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Handgun Cartridges in Rifles

By Chuck Hawks


Adapting handgun cartridges to rifles is not a new idea. It was fairly common on the American western frontier in the 19th Century. Ammunition supply could be a problem for cowboys, trappers, explorers and other frontiersmen, who might be in the field for weeks or even months at a time. These men were generally not recreational shooters or sport hunters, but working men who viewed their guns as tools.

The popularity of the practice waned when the frontier became settled and ammunition became readily available almost everywhere. Shooting became predominately a recreational activity and most sport hunters did not spend such extended time periods in the field. In addition, most shooters realized that true rifle cartridges were ballistically superior to revolver cartridges fired in rifles.

The medium frame version of the Colt Lightning pump action rifle (calibers .32-20, .38-40 and .44-40) was discontinued in 1902. The original Marlin Model 1894 lever action rifle (calibers .25-20, .32-20, .38-40 and .44-40) was discontinued in 1934. The Winchester Model 1892 (calibers .218 Bee, .25-20, .32-20, .38-40 and .44-40), the most popular of the rifles designed for handgun cartridges, remained in the line until 1941, as its sales slowly melted away. It is worth noting that the most popular caliber in all of these rifles was .44-40 WCF, which was actually designed as a rifle cartridge and later adapted to revolvers, rather than the other way around.

By the end of the Second World War, rifles chambered for pistol cartridges were pretty much dead. The mainstream shooting world had moved on. Powerful, long range rifle cartridges now occupied center stage.

However, by about 1950, shooters with .357 Magnum revolvers started buying old Winchester Model 92 and Marlin 1894 carbines and having them re-barreled for the .357 revolver cartridge. They found that these made lightweight, handy, short range carbines for hunting small predators and deer. The introduction of the .44 Remington Magnum revolver cartridge in 1955, undeniably an effective deer and black bear cartridge out to about 150 yards, accelerated the demand for old lever action rifles suitable for conversion. Soon the old rifles were becoming scarcer and more expensive.

In 1969 Marlin recognized the demand and reintroduced the Model 1894, chambered for .44 Special/.44 Magnum. Later they added the .38 Special/.357 Magnum.

Around the same time, Winchester added the .44 Magnum to its list of cartridges available in the Model 94 rifle. Later they brought out versions of the Model 94 in .357 Magnum, .44-40 Win., .45 Colt and .480 Ruger. All Model 94's chambered for revolver cartridges have since been discontinued.

Winchester has also produced limited runs of Model 92's (calibers .357 Mag., .44-40, .44 Mag., and .45 Colt . These have always been rather expensive and consequently not very popular. In 2013, Winchester introduced a new Model 1873 rifle for revolver cartridges, which is made by their Japanese partner Miroku.

Henry Repeating Arms has their Big Boy Model in .44 Magnum and .357 Magnum. This is a handsome, antique looking rifle with a solid brass receiver, butt plate and barrel band. It also features a deeply blued octagonal barrel and a genuine walnut stock. There are full length reviews of these Marlin, Winchester and Henry rifles on the Product Reviews page.

Imported copies of historical Winchester lever action rifles and the Colt Lightning pump gun are available in a variety of revolver cartridges. These are made in various places, including Italy and Brazil. The best imports are probably made by Uberti (Italy) and full length Uberti rifle reviews can be found on the Product Reviews page.

With so many rifles available in pistol cartridges it is clear that the idea has once again caught on. The sport of cowboy action shooting has also contributed to the popularity of such rifles. Marlin, Winchester and Uberti have produced competition versions of their lever action rifles specifically for this purpose.

A considerable number of rifles chambered for pistol cartridges end up in the field. Most of these are used for hunting deer or feral hogs in brushy or wooded country, where shots are likely to be fairly close. Some are even purchased by deer hunters who think that the larger diameter bullets thrown by a .44 Magnum carbine are more effective than the faster, but smaller caliber, bullets from more traditional deer cartridges, such as the .30-30 Winchester and .35 Remington.

Let's compare the ballistics of the .357 and .44 Magnum revolver cartridges, as used in rifles, to the popular .30-30 and .35 Rem. rifle cartridges, since they can be had in similar firearms. (For those wondering about .45 Long Colt and .44-40 rifles, the .44 Magnum significantly outperforms both.) To start, here are velocity figures for some representative factory loads, taken from the Winchester and Remington ammo catalogs. (Caliber, bullet weight and type - muzzle velocity, velocity at 100 yards.)

  • .30-30, Win. 150 grain ST - 2390 fps MV, 2018 fps at 100 yds.
  • .35 Rem., Rem. 200 grain SP - 2080 fps MV, 1698 at 100 yds.
  • .357 Mag., Win. 158 grain JSP - 1830 fps MV, 1427 fps at 100 yds.
  • .44 Mag., Win. 240 grain HSP - 1760 fps MV, 1362 fps at 100 yds.

Velocity, of course, has a big influence on both kinetic energy and trajectory and it is obvious from these figures that the true rifle cartridges have a big advantage in velocity.

Now let's look at the energy of the same loads at the same distances. (Caliber, bullet weight in grains at MV in fps - muzzle energy, energy at 100 yards.)

  • .30-30, 150 at 2390 - 1902 ft. lbs. ME, 1356 ft. lbs. at 100 yds.
  • .35 Rem., 200 at 2080 - 1921 ft. lbs. ME, 1280 ft. lbs. at 100 yds.
  • .357 Mag., 158 at 1830 - 1175 ft. lbs. ME, 715 ft. lbs. at 100 yds.
  • .44 Mag., 240 at 1760 - 1650 ft. lbs. ME, 966 ft. lbs. at 100 yds.

It seems clear from these numbers that the .30-30 and .35 Rem. deliver much more energy to the target at 100 yards than the revolver cartridges. The advantage runs from about 33% (.35 Rem. vs. .44 Mag.) to 88% (.30-30 vs. .357 Mag.) in favor of the true rifle cartridges.

At longer ranges the advantage of the rifle cartridges is even greater. At 200 yards, for example, the 150 grain .30-30 bullet is still carrying 944 ft. lbs. of kinetic energy, while the 240 grain .44 Magnum bullet (the best of the combination rifle/pistol cartridges) retains only 638 ft. lbs. In fact, the .30-30 hits about as hard at 200 yards as the .44 Mag. does at 100 yards!

The poorly informed might think that the greater weight of the .44 Magnum bullet would compensate in some measure for its lack of energy by providing deeper penetration than the lighter .30 and .35 caliber rifle bullets. Unfortunately, this is not the case. It is sectional density (SD), the ratio of a bullet's weight to its diameter, that determines how deep it penetrates (all other factors--like bullet construction--being equal, of course). Here are the SD's of the bullets we are comparing (the higher the number the better).

  • .30-30 Win., 150 grain - SD .226
  • .35 Rem., 200 grain - SD .223
  • .357 Mag., 158 grain - SD .177
  • .44 Mag., 240 grain - SD .185

As these sectional density numbers indicate, the rifle calibers have a big advantage in SD, and thus theoretical penetration, over the handgun calibers. This advantage in SD is amplified by the fact that they are also carrying more energy to drive the bullet deeper into the target.

Next, let's compare the trajectories of these same cartridges and loads. After all, no matter how much power a bullet possesses, it must hit the target to do any damage. A flatter trajectory makes hitting easier. If each caliber is sighted to take full advantage of its maximum point blank range (MPBR) +/- 3 inches, the trajectories look as follows. (Caliber, bullet weight at MV: trajectory at 100 yards in inches, trajectory at 200 yards in inches, MPBR in yards.)

  • .30-30, 150 at 2390: +2.9" at 100 yds., -0.6" at 200 yds., 225 yds. MPBR
  • .35 Rem., 200 at 2080: +2.9" at 100 yds., -5.1" at 200 yds., 186 yds. MPBR
  • .357 Mag., 158 at 1830: +2.7" at 100 yds., -10.5" at 200 yds., 163 yds. MPBR
  • .44 Mag., 240 at 1760: +2.6" at 100 yds., -11.6" at 200 yds., 159 yds. MPBR

These trajectory figures make the difference between the real rifle cartridges and the pistol cartridges adapted to rifle use quite apparent. A 150 grain .30-30 bullet will hit within 3" of the point of aim from the muzzle to 225 yards. The Magnum revolver cartridges fall about 65 yards short of the .30-30's maximum point blank range and at 200 yards either would completely miss a deer with a center hold on its chest. With the same hold a 150 grain .30-30 bullet would land within an inch of the exact point of aim and kill that deer in its tracks.

I am assuming that an average buck standing broadside measures about 18" from the top of his back to the bottom of his brisket. To put a bullet into that deer's heart/lung area at 200 yards with a .357 Mag. or .44 Mag. rifle you would have to hold the crosshairs of your scope about level with the top of his back. For more information about trajectory and MPBR see the "Rifle Trajectory Table" on the Tables, Charts and Lists page.

The only advantage the big bore handgun cartridges have is the greater diameter of their bullets. Undeniably, a .429" bullet (the actual diameter of a .44 Magnum bullet) makes a bigger hole than a .308" diameter bullet (the actual diameter of a .30-30 bullet). Both the .357 Magnum and .35 Remington actually use .357-.358" diameter bullets. Here are the cross-sectional areas of these bullets in square inches.

  • .308" - 0.0745 sq. in.
  • .357"/.358" - 0.1007 sq. in.
  • .429" - 0.1445 sq. in.

A fatter bullet potentially increases the diameter of the wound channel and enhances killing power. Not enough, however, to make up for the superiority of the true rifle cartridges in all other areas.

Edward A. Matunas developed what he calls the Optimum Game Weight (OGW) formula, which considers the factors we have been addressing and attempts quantify killing power in terms of the optimum weight of animal for which a rifle cartridge should be used at various ranges. You can see the result in tabular form in the 47th edition of the Lyman Reloading Handbook.

While I do not believe that any system of estimating killing power is completely accurate, OGW does correlate pretty well with the experience of many knowledgeable hunters. (The "Maximum Optimum Ranges for Big Game" table on the Tables, Charts and Lists page is based on the OGW formula, but expressed another way.) Here are the 100 yard and 200 yard Optimum Game Weights for our cartridges and loads. (Caliber, bullet weight in grains at MV - OGW at 100 yards, OGW at 200 yards.)

  • .30-30, 150 at 2390 - 259 lbs. at 100 yds., 140 lbs. at 200 yds.
  • .35 Rem., 200 at 2080 - 294 lbs. at 100 yds., 156 lbs. at 200 yds.
  • .357 Mag., 158 at 1830 - 110 lbs. at 100 yds., 56 lbs. at 200 yds.
  • .44 Mag., 240 at 1760 - 227 lbs. at 100 yds, 119 lbs. at 200 yds.

As can be seen, the true rifle cartridges bring substantially more game killing power to the table.

The remaining important factor to consider is recoil. Here are approximate recoil figures for the cartridges we have been comparing in typical rifles. From top to bottom these rifles are: Marlin Model 336 (.30-30 and .35 Rem.), Marlin 1894C (.357 Mag.) and Marlin 1894 (.44 Mag.) (Caliber, bullet weight at MV, rifle weight - free recoil energy in foot pounds.)

  • .30-30, 150 at 2390 fps, 7.0 lb. rifle - 11.3 ft. lbs.
  • .35 Rem., 200 at 2050 fps, 7.0 lb. rifle - 14.5 ft. lbs.
  • .357 Mag., 158 at 1830 fps, 6.0 lb. rifle - 6.5 ft. lbs.
  • .44 Mag., 240 at 1760 fps, 6.5 lb. rifle - 13.1 ft. lbs.

The .357 Magnum in the neat Marlin 1884C carbine is the least powerful of our comparison cartridges and also kicks the least, by a wide margin. This is a point worth remembering when shopping for a young shooter's first centerfire rifle. On the other hand, the .44 Magnum is no bargain in terms of recoil, since it kicks more than a .30-30 and delivers substantially less ballistic performance.

The research that went into this article has made it obvious to me that, for the modern hunter, there is little practical advantage to buying a rifle chambered for a pistol cartridge if a similar rifle can be had in a true rifle cartridge. It is clear that the rifle cartridges, such as the .30-30 Winchester and .35 Remington used in the comparisons above, are superior big game hunting rounds. This is true even for those seeking a traditional, Western style lever action rifle, since the .30-30 was actually used in rifles during the final years of the 19th Century and neither revolver cartridges can make that claim.

The notion of hunting with a revolver and rifle in the same caliber has appeal, until considered logically. Then a couple of questions arise: First, why carry a rifle at all if your revolver can do the same job? Or, second, why burden yourself with a heavy hunting revolver if you already have in your hands a rifle in the same caliber that delivers the same bullet with greater velocity and energy?

Even as a back-up weapon the revolver makes no sense, since in a hunting emergency the rifle is already in your hands, not in a holster. In addition, six additional rounds of rifle ammunition are far lighter to pack than a whole revolver containing six rounds.

I discovered these truths in practice many years ago when I bought my first .357 Magnum rifle as a companion arm for my .357 Magnum revolver. I really enjoyed shooting and hunting with that light, handy, low recoil carbine and I have long been a fan of the .357 Magnum cartridge. However, I quickly discovered that, depending on the situation, it made sense to carry either the revolver or the carbine, but not both.

I would conclude by suggesting that if a rifle in a centerfire handgun caliber appeals to you, by all mean go for it. They can be a lot of fun to shoot, particularly when plinking with reduced loads, and the whole point of the shooting sports is enjoyment. Just remember, with big game hunting loads, a .44 Magnum carbine kicks as hard as a .30-30 and is less effective.

A .357 Magnum rifle may be just the ticket if you are looking for a very low recoil centerfire rifle. Even young or very recoil sensitive shooters are unlikely to be intimidated by a .357 rifle's modest recoil and muzzle blast. Inside of 100 yards, assuming an appropriate load is selected, a .357 Magnum carbine can be used for hunting the smaller species of Class 2 game.


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Copyright 2003, 2014 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.


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