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The Magic 38-55

Few other cartridges are as confusing or difficult as is the 38-55. This caliber can take the novice months or even years to sort out all the quirks. However, the journey can be very rewarding when it all comes together. It’s almost like Magic.

The cartridge came out in 1884 for the Ballard Perfection No. 4 as a target cartridge. It was a Ballard 38-50 Everlasting with a longer case. So much for historical notes.

The groove diameter of the 38-55 has varied considerable with each rifle maker of the day interpreting the specifications slightly different. Although the cartridge was intended to be a true 38 caliber, the grooves varied from .377 up to .382, with most rifles being around .379.

Another point of confusion is not in the cartridge but in the rifles chambered for it. Shooters, to this day, are still discussing chamber dimensions and case length. Some argue that the chamber was originally cut for a 2.125 case and others say that the chamber is cut for a 2.085 case. Both are correct. The chamber does not have the usual step down from outside case size to bullet diameter found just in front of the case mouth in most chambers. The outside case mouth diameter is .392 and that diameter is continued forward for another .030 or so making the chamber close to 2.120 in length, then begins a very shallow angled taper (only 6 degrees) down to groove diameter. Added together the distance from bolt face to lands is a generous 2.215 inches, so a case of 2.125 inches in length will easily drop into most chambers.

It has been reported by some knowledgeable folks that the original chamber for the 38-55 was longer than today’s chambers and used the brass that Starline makes that is 2.125 inches in length. Frank Barnes book Cartridges of the World, 4th edition, show the case length as 2.125 inches, then in the later 9th edition he corrects the mistake and shows the case length to be 2.082. Factory chamber drawings dating back as far as 1892 show a 2.085 chamber for a 2.082 case.

So how did we get a 2.125 length case? The exact origin is not clear but it is believed by most students of the cartridge to have originated with black powder target shooters. The longer case would hold a few grains more powder. Another reason could have been to make reloading easier for the Breech-seating and Ball-seating target rifle crowd.

38-55 rifle chambers have been modified and changed by experimenters over the years and “opening up” the chamber is popular even today, however, the factory chambers have not changed in well over one hundred years. Except for defective chambers any modifications are unnecessary and often counter productive in the 38-55.

I have measured by chamber cast the 8 rifles in 38-55 in my safe and all are within the above specifications. These rifles range in dates of mfg. covering over a hundred years…2001 being the new and 1897 the oldest. The point being that chamber specs. have not changed in factory made guns although private parties can and do order special chamber reamers to any dimension. The 38-55 chambers do vary in actual dimensions, that is because the factories had differing allowable tolerances. If a shooter is to get the most out of his 38-55 he/she must know those chamber and groove dimensions and load accordingly. The 38-55 is a cast bullet rifle, jacketed bullets are of no practical value in these rifles.

On game, the old cartridge performs all out of proportion to what the on paper specifications would lead one to believe.

The 38-55 is indeed a magic cartridge.

Jim
 

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Great stuff and makes some sense of the differences out there.

Also, this just makes me realize again that there is a magical hole in my Marlin line up. :(

Someday . . . someday.

B
 

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Yes sir they can make ya say some dirty words---a lot o things can be found out on MO but some of us had to find out things the hard way! Ain't saying his name but I know him VERY well!!!! HEE HEE!!! Now that cold & nasty weather is over with here time to catch the wife not looking load up my rifles in truck & sneak off to range!!
 

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Hey Red,

Thank you for the great post.

Col. Whelen has a bit to say about the 38-55, and the "modified" chamber you discuss. This would be in THE AMERICAN RIFLE, in the chapter on Cartridges.

The Ideal Company (one of America's first reloading firms) made a Strong Bullet Seater, for seating a cast bullet in the breech end of the barrel. The cartridge was then filled with Black Powder (usually FFg, though there were other powders used, Schutzen?, being one) with a wad installed (so as to keep the powder from spilling)

Naturally, once a rifle was "modified", it could only use ammunition of this type.

Excellent accuracy was reported. Frequently Riflemen, of the period, were able to obtain groups of Three Inches (or less), at the 200 yard line! Using Tang Sights!

Think every American, that desires to be a Rifleman/woman, would do well to obtain a copy of the Colonel's excellent book. And peruse it, from time to time.

Later, Mark
 

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Jbledsoe...you darn enabler you!!!
5 points...
Even though I've heard many twists and turns for many owners...
I guess I'm a glutton for punishment....
This makes me want one even more!!!!
 

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38-55 itis

Jbledsoe...you darn enabler you!!!
5 points...
Even though I've heard many twists and turns for many owners...
I guess I'm a glutton for punishment....
This makes me want one even more!!!!
Hey Erimort,

Let me help. These targets were only obtainable with Red's (aka JBledsoe)help. :biggrin:

Later, Mark
 

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Jim,
Nice write up. :biggrin: Regarding case length....I have several original .38-55 W.R.A. CO. Head stamped cartridges and the case portion measures pretty much at the 2.12" length. The case forward of the rim is about 2.06" which would fit nicely into the chamber you specified.

w30wcf
 

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Jim,

Of course we could forget all this stuff, take the easy road and just buy some .38-55 ammo at your LGS! :biggrin:

John
 

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Jim,

Of course we could forget all this stuff, take the easy road and just buy some .38-55 ammo at your LGS! :biggrin:

John
Hey John,

Need some mighty deep pockets, to go that route.

Later, Mark
 

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Great job JB!

I am still on the 38-55 journey for my 1st one, I have a second in the wings, and all this talk make me want another one!

Heck I just received my 4th bullet mould! Now why do I need 4 bullet moulds for the 38-55?

Oh yes, I can use them in my M375 which I have yet to shoot, because I love the magic 38-55!
 

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Heck, Jim, there are times I couldn't hit that same Honda at 10 feet..............with the butt of the rifle! But I'm still working on my loads. Oh, Jim, I've been meaning to ask you.............is there any way to accurately measure the depth of the chamber without a chamber cast?
 

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Discussion Starter · #16 ·
Jim have you measured any notable differences between vintage Winchester 38-55 chambers and vintage 1893 Marlins?
Hey Lou,

I don't know about all older rifles but my oldest 38-55 is a Winchester built in 1897.....it's chamber measures very close to all the others.....there are tiny differences, probably manufacturing tolerances.
 

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Discussion Starter · #17 ·
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Hey Chris,

A way to measure chamber length without a chamber cast is with a dummy round, although not as accurate. Load a dummy with the bullet seated only about half way and no crimp. Load and lock.....the throat will push the bullet back into the case as the bolt locks. Remove and measure......that will give you chamber length and maybe show where the rifling begins. Hope that helps.
 

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I'm wanting to know where the taper of the throat starts. Guess I'd better get "pounding". :flute:
 

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Discussion Starter · #19 ·
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Hey Chris,

The taper into the throat starts at 2.120 +/- and is 6 degrees. I doubt that your rifles is any different but a casting or pound cast is the only way to know for sure.
 
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