Compared: .357 Mag. Henry Big Boy, Marlin 1894C and Uberti 1873 Lever Action Rifles

By Chuck Hawks

Lever action rifles chambered for .38 Special/.357 Magnum are among the real fun guns of the modern age. Using full power .357 Magnum loads they are useful hunting rifles for game up to the smaller CXP2 species at close range and can serve admirably as home defense rifles (just as they did on the western frontier), but mostly they are just plain fun to shoot.

Recoil is low, especially when shooting .38 Special loads and .38 Special practice ammunition using jacketed 125-130 grain bullets from Remington/UMC and Winchester/USA is inexpensive even for those who do not reload. They hit much harder than .22 rifles, hard enough to send empty soda cans skittering across the dirt or shatter clay pigeons placed on a dirt bank, and they retain the mystique of centerfire rifles.

This comparison involves three of the best of the breed. These are the Henry Big Boy, Marlin 1894C, and Uberti 1873. All three are featured in full length reviews that can be found on the Product Review Page.

The Uberti Model 1873 is a close replica of the 1873 Winchester, the "gun that won the west." The Model 1873 is one of the few firearms about which a movie has been made (Winchester '73, released in 1950 and starring Jimmy Stewart and Shelley Winters with Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis). The movie rifle was a presentation grade carbine ("One of 1000" if I remember correctly), while the Uberti replica compared here is their Special Short Sporting Rifle, a variant with a color case hardened receiver, deeply blued 20" octagon barrel and hand checkered semi-pistol grip walnut stock with a crescent rifle buttplate and a high gloss lacquer finish. It is extremely attractive, the prettiest of the three rifles reviewed here.

The Model 1873 action ejects fired brass out the top of the receiver. There is a sliding cover to cover the ejection port in the top of the receiver when the rifle is not in use, just like the original Winchester 1873. Its front sight is a squared-off blade, and the rear sight notch is relatively visible and allows a Patridge type sight picture, which I find more accurate than the typical brass bead front and "V" notch rear sight set-up.

Uberti 1873 Special Sporting Rifle
Uberti 1873 Special Sporting Rifle (w/24" barrel). Illustration courtesy of A. Uberti S.R.L.

Here are the specifications of the Uberti 1873 Special Short Sporting Rifle included in this comparison:

  • Stock number - 342138
  • Type - lever action repeater
  • Caliber - .357 Magnum/.38 Special
  • Magazine capacity - 10 rounds
  • Barrel length - 20" octagonal
  • Sights - Adjustable buckhorn rear, blade front
  • Finish - Color cased receiver, trigger, hammer and lever; polished blue barrel, magazine tube, loading gate, buttplate and all screws
  • Stock - Checkered walnut semi-pistol grip style with gloss lacquer finish
  • Length of pull - 13"
  • Overall length - 38.3"
  • Weight - 7.8 pounds (empty)
  • Country of origin - Italy
  • 2007 MSRP - $1085

The Henry Big Boy was Henry RAC's first centerfire rifle. It is a thoroughly modern lever action design that actually has much more in common with the Marlin 336 action than with the historic 1860 Henry, yet it retains certain Henry styling clues. The most noticeable of these is its solid brass receiver, followed by its deeply blued octagon barrel. The Big Boy action features a solid receiver top and side ejection.

Unlike original Henry rifles, which had no forend, the modern Henry does. Our sample Big Boy was stocked in high grade walnut with terrific figure. The stock has a straight grip and curved brass buttplate and a brass barrel band sets off the forend.

The Henry's supplied Marbles rear sight has a very small "V" notch, which I found quite difficult to see with my middle aged eyes. I widened it with a small v-file and that improved the sight picture a lot.

Henry Big Boy
Big Boy Rifle. Illustration courtesy of Henry Repeating Arms Co.

Here are the basic specifications of the Henry Big Boy .357 Mag. test rifle:

  • Model # - H006M
  • Type - Lever action repeater
  • Caliber - .357 Magnum/.38 Spec.
  • Magazine capacity - 10 rounds
  • Barrel - 20" octagonal
  • Sights - Marbles adjustable semi-buckhorn rear, brass bead front
  • Finish - Brass receiver, buttplate, and barrel band; polished blue barrel, magazine tube, loading gate, lever, hammer, trigger, and all screws
  • Stock - Select American walnut stock and forend with satin finish
  • Length of pull - 14-1/8" (to center of buttplate)
  • Overall length - 38-1/2"
  • Weight - 8.68 pounds (empty)
  • Country of origin - USA
  • 2007 MSRP - $879.95

The Marlin 1894C is the "working rifle" among the three reviewed here. This is the new model Marlin 1894 carbine in production today, although it closely resembles the Model 1894 of yesteryear, including the latter's square bolt and blued steel and walnut construction.

I call it a working rifle because it comes with a round, 18.5" blued barrel, blued receiver and is stocked in standard grade American walnut. The stock has a straight grip and a traditional barrel band secures the forend; both are machine checkered in a point pattern that offers good coverage. The lever loop is a squared-off design. The 1894C is a handsome rifle with good lines, but its finish is restrained (some would say "plain") compared to its spruced-up competition in this comparison.

Like all contemporary Marlin lever actions, the Model 1894C features a solid receiver top and side ejection that makes low, overbore scope mounting easy. Our test rifle, however, was used with its supplied iron sights. It also comes with detachable sling swivel studs, the only one of our three rifles with provision for attaching a sling. Marlin also offers a Model 1894 Cowboy that comes with a 20" tapered octagon barrel.

Marlin 1894C
Model 1894C. Illustration courtesy of Marlin Firearms Co.

Here are the basic specifications of the Marlin Model 1894C .357 Mag. carbine:

  • Model # - 1894C
  • Type - Lever action repeater
  • Caliber - .357 Magnum/.38 Spec.
  • Magazine capacity - 9 rounds
  • Barrel - 18.5" round
  • Sights - Brass bead front with Wide-Scan hood, adjustable semi-buckhorn folding rear; receiver is drilled and tapped for scope bases
  • Metal Finish - Matte blue
  • Stock - Checkered black walnut stock and forend with Mar-Shield satin finish; black rubber buttplate, detachable sling swivel studs
  • Overall length - 36"
  • Length of pull - 13-1/2" (to center of buttplate)
  • Weight - 6 pounds (empty)
  • Country of origin - USA
  • 2007 MSRP - $551.00

The comparison

All three of our test rifles shot very accurately. There is nothing to choose between them in terms of intrinsic accuracy. The .38 Special and .357 Magnum are accurate revolver cartridges and that obviously carries over to rifles as well. These .357 lever guns are more accurate than the majority of rifles that we have shot with iron sights over the years. You may miss your target, but if you do it won't be the rifle's fault.

The action of the Uberti 1873 is markedly different from the other two rifles. Although all three are traditional lever actions, the 1873 is based on the action primarily designed by B. Tyler Henry, who worked for Oliver Winchester. This is considerably longer than a modern action as it uses a "cartridge elevator" to raise the next shell vertically into alignment with the chamber. (See the separate full length review on the Product Review Page for details.) Bulky it may be, but the system is very smooth and incredibly reliable. And it will feed in any orientation, including upside down!

There is no spring loaded ejector; the rising shell elevator just nudges the fired brass out the top of the receiver. Operate the lever rapidly and the case is tossed well clear of the rifle; operate the lever slowly and with a little practice the case can be dropped neatly into your hand or onto a shooting bench.

Since it ejects basically straight up, mounting a scope over the receiver is impractical and the Uberti 1873 replica has no provision for scope mounting. Use iron sights or buy something else.

The Marlin and the Henry are both modern, side eject actions with a solid receiver top. Despite looking considerably different, they actually operate in a similar manner. Feeding is accomplished by a pivoted shell carrier that raises a new cartridge so that the round bodied bolt can catch its rim and shove it into the chamber.

For whatever reason, our Marlin test rifle feeds more reliably and at greater angles of lean to the right or left than does our Henry Big Boy. The latter feeds best when it is held in a vertical position and may jam if the rifle is canted. On the other hand, the Henry action is smoother in operation than the Marlin, something that I attribute to its solid brass receiver and the Henry's high level of fit and finish. Neither, however, is as smooth in operation as the Model 1873.

Scope mounting is extremely simple on a Marlin lever action rifle. The flat-topped receiver is drilled and tapped for scope bases, which are widely available from practically all manufacturers. The result is a scope mounted as low as possible and over the receiver. If you want a scoped .357 lever gun, my recommendation is to buy a Marlin.

The Henry would be equally simple to scope except that its brass receiver is not drilled and tapped for scope bases. This is because it would be too easy to strip the brass receiver threads with steel mount base screws. So instead, Henry offers a cantilever scope base that attaches to the steel barrel and positions the scope over the receiver. Unfortunately, the barrel is not drilled and tapped to accept the Henry scope base, a major pain in the neck. Thus, mounting a scope on a Big Boy requires drilling and tapping the barrel, a chore best performed by your local gunsmith.

Once you get the Henry scope base mounted on the rifle with rings and a scope, you will probably find that the stock has too much drop to allow a proper cheek weld on the comb. This is partly because the stock is designed for use with iron sights, but even more due to the excessive height at which the Henry cantilever scope base positions a scope, even with the lowest possible rings. This base floats the scope over the receiver.

The basic alternatives are to shoot with your head sticking up, re-stock the rifle with a high Monte Carlo comb, or install an adjustable comb. I took the latter course with a similar Henry Golden Boy .17 HMR rifle. (The article about that Guns and Shooting Online project rifle can be found on the Rimfire Page under the "Gun Articles, Comparisons and Reviews" heading.) With the Big Boy I just settled for the supplied iron sights. You can scope a Henry Big Boy, but the results are not all that satisfactory.

While we are on sights, all three rifles come with traditional semi-buckhorn type rear sighs, which in my opinion is the worst type of open iron sight. Of the three, the Uberti provided the best sight picture.

The Henry's trigger wore into a 4-pound pull weight with considerable preliminary creep, and the Marlin is somewhat heavier but cleaner. Neither is great but both are satisfactory. The Uberti trigger is another matter. Its trigger pull measured an incredible 7.5 pounds out of the box on my RCBS Premium gauge and polished itself down to a still very heavy 6.25 pounds with use. The Uberti trigger breaks clean without perceptible creep, but it is difficult to shoot tight groups with a trigger that heavy.

The Marlin 1894 is the fastest handling of our three rifles and the Henry is the slowest, primarily due to its greater weight. All have carbine length barrels and are suitable for the woods hunter, but the Marlin has the edge for handling speed and for carrying long distances.

On the other hand, the Model 1873 and Henry Big Boy are a little longer and steadier, particularly for shooting from the offhand position. Of the three, I would rate the Model 1873 the easiest to shoot accurately without the assistance of some kind of rest, if you can get past the heavy trigger.

Summary and conclusion

The Uberti Model 1873 is the prettiest and the most traditional of these rifles. It is also the most expensive. Shooting this rifle is like going back in time. It has the smoothest and most reliable (not to mention interesting) action and comes with the best sights. Oddly, it also has the heaviest trigger pull, and that needs to be fixed by a gunsmith. If your budget is large, you are traditionalist, and you intend to shoot with iron sights anyway, the Uberti Model 1873 is probably the optimum way to go.

The Marlin is the least expensive rifle, easiest to scope, lightest to carry and the fastest handling. Its finish is subdued compared to the other two, but it has nice lines. For the serious hunter or back packer it is the most practical choice.

The Henry falls somewhere between the Uberti Model 1873 and the Marlin 1894C, although closer to the Model 1873 in price and overall impression. It is a very pretty rifle, considerably more handsome than the Marlin, but not as drop dead beautiful as the Uberti. It is a lot more trouble to scope than the Marlin, but at least there is provision for scope mounting. Its action is smoother than the Marlin in operation (although in the case of our test rifle less reliable), but not as smooth as the Model 1873.

Despite their similar applications and identical caliber, these rifles sell at markedly different price points. That will probably be the deciding factor for many customers. Whichever you choose, I predict that you will not be disappointed.

Note: Individual, full length reviews of these rifles can be found on the Product Reviews page.

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Copyright 2007, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.