Whatever Happened To .32 Caliber?

Whatever Happened To .32 Caliber

Years ago, there were a good number of firearms chambered for one of the .32 caliber rounds but they have all but died out. In some cases, with good reason; some of the .32 rounds weren’t good for much more than rabbits and such.

Others were more potent, and were (and still are) viable defensive rounds, outperforming the dominant small caliber, .380 auto and at that, significantly. It’s rather unfortunate, though there are still some guns on the market still being made in .32 that perhaps shouldn’t be brushed off at first glance.

The Genesis Of The .32 Caliber

During the cap-and-ball revolver era of the 19th century, one of the popular chamberings for concealable revolvers was .31 caliber and many examples of popular “vest guns” and “belly guns” of the day were thusly chambered. As cartridges were invented, new revolver designs (and also cartridge conversions) were created to fill the same niche.

A lot of the .32 caliber rounds devised during the latter half of the 19th century weren’t much to write home about – they were small and didn’t pack much of a punch. Rounds like the .32 S&W, .32 S&W Long, .32 Long Colt, .320 Revolver and so on, died out due to being underpowered within a few decades of their invention.

However, there have been some warmer .32 caliber rounds over the years. First among them was the .32-20 Winchester, which sat a .32 bullet on 20 grains of black powder, which – when fired from a pistol – yielded similar ballistic performance to the .38 Special, one of the most popular defense rounds of all time. Given a longer barrel, the .32 ACP will as well, though it never really got much chance to as it has heretofore only been chambered in subcompact or pocket guns.

Some 7.62mm handgun rounds – which have nearly the same bullet diameter as many .32 caliber rounds – are capable of .38 Special +P performance or better, such as the 7.63mm Mauser, 7.62mm Tokarev and some loadings of 7.62mm Nagant.

Unfortunately, the hotter .32 calibers haven’t caught on too much. The .38 Special and .380 Auto are the most popular small rounds though in fairness, both are proven performers in defensive applications. Also, the hotter .32 caliber rounds are almost universally for use in revolvers, which – while still popular – are not the dominant handgun design anymore.

Why That’s A Shame

32 caliber

The benefit of the warmer .32 rounds is that the rounds produce velocity and energy identical to that of larger rounds. Some of the hotter .32 caliber and 7.62mm rounds are indeed capable of performance similar to .38 Super and .357 Sig in the right loadings. They also do so – and here’s the kicker – with less recoil, making for faster follow-up shots and more pleasant shooting for smaller, older or inexperienced hands not yet inured to handgun recoil.

So, if you want something closer in power to .357 or .38 Spl +P but with less recoil… a hot .32 would be ideal.

Additionally, some small revolvers can allow for six rounds of .32 whereas only five rounds of .38 Special/.357 would be possible, depending on the design. Most defensive encounters are settled with fewer than five shots (in fact, most are settled with three or fewer, according to most studies into the matter) but one more is still one more.

The Odd .32 Handgun Is Still Out There

32 handgun

There are a few .32 handgun models still out there, and they actually bring a lot to the table for the interested party. You might think it could be hard to find a gun holster for such a rare chambering, but you’d be surprised. Many modern .32 caliber guns are popular designs.Most common are revolvers chambered in .32 H&R Magnum or .327 Federal Magnum.

The .32 H&R, developed in the 1980s by H&R and Federal ammunition, is akin to a modern .32-20 (though without the necked-down case) and offers similar performance to .38 Special with less recoil. A number of handgun makers offered .32 H&R revolvers over the years, including Smith and Wesson, Ruger and Charter Arms, and Marlin briefly offered a lever-action chambered for it.

However, to get one requires searching the used market unless you get the Charter Arms Undercoverette. It’s the only production revolver still offered in .32 H&R. Harrington and Richardson hasn’t produced a revolver since the 1990s.

The .327 Federal Magnum cartridge, first released in 2008, lengthens the .32 H&R case and loads the round to .357 Magnum-level performance. In fact, this round has been prized by reviewers for precisely these qualities, but at a tamer level of recoil.

Though a number of companies initially offered revolvers in this round, they quickly dropped off. Today, Ruger offers the Single Seven single-action, and the LCR and SP101 compact revolvers in .327 Federal, both great concealed carry revolvers. Freedom Arms offers its Model 97 single-action revolver in .327 Federal as well.

The odd TT-33 pistol is available as a military surplus gun, and 7.62mm Tokarev ammunition is not impossible to come by. However, if a used Red Army gun from World War II isn’t to your liking, Zastava still makes reproductions, including a compact model chambered in this round. Good luck finding a concealed carry holster for one, but they are out there.

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  • William Phillips

    My personal carry gun is an H&R 732, .32 S&W Long. Have had a liking for it quite a while now. I load pretty much all my ammunition. It is surprising how much powder can be loaded in that case and not over pressure the weapon. Accuracy is good for having a rather short barrel. Would love to have oe chambered for .32 H&R Mag. Yes, I know the Charter exists. Taurus also made a fine revolver in .327 cal. ….they tend to be a bit expensive when you do find them. Keeping my eyes open. I prefer wheel guns but, there were several nice .32 auto’s made I wouldn’t mind owning. PPK, one of them.

    • Donald

      Interested in a Ruger Single Six in .32HR Mag 4 5/8 barrel.

      • William Phillips

        That’s a nice gun.

        • Donald

          I should have said might you be interested in the one I have.

  • mark

    I own three .32 cal pistols. A Colt model 1903 made in 1912 in 95% condition. It fires great. second I have a Sauer and Shons in 80% condition. It also shoots great and lastly an Erma Luger .32/7.65 cal in 95% condition. It’s very accurate and a neat gun to shoot. Everybody wants to take a look at it when I go to the range.

  • Onteo1

    I own 2 .32 cal pistols both were family owned. One an Iver Johnson wheel gun and the other a colt vest pocket semi auto model. I’ve fired both with average ammo and the performance was pitiful. I swear I could see the bullet spiral to the ground out of the colt. The Iver looks and feels cheap. Would these hotter rounds be safe to use in these old guns??

  • Never understood why the 327 federal didn’t catch on more, for the reasons stated: Lighter recoil and higher capacity with near 357 performance. Maybe it’s the revolver thing. Seems most people want the Mattel® like autos that are popular today.

    • Fred

      Henry Arms started chambering in .327 Fed. Mag this year, should make a fine white tail and smaller game rifle. You can shoot all the .32 S&W rounds and .32 H&R mag for rabbit through deer and they are all reloadable.

    • TaDead!

      The .327 Fed is a fantastic cartridge. Would not want to get hit by one. Low recoil and hard punch, great for shooting out of smaller frames or for smaller people.

  • Frank Stephenson

    Why is there no mention of the Beretta .32 semi-auto Tomcat? I have two, and not only are they accurate at short range, they’re handy for concealed carry and fun to shoot.

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    • Maudlean Spires

      I have been looking at those models for my wife. She has had carpal tunnel surgery on both hands and just does not have the grip to work the slide on a semi auto. These models are break action semis that can be loaded without the slide. I looked at the .32 and had compared the ballistics to other calibers. I came to the same conclusion as the author of this article, that with the newer loads now available I can feel she would be better prepared in the event she had to use it. Beretta makes a quality product. I had thought of getting her a revolver but I think that the overall features on these type of guns that you have are a much better fit because of the ease of use.

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      • TaDead!

        email me @ [email protected], I’m an FFL and I can get you a brand new Tomcat for ~$450 before shipping, transfers, etc.

    • George E. Mincks Jr

      I also bought a Beretta Tomcat Inox for my wife, not only a “cute” little gun but easy to shoot and accurate too! I found it fun to shoot with a little more recoil than a 22 cal. Beretta does have different holsters made for the Tomcat/Bobcat…

  • Mikial

    I have a Kel Tec P32 pistol that I carry in very non-permissive CC environments. It is a 7+1 and I load it with Cor Bon HP rounds. Not something I would shoot on a regular basis at the range, but for the in-extremis life or death situation there is no issue. It is accurate enough to hit center of mass out to 7 meters and a heck of a lot better than nothing. I carry it in a Bulldog, cell phone type case and after many, many times carrying it no one has ever been the wiser that I have it. Not the best, but any gun is better than no gun as long as you have realistic understanding of its expectations.

    • Clark Kent

      No matter what anyone tells you, the 22 LR, 25 ACP, and the 32 ACP are all WORTHLESS for self defense purposes, period, end of story. They all lack the ability to STOP THE LETHAL THREAT PRONTO.

      • Maudlean Spires

        Check the ballistic charts on the hotter loads of the .32. It compares very favorably to .380. I would feel a lot better about it than the .22 or .25 that are the alternatives.

      • damanifesto .

        Wrong. My cop buddy was shot center mass four times with a 32ACP chasing a perp down an alley. Nearly died and spent 3 months in the hospital. Don’t make these stupid statements if you can’t back them up with facts.

      • rick

        really? are you sure about that? fyi, the navy seals carry use 22lr’s with supressors and they’re deadly. hmmm…the mafia used 22’s as well. the british secret service along with the columbian police carried 32’s as well and there was never any mention of these rounds not performing.

        • Iowa10

          And the Israelis.

      • Whiskey7Actual

        The idea is to poke holes and lower blood pressure, may not be the best round but it works. Also not my choice of every day carry round at all but to each his own and carry what you shoot the best!
        Moloon Labe

      • TaDead!

        Finally found the man who will let me shoot a can off his head with the non lethal calibers! Hell, they can’t kill you, so why worry?
        Dude, the nastiest fatal gunshot wound I ever saw in law enforcement came from a .22LR. Hit the guy in the femur, came out the top of the skull. There was no debate about the lethality from the victim, cause he dead.

      • Iowa10

        You need to change your moniker to Jimmy Olson.

  • rick

    I have a Bersa 32acp and love it. I carry it loaded with glasers. Based on my experiences, I’ve been told the 32acp is far better a round for self protection than the 380. I’ve seen instances where the 380 barely broke the skin yet the 32acp penetrated enough for a kill shot. The 32acp was carried by the columbian police and also by the british secret service. I’ll keep my 32acp. It is fun to shoot with very little recoil and can be just as deadly as the 22lr.

  • Craig Todd

    The 32acp has nowhere the same power as a 357 magnum? What in the hell are you smoking? Somebody needs to fire this writer lmao.

    • I don’t think anyone made that assertion. 327 mag, yes.

      • Craig Todd

        32 acp is weaker than 380acp. It is far less powerful than even the 327 federal magnum. Please do your research before commenting please.

        • Do my research. Do yours. No one said what you assert.

  • Some Rabbit

    For those who have one of those old H&R break top .32 revolvers in good condition but are having trouble finding .32 S&W ammo, the .32 ACP has enough rim to chamber and fire in those guns.

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