Cowboy .44 Magnum/Specials From Winchester and Henry
Henryís brass-framed Big Boy outshone Winchesterís Trailís End nearly everywhere: accuracy, smoothness, and trigger function.
Cowboy action shooters need good rifles. These have to be lever actions that take pistol rounds. The rifles are shot very quickly, so they have to be able to cope with that need, and they require enough accuracy to be able to knock down roughly foot-square steel plates at short to middle distances. A 25-yard shot would be a long one at most events. There are occasional longer-range tests that put a premium on accuracy, but for the most part, competitors need a good, slick, handy lever rifle that works every time, and keeps on working. Common calibers for Single Action Shooting Society (SASS) cowboy events are .44-40, .45 LC, .38 Special, and occasionally .38-40 and 44 Special. Lever rifles chambered for the .44 Special usually also handle the .44 Magnum, which lets them serve as excellent short-range hunting rifles for deer-size game. The .44 Mag provides much more power than any of the other calibers mentioned except the .45 LC with its most modern hot loads. We thought .44 Mag/Special lever rifles might offer a whole lot of options that are sometimes overlooked, so decided to look into them.
We acquired a couple of .44 Magnum/Specials, a Henry Big Boy ($775 MSRP) and a Winchester Trail’s End Octagon ($757 MSRP), and put them through our wringer. Here’s what we found.
Blued steel and walnut are what you get with the thoroughly traditional-looking top-eject Winchester. The walnut was a big cut above plain, but not as fancy as the Henry’s. The distinguishing features here were the crescent-shaped steel butt plate and an octagonal barrel. There was a neat and nearly invisible tang safety instead of the much-cursed crossbolt of older Winchester lever rifles that seemed to do little but mess up the action’s clean look. The new, unobtrusive, tang safety slide was non-automatic, so it could be used or not, depending on the preference of the shooter. Its location would prevent its accidental use from casual bumps in the heat of action during a Cowboy event. And there were more safety features. The hammer was rebounding, though again there was no half-cock position. The hammer could only fly all the way forward to strike the firing pin if the lever were fully closed against a spring-loaded trigger block, and if the trigger were fully pressed. The tang safety also prevented the hammer from going all the way forward. There are several Trail’s End options, and some can save lots of money if you don’t need or want the crescent butt plate and octagonal barrel. Check the company website (www.winchesterguns.com) for details.
The inletting of everything was very good, especially around the crescent butt plate. We didn’t like the forend cap, which appeared to be plastic. We thought it was thoroughly out of place on this rifle. We liked the drilled and tapped holes for optional scope mount, but the top ejection might make the choice of a scope and mounts something of a problem. The sights were very much like the Henry’s but with less of a buckhorn effect and with a smaller front bead. Both units were dovetailed into the barrel, just as on the Henry. The Winchester’s barrel was tapered, measuring 0.700 inch at the muzzle and 0.840 inch at the breech, which gave this rifle excellent balance and made it handier and much lighter than the Henry.
The Winchester’s trigger had problems. There was a hitch just before letoff that we found to be most disconcerting, especially when firing the rifle rapidly. We would have to have that looked at before using this gun in a match, we thought. The hitch made the shooter think the trigger had broken, and then he’d stop pressing and wonder why the rifle hadn’t fired. The hitch occurred at 2 pounds, but final break came at 5 pounds, and was pretty clean. Another thing we didn’t like was that the lever rattled at least a quarter inch from side to side in the closed position. And one time the lever bit one of our testers on the hand severely during rapid fire. By comparison, the Henry’s lever moved less than a sixteenth of an inch side to side, and we could not get it to pinch our hand.
The smallest group the Winchester fired for us was just under 2 inches. Most groups were in the 2.5 to 3-inch range, and these were three-shot groups fired at 50 yards from a machine rest. The twist rate of the Trail’s End was 1 turn in 26 inches, a faster rate than the Henry’s barrel, and one that would seem to favor heavy bullets. Yet we saw no such correlation in our limited testing.
This was an attractive rifle right from the get-go. The polished brass frame was set off by excellent figured walnut and nice bluing on the octagonal barrel. The barrel band and butt plate were also brass. The company name and caliber designations on the barrel were gold filled. Inletting was also excellent, with the fine wood just slightly proud of the metal at action and butt plate. The wood finish was complete, with no open pores and with a glow to the wood that spelled a well-done oil finish. Yet the wood finish was hard enough to thoroughly resist scratches and dents, and we guess it is epoxy.
On opening the rifle for the first time with its blued lever, we were struck by how smooth it all was. The bolt was a round bar similar to that found on Marlins. There was no obvious lever-lockout safety, but the trigger could not be pulled unless the lever was fully home. The hammer was either fully cocked or all the way down, no half-cock. But there was a hidden trigger interlock that would prevent the rifle’s firing unless the trigger were fully depressed.
The sights were traditional, a buckhorn rear with a white diamond, the whole set into a spring-loaded ladder assembly for elevation changes. Windage was by drifting either the rear sight or the front, which was a large brass bead easily seen. We found we had to drift the rear slightly to get centered. More on the sights in a moment.
The tubular magazine held ten .44 Mag rounds or eleven .44 Specials. Loading was a snap. Twist the knurled steel end of the brass loading tube and withdraw it until the loading port is fully exposed. Elevate the muzzle slightly and drop in the required rounds. This should be done with the action closed. Press the tube back into place and give it a twist to lock it. We found this loading system to be far easier than fighting the spring-loaded side plate of the Winchester. Both rifles held the same amount of ammo.
The octagonal barrel measured 0.830 inch across the flats, and gave the rifle enough mass that recoil was simply not a consideration. In fact, the only thing we could fault on this rifle was that it was too heavy for its power, even with the hottest Buffalo Bore loads. On the range we got excellent accuracy. We tested both rifles with three types of .44 Mag loads, Buffalo Bore’s 270-grain JFN, PMC’s 240-grain JHP, and Speer 250-grain Partition Gold. We also tested both with Black Hills’ 210-grain FPL cast Cowboy loads. Both rifles fed and fired them all perfectly. We appreciated the smoothness of the Henry during rapid-fire tests using .44 Spl. loads. Both rifles worked well, but we thought the Henry was a touch faster because it was slicker.
The twist rate of the Henry was 1 turn in 38 inches, per the website info (www.henryrepeating.com) Perhaps that’s why the Henry seemed to like most of our test ammo. We had numerous three-shot groups with all three shots touching at 50 yards, which was a pleasant surprise. This rifle seemed to be full of the good stuff that makes for a very special firearm. Its trigger broke at 4.5 pounds with a touch of creep.
Gun Tests Recommends
• Winchester M94 Trail’s End Octagon, .44 Mag/Spl, $757. Don’t Buy. The trigger needed work, the accuracy was not great, the action was nowhere near as slick as the Henry’s, and on and on. With the Winchester we had a rifle that really didn’t have a lot going for it other than its good looks and fine balance.
We note the Winchester required a firm forward press on the lever to lift the next round, just as lever Winchesters seem always to have needed, though we can’t complain about that. The Winchester’s metal polishing was superior to the Henry’s near the muzzle on each flat of the eight-sided barrel. The Winchester’s steel action might end up outlasting the mirror-polished brass frame of the Henry, but it’d take thousands of rounds to find that out, and we’d be happier shooting the Henry for those thousands of rounds. The Winchester looked way more traditional than the Henry, we thought. That might make it acceptable to you, but we thought there were better ways to spend your money.
• Henry Repeating Arms Big Boy .44 Mag/Spl, $775. Our Pick. We think any Cowboy Action competitor would be pleased to have this rifle. An ideal companion to a brace of .44 Special handguns, this brass-framed rifle will catch many eyes and compliment any Old West clothes the shooter wears. There were no predrilled holes to mount a scope, so if you want to go hunting with this rig you’ll have to either use the iron sights or mess up the polished brass by drilling it. Its side ejection would make a scope right at home, but we’d personally never scope this handsome rifle. A tang-mounted aperture would be the ticket to better field use, we thought. We initially had trouble getting the rifle to print low enough with the light .44 Special loads, but then we noticed the rear sight’s inset blade was itself adjustable, and it could also be reversed to give a V notch instead of the U, which was another pleasant surprise.