Lever-action rifles in handgun chambering
Towsley, Bryce M
While some may debate the point on a technical historical level, the rest of the world knows that the “gun that won the West” was the Winchester 1873 lever-action rifle. The first and most popular chambering in this gun was the .44 Winchester Center-Fire (WCF) or as we know it today, the .44-40 Win. This is the cartridge that was said to have “killed more game, big and small, and more men, good and bad, than any other in existence.” This porent combination offered many advantages to anyone who regularly carried a gun, and it started a trend that continues even today of having a rifle arid an handgun chambered for the same cartridge.
It was the destiny of the 1873 rifle and the .44 WCF cartridge to be successful, but they got another boost when, in 1878, Colt started chambering its Single Action Army revolver in .44 WCF Now, the same ammunition could be used in both the handgun and the rifle. That simplified things greatly and allowed a man to carry only one type of ammunition instead of two. One bullet mold and one set of reloading tools did the job for both guns. Today, we have lever-action rifles firing more powerful cartridges than can be used in any repeating handgun, but the popularity of lever-action rifles in “handgun chamberings” is still riding high. Upon looking at the market, I found that this concept has split recently into two distinct areas, with a bit of overlap.
The first popular use for lever-action rifles chambered in handgun cartridges is hunting. These little lever-action rifles are compact, light and easy to carry. They’re chambered for the same powerful cartridges as the popular hunting handguns and, just like our ancestors, those who use them need only carry one type of ammunition.
The modern magnum handgun is a serious hunting tool. With cartridges such as the .44 Mag., they have been used successfully on all the world’s game. But those handgun cartridges step up another level in performance when chambered in lever-action carbines. The longer barrels generate more velocity and energy from the same ammunition. The Ruger Model 96 is probably the most “modern” design in these lever-guns. It has a one-piece stock that gives it a “bulkier” feel in the hand that’s more like a bolt-action rifle than conventional slab-sided lever-actions. The Model 96 also uses a four-round-capacity rotary box magazine rather than the more common tubular magazine. Its lever has a short throw of only 54 degrees, and it has an attached internal arm that operates the bolt. The arm swings out between the lever and the rifle to give the open action a unique appearance when compared to other lever-actions offered today.
Marlin’s Model 1894 lever-action is offered in a wide variety of handgun cartridges and configurations. The square lever, straight-gripped carbines feature side ejection from a squared bolt that is flush with the receiver. The gun is offered in several barrel lengths, including a 16″ ported version on the “Guide” style. The Model 1894 is even offered in stainless steel. Current chamberings include: .45 Colt, .44 Mag./.44 Spl. and .357 Mag./.38 Spl. With a Model 1894 paired up with a .44 Mag. revolver, such as the Taurus Model 44 SS6, what more does a woodsman need?
My own experience with the Marlin 1894 in .44 Mag. has a history of more than two decades. Mine used to wear a scope, but I took it off and replaced it with a Williams receiver– mounted peep sight and a fiber-optic front sight, which make it easier to carry. I am a bit of a .44 Mag. fanatic, and this has become one of my favorite rifles. I have used it in hunting as varied as running black bears with hounds to calling coyotes in the northeastern woods. It’s usually the rifle that comes along on canoe or camping trips, and it’s perfect for the lost art of “woods loafing.”
The Winchester Model 1873 stopped production in 1919, but by then it had been replaced for the most part by the smaller, lighter, stronger Model 1892. That was Winchester’s “short-action” lever gun that was chambered in “handgun” cartridges such as .25-20 Win., .32-20 Win., .38-40 Win. and .44-40 Win. Like so many, the Model 1892 was a casualty of the Great Depression and World War II, and production on the ’92 stopped in 1941. Of the long legacy of Winchester lever-action rifles, today only the Model 94 remains. While that gun was designed for longer cartridges such as the .30-30 Win., today it’s also offered in several handgun-type cartridges including .357 Mag., .44 Mag.,
.45 Colt and most recently, the powerful new .480 Ruger.
One of my .44 Mag. lever-actions is a Model 94 that was made sometime in the early 1970s. I got it in a paper bag from a kid who took it apart and couldn’t put the puzzle back together again. I traded a double-barrel shotgun that put each pattern in a different place, and I am not sure who got the better deal. While I have shot this gun a lot over the years, it’s clearly designed on the concept that Winchester implemented in 1964 that held to cheap production and mediocre quality. It’s a fun gun that works fine; although it’s picky about the ammunition you feed it. Any accuracy is pretty much limited to using Black Hills 240-gr. factory loads. No other factory load or handload has ever duplicated that success. In contrast, I have recently been shooting one of the new Model 94 carbines in .44 Mag., which is very well made. The fit, finish and design is far better on this new gun, as are all the new Model 94s I have used lately. Better still, this one isn’t nearly as fussy about the ammunition it shoots. With Winchester’s angle ejection, it was easy to scope, making it a viable and serious whitetail hunting gun for my aging eyes. The second area of interest in lever-action rifles in handgun cartridges is the fast-growing sport of Cowboy Action shooting. Both Marlin and Winchester have presented a strong showing at the Cowboy Action shoots I’ve attended. Both offer rifles specifically designed for that sport, but Marlin’s newest rifle takes that concept a step further. It’s a Model 1894 CBC that is factory-tuned to slick up the action and trigger pull to make it competitive in this sport “out-of-the-box.”
But, Cowboy Action shooting is more than just winning. To many participants, it’s about the spirit of the sport itself, and much of that is in shooting the guns of a past era. Reproductions of the old Winchesters and Henry rifles are very popular. Several handgun chamberings are offered, with the most popular being .44-40 Win. or .45 Colt. While the .45 Colt was never historically offered in a lever-action rifle, with modern cases it works fine and allows rifle and handguns to be matched in that caliber making it very popular with Cowboy Action shooters. Most of the reproduction rifles are manufactured by Uberti and imported under several brand names. Often, they are made to the importer’s specifications so each company may imprint its own unique design style. I can offer a few observations about those I have used. The Henry was the first successful lever-action with a self-contained cartridge. It was called “that damn Yankee rifle they load on Sunday and shoot all week” by a Confederate soldier who clearly had some experience on the wrong end of the rifle. The Henry uses a slotted tube-style magazine under the barrel that holds 15 rounds. To load it, the follower is pushed all the way forward, and the end of the barrel/magazine is turned to expose the open end of the magazine. The cartridges are dropped down the magazine tube and then the top is twisted back into place, allowing the spring-loaded follower to push against the last cartridge. There is no fore-end, and a tab on the springloaded follower sticks out of the slot in the magazine and progresses down the rifle as the magazine is emptied. The Henry was first chambered for a .44 rimfire cartridge that was the predecessor of the .44-40 Win. Henry rimfire ammunition is long out of production, so the Henry reproductions are, as a rule, chambered for .44-40 Win. or .45 Colt. The .44-40 Win.-cal. Henry I have been shooting for the past several months is sold by Cabela’s under its brand name. I can get only 12 of the longer .44-40 Win. cartridges in the magazine, but that’s been more than enough to finish anything I’ve started with the rifle-no matter what day of the week. It has functioned flawlessly with a variety of factory ammunition and handloads, and shooting it brings me closer to the roots of American history. Plus, shooting it is more fun than most people should be allowed to have. The Henry was replaced by the Winchester Model 1866, called the “Yellowboy” because of its brass frame. I have been using one, again from Cabela’s, chambered in .45 Colt. It’s easier, or at least more familiar, to reload than the Henry, as it uses a loading gate on the side of the receiver. Better yet, I’m not constantly stopping the feeding of ammunition by blocking the magazine follower with my left hand.
The two styles of Model 1873 rifles I’ve been using offer a contrast. The Navy Arms 1873 “Border Model” in .44-40 Win. is a short, no nonsense carbine. It features a color casehardened receiver, 20″ octagonal barrel and walnut stock. I can get up to 11 cartridges in the magazine, so it’s ready for Cowboy Action shooting. It’s my son Nathan’s gun of choice for competition, and he has been shooting it well in matches, When coupled with a Navy Arms Colt-style SAA handgun in the same chambering, you have to check that you haven’t been transported back to shoot in 1880.
The Dixie Gun Works 1873 Winchester Sporting Rifle chambered in .44-40 Win. is a fancier version of the 1873 with a pistol grip stock of nice walnut that is checkered. It has a 24″ octagonal barrel and a full-length tube magazine that holds 13 cartridges. This elegant rifle looks as good as it shoots and is an excellent choice for competition.
The 1873 Winchester retained an action design that was similar to the Henry with a brass lifter that received a cartridge and then traveled up in the action like an elevator to align it with the chamber. The Model 1892 Winchester that replaced it uses a pivoting carrier that forms a ramp for moving cartridges from the magazine to the chamber. It’s the same basic design that current lever-action rifles utilize. The Navy Arms 1892 “Short Rifle” in .44-40 Win. will look more familiar to Model 94 users. The most noticeable difference is the dual opposing locking bars at both sides of the action rather than the single centered style used in the Model 94. This carbine features a 20″ octagonal barrel and a color casehardened receiver. I can get 11 Black Hills .44-40 Win. cartridges in the magazine. I find the brass bead front sight on this rifle easier to use than the blade style found on many other reproduction rifles. I have used this gun in Cowboy Action shooting and was very happy with the performance.
It’s funny how a concept that developed one-and-a-quarter centuries ago is still so popular, but the field of lever-action rifles in handgun cartridges is changing so fast that it’s hard to keep up with it all. It doesn’t matter if you are looking for a handgun caliber, lever-action hunting gun, a Cowboy Action competition gun or simply something to mate with your favorite handgun for some “fun shooting.” The options are wide and still expanding.
Copyright National Rifle Association of America Dec 2002
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