January 2000

Powerhouse Lever Rifles: We Like The Guide Gun

Marlin’s affordable .45-70 is a Best Buy, offering many of the features of the slick, takedown Wild West Co-Pilot for much less money. Also, its compact size gives up nothing to an 1895 gun.

Handy rifles seem to find their ways into the hearts of outdoorsmen all over the world, whether they’re in Alaska or Africa or deep in the heart of Texas. Handy can mean many things, but most of all it implies ease of carrying, combined with adequate power for whatever use to which it might be put. We’ll wager the average reader seldom thinks of a lever-action rifle, except the .30-30, when handy rifles are mentioned. Most riflemen of our acquaintance think in terms of short-barreled bolt rifles of “handy” calibers, like a Ruger Model 77 carbine in .308, or a custom 7x57, or perhaps the little Mannlicher-Schoenauer carbine in 6.5x54.

We certainly never thought about a .45-70—in any configuration—as being a “handy” rifle…until we got our hands on one. Then we changed our minds and immediately thought of dozens of outdoor situations where a short lever-action .45-70 made the most sense of all. We can see such a rifle in the African bush for hunting or for protection from just about anything, with suitable modern loads. We can see it in the Idaho mountains for elk or even deer. We can see it in the desert for a fun gun, too. However, this concept really began in Alaska a few years ago, and it filled a real need.

If you live in Alaska and either own an airplane or make frequent use of one, as all Alaskan outdoorsmen do, you’ll immediately see that a short lever rifle in a powerful caliber makes lots of sense. All Alaskan bush pilots are required to carry some sort of firearm in their aircraft at all times. If you’ve ever sat in a Super Cub, you know that space is at a premium. That’s why most pilots carry handguns. However, good handgun shots are much less common than good rifle shots. The rifle requires far less skill to hit a survival-type target, and most bush pilots would be better served with a rifle.

Alaskan gunsmith Jim West, owner of Wild West Guns of Anchorage, Alaska, decided to address this problem. West designed a firearm for Alaskan bush pilots and for any adventurers who ramble far and wide in the wild places. West knew these men and women wanted a firearm that packed a big punch and took up the least space. West designed and built a takedown .45-70 on the Marlin 1895 rifle. Called the Co-Pilot, West’s design featured a 16.5-inch barrel that could be removed from the front of the receiver, making the lever gun into a compact, yet powerful, package that took up little more room than a long-barreled handgun. This concept was so successful that Col. Jeff Cooper declared the Co-Pilot to be one of the three grandest concepts in the history of firearms, high praise indeed from the Guru.

After seeing the success and acceptance of West’s design, the Marlin Co. brought out a similar design, called the Guide Gun. It has an 18.5-inch barrel and isn’t a takedown. However, it costs much less than the all-custom Co-Pilot, and has been widely accepted.

We thought it would be fun to compare the Wild West Guns Co-Pilot, $2,800, with the $562 Marlin Guide Gun, and throw in a standard-length 1895 Marlin, $566, to compare the velocity and ease of carrying between the short, ported barrels and the full-length version. Here’s what we found:

The Ammunition
We fired all three rifles with low-intensity 405-grain Remington jacketed soft-nose ammunition, and with three new and very hot offerings from Buffalo Bore Ammunition (BB). These were essentially .45-70 Magnum loads, with bullets of 350, 405, and 430 grains. The 430-grain BB load used a cast lead bullet, but the others were jacketed. The BB load was assembled in specially head-stamped brass to help avoid its use in unsuitable older rifles. It read: “Lever Gun 45-70 Mag.”

Click here to view the Accuracy and Chronograph Data chart

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The velocity achieved with the BB 405-grain ammunition was nearly 750 fps faster than the normal Remington ammunition of the same bullet weight. That’s a 66-percent velocity increase. The Remington load is designed to be fired in just about any .45-70 out there, but Buffalo Bore says to use its “magnum” 45-70 loads only in late-model 1895 Marlins, Ruger No. 1s, and a few other totally modern rifles. It sure gives the old cartridge new performance.

Both the Co-Pilot and the full-length 1895 had Micro-Groove rifling. Neither rifle could use the cast-bullet 430-grain offering by Buffalo Bore. Our first shot out of the Co-Pilot missed the target at 100 yards. Moving up to 25 yards, we again missed the paper, and at 12 yards the bullet hit sideways. Trying the same ammunition in the full-length 1895 resulted in a hit at 100 yards, but the bullet was fully sideways. We had better luck with the Guide Gun, which had conventional rifling. We achieved 2.5-inch average groups at 100 yards. All the rifles did better with jacketed bullets, but at least current Marlin practice with the company’s 45-70s—all of which have conventional rifling—will allow the handloader a chance for success with cast bullets.

Wild West Guns Co-Pilot
Our recommendation: This lever-action .45-70 costs $2,800 as tested. Is it worth it? If you need all the fine fitting and special features of a custom-built rifle, and it has to be a takedown, then yes, the Co-Pilot makes sense. But frankly, we think most shooters will opt for the Marlin Guide Gun and spend a little extra money on a trigger job, action tuning, and better sights. The price difference will go a long way toward custom refinements to the Guide Gun.

Click here to view the Wild West Guns Co-Pilot features guide

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Wild West Guns’ full-bells-and-whistles Co-Pilot offers many nice features, the biggest being its takedown feature. Some other important features are the bullet-proof stock, a rust-free finish, and a superb trigger pull. If you need the takedown feature you’ve got to go with the Co-Pilot, but you don’t necessarily have to spend $2,800. The cheapest way to get that feature is to have Wild West Guns turn your rifle into a matte-blued takedown, with many of the custom features of our test rifle, for $975. Include the cost of a rifle and the package costs $1,395. The Kevlar stock alone, $575, will set you back about the total cost of a Guide Gun. The Scout scope, including QD rings and WWG base, costs $480, and if this were to be our only serious survival rifle, we’d have this option on it. For fun or casual use we’d go with an aperture sight and no scope. The matte hard-chrome finish is $225. The big-loop lever costs $125. With all the above, the Co-Pilot as tested costs $2,800.

This custom rifle came in a box that totally threw us. The box was so small and light we thought someone had sent us a Contender. When we opened the box and took out the little (21 inch long by 9 inch wide by 2 inch deep) carrying case, not much bigger than a pool-cue bag, we still didn’t know what we had. When we unzipped it and saw the short barrel with its 2.5x Leupold IER (scout-type) scope fitted, and realized this was the Co-Pilot, we grinned from ear to ear. Putting the little Co-Pilot together and handling it gave us quite a rush. A week later we still grinned every time we picked it up.

Weighing in at 6.7 pounds without scope, or 7.3 pounds with QD scope attached, the Co-Pilot was finished in matte-finished hard chrome. This, says, Wild West, keeps the well-fitted parts from wearing into the sloppy-handled configuration so common to well-used lever guns. The finish, fit, tightness, and the joint between action and barrel were still extremely tight. Wild West told us this rifle had never been worked on since it was built. The hard-chrome finish apparently added significantly to this rifle’s durability. We thought the tough, attractive, non-glare finish would be right at home in the torrential rains of Africa or on the humid salt-air beaches of Kodiak Island.

Assembly was straightforward. The 16.5-inch ported barrel screwed easily into the front of the action. The barrel had a steel plate that mated to a similar plate affixed to the action. It required a hard bump with our hand to make the magazine tube align with its hole in the action. Sliding the magazine tube rearward locked the barrel in place, and a thumbscrew at the front of the magazine tube secured everything together. Fully assembled, the rifle was just as tight as a non-takedown gun. There was little to indicate the takedown feature except a line where the two mating surfaces met, and the thumbscrew up front.

The stock was gray-painted (Glacier Kote; optional black) and specked Kevlar, and it fit the metal like it grew there. There were forend and buttstock QD studs for a sling. The buttpad was a black Pachmayr Decelerator. The semi-pistol-grip stock was slightly pebble-grained for traction, and there was no checkering. The rough surface of the painted Kevlar gave us a good grasp on the rifle. With gloves on, it stuck like glue. In fact, with gloves on, the Kevlar was stickier than the checkered wood on the Guide Gun. The semi-pistol grip aided pulling the rifle tightly into the shoulder.

The left side of the Co-Pilot’s action had an impressed map of Alaska with the letters “WW” inside it. There too was: “Wild West Guns” surmounting a leafy logo and the word “Anchorage.” Finally, “CO-PILOT” in bold italics identified the rifle distinctly.

All the parts of the rifle fit tightly, although there was a slight amount of side-to-side motion of the lever and trigger. (The lever of the Guide Gun also had this slight movement.) The lever itself was a hand-made large loop that was the only thing on the rifle we didn’t immediately care for. We tried this with gloves and concede that, although it’s not necessary, the large-lever ring was easier to operate with gloves than the standard ring. With mittens on, which are commonly worn in Alaska, the big ring would be almost mandatory.

The forward-mounted Leupold M8 2.5X IER “Scout” scope took our hearts immediately. First, the balance of this little rifle was such that we could wrap our hand around the action behind the scope for easy carrying. By comparison, our Marlin 1895 with a normally mounted scope was a real pain to grasp and carry. The scoped Co-Pilot hung naturally with the muzzle pointing slightly down. The scope had the so-called German #1 reticle, which consisted of three heavy posts, a sharp-topped one coming in from the bottom and a flat-ended one from each side. The top of the center post was the aim point. This reticle was easy to use, even in very dim light. Also, the forward location kept the scope out of our eye no matter how hard the recoil.

The scope was quickly detachable via Kimber rings. The Weaver-type base was a dedicated one custom made by Wild West specifically for this application. It, like all the metal parts on the rifle, was finished in matte hard chrome. The Co-Pilot also had useful iron sights. The front sight was a fiber-optic orange light-gathering rod that was protected by an open-topped hood, which let in ambient light to illuminate the bead. Even against a black background in poor light, our test shooters could easily see the glowing bead. The rear sight, standard Marlin fare, was an adjustable folding U-notch semi-buckhorn, dovetailed into the barrel. We’d have preferred a clean-bottomed wide-angle V. It was adjustable for windage by drifting, and by a stepped wedge for elevation.

Wild West gave the rifle a superb trigger job, and also made sure ejection and feeding were slick. We appreciated the lack of burrs around the loading port. The trigger broke at 2.75 pounds with zero creep and minimal overtravel.

The Co-Pilot’s 16.5-inch barrel was drilled with three holes on each side of the front sight ramp, forming a very effective and by no means obnoxiously loud brake. It worked so well that felt recoil was less with the Co-Pilot than with the heavier, full-length 1895, but the buttpad also made a difference.

The Co-Pilot did best with the Buffalo Bore 350-grain ammunition. This came out of the Co-Pilot at 1,959 fps and averaged 0.9 inches at 100 yards. The low-speed Remington ammo averaged only 2.9 inches. The 405-grain BB load also badly beat the Remington fodder for accuracy, giving 1.3-inch average groups.

Marlin Guide Gun
Our recommendation: Although it doesn’t come apart, nor does it have all the worthwhile goodies that you may need, it costs $2,238 less than the Co-Pilot, and that’ll buy you a lot of trigger jobs and special sights. Buy it.

Click here to view the Marlin Guide Gun features guide

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The $562 Marlin Guide Gun came with an 18.5-inch barrel. Twelve small holes drilled into the top and sides of the muzzle formed an effective brake. Like the Co-Pilot and standard 1895, it held four rounds in its tubular magazine. Attractively cut-checkered, well-inletted walnut graced our blued-steel test rifle, and we thought it was a mighty fine alternative to the high-dollar Co-Pilot.

The Guide Gun weighed 6.9 pounds without scope. With a conventional scope it went to 7.7 pounds. The trigger pull was heavy though crisp at 5 pounds, with minimal overtravel. The heavy trigger pull hindered fast and accurate shooting, and was the one outstanding fault of this rifle.

The straight-hand stock was fitted with a hard black trestle-style rubber pad with no white-line spacer. We’d replace it with a Pachmayr Decelerator, following our experience with the Co-Pilot. The wood was well inletted, and fit tightly to the steel. We found a tiny splinter of wood missing from the buttstock where it met the right rear of the action. We rated overall fit, finish, and inletting as excellent. The Guide Gun had QD studs on buttstock and forend, just like the Co-Pilot. In front of the rear QD stud there was a white plastic inlay with a black center. We’ve seen this on other Marlins but have no idea why it’s there. It does nothing for the rifle’s appearance, in our estimation.

The Guide Gun had the same rear sight as the Co-Pilot, but the front sight was a white-faced bead covered by a hood. This was next to useless in low light, we thought, especially when compared with the outstanding setup of the Co-Pilot.

All the metal parts had excellent bluing on top of fine polishing. The top and bottom surfaces of the action were matte finished, while the sides of the action and the barrel were semi-gloss. There was not much difference in the function of the lever between all three of the test rifles, the Co-Pilot having a slightly slicker movement than the other two, but this difference could easily be overlooked. We would like to see Marlin offer a protective finish on this rifle, such as hard chrome or Robar’s NP3.

Both the Guide Gun and the Co-Pilot had a safety button running transversely through the action just in front of the hammer. Everyone who handled these two rifles said that this was an unnecessary device, the half-cock safety being adequate. Further, no one but a novice would have the chamber loaded while carrying the rifle, and in an emergency the safety could prevent a desired shot. The safety was pressed to the right to put it on, and pressed to the left to disengage it. The hammer had to be in the half-cock position before the safety could be engaged.

The Guide gun was drilled and tapped for scope bases on top of the action. As noted above, the Marlin Guide Gun does not have Micro-Groove rifling. Instead, it was cut with conventional six-groove rifling that Marlin calls Ballard rifling. With Buffalo Bore’s 430-grain cast loads, which neither of the other rifles would handle, we were able to get 2.5-inch average groups at 100 yards.

We could feel little recoil difference between the Co-Pilot and the Guide Gun with the standard ammunition, but with the hot Buffalo Bore fodder the harder buttpad of the Guide Gun was less friendly than the Co-Pilot’s Decelerator.

We got 1.7-inch average groups with the conventional low-intensity jacketed soft-nose Remington ammunition in the Guide Gun. With the BB loads, we got the smallest group of this test report, three into half an inch, and average groups of 0.8 inch.

Marlin 1895
Our recommendation: We tested the $566 full-length Marlin with 22-inch barrel as a counterpoint to the two shorties. Our first impression of the scoped full-length Marlin? Why does it have to be so big? After the baton-twirling feel of the two short-barreled rifles, we thought the full-size one was almost dreadful.

Click here to view the Marlin 1895 features guide

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With its scope, the full-length 1895 weighed 7.8 pounds, only 0.1 pound more than the Guide Gun with the same scope mounted. Without scope, the full-length rifle weighed 7.0 pounds. The trigger pull was 6.5 pounds. The overall polish was just a bit more shiny than that of the Guide Gun. Other than overall feel, we were mostly concerned with the loss of performance that comes with short barrels. Although we found it to be significant, the latest and hottest ammunition gave more than adequate performance out of the shortest test barrel, leaving us to believe that you don’t need a 22-inch barrel.

The traditional scope was not quite as fast as the Scout scope setup, but much faster than the iron sights on the Guide Gun. We suspected, before any shooting, that this full-size, un-ported, and slightly heavier gun would be much faster than either of the shorties for follow-up shots. We were wrong. Recoil was so drastically reduced by the brakes on the two short barrels that it was much faster to cycle the lever on them than on the full-length rifle.

This full-length Marlin 1895 had a walnut stock that was as well fitted as the stocks of the other two rifles. It lacked the cross-bolt safety. We would have liked a hammer extension, because the conventional scope prevented easy thumb cocking. The action was essentially as smooth and tight as the other two rifles. Feed and function were also equal—flawless for all three—and though we fired very few groups with this rifle, it had accuracy equal to the Co-Pilot, getting its best three-shot group of 0.7 inch with the 405-grain Buffalo Bore ammo. The big differences were in handling and velocity.

With the normal Remington 405-grain ammunition, the velocity out of the 22-inch barrel was 1,245 fps. With the Guide Gun it was 1,184 fps and with the Co-Pilot it dropped to 1,109 fps. That’s a reduction of 11 percent of the performance between the 22-inch and 16.5-inch barrels. The conclusion to which you may be drawn is that short barrels reduce performance a great deal.

But wait! That’s not the real story.

Moving to the ultra-modern 350-grain Buffalo Bore ammo, we got 2,064 fps out of the full-length barrel compared to 2,050 fps for the Guide Gun (only 14 fps less) and 1,959 fps for the Co-Pilot. That’s only 5 percent less performance for a loss of 5.5 inches of barrel.

Finally, we tried the 405-grain BB, and it got 1,910 fps out of the 22-inch Marlin, 1,919 fps out of the Guide Gun (yes, 9 fps faster), and 1,845 fps out of the Co-Pilot. Is that 65 fps (3.5 percent) significant to you? We doubt it. Buffalo Bore’s Tim Sundles told us that he carefully selected the powder to give his loads near-maximum performance out of today’s shorter barrels. The powder identity is his well-won secret, and it works.

Gun Tests Recommends
We think the most important findings of our tests here are the incredible performance available out of modern ammunition, and its ease of use when fired in state-of-the-art rifles such as the Co-Pilot or the Guide Gun. In fact, we see no need for the full-length barrel on the Marlin 1895, because you can get all the .45-70 performance you’ll ever need out of either of these easy-shooting, high-performance, short, light, and handy rifles with modern ammunition. Another major finding was that, no matter the configuration, Marlin makes very accurate .45-70s.

Marlin Guide Gun, $562. A Best Buy. It gave lots of thump in a convenient package. While not as compact or as slick as the Co-Pilot, we thought it was more than adequately handy. You can buy lots of custom features or trigger jobs or special finishes for the money you save over the Co-Pilot. We’d give the Guide Gun a trigger job, soft buttpad, and an aperture rear sight, and get one of those red-glowing front beads installed, and call it good. If you can do without the takedown feature of the Co-Pilot, buy Marlin’s Guide Gun.

Many of you nonetheless will want these features on your Guide Gun, and Wild West Guns knows this. The company offers the non-takedown Alaska Guide rifle, a rework of the Marlin Guide Gun. Including the cost of the rifle, it’ll set you back $859.

Wild West Guns Co-Pilot, $2,800. Conditional Buy. The gun is superb, but the price is astronomical, as even WWG recognizes with its rework of the Guide Gun above.

Marlin 1895, $566. We don’t see what this gun offers that’s better than the company’s Guide Gun, and it has markedly slower handling. We’d pass on it.