Levergun Loads: .44 Magnum

Making ‘near perfect’ into the real thing

John notes the levergun/sixgun combination still is exceptionally viable.

The first issue of GUNS Magazine arrived in January 1955 when I was a junior in high school. It was notable as the first magazine ever dedicated to articles on firearms, and it led the way as over the next few years three more purely gun magazines arrived. My first article was published in 1967 in the now long-gone magazine called GUNsport. Over the ensuing years I have read millions of words and also written several million words. And, after all this time, with everything I’ve read and everything I’ve written, there is one line that stands out and I consider the best words ever written — at least for those things I’m primarily interested in.

In 1966 my friend the late John Lachuk wrote: “If I had my druthers, I’d take this handy lever-gun and my 44 Maggie and head for the backcountry!” He was talking about the newly introduced Marlin 336T chambered in .44 Magnum. He went on to say: “One-caliber rifle-pistol duos are a Western tradition, handed down from the days when ammo counters were few and far between.” Little did I know I would not only meet John in the future but we’d also become good friends.

John uses a variety of jacketed bullets in loads for the .44 Magnum levergun.

Lever Fan

I’ve been a fan of Marlin leverguns for over six decades; ever since I bought a pair of Marlin shooters, a pair of original Model 1894s chambered in .38-40 and .25-20. In the foolish time of life known as teenage I let both guns slip through my hands. I would love to have them back now! In the 1960s, the Marlin 336, a long-time deer hunter’s favorite offered in .30-30 and .35 Remington, was brought forth as the sixgunner’s companion in .44 Magnum. I purchased the first one to hit town and it has now served me well for over 50 years. With its 20″ barrel, full magazine tube and straight-gripped stock, it was the near-perfect woods carbine.

However, a real joy found in firearms is taking any one of many “near-perfect” sixguns or leverguns and making them even more near perfect!

To accomplish this with the 336 .44 Magnum, I sent it off to my now-late friend gunsmith Keith DeHart to have the barrel cut to 18-1/2″ and the overly abundant forearm and butt stock, both made of too much quality walnut, slimmed down. The result is an even-easier and faster handling big bore carbine. Matched with my ever-present Bear Buster Ruger 4-5/8″ .44 Flat-Top, it made the perfect sixgun/levergun combination for deep woods hunting.

Over the past 50+ years a lot of .44 long guns have come and gone, however this Marlin 336 remains a favorite. Groups are for three shots at 50 yards with a 4X scope in place — Hornady 240 XTP over 24.5 grains of WW296 clocks out at 1,728 fps with a 5/8″ group; Hornady 240 XTP, 22.0 grains of #2400, 1,696 fps and 1-1/4″; Hornady 265 XTP, 23.0 grains of WW296, 1,621 fps, 1-1/2″; Speer 240 JHP, 24.5 grains of WW296, 1,681 fps, 3/4″; and Speer 240-gr. JSP over 22.0 grains of #2400 yields 1,672 fps and a 7/8″ group. All excellent hunting loads.

In 1969, the Marlin 1894 was resurrected and offered in .44 Magnum. This action, being shorter, is felt to be better suited to sixgun cartridges than the .30-30 length 336 action. However, I’ve never had any problems with the M336 action and .44 Magnum cartridges. Marlin also made a special run of Trapper-style 1894 carbines in .44 Magnum with a 16-1/2″ barrel, full magazine tube holding seven or eight rounds, a recoil pad on its straight gripped stock, checkering on forearm and buttstock and excellent sights. Shooting these little carbines is a pleasant experience with all loads tested.

Felt recoil is certainly much less than one might expect; there were no problems encountered with recoil even when spending several hours at the shooting bench. Well, at least there weren’t any in bygone days! However, these days I slip on a very thick rubber pad just because.

Two excellent powders for loading the .44 Magnum are #2400 and H110.

More Results

The following groups are for three shots with the .44 Magnum Winchester Trapper at 50 yards using the factory iron sights: Hornady 240 JHP over 24.5 grains of WW296 gives 1,686 fps and a 1″ group; Hornady 240 JHP, 22.0 grains #2400, 1,703 fps, 1″; Hornady 265 JFP, 23.0 grains WW296, 1,563 fps, 1″; Speer 240 JHP, 24.5 grains WW296, 1,723 fps, 1-3/8″; and Speer 240 JSP with 22.0 grains of #2400 results in a muzzle velocity of 1,711 fps and a 1-1/2″ group. The Hornady 265 JFP was originally designed for the .444 Marlin however I find it is an excellent bullet for the .44 Magnum whether used in levergun or sixgun. At least in my hands, it’s more accurate in the iron-sighted Winchester than the scope-sighted Marlin.

When I started loading for the .44 Magnum, carbide sizing dies had not yet arrived. Once they did I purchased both RCBS and Redding .44 Magnum Carbide reloading dies and have been using them for at least 40+ years. They have served me well for both cast bullets and jacketed bullets. Any loads destined to be used in a lever gun should first have several dummies made up and checked for feeding through the action and chambering.

Most jacketed bullets will not be a problem unless they are long, heavyweight designs. An excellent choice I have found is the Hornady 265 FP which, although originally designed for the .444 Marlin, works just fine in the .44 Magnum be it sixgun or levergun. In fact this bullet is so accurate it was my choice for long-range silhouetting back in the 1980s and ’90s. It is also a bullet which, due to the placement of the crimping groove, works in every .44 Magnum levergun of my experience. This includes the Marlin 1894 and 336, Winchester 1894, Rossi and Browning Model 92s, and the Henry Big Boy.

Quite a collection: John has been loading the .44 Magnum using #2400 for over 60 years.

Powdering It Up

It would be difficult to find a sixgun powder that does not work well in the .44 Magnum levergun. With jacketed bullets I mostly use Unique, Universal, #2400, #4227, H110 and WW296 with standard primers in the first three and Magnum primers thereafter. A heavy crimp is necessary not only for aiding in starting the burning process but also for keeping the cartridges from being pushed down into the case while riding in the magazine. The .44 Magnum levergun takes over where the .357 Magnum levergun leaves off, able to handle a few heavier chores.

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