A .32-20 built to order.
Back in the early 90’s I had a job that involved a great deal of travel around the region in which I lived. My most favoured part of the travel was one area in which there was an enormous rabbit population and as that was my hunting de jour at the time I took the opportunity to make some contacts that would open the door to some hunting areas. The hotel I used to stay in had rabbit on the menu but was forever unavailable so I suggested to the manager that if he could put me onto a friendly landowner I may be able to help his chef out in return for which I could get weekend accommodation. An introduction was made and I began to access ‘Ribbonwood’ Station in Omarama, North Otago then owned by the Colin and Gwenda Mackay who rapidly became my extended family and I now refer to as my adopted parents.
‘Ribbonwood’ was 17000 acres of arid land the homestead of which was at 2100 feet with the highest point on the property being 6000 feet. Running 12000 sheep, a couple of hundred cattle and millions of rabbits the property had boundless opportunities for small game shooting and on one night shoot I remember we shot 500 rabbits in about 4 hours. Primary weaponry was humble .22RF as most shots were in close quarters around the stands of radiate pines or native matagouri scrub or tussock.
I preferred to use suppressor equipped rifle shooting subsonic ammunition in order to create as little game disturbance as possible. At closer ranges I’m not entirely sure it made a great deal of difference to the game as even the suppressed rifle and subsonic ammo still produced some sound signatures of bullet in flight, firing pin drop and cycling of the bolt action. Pass 50-100 yards I am inclined to believe it was beneficial however especially with the flora absorbing the peripheral noise. Of course everything we do is a compromise and shooting subsonic rimfire ammunition came with disadvantages. One was trajectory so shots had to be limited to shorter ranges than if using HVHP’s. Terminal performance was another as the subsonic HP’s of the day didn’t expand as well as the modern offering such as the subsonic version of the Powerpoint bullet loaded by Olin in Australia or segmented/sintered rounds that dump a large amount of energy on impact. My preferred ammo of the day was PMC Moderator as it reliably clock no more than 1000fps and stayed subsonic regardless of ambient temperature of altitude whereas the Winchester equivalent of the day was not as tolerant and 1 in 5 rounds would generate a transonic or supersonic ‘crack’. The PMC ammo showed little if any expansion however so heads shot were necessary or at the very least a shot through the shoulders. On rabbits with was tolerable however the large European hares proved capable of absorbing a lot of lead and I was losing game something I considered completely undesirable even during pest control. The rear of the property was known as ‘the back flat’. A river terraced area at the foot of the mountain range it was fenced with trees as wind breaks and had plantations of pines providing great habitats for rabbits and hares. It was while hunting one of this stands of trees one day and suffering mixed success I devised a plan to create a better subsonic package with superior knockdown power.
At the time I owned a model 92 Winchester in .32-20. The bore resembled a dry river bed but with the right cast bullet is shoot really well though I never shot particularly well with the rifle itself. I believe the length of pull was a bit short for my gorilla dimension arms and I didn’t warm to it. What I liked about the rifle was the flat nose 115gr cast bullets at rimfire velocity absolutely levelled small game yet with limited tissue damage and while wondering around the pines I decided subsonic .32-20 would be the answer to my problems. I began considering best way to achieve the goal and it seemed a single shot action would be the least complicated and with the prevalence of Martini action rifles available in my neck of the woods this was the logical place to begin. In short order I sold the Anschutz rimfire and M92 to fund the new project and acquired a BSA model 12 rimfire target rifle. The BSA was converted from rimfire to centrefire by my local, trusted gunsmith who also fitted a spare .303 British SMLE barrel I had on hand. The barrel was sleeved into the cut off section of rimfire barrel after being trimmed to my specified length of 18 inches. Once chambered I now had a rifle that could not only perform well with not only the traditional .32-20 bullets but would stabilise bullets up to 240gr due to the rifling twist of 1-10 inches of the .303 barrel. In essence I invented the .300 Blackout, albeit a rimmed version, 15 years before everyone else. The new rifle was then taken to the local suppressor specialist for barrel threading and ‘can’ installation. Woodwork was the next project and over time I added a raised cheek piece and shortened and shaped the foreend even adding a top wood to fit the lines of the suppressor. The rig was topped off with a 2-7 Leupold variable with retro fit target turrets allowing for range adjustments but more importantly a wide selection of bullet weights and loads.
Load development commenced with the Lyman 311008 that would for many years to come provide the base load for small game hunting. The quintessential .32-20 bullet the 311008 boasts a .200 inch meplat that I found to be vastly superior in knock down power to a round nose bullet of the same weight. Even at subsonic velocities the 311008 dropped hares and rabbits on the spot with chest shots propelled over 3.8gr of Unique for 1030fps. For longer ranges the Lyman 311316 FNGC bullet was used and loaded with 14gr of H4227 would depart my company at 1800fps though this load became obsolete when I was able to borrow a vintage Lyman 31133, the hollow point version of the 311008, and cast a thousand or so bullets. The 31133 loaded over the same 14gr charge with its base protected by a LDPE (low density polyethylene) wad clocks 1850fps at the muzzle of the 18 inch barrel and is fantastic hare/wallaby bullet out to 100-120m when cast in clip on WW alloy. It was with the 31133 load my eldest daughter at the age of 11 years shooting from prone with the Harris bipod on the Martini dropped a rabbit cleanly at a full 100m. Other bullets of interest that have been used in the Martini have been the Lyman 311466 in Loverin style RN loaded over 8.8gr of H4227 for 1050fps that served my wife very well one club Christmas shoot where she dropped 4 out of 5 bowling pins at 100m offhand using that load. An altered version of the 311466 cut to a truncated cone FN loaded over 8.9gr of H4227 for 1035fps and delivering a lot more knock down on than the light weight .32-20 bullets. CBE’s 314 220 bullet loaded with 8.5gr H4227 for 1080fps affording even more momentum. For good measure I have experimented with jacketed bullets also and have had great success with the 100gr Hornady XTP running full house, a Remington 180gr .311 bullet designed for the .303 British at subsonic velocity and also staying under the speed of sound pulled COMBLOC 7.62X39 FMJ projectiles loaded over 5.1gr of 800X. It goes without saying that the .303 bullets and pulled FMJs were not suitable for hunting but they sure shot well and the FMJs are wonderful plinking fodder. All bullets stabilised in the 1-10 inch twist.
Both the Lyman 311008 and 311316 has since been replaced by a 5 cavity NOE mould that Al based on the 311008 but increased the FN diameter to .220 inch and driving bands to .314 nominal. My mould has 2 x PB cavities, 2 x GC cavities and 1 x GCHP cavity. The extra girth producing .314 inch or slightly larger bullets in 40/1 binary alloy suits the .303 British donor barrel on the Martini better than the original Lyman bullets and as a result accuracy is spectacular. The plain base bullet loaded over 4.1gr Green Dot with a slight crimp into the top grease groove put 5 bullets into 0.58 inch at 50m with a muzzle velocity of 1030fps average, ES 25fps.
To test the theory of extra knock down power for visual effect I conducted an experiment with some 14 inch long blocks of bakery shortened I happened upon. Sitting them atop a fence post at 50m a subsonic, hollow point .22RF was fired into one block and a subsonic 311008 into the other. The 311008 completely penetrated the full 14 inches of shortening then lodged itself in a pine post a full 100m beyond the experiment site and was recovered! The .22RF bullet penetrated 6-8 inches of the block. Plaster casts of the bullet cavities were taken for comparison and showed not only did the .32-20 bullet pass completely through the block but also generated a wound channel of approximately 3 times the volume of the .22RF round.
In the field the little rifle soon proved its worth and the first animal, a European hare, I took appropriately enough on the back flat at ‘Ribbonwood’ not far from whence I had designed the rifle. The Martini also lends itself well to left handed shooters and my wife Sheryl has used the rifle extensively and exclusively when we have hunted. Her first hare was with the .32-20 the same day I blooded the rifle and she has since taken many hares with it shooting both the subsonic loads and full house rounds for further out. My good friend Mike took up shooting only very recently and on his first wallaby hunt carried the .32-20 Martini as his only rifle at the time was a .22RF. The afternoon we arrived he took a hare to begin with at an honest 80m then the biggest buck wallaby I had ever seen at 50m shooting the 31133 HP bullets. Being a short and well balanced rifle and a mild round the rifle really does lend itself to learners especially with the subsonic rounds. Taking small game with the suppressor is a hoot as often the loudest noise is the THWOP of the FN bullet connecting with the animal. At best upon firing we hear, CLICK, WHOOSH, THWOP. Shooting steel is even more entertaining. And of course being a single shot is a great feature for novice users also as only one round is being carried at the time and can be dropped into the chamber very easily when required.
From what began as a very undesirable situation where my chosen small game rifle combination was failing to bring home the proverbial bacon a most satisfactory situation has arisen. Funny how things work out.