Levergun Loads: .45 Colt Part II — Cast Bullets

More lever loads for a Johnny-come-lately
17

In part one of this series we saw the history of .45 Colt leverguns, which turned out to be quite recent, beginning in the early 1980s. We switch now from the use of PC (Powder Coated) bullets to cast bullets. The original Winchesters, whether chambered in .44 Rimfire or .44-40, all used cast bullets as jacketed bullets did not start appearing until the early part of the 20th century.

John with the Winchester Trapper in .45 Colt; the neckerchief is
patterned after the one worn by Theodore Roosevelt.

Background

Beginning in the early 1980s both Winchester and Marlin began offering .45 Colt leverguns. Those first Winchesters were 16″ Trapper Models, with mine being purchased in 1985. By this time Winchester had changed its name to USRAC (United States Repeating Arms Co.) and the Trappers were offered in two versions, a blued receiver or a case-colored receiver. I was fortunate to find one of each. With their 16″ barrels the Winchesters weigh right at 6 lbs. and while they do not have the slick action of the slightly smaller Model 1892, they are fast handling and come up to the shoulder quickly. Even with their short barrels, they still carry nine rounds in the tubular magazine.

About the same time the Winchester Trappers arrived, Marlin had a very limited run of 500 each of .44 Magnum and .45 Colt Trappers. I found both of these on the shelf of a little gun store, actually a small gun department, in a local grocery store. Alas, the days of gun departments in grocery stores, department stores and drugstores are long gone.

However, in those long-gone days I was able to find two Winchester Trappers both in .45 Colt and the Marlin versions in both calibers mentioned. Over the past 35 years all four of these leverguns have shot extensively with both jacketed and cast bullets. Marlin and Winchester 1894s will both handle heavier-than-standard .45 Colt loads but 1860, 1866 and 1873 replicas are for standard loads only! That is — black powder loads or Black powder level only.

The 1894 Winchester Trappers have a long, strong action and even though the chambers are somewhat over-size, they will handle any load you can normally load in a .45 Colt case for use in sixguns with six-shot cylinders. I advise staying away from loads intended for custom sixguns with five-shot cylinders and it has also been proven the lever-action is not strong enough for .454 loads.

Cast bullet loads in the Marlin .45 Colt — all the power and accuracy
you’d need for most critters in the lower 48.

Starting Out

I custom tailor my loads for the Trapper to match with the sixgun I am using alongside. However, none of these loads should be taken for granted and should be worked up very carefully. For example with the 4-5/8" Ruger Blackhawk, I use the NEI 310-grain Keith bullet over 21.0 grains of WW296 or H110 for 1,125 fps in the sixgun and 1,445 fps from the Trapper Barrel. I certainly don’t know of anything in the lower 48 that cannot be handled with this load.

Before loading any ammunition for leverguns, I first make dummy rounds to be able to check both feeding through the action and chambering. It takes at least two rounds to be able to see if the rounds are too long to accomplish both operations. I found the following heavyweight bullets all would work through both the Winchester and Marlin actions: NEI 310 Keith, NEI 325 Keith, Lyman #454629GC 300-grain FN, RCBS #45-270 SAA weighing around 284 grains with my alloy, and I also checked the #454490GC design by Ray Thompson, which is a 255-grain Keith-style gas-checked bullet. All of the Keith-style bullets mentioned feed and chamber even though they have shoulders in front of the case. However, I crimp the #45-270 over the front band to ensure trouble-free feeding. None of these loads will work through the action of my Rossi .45 Colt Model 92.

H110 works well for heavy bullet loads in the .45 Colt levergun.

Close Range Work

I use my Winchester and Marlin Trappers for relatively close-range shooting. With the Winchesters, equipped with receiver sights, most of my shooting is done around 30 to 35 yards with relatively mild loads. Oregon Trails 250-grain RNFP over 8.0 grains of W231 clocks out just under 1,100 fps with three-shot groups of 1" or less. For little more power I move up to the above-mentioned #454490 GC with 10.0 grains of Unique for just over 1,235 fps and groups of less than 1". This load will certainly handle deer-sized game. When the Marlin and Winchester Trappers first arrived in the early ’80s, the #1 45 Colt bullet was still Elmer Keith’s #454424 weighing about 260 grains from my alloy. This is a plain base bullet and I found out very quickly it was not very accurate in either rifle.

I have been pleasantly surprised by the Marlin Trapper. Marlins from the era have Micro-Groove rifling which may or may not work with cast bullets. I have found two things necessary — gas checks and hard alloys, also in most cases muzzle velocities over 1,200-1,300 fps. I have been surprised by the fact the Marlin feeds Keith-style bullets perfectly. My most used powders for these loads are #2400, #9, #4227 and H110. For testing I go with three shots at 45 yards. Yes, these loads in this rifle could be stretched farther, however for feral pigs or white tail deer from a stand one would rarely have to shoot any farther than this.

John makes up dummy loads using available cast bullets to make
sure they will feed and chamber through levergun actions.

Cast bullets in both plain-based and gas check versions are available from 260 grains to 325 grains.

Peak Accuracy

Some of my most accurate loads are as follows: The Lyman/Thompson #454490 GC over 20.0 grains of #42274 gives a ¾” group at 1,275 fps or 20.0 grains of #2400 for 150 fps more velocity and a group just over 1″. I especially like the 260-grain Keith gas-check bullet which shoots exceptionally well using #4227, 20.0 grains is 1,115 fps for 5/8″ and then it gets even better! Moving up to 22.0 grains increases the muzzle velocity to 1,300 fps and then 24.0 grains is right at 1,400 fps with both putting three shots in ½” at 45 yards. I didn’t think I could shoot this well!

For a heavier bullet with #4227 I use 22.0 grains with the 305-grain Lyman #454629 gas check at 1,315 fps while grouping in 5/8″ for three shots. I have yet to find any levergun or sixgun that does not shoot this Dick Casull-designed bullet exceptionally well. Next we will look at jacketed bullets in .45 Colt leverguns. Stay tuned.

Subscribe To GUNS Magazine

Purchase A PDF Download Of The GUNS Magazine February 2021 Issue Now!