The .45 Colt Lever-Action
As A Hunting Rifle
By Richard Mann
Published In The GUNS Magazine 2012 Special Edition
Last year my longtime shooting partner, Johnny Walker, rounded up two new Marlin 1984 Cowboy rifles in .45 Colt. Walker is, how shall I say this, a throwback. He builds southern mountain-style muzzleloading rifles and rifles his own barrels. He trains horses and even mules so you can shoot from their backs and often competes in mounted cowboy action shooting. Walker is a hunter and one of the best rifle shots I know; he’s won the WV Off-Hand Muzzleloading Championship more times than anyone.
We discussed the rifles at length and decided to configure them a bit differently; one old-style and one new. Then we’d compare their performance on the range and in the field. This seemed like a worthwhile project for two gun guys to undertake over the fall and winter months. And, we figured we should both be able to take a deer with each rifle. Part of our plan came together perfectly.
The .45 Colt cartridge was originally introduced in the 1873 Colt Peacemaker, single-action revolver. In 1875, the US Army adopted this cartridge and that revolver. Originally, the .45 Colt cartridge was loaded with a 255-grain bullet and 40 grains of black powder. This load produced around 900 fps from the Peacemaker. Contrary to what many believe, the .45 Colt cartridge in lever-action rifles is a modern endeavor. Original leverguns, like the 73 and 92 Winchesters, were chambered in revolver cartridges but not the .45 Colt. For all practical purposes, .45 Colt lever-action rifles in modern firearms were inspired a great deal by competitive cowboy action shooting.
This creates a conundrum for ammunition manufacturers. Many original .45 Colt handguns still exist and there are thousands of 1873 Colt replica handguns in use. Also, staggering numbers of Ruger Blackhawk and Vaquero revolvers are out there along with the modern .45 Colt leverguns, including Italian copies of original Winchesters and modern Marlins and Winchesters.
The two .45 Colt leverguns used in the tests started out identical. One was
antiqued and customized quite a bit. The other only received a set of XS Sights.
All these firearms fire the same .45 Colt cartridge but depending on their date of manufacturer and materials used, some are capable of digesting different power levels of this cartridge. For the most part, major ammunition manufactures like Remington, Winchester and Federal load standard pressure .45 Colt ammunition. Some smaller and specialty manufacturers offer .45 Colt ammo loaded to substantially higher pressures.
For simplicities sake, these loads are broken down into two categories; standard pressure and +P. Standard pressure .45 Colt loads should generate no more than an average of 14,000 CUP +P .45 Colt loads can be loaded to pressures as high as 25,000 CUP. Probably the best source for information about what ammo can be fired in what gun is to look at the warnings on the ammunition boxes from ammunition manufactures.
Buffalo Bore, a much respected ammunition manufacturer, is owned and operated by an enterprising fellow named Tim Sundles. Buffalo Bore is specifically known for offering higher pressure or “heavy” loads for cartridges like the .35 Remington, .45/70 and the .45 Colt. On each box of +P .45 Colt Buffalo Bore ammunition you can find the following warning; “All heavy .45 Colt +P ammunition is to be fired only in a Ruger large frame, Colt Anaconda, Freedom Arms revolvers, T/C, Winchester 94 and Marlin 94, NOT for use in the small frame Ruger Vaquero.”
DoubleTap Ammo, which is steered by Mike McNett, is more of a mainstream ammunition manufacturer but they also offer specialty and +P loads for a number of the older cartridges like the .45 Colt. Each box of DoubleTap .45 Colt +P ammunition has the following warning; “These loads are safe in all large frame Ruger revolvers, TC Contender, and Freedom Arms firearms. These loads are safe in ALL Model 1892 leverguns, as well as ALL Winchester & Marlin 1894s.”
Handloading data for the .45 Colt reflects different power levels as well. For example, in the Speer Reloading Manual #14 you will find standard loads and loads specifically listed for “Ruger & Contender Only.”
Walker trains horses so they will be oblivious to gunfire when the shooter is
mounted. Though he’ll be the first to tell you, hitting targets from horseback isn’t easy.
More to come on the ammunition, but first, let me explain how Walker customized these rifles to reflect his old world approach and my more modern take. My rifle received one modification; the factory sights were removed and a set of XS Sights were installed. This was a simple modification anyone should be able to perform, requiring no gunsmithing talent.
Walker went a bit further on his rifle. First he removed the rear, plastic butt-plate and cut a crescent in the stock. He then heated and molded the factory plate to fit that crescent. Walker didn’t like the look of the full-length magazine tube, so he shortened it to only extended about 2″ past the end of the forearm. He then reattached it to the barrel buy cutting a new dovetail.
Walker also shortened and re-crowned the barrel to eliminate the dovetail initially used to secure the magazine tube. This necessitated cutting a new dovetail for the front sight as well. Walker also smoothed the action, thinned the forearm and installed a Marbles flip-up tang sight we ordered from Brownells. By the way, Brownells has everything you need to complete the modifications performed on both of these rifles, along with a variety of other levergun tuning goodies like new springs to lighten the trigger pull and lever lock.
The most astonishing modification Walker performed was the antiquing. Like he does on many of the muzzleloading rifles he builds, he antiqued the wood and the metal so the rifle looked like it had passed through a time portal from sometime back before the turn of the century.
We wanted to see how well both rifles shot so we assembled a variety of loads from Buffalo Bore, DoubleTap, Federal, Remington and Winchester. All were tested from the bench by Walker and me by firing at least two, 5-shot groups at a distance of 50 yards from a sandbag rest. Since the flip-up peep sight from Brownells somewhat replicated the sight picture with the XS Sight, the standard open sights on the antiqued rifle were used during the tests. Astonishingly, the average group size for both rifles was identical.
The next test involved Walker and Chris Ellis, another good shooting levergun aficionado, and me shooting at deer targets placed at 50 and 75 yards. The drill consisted of starting with the rifle at the low ready and firing one shot at each deer target to establish a total time. Each shooter performed this drill three times with each rifle, using the factory sights on the antiqued rifle and the XS sights on the other. Winchester’s 250-gr. LFN Cowboy action load was used for this test.
We could have used the flip-up Marbles sight on the antiqued rifle but again, since it presented a very similar sight picture to the XS sights, we felt this would have been redundant. And, the flip-up Marbles sight we acquired from Brownells was specifically installed for shooting at longer ranges and was zeroed accordingly.
The results were interesting. Walker and Ellis canceled each other out with one shooting slightly faster with the factory sights and faster with the XS sights. Their accuracy results were exactly opposite. I swayed the results in favor of the XS Sights as being faster; possibly because of my familiarity with them. However, averaging the times of shooter one and two showed the XS Sights 10 percent faster than the standard factory sights. It was concluded that with regards to accuracy, both sights offered the same level of precision. But the XS sights were without question faster.
Interestingly, I ran the same 2-deer drill with my Remington R15 in .30 Remington AR and my New Ultra Light Arms Model 20 in .243 Winchester. My times were no better with these more modern rifles. However, the optics on both of these rifles did reduce my group sizes slightly.
We needed to determine what load we felt would be the most suitable for deer. Though with proper bullet placement there’s no doubt all those tested work, we ruled out the low velocity loads to circumvent drastic point of impact changes between the muzzle and 100 yards. The personal-protection-type loads from Winchester — the PDX 1 and Silver Tip — were passed on for the same reason. We ruled out the Buffalo Bore LBT LFN 325-gr. load too. This hard-cast lead bullet would no doubt shoot through a hippopotamus end to end, but it was unpleasant to shoot; it hit you like heartache. According to my Sierra Infinity ballistics program this load generated five times more recoil than standard pressure loads.
That left the Gold Dot from DoubleTap at 1,400 fps, a DoubleTap 255-gr. Keith SWC load at about 1,550 fps and the DoubleTap 225-gr. Barnes XPB at an even faster 1,700 fps. The final remaining load was from Buffalo Bore: a 260-gr. JHP bullet at a sizzling 1,850 fps. The Buffalo Bore bullet shot well in the antiqued Marlin and the almost as fast DoubleTap X bullet load shot accurately from the other rifle. These were the two loads we settled on.
Terminal bullet testing in some left over Bullet Test Tube media confirmed our notion these bullets were big-game capable. The 225-gr. Barnes X bullet penetrated 11.5″, expanded to .71″ and retained all its weight. The 260-gr. JHP load from Buffalo Bore drove to 13.75″, expanded to .67″ and had a recovered weight of 210 grains. Tests were conducted at 30 yards and represent about 60 percent of the penetration depth you can expect in 10-percent ordnance gelatin. This is more penetration and expansion than you will see from any .30-30 Winchester factory load and on par with some .308 Winchester loads.
Compared to finding a deer during the West Virginia season, the previous tests were easy. Despite our best efforts, we failed to even get a shot. Regardless, I’m sure we had more than enough gun. None the less, I wouldn’t and didn’t feel the least bit handicapped woods hunting with the open-sighted Marlin, except during times of low light at early morning and dusk.
Walker and I both found it enjoyable to carry the leverguns around in the hardwood timber. Maybe because there’s not a rifle that’s any more American than the levergun or maybe it’s because there’s a little cowboy in all of us. After all, history has shown there are few combinations as deadly as a hungry man with a lever-action rifle.
Shooting assistant Chris Ellis with the Marlin 1894 that was modified
only by the installation of XS Sights. This sight system proved faster than factory sights.
|Deer Traget Drill|
|Rifle 1 (XS Sights)||Rifle 2 (Antiqued Marlin)|
|Shooter 1||4.32/1||Shooter 1||3.48/3|
|Shooter 2||3.53/3||Shooter 2||3.70/1|
|Shooter 3||3.58/0||Shooter 3||3.20/0|
NOTES: Drill consisted of firing one shot at a deer target at 50 yards and one shot at a deer target at 75 yards under time. Each shooter ran the drill three times with each rifle. The average of the three times and total misses are shown.
In addition to the flip-up tang sight from Brownells, the antiqued rifle
was also fitted with a factory-style folding blade rear sight that was
adjustable for windage and elevation.
Brownells is a great source for almost anything gun related and is where
we found this tang sight for the Marlin 1894. All the stuff needed to make
the modifications made to both rifles can be found at Brownells.
Richard’s gunsmithing friend antiqued the wood and metal
of this Marlin 1894 Cowboy to make it look more authentic.
One of the Marlin 1894 Cowboy rifles was modified with an XS
post front and aperture rear sight. This sight combination proved
faster than the factory blade rear and bead front.
Cutting a crescent in the stock, then heating and bending the
factory buttplate achieved this modification. A plate like this
is something Marlin should consider as factory standard.
The magazine tube on the antiqued Marlin was shortened so it
extended only about 2″ past the end of the forearm. This necessitated
cutting a new dovetail in the barrel to attach the magazine tube.
|Rifle 1||Rifle 1||Rifle 2||Rifle 2|
|Load||VEL/SD (fps)||Accuracy (inches)||VEL/SD (fps)||Accuracy (inches)|
|Winchester 250-gr. LFN||862/9||1.5||922/15||2.5|
|Federal 225-gr. SWCHP||1,058/4||1.7||1,060/5||2.2|
|Remington 225-gr. LSWC||1,079/21||3.4||1,041/10||3.8|
|Winchester 225-gr. SilverTip HP||1,006/28||1.7||1,034/10||1.9|
|DoubleTap 255 Keith SWC||1,545/39||3.6||1,554/40||2.2|
|Buffalo Bore LBT LFN 325-gr.||1,635/9||2.9||1,639/9||2.5|
|Buffalo Bore Speer Gold Dot 200-gr.||1,393/13||2.1||1,407/12||1.9|
|DoubleTap Barnes 225-gr. XPB||1,715/10||2.5||1,733/4||1.3|
|Winchester PDX1 225-gr. JHP||1,063/19||1.2||1,076/8||1.3|
|Buffalo Bore Speer 260-JHP||1,850/10||1.5||1,863/3||2.5|
NOTES: Rifle 1: Antiqued Marlin 1894 with factory sights. Rifle 2: Marlin 1894 with XS Sights. Reported velocity (Vel) and standard deviation (SD) are the average of five rounds fired over an RCBS Ammomaster chronograph positioned 15′ from the muzzle. Reported accuracy is the average of at least two groups fired by two different shooters from a sandbag rest at 50 yards.
The 1894 Marlin antiqued by Walker looks right out of the old west.
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