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How do Handgun Cartridges Perform in Rifle Barrels?

by Allan Jones   |  November 23rd, 2011 14
Deerstalker and Blackhawk

Revolver cartridges in long guns tend to see increases in velocity when fired from the longer barrels of rifles or carbines. A classic .44 Magnum combo is Ruger’s original Deerstalker carbine and an Old Model Super Blackhawk.

The idea of having a handgun and a rifle or carbine that shoot the same cartridge is an old one, dating nearly to the infancy of cartridge firearms. However, the success of these pairings today depends on some educated choices, whether you shoot factory ammo or handloads.

How you proceed depends on whether the handgun cartridge is for a revolver or a semiauto pistol. We’ll consider them separately.

Revolver Cartridges in Long Guns
This is the pairing that started the trend. With modern components, many revolver cartridges can show significant increases in velocity when used in a rifle or carbine.

Among modern revolver cartridges, the best choices for a combo are .357 Magnum, .41 Magnum, and .44 Magnum. Differences between a revolver with a 6- to 7.5-inch barrel and a carbine with a 16.5- to 18-inch barrel can be impressive. Still, getting good terminal performance within safe practices means considering the bullet weight and style and, if you are a handloader, the choice of propellant.

Bullets have to be up to the task.

Hollowpoint bullets that give good penetration and expansion in a revolver at 1,200 to 1,300 fps can become fragile, varmint-class bullets at rifle velocities. That’s bad for deer hunting. Softpoints are best in rifles. One way to maintain parity of terminal performance between the rifle and the revolver is to use “full-weight” bullets. That usually means the bullet weight loaded when the cartridge was first developed.

For full-power loads, jacketed bullets generally do better in rifles than cast lead bullets. At 1,800+ fps, barrel leading can be miserable. For best lead-bullet results, select a bullet with a generous capacity for holding lubricant that’s cast from linotype. Older .44 Mag. carbines may have shallow, multi-groove rifling. This style of rifling definitely prefers a jacketed bullet.

Most factory ammo features bullets profiled to feed in repeating rifles. Semiwadcutters or other shapes intended for revolvers may snag in feeding. Handloaders must also respect cartridge overall length (COAL). Failure to do so can result in a badly jammed lever gun.

You can go with heavier bullets. The big .44-caliber 300-grain softpoints from Hornady and Speer have an extra crimp cannelure that sets the proper length for a rifle. However, the necessary deep seating required for a rifle can reduce propellant space and, therefore, velocities from a revolver. For the .44 Mag., a 270-grain softpoint is a great compromise that produces more than adequate performance in either short or long barrels. In .357 Mag., you can load softpoints in the 165- to 180-grain range.

Propellant choice becomes a factor for the handloader. A light propellant charge may not produce enough gas volume to keep a jacketed revolver bullet moving down a long barrel. You will see the best performance by sticking with the slowest burning revolver propellants that don’t overfill the case. Consider Hodgdon H110, Alliant 2400, Winchester 296, Ramshot Enforcer, VihtaVuori N110, and Accurate Arms No. 9.

If you wish to load practice/plinking ammo in the 1,100- to 1,300-fps range, hard-cast lead bullets work if properly loaded. With those, don’t use handgun propellants faster burning than propellants like AA No. 7, Alliant Power Pistol, Ramshot True Blue, and VV N350. Stay close to the maximum charge to keep pressures up.

However, loading “light” to reduce recoil is seldom necessary with carbines and rifles chambered for revolver cartridges; a magnum cartridge that delivers punishing recoil in a revolver is often a pussycat in a long gun. Dear Daughter #2 is rather petite, yet she had no problems when she first shot a centerfire rifle—my old Ruger semiauto carbine with full-power, 240-grain .44 Magnum loads.

There are long guns—either factory or custom—chambered for some of the “mega-magnum” revolver cartridges like the .454 Casull, .460 S&W Magnum, .475 Linebaugh, and .500 S&W Magnum. The same rules apply to these.

Cartridges

Capacity rules in long guns. The 9mm Luger (left) with 6.0 grains of a flake propellant registered a carbine velocity 13 percent higher than from a semiauto pistol. The .357 Magnum (right) had 15.5 grains of a dense ball propellant and posted a 38 percent increase over revolver velocities.

Semiauto Pistol Cartridges in Long Guns
You won’t get the same velocity increase from a 9mm Luger, .40 S&W, or .45 ACP carbine that you experience with the magnum revolver cartridges. The reason is not pressure—the 9mm and the .40 have the same peak pressure as the .357 Mag.—but rather case capacity. A short, semiauto cartridge case simply cannot hold the volumes of slow-burning propellants that are so important to the velocity boost we see in a magnum revolver cartridge.

Velocity increases are seldom more than 100 to 200 fps in a 16.5-inch barrel. I worked with some 9mm Luger 124-grain ammo Speer developed for a “special” customer. It posted about 1,150 fps from a Browning Hi-Power and just under 1,300 fps from the 9.8-inch barrel of an H&K MP-5. Adding barrel length beyond that didn’t add much speed.

First and foremost, you have to consider bullet shape. Today’s factory-loaded bullets are shaped for reliable feeding in either a handgun or a carbine. Most of the modern hollowpoint offerings should feed fine, and, of course, FMJ bullets nearly always work. However, in the infancy of the expanding handgun bullet, there were some designs that loaded close to the 9mm Luger’s industry minimum COAL. Most were 90- to 100-grain bullets, and they should be avoided for carbine reliability.

Best overall performance comes with the “standard-weight” bullets: 115 to 124 grains in 9mm Luger; 180 grains in .40 S&W; and 230 grains in .45 ACP. Lighter bullets may work but can be factory-loaded with rather quick-burning propellants that can’t push very long in a 16.5-inch barrel. The 147-grain bullet used in 9mm ammo generates under 1,000 fps from a 4-inch pistol barrel; reliable function depends on the brand of ammo and rifle. Before settling on 147-grain ammo in a 9mm carbine, test thoroughly to ensure it works for you.

Handloaders should never go “off book” to get better velocities in carbines that shoot small-capacity, semiauto pistol cartridges. You’ll do best sticking with data for standard-weight bullets (see above) and choosing the slowest burning propellant—usually the one with the highest charge weight—shown in trusted handgun load data. That gives you the best opportunity for a decent velocity increase while maintaining safety and reliability.

  • Jose Salazar

    I live in Costa Rica were only is possible to obtain "fast" powers. I reload 357 that I use in my Marlin carbine. After a lot of experimentation I get two reloads that work for me. First: 9 grains of 231 Wnchester with a lead bullet (gasd check).This load give me 1600 fps. Shells extrac easily and primers look fine. The other one was a surprise for me. Uses teh same bullet (158 lead swc gas check), but propeled by 11 grains of Winchester Super Target. This gun power almost fill the case, but there are no signs of high pressure. Shells extrac easily and the primers look like a fabric one. I get 1620 fps. It looks to me tha this power acts like a slower one becauseof no air sapce and to be a bit compressed. I would like to read excperiences about this.

    • gildersleeve

      Jose,
      most of us on this thread do not have the knowledge to answer your questions. I know I do not.

  • bigjohnusmc

    I own a New Ruger Blackhawk in 45LC which I love. I am now looking a various rifles in 45LC, in your above artical this caliber was not mentioned. Any information you have on this combo would be great

    • whitelikeme

      Yes, really, because lever gun and revolver both in 45 Long Colt are de rigueur in cowboy action shooting. I have a Ruger New Vaquero 5.5 and a Henry carbine paired with standard pressure ammo. I don’t get into higher pressures and stuff like Buffalo Bore +P except with the Henry and with other guns like my Ruger Redhawk. The Vaquero or any lighter frame, vintage cowboy design, is not meant for high pressure loads.

  • Scott

    Ruger,
    Please bring back the 44 carbine. Not the deer stalker, but the older style.
    SOS 40

    • gildersleeve

      I have a desert eagle 44 mag and a Henry 44 rifle and they are both great shooters. However, that desert eagle weights 4+ lbs and at the end of the day it gets heavy. When I go hunting I take both of them and on one occasion the desert eagle saved my bacon when I leaned my rifle on a tree while I took a leak. When I turned around a rabid foaming at the mouth wolf was behind me and was eyeing me for a dance partner (scared me so bad I had to set down after everything was done) with every tooth he had showing. That big (huge) dog went down like a ton of bricks when I shot him at about 5 yards (3 times). If you hunt in Canada, never lay the rifle down and sleep with it. I still shake when I think about it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/don.allred1 Don Allred

    I haven't reloaded in years, but may start again. I used to use the powder called 'Unique' quite a bit. What current powder would be most like Unique?

  • Lopaka Kanaka

    Like many I have a AR carbine that is a 45ACP with a 16.5 inch stainless steel barrel and a 1911 A-1 45 ACP with a 6 inch barrel in stainless steel and I shoot 230 FMJ with no problem. I use the 10 round magazine for both guns.I would like to purchase a Marlin lever action in a 38/357 1884 carbine but have not been able to find one at any dealer so far. Long waiting list for most wanted carbine.

  • Jim

    Don, Unique is still made and readily available(even at certain Wal-marts). Lopaka, check classifieds(I use KSL in the Utah area) and gun auction sites. I picked up a Marlin 1894 from 1981 in .357 mag for $250(it needed refinished). it was a great gun, and I wish I'd never sold it to buy an M1 carbine. Jim

  • ron

    what would you paid for new marlin in box 1982 357? 1000?

  • George

    how much pressure would be in the 18"barrel of a 12 gauge if the shell stoped at the end of the barrel ?
    Depending on size of shell so lets go with a deer slug

  • P B McGeough

    To Answer Bigjohnusmc's question:
    Marlin, Henry, Rossi, Cimmeron, Umberti, Winchester, all make Model 92 reproductions. They vary in price from about 589 dollars for a Marlin to 1500+ for a Winchester take down model. They come in 357 mag,44mag, 45 Colt, 44/40,38/40, 38 special( my Chiappa 357 Magnum feeds 38 special SWC' without fail)some in 17 cal and 22 as well as 218 bee etc. The Model 86 replicas can be had in 45/70, 444 marlin etc. The Rossi Ranchhands which are cut down and require a handgun permit in some states( not in Canada) ( mine is in 45 Colt) they are available in 357 mag, 44 mag, 45 Colt and 22 LR that I know of and have seen locally. Many have a stainless version and the Henri's have some Brass components.

  • Topper

    Try the S&W 500 mag in the Thompson Center rifle with a S&W revolver combo.
    I shoot 300 grain ballistic tips out of both, getting 2200fps out of the rifle.

  • Jay Morgan

    TO: Allen Jones

    Your article, “How do Handgun Cartridges Perform in
    Rifle Barrels?” was good as far as
    it went. I have gotten into a
    conversation with a number of preppers on a similar subject. It usually starts off with, what would you
    take with you when everything comes to an end.
    Eventually it gets down to cartridge /caliber. At this point I begin to wonder, if in a
    pinch, what would be the minimum I could get by on. Personally I like to limit things to one hand
    gun and one long gun. I personally have
    both an M-1 Garand (30-06) and AR-15 (.223) and both a pistol and revolver in
    45acp. I realize that cartridges are
    different, bullets are different but was wondering what commonality I might be able to establish between the
    primers and powder. In your article you
    mentioned that the slower the power the better but because you were not going
    the other way you never got into the discussion of using rifle powder in a
    pistol cartridge. I have done a lot of
    223 using Reloader 15 and see it is also listed for 30-06. What might this do in a pistol/revolver? (in
    a pinch!)

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