FOR most of my life, I have kept a lever-action rifle handy for all-around use. I have taken more game with the lever-action than with any other type. During my time as a peace officer, I had a Winchester Model 94 .30-30 lever-action rifle in the trunk on more than one occasion. Such a rifle is capable of solving most problems encountered.
I have the greatest respect for the AR-15 rifle and enjoy firing and using my Daniel Defense rifle. Few rifles are as versatile, accurate, and reliable as a good AR-15. Few rifles can be used for varmints and deer and then fired in a competitive match the same weekend simply by changing loads.
With that said, I like the lever-action and value its simplicity and ruggedness. In the hands of outdoorsmen, scouts, and working cowboys, I have seen lever-actions that were beaten, battered, and even muddy, but the rifles always worked. When the likely profile is that you may need only a shot or two but the rifle needs to hit hard, a powerful lever-action rifle is a viable choice.
WANTED: LEVER-ACTION CARBINE IN PISTOL CALIBER
Recently I was in the market for a short, handy lever-action carbine chambered in a pistol caliber. There are a couple of reasons for this choice. First, it is easier to find a range that allows pistol-caliber carbines, and this is a real consideration in many areas.
Second, I am an enthusiastic hand-loader. As long as the brass holds out and I am able to obtain lead, primers, and powder, I will be shooting. I don’t hoard ammunition but merely keep a reasonable supply. Ammunition is for practice, training, hunting, and personal defense.
While I like the pistol-caliber carbine, I am not sold on the carbine and handgun combination. When carrying the Rossi lever-action rifle, I am as likely to be carrying a .357 Magnum and more likely to be carrying my everyday 1911.
A long gun and a handgun are for different duties, and compromise is evident. The lever-action carbine slips behind the seat of a truck easily. It is flat, light, and can be made ready by quickly working the lever. Once ready, it can be made safe just by lowering the hammer. Accuracy isn’t the long suit of the short pistol-caliber carbine, but it is accurate enough for most chores well past 50 yards. Versatility is the long suit. It is a bonus that a good example isn’t expensive.
I have Winchester 95 and Savage 99 high-power rifles and a good Henry .22 rifle, but no short, powerful carbine. I addressed this deficit in the battery by purchasing a Rossi 92 carbine.
These rifles are available in .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum, .45 Colt, and .454 Casull, and I have seen examples in .44-40 as well.
The .357 is economical and the best choice for Cowboy Action. With Magnum loads, it is a fine defensive caliber and will do for deer.
The .44 Magnum is a great caliber. I have used it to drop large boar hogs and it hits like Thor’s hammer. The .44-40 is a handloading proposition for real power.
I recently happened upon one chambered in .45 Colt. The rifle looked good, with nice Brazilian wood and the popular large ring lever. Since I had plenty of .45 Colt brass, the choice wasn’t difficult. I have reached that pleasant stage in life when every firearm doesn’t have to have a well-defined mission to earn its keep, and where a specialized firearm that does a few things well is good to have.
The Rossi was destined to serve as a go-anywhere, do-anything rifle. For short-range hunting—probably an opportunity rather than a planned hunt—to dispatch predators, pests, and dangerous animals, and for personal defense on the road, the Rossi seemed a good fit.
Despite my Scot blood, I am not the cheapest guy in the world, but the rifle set me back less than $400, and I like that. This is the first example I have owned in .45 Colt, but the particulars of the rifle are familiar to me.
The sights are pretty basic. There is a front post with a small brass bead and an open sight in the rear. The front post is drift adjustable for windage, and the rear sight may be adjusted for elevation by use of the sight ladder.
You have to know how to use these sights. I have heard more than a little grumbling concerning the difficulty of sighting in similar rifles. The front post must be set in the bottom of the rear notch for the proper point of aim. You do not hold it in the upper part of the rear leaf or you will shoot impossibly high.
A tubular magazine holds eight rounds. The lever-action rifle was once referred to as a bolt gun.
The bolt is locked by rear locking wedges. The rifle is unlocked by working the lever. As the lever travels downward, the bolt moves to the rear and the extractor pulls the spent case from the chamber and cocks the hammer. The fresh round is fed from the magazine into a shell carrier. As the lever is closed, the carrier feeds a fresh round into the chamber.
This is a generally reliable and trouble-free system. But make sure you learn to use the lever-action properly. The lever is pressed forward, not down, and a certain cadence of fire comes with practice.
A pistol-caliber carbine such as the Rossi 92 has more leverage than a .30-30 rifle, and the action may be manipulated more quickly. If need be, you may put out a lot of lead with the Rossi model 92. If you keep extra rounds on the belt, the Rossi may be topped off one round at a time.
The rifle weighs about five pounds loaded, and is only about 34 inches long. With the 16-inch barrel, this rifle handles quickly and tracks between targets well. It is no trick to keep steel gongs moving at 50 yards.
To test the rifle, firing at the 50-yard line, I set up an Innovative Targets steel target. This target is a great training aid. Using the steel insert rated for pistol calibers, I was able to ring the target on demand.
As far as ammunition goes, the Rossi was fired for the most part with handloads using a 255-grain cast SWC. With the .44 Magnum carbine, I have had to crimp over the bullet shoulder in order to assure feed reliability—loads intended for use in a revolver sometimes did not feed correctly in the carbine.
This wasn’t the case with the Rossi carbine. Most of these loads generate about 800 fps from a revolver. At 25 yards, the handloads struck a bit right and low, but this was easily adjusted.
In factory ammunition, there are several distinct classes of ammunition. These include cowboy action loads, which are lighter than standard; standard-pressure lead loads; standard-pressure personal-defense loads; and heavy hunting loads such as the ones offered by Buffalo Bore and CorBon.
I fired a representative sample of each class of load. I fired a quantity of the Winchester 225-grain PDX JHP defense load and the Speer 250-grain Gold Dot JHP load. Each was mild to fire and accurate. The bonded bullets should be excellent for personal defense. I also fired a quantity of Hornady Critical Defense. This 185-grain bullet struck below the point of aim but gave good feed reliability. It would have been easy to adjust the sights if I wished to deploy this loading.
I also fired a small quantity of CorBon 225-grain DPX. Recoil with all these loads was practically indistinguishable. Each was mild, with no more recoil than a .410 bore shotgun. Only the CorBon load was noticeably hotter. But you are getting serious horsepower.
The .45 Colt was designed for black powder way back in 1873. As such, it is sometimes smoky and not as efficient as more modern calibers when loaded with smokeless powder. However, a good quantity of the Black Hills Cowboy Action load gave both good accuracy and a full powder burn.
A tight chamber and 16-inch barrel increase ballistic efficiency. As an example, the Black Hills Cowboy loading breaks about 800 fps from a 4¾- inch barrel revolver but over 1,000 fps from the Rossi carbine. While the bullet doesn’t expand, the .45 Colt enjoys an excellent reputation as a man-stopper.
As for the gain in velocity over a handgun, the average is a 100 fps gain with standard loads, while heavier loads may gain 140 to 160 fps. This is a useful increase in power over the revolver, but the real advantage is in accuracy. It is much easier to get a solid hit quickly with a carbine than with the handgun.
FEATURES AND OPTIONS
The action of the Rossi is easily the smoothest lever-action I have used, including original Winchester carbines. Pistol-caliber carbines have plenty of leverage. The action is both smooth and reliable. The wood-to-metal fit is good, if not flawless. A point of contention is the “L”-shaped safety found on the bolt. I simply ignore it.
Another source of discussion is the large loop lever. It’s a great addition for use with gloved hands but otherwise isn’t more efficient than the standard loop and in fact may be slower to use than a standard loop. Still, it is the same large loop that John Wayne, Chuck Connors, and Steve McQueen made famous on movie and TV screens, and some like the looks.
It is fast enough but, in the final analysis, serves no useful purpose and makes the light and flat carbine more difficult to store. I would not have sought out a big ring carbine. It was simply what was on the shelf, and I did not feel strongly enough about the large ring to let it interfere with my decision to purchase the rifle.
The same goes for caliber. Much could be said for the .44 Magnum version, but the .45 Colt is a proven defensive loading. At moderate range, it takes deer-sized game cleanly. I had the ammo. As for the leather thong on the saddle ring—ditch it. It sometimes interferes with handling.
Another option with the Rossi 92 is the availability of shot loads. I used a handful of Speer/CCI shot loads in the carbine with good results. I did not cycle the rounds in the action more than one at a time. I would load a single shot cartridge in the magazine, feed it into the chamber, then load another. I could feel the cartridge crunch a little as it chambered.
I have the impression that the shot capsule might crack and crumble in the magazine from the force of a metal cartridge head under spring pressure butting into the plastic shot carrier. You would have a mess! The shot pattern is useful to five yards or so in dealing with vermin and reptiles. I like the option in a go-anywhere carbine.
TAKEN AS A WHOLE …
The Rossi is a capable carbine for many situations. It isn’t a precision rifle, but it is accurate enough. It is inexpensive, fires a proven cartridge, and has a good reserve of ammunition. If saddle rings and the big lever appeal to you, the Rossi has much to recommend it.
When you look past the television depiction of The Rifleman, you realize that Lucas McCain was pretty smart to deploy a rifle, and it gave him an advantage.