The increased popularity of Cowboy Action Shooting (CAS) in recent years has led to a resurgence in the popularity of various older cartridges that had once been thought obsolete. One of those that has seen renewed interest is the .38-55 Winchester, which had largely been abandoned since the 1940s.
The .38-55 was actually one of the two initial cartridges offered in the Winchester 1894 rifle, which has since become synonymous with the .30-30 Winchester cartridge. But the .30-30 is just a .38-55 case shortened, necked down to .30-caliber, and loaded with smokeless powder. The original .30-30 offered significantly greater performance than the .38-55, and rapidly became one of the most popular hunting cartridges in the country.
The .38-55 is now loaded with smokeless powder too, and its performance has increased accordingly. Modern loads feature a .377-.378” bullet of 255 grains traveling at just over 1,800 feet per second, for about 1,900 foot-pounds of muzzle energy. That’s enough to take deer and black bear pretty easily. And with the right bullet construction at short ranges, it’s not a bad choice for elk either.
Rifles chambered in .38-55 are largely going to be lever-action rifles, such as the Winchester 1894, Marlin 336, or newer Henry lever-action rifles. Older rifles should be checked carefully before firing, to make sure they can handle the performance of modern ammunition.
The major advantage of lever-action rifles is that they appear non-threatening to those ignorant of guns. They’re just “cowboy guns,” and no one gives them a second thought. Yet they’re still highly effective for hunting, and no slouches when it comes to self defense either. With practice, operating a lever-action rifle can result in a firing rate that isn’t too much slower than with a semi-automatic rifle.
The disadvantage of .38-55 is that ammunition is expensive. Factory ammunition can’t be found for less than $1.50 a round, so unless you handload, you won’t be able to do a lot of shooting. If you have a rifle chambered in .38-55 and want to keep it fed, it’s best to stock up on brass and bullets, and having the ability to cast your own bullets isn’t a bad thing either. While there may be better options for a survival situation, if you have a .38-55 rifle and plenty of ammunition, you have nothing to fear in a survival scenario.