THE MODERN .44 LONG GUNS
BY JOHN TAFFIN
The second half of the 19th-century saw the introduction of some excellent .44 leverguns such as the 1860 Henry, the 1866 Yellow Boy, the 1873 Winchester, the 1892 Winchester, and the Marlin 1894. The second half of the 20th-century and the early years of the 21st century has also seen its share of excellent .44 long guns such as the Marlin Models 336 and 1894 in .44 Magnum, along with the latter also in .44-40; Winchester’s legendary Model 94 adapted to the .44 Magnum and even a commemorative offered in .44-40; and three thoroughly modern .44 Magnum carbines from Ruger. Even Henry Repeating Arms Co., known for those slick little .22 leverguns, now offers the brass-framed Big Boy .44 Magnum. At nearly nine pounds it makes a very comfortable shooting .44 Magnum levergun.
For almost 150 years beginning with the .44 Rimfire, sixgunners could choose a companion levergun, or maybe it was the other way around. In the late 1860s/early 1870s shooters could match up a 1860 Henry or 1866 Winchester with a like chambered Smith & Wesson American or Colt Single Action; by the late 1870s the .44-40 became the cartridge of choice for a sixgun/levergun duo as it was first chambered in the 1873 Winchester and then followed in a few years in such sixguns as the Colt Single Action and 1878 Double Action; the Smith & Wesson #3 and Double Action Frontier; and the Merwin, Hulbert & Co. single actions and double actions.
Fast forward to the 1950s and custom gunsmiths first began converting Winchester Model 92s to .357 Magnum and then when the .44 Magnum arrived many 44-40 Winchester Model 1892s became .44 Magnums. Ten years later the factory produced .44 Magnum leverguns began to appear. Today we have a large choice of .44 leverguns offered to us mostly in .44 Magnum, a few in .44-40, and we have at least been promised a Model 92 Takedown chambered in .44 Special; this was first announced at the 2005 Shot Show by Taylor's & Co.
I've been a fan of Marlin leverguns for five decades; ever since I bought a pair of Marlin shooters, original Model 1894s chambered in .38-40 and .25-20. In the foolish time of life known as teenager I let both guns slip through my hands. I would love to have them back now! In the 1960s, Marlin's 336, a long time deer hunter's favorite offered in .30-30 and .35 Remington, was brought forth as the sixgunner's companion in .44 Magnum. I purchased the first one to hit town and it has now served me well for nearly 40 years. With its 20" barrel, full magazine tube, and straight gripped stock it is the near perfect woods carbine. However, a real joy found in firearms is taking any one of many 'near-perfect' sixguns or leverguns and making them even more near perfect. To accomplish this with the Marlin 336 .44 Magnum, it was sent off to gunsmith Keith DeHart to have the barrel cut to 18 1/2" and the overly abundant forearm and butt stock, both made of too much quality walnut, were slimmed down. The result is an even easier and faster handling big bore carbine; matched up with my ever present Bear Buster Ruger 4 5/8” .44 Flat-Top it made the perfect sixgun/levergun combination for deep woods hunting. Over the past 40 years a lot of .44 long guns have come, and some have gone, however this Marlin 336 remains a favorite. Following are that Test-Fire results with this 18 ½” carbine. Micro Groove Marlin rifle barrels are not supposed to shoot cast bullets very well; this one does just fine. The secret is choosing the right cast bullets with gas checked versions giving the best results. Groups are for three shots at 50 yards with a 4X scope in place:
Load MV Groups
Hornady 240 XTP/24.5 gr. WW296 1728 fps 5/8”
Hornady 240 XTP/22.0 gr. #2400 1696 fps 1 ¼”
Hornady 265 XTP/23.0 gr. WW296 1621 fps 1 ½”
Speer 240 JHP/24.5 gr. WW296 1681 fps ¾”
Speer 240 JSP/22.0 gr. #2400 1672 fps 7/8”
Lyman #431244GC/20.0 gr. #2400 1624 fps 1”
NEI 429.295GC/21.5 gr. WW296 1547 fps 1”
Saeco 240 FPGC/20.0 gr. #2400 1674 fps 5/8”
In 1969, the Marlin 1894 was resurrected and offered in .44 Magnum, and then in .44-40. This action, being shorter, is better suited to sixgun cartridges than the .30-30 length 336 action. Marlin also made a special run of Trapper-style 1894 carbines in .44 Magnum with a 16 1/2" barrel, full magazine tube that holds seven or eight rounds depending upon the nose length of the bullet, a recoil pad on its straight gripped stock, checkering on forearm and buttstock , and excellent sights. The sights consist of a hooded bead front sight mated up with a semi-buckhorn rear sight that is adjustable for elevation by moving the elevation ladder forwards or backwards. Either sight can be adjusted for windage by tapping and moving it in its dovetail. A hammer block cross bolt safety is also provided. As with all Marlin leverguns the Trapper .44 Magnum is drilled and tapped for mounting a scope either for convenience or for those who have trouble seeing iron sights; another option is the drilling and tapping of the left side to accept Williams or Lyman receiver, or peep sights. Sling swivels are also provided should one wish to sling this little carbine. I would expect that most shooters like this little levergun fine without a sling but it is most handy to have a lightweight sling in pocket should the occasion ever rise when both hands are needed. This Model 1894S .44 Magnum was manufactured with the Micro Groove rifling, which is reflected in the testing as this .44 Magnum did its best work with jacketed bullets, however as with the 336 cast bullets will shoot if they are carefully selected. All loads were shot at 50 yards with the standard sights with four shots being fired and the best three shots measured for a group. This is usually standard procedure when I test a rifle or sixgun, that is to allow myself a throw-away round. Having a mulligan relieves the stress of trying to shoot a really tight group.
these little carbines is a pleasant experience with all loads tested. Felt
recoil is certainly much less than one might expect; there were no problems
encountered with recoil even when spending several hours at a time at the
shooting bench. Shooting jacketed bulleted loads in the .44 Magnum resulted
in average size groups of one to two
inches with Federal's 240 grain JHP, Remington's 240 JHP, Cor-Bon's 260 Bonded
Core, and Speer's 270 Gold Dot all coming in right at one inch for three shots.
The two former loads, at 1670 and 1730 fps respectively are for broadside shots
on deer-sized game. The latter two loads at 1840 and 1515 fps respectively are
for situations demanding deeper penetration. Cor-Bon's 260 is one tough bullet
designed for deep penetration on big tough game. For cast bullet loads with the .44 Magnum version of the
Marlin Limited, I had the best results with the hard cast 240 grain bullets
1990s with the popularity of Cowboy Action Shooting on the rise Marlin offered
their Cowboy versions of the Model 1894 with octagon barrels and chambered in
both .44 Magnum and .44-40. These came with 24” barrels and have proved to be
excellent shooters. I had a .44-40 cut down to an easier handling 19 1/2”,
which was the longest barrel length that would allow the magazine tube to hold
10 rounds, and I also added a tang sight. Diamond Dot grabbed this one very
quickly and it has become her favorite rifle shooting 225 grain
Remington 200 JSP/9.0 gr. Unique 1241 fps 2 1/2"
Remington 200 JSP/20.0 gr. #2400 1833 fps 3"
Hornady 200 JHP/20.0 gr. IMR4227 1374 fps 1 1/4"
Hornady 200 JHP/18.5 gr. #2400 1316 fps 2 1/2"
Lyman #42798/10.0 gr. Unique 1421 fps 1 1/8"
Just about the time my interest in
firearms began I well remember then President Eisenhower being presented with
the two millionth Winchester Model 1894. What a milestone;
With the advent of .44 Magnum
sixguns from Smith & Wesson and Ruger in the 1950s, the demand soon rose
for a companion levergun. Several gunsmiths made a comfortable living
converting Model 1892
The Trapper version of the .44
Magnum Model 1894 has a 16 1/2" barrel, full magazine tube, and has been
very popular as a woods gun that packs easily and also goes well with pick-up
trucks and jeeps. The short barrels and compact size makes it imminently more
practical than a long barreled bolt action especially for the 4x4 riding farmer
and rancher. Not only is the
Bullet Load MV Groups
Hornady 240 JHP/24.5 gr. WW296 1686 fps 1”
Hornady 240 JHP/22.0 gr. #2400 1703 fps 1”
Hornady 265 JFP/23.0 gr. WW296 1563 fps 1”
Speer 240 JHP/24.5 gr. WW296 1723 fps 1 3/8”
Speer 240 JSP/22.0 gr. #2400 1711 fps 1 ½”
Lyman #431244GC/20.0 gr. #2400 1550 fps 1 ½”
NEI 429.250KT/22.0 gr. #2400 1670 fps 2”
NEI 429.295GC/21.5 gr. WW296 1516 fps 1 ½”
Saeco 240 FPGC/20.0 gr. #2400 1440 fps 2 ½”
Due mostly to the cowboy shooting influence Winchester introduced the appropriately named Trails End version carrying 11 rounds under its 20” barrel, with a weight of 6 1/2 pounds, chambered in .44 Magnum and offered with the standard lever or the large loop lever made popular by John Wayne first in the movie "Stagecoach" in 1939, and then carried on in most of his movies as well as being featured in the TV Series "The Rifleman" with Chuck Connors. The large loop looks good but has very little, if any, practical value. Duke and Lucas McCain could twirl their leverguns on the large loop and thus chamber a cartridge with style; a practice guaranteed to get one killed in real life as the bad guy simply cocked the hammer of his sixgun and fired while the levergun was performing acrobatics. For normal use the standard loop lever is much faster to operate than the large loop lever.
With the Trails End one has four sight options. Standard is a rear sight with a white diamond for easy sighting and adjustable for elevation by moving up and down on a ladder mated with a post front sight. For windage, either sight can be tapped to the right or left to sight in a for a particular load. A second option is the use of a scope by utilizing the drilled and tapped holes in the top of the frame for Weaver mounts. The left side of the frame is also drilled and tapped to accept receiver, or 'peep' sights. A fourth option is the use a tang mounted peep sight as supplied by Lyman. It requires the drilling and tapping of a hole in the tang but can be the answer for those having trouble seeing the standard sights.
For testing the .44 Magnum Trails End, a Weaver scope got the call, a 1.5X-3X, and groups were fired at 50 yards with four shots being taken with each load and the best three measured. Again, this gives this shooter a throw away shot and removes the pressure of trying to shot a really tight group. The 1894 is not only a good all-around general purpose and fun shooting levergun it also works just fine for close range hunting on wild pigs, deer, black bear, even elk, all with the proper loads of course. Normally I would not use round-nosed bullets in tubular magazines and I certainly do not recommend them as there is always the possibility that a round can be set off in the magazine by the primer being hit by the nose of the round behind it. This normally requires considerable recoil. The round-nosed factory .44 Specials tested produce very little recoil however there is also the chance of a discharge by dropping the rifle hard on the butt and setting off a round by inertia. In a testing situation from the bench there is very little possibility of this occurring but be forewarned.
Remington's 246 grain .44 Special bullet at 867 fps placed its three counting shots in 1/4" at 50 yards! That means that center to center the group was less than the caliber being used. This is phenomenal accuracy especially from a levergun that many believe is inherently inaccurate. It isn't. Four hunting loads through the .44 Magnum Trails End yielded an average group size of 1 1/4". Loads used were Garrett's 310 grain semi-wadcutter Keith bulleted factory load at 1520 fps, Winchester's Partition Gold 250 at 1700 fps, and two reloads, a 250 grain gas check Keith-style bullet and a 300 grain flat point both over 10.0 grains of Unique for 1400 and 1300 fps muzzle velocity respectively.
In the past 10 years, Ruger not only replaced the Deerstalker, they added two more .44 Magnum carbines to their catalog. The Ruger 96/44 is Ruger’s .44 Magnum lever action using a rotary magazine holding four rounds, and is scope ready with Ruger rings and scalloped receiver as found on Ruger's Model 77 bolt action rifle. For those that chose not to scope the Model 96, all models have adjustable rear sights and a bead front sight. Magazines are quite easy to load, and are certainly more convenient to use than the standard lever action carbine loading system which requires rounds to be inserted through a port opening in the right side of the receiver.
The 96/44 has a barrel length of 18 1/2" with a weight slightly under 6 pounds, and test firing in cold weather while wearing a heavy jacket resulted in no unpleasant recoil being experienced. It would be somewhat different in warmer weather when used by the shooter in shirt sleeves; however since this is a hunting rifle pure and simple, and also since most hunting takes place in cold weather, I do not see this being a problem. For test firing, the Model 96/44 was equipped with a Weaver 2.5X scope using the Ruger rings provided. Sighting in proved to be quick and easy, and no malfunctions of any kind occurred during any of the time that the Ruger Model 96/44 was test-fired or simply used for that grand old past time of plinking big bore style.
This lever action, whose lever is case colored, works slickly and easily and all rounds chamber smoothly. The Model 96/44 comes easily to the shoulder and points naturally for this shooter. It would be a top choice for hunting in deep timber for anything of the deer/ black bear/hog sized category. The .44 Magnum is an excellent hunting round in a sixgun or carbine when ranges are kept at 100 yards or less. Some guns seem to group all loads close to the same point of impact; not so with this .44 Magnum. It must be carefully sighted in with each load as it throws different loads to quite different points of impact. Sighting in with one brand of 240s, for example, and then hunting with another brand without re-checking the point of impact could result in a bad situation. When sighted in for 240s, 180s shot very high while 300s shot very low; 6” or more in both cases. The .44 Magnum Model 96/44 was also fired in cold weather with temperatures that registered in the 20s and a stiff wind blowing; typical hunting weather. Group results are for the best three out of four shots from a full magazine; from the results it is easy to see that this carbine has more than adequate hunting accuracy. Groups are three shots at 50 yards:
Load MV Groups
Blazer 240 JHP 1361 fps 1 3/8"
CCI Lawman 240 JHP 1721 fps 1 3/4"
Cor-Bon 300 XTP 1389 fps 1 1/2"
Federal 180 Hi-Shok HP 2175 fps 2"
Federal 240 Hi-Shok HP 1674 fps 2"
Hornady 180 XTP-HP 2145 fps 1 1/4"
Hornady 200 XTP-HP 1771 fps 1 1/2"
Hornady 300 XTP-HP 1347 fps 2"
Speer Gold Dot 270 FP 1546 fps 1 1/2"
Remington 210 SJ-HP 1906 fps 1 1/2"
Remington 240 Semi-Jacket HP 1782 fps 2"
As so often happened with
manufacturers, Ruger dropped the original .44 carbine because of the cost of
production. In the new
Load MV 50 Yards 100 Yards
Cor-Bon 240 JHP 1835 fps 3/4"
Cor-Bon 300 XTP 1563 fps 1"
Federal 180 JHP 2105 fps 1 1/4"
Hornady 180 XTP 1768 fps 1 1/4"
Hornady 200 XTP 2058 fps 1 1/8"
Hornady 240 XTP 1879 fps 1 1/2" 2 1/2"
Hornady 300 XTP 1462 fps 3/4"
Speer 270 Gold Dot 1645 fps 1 1/8" 1 1/4"
Ruger’s third .44 Magnum entry in the long gun arena was the bolt action Model 77/44. At one time Remington offered the .44 Magnum in bolt gun form as the Model 788, however it is now long gone from their catalog. When I heard rumors of a bolt action .44 Magnum my first thought was why would anyone want a bolt action .44 Magnum? The .44 Magnum is a great cartridge when used in single action and double action sixguns and slick handling lever action and semi-auto carbines; but in a bolt gun?
The bolt action .44 Magnum from Ruger turned out to be one dandy little carbine that dispelled any misgivings I may have had about such a chambering in a bolt action rifle. With the same 18 1/2" barrel length as found on the old Deerstalker, if anything, the 77/44 feels even more compact and handles even easier. Conventional leverguns are often difficult to load through their loading gates on the side of the receiver especially in cold weather. The 77/44, as all Ruger .44 long guns reloads quickly with the removal of an empty magazine by pressing in on the lever behind the bottom of the magazine which is then replaced by a full magazine that carries easily in a jacket pocket.
A bolt action rifle it may be, but due to its very short, slightly over two inches, bolt throw, with a little practice the Model 77/44 may actually be faster in operation than a lever gun especially those built on the old 19th Century lever gun patterns. As with all Ruger rifles, the Model 77/44 features the standard integral scope mount bases to accept Ruger rings as well as a folding leaf rear sight that is fully adjustable for windage by carefully tapping right or left, with a punch and light hammer designed for such operations, and elevation by loosening two screws and moving the white diamond accented rear leaf up or down. The front sight is an easy to see gold bead that mates well with the rounded notch in the rear sight blade. Better than average sights for those that prefer open sights.
Ruger's Model 77/44 features the same well-designed stock as found on the Model 77/22. Made of real American walnut, the slim stock features sling studs, black recoil pad, and acceptable checkering on pistol grip and forearm. With .44 Magnum loads in such a lightweight, six-pound, rifle, the stock design coupled with the factory recoil pad keeps felt recoil to a minimum. To mate with the compact features of the Ruger Model 77/44, a suitable scope was chosen, namely Weaver's 1.5-3X variable. The low setting is perfect for woods use or close up work on wild hogs or bears, while the upper setting is as much as would ever be needed to match with the range of the .44 Magnum cartridge from a carbine barrel.
If the Ruger Model 77/44 has one drawback it is the fact that the magazine will not accept rounds with long-nosed bullets which means such excellent hunting rounds featuring heavyweight bullets as Garrett's 310 grain hard cast Keith bullet .44 Magnum load cannot be used in this .44 carbine except as a single shot. The same is true for the old standard Keith loading of the 260 grain hard cast semi-wadcutter bullet over 22.0 grains of #2400. Potent it may be but it will not feed through the action of the Model 77/44.
The vast majority of .44 Magnum
ammunition offered with 240 grain hollow point bullets is for broadside shots
on deer with something else needed for deep penetration. Those loads with hard
cast Keith bullets may not be usable, however, excellent hunting rounds for
wild pigs and black bear such as Cor-Bon's 300 XTP, Speer's 270 grain Gold Dot,
and Winchester's 260 grain Partition Gold will feed through the Model 77/44
action and also shoot extremely well. Make no mistake about it, this is one
accurate, and easy shooting little carbine! The accompanying chart shows
several loads that stay well under one-inch at 50 yards for three shots,
including Cor-Bon's 300 grain XTP loaded round at 1500 fps and
Load MV Groups
Cor-Bon 240 JHP 1820 fps 1 3/4"
Cor-Bon 300 XTP 1512 fps 7/8"
CCI Blazer 240 JHP 1367 fps 1 1/2"
Federal 180 Hi-Shok JHP 2225 fps 1"
Federal 240 Hi-Shok JHP 1759 fps 7/8"
Hornady 180 XTP 2200 fps 1 3/4"
Remington 240 JHP 1785 fps 1"
Speer Gold Dot 270 JFP 1516 fps 1 3/8"
All of the carbines in these last two chapters were made to handle standard length sixgun cartridges; one levergun exists for a long .44 as we shall see next.
38-1) Marlin chambered the Model 336 in .44 Magnum in the 1960s, while
Browning offered the B92 in the early 1980s.
38-2) Sixgun/lever gun combos are still relevant in the 21st century. Marlin’s 1894
mates up nicely with S&W’s Model 29 Classic; the cartridge carrier is by Milt Sparks.
Photo courtesy of Ted McIntyre.
38-3) Marlin's Model 1894 Trapper is a natural for outdoor use.
38-4) Instead of the normal 10 rounds, Marlin's Trapper has a magazine capacity
of seven rounds.
38-5) Marlin's 1894 Trapper .44 Magnum shoots exceptionally well.
38-6) It is still hard to beat a good lever gun even though the basic design is
nearly 150 years old.
38-7) A pair of Colt Single Action .44 Specials and a Winchester 94AE .44 Magnum
which also handles .44 Specials makes for some soul-stirring shooting.
38-8) Winchester offered their Model 94 in both standard and Trapper Models as
well as with the regular lever or the John Wayne-style lever.
38-9) Gunsmith Keith Dehart can make a Marlin lever gun even more handy
by converting it to a take down model
38-10 & 38-11) Ruger’s .44 Magnum Deerfield semi-automatic shoot as well as,
or better than, many bolt action rifles.
38-12) Ruger's .44 Magnum Deerfield is an excellent choice for hunting whitetails
especially in areas where shots will be relatively close.
38-13) Ruger's bolt action 77/44 uses a rotary magazine with a capacity of
38-14) Ruger's 77/44 bolt action rifle and 96/44 lever action rifle both use four
round magazines making reloading very convenient.
38-15) Both Marlin and Winchester offered easy packing and handling Trapper
.44 Magnum leverguns in the 1990s. The cartridge carrier is by The Leather Arsenal.
38-16) Three Marlin .44 leverguns with three different barrel lengths and three
different sighting systems are pictured. From the top, 16 1/2” scoped Trapper,
18 1/2” Model 336 with a receiver sight, both .44 Magnums; and Diamond Dot’s
19 1/2” .44-40 fitted with a tang sight and leather “comforts”;
all are excellent close range hunting carbines.