Gun Digest

The Small Miracle of the .327 Federal Magnum

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Fired from snappy revolvers and with velocity to spare, the .327 Federal Magnum is redefining the often-maligned caliber for the better.

Handgun design and usage have been strongly influenced by .32-caliber cartridges for well over a century. The majority of the .32-caliber cartridges of the past were pretty anemic, but still, most of them were quite popular for personal defense. Nowadays, if you go out armed with a .32, folks think you’re demented.

Bad guys seem to have gotten a lot tougher in the past few decades, too. Back in the 1920s and 1930s, folks thought it was perfectly logical to arm themselves with a slim, hammerless automatic pistol or a small revolver chambered for one of the many .32-caliber cartridges available.

Back then, good guys didn’t worry too much about shooting a bad guy, and if you shot a crook, they’d probably give you a medal rather than throw you in the juzgado. There were no powerful antibiotics then, so anyone whacked in the gizzard with a .32 (or any) slug, was probably going to get an infection, and be headed to the last roundup.

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Evolution works with cartridges, too, and today we have what is perhaps the quintessential expression of the .32-caliber in the .327 Federal Magnum. Introduced in 2008, the new .327 is one of the most powerful .32-caliber rounds to ever be chambered in a handgun. Federal currently offers three factory loads for the .327 and their performance is impressive. This ammo includes tough, jacketed hollowpoint and soft-point bullets at velocities unheard of only a few years ago.

The .327 fires 85-grain bullets at 1,500 fps and 100-grain bullets at about 1,450 fps. Muzzle energy of the latter round is about 467 ft-lbs. By comparison, the .357 Magnum generates 540 ft-lbs and the .44 Magnum, 860 ft-lbs.

The early .32s were low powered and designed to fit in small semi-autos or revolvers. The first attempt at a high-powered .32 was in 1984 with the introduction of the .32 H&R Magnum. This was a joint development of the Harrington & Richardson Company and Federal Cartridge. While a big improvement over the old-timers, it was still of modest power.

Like the .357 and .44 Magnums before it, the .32 H&R followed the example of lengthening an existing case and upping the pressure for more velocity. The .32 H&R case is .155 inch longer than the .32 Long, and the .327 is .128 inch longer than the .32 H&R. Plus, the .327 operates at much higher pressures than other .32s.

Although the .32 H&R languished, the .327 built on the example, and after a slow start, sixgunners have recognized the ballistic virtue of the .327 and the trim guns that shoot it. It finally seems to have caught on, but interestingly, with two distinct groups of shooters. This is reflected in the types of firearms the gun companies have built for it, aimed at two sometimes disparate groups.

The sturdy SP101 holds six rounds and has ample steel around the high-pressure .327 Federal Magnum rounds.

In one camp are the traditional outdoorsmen who would no sooner go out of the ranch house without their sixgun than without their pants and boots. It’s just a part of getting dressed. The .327 is eminently suitable for hunting a variety of small game and medium-size varmints, protection from venomous snakes, or tacking up wanted posters, so it’s right at home on the trail.

Everyone would agree that in the field a rifle is better in almost all instances, but a long gun is most unhandy to tote around. A compact yet powerful revolver, however, rides nicely in a belt holster, barely noticed until it’s needed. Then, with one quick hand motion, it’s ready for service.

For these folks, Ruger and others have brought out revolvers that are about perfect field guns. Many of these new guns have medium-length barrels and adjustable sights that allow the shooter to fit the gun to the load, rather than the other way around with fixed sights.

Many in the other group of .327 aficionados could care less about roaming the backcountry. For them, it’s the urban jungle that presents their challenges, as the members of some tribes are not always friendly. For these urban road warriors, the powerful .327 in a trim, lightweight revolver is a godsend, since it can be carried unobtrusively until needed for protection.

A .327 revolver offers a lot of power in a small package, and this translates into a fight-stopping combination for the armed citizen and has subtly changed the perception and reality of armed carry. Faced with the realities of today, many citizens have chosen to arm themselves with a .327.

The new .327 Federal Magnum is the latest in a line of popular .32-caliber cartridges dating from the turn of the last century. From left: .32 S&W Long, .32 H&R Magnum and .327 Federal Magnum.

Both groups are right. The .327 Federal Magnum is perfectly comfortable in either situation and offers the best of all worlds. Not only is it sufficiently powerful to be a self-defense round in its own right, it will handily dispatch game as large as coyotes, and light loads make for a delightful afternoon of good ol’ plinking fun.

The revolvers in .327 available at this writing include the Ruger Single Seven in 4.62-, 5.5- and 7.5-inch barrels; the compact LCR; and the midsize SP101 with a 4.2-inch barrel. Taurus offers a couple of snubnose guns – one with a 2-inch barrel and the other with a 3-inch ported tube. The bottom line is that a diverse selection of quality .327 guns is available to the urban shooter or outdoorsman.

I was unable to resist the tug of the .327 (OK, I admit it, I’m a weak person), so I purchased a new Ruger SP101. It is a beautiful little gun with a brushed stainless finish, and the action is as smooth as silk. The trigger pull was a little heavy, but a set of Wolff springs fixed that in about 10 minutes. The only thing I don’t like about it is the fiber-optic front sight. As soon as I can find a plain black blade, it’s getting replaced.

I checked .327 and .32 H&R factory loads in the SP101, then brewed up some representative handloads to see what the round would do. The results are shown in the accompanying load table. Basically, the groups at 20 yards were quite good, especially considering that I had a hard time holding that green blob of a front sight the same for each shot.

I also tried some .32 S&W factory loads from Federal and Winchester, and the results were also excellent. They would be perfect for bunny busting, potting fool hens or dispatching rattlers. I didn’t shoot any .32 ACP loads, but the SP101 chambers and ejects them A-OK. Those results are also shown in the load table.

Factory fodder for the .327 is good ammo, but it isn’t cheap, so the economical answer is handloading. This, fortunately, is a snap, and the same dies and shell holders used for the .32 Long and .32 H&R will work just fine for the .327, too.

Federal uses their No. 200 small pistol magnum primers, and I did likewise in my .327 handloads, though I used Federal No. 100s for the other two cartridges. I lucked into a good quantity of Federal nickel-plated .327 cases, so I used them for my test loads. I used Starline cases for the .32 H&R and Winchester for the .32 Long.

Suitable powders for the .327 really fall into two categories. For the highest velocities with 100- to 115-grain bullets, Winchester 296 (aka Hodgdon 110) and Lil’Gun are good choices. For medium-power loads, you just can’t beat Hodgdon’s new CFE Pistol, although HS-6, Universal and AutoComp are also good. For what used to be called “gallery loads,” Bullseye, Winchester 231 and TiteGroup with cast bullets are the ticket to low recoil, a mild report and small groups.

When it’s all said and done, my solution to loading the .327 was very simple. I just kept the charges a bit under maximum. Accuracy and velocity were fine, and I had not a single case failure or any trouble ejecting a case. However, if you find yourself with a lot of .32 H&R cases and few .327s, it’s no problem, as the H&R brass makes up into accurate and powerful ammo for use in a .327 wheelgun.

The .32s offer considerable versatility, as shown by the variety of bullets suitable for them. From left: 78-grain cast roundnose, Hornady 90-grain hollow-base wadcutter, 115-grain cast semiwadcutter, Sierra 90-grain Jacketed Hollow Cavity and Hornady 100-grain XTP (eXtreme Terminal Performance) hollowpoint.

The .327 Federal is a great little cartridge, but it is not without its foibles. It offers a lot of performance, but at a price. Yes, factory ammo is expensive, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Chamber pressure and noise are the costs.

The Maximum Average Pressure (MAP) allowed for the .327 by SAAMI is 45,000 psi. By contrast, MAP of the .357 Magnum is 35,000 psi and 36,000 psi for the .44 Magnum. So, reloaders should not use powder charges heavier than those in the loading manuals. Actually, handloads a bit below maximum offer plenty of power and trouble-free functioning.

Another cost of the .327 is a very loud muzzle blast. Unless a grizzly is chewing on your leg or a bad guy is closing fast, the .327 should never be fired without hearing protection.

However, this is not an insurmountable problem for the industrious .327 shooter. A tremendously useful attribute of a .327 revolver is its ability to shoot a variety of shorter rounds. The .32 H&R, .32 S&W, .32 S&W Long, and even the .32 ACP (because it’s actually a semi-rimmed case) can be safely fired in a .327. Hornady makes a .32 H&R round with an 85-grain XTP bullet at 1,150 fps that is a terrific load for the .327. Federal also makes .32 H&R ammunition.

But, the real solution is to handload the .327 to match the shooter’s need. Cases, bullets and powders are readily available, so a load for just about any purpose can be tailor-made. Plus, handloads are extremely inexpensive compared to factory fodder.

After considerable experimentation, the author found that great loads for the .327 Federal Magnum could be built with Federal No. 200 primers, Hodgdon’s CFE Pistol powder and the Hornady 100-grain eXtreme Terminal Performance hollowpoint bullet.

So, in the .327 Federal Magnum we have the most versatile and powerful modern-day .32-caliber cartridge to achieve broad-based popularity. Modern ammunition and new firearms are available for it, and it can be handloaded to suit the shooter’s needs and pocketbook. While the .32 ACP and .32 S&W Long in classic pistols like the M-1903 Colt and S&W M-31 are fun to shoot, the .327 can be easily loaded to the power levels of most of those earlier rounds, in addition to power levels unheard of for those older rounds.

The .327 offers a broad spectrum of performance, is economical to handload and shoot, and at the same time is a powerful round for personal protection. The shooter looking for a small or mid-size handgun with pizzazz would do well to consider the versatile .327 Federal Magnum.

Editor's Note: This article is from Gun Digest 2017, 71st Edition.

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