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The Peggy Rifle: A Custom Lightweight Marlin 1894 Super Carbine

This custom 4.75-pound lever gun with custom-loaded .357 ammo rivals .30-30 ballistics.

The Peggy Rifle: A Custom Lightweight Marlin 1894 Super Carbine

Before Colorado’s 1977 hunting season, we discovered that my petite wife, Peggy, could not properly shoulder, aim, and fire any rifle we owned. All were too long and too heavy. The closest fit was an 1894 Marlin .44 Magnum, which was about 2 pounds too heavy and about 1-inch too long in the buttstock — she could not reach the trigger. So, we borrowed a shorter and lighter ’92 Winchester .44-40 carbine for that hunt. Then, during Christmas vacation, dad and I started whittling on my Marlin, so Peggy could use it comfortably. Working with hand tools, we shortened the barrel, and then we shortened and hollowed the buttstock. My goal was to create a gun that was short and light enough for Peggy to handle and enjoy shooting. Little did I realize how fundamentally the Peggy Rifle project would change my perception of what a lever-action carbine could be — very short and very light equals very handy. It also changed my life, presaging a career of gunsmithing and gun writing. I continued the process of removing unnecessary steel and wood, off and on, until 2005, when I installed a newer (ported) barrel. I had turned that down to reduce total gun weight to less than 4.75 pounds. This original Peggy Rifle is one of the most interesting, useful, and enjoyable guns we own. With her blessing, I habitually take it to the annual meeting of The Shootists, at Whittington Center. The total number of rounds they’ve fired through it now exceeds 10,000. These include everything from full-power loads to very mild plinking loads. A favorite load uses Bear Creek Supply bullets and routinely shoots near the MOA standard at 100 yards, while producing noise similar to a .22 Long Rifle carbine and such mild recoil that anyone can enjoy it. For many children who could not properly handle bigger, heavier rifles, this was the first centerfire long gun they fired off-hand.

Something Better?

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Lathe-turning this Peggy Rifle’s barrel contour allowed for its weight to be reduced more than a half pound. Nearly every part had metal removed to eliminate excess weight.

Good as the .44 Magnum super-carbine is, a .357 Magnum version of the same basic gun has two distinct advantages. First, .357 ammo is lighter, more compact, and less expensive, and with loads at any given level of relative performance, the .357 generates only half the recoil. Second, because of the smaller bore and magazine tube, with identical skeletonizing, the .357 is significantly lighter. A critical issue in this discussion is that, despite these factors, the .357 Ultra-Carbine, modified to handle cartridges up to 1.825 inches in overall length, delivers surprisingly formidable performance. For example, with a custom 230-grain cast bullet loaded at 1.825 inches, 1,600 fps is feasible. However, a far more interesting loading uses the Speer 180-grain Flat Point. In this modified Marlin, we found a load that generates 2,000 fps without excessive pressure. After handling the original Peggy Rifle and watching it shoot a ragged one-hole 10-shot group at 50 yards, my friend, Rick Hartman, decided he just had to have one of his own. He bought a used .357 Magnum 1894, and as the saying goes, the rest is history. The weight loss program I followed in building Rick’s Peggy Rifle was dead simple. My approach is reminiscent of the old canard about the master sculptor who, when asked, “How do you create such a realistic sculpture of a horse?” replied, “I just start with a big enough chunk of rock and remove everything that doesn’t resemble a horse.”

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The .357 has advantages over a .44 Mag. It’s lighter, more compact, and less expensive while producing half the recoil. The Speer 180-grain bullet almost reaches .30-30 ballistics.

I turned the barrel to a smaller diameter along much of its length then cut it to just over minimum legal length and crowned it. Then, until I reached the weight Rick wanted, something under 4.75 pounds, I kept removing wood and steel that was not necessary to assure good accuracy, proper and safe functioning, and durability. Of course, I started with the easy parts first. You should have seen Rick’s face as he watched me lathe-turn the barrel contour way smaller, thereby reducing barrel weight by more than half a pound — he just knew disaster loomed. With little loss in accuracy, I likely could have reduced the barrel contour enough to reduce overall weight an additional quarter pound, had he wanted an even lighter gun. For mechanical reasons — barrel-to-action rigidity and durability of dovetail attachments — I left the shoulder, forearm hanger location, and muzzle at original diameter.

Much weight reduction occurred in selecting the lightest stocks I could find and by skeletonizing those. By shortening and drilling holes into the butt end of the buttstock, and by whittling within the forearm interior, I reduced wood weight 40 percent without compromising useful strength. The remainder of weight reduction came in small increments. I removed unneeded steel from practically every other piece of the gun. With the larger pieces, it was easy to remove enough steel to notice a significant weight difference. With smaller pieces, feasible weight reduction amounted to only some tiny fraction of 1 ounce per piece; nevertheless, because so many such parts exist, total weight reduction was significant. After many hours of intricate hand labor, using all manner of tools (from a milling machine to a Dremel tool), we had a .357 Magnum weighing less than 4.75 pounds. With more hours of such work and the noted additional possible barrel turning, I expect I could reduce weight to perhaps 4.25 pounds, but that was not necessary because Rick wanted the weight and balance to closely match the original Peggy Rifle. A side benefit of lightening the moving action parts is that this eases rapid gun manipulation — less inertia. Hartman has practiced, a lot! He can fire well-aimed shots very rapidly.

Stock Bedding Modifications

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A Lyman receiver sight lengthens the sight radius of this Super Carbine and greatly improves accuracy.

I changed the buttstock attachment system from a simple tang screw (the worst possible system) to a more ideal epoxy bedding and throughbolt attachment. Tightening the throughbolt rigidifies the buttstock-to-receiver connection and dramatically strengthens the buttstock because it compresses the wood along the grain. As designed, the buttstock wrist and tangs are a weak point. Throughbolt conversion solves this problem. A buttstock attached via throughbolting easily withstands the stresses of normal use, abuse, and misadventure, as the original Peggy Rifle has for more than 40 years of hard use. I modified the forearm attachment, to create a layer of RTV silicone between the forearm and receiver and around the magazine tube. This dampens harmonic vibrations and prevents damaging forearm movement. As with the buttstock attachment modifications, this improves accuracy and durability. I have since built a 336 Carbine in .35 Remington that includes the XS Lever Rail and XS sights. It weighed less than 4.5 pounds, sans scope. So, an 1894 Super-Carbine in .357 weighing less than 4.25 pounds is indeed feasible. Hartman’s custom .357 Magnum 1894 Marlin is an unusually handy and formidable gun. This Peggy Rifle quickly became his favorite plinking gun. Indeed, he is extremely pleased with it, which pleases me. But, far more meaningful to me is the memory of what happened when I placed Rick’s finished gun in Peggy’s hands and told her it was the first Peggy Rifle in .357 Magnum. She checked to verify it was completely unloaded. Then she shouldered it. Then she worked the action. Then she carefully lowered the hammer and examined the entire gun, caressing it and admiring the beauty of the stock and metalwork finishes. Finally, she looked back at me. Her beautiful face just beamed as she said, “It’s wonderful, I love it!” How’s that for a lifetime memory of my late, beloved soulmate? My book, McPherson on Leverguns, includes all the information needed to guide a competent gunsmith toward creating a similar Marlin.




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