Marlin 1894: Push comes to shove. Stretching the .44 mag.
Maybe it's my background in building race bikes and high performance streetbikes, but I still find myself repeating the mantra that light is right. But as anyone who has experience with magnum calibers will tell you, that maxim doesn't hold up so well with guns. A caliber whose recoil is manageable in an eight pound rifle can become downright painful if a pound or two gets stripped away.
Nonetheless, I have a desire bordering on obsession to build a very light, very powerful big bore lever action. The reason is simple enough. Marlins were designed from the beginning to be carried afield. A good lever action rifle can win over die hard bolt action and AR fans after 20 minutes of field carry. They're just perfect for it. Marlin has had tremendous success with its guide series big bore rifles, with their 18.5" barrels, and many of our customers have opted to go even shorter, to the 16" minimum.
These "shorties" are invariably enviable. Wicked cool is the easiest way to describe them. Typically weighing in the mid six pound range, they still deliver enough power to stop all North American 4-leggeds, including Chevy, Ford and their ilk. So what more could you want? Well, I'm not now, nor will I ever be, a wilderness guide, but if I was, I think I'd prefer a 5.5lb rifle to a 6.5 pounder. I've backpacked in the mountains. There were times I would have paid a hundred bucks for every ounce I could leave behind. Or a hundred an hour for a Sherpa. So there's the root of my obsession, sensible or not.
Now, it goes without saying that few hiking in bear country would want to trade ounces for absolute confidence in the protective power of their firearm. It also goes without saying that endless debate swirls around just how much cartridge is enough. But for the sake of getting on with it, I think most would agree that the .45-70 and .444 would fill the bill nicely, even with factory loads. Likewise, most would consider a .454 Casull revolver pretty effective medicine for dangerous game, even if only as backup. And heck, while some might argue against it, I suspect there are plenty of experienced mountain men who have all the confidence they need in a .44 mag carbine (which, as it happens, delivers almost as much energy as a Casull revolver).
So, with these considerations in mind, I started thinking about the parameters for this light weight guide rifle. In terms of power, I decided the trip 4 would be my target. The rifle should have a 16.5" barrel, and my target weight would be 5.5lbs. Given the wide range of .44 cal bullets available for both pistol and rifle applications, I decided that was a good place to start. So I rooted about in my safe for a .44 mag chambered 1894, and started spending my odd hours building a proof of concept prototype. The first stage of the project was to see just how much energy could be squeezed from the good ol' .44.
Before everyone hastens to point out (justifiably) that a .44 mag can never be made to match the ballistics of a .444, let me remind you that I am attempting to compare apples to apples. We're talking about a 16.5" barreled carbine here, not a rifle with 22" or more of bore in which to optimize the performance of the T4. It's worth noting that the Trip 4 (like all other large capacity rifle cartridges) looses substantial muzzle velocity as the barrel becomes shorter. While my Hornady manual lists a max velocity for the 300gr XTP at around 2000fps from a 24" bbl, my Lyman manual has a max load reaching only 1838fps out of a 18.5" ported Winchester barrel. By contrast, it's been proven that the .44 mag needs only a foot of barrel to reach its peak velocity.
While it would be unfair to expect either the .444 or .44 to reach the higher, 2000fps velocity out of a 16.5" barrel, it stands to reason that a cartridge smaller than the T4 could match its performance from a shorty barrel if one matched the appropriate burn rate and powder charge to the shorter barrel. Examples of such short, optimized cartridges abound. Witness the 221 fireball and 30 Herret.
So my target was 1800fps with the 300gr XTP, which I chose because of its appropriate weight and dual crimp groove. If I could reach that target I'd have 2150ft/lbs of muzzle energy, nearly 250 more than a Casull revolver with the same bullet weight. Aplenty, I think.
Since you've indulged me this far, I'll save you all the trouble of skipping to the end. At this stage, with limited testing, I've pushed the 300gr XTP to a velocity of 1700fps, beating the .454's energy by a modest margin, and falling just shy of the one ton mark. With 300gr cast boolits I surpassed the target 1800fps mark, striding alongside the listed max for the .444 out of the aforementioned 18.5" ported barrel. Not bad, for a case barely more than half the size of its bigger, badder brother.
There are probably some readers shaking their heads, and waiting for an announcement that a certain owner of Ranger Point Precision blew himself up with a .44 lever gun. I can understand your concern, or morbidly expectant glee, as the case may be, but don't get ahead of the story. Others more familiar with the concepts of internal ballistics will realize that burn rate optimization can yield surprising results in shorter barrels. To be sure, my hand loads were in excess of factory pressures, but not by enough to cause signs of excessive pressure to appear. No sticky lever, no flattened primers, no loosened primer pockets. Having said that, testing was done in cool weather. A safe, four season load might require a smaller powder charge.
As to accuracy, the results surprised me. My donor rifle, which has not yet been "accurized" in any meaningful way, and which never displayed noteworthy accuracy prior to being chopped, turned in a string of sub MOA, three shot groups at 100yds with the XTPs. Both grouping and point of impact were very predictable as I laddered up my powder charges. No load scattered, which frequently happens when optimal pressures are surpassed. I stopped increasing charges not because of pressure signs, but because I ran out of case capacity. Accuracy with the cast lot was less stellar, but this did not surprise me, as I was unable to obtain appropriately sized boolits.
These results were obtained by seating the XTP to the first cannelure, for a COL of 1.71" and using powder charges similar to those listed for 240gr jacketed bullets. A Lee Factory Crimp die was used to create a new crimp groove in the cast pills, using the same COL. The 1.71" COL, being more than a tenth of an inch longer than factory loads, did require some significant mods to the carrier and other receiver parts. I believe, however that these mods are inside the scope of a handy home gunsmith, so for those interested, I will share the details in my next installment, soon to come.
As to weight, at this time the donor rifle weighs just under six pounds, but nothing has been done beyond chopping the barrel and replacing the steel mag tube with one of our high strength aluminum tubes one third as heavy. I believe 5.5lbs is a fairly easy target. Recoil is snappy, for sure, even though the test rifle wears a brake borrowed from my .444. But it is manageable, even with the firm butt plate, which will be replaced with a good recoil pad when time permits. There is no question, however, that the project rifle will be more manageable without a brake than a 444 in similar configuration. Thanks to an optimized burn rate and much less powder consumption, the .44 simply will not have the massive, recoil inducing gas jet that characterizes other big bore shorties.
A ton of muzzle energy is a force to be reckoned with. But there are those for whom nothing smaller than a 400gr bullet will do on dangerous game. I'm ill equipped to argue the point, never having had my hide eyed by an angry animal. Confidence is determined by any number of factors, and it is not my intention to sway anyone toward one camp or another. As with many projects, I started this one just because I wanted to. I'm not done yet. The platform isn't complete, and frankly, I want more from the cartridge too, so a wildcat is likely in my future.
If you can embrace a less is more philosophy and you're intrigued with the direction I'm taking, I invite you to follow along and join in the discussion. Until next time, happy hunting. Comment below or on the Marlin Owners Forum.