Revolver Cartridges in Rifles
January 17, 2018
In the old days people living in remote places, away from readily available sources of ammunition, recognized the value of having rifles chambered for the same cartridge as their revolvers. Although doing so is no longer as necessary as it once was, the custom remains quite popular today. The abundance of rifles and carbines chambered to .357 Magnum, .41 Magnum, .44-40 Winchester, .44 Magnum, and .45 Colt is proof of that. Not as many are used for hunting as during my youth, but changes in hunting regulations in Michigan and Ohio- and possibly other states that allow only straight-wall cartridges for hunting deer during special seasons- have given them a boost in popularity. Cowboy action shooters also have had a hand in their popularity gain. And we can't forget the countless revolver-caliber rifles and carbines that do duty as home-defense guns.
The ability to handle cartridges of different power levels also makes the rifles attractive. Don't need .44 Mag. power for bumping off that pesky groundhog in Grandma's cabbage patch? Simply switch to .44 Special and lower the boom on the marauding marmota. All lever-action rifles in .44 Mag. I have shot fed the .44 Spl. without a hitch. The rotary magazine of the bolt-action Ruger Model 77/44 in .44 Mag. fed .44 Spl., .44 Colt, and .44 Russian ammunition from Black Hills without a hitch. The .38 Special works fine in most .357 Mag. rifles, and the same applies to .41 Special in those chambered for the .41 Mag. The Rossi R92 and the IFG/Pedersoli reproduction of the Colt Lightning in .45 Colt gobbled up .45 Schofield cartridges with no complaints. But the actions of some rifles usually have to be cycled briskly in order to make the short cartridges flow through smoothly.
In preparation for this report, I went back a bit in time and retrieved cartridge performance data for the .357 Mag. and .44 Mag. from some of my previous projects. Those were updated with some of the newer factory load introductions. Shooting the Group 1 and Group 2 .44-40 Winchester loads took place more recently. And my .41 Mag. and .45 Colt data were too old to include, so they were fired specifically for this report.
A word about the title of this article is in order. I realize that the .44-40 was introduced as a rifle cartridge in 1873, so strictly speaking it was not created as a revolver cartridge. Revolvers chambered in .44-40 did not appear on the scene until 1878. However, Editor In Chief Joel J. Hutchcroft exercised his editor's prerogative and went with the title.
Reloading manuals separate load data for some of the cartridges I've included in this report into two pressure-level groups for use in firearms of varying strengths. Examples are .45 Colt data in the Hornady manual and .44-40 data in the Lyman manual. One data group (Group 1) contains standard-pressure loads, while the second group (Group 2) is loaded to higher pressures for stronger guns. Examples of Group 1 lever-action rifles are the Model 1860 Henry and the Models 1866 and 1873 Winchesters. They share the same toggle-joint breech-locking design and are plenty strong for smokeless powder loads at original blackpowder pressures. Because of its stronger action, the Winchester Model 92 is classified as a Group 2 rifle capable of handling heavier loads. The Lyman manual separates 19 different rifles that have been available in .44-40 into the two action-strength groups.
It is not all about chamber pressure; the head surface area of the cartridge case also comes into play. The larger the area, the greater the pressure exerted on the locking bolt of a rifle during firing. For example, the head surface area of the .45 Colt is 36 percent greater than that of the .357 Mag., and the .44-40 is 43 percent greater. This explains why the owner's manual accompanying the IFG/Pedersoli replica of the Colt Lightning rifle used in this report lists absolute maximum chamber pressure for .357 Mag. ammunition used in that rifle as 2.9 times higher than the maximum recommended for the .45 Colt and 3.2 times higher than recommended for the .44-40.
Despite the high expansion ratios of the cartridges covered in this report, velocity gain in longer barrels is often more than might be expected. As an example, when fired from a revolver, the Buffalo Bore .41 Mag. load with a 230-grain bullet churns up close to 1,100 ft-lbs of muzzle energy. When fired in the 20-inch barrel of a rifle, energy is increased to just over 1,700 ft-lbs. That 50 percent jump in punch makes easy-toting, quick-pointing rifles quite effective for taking deer, feral hogs, and black bear at fairly close distances in wooded terrain.
Some factory loads exceed the SAAMI maximum overall length, which is okay in most revolvers, and while some are still short enough to work in some repeating rifles, others are not. Some rifles will handle longer cartridges than others. According to Tim Sundles of Buffalo Bore Ammunition, the introduction of the .454 Casull option to the Rossi R92 lever gun required lengthening the action just enough to handle that cartridge. Most R92s built today in .45 Colt should be on the lengthened action and should feed that cartridge loaded to a longer overall length than is the case for pre-.454 Casull rifles.
The Buffalo Bore .41 Mag. load with the 265-grain hard-cast bullet has an overall length of 1.705 inches (compared to a SAAMI max of 1.590 inches for that cartridge), yet the Henry Big Boy cycles it perfectly. Regardless of the cartridge, venturing much beyond SAAMI max overall length for some lever-action rifles can result in refusal of cartridges to feed from a tubular magazine. Should that happen, you'd best know how to disassemble the gun for removal of a loaded round or hope it is a front-loader like the Henry Big Boy.
I used RCBS and Redding dies for loading ammunition for this report, and all powder charges were thrown with a Redding 10X Pistol/Small Rifle Measure. A Redding Profile Crimp die was used to avoid crumpling the thin wall of .44-40 cases during the bullet-crimping process. The introduction of .41 Spl. cases by Starline eliminates the hassle of shortening .41 Mag. brass, and while a .41 Mag. die set works fine for full-length resizing, case-mouth flaring, and bulletseating, a shorter Profile Crimp die from Redding is needed for crimping bullets in the stubby case.
Now for a brief look at the rifles included in this project.
Marlin Model 1894CSS
The Marlin 1894 used for testing had a stainless-steel barreled action. It gobbled up .357 Mag. and .38 Spl. ammo, and while it did feed .38 Spl. with a semiwadcutter bullet, it preferred bullets with smoother nose profiles. The little carbine shot inside 2 inches at 50 yards with some .38 Spl. and .357 Mag. loads, and the 1:38 twist of the Ballard-style rifling in its 18.5-inch barrel did a great job of stabilizing all bullet weights up to 180 grains. Let us hope this and other variations of the Marlin 1894 will soon be back in full production.
Henry Big Boy
Henry Repeating Arms offers the blued-steel receiver version of its Big Boy lever-action rifle in .357 Mag., .41 Mag., .44 Mag., and .45 Colt. Barrel length options are 16.5 and 20 inches. The receiver is shallower than the Winchester 94, and its breech-locking design copies the Marlin 336, making the Big Boy a very strong and easy-carrying rifle. The tubular magazine is loaded at the front rather than through the more common port in the side of the receiver. Feeding was flawless with all .41 Mag. and .41 Spl. loads. The Big Boy proved capable of shooting small groups for a rifle of its type, and the installation of an express aperture sight from Skinner Sights made doing so easy. The biggest surprise was its accuracy with one of the .41 Spl. loads.
Preparing for this report reminded me of the number of rifles in .44-40 I have shot over the years, and the most fun of all is the lever-action Henry. Today's rifle differs in only two ways from the one used by Union troops during the American Civil War. It is chambered to .44-40 rather than the long-obsolete .44 Henry Rimfire, and groove diameter of its rifling is 0.429 inch rather than the 0.427 inch once common to all .44-40 rifles. Shooting almost everything inside 2 inches at 50 yards, the Henry .44-40 proved that a design introduced 156 years ago could be as accurate as those of more recent introduction.
Safely loading the .44-40 to higher velocities than the 1,250 fps of the original blackpowder load is not a recent idea. Shortly after the Winchester Model 1892 was introduced, Winchester offered high-velocity loadings with 180- and 200-grain bullets at respective velocities of 1,850 and 1,600 fps. Each box carried a warning against using the ammunition in the Winchester 1873 and various revolvers.
Group 2 data for the .44-40 in the Lyman reloading manual has a 200-grain jacketed bullet moving along at 1,638 fps for a duplication of the old Winchester high-velocity load. The strong action of the Rossi R92 digested Lyman's maximum loads with ease, with muzzle energy approaching 1,200 ft-lbs. By today's standards a 200-grain bullet at 1,600 fps is not very exciting, but it will kill any deer dead enough for the frying pan.
I also used a Rossi R92- now made at the Taurus factory in Brazil- chambered in .45 Colt. That the R92 has been available in .454 Casull is proof of its great strength. Mine is post-.454 Casull and may handle .45 Colt ammo loaded to longer overall cartridge lengths than earlier R92s. The overall quality and workmanship have fluctuated through the decades, but R92s being built now are as good as Winchester Model 92s being made anywhere in the world and at less than half the price of some of the competition. My rifle has a 16-inch barrel, and its 1:30 rifling twist rate stabilized all bullets up to 325 grains in weight. It fed all loads without a single bobble, and accuracy was plenty good. Rifles with slower twist rates may not stabilize bullets heavier than 250 grains.
Ruger Model 77/44 & Winchester M92
I included two rifles in .44 Mag. because rifling twist rates vary considerably. The more common 1:38 twist usually delivers the best accuracy with bullets weighing 240 grains and less, although some rifles will handle the Hornady 265-grain InterLock FP. Rifles with twist rates ranging from 1:18 to 1:30 shoot accurately with all bullets weighing up to 300 grains, and some will deliver acceptable accuracy with even heavier bullets. The Ruger Model 77/44 I used to shoot the included data has a 1:38 twist, while the twist rate of the Winchester Model 92 Short Rifle is 1:26. The Model 77/44 fed all four of the .44 cartridges; and the M92 digested .44 Spl., but it balked on the .44 Colt and the .44 Russian.
IFG/Pedersoli Colt Lightning
The Colt Lightning reproduction came from Italian Firearms Group of Amarillo, Texas, the largest importer and distributor of Pedersoli-built firearms in the United States. (The company is partly owned by Davide Pedersoli.) The Colt employee who gave the little slide-action rifle its name back in 1885 hit the nail squarely on the head as the Lightning slings lead as fast as, well, lightning. Using a PACT timer, I pitted it and Black Hills Cowboy ammo against a lever-action Winchester Model 1873 reproduction on five steel plates at 25 yards.
My averages for six runs with each rifle were 5.5 seconds for the Winchester Model 1873 and 3.1 seconds for the IFG/Pedersoli Colt Lightning. Its speed along with total reliability with all loads makes it easy to see why the rifle is popular among cowboy action shooters.
Both the IFG/Pedersoli Colt Lightning and the Rossi R92 in .45 Colt fired were great fun to shoot, and switching to .45 Schofield increased the fun factor even more.
Having a rifle or carbine chambered in the same caliber as your handgun may not be the survival necessity that it was in the 19th century, but the practicality of the pairing still exists. Firing handgun cartridges- especially carefully crafted handloads- in rifle-length barrels produces the benefits of increased velocity, accuracy, and energy.
To download our accuracy charts, click here.