Though popular handgun options in the early 20th Century, .32-caliber cartridges a now considered too anemic for self-defense, except for a few shining examples.
What Are The .32-Caliber Handgun Cartridges:
- .32 ACP
- .32 H&R Magnum
- .32 Long Colt
- .32 NAA
- .32 S&W
- .32 S&W Long
- .327 Federal Magnum
- .32-20 Winchester
Most .32-caliber cartridges were popular up until the 20th Century, when the .38 Special and .380 ACP sort of ended their attractiveness. However, they still remained in widespread use. Modern shooters might not be familiar with the early .32s—and even the more modern ones.
My first was the .32 H&R Magnum. Developed through a joint effort between Harrington & Richardson (H&R) and Federal in 1984, it was hoped that it would renew interest in H&R revolvers. It failed in that regard, but it did become popular in the Ruger Single Six.
This cartridge is nothing more than a lengthened .32 Smith & Wesson Long that’s loaded to 21,000 psi. The .32 H&R kind of floundered up until the last several years, when the new wave of folks carrying concealed realized that in a compact revolver, it offers an additional shot and lighter recoil than a snub-nose .38 Special, with similar terminal performance.
.32 H&R Magnum
As with all new cartridges, at the time of its introduction, ammunition for the .32 H&R was expensive, but because it would also fire .32 Smith & Wesson (Short) ammunition, and because you could pick up that stuff relatively cheap, this made plinking and practice more affordable. The .32 Smith & Wesson was introduced in 1878 and was originally loaded with black powder, pushing an 85- to 98-grain bullet to about 700 fps.
Although considered less than suitable for self-defense, revolvers and derringers in .32 Smith & Wesson were popular because of their diminutive sizes. Interestingly, the cartridge was apparently popular with assassins: It was used to kill King Umberto I of Italy in 1900, President William McKinley in 1901 and the mayor of Chicago in 1933.
The .32 H&R can also fire .32 Smith & Wesson Long ammunition. Developed in 1896, the same cartridge, loaded with a flat-nose bullet, is called the .32 Colt New Police. Police detectives and plainclothes officers took to this cartridge, even though it was ballistically equivalent to the .32 Smith & Wesson (never underestimate what the words, “long” or “magnum,” can do to the perception of a cartridge’s capabilities).
It’s sometimes confused with the very similar—but slightly longer and rare—.32-44 S&W Target cartridge. The .32 Smith & Wesson Long established a revered reputation for gallery and target shooting, and it’s loaded to a maximum average pressure of 15,000 psi. Surprisingly, Buffalo Bore offers a 115-grain S&W Long hardcast load at 800 fps.
Learn More About The .32-Caliber:
- .32 ACP Ballistics And History
- The Adaptable And Inexpensive .32 Smith & Wesson
- Accurate And Inflexible .32 Smith & Wesson Long
- Is The .327 Federal Magnum The Best All-Purpose Magnum?
Although I never owned a true .32 ACP handgun, I shot a lot of that ammo too—because the .32 H&R would also fire that cartridge. In the late 1980s, .32 ACP ammo was easier to find than ammunition for any other .32-caliber cartridge.
The .32 Automatic Colt Pistol (ACP) cartridge was designed by John Browning but was first manufactured by FN in Belgium in 1899. It was originally called the 7.65x17mmSR, or 7.65 Browning Short.
There’s some confusion regarding the original bullet diameter, which is thought to have been closer to 0.309 inch. Regardless, the modern .32 ACP uses a .312-inch-diameter bullet and became moderately popular for self-defense. It’s generally loaded with a 65-grain bullet at about 950 fps, with a maximum average pressure of 20,500 psi. Considering the other famous folks whom .32s have killed, perhaps the most famous (or infamous) was Adolf Hitler, who offed himself with a 7.65mm Walther in 1945.
All this led me to one of the most successful .32-caliber cartridges—the .32-20 Winchester. Originally designed as a rifle cartridge in 1882 for the Winchester 1873 lever-action, this bottlenecked cartridge quickly became popular in revolvers.
The original loading was an 85-grain bullet at about 1,100 fps, but in modern firearms such as a Ruger Blackhawk, the .32-20 can be handloaded to deliver substantially higher velocities. A 90-grain Sierra JHP bullet ahead of 15 grains of IMR 4227 will exit a 5-inch barrel at 1,450 fps. Nevertheless, factory ammunition is limited to a weak 16,000 copper units of pressure (CUP).
All-Time Best: .327 Federal Magnum
Always a student of terminal ballistics, I’d read all the works of Evan Marshall and Ed Sanow. In 2002, Sanow teamed with North American Arms and created the bottlenecked .32 NAA, which uses a .380 ACP case necked down to a .312-inch diameter. With a maximum SAAMI allowable pressure of 27,500 psi, the Hornady Critical Defense factory load will push an 80-grain bullet to about 1,000 fps. It was offered—and still is—in the North American Arms ultra-compact Guardian pistol.
In 2008, the .327 Federal Magnum was introduced. Loaded to a maximum average pressure of 45,000 psi—28 percent over the .44 Magnum—it’s one of the most powerful handgun cartridges commercially loaded. Like the .32 H&R, the .327 will also fire .32 Short, .32 Long and .32 ACP, so I got rid of my .32 H&Rs, and the .327 has become my primary revolver cartridge.
With the ability to push 110-grain bullets to 1,400 fps, this is a potent cartridge that’ll deliver terminal performance approaching that of the best .357 Magnum loads and well in excess of the worst, with less recoil.
With nine excellent factory loads available, along with the ability to fire 34 other factory loads for four other cartridges, it looks as if we finally have the best .32 of all time. It just took us over a century to find it.
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.