Alternatives to The Evil Black Rifle, Part 2, by Randy in S.C.

(Continued from Part 1. This concludes the article.)

Marlin got into the lever-action market in 1881, improving its initial offering with a stronger locking mechanism in 1888. These were top-ejecting actions like the Winchesters and came in the same calibers. In 1889 Marlin went to a solid-top design with side ejection. The Model 1894 was an improved version. It eventually fell out of favor but was reintroduced in .44 Magnum in 1969. Since then it has been offered in .218 Bee, .22 Magnum, .32 H&R Magnum, .357 Magnum, .38 Special, .41 Magnum, .44 Special and .45 Colt as well as .25-20, .32-20 and .44-40. Variants differ in barrel and magazine lengths and other details. I particularly like the ‘Cowboy’ series with octagonal barrels. Marlins made before the Remington buyout (some call it a sellout) can be pricey, especially when looking at special editions made in limited numbers.


Figure 4:1894 Marlin .357 Carbine

Current-manufacture Henry Big Boys, as mentioned before, share only the iconic Henry name. On most of them, the magazine loads through a port on the bottom of the tube, like a .22. This is slower than guns with gates in the receiver, and Henry has responded with variations that do both. Barrels run from 16½-inches to 20-inches, and there are a variety of finishes from which to choose. Calibers include .45 Colt, .44 Mag/Special, .41 Magnum, .357 Mag/.38 Special, .30-30, and .327 Fed Mag, which also fires the .32 H&R. Not all versions are available in all calibers. Prices are competitive with Winchester and the Italian clones.


As already noted, short-action lever actions are available in a wide range of calibers. Minus the rimfires and those for which companion rifles and revolvers are not available, and you have four vintage cartridges and three modern ones: the .32-20, 38-40, .44-40 Winchesters, and the .45 Colt, plus the .327 Federal, .357 and .44 Magnum. Any of these will, with careful shooting, drop deer-sized game.

In choosing among these, ammunition availability is probably the most important factor. What do you already own? What, if anything, can you still buy in quantity? What components are on your loading bench? Finding ammo to fit the gun of your dreams is probably going to be difficult at best, so dance with the one that brung you. Buy a carbine or rifle to match your favorite revolver, or a sidearm to match your long gun.

The old-timers, .32-20, .38-40, .44-40, and the .45 Colt, were all originally loaded with black powder. Guns designed around them were never intended for high-pressure smokeless ammunition. Later offerings like the 1892 Winchester, newly-manufactured 1894 Marlins, and the Ruger Blackhawk are much stronger. ‘Cowboy’ loads operate at pressures and velocities safe in all guns that are in good condition. Winchester and Remington once offered ‘high speed’ loads in .32-20 and .38-40. These were similar to what we now refer to as ‘+P’ and were labeled ‘for rifles only’. People who do not pay attention to warnings bulged barrels and blown-out cylinder walls.

The .32-20 had a great reputation as a small-to-medium game caliber. It was accurate and killed without destroying a lot of meat. Ammo came with 80- or 100-grain bullets. Cartridges of the World says that guns made for the .32-20 would fire .32 S&W, .32 Colt, and even .32 ACP — but consult your gunsmith for his approval on doing so with any particular gun.

The .38-40 is actually a .40-caliber/10mm cartridge. Ballistics are similar to the modern .40 S&W. The standard load used a 200-grain bullet, but, like its smaller stablemate, it could also be had in a high-speed version. This was a 180-grain load for rifles. Limited-edition Ruger Blackhawks in .38-40 with spare cylinders for the 10mm auto-pistol cartridge sometimes come up for sale. I have read of, but can’t recommend, shooting .40 S&W in the 10mm cylinder.

Using cartridges for which a firearm was not designed deserves a closer look. It’s especially attractive when ammunition is hard to come by. A common example would be shooting .38 Specials in your .357. Rifles sometimes do not feed shorter-than-standard ammo, or cartridges with flat-nosed bullets. Revolvers are more forgiving. Manufacturers stopped loading many old calibers during WW2, but you still might stumble on a box or two. Some were resurrected by Cowboy Action shooters, making them common today. Rick Grimes could have terminated the Walking Dead just as well with .38 Short or Long Colt cartridges in his .357 Colt Python. (Cartridges marked ‘.38 Colt New Police’ or ‘.38 Smith and Wesson’ will not work.) Velocity, trajectory and point of impact will vary.  But again: Consult your gunsmith for his approval on using non-standard cartridges with any particular gun.

Dirty Harry Callahan shot .44 Specials for target work in his Model 29. Even the ancient .44 Russian, resurrected by the cowboy action crowd, works fine. Unfortunately the .44-40 is definitely not interchangeable. If you somehow got a .44-40 cartridge in a .44 Magnum chamber it would probably split when fired. A .44 Magnum in a .44-40 would be like holding a pipe bomb.

The .45 Colt is sometimes called the ‘.45 Long Colt’ because there was also a shorter version for the .45 Schofield revolver, which had a shorter cylinder than the SAA. The Army often issued Schofield rounds because they would work in either. The .45 Schofield is loaded by Black HillsAmmunition, Ultramax and others so you might stumble on a box or two. You should be aware that not all .45 Colt loads are safe in all guns. Cor-bon and Buffalo Bore produced .45 Colt +P loads that should never be used in Colt single actions, SAA clones like the Uberti or the Ruger Vaquero. They are intended only for rifles like the ’92 Winchester (I would be leery of ’73 replicas) and for large-frame swing-out cylinder revolvers.

Turning to more recent cartridges, the .327 Federal is the smallest I would suggest for everyday use. It is similar to, but quite a bit more powerful than, the old .32-20. Bullets are smaller and lighter than the .357 (115-grain versus 158 grain), but the hotter .327 loads produce similar energy levels. Pundits also compare the .327 to the .30 M1 Carbine. In carbines, both produce around 2,000 feet-per-second (fps) and 950 foot=pounds but the little M1 Cabine was handicapped in combat by round-nosed full-metal-jacket bullets.

Soft-points and hollow-points greatly augment stopping power, and the Hornady XTP Federal uses for the .327 is one of the best. In handguns the Federal’s .312-inch bore allows squeezing up to eight rounds in a reasonably compact cylinder. Recoil is apparently much less than a .357, although flash and muzzle blast are right up there in short-barreled revolvers. Most guns in .327 Federal will accept the shorter .32 H&R, and share with the old .32-20 the ability to shoot .32 Smith and Wesson Long or Short and .32 ACP. But again: Consult your gunsmith for his approval on using non-standard cartridges with any particular gun.




Figure 5: Some useful cartridges:.30 M1 Carbine, .38/.357 Shot, .38 Special, .357 Magnum, .45 Colt

My personal favorite is the .357 Magnum. No pussycat in handguns, a 158-grain soft-point magnum load clocks over 1,700 fps in a carbine-length barrel – fifty percent faster than in a pistol. Energy more than doubles, from 465 to 1100 foot-pounds (fp) because energy is a function of velocity squared. Compare this with the .30-30 as introduced: a 160-grain bullet that reached 1960 fps and 1365 fp, but needed a 26-inch barrel to do it. In a 16” carbine it would have been more like 1600. The .357 slug, already fatter, should create a wider wound channel. I prefer JSP or hard-cast bullets. Hollow points designed for pistols may not penetrate well on deer-sized game at higher velocities.

Strong guns like the Marlin 1894 or the Winchester 92 gobble the .357 like candy, but even with modern metallurgy, I wonder if the toggle-link ’73 action is really suited to a steady diet of high-pressure Magnum loads or even +P .38s. Most Cowboy Action shooters play it safe and stick with to black-powder velocities, say 1,100 fps in rifles and 800-900 in revolvers. For economy, they also shoot lead, rather than jacketed, bullets. Given that you may have to take what ammo you can get in future, the relatively weak 1873 Winchester becomes a liability. Don’t push it.

When kicking around in the woods with no particular goal in mind I often field an older Marlin 1894C in .357. With open sights it shoots nickel-sized groups at 50 yards. I could have upgraded it with a receiver-mounted aperture or ghost-ring sight. instead I popped a Picatinny rail on the Marlin’s solid-top receiver so I could try a red dot scope. It seems just low enough, and mounting the optic forward on the rail means I can carry the carbine with my hand around the receiver as I did before. We’ll see how it works out over time.



Figure 6: Marlin 1894 w/Vortex Crossfire and Ruger Security-Six

I paired the Marlin with stainless- steel Ruger Security 6 revolver because that’s what I had. Any quality double-action with a 4-6” barrel would do. Going to a single-action revolver like a Ruger Blackhawk or Vaquero is certainly an option for strictly sporting use, but top-break or swing-out cylinder DAs with speedloaders are better in a defensive situation. A butt cuff with spare cartridges for your long gun is faster than a cartridge belt.

My inner cowboy prefers a Miroku-Winchester 1892 backed with a Uberti replica of the 1873 Single-Action Army, both in .45 Colt. The .45 produces 850 fps and 410 fpe in a revolver and up to 1100/675 in the carbine. Standard pressures are relatively mild in deference to the 150-year-old design of the SAA. “Rifle” and “Revolver” loads used to be offered in some calibers for exactly that reason, but then one gives up the convenience of a common round for both. A Ruger Blackhawk .45 single-action (SA) or a double-action (DA) that could shoot +P cartridges probably makes more sense with ammo hard to find. The Winchester is accurate enough at woods ranges, but its open-top design pretty much rules out adding optics. The same problem exists with its big brothers, the 1886 and 1894. Late-model ’94 angle-ejection (AE) models are an exception.

Those are just my personal choices. Yours may differ. While having one cartridge for both rifle and revolver is ideal, don’t overlook handguns that will accept rounds your long gun won’t digest, like the Ruger Blackhawk in .357 with a spare 9mm cylinder, .in .38-40 and 10mm, or .45 Colt and .45 ACP. Most rifles and handguns in .454 Casull work fine with .45 Colt, and the .460 S&W takes all three. The Taurus Judge and similar revolvers  with extra-long cylinders shoot .410 shotgun shells as well as .45 Colt cartridges.

Other Options

Maybe cowboy guns don’t trip your trigger, or you feel the need to reach out a little further than the 100-150 yards for which a carbine in a pistol caliber is best suited. If we are very fortunate, the new AWB may exempt some semi-autos that don’t look as menacing to the uninformed. The venerable M1 Garand feeds from 8-round en bloc clips. The SKS has a fixed 10-round magazine fed from stripper clips. Magazine-fed rifles like the Remington 740 and its progeny may survive, as may the M1 Carbine and the Mini-14. None of these are ideal all-round rifles. The Remingtons are not up to the task, and some find the Garand too heavy. The M1 Carbine is, as noted above, entirely adequate within its limits. It is the only one available with a sidearm in the same caliber. The fairly scarce .30 Carbine Ruger Blackhawk is a big, heavy revolver that barks a lot, but recoil apparently isn’t bad.

That leaves the SKS and the Mini-14 in its various iterations. I have never owned either, but the SKS is said to be somewhat more accurate than the AK or the Mini. I understand the Russian and early Chinese guns are better than Norincos made later with pinned barrels. Any SKS will probably shoot better with aperture (“peep”) sights. Owners recommend replacing the stock gas valve on Yugoslavian models with stainless steel for longevity.

Mini-14s have a reputation for mediocre accuracy: the average Mini-14 will not group much tighter than an AK. If that’s good enough for you, fine. Newer 580-series guns are apparently better, but OEM magazines are pricey, and aftermarket mags are notoriously unreliable. Like the AR, essentially the same rifle can be had in 5.56 NATO/.223, 7.62×39, or .300 Blackout. Ammunition for all three was, until the current drought, cheap and readily available. If you own(ed) an EBR (note to Beto: I sold mine. Or lost them in a boating accident. I can’t recall), you may already have enough ammo for the immediate future. If your cupboard is bare, then be sure you can feed your new pet before adopting one.

If all self-loaders fall under the new ban, you might look to the Mauser or the Lee-Enfield. The SMLE, with its cock-on-closing action, may well have been the fastest of the military repeaters. Trainees were required to hit a 48-inch target 15 times per minute at 300 yards. Experienced shooters could do much better. The record was an astounding 38 hits within a 24-inch circle. German soldiers advancing against Kitchener’s “Old Contemptibles” thought they were facing a battery of machine guns. Come to think of it, the Afghans did pretty well with Enfields, too, before AKs became their weapon of choice. Surplus .303 ammunition is still available on the Internet at reasonable prices. An Indian Ishapore Enfield in 7.62×51 would be ideal for anyone with a stock of NATO-spec ammunition.

One could make a case for a tactical shotgun instead of a rifle. Just changing shells allows hunting game from mice to moose. Shotguns are also versatile and effective defensive arms. Buckshot is the old standby, but even birdshot can be devastating at short range. Modern slug loads hit hard and rifle-like accuracy. Of course good sights are essential. Use the same “shoot-one, load one” drill recommended for lever-action carbines. Disadvantages include recoil and shotgun shells’ size and weight. Dropping down from 12- to 20-gauge helps. The smaller round is nearly as effective.

Since no practical handguns are made in rifle or shotgun calibers, there are no restrictions on your choice of revolvers. Stick with double-actions for faster shooting. If you luck onto an antique Smith and Wesson or Webley in good condition, then buy it. The Smith will probably be chambered in .44 S&W Russian or in .44-40. The former can be handloaded with cut-down .44 Special or .44 Magnum brass. The .44-40, of course, was the companion round for the original ’73 Winchester. Cowboy ammo can be had in the .44 Russian as well as the .44-40. S&W marketed replicas of their #3 in .45 Schofield from 2000-2003. Uberti still does. In several calibers. Top-break Webleys are ugly as sin but quite serviceable, and while the .455 isn’t impressive on paper it was a decent stopper. Lead-bullet Cowboy loads are safest in revolvers converted to fire .45 ACP, as many Webleys were. Proceed with caution.

Here in South Carolina, we have venomous snakes as well as feral hogs to contend with, so my revolver has a CCI shot cartridge first up, followed by more substantial medicine. A load of #9s at short range would probably fend off almost anything until you could pull the trigger a second time. Until and unless TSHTF, you might partner your serious sidearm with a rimfire carbine for small game to save the big stuff for a rainy decade. I’d feel better with that combo than a .22 pistol and a .44 carbine. Rimfire shotshells only contain #12 shot, which will kill a rattler if you are close enough, but “close enough” is closer than I want to get. I won’t be offended if you disagree.

There are ten million or more Modern Sporting Rifles – the Left’s Evil Black Rifles – in the US. Banning them is just the thin end of the wedge: totalitarians will never stop trying to uproot the Second Amendment. How you choose to respond to a new AWB is between you and your conscience, but disarming leaves you at the mercy of thugs, either in or out of uniform. Fortunately, there are serviceable alternatives to the Black Rifle. As Kenneth Royce, (AKA “Boston T. Party”), said, “Any gun will do if you will do.”

Illustration Sources:
Figure 1: Henry Rifle, National Museum of American History, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Figure 2: 1873 Winchester Locking System, Hmaag, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Figure 3: 1892 Winchester and Colt Single-Action Army in .45 Colt, modern replicas, photo by author.
Figure 4: 1894C Marlin in .357 Magnum, photo by author.
Figure 5: Some useful cartridges: .30 M1 Carbine, .38/.357 Shot, .38 Special, .357 Magnum, .45 Colt, photo by author
Figure 6: 1894 Marin w/Vortex Crossfire Red Dot and Ruger Security-Six in .357 Magnum, photo by author.