Compared: The .30-30 and .35 Rem. to Handgun Cartridges in Rifles
By Chuck Hawks
Adapting handgun cartridges to rifles is not a new idea. It was fairly common in the American Old West, where 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. And 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 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 the rifle chambered for pistol cartridges was pretty much dead. The mainstream shooting world had long since moved on. Powerful, long range rifle cartridges now occupied center stage. But in the 1940's and 1950's, 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 rifles 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 160 yards, accelerated the demand for old lever action rifles suitable for conversion. Pretty 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. Today the Model 1894 is available in .38 Special, .38 Spec./.357 Mag., .41 Rem. Mag., .44 Spec./.44 Mag., and .45 Colt.
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.
The Model 94 is actually a .30-30 length action, much longer than required or even desirable for pistol cartridges, so for years there has been speculation as to why Winchester has chosen not to reintroduce the lighter, more suitable, short action Model 92 as a regular production item. Winchester did produce a limited run of Model 92's (calibers .357 Mag., .44-40, .44 Mag., and .45 Colt between 1997 and 2000. They were rather expensive, so perhaps they did not sell as well as hoped.
Henry Repeating Arms, a smaller U.S. company specializing in lever action rifles, has their Big Boy Model in .44 Magnum. This is a handsome, antique looking rifle with a solid brass receiver, buttplate, and barrel band. It also features a deeply blued octagonal barrel and a genuine walnut stock. Caliber is .44 Spec./.44 Magnum.
At the other end of the lever action spectrum is the Ruger Model 96/44M. This is a modern, short throw, streamlined lever action hunting rifle in caliber .44 Magnum that is styled after the famous Ruger 10/22 carbine.
There are also several imported copies of famous American lever action rifles available in a variety of pistol cartridges. These are mostly knock-offs of various obsolete Winchester models made in various places including Italy and Brazil.
With so many rifles available in pistol cartridges it is clear that the idea has once again caught on. Probably the advent of the game of cowboy action shooting has contributed to the popularity of such rifles. Marlin and Winchester produce competition versions of their famous lever action rifles specifically for the sport, and the Henry Big Boy is clearly aimed at the same market. So are the imported clones, whose primary selling point is lower price than the name brand "real thing" rifles.
A considerable number of rifles chambered for pistol cartridges end up in the field. Most of these are used for hunting deer in brushy or wooded country where shots are likely to be fairly close. Some are even purchased by deer hunters who figure that the relatively heavy, large diameter bullets thrown by these rifles are more effective than the lighter, faster bullets from more traditional deer cartridges such as the .30-30 Winchester, .300 Savage, .32 Winchester Special, and .35 Remington.
So let's compare the ballistics of some of the most popular handgun cartridges as used in rifles to the popular .30-30 and .35 Rem. rifle cartridges, since they can all be had in the same or similar rifles. To start, here are velocity figures for some representative loads. (Caliber, Brand and bullet weight and type - muzzle velocity, velocity at 100 yards.
Velocity, of course, has a big influence on both kinetic energy and trajectory, and it is clear 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.)
It seems clear from these numbers that the .30-30 and .35 Rem. cartridges deliver much more energy to the target at 100 yards than the pistol cartridges used in rifles. The advantage runs from about 33% (.35 Rem. vs. .44 Mag.) to 90% (.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, .45, and .480 bullets would compensate in some measure for their 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).
As these sectional density numbers indicate, the rifle calibers actually have a big advantage in SD, and thus theoretical penetration, over all of 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. And a flat 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.) For more information about trajectory and MPBR see the "Rifle Trajectory Table."
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 here 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.
The fat, slow .45 Colt and .480 Ruger cartridges are much worse, with approximately twice the drop of the magnum revolver cartridges. Even holding the crosshairs level with a deer's back would result in a clean miss with either cartridge at 200 yards.
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) or a .475" bullet (the actual diameter of a .480 Ruger bullet) makes a bigger hole than a .308" diameter bullet (the actual diameter of a .30-30 bullet). The .357 Magnum actually uses a .357" diameter bullet, and the .35 Rem. uses a .358" diameter bullet. Here are the frontal areas (cross-sectional area) of these bullets in square inches.
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 all of the factors we have been addressing (and more) and attempts quantify killing power in terms of the optimum weight of animal a rifle cartridge should be used to take 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, the OGW table does correlate pretty well with the experiences of many knowledgeable hunters. (The "Maximum Optimum Ranges for Big Game" table on the Rifle Information 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.)
As can be seen, the 325 grain bullet of the .480 Ruger is about equal to the killing power of the 150 grain .30-30 and 200 grain .35 Rem. bullets at 200 yards. (Beyond 200 yards the killing power of the .480 bullet falls off rapidly). Unfortunately, due to its 134 yard MPBR, an animal at 200 yards is well out of range!
The remaining important factor to consider is recoil. Below are approximate recoil figures for the various cartridges we have been comparing in typical rifles. From top to bottom these rifles are: Marlin Models 336 (first 3), 1894C, 1894PG, 1894 Cowboy, and last the Winchester Model 94 Traditional. (Caliber, bullet weight at MV, rifle weight - free recoil energy in foot pounds.)
Obviously, except for the .357 Magnum in the neat Marlin 1884C carbine, none of the pistol cartridges strike a particularly good balance between performance and recoil, and the .480 is the worst of the bunch. Nor is the .44 Magnum any bargain, since it kicks more than a .30-30 and delivers substantially less performance. A point to remember if shopping for a young shooter's first centerfire rifle.
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 last years of the Old West, and none of these revolver cartridges can make that claim. (The .45 Colt was present on the frontier, but only in revolvers. It was not adapted to rifles until quite recently, specifically for the modern sport of cowboy action shooting.)
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 exact same caliber that delivers the exact same bullet with greater velocity and energy?
Even as a "back-up" weapon the revolver makes no sense, since the rifle is already in your hands, more accurate and more powerful. And 6 additional rounds of rifle ammunition are far lighter to pack than a whole revolver containing six rounds. A good .22 handgun for harvesting small game during the course of a multi-day big game hunt is another matter.
I discovered these truths in practice many years ago when I bought a companion .357 Magnum rifle to match my .357 Magnum revolver. I really enjoyed shooting and hunting with that light, handy, low recoil rifle and I have long been a fan of the .357 Magnum revolver. However, I quickly discovered that, depending on the situation, it made sense to carry one or the other, but not both.
I would conclude by suggesting that if a rifle in a big bore handgun caliber appeals to you, then 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 that with big game hunting loads they generally don't kick any less than a .30-30 and none of them are as effective.
A .357 Magnum rifle may be just the ticket 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. Within about 100 yards any of these handgun cartridges can be used for hunting the smaller species of CXP2 class game, in particular the ubiquitous whitetail deer.
Copyright 2003, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.