Throwback Thursday: All About .32 Caliber Pistol Cartridges

The .32 caliber handgun cartridge has been part of my shooting life for 50 years. As a young person, a pre-teen, I took small game with my grandfather’s Colt .32 New Police. I was impressed by the revolver’s accuracy. It shot where the sights looked, and provided minute-of-squirrel accuracy to 10 yards or more. I handloaded the .32 Colt New Police (identical to the .32 Smith and Wesson Long) on a Lee Loader. I suppose most of my 98-grain wadcutter loads were breaking 600 to 700 fps.

I enjoy firing the cartridge, but I used it less and less as I have been able to obtain and master larger and more useful calibers. The .32 caliber cartridges run a wide range of power and energy, from practically useless to crackerjack small-game cartridge. With the help of Buffalo Bore ammunition, some creep into the self-defense range. Let’s look at each in turn.

.32 Smith and Wesson

Introduced in 1879, the .32 S&W cartridge uses an 85-grain bullet. It was available in a number of break-top, hinged-frame revolvers intended for defense at close range. It is expensive and difficult to find.

While it will chamber and fire in the .32 S&W Long and .32 H&R Magnum, there is no point. Advertised at 700 fps, most loads break 580 to 730 fps when chronographed. They are useful for a threat and little else.

.32 Colt

The .32 Colt is a smaller diameter than the .32 Smith and Wesson Long. Ammunition is long out of print and expensive. Be careful if you purchase a nice old Colt in this caliber, because ammunition is not available, save on the collector market.

It is NOT interchangeable with .32 Smith and Wesson revolver cartridges. If fired in a .32 Smith and Wesson Long chamber, the .32 Colt will split the cartridge case.

Ruby .32 Caliber pistol
This old Ruby .32 caliber pistol is well-worn but reliable.

.32 Smith and Wesson Long (.32 Colt New Police)

An improvement over the .32 S&W for use in the new swing-out cylinder, hand-ejector revolvers, the 98-grain bullet breaks 680 to 780 fps depending on the loading. Several companies offer a JHP that doesn’t expand. Velocity is simply too low.

When I became a peace officer in the 1970s, there were quite a few shootings with this cartridge. In one, a peace officer shot and hit a stick-up man in the face with a .32.  The man ran, was treated at the hospital, and seemed none the worse for his wounds. In another case, a store keep attempted to shoot out a shoplifter’s tire. The bullet bounced off a cheap thin hubcap. In another case, a rural mail carrier was murdered with his own gun. Two .32s in the skull did the business.

Fiocchi Ammunition has a superbly accurate 100-grain wadcutter that is ideal for small game. They also offer a 98-grain full metal jacketed bullet. Buffalo Bore offers two loads for the .32 Smith and Wesson Long. One is a 100-grain full WC at about 800 fps. The other is a hard-cast 115-grain flat point at 750 to 825 fps, depending on barrel length. This is easily the most powerful .32 Smith and Wesson Long loading.

The . 32 Smith and Wesson Long is a good small-game cartridge, but patently unsuited to personal defense based on power and penetration. The Buffalo Bore loads are an improvement if you have a quality .32 caliber you must use. This is a fine small-game number, much quieter than the .22 Magnum and is effective on small critters.

Buffalo Bore .32 Smith and Wesson Long
Buffalo Bore puts a bit of push into the .32 Smith and Wesson Long.

.32-20 WCF

This is the largest cartridge among the .32s with a loaded-cartridge length of 1.59 inches. Original loads jolted a 115-grain lead bullet to over 900 fps in a revolver, and 1,200 fps in the rifle. A handloader may easily break 1,600 fps with the Hornady 100-grain XTP in a late-production rifle. Older double-action revolvers should never be loaded past 115-grains at 1,000 fps.

The .32-20 can be accurate and offers good penetration. If you rely on factory ammunition, the only loads are factory lead bullets. They are loaded down in respect to older revolvers, seldom breaking more than 800 fps. These revolvers are the same size as .38 Special revolvers. The Colt SAA in .32-20 is a classic that is a joy to use and fire.

.32 ACP

The .32 ACP is a big step up from the small .32 revolver cartridges. Introduced in 1899 for the Browning 1900 self-loading pistol, the .32 ACP jolts a 71-grain FMJ bullet to 900 to 1,000 fps. Penetration is decent.

A Madame Fahmy created a sensation in the news when she shot and killed her abusive husband with a Browning .32 ACP. The .32 ACP supplied the French Army by the hundreds of thousands during World War One. Little information on their use has survived.

Despite its great numbers or production, the .32 Auto has played into little gunfire as far as my neck of the woods, save for a sad and memorable shooting. A sheriff and his deputy were serving a warrant for murder for hire on a well-heeled brother and sister. Several women and kin people were in the house.

The incident was outlined at the academy as the way NOT to perform an arrest. The sheriff allowed the male suspect to enter the bedroom alone to change clothes and the female suspect was left in the kitchen saying goodbye to kin. (The sheriff was also a cousin!) The highway patrol, coroner and a judge had offered to back the sheriff up, but he declined. Another cousin, who had no charges pending but evidently was involved, showed up with a shotgun. He fired a load of .410 birdshot at the deputy. The officers were in a dining room, the cousin with the shotgun firing from the kitchen, and the male to be arrested in the bedroom.

The load of birdshot peppered the deputy’s arm, but only tore his shirt and produced mild pecking (like a chicken peck) according to the coroner. The man in the bedroom also fired with a Colt .32 Automatic. The deputy fired three shots at each man. The man with the shotgun went down with two hits, dying later. The man in the bedroom had emerged firing a .32 ACP pistol. He was hit once of three shots fired at him. He took the .38 in the abdomen and recovered. The deputy turned and ran outside to reload.

During the gunfight, two different .32 ACP pistols were fired at the officers. One bullet hit the sheriff below the eye, killing him instantly. The deputy took a bullet in the abdomen. He was rushed to the hospital by passers-by, and gave a complete and accurate report to other officers. He was lucid and awake for several hours before dying in surgery.

Two officers were killed by the .32 ACP, with one shot each, one dead on the scene. One offender down from .38 Special fire and the other survived with a wound that was not very serious. The .32 ACP has sufficient penetration to be effective. I am not certain that the expanding-bullet loads available for the .32 ACP are the best choice as they limit penetration. The .32 ACP isn’t my choice for personal defense, but it has proven effective with good shot placement.

Buffalo Bore .32 ACP
Buffalo Bore offers a hard-cast .32 ACP loading.

7.65 French Long (.32 French Long)

Why the French passed on the Browning Hi-Power 9mm and adopted this pistol is a mystery. After deadly trench warfare during World War One, perhaps they decided a pistol just wasn’t important. The French 1935 is a well-made handgun that, in many ways, resembles a miniature SIG P210, as they share the same designer. Ammunition is practically impossible to find, but Starline Brass offers cartridge cases for reloading.

I mention this pistol as little more than a curiosity. Two decades ago, I spent the time to work up handloads in the 1935. I am very curious, and the pursuit means more than the utility of the handgun at times.

The pistol was pleasant and accurate. I jolted a Hornady 60-grain XTP to a solid 1,215 fps. Kind of a .32 H&R Magnum automatic! It was a lot of fun to fire and use. Accuracy was outstanding, and the handgun was most impractical.

.32 H&R Magnum

If you own one of these revolvers, you may fire .32 Smith and Wesson and .32 Smith and Wesson Long in the revolver. The Ruger Single Six was once offered in this caliber, as was the Heritage Rough Rider. I have fired each with good results. The Charter Arms Professional is the newest offering, a bit of a surprise.

The .32 H&R Magnum is advertised as 85-grains at 1,100 fps. In three to four-inch barrel lengths, most loads break 1,000 to 1,050 fps. Hornady’s Critical Defense offers good expansion, light recoil and good accuracy.

I fired two Buffalo Bore loads in the seven-shot Charter Arms Professional. The first loading uses a 100-grain Hornady XTP. Actual chronographed velocity is 1,220 fps. The balance of expansion and penetration is excellent. A 130-grain outdoors load offers surprisingly light recoil at 1,150 fps. The Buffalo Bore loads are more like Magnum performance.

These loads offer a counterpoint to the .38 Special in lightweight revolvers. The XTP load would be the choice for personal defense, and the flat-point lead load for animal defense.

.32 H&R Magnum and .38 Special Cartridges
.32 H&R Magnum (left) compared to a .38 Special (right).

.327 Federal Magnum

The .327 is a super hot number. In the Ruger SP101, we get an extra shot, making the compact SP101 a six-shooter. This is a flat- shooting field gun. Using the lighter .32 Smith and Wesson for small game and the .32 Magnum for raccoon and similar-size animals would seem ideal.

The full-power .327 would be useful for defense against big cats and feral dogs. The .327 jolts an 85-grain bullet to over 1,450 fps in the four-inch barrel SP101, and only 9 fps slower with the Federal 100-grain loading. Muzzle blast is similar to the .357 Magnum, but recoil is less. I think the .327 Federal is as good as it gets in a full-power .32 caliber revolver. After all, any advantages of the less powerful .32 Smith and Wesson Long may be realized simply by loading this cartridge in the accurate but lightweight Ruger SP101.

Hornady Critical Defense .32 Caliber projectiles
Hornady Critical Defense (left) compared to the Buffalo Bore 100-grain XTP loading (right). This is interesting performance.

7.62mm Tokarev

This is a powerful .32 caliber (or .30) I could not exclude. The Russians adopted this cartridge based on excellent results with the 7.62mm Mauser pistol. A simple Browning design with some improvements, the TT-33 is above all else, a durable handgun and perhaps the most underrated military handgun of all time.

Russian and Polish TT-33s are very well made. The Chinese guns are often very rough, and are made to sell. A correspondent living in the great American Desert often dusts off coyotes with his, including hits past 100 yards.

Original ballistics are an 86-grain FMJ at 1,300 to 1,500 fps depending on the load and country of origin. Results in personal defense are quoted as good if the bullet hits bone. Most surplus or currently available ammunition is loaded at 1,200 to 1,400 fps. Wolf/PPU offers a hollow-point loading. It expands quickly and penetrates about 10 inches. It clocks 1,214 fps from my TT-33 and functions perfectly. I wish it were a bit hotter, as this seems to be a waste of potential in a fine handgun.

Handloaders may work up some very interesting variations. A 100-grain Hornady XTP at 1,250 fps in a good, tight, top-quality Tokarev isn’t out of the question.

Tokarev TT-33 .32 Caliber Pistol
The TT-33 is perhaps the most underrated .32 caliber service pistols.

Final Thoughts

The .32s have been around a long, long time. At their best, they are wonderful outdoor cartridges. They offer an advantage over the .22 Long Rifle and the .22 Magnum in taking a larger class of small game. While I am shy of the standard .32 caliber pistols for personal defense, the .32 H&R Magnum begins edging into interesting territory.

The hyper-velocity .327 Federal Magnum offers advantages for many of us. I see it as an outdoor gun for those that may be concerned with personal defense as a secondary consideration. Many of the .32 caliber pistols are quite accurate and easy to use well, and that is all we may ask.

What’s your favorite .32 caliber pistol cartridge? Why? Share your thoughts in the Comment section.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in June of 2020. It has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and clarity.

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