Website Extra: Lil’ Leverguns
By John Taffin
Published In The GUNS Magazine 2011 Special Edition
Many things in our environment, especially our pre-teen years, shape our lives. The first gun book I can remember reading was published my final year of grade school. The book was the classic Winchester: The Gun That Won The West by Harold Williamson. I checked it out from the local public library so many times I’m surprised they didn’t present me with my own copy. That book instilled a fondness for leverguns even though I was too young to buy one. Four years later I bought my first levergun, which wasn’t a Winchester but rather a Marlin 39A Mountie .22. I still have the rifle and have added two others to my collection, so each of my grandsons can have their own.
It was about this same time I started reading everything I could find about Theodore Roosevelt. It didn’t take me long to figure out his favorite rifles were also leverguns, especially Winchester’s Model 1876 in .45-75 and his Big Medicine, the .405 Winchester Model 1895. Many of the old classic Winchesters and Marlins are collectors’ items today. However, those manufactured in my lifetime are fairly easy to find at shooter prices.
I’m an equal opportunity shooter — I like ‘em all. I’ve shot just about every levergun ever offered and if I had to make do with only one rifle it would definitely be a levergun. Not only do we have the more modern leverguns available, even if only on the used gun market, but we also have seen every Winchester from the first 1860 Henry through the 1866, 1873, 1876, 1886, 1892 and 1895 replicated. Even the latest 1894 Winchesters are coming from the replica side of the industry made in Japan by Miroku and offered through Browning. I don’t see how we can ever run out of leverguns, certainly not Winchester or Marlin .30-30s — of course, they once said that about the American bison.
To me the most fascinating leverguns are those with less than standard length barrels. Sam Fadala in his excellent book, Legendary Sporting Rifles, wrote of the 1873 Winchester: “The early carbines carried barrels that in fact measured 19-7/8″ long, with a true 20″ barrel appearing only later. Special order carbines with shorter barrels were available, too, the most popular length being 15″, then 16″ and 18″.” On page 52 of R.L. Wilson’s book, Winchester An American Legend, is a posed studio picture of a cowboy with a 14″ Trapper Model 1873. The standard Model 1892 carbine length was 20″, however, 325 Trapper .44-40s with barrels of 18″ or less were manufactured, 14″ was the most popular short length. Even John Wayne’s Model 1892, which first appeared in the 1939 movie “Stagecoach” was shortened to allow him to easily swing it for cocking; Lucas McCain’s 1892 from the TV series “The Rifleman” may have also been shortened to allow Chuck Connors to more easily handle his levergun. Winchester was not the only one offering these Lil’ Leverguns. In Lt. Col. Brophy’s book, Marlin Firearms, we are treated to pictures of two Trappers. On page 207 is a 15″ .32 Special Model 1893 and seven pages later we find a 14″ .38-40 Model 1894.
Trappers work well with either scope sights or receiver sights.
Congress Knows Best?
Just about the time I was ready to enter this world, Congress in its infinite wisdom and wishing to protect me from any evil in the future, mandated minimum barrel lengths for rifles and shotguns. I’m constantly reminded not to apply logic to anything lawmakers do however, it’s certainly mystifying to me not only why there has to be a minimum length for long guns, but also why rifle barrels can be shorter than shotgun barrels. I also wonder where the minimum 16″ length for rifles came from.
Whatever the reason by the time I reached the age of being able to purchase rifles, Trappers could no longer be made with 14″ or 15″ barrels. The first somewhat modern short-barreled levergun I can remember seeing, and also lusting after, was the Marlin Model 336 Marauder with a 16 1/4″ barrel and chambered in either .30-30 or .35 Remington. This rifle was only produced for one year in 1963, a time I was married with three very young pre-schoolers and attending college full-time; there was very little expendable money and certainly not for a levergun.
As this is written, the Winchester plant has been closed for several years. As far as leverguns, only a special Oliver Winchester 1894 Commemorative has been offered. To make matters worse, Marlin just announced the closing of its plant in Connecticut; hopefully the move to New York will continue the tradition of making excellent firearms.
If you want a modern version of a Trapper there are several options. Thank the Lord for the used-gun market and what we can locate at gun shops, gun shows and on Internet auction sites. If we can’t find a short-barreled Marlin or Winchester we can certainly have our own created; a third option is replicas of 1873 and 1892 Winchesters being offered by several importers. Many of these rifles are as good, maybe even better than the originals.
This ammunition carrier by The Leather Arsenal is a very desirable accessory for any Lil’ Levergun.
For our discussion we will define as a Lil’ Levergun or Modern Trapper any levergun with the barrel length of less than 20″. I will not only highlight relatively modern original short-barreled leverguns we can find in the used market, but I will also give examples of what we can do ourselves to come up with a short-handy levergun.
I have one friend who absolutely sees no use for any levergun with a barrel under 20″ in length while Col. Cooper himself considered leverguns, especially short-barreled examples in .30-30, to be Brooklyn Assault Rifles. Unlike “black rifles” leverguns are more traditionally American, just about every western movie or TV show ever made had a levergun in it, and they don’t set off alarms in the minds of some uninformed individuals such as the high-cap semi-automatic rifles often do.
Col. Cooper felt a Ruger .44 semi-automatic rifle with a 12″ barrel made perfectly good sense — I can’t disagree. As a self-defense option a short barrel is much easier to maneuver and in areas where handguns are not allowed (yet) they are a viable option especially when chambered for sixgun cartridges.
For hunting in close quarters, especially brush or timber, they are also exceptional choices. In fact, I can’t think of anything handier to have when facing a boar or bear that wants to bite back. It’s much easier to get off a correctly aimed shot quickly with a short-barreled levergun than anything else except possibly a double-barreled shotgun or double rifle, and levering additional rounds can be accomplished quite quickly. I am now, and always will be, a sixgunner; however, in a tight situation a powerful short-barreled levergun can be mighty comforting.
Can’t find a rare Marlin Marauder? Build your own. These are .30-30, .38-55 and .375 Winchester.
As mentioned, the first Trapper to ever really catch my eye was the Marlin Marauder, which was only made for one year while I was in college. I never did come up with one but a few years ago a reader sent me a 16-1/4″ .30-30 barrel along with a matching tube and it did not take me long to find an old Marlin 336 to turn into my own personal Marauder. Not long after that my gunsmith at Buckhorn came up with a 16-1/4″ Marlin .30-30 barrel someone had re-chambered and re-rifled to .38-55. I thought why not? The .30-30 now had a companion. Good things come in threes, so when I found a Marlin in .375 Winchester it only seemed natural to have the barrel and tube cut back to match the other two. This is a great trio of easy handling, and up-close hunting leverguns are certainly capable of handling anything in the lower 48.
In recent years Marlin, either as a regular factory production or with limited editions through distributors, has offered big-bore chambered Trappers in both .444 Marlin, an excellent chambering when loaded correctly, and .45-70. In fact, I just saw the latest offering in the latter chambering as a stainless steel Trapper. These two cartridges will definitely handle anything that walks.
Long before Marlin short-barreled their big bores I took matters into my own hands, rather my gunsmiths’ hands, and had examples in both .444 and .45-70 built. These were customized by Keith DeHart and are just about as good as it comes for hunting in tight situations and are definitely fine big bores for big boars. For years Jim West at Wild West Guns has specialized in easy handling, short-barreled, Trapper-style .45-70s with an extra added attraction in that they are takedown rifles. His “Alaskan CoPilot” .45-70 Marlin was extremely well thought of by Col. Cooper who even opined it was a great African lion gun.
Big Lil’ Leverguns are these .45-70 Trappers: Alaskan CoPilot by Wild West Guns and Custom Marlin by Keith DeHart.
Limited Run Twins
Sometime in the 1990s Marlin made a limited run of 16-1/4″ Model 1894 Trappers, my memory seems to say it was only 500 each, in .44 Magnum and .45 Colt. I found one of each sitting on the shelf side-by-side at the same local gun shop department, which was inside a grocery store. (It was the last survivor of many such found in grocery and department stores in the era before PC began to strangle everything and now it’s gone.) Marlin resurrected their Trapper-style .44 Magnum levergun a few years ago offering it as The Prospector with a 16-1/4″ ported barrel.
In the early 1990s Bob Baer, Brian Pearce and I met with the powers that be at Marlin suggesting some things we’d like to see offered. Two of the things we mentioned were octagon barrels and old classic cartridges.
Shortly thereafter, Marlin introduced 24″ octagon-barreled leverguns in .45 Colt and .44-40 aimed at the Cowboy Action Shooting market and corresponding .38-55 and .45-70 examples for hunting. All these featured 24″ or longer octagon barrels.
Diamond Dot and I were both shooting CAS at the time and those long heavy barrels were just a little too much of a good thing. I did some careful measuring of cartridge length and magazine tube capacity and found the barrels could be cut to 19-1/2″ and still hold 10 rounds in either .45 Colt or .44-40. The addition of tang sights completed the picture giving us two excellent competition Lil’ Leverguns, which could also be used for hunting. By today’s standards the .44-40 isn’t what you would call a powerful hunting cartridge. However, it was used for successfully hunting just about everything by several generations of Westerners.
It is Lil’ and not a Levergun, nonetheless, for deer or bear hunting or for self-defense,
the Ruger 44 Carbine is a viable choice.
Winchester was the first to offer Trappers with their Model 1873, perhaps even the Model 1866. During the last quarter of the 20th century the Winchester 1894 was given the Trapper treatment with three of these being chambered in sixgun cartridges namely .45 Colt, .44 Magnum and .357 Magnum. Just as with all Trappers these are very handy little rifles. The action is longer than necessary for these cartridges that actually work better in the Model 1892. Then again, I have never encountered a problem with them except they simply aren’t as slick as the older model leverguns. Cimarron Firearms offers 16″ Trappers in both the 1866 and 1873 versions chambered in .357 Magnum, .44-40 and .45 Colt. One of my favorite Lil’ Leverguns is the Cimarron Brush Popper, an 18″ Model 1873 in .44-40.
Certainly in the running for the most useful Trapper ever offered is the Winchester 1894 chambered in .30-30. This 16-1/4″ barreled levergun rides easily in scabbard or rifle rack, and is definitely comfortable to carry while hiking. The .30-30 certainly has more range than the other three cartridges and this just might be my second or third favorite from the Trappers offered by Winchester and Marlin. Call my custom Marlin Marauder .30-30 and this Winchester my two favorites after my number one, which I shall mention shortly.
One really handy little carbine fitting my idea of a Modern Trapper, isn’t a levergun at all but rather the Ruger semi-automatic .44 Magnum. It was first introduced as the 44 Carbine even before the 10/22 arrived and in its latest guise is the Deerfield. Both have 18-1/2″ barrels and both are no longer offered by Ruger. They are somewhat limited in what ammunition they will accept but stick with jacketed 240s and they work fine. If a short-barreled levergun is fast for repeat shots the Ruger carbine is even quicker.
Marlin .44 Lil’ Leverguns; top and middle (customized by Keith DeHart)
are chambered for the .44 Magnum, bottom for .44-40.
More than once I’ve mentioned if I could have only one centerfire rifle it would be a Marlin Model 1894C chambered in .357 Magnum. There aren’t too many folks, including myself, who would pick a .357 as their prime-hunting rifle. Nevertheless, I look at it as a cartridge/levergun combination, which can be made to work for just about anything I’m likely to need it for, and it handles .38 Specials in addition to the Magnum.
I still have my original, my son has one and just like that first Marlin .22 I have added two more to the stable. These rifles just happen to be Lil’ Leverguns or Modern Trappers with barrel lengths of 18-1/2″ from the factory, and they are now even offered in a stainless steel version. For these leverguns I like the butt cuffs made by The Leather Arsenal. which hold 10 rounds of either .357 Magnum or .38 Special ammunition.
On a recent outing my oldest grandson was shooting my 1894C and asked if I noticed anything wrong. The “wrong” was the fact he is a southpaw and the cartridges in the loop were against his cheek; this was easily corrected by ordering a left-handed cartridge cuff. All is well in the Taffin household.
At this point no one knows, or at least isn’t telling, what the future holds for Marlin. When I was asked about the .32 Magnum chambering for the 1894C I suggested the shortest, lightest possible Trapper that could hold 10 rounds; instead what came forth was a heavy long-barreled rifle, too heavy for the cartridge and its use.
Perhaps that is why it disappeared from production so quickly. I wish Marlin all the best in the future and hold out hope for a proper Trapper chambered in the relatively new .327 Federal, which realistically replaces both the .32 Magnum and .32-20.
For more info:
Cimarron Firearms Co.
Wild West Guns
DeHart’S Custom Guns
Houston, TX 77074
The Leather Arsenal
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