A couple of eons ago, back during the Pleistocene era, when Sandi and I were newlyweds living outside Bozeman, Mont., out by Shed’s bridge on the Gallatin River, my main firearm was an old Marlin lever action in caliber .38-40. Just to set the record straight, that caliber, whether in a rifle or handgun, is still one of my favorites. Also, in Montana it was perfectly legal for hunting big game.
To me, this whole caliber limit thing in Wyoming is perplexing. For example, the .44-40. The last I heard it was illegal for big game, even in a rifle. Yet, the .44 magnum and the .41 magnum in a handgun are legal. A factory .44 magnum will kick a .430-inch diameter slug weighing between 180 grains and 240 grains, out of a 7 1/2 inch barrel, at somewhere around 1,200 to 1,400 feet-per-second, depending on the load.
The standard load for the older .44-40 was a 200-grain bullet, .427 inch in diameter, at 1,200 to 1,400 fps, depending on barrel length. Since this is a rifle we’re talking about, most folks can shoot it much better than a handgun. In fact, the old saw about the .44-40 in the early 1900s was that “it had killed more men, good or bad, and more game animals, large and small, than any other caliber around.”
But this is about the .44-40s little brother, the .38-40, which isn’t really that. To explain, old timers called the Winchester centerfire cartridges by either the .44 WCF or the .38 WCF and so on. My understanding is that Marlin, not wanting to put Winchesters’ name on their barrels, renamed said cartridges as the .44-40 and the .38-40 starting a popular trend of calling a cartridge by its caliber, IE .44, and then the amount of powder it was loaded with, 40 grains of black powder. Hence, 44-40 . I refer to these calibers as hyphenated calibers.
Except the 38-40 wasn’t really a 38. It was a true .40 caliber loaded over, some say, 38 grains of black powder. Why the reversal? All of the rest, the 25-20, the 38-56, the 32-40, the 50-70, the 40-65, in effect all of the hyphenated calibers, followed that method of designation. But the 38-40, the true red-headed stepson of the game, had to be different. Probably why this red-headed stepson loves it.
At the time I started using that old Marlin rifle, the standard 38-40 factory load, if memory serves, was a 180 grain, round nose, jacketed bullet at around 1100 or 1,200 fps from a rifle barrel. I cast bullets from wheelweights I got free from Bozeman area service stations. Those bullets weighed around 200 grains, and I ran them out the barrel at between 1,400 to 1,500 fps. Or about as much thump as a .41 magnum from a 7 1/2 inch barreled revolver. No earthshaker these days, but a good deer thumper back in the day.
But I digress. This story is about a deer. It was later in the season and Sandi and I had yet to put a deer in the freezer which, back then, was a 50 gallon barrel filled with sawdust and set in the ground. In the winter, meat was left out overnight to freeze and then buried in the sawdust and the barrel top put on. We didn’t have much in the way of discretionary income.
We had this broken-down jeep and the one hunting license we could afford and were heading down an old dirt road by the Madison River, heading for a spot I knew held deer. Sandi spotted a big dry doe by herself, grazing on the slope of one of the ridges that paralleled the river. I slipped out, eased a round into the chamber, and started sneaking up the slope. Unfortunately the deer must have scented or sensed me. By the time I closed to within 50 yards and popped over the ridge, she was gone.
Looking back at Sandi, i saw her pointing to a large growth of rose hips and some kinds of berry bushes. Eventually, I spotted the deer standing in the center of the shrubbery. Since it was the last day of the season and we needed meat, I elected to take the shot.
Short story, heavy brush, one shot, dead deer, full freezer. Would a .25-06 bullet have spun through that convoluted mass of twigs and branches and struck the deer exactly where I was aiming? Or do we credit divine intervention? On that last one, I think not as the Lord and I weren’t on very good terms back then. And that’s on me, not him.
Why all of this? Because I just finished yet another article in a gun magazine about how no bullet can shoot through heavy brush and reliably hit a target. Yet, the old timers, the ancient ones who lived by their firearms and hunting abilities, thought so. They definitely believed that the older, bigger, slower bullets were fine for brush hunting despite the current crop of gun writers and Johnny-come-latelies who dispute the belief.
So adamant in this belief were many older guys that several of these gun scribes have tested the theory by building a bullet obstacle course out of 1/2 inch or 3/8s inch dowels set in boards and arranged in series to determine if any bullet can plow through this maze of wood and still hit the target behind the dowels. Which, they have found, rarely happens. Good enough for them, but not for me. This bit of gun-writer arrogance completely disregards items like bullet alloy or composition, caliber, bullet shape and, most important to my way of thinking, velocity and rate of twist.
About 500 years ago, some obscure German gunsmith discovered that if you put grooves in the inside of the gun barrel, (It’s called rifling) and used said grooves to spin the bullets, it could be made more accurate. These old gunsmiths found that, in essence, in order for their rifles to be accurate, each different caliber and bullet size require a different rate of twist. Bullet speed is also a factor.
Most of our newer rifles are barreled with a twist rate around one turn in 10 inches. Some calibers require faster spins, like one in seven and others require slower rates of twist like one in fourteen. The rate of spin of the older rifle and handguns, like my ancient Marlin, was way slower, as in one turn in 38 inches. I think one reason the older, slower slugs were able to penetrate brush better than their modern replacements is due to a lower velocity, 1,300 fps vs a modern 2700 fps say. Also I believe a slower rate of spin made it harder to knock the spinning bullet off course.
Still, there’s also a difference in how the so-called brush penetration tests were biased for failure. To begin with, most brush isn’t kiln dried, solidly set, wood dowels deliberately arranged to create a nearly solid obstacle. Brush is randomly spaced, springy, green, light in diameter twigs and branches easily brushed aside. It flexes in the wind or even a small breeze. I’m not saying one should try to punch bullets through a forest of branches, especially with the high-stepping cartridges we have today, but don’t entirely discount those old timers and their beliefs either.
Those oldsters survived some hard times that most of our current population wouldn’t even get started in and they came out on the other end, fairly long in tooth, but still pumping air. Just saying.