Shooting Classics: Henry Big Boy,
By Chuck Hawks
We recently had the opportunity to spend some time at the range with four classic, centerfire, lever action rifles. We had so much fun that I decided an article about shooting these classic lever action rifles was in order.
Henry Big Boy
Henry Repeating Arms Company of Brooklyn, New York U.S.A. supplied the Big Boy for review. (You can find that review on the Product Review Page.) It is a beautiful rifle, featuring a solid brass receiver, butt plate, and barrel band and a select walnut stock with outstanding grain and color. The solid top receiver ejects to the right and the octagon barrel is richly blued. I liked the rifle so much that I kept it for my personal use after the review was completed.
This Big Boy is chambered for the .357 Magnum/.38 Special revolver cartridges. (.45 Long Colt and .44 Rem. Mag. calibers are also available.) As applied to rifles the .357 is just about the lowest recoil cartridge practical for deer hunting. In the relatively heavy Big Boy rifle, the Winchester Supreme 180 grain Partition Gold load at a MV of 1550 fps delivers only about 4.1 ft. lbs. of recoil energy. That load offers a maximum point blank range (+/- 3") of about 150 yards, but its limited energy restricts its humane use on deer to about 100 yards.
Henry rifles are noted for their smooth actions and good accuracy, and the Big Boy is no exception. It delivered very good groups with several bullet weights during our review, even using the supplied iron sights. We might have done even better if the Big Boy's 4.5 pound trigger had been lighter and smoother. Even so, it clearly out shot the other rifle chambered for a revolver cartridge, the Uberti Model 1866. And, had we elected to mount a scope on the Henry, I feel confident that it has the potential to shoot 100 yard groups second to none.
Here are the basic specifications of the Henry Big Boy rifle:
Henry RAC offers an accessory cantilever scope mount for the Big Boy that mounts to the barrel immediately in front of the receiver, but positions the scope directly over the top of the receiver. This mount requires drilling and tapping the barrel for installation. However, for the serious hunter, a scope is definitely the way to go. And scoping a Henry is much less hassle than scoping a pre-'64 Winchester Model 94 or Uberti 1866 replica. It would be even easier if Henry RAC would drill and tap the barrel at the factory.
The Big Boy's stock is designed to position the shooter's eye correctly for the supplied iron sights. It has a straight hand grip and a curved, brass buttplate. However, it does not have the points at heel and toe of the Uberti Short Rifle's buttplate. The Henry's buttplate is of the traditional carbine style. It is wide, handles recoil well, and does not dig into the shoulder.
The Henry is the heaviest rifle of the four. It weighs approximately 0.7 pounds more than the Uberti, 1.7 pounds more than the Marlin, and 2.2 pounds more than the Winchester.
A lot of that extra weight is in the Big Boy's 20" octagon barrel, which is considerably heavier than the standard round barrels on the Model 94 and Marlin 336. The Henry balances about a half inch in front of the receiver, while the Winchester and Marlin balance where the forend joins the receiver. This slight muzzle heaviness makes the Henry a little slower to swing, but a steadier rifle to shoot from the offhand position.
Marlin Model 336
The lever action Marlin 336 rifle has a long history. Its immediate predecessor was the Model 36, but the line really started back in the latter part of the 19th Century with the Model 1893.
There are currently several variations in the Model 336 line. Our sample Model 336 is the 336SS. The Model 336SS features a stainless steel barreled action. The MarShield finished pistol grip walnut stock has a grip cap, fluted comb, and cut checkering in a hand filling diamond point pattern.
The 336SS is the most practical of the 336 carbines. With its satin silver barreled action and checkered walnut stock, it is also the most attractive. Marlin has always believed in wood stocks and solid steel parts, which give the 336SS a quality look and feel plus legendary durability.
Perhaps the biggest advantage possessed by the Marlin 336 design is its solid top receiver. This allows a telescopic sight to be mounted on top of the receiver, low and overbore, using a conventional one-piece base. Other desirable features include fast repeat shot capability, ambidextrous operation, and quick handling.
Because the 336SS weighs about a half pound more than the Winchester Model 94, it kicks a little less. The "Expanded Rifle Recoil Table" shows 10.7 ff. lbs. of recoil energy when shooting a typical 150 grain .30-30 load.
This particular rifle is owned by Guns and Shooting Online Technical Advisor Bob Fleck. It came with the usual, heavy, 5 pound plus trigger pull. G&S Online Gunsmith Rocky Hays lightened the trigger pull to a clean 3 pounds. The trigger job is the only custom work performed on this rifle.
The 336SS is currently produced in .30-30 Winchester caliber only. The basic specifications of the 336SS are as follows:
Our 336SS test rifle wears a Weaver Classic V-3 variable power scope in a Leupold mount, which has proven very suitable for this application. The small size of the scope is greatly appreciated on a fast handling rifle like the Marlin 336. The scope's great field of view at 1x is a natural for woods hunting and 3x magnification is adequate for the longest shots you should be taking at CXP2 class game. The scope allows faster target acquisition and more positive target identification than iron sights.
The 336's 20" barrel and flat action makes it an easy rifle to carry. It is the second lightest rifle in our group, and the second fastest to swing into action.
This particular 336 has an affinity for the new Hornady LeverEvolution 160 grain factory load, regularly shooting 1.5" groups at 100 yards from a bench rest, with an occasional 1" group when the shooter does his part. Of course, the scope gives it a big leg up in practical accuracy.
Uberti Model 1866 "Yellow Boy" Short Rifle
This rifle is a high quality replica of the Winchester Model 1866 "Yellow Boy" made by A. Uberti S.R.L. of Italy. The Model 1866 was the rifle that made Winchester's reputation and founded a firearms dynasty.
Winchester offered their original Model 1966 in rifle, carbine, and musket configurations with round and octagon barrels. Winchester produced over 170,000 Model 1866 rifles between 1866 and 1898, the great majority of which were carbines.
The musket was the least popular and most unusual model in that it featured a round barrel with a bayonet lug, and there were two styles of bayonet available. The Model '66 was adopted by The Turkish army and used to good effect against the Russians in the Russo-Turkish War.
Model '66 arms used brass frames and were designed for the .44 Henry rimfire cartridge. This was a very low pressure number, so modern reproductions chambered for centerfire cartridges should not be fed ammunition loaded beyond SAAMI pressure specifications. The basic weakness of the '66 action also explains why the Uberti reproduction is only chambered for relatively low pressure cartridges.
Actually, anyone who wants to hunt deer with his or her .45 LC Uberti is very limited in terms of the selection of factory loaded ammunition. It's worth restating: DO NOT attempt to use any ammunition that is loaded to higher pressure than the SAAMI 14,000 psi MAP standard. This specifically includes all "+P" .45 Colt factory loads. The 1866 is a weak action and cannot tolerate high pressure loads.
Of the standard pressure .45 Colt factory loads from the "Big Three," only Winchester offers a JHP bullet that would be a viable choice for deer hunting. That is a Super-X load using a 225 grain Silvertip JHP bullet at a MV of 920 fps from a 5.5" revolver barrel. I'd expect a couple hundred fps higher velocity from the Uberti's 20" barrel, which would get the load up off of its knees.
The reloader with an 1866 rifle is better off, as there are a reasonable number of JHP bullets weighing from 200-250 grains that can be driven at MVs in the 1100-1200 fps range. This makes the .45 Colt about a 50 yard deer cartridge, limited by its energy. (Its trajectory allows a .45 Colt deer rifle to be zeroed at 100 yards.) A 240 bullet at a MV of 1200 fps retains only about 632 ft. lbs. of energy at 50 yards, and 545 ft. lbs. at 100 yards. Despite the fact that the .45 punches a big hole, these are not impressive numbers.
A pleasant number is the recoil generated by a standard pressure .45 LC load in an 8 pound rifle. According to the "Expanded Rifle Recoil Table" a 255 grain bullet at a MV of 1100 fps yields only about 4 ft. lbs. of recoil energy, making the Uberti Yellow Boy a very comfortable rifle to shoot.
Here are the basic specifications of the Uberti 1866 Short Rifle:
Our .45 LC caliber Uberti '66 rifle, owned by Guns and Shooting Online Gunsmith Rocky Hays, was supplied with a clean, but heavy, 4.5 pound trigger pull and a light, easy to cock hammer spring. The operation of the action is very smooth and the fit of the action's side plates is virtually perfect. This Uberti is a very well made and finished rifle.
The Model 1866 is fundamentally similar in operation to the other lever actions compared in this article. However, the 1866 is different in the details of its operation. This B. Tyler Henry/Nelson King design uses a carrier block that raises and lowers vertically in what is effectively an elevator shaft in the receiver directly behind the breech, instead of a pivoted shell carrier, to lift a fresh cartridge from the magazine and aligns it with the chamber so that the closing bolt will ram it home.
This "cartridge elevator" considerably lengthens the receiver. It adds about 2" to the length of the action compared to our Winchester Model 94.
No separate ejector is required in the 1866. The rising cartridge carrier block pushes the fired and extracted case out the open top of the receiver as it raises a new cartridge into alignment with the chamber, no matter how slowly or rapidly the finger lever is operated. Very cool!
The 1866 is completely insensitive to position or attitude. It feeds and ejects properly with the rifle held at any angle, including flat on its side or completely upside down.
The Model 1866 stock incorporates a lot of drop compared to modern stocks. This can take some getting used to. And you want to get the curved, rifle buttplate centered against your shoulder so that the pointed heel and toe don't dig in when you touch off a shot.
The 1866 action design, faithfully recreated by Uberti, is very user friendly. Due to its inherent weakness and low powered cartridges it is the least practical of our classic lever action rifles for hunting CXP2 game. But it is the smoothest, fastest in operation, and most fun to shoot--the ultimate centerfire plinking rifle. If I were a cowboy action shooter, I'd be using a Uberti Model 1866 in .38 Special.
Winchester Pre-1964 Model 94
Not a copy or a reproduction, our pre-'64 Winchester Model 94 is the real thing in excellent condition. Although long out of production, the classic pre-64 Winchester 94 is still readily available on the used market due to its extremely high production numbers, which I believe was over 3,000,000. And the price, while increasing, is still affordable compared to most new rifles. John Browning's most successful sporting rifle design lives on!
The Model 94 carbine featured in this article was manufactured in 1961. This rifle is in excellent condition. It shows practically no wear, inside or out. The barreled action is finished in a polished blue, and the black walnut stock wears its original gloss lacquer finish.
Here are the basic specifications of our pre-'64 Model 94:
Pre '64 Model 94s eject fired cases up and over the shooter's shoulder when the lever is operated rapidly. This precludes a scope mounted to the top of the receiver and constitutes the greatest drawback of the Model 94 design compared to the solid top Marlin 336.
The alternatives for scope mounting are an offset side mount, or a "scout type" mount forward of the receiver. I chose the latter, and equipped this rifle with an XS Sight Systems "Lever Scout" mount, Weaver rings, and a Leupold M8 2.5x28mm IER scope. Rocky Hays, our Guns and Shooting Online Gunsmithing Consultant, did the work and at the same time smoothed and lightened the trigger pull to 3 pounds.
Our rifle is chambered for the popular .30-30 Winchester cartridge, one of the best medium range hunting cartridges ever designed. The Model 94 is the best selling sporting rifle of all time, and the .30-30 is the best selling cartridge. It is hard to go wrong with that combination!
But, because the Model 94 is the lightest rifle in this comparison and chambered for the most powerful cartridge, it also delivers the most recoil. According to the "Expanded Rifle Recoil Table" on the Tables, Charts and Lists page that is about 12.7 ft. lbs. shooting 150 grain factory loads or equivalent reloads. .30-30 Recoil is not a problem for most shooters, but it is undeniably more fun to shoot the Henry Big Boy .357 Mag. or the Uberti Yellow Boy .45 LC than the Model 94 .30-30.
One way to redress that balance is to reload lighter bullets at lower velocity. I have had great success using the Speer 110 grain JHP varmint bullet in front of 16.5 grains of SR 4759 powder. That combination gives a MV of 1895 fps and drops the recoil energy to about 4.1 ft. lbs., comparable to that of the rifles chambered for pistol cartridges.
The best thing about any Model 94 carbine is its balance and handling qualities. Just handling a Model 94 is a pleasure. Its clean lines, slender receiver, the 20" barrel and full length magazine that help achieve that perfect line and balance, and its blued steel and walnut construction are what make the Winchester Model 94, and particularly the pre '64 Model 94 carbine, the epitome of a hunting rifle. The Model 94 is the best selling sporting rifle in history because it deserves to be.
Comparisons, Summary, and Conclusion
The Uberti Yellow Boy and Henry Big Boy rifles have smoother actions than the Model 94 or Marlin 336, but the .30-30's are the faster handling rifles. This is due partly to their lighter weight and partly to their nearly perfect balance. And when push comes to shove, the Marlin 336 falls just behind the trimmer, lighter Model 94 in the handling sweepstakes.
All of these lever actions are as reliable as any hunting rifle can be when operated properly. Lever action rifles like to be stroked with dispatch. If you insist on "babying" the rifle by operating the lever slowly, you can sometimes cause a feeding jam in a Big Boy, Model 94, or Model 336. If you just can't bring yourself to operate the lever swiftly, the Uberti Yellow Boy is the rifle for you. It doesn't matter how you fast or slow you operate its action, it always feeds reliably.
The other three lever actions covered here are far stronger than the Model 1866. They use much more massive breech blocks and locking bolts. (The 1866 breech block is held closed by the finger lever operating a relatively weak system of links.)
The steel framed Marlin and Winchester are presumably stronger than the brass framed Henry. However, the Big Boy is strong enough for .357 and .44 Magnum cartridges, which operate at a SAAMI specified MAP of 35,000-36,000 psi.
The other lever guns are also safer than the Model 1866 in that the trigger cannot be pulled to drop the hammer unless the lever is fully closed. The 1866 can be fired with its action unlocked.
A half-cock hammer notch serves as the "safety" position in both the '66 and the Model 94. The Marlin has both a half-cock hammer notch and a crossbolt safety. The Henry Big Boy is technically the safest action of all, using a modern transfer bar in its hammer that allows it to be carried safely with the hammer down on a loaded chamber. But real safety is between the shooter's ears. All of these lever guns are mechanically safe when used properly.
To its credit, the Model 1866 action is smoother to operate than any of the others, even the Henry, although the total lever movement is about the same in all of these actions. The Uberti's mainspring is much easier to compress when the hammer is thumb cocked. And the huge hammer spur gives the thumb more purchase. The latter blocks the view of the rear sight when the hammer is not cocked, however, and prevents the shooter from seeing his bullet impact, a drawback that is not shared by the other three rifles.
The Henry and Uberti are fast handling rifles, but not as quick as the Marlin 336 or the lightning fast Winchester 94. That is because they weigh considerably more and balance farther forward, which slows (and also steadies) the swing.
The short overall length of all of these rifles makes them handy brush country or deep woods hunting rifles. All are adequate for shooting deer within the range and power limitations of their respective cartridges.
As already mentioned, that range limitation is about 50 yards for the .45 LC, 100 yards for the .357 Magnum, and 200-250 yards for the .30-30 depending on the specific load. Unlike the pistol cartridges, the .30-30 is a viable all-around cartridge capable of harvesting larger game and game at longer range, particularly when fed high performance ammunition like the Hornady LeverEvolution, Cor-Bon DPX Hunter, and Winchester Supreme loads.
In terms of practical accuracy the scoped rifles have the edge. (Remember that we could have scoped the Henry Big Boy but chose not to.) Between the Marlin 336 and Winchester Model 94 there was not much to choose. My impression is that the Winchester was more consistently accurate with a variety of ammunition, while the Marlin probably delivered the smallest groups with its favorite load. Both shot the Hornady LeverEvolution 160 grain load very well, and that is the standard hunting load for both rifles.
Between the two rifles chambered for revolver cartridges and forced to rely on their supplied iron sights, the Henry Big Boy had a clear accuracy advantage over the Uberti 1866 Yellow Boy. Some of that advantage is probably due to the Henry's stronger action, but I suspect that part of it is due to the superiority of its .357 Magnum cartridge. The .45 Colt, for which the Uberti was chambered, has never had a reputation for top accuracy. Not that the Uberti had an accuracy problem, it did not. But the Henry did shoot consistently smaller groups at both 25 and 100 yards. The Henry performed so well I suspect that, with a telescopic sight, it could have delivered groups every bit as tight as the scoped Marlin and Winchester rifles.
For a "fun" plinking rifle, though, I'd have to give the edge to the Uberti Yellow Boy. It's really neat for informally cutting holes in paper targets and making tin cans dance. And it's fun just to watch its Henry/King designed action operate.
The .357 Magnum is a better hunting cartridge than the .45 LC, shooting flatter and hitting harder at all ranges. There is a much better selection of factory loaded 357 Magnum hunting ammo, and .357 or .38 Special practice loads are cheaper than .45 Colt ammo. For the shooter who wants a traditional, brass framed lever gun that he or she will use as a combination deer hunting and plinking rifle, the elegant and beautifully made Henry Big Boy is the better choice. And, for those wanting more power for serious deer and black bear hunting, the Big Boy is also available in .44 Remington Magnum.
For the person who is primarily a big game hunter, either the Marlin or Winchester .30-30's are the way to go. They are also fun to plink with, but unless reloaded with reduced power cartridges, not as much fun as the Henry and Uberti.
For the hunter who plans to mount a telescopic sight, the Marlin's solid top receiver, drilled and tapped for scope mounts, gives it the edge. The stainless steel construction and Mar-Shield wood finish of the Marlin 336SS also give it the advantage for use in inclement weather. It's a popular rifle in rainy Western Oregon, for example, where I live.
Each of these classic lever action rifles fills a slightly different niche and is appealing in its own way. Time spent with any of them is time well spent. I am a fan of lever guns in general, and I own and use Henry RAC, Marlin, and Winchester lever action rifles. But I have never owned a Uberti (or any other) rifle based on the Henry/King designed Winchester action. My time with Model 1866 has convinced me that I need to rectify that situation.
Photo by Chuck Hawks.
Note: See the Product Reviews page for full length reviews of the Henry Big Boy, Marlin 336, Uberti Model 1866 Short Rifle and Winchester Model 94 rifles.
Copyright 2006 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.