given years prior and try them out.

In addition to the press I was given some .378 hard cast lead gas check bullets to start with. I purchased some dies and got to loading. I tried a number of different powders, different charges, and so on but was never satisfied with the results. I even went so far as to carve a sliver of bone with a notch in it and glued it to the front of my carbine sight to reduce the glare off the metal on the sight. My eyes were in the initial stages of failing me.  I could see the target and front sight good, but the rear sight was beginning to get a little fuzzy and with the added glare from the metal it made it more difficult. After burning through the .378 bullets I was given, and not having the most desirable results I went back to the drawing board. I had become accustomed to the accuracy I had with the factory ammo (jacketed bullets) and couldn’t understand why I couldn’t make these work. After several conversations on the issue with friends it was suggested that I slug or measure the bore to make sure I was using the right size bullet.

So I did, come to find out the bore measured .380”. The next step was to find bullets that were .380 diameter. I went to Midway USA and found some .380 lead gas check (Performance Cast Bullet). When they arrived I was eager to get started loading. I set up my old dies and the first problem encountered was that my expander die did not expand quite enough; I was crushing the brass when I tried to seat the bullets. After a while I came to realize I needed a larger diameter expanding die. With a little research online I found the RCBS Cowboy dies and ordered a set from Midway USA. When they arrived I went back to the garage and started getting the new dies set up and started loading. It didn’t take long to realize that even with the larger expander die (.379”) I was still having problems with crushing a case from time to time. Again, I went back to the my buddies and asked what I was doing wrong. At their suggestion I started chamfering my case mouths. And with a little lube on the bullet, this problem was solved. So with a new set of loads made up I went to the range.
It didn’t take long at the range to figure out that I had yet another problem. While my sizing, expanding, crimping, and cartridge lengths had all been spot on, the cartridge wouldn’t fully chamber in the carbine. The bullet + cartridge was too large of diameter to fully enter the chamber. I went back to the drawing board. I explained to one of my friends my new loading problem and he suggested that I might take the decapping stem out of my sizing die and partially run the loaded cartridges back through the sizing die to further compress the case/bullet. About the same time I was given this little tidbit of advice I ran across another buddy at a gun show who competition shoots with these old rifles and he gave me the same piece of advice. Back to the garage I went and sure enough, this added step worked and the cartridges now went into the chamber with ease. But would it work?

Now it was time to make up some new loads for my new bullet. I started out with loads using IMR 3031, IMR 4895, IMR 4064, AA 5744 and so on but could not work up anything I was satisfied with. My old sight configuration may have been to blame, or maybe it was my eyes—they were fading fast. To sight I had to move my cheek all the way down the buttstock near the buttplate to be able to clearly see the rear sight notch. While I don’t like them much, mainly because I don’t like the feel of them on the tang when carrying a rifle or carbine, I decided to put a Lyman tang sight on my carbine and try it out. Instead of the carbine rear sight I installed a Lyman #6 sight in its place. I still used my Lyman ivory bead front sight (less the ivory bead that was broken off long ago). I found that with my eyesight it was easier to sight through the tang sight than down my old carbine rear sight. By this time I had moved on to a new powder, IMR SR 4759, suggested by my buddy who competition shoots. I found some load data for it in my old Lyman #41 and 42 loading manuals and started working up loads. I tried loads ranging from 17.5 grains up to 21 grains. Through a lot of time, bullets, and trial and error I finally arrived at a load that worked, was more consistent, and didn’t have the recoil of the heavier loads. Everyone likes heavier hitting and faster loads but as a friend of mine once said, “that deer isn’t going to know the difference”.

While I was getting good groups with the SR 4759, I was still shooting about 4-5 inches to the left. I made some thin cardstock shims and after putting in two full length shims between the upper tang , the carbine was now shooting on the midline of the target. To look down the carbine from the butt, and with the shims in place, its hard to believe that it shoots straight. It looks like the post of the tang sight is leaning too far to the right, but that’s where it likes to shoot. After a lot of head scratching, rediscovering and correcting bad shooting habits, friendly consultations, loading supplies, and dollars, I finally arrived at a load that worked for me, and my carbine.

I settled on 19 grains of IMR SR 4759, with a .380 diameter 260 grain Cast Performance long flat nose gas check bullet (they actually weigh 265 grains), and CCI large rifle primers. The brass was once fired Winchester brass I collected over the years.  I found that most of the factory brass was not trimmed evenly, so I trimmed all my cases to spec.  I also found that when I used the larger “hunting aperture” instead of the smaller fold down Lyman aperture on my tang sight, my groups got a lot tighter–the smaller aperture was still a little fuzzy to sigh through. My last 3 shot group at 100 yards went quite well, at just a little over 1”. I don’t have a chronograph yet to see how fast the bullets are traveling, but again, as my buddy said, that deer isnt going to know the difference.   IMG_2636.JPGImage Enlarger

Ive been waiting for the opportunity to try the cartridge out on a deer or a hog but havent had the chance yet, but that time will come.  Ive been too busy getting my kids in front of a good deer this year that my hunting has taken a back seat. 

With the introduction to this new hobby I might say that I have now become addicted. Ive worked up a number of great loads for my other modern rifles but this one was the most difficult.  My next project is to work up a better load for my 1892 in 38-40, my second favorite rifle to shoot.

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December 29, 2014 - 11:55 am
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  What a great story.Enjoyed reading it very much.Great that it ended with you getting the results you wanted.Smile

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December 29, 2014 - 12:04 pm
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That sounds like a lot of trial and error.  I’m glad to see you are on to something; that target looks very promising. 

I went through trying a few of the same things you did about two years ago but in a different caliber.  It was nice to read that I wasn’t the only one!

Brad

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December 29, 2014 - 12:47 pm
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 Thanks for the story,

All have to write that load down and try it in my rifle in 38-55. Just wondering the process you took to find bore diameter?

I have a friend helping me reload right now, but I found a Rock Chucker Supreme under the Christmas tree so I am about to start my own endeavour.

Keep the reloading Stories Coming,

Bruce

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December 29, 2014 - 1:41 pm
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That is the kind of story I like to read. Thanks for sharing it with us. As I read your story I remember feeling every bump in the road you did. The results are worth it. Very satisfying to hand load ammo for these old rifles and get them shooting as good as you have, and hunting with them ! Just what they are made for. If you do not cast bullets already ,you may give it a try ,it adds to the experience .,,,,DT

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December 29, 2014 - 2:13 pm
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Very good account of events . we all have been thru this with 38-55. And the good news is that you have gone thru one of the most frustrating loading experience, now most should be a more satisfying quicker reward. I have reloaded for several 38-40’s mainly 92’s and found all were initially quite accurate with 8 gr. of Unique. The supply of various 401 bullets is very plentiful and inexpensive and all my guns are quite happy with the standard 401 Diameter, as for some reason 38 bores are more consistant, and luckily at this standard .401 dia. I have found the 44 more difficult as bores vary much in this Cal, but the rest of the 1892 and 1894 Calibers are easier to get good results effortlessly

Many reloaders dismiss all factory ammo as useless , (usually without trying them ) , but as you know both 38-55 and 38-40 Win Factory is weak but accurate. Too bad it is getting more scarce and expensive at gunshows

Phil

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December 29, 2014 - 3:21 pm
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Thanks for sharing your experience.  Comes at the right time for me.  I am starting this same process with an 1895 in 38-72.  Coincidently, I just slugged the bore last evening and found it to be .380 and decided I needed larger diameter bullets.  I’ve also been looking for some 4759 to try.  I will certainly be referencing your post as I work through getting the right combination.  It’s great fun to get these old rifles shooting again.   

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January 1, 2015 - 4:54 am
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Thank you for the comments.  It took me a while to work out the kinks and like I said I couldnt have done it without the help of some really good friends.  Bruce, I used a micrometer to measure the bore diameter but you have to measure at the groove.  If you rotate the micrometer you will see it tick wider as it passes each land.  There are other products you can use to pour into the bore to make a lead slug.  Im just a poor old country boy and cant help but to Bubba something from time to time, but I have taken the .380 lead bullets and tapped them into the end of the barrel (carefully) on some of my other 38-55 rifles/carbines and then removed the bullet to measure the diameter.  You have to disassemble the receiver (down to the bolt) to be able to get the bullet back out with a rod or a dowel but when it comes out you have a pretty good piece of lead to measure. 

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January 2, 2015 - 8:08 pm
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Thanks For Information

Bruce

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January 3, 2015 - 6:39 am
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Chris and Butch,

You can take a slightly oversized lead ball and drive it all the way thru from the muzzle to the breech. It helps if you have a friend that shoots cap and ball with various size balls to choose from. Pound it into the bore with a rubber or plastic faced mallet until flush. Then take a wood dowel a few inches longer than the barrel and a little under sized. Cut it into 8 or 10 inch lengths. Drive the ball down the bore with a dowel and keep adding dowels until it pops out the other end. (A full length dowel will obviously spring and break so the short pieces solve that problem). When you measure the lead ball with a caliper it will be a mirrored example of the bore. The high spots will be the grooves and the low spots will be the lands. I think most folks like a bullet a thousandth or two larger than the groove diameter. I’m no expert on this so maybe others will weigh in if I didn’t explain it very well.

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January 3, 2015 - 4:06 pm
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pdog72 hit the nail (dowel) on the head.  Make sure they are 100% pure lead balls.  You’ll find that the lead ball will have a tiny flat sprue mark which I leave facing out when inserting the ball into the muzzle and use it as a base for the dowel.  Also, I have cut dowels to 6″, 12″, 18″, 24″ and 30″ lengths to avoid many dowel ends rubbing against the bore, but that’s because I only shoot antiques and there are often rough spots in these bores.

Over the years I’ve acquired lead balls in .283″, .315″, .323″. .380″ and .457″ diameters which will work for all calibers I shoot.  If the ball is a little too large for the bore it can be rolled between two hard surfaces to form a slight cylinder closer to the bore’s actual diameter, which is easy to do with pure lead.

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January 4, 2015 - 9:12 pm
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Thats a darn good idea, using a lead ball.  Sure would save the time of taking one apart. 

I got the opportunity to shoot a small spike over the weekend with my 38-55 cartridges.  I was out in Comstock, Texas (north of Del Rio) at my father-in-laws deer lease and we had several deer left to harvest off of the ranch.  One evening while I was out in the blind I leveled down on a spike at nearly 60 yards away.  When I shot, the deer was quartering away to the left, the bullet went in about 3 inches behind the left shoulder, passed through the top half of his heart, exited the front side of the right shoulder, hit a rock and ricocheted somewhere out in the vast desert expanse.  The deer ran less than 40 yards and dropped.  The exit hole was pretty much the same size as the entry hole.  Not a lot of lost meat, through and through shot.  Turned out to work just fine.  I had hoped for a little more bullet expansion (larger exit wound and more damage, even having gone through several ribs) but I think at the velocity its shooting at may not be enough to mushroom the bullet to any large degree.  May have to try something other than hard cast lead bullets, try making my own lead bullets to see what happens.  The bullet performed much like the Winchester factory jacketed bullets–it entered and exited with relatively the same diameter exit wound, punching through anything in between.

On the non-Winchester side of the hunting story, my son shot the other deer with my 223 I built a few years ago and using hand loads I worked up. He is 8 and likes to shoot that rifle because there isnt much recoil.  With 4 deer killed (three my sons, and one my daughters from earlier this year (she is 7 yrs old), I found that for deer I like the 55 grn Nosler ballistic tip bullets better than the 60 grn Nosler partition bullets.  Two of the deer were killed using the ballistic tip bullet, and two the partition bullet.  The partition bullets are effective but they wont leave much of a blood trail, the exit wound having hit several ribs was about an inch in diameter.  The ballistic tip bullets inflicted the most internal damage with an exit wound approximately2.5″ in diameter, enough to leave a blood trail if needed.  Both were effective but the BT seemed to work the best.  I am hoping I can get both of them moved up to shooting the 243 by next year–my daughter has shot it a couple times but my son is still a little leery of it–girls are just stone cold serious about some things.  

Got to get busy boning out some deer…

Thanks for the comments above.

 

        

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June 3, 2023 - 3:05 pm
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I ran across this very old thread when I was searching for loading info for the .38-55.  As many of us have found, the .38-55 often comprises more of a conundrum than other cartridges.  It is very helpful when others take the time to document their extensive experience as they work toward (and find) a favorable outcome.  I found this thread so helpful that I printed it out and put it in a binder I have for information that I find particularly useful.  The methods outlined for slugging bores was also helpful.

I’ve been a handloader for four decades and have shot very little factory ammunition during that time.  I was interested in 1892takedown’s experience with factory ammunition.  He mentions that his .38-55 carbine was very accurate with factory ammunition and in handloading experimentation he went through a lot of bullet/powder combinations to find a load that would rival the factory ammo.  What interested me the most is when he slugged his bore, it measured .380.  I am perplexed why .375 jacketed bullets would prove so very accurate in a .380 bore?  At least with a soft lead bullet, there is the chance of it, “bumping up” to fit the bore, but not so with a jacketed bullet.

Back to the slugging bore techniques, I have heard the lubricating the bore (e.g. with case lube) is very helpful for pushing a slug or lead ball down the bore. Experience or thoughts on this?

And finally, Chris, did you ultimately refine your .38-55 load beyond where you left off in 2014?  Still taking hogs, deer etc. with that carbine?

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June 3, 2023 - 5:28 pm
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Someone mentioned something about old posts the other day on here, this one is an oldie for sure. 

Steve, still have that carbine and its been busy since then.  Regarding the .375″ diameter factory bullets, there is enough there to engage the lands sufficiently I would guess.

The 38-55 is one of the few cartridges I load for quite often, mostly because I shoot a lot of it through 3-4 different carbines and rifles.  As mentioned in the old post, I started with factory ammo finding its a good hole puncher, but not a lot of expansion or velocity.  Its great on paper but not so good for game, even while having a jacketed hollow point, IMHO.  Entry and exit holes were much the same.  While I did back in the day take a number of deer and hogs with factory ammo, the velocity wasnt there and I knew there were better options.  IMHO, whether its a modern hunting rifle or a 38-55, Im always looking for the best options when it comes to terminal velocity, penetration, and expansion.  

As mentioned in the old posts, back then I started loading using the cast performance bullets with gas check, and did so for a number of years but wasnt satisfied with its performance on game (expansion).  I was getting the velocity I wanted but but the bullet was too hard (hard cast).  Just the mechanics of recognizable bullet expansion at 1500 fps is tough anyway.  I had killed a number of deer and hogs with those bullets, but the rubber met the road whan I shot 2 deer, shoulder shots both, only to see them knocked down then get up and run off, with little or no blood trail. Up until that time I had only lost 1 deer in my lifetime of 40 years of hunting.  Thats when I started looking at casting my own bullets and using a softer lead alloy.     

I started casting my own using a mixture of 20:1 or 30:1 lead finding that I am getting a little more expansion of the bullet on game as evidenced by a slightly larger exit wound.  Ive also entertained having one of my molds made to cast hollow point bullets.      

As far as 38-55 loads, Ive got 4 that I shoot.  All of the 38-55’s I shoot are .380 bores, as well as all the others Ive slugged spanning all serial ranges.  From what others have said, there may be some that are a little bigger or a little smaller, but I havent found one yet (As a side note, the original Win mold I have for 38-55 casts at .377 diameter).  The gas check bullet I cast weighs in the neighborhood of 257 grains (with gas check) and is sized to .380.  With the larger bullets there are issues you have with cartridge neck size you have to deal with, even with a .380 bullet as the cartridge neck diameter has to be at or less than 0.392″ to chamber for an OACL of 2.55″, at least thats what it has to be with the bullets I cast. 

Ive worked up loads with SR 4759 (19.5 grn), IMR 3031 (28.5 grn), 5744 (22 grn), and Swiss 1.5 (49 grn), all of which shoot well in any 38-55 I chamber them in.  The velocities on the Swiss 1.5 are most consistent, depending on whether its a 20″carbine or a 30″ barrel rifle, fall between 1300-1400 fps.  The 5744 is what I most commonly use and like because it is consistent over a chronograph and gets me into the 1580-1620 fps range (akin to the WHV loads).  What I like about the IMR 3031, is you fill in more case volume than with the 5744, but the IMR 3031 also packs a punch and performs well with velocities in the 1520-1530’s for a carbine and in the 1580-1600 fps range with a rifle.  Dont load with the SR 4759 that much anymore because its been discontinued.  

Its a challenge identifying the right diameter bullet by slugging, consideration of bullet shape and length to be used as they affect the trimmed brass length, cartridge neck size, and an OACL, then making them CYCLE, as well as chamber.   Lots of trial and error. 

These loads are what I have found works for me under conditions within my control.  Others may have varying (or detrimental) results under conditions of their own. 

Chris

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June 3, 2023 - 6:01 pm
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Chris – thanks for the detailed and thoughtful update – very interesting.  I’m going to be printing this additional page out and adding it to my binder.

I’m still mulling over the accuracy you obtained with factory ammunition.  I see how your experience shows accuracy alone is not enough as you need the bullets to perform well.  The Winchester ammunition is under-powered and I wonder how it would perform if a person pulled the bullets and put in a stouter powder charge.  I think we can assume those bullets would perform better on game if driven faster.  However, what would be the impact on accuracy?  Would the lands have less opportunity to grip the bullet if the bullet is going faster?  And of course, one can just purchase jacketed bullets and load them up.  Had you ever considered that?  

Here’s an example of an offering out there (unfortunately out of stock at present).  I note they are .377.

https://vollmerbullets.com/products/38-55-caliber-255-grain-jacketed-soft-point-bullets-w-cannelure

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June 3, 2023 - 9:43 pm
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I’m loading for three 38 55’s and one 38 56. I’ve been shooting black powder in all of them. I also cast my own bullets in 20 to 1. First thing I do with any old lever gun is slug the bore. They vary wildly in the same caliber. I have one marlin that goes .381. I shoot .380 in all of them, the soft lead and black powder combination is forgiving in bore size. I have never shot smokeless, I’m getting good accuracy as is. I do have some 38 56 rounds loaded up with smokeless trying to wring a little more accuracy but haven’t had time to shoot them. It’s been blazing hot in combination with buffalo gnats in Iowa for the past month which has been kind of putting me off. It’s odd the buffs were all shot out in the 1840’s in Iowa but they left their gnats behind….

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June 3, 2023 - 10:18 pm
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Its great on paper but not so good for game, even while having a jacketed hollow point, IMHO.  Entry and exit holes were much the same.1892takedown said

But isn’t that because the bullet lacks the velocity needed to expand properly?  It’s telling you “I could use more juice.”  Ken Waters lists several loads reaching almost 1800 fps under his section II, which includes ’94s.  Maybe an ’86 could handle higher vel.  Cast bullets are great IF they do the job.

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June 4, 2023 - 12:45 am
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Great old thread!  I have a 38-55 high wall I am in the process of doing ladder test on.

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June 4, 2023 - 3:09 am
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Steve, Ive not heard of or tried the Vollmer Precision bullets.  They remind me of the Speer Hot Core bullets that I load for a buddy of mine for his 32 WS, which is devastating on deer and hogs.  I couldnt begin to count how many deer and hogs he’s killed with them.    

Ill probably stick with the cast bullets, they work best for what I like to do, plus I have a stockpile of lead (also cast for 38-40, 45-90, & 45-60). 

Im sure that if your pushing those jacketed bullets from Vollmer or pulled Win factory jacketed bullets fast enough they would likely work fine.  I think I may have chronographed some of factory Winchester 38-55 cartridges and tend to think they were somewhere in the neighborhood of 1000FPS, maybe less.  Thats why there wasnt much expansion as you mention Clarence, like I said, they were glorified hole punchers, and good on paper, but, may as well been a fmj in the field. 

Im not sure Id want to pull a Ken Waters trying to attain 1800 fps, its a bit of overkill and Im curious what it would do for accuracy.  Plus, Im not a fan of bone breaking recoil–got to keep my retinas attached.   

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June 4, 2023 - 3:14 am
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Brooksy said
 I’m getting good accuracy as is. 

I tend to like the BP as well, its got the least variance in FPS chronographed (normally less than 10 FPS), and its consistency relating to accuracy. 

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