October 2002

Want To Win At Cowboy Action? Try A .357/.38 Lever Rifle

We found that these cartridges produce less recoil and faster hits in Marlin’s 1894CB and EMF’s 1892. We would buy either one.

Cowboy Action shooters who win generally do so by making their job as easy as possible. A common course of fire for the rifle calls for knocking down ten steel plates as fast as you can. Misses are heavily penalized. The heaviest, lightest-recoiling rifle will generally do the job faster than a light rifle that kicks. In a nutshell, if you use a lever rifle chambered for a .38 Special or .357 Magnum, it’ll knock down the plates as easily as one chambered in .45 Colt or .44/40, and will recoil so much less that you won’t believe how fast you can make those hits. The .38/.357 offers a tremendous advantage to the serious competitor, never mind that John Wayne nor Tom Mix nor the Texas Rangers ever carried a lever rifle chambered for .38/.357. You’re giving up authenticity for speed. However, if you’re not shooting black powder in all your guns, we suspect this won’t make much difference to you.

One of our shooters has used a copy of a Winchester 1873 carbine chambered for .44/40 in a few cowboy matches. He said he was amazed how fast he could work the lever and make good hits with these .38/.357 rifles. Using Black Hills’ .38 Special cowboy loads, he put five shots into a three-inch group at 15 yards offhand, just about as fast as he could work the lever. That, he said, was both more accurate and a lot faster than he could do with his light .44/40.

To see if this cartridge advantage translated into gun performance, we acquired a Marlin Model 1894CB and an EMF Hartford 1892, both rifles chambered for either .357 Mag or .38 Special, and compared them for accuracy and general handling speed. We considered that the owner of such a rifle might want to use it for small game hunting, and so we tried them both with a couple of stout .357 loads that were much too hot for cowboy shooters, just to see how well they’d work. Here’s what we found.

Marlin Model 1894CB, about $600
A most attractive rifle, with better-than-average walnut and excellent polish and bluing, Marlin’s 1894 CB was clearly better balanced than the EMF, we thought. It felt very lively, which couldn’t help but make it fast in any game in which it is used.

Click here to view the Marlin Model 1894CB features guide


The 24-inch octagonal barrel had its flats adequately defined, with no rounding of the edge between flats. The forend and butt stock were well fitted, with no looseness. The wood finish looked great, brought out the wood grain, filled the pores very well — though not perfectly — and offered reasonable protection for the wood. The butt pad was black plastic, again well fitted. The checkering and logo on its surface was not as rough as we’d have liked, to keep the gun in place on the shoulder during rapid fire.

Sights were a large gold bead front, easily seen, dovetailed into the barrel. The rear was a buckhorn with enormous ears. Though the rear sight had a large white diamond-shaped mark defining its center, the U-notch for the front bead gave very few clues where to place that big bead. This led to vertical stringing of shots during the shooting evaluation. The rear sights of both rifles could have been farther out on the barrel so that older eyes, such as those found on many if not most cowboy action shooters, could more easily define the sight picture. The rear sight was drift adjustable for windage, and had a stepped wedge for elevation. There was enough adjustment for all the ammunition types we tried. Anyone attempting to use this rifle for small-game hunting would want a scope (the 1894CB is drilled and tapped on top), or perhaps an aperture sight (the tang is not drilled for one), but it was good to see that the Marlin 1894CB could accommodate a great variety of bullet weights and load intensities just as it came from the factory.

The sides of the action were flat, with very little waviness. The bolt fit the action precisely, and the action of the bolt as driven by the lever was very smooth to begin with, and got noticeably smoother with use. The lever throw was short enough and easy enough that reloading was almost an afterthought to firing.

The tubular magazine held ten rounds of .357 and eleven of .38 Special. Loading ten rounds was not all that easy, but at least the edges of the Marlin’s loading port were smoothed to avoid cutting the loading fingers. This was in glaring contrast to the loading port of the EMF, which had razor edges. The loading problem was not really a fault of the rifle, but of the cartridge. It was tricky getting the relatively large rim of the .38 or .357 cartridge past the edge of the loading port against the force of the magazine spring. This wasn’t much of a problem for the first few rounds, but became serious as the magazine filled.

Once they were in the magazine, the rounds fed flawlessly from mag to chamber, whether .38s or .357s. In fact, both rifles accomplished this seemingly difficult task very well indeed. There were no problems with feed or function whatsoever with this rifle. We note that Marlin installed a cross-bolt hammer block on this rifle. You can use it or ignore it at will. The hammer was well serrated for easy control. The trigger pull was very good, had a touch of creep, and broke at 4.5 pounds.

On the range we found the rifle to have more-than-adequate accuracy for any sort of cowboy shooting. Our best efforts gave groups around 1.5 inches at 50 yards. Most cowboy action takes place around 15 yards, so if you miss the target, it’s not the fault of this rifle. We did find differences in accuracy potential and impact point with different types of ammo, so be sure to zero carefully with your chosen load. The Ballard-type rifling of this Marlin guarantees good results with a great variety of bullet types, cast or jacketed. Cowboy shooters have to use lead bullets, and the Marlin handled them very well, with negligible leading. We were able to lead the barrel slightly with one experimental handload that put cast bullets down the barrel at over 1,400 fps, but the lead came out with one pass of a dry bristle brush.

Click here to view "Accuracy and Chronograph Data."

We were told the top national SASS (Single Action Shooting Society, Inc.) shooters use .38 Specials, and now we understand why. Marlin’s 1894CB rifle had a solid feel that spoke volumes of long, trouble-free life. All of our shooters declared that the more they shot it, the more they liked it. It would grace any gun rack, being both traditional looking and traditionally made. Those who need more uses to justify its ownership can install a scope and take the rifle small-game hunting, with every expectation of great success.

EMF Hartford Model 1892 Rifle, about $450
The EMF Hartford 1892 was made by Rossi in Brazil. It featured genuine case coloring and oiled walnut combined with a long octagonal barrel. The EMF seemed to be an attempt to make the gun look like it was made a century ago, short of distressing. It looked like a well preserved old Winchester, which it was not. The Marlin was made, in all likelihood, just like they were close to a century ago. In other words, the Marlin was probably more authentic, but looked new. Your pick.

Click here to view the EMF Hartford Model 1892 Rifle features guide


The EMF’s case coloring was the real thing, as determined by our attempt to scratch the steel in a hidden spot. It was extremely hard on the surface. The appearance was very attractive, and will probably age to make the rifle look even better. Sunlight fades case colors, something to be aware of if you want to preserve the nice finish. Although the EMF’s metal polishing and bluing were at least as good as on the Marlin, there was one overlooked flaw, and that was on the front edge of the loading port. It cut our fingers badly. The other edges of the port were square but not razor-sharp, and were okay, but we’d have preferred a rounded edge all around, especially when struggling to get the tenth cartridge into the rifle. This one also held ten .357s or eleven .38 Specials.

The butt plate was a crescent, well fitted to the wood except at the toe, where the steel was slightly outside the wood. The shape of the EMF’s butt held it onto the shoulder in rapid fire much better than the Marlin’s checkered butt plate. The decent walnut was stained dark, almost black, and oil finished. The inletting and overall fitting of wood to metal, and metal to metal, was excellent. This rifle looked like it was very much ready for action.

The EMF 1892 was, of course, a copy of the Winchester 1892. It locked the same way and also had the Winchester’s top ejection. The 24.25-inch barrel was very heavy, and gave the rifle a muzzle-heavy balance that we at first didn’t much like. After we tried the gun rapid fire, we realized the value of that extra muzzle weight.

The lever had a slight amount of side-to-side wobble, but worked very smoothly. As with the Marlin, it took little effort to work the lever between shots. Like the Marlin, the action got smoother with use, and ended up with about the same degree of smoothness as the Marlin. We suspect that over time, the EMF will get still smoother as its case-hardened surfaces slowly wear in. The trigger and hammer were also case hardened, and all of these parts rub and move over each other as the lever is worked. We noticed almost no visible signs of wear on the upper surface of the hammer after all our test firing. The Marlin showed a little more evidence of having been fired, but it too had very hard steel throughout, that strongly resisted wear. Both rifles ended up more than smooth enough to suit almost any finicky rapid-fire fan.

The EMF’s hammer had sharp serrations for good control. There was no safety on this rifle except for a half-cock notch. The trigger pull was extremely clean and broke just under 5 pounds.

We eagerly tried it on the shooting bench and found it had more than adequate accuracy for its intended purpose, which of course was cowboy action shooting. There were no provisions for scope mounting. The sights were similar to those of the Marlin, but gave a better sight picture. The front was a clearly seen gold bead, which appeared as a round-topped post in back lighting. The rear elevation-adjustable buckhorn was simpler than the Marlin design, with a deeper notch and less ambiguity where to place the front bead. As a result, our groups were noticeably rounder than those we got from the Marlin, which were vertically strung more often than not. Our best groups with the EMF were under two inches.

The EMF had a significant price advantage, but was not at all suited for small-game hunting with a scope, in our view. Either rifle was very well suited to the cowboy game, which seldom seems to require razor-edged accuracy, but rather fast hits on a multitude of targets. Both rifles could deliver that kind of accuracy in spades. The EMF’s upward ejection was flawless, but empties can land on your hat if you don’t work the lever briskly. We have noticed that isn’t a problem in competition, when adrenaline seems to cause empties to fly briskly out of lever guns like they were coming out of a roller-locked HK91. Read that as fast and furious operation.

Gun Tests Recommends
Marlin Model 1894CB, about $600. Our Pick. We believe Marlin has a real winner in the 1894CB. It was a delight in the hands because of its beautiful balance. It was easy to control it in swinging fast on multiple targets, and it didn’t recoil enough to bother about. That’s something the serious cowboy competitor will come to love.

EMF Hartford Model 1892 Rifle, about $450. Buy It. We think the EMF will age to a magnificent look, as its case-colored frame fades with time and use. We guess this will endear the rifle to cowboy action shooters, and will tend to make the rifle a very special part of their competitive lives. We believe the cowboy action shooter would be very well served with the EMF. Overall, this was a sound, attractive, well-made and well finished rifle.


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Click here to view "Custom Lever Guns On A Budget."