Selecting a Caliber for CAS

There are a great many factors that will affect your choice(s) of calibers for Cowboy Action Shooting. First and foremost is Personal Preference. Many shooters have a stong personal preference for a particular caliber and for these shooters there is no substitute for that personal favorite. If you're one of these folks with a strong personal preference then by all means go buy your cowboy shootn' irons in your personal favorite caliber. You'll do fine, because in reality all the different cartriges do the same thing: They shoot, and, if your aim is true, they will ring the targets and make you into a Happy Cowboy!!

If you are not sure what to pick, then I'd suggest that you start out by setting up a back-up outfit in 38 Special. Get a pair of Ruger Vaqueros or Blackhawks in 38 Special, plus a Marlin 1894 rifle, also in 38 Special and then hunt down a Winchester 97 scattergun and you have your basic shootin irons for your backup outfit. You can shoot this backup outfit for the rest of your life and never need to add to it. Don't sell it or trade it though.

There are several important reasons I recommend getting a backup outfit first. We need to save you some money, and get you up and shooting as soon as we can. The 38s are going to help you save money. The 38 ammo is cheap, like half the cost of any other, and the Rugers and Marlin will be easy to find in good condition, used. But the real reason I recommend that your procure your backup outfit first is that, based on experience, you will be affected by Cowboy Shooting in one of two ways: (a) (Most likely) you will turn into a Cowboy Action Shooting Enthusiast and if that happens you will want to expand your collection of guns, or (b) You will be happy as a casual participant in which case the backup outfit will serve your needs indefinitely.

In the rather more likely (first case) scenario though, by getting the backup outfit first you will have bought yourself some very important time. There are many "roads to travel" in Cowboy Action and you will want to investigate all of them. Do you want to become a Dark Lord of the Soot and shoot Black Powder? Or do you favor the Remington revolver and wish to become a member of "SCORRS", - the Society of Remington Revolver Shooters? Perhaps you will become a Colt's aficionado and begin a life long search for authentic Colt's revolvers. Perhaps the lure of the competition draws you and you will want competition action jobs on all your guns. You shoot your backup guns while you are "learning the ropes", hunting for those perfect Cowboy Guns and having those competition action jobs done for you. Perhaps one day you will find a partner who would like to shoot with you, and then, perhaps those "backup guns" will turn out to be real treasures!!

After you've been in Cowboy Action for a while you will find that "SASS" is not an historical re-enactment, rather it's just a game we play, rather like the dime novels and the old Hollywood "B-Western" movies. And so you will find a lot of anachronisms.

The biggest offender is the use of substitute modern ammunition. with the biggest offender being the 38 Special followed closely by the use of 45 long colt in lever action rifles and then the 44 specials and 44 magnums.

SASS does not care that you use a replica fire-arm chambered for a modern, substitute ammunition or ctg. As long as you are using only pistol ctgs. in the main-stages your are OK.

It might matter to you, however on an individual basis. Too many shooters think "cowboy" and then holler "45" and then next thing you know they have got a pair of 45 pistols with 4 3/4 inch barrels and a 45 lever action rifle.

And these guns shoot good. The 45 pistols are a handfull and the shooter soon discovers that the 45 l/c does not download well with smokeless powder because the cases are too large, or that the 45 l/c makes a real mess in a lever action rifle using black powder because the straight wall cases do not seal the chamber very well. And then the shooter discovers that the 45 long colt was never chambered in any Old West lever gun and perhaps that's an historical problem for the shooter.

The point I'm trying to make is that for most of us it takes some time to sort all this out. By getting your backup outfit first you can get a good start for less money and give yourself some time to "learn the ropes". You will have a much better chance to get that second outfit the way you want it, and maybe, save the frustration of getting into a 3d or 4th outfit.

The lever action rifle started with the 1860 Henry. These 1860 Henry rifles were chambered for the 44 Henry Flat cartrige, which was a rim-fire cartrige. The 1860 Henry was later updated to be the 1866 "Improved Henry" but soon garnered the "Yellowboy" monicker. These "Yellowboy" rifles were all chambered also for the 44 Henry flat. And the 44 Henry flat is now out of production and no longer available.

The 44 Henry flat became the first ctg. to be used as a combination rifle/pistol ctg. Colt's 1860 Army revolvers were converted to use this round, and the 1872 Colt's Open top was chambered for it as were the early production Colt's 1873 SAA pistols for the Army. The 44 Henry flat was really the ctg. of the Old West; the 44WCF, 45Colt, and others, appearing later only became popular during the later days of the Old West.

So if the shooter has his heart set on an 1860 Henry or 1866 Yellowboy he will be forced to accept and substitute newer ammunition. Unless of course, the 44 Henry flat is put back in production. This might happen, but I think it's unlikely because the replica guns are already made in substitute calibers and so this will probably stay as is.

So the shooter has a basic decision to make here, and this is whether he will or will not insist on an authentic cartrige and chambering for his Old West shootn' irons or whether he will be willing to accept substitutes.

Also, the shooter will need to decide whethere he will insist on using the same ammunition in both his rifle and pistols. Many shooters, comming into SASS are fixiated on the idea that they ought to use the same ammunition in their rifle and pistols. The main advantage to using the same ammo is in the reloading. It's less hassle to reload one ctg. and one loading than it is to load two and keep up a good supply of both and keep them separate too. If you will be loading for a group of shooters, such as for yourself, your wife, and sons/duaghters then you will have even more to deal with. You'll soon understand why the US Army wanted everyone using the same type of 45s for their pistols,...

The issue is over done when discussed in regards to shooting, however. If the shooter wants to split and use two ctgs, or even three- all he will need to do is to set up his own method for marking the ammunition and keeping is separate when he goes to the loading table. Many shooters I know use 38 Specials in their pistols and 357 magnums in their rifles. The lever rifles often feed the magnum cases better, and often, shooters will prefer a slightly stiffer load in the rifle ammo. Any simple method of keeping track of which ammo is for which gun will work for you. Just use a different color plastic ammo box for pistol ammo and another color for rifle ammo. I use blue boxes for 41s and green ones for 44s. Nothing to it.

Three GREAT Winchester cartriges

The 1873 Winchester rifle replaced the 1866 yellowboy and with it Winchester introduced the 44WCF - 44 Winchester Central Fire ctg.

Later the line was expanded by the addition of the 38WCF and the 32WCF cartriges. Colt chambered their 1873 pattern SAA for these ctg. also but marked their guns as "44-40", "38-40", and "32-20".

So these three ctg. make up your standard choices for Authentic Old West Rifle/Pistol ammo. If you want to shoot the same ammo in your rifle and pistols and you want to shoot an authentic Old West cartrige then one of these three ctgs. is for you.

All of these cases are slightly bottle-necked and made from a bit thinner brass than modern ammo and will load and seal with black powder very well. The 38WCF was John Wayne's favorite and is just catching on again. USFA can provide 1873 pattern SAA revolvers in 38WCF for you of the most excellent quality, and the Uberti '66 and '73 rifles can be had in this caliber now from the principle importers, Navy Arms, Cimmaron FA, Taylors, AWA offers an excelent line of 1873 pattern Colt's SAA revolvers now too, and is likely 2d choice in Colt clones after USFA. The USFA are Top Shelf, and cost money, as all Top Shelp products do.


When you think of the Old West you should think of the forty-four. As noted above, ctg. ammo got its start as the 44 Henry flat. Colt's 1860 Army revover was a 44 and conversion of this were for the 44 Henry ammo.

Later Smith & Wesson introduced their No.3 top-break revolver as 44 American. These 44s used a heeled bullet, like a modern 22, with the bullet the same dia. as the case and a little "heel" on the bullet where the case mated with the bullet. The Russian government liked the S&W pistol, but they did not like the heeled bullet because it was outside-lubed. Outside-lubed bullets do not work well in rough service. S&W then simply reduced the bullet from .44 to .43 so it would fit inside the ctg. case and created the "44 Russian". Later the 44 Russian became the 44 Special and still later the 44 Magnum and all of these guns use .430 dia. bullets but are all called "forty -fours".

Also the 1875 Remington Army revolver was made as a forty-four but used a "44/100 Remmington" ctg.

So if you like forty-fours (I do) you are in good company. You will find lots of pistols and rifles in 44. Rugers and Marlins will be in 44 Magnum, while others, being less strong, will be for 44 Special only. The 44 Magnums/Specials make excellent Cowboy guns as bullets and brass are easy to get and the ctg. downloads well with smokeless powder.

The 1875 Remington revolver, sold today as a replica imported from Uberti is available only in 38Special, 44WCF and 45L/C which is rather too bad as the ideal caliber to have made this fine replica (Called an "Outlaw" revolver because frank James prefered them) would have been 44 Special.

45 Long Colt

The Army wanted their new revolver to be a 45 Caliber. Colt offered the 1872 Open Top at first, but the Army turned it down, wanting the 45 Caliber and with the top strap. Hence was born the most famous six-shooter ever made: the 1873 pattern Colt's Single Action Army ("SAA").

Today, the "45" is one of the two most popular Cowboy cartriges, the other being the 38Special.

At about the same time, Col. Schofield adapted the No.3 S&W American break-top revolver to 45 caliber, creating the "45 Schofield". The original 45 Colt ammo was a "balloon-head" (folded) copper case and had a very small rim and would not work well with the Schofield's ejector-star. Also the 45 Colt ammo, with a 250 gr. bullet and 35 (40 civilian ammo) grs. of black powder was a bit much for the break-top action. Col. Schofield made the case shorter, reducing the charge to 28 grs of black powder and the bullet to 230 grs, and also making the rim larger to work better with his star-ejector. The "45 Schofield" ctg. was born. And with it, trouble.

The 45 Colt ammo would not chamber in a 45 Schofield pistol at all; the ctg. were too long (this was intentional as they were also too powerful). The 45 Schofield ammo would fit into the Colt's SAA pistol, but due to the larger rim only 3 rds could be loaded, every alternate chamber having to be left empty.

The Schofield ammo was adapted to solve the loading problem so that it could be used for either gun, and with that the 45 Colt round assumed a new monicker and became the 45 "long" Colt -- differnet from the 45 "Schofield". The modern "45 long Colt" cases are made from brass, and boxer primed, with the rims undercut so that they can be used in rifles. So from a strict historical stand point shooters with guns using 45 long Colt ammo are firing a MODERN "45 Colt"; Although called the "45 Long Colt" it should be the "45 Modern Colt" as it is NOT the same ctg. that was made for the original 1873 Colt's SAA. The "45 long Colt" is no more historically correct than is a 44 Magnum: both are MODERN DERIVITIVES of historic cartriges.

Many SASS competitiors today use 45 Schofield cases for their 45 pistol ammo today becuase of the smaller case capacity: it downloads for smokeless powder (black powder too) much better. The huge 45 Long Colt ctg does not download well with smokeless powder, even with the fastest grades such as Titegroup.

Ctg Advantages, Dis-advantages, Comments
32 S&W (32 H&R Mag) Ruger small-frame Vaquero. Absolutely great little guns. Fire 32-20 bullets with these. Cheap shooting if you reload your own. Delight to shoot with.
32WCF (32-20) Many lever guns for these. Some old Ruger Blackhawks can be had for these.
38 Special (357 Mag) Best choice for economy, especially if you don't reload. First choice of Competition Shooters.
38WCF (38-40) making a come-back the 38WCF was John Wayne'e personal favorite, his '92 Big Loop Winchester and Colt were both 38WCF. Check with AWA or USFA for pistols; Uberti imports rifles as 1866 Winchesters and 1873 Winchester in this caliber. A top choice for shooting with an authentic caliber and a top choice for shooting with black powder.
41 Magnum Modern version of the old 41 long Colt. Found ONLY in Ruger Blackhawks and in limited production of Marlin 1894 rifles. Excellent Cowboy Action round.
44WCF (44-40) The all-time favorite in Old West Ammo. If you wanna shoot what the Cowboy used then shoot these, --especially with Black Powder. If you want to shoot 44s and you are going to shoot smokeless then the 44Mag is abetter choice.
44 Special (44 Mag) Modern derivitive of the 44 Russian these are most often found un Ruger Vaqueros, Blackhawks and Marlin Rifles. Works VERY well for Cowboy Action. The 44Special and 44Mag are straight wall pistol cases and can be reloaded with carbide dies in one pass in a progressive loaded. Both the 44Mag and the 44Special download very well with smokeless.
44 Russian This is just a shorter 44 Special but we are seeing a few guns showing up for these again. The Taylors & Co. Spencer rifle replica will be using these (or 45 Schofieldfs)
45 Schofield Short cased 45 Long Colt for use in Schofields revolvers. Prefered by many shooters downloading 45 ammo with smokeless powder.
45 long Colt Modern version of the 45 Colt ammo; brass case, with under-cut rim for rifles. Does not donwload well with smokeless powder. Messy with black powder. VERY loud on the firing line. Overall: poor choice, but if you gotta have a 45 get 'em.

The "WCF" (Winchester Central Fire) ctgs. are all slightly bottle-necked. This was to make them feed better in the lever action rifles and to make them seal better with Black Powder. These WCF ctgs. are the best choices for Black Powder. The 32WCF is a little small and will foul up sooner than the 38WCF and 44WCF.

The other ctgs. are straight wall and can be loaded in 1 pass with carbide dies on a progressive press without the mess associated with case sizing lube.

Decisions Decisions Decisions. Ain't it fun? Get some of everything and then you can be happy.   Make sure you are buying them for yourself though, and not for the other shooters. The other shooters won't remember what you were shooting with after the awards ceremony.

İFebruary 2002 Grandpa Willie SASS No.26996 All Rights Reserved. Any Member of SASS or any SASS Affiliated Club is welcome to the use of This Essay provided that the original Text and Credit are retained.
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