Winchester began producing the .256 Winchester magnum cartridge in 1961 and continued production into the beginning of the 1990's. It was designed using a .357 Magnum casing necked down at the front to hold a .257 caliber bullet. This cartridge is sometimes referred to as the .256 Ferret or .256 Universal. Compared to the .30 carbine cartridge this cartridge has an increased velocity (muzzle velocity of 2700+/- fps), flatter trajectory, and increased terminal impact. The cartridge is no longer manufactured as new ammo, but reloads and reloading equipment are still available (see ammunition section below).
The target of the marketing of firearms made in this caliber tended to be hunters, for hunting small to medium sized game (see ammunition section below).
The Universal .256 Winchester Magnum Carbines
The four model numbers used by Universal for these carbines were basically a .256 Winchester magnum version of their current production .30 caliber carbines during a particular time. The model numbers did not overlap one another, they referred to the .256 Winchester magnum version of the .30 caliber carbine during their particular time.
Universal did not place the model numbers on any of their carbines, only on the label on the end of the box that contained the carbine.
Each .256 Winchester magnum model used the current production .30 caliber carbine receiver with the rear sight platform removed. Each used a .256 version of the .30 caliber carbine bolt, extractor, and barrel in use at the time, with all other parts interchangeable with the current production .30 caliber carbine parts. The earlier two models used the stock and handguard of their current production sporterized walnut stocks. The later two models were available with either the sporterized stock & handguard or a standard walnut or hardwood stock and ventilated metal handguard. The first model was the only model offered the option of sights, all models included the scope and scope mount that attached to the left side of the receiver. Magazines used for these carbines were the same magazine as used for the Universal Vulcan .44 magnum carbine (see magazine section below).
The markings and their locations on the carbines coincided with the markings used on their .30 caliber carbines, with the exception of the caliber being indicated as "256 FERRET" instead of "CAL.30 M1". Serial numbers were not specific to the various .256 Winchester magnum models, the receivers were simply serial numbered .30 caliber carbine receivers with the rear sight platform removed and the .256 Ferret markings. Therefore, serial numbers appear random unless compared to the current production .30 caliber carbines.
What follows uses the first .256 Winchester magnum carbine, the Model 256 Ferret A, as an example which may be compared to the .30 caliber carbines during the same time period. The models that followed will indicate the differences of the next .256 Winchester magnum model from the one that preceded it. For details on the receivers, barrels, and parts used, refer to the .30 caliber carbines during the same time periods or serial number sequences.
The Model 256 Ferret A
The first .256 Winchester magnum model appears to have been introduced in 1963 and remained in use through approximately 1966. Keeping in mind the serial numbers were intermingled the serial numbers on the .30 caliber carbines, the lowest .256 Winchester magnum carbine serial number observed to date is 32294 with the receiver code F24. The F identifies the receiver as having been used for the 256 Ferret model, the 24 indicates the receiver was being manufactured 24 months into production (1964). By serial number 88102 (receiver code F42, during 1966) this model had changed to the Model 1025. Too little data is available to determine when this change occurred, however, it appears to coincide with the change of the "U.S. CARBINE" marking to "CARBINE" on the .30 caliber carbines, which occurred during the month receiver code 42 was used.
Universal Firearms 1964 brochure
This model was offered with a scope and scope mount, with the option of no sights or a front and rear sight made by Williams Gun Sight Co. (same used on the Universal Vulcan .44 Magnum carbine).
The Model 256 Ferret A - Receiver
This receiver is a .30 caliber carbine receiver with the rear sight platform removed. It was made from forged steel. As with the .30 caliber carbines manufactured during this time period, the slide & trigger housing group are interchangeable with surplus GI slides, GI trigger housings, and all GI parts attached to trigger housing. To accommodate a GI trigger housing the hole for pin securing the front of the trigger housing to receiver may require slight enlargement.
The Model 256 Ferret A - Barrel
The same barrel blank and gas chamber as used for the .30 caliber carbines, but bored and chambered for the .256 Winchester magnum cartridge.
The Model 256 Ferret A - Bolt Assembly
The bolt and extractor were a .30 caliber carbine bolt and extractor that were widened to accommodate the .357 casing. The ejector, ejector plunger, ejector spring, extractor plunger, extractor spring, and firing pin are interchangeable with the equivalent surplus GI parts.
Parts for this rifle can occasionally be found online at Numrich Gun Parts.
The Model 1025 Ferret
The replacement for the Model 256 ferret A, the Model 1025 appears to have been introduced in 1966 and remained in use through approximately 1979. Keeping in mind the serial numbers were intermingled the serial numbers on the .30 caliber carbines, the lowest serial number observed to date is 88102 (receiver code F42, during 1966). This model appears in a 1978 brochure, which would indicate the highest should be in the 388,000 range. However, data collected so far has included only one of these carbines above serial number 96000.
The main difference between this model and it's predecessor is the option of a ventilated metal handguard, which may have become standard at some point.
Of interest is this model and all subsequent models are not depicted in the brochures and catalogs found for 1969-1979, though they are mentioned in the few separate price lists found for the 1970's.
The carbine depicted above and below has a serial number between 88,000 and 98,000. The recoil system, slide, and other parts were used prior to the switch to the two recoil spring gas system design and the thinner slide with the hole for the right bolt lug. This change occurred about serial number 100,000 and continued through end of production for all .256 Winchester magnum models.
The carbine depicted below is a Model 1025 with a serial number above 109,000.
The receivers, barrels, bolts, and extractors used for this model were the .256 Winchester magnum variants of their .30 caliber carbine counterparts. Other parts remained the same as the .30 caliber carbines.
The Model 1256 Ferret
The replacement for the Model 1025 Ferret, the Model 1256 Ferret, appears to have been introduced about 1980. Data collected so far has yet to locate an example of this model. This model is not depicted in the brochures and catalogs found for 1980-1982, though it is mentioned in a separate price list dated 1982.
The main difference between this model and it's predecessor is the ventilated metal handguard is now standard, the stock was only offered in hardwood.
The Model 2560
The replacement for the Model 1256 Ferret, the Model 2560 Ferret, appears to have been introduced about 1983. Data collected so far has yet to locate an example of this model. This model is not depicted in any of the brochures and catalogs found so far. It is mentioned in War Baby Comes Home, Volume II, by Larry Ruth, on page 761 as "one of the 1980s Universal Carbines". No source is indicated, other than it was introduced after 1980 and before Universal's buyout in 1983. Ruth indicates only the model number and the caliber, no other information. This may be because Universal didn't always indicate the date on their materials. The models it's listed with is the 1981 Commemorative Model (1981-1983) and the Model 3300 Enforcer (1980-1983).
Information from Freddy Salinas, an tool and die maker who worked at Universal in the 1980's, is that this model was designated but never made.
Magazines for the .256 Winchester Magnum Carbine
Universal designed their own magazines but did not indicate which magazine is used for what caliber. The .256 Winchester Magnum cartridge will not fit in a .30 caliber carbine magazine. Universal used the same magazine for the Vulcan .44 Magnum as the .256 Winchester Magnum. The easiest way to identify these from their .30 caliber carbine magazines are the sides of the magazines and orientation of the Universal Firearms name. All of the magazines for the Vulcan .44 Magnum/.256 Winchester Magnum were made of Lexan plastic and were available only in one size. Their .30 caliber carbine magazines were made from Lexan plastic or metal and available is several different sizes.
There are a few companies that sell .256 Winchester Magnum reloads. They tend to be very expensive ($1.00+ per round). As of February 2010 the best price I could find was about $38 for a box of 50 reloads, at Reed's Ammunition & Surplus. They also offer a variety of bullets and loads. Shipment is not immediate, it's a special order item.
Reloading your own ammo is much less expensive. If you are not familiar with what's involved and how to do it, take a look at the RCBS reloading tutorial, or reloading videos on YouTube. The bullets, powder, and primers are all current production and easily obtained from most retailers who sell reloading equipment.
There are two sources for the .256 Winchester Magnum empty casings. The first, and more expensive, is to buy new casings ($.50-$1.00 per casing) or used casings that have already been sized to the correct dimensions. If they are used casings, make sure they have already been resized and are ready for reloading. You'll often find these on Gunbroker.com, AuctionArms.com, or through a retailer. Be aware these are not stocked by most reloading supply retailers (Midway & Cabela's sometimes have the new ones $$$).
The less expensive option is to obtain new or used .357 magnum casings and resize them yourself. The added benefit to this option is you can use most of the casings more than once. To do this, you will need a set of reloading dies for the .256 Winchester Magnum. Used RCBS dies can sometimes be found on Gunbroker.com or other auction websites. Redding currently manufactures these dies. The Redding Deluxe Die Set B 256 Winchester Mag 84233 (RDD84233) contains the three necessary dies: the full length resizing die, the seating die, and the neck sizing die. These retail new for $70-$80 and can be found at the larger reloading supply retailers (Cabela's, Midway, etc). New dies can also sometimes be found on Ebay, Gunbroker.com, or AuctionArms.com.
Winchester .256 factory loads used a 60 grain Open Point Expanding bullet at a muzzle velocity of 2760 fps and muzzle energy of 1015 ft. lbs. (Marlin 24 inch rifle barrel). You should be aware there is a less common variation of this cartridge that uses a .223 casing instead of a .357 casing. The Universal Firearms .256 Ferret carbines were not designed to use this .223 casing variation. This would require modification of the rifle by a qualified gunsmith. If you are reloading your own ammo, stick to the .357 magnum casings or the .256 Winchester Magnum casings.
Websites that sell headspace gauges often have a chart that shows alternatives that can be used. Most will indicate the headspace gauges for the .357 magnum can be used as a headspace gauge for the .256 Winchester magnum. On receiving a Clymer "No Go" .357 gauge it was accompanied by a note that indicated not for use in rifles. The chart on their website indicates this gauge can be used as an alternative for the .256 Winchester magnum.