With Cowboy Action Shooting the fastest growing segment of the shooting sports, Gun Tests continues its in-depth look at the hardware fueling this impressive growth. The lever-action rifle is the primary long gun used by Cowboy Action competitors.
The criteria for a Cowboy Action Shooting rifle is straightforward. It must be a lever action with a tubular magazine and an exposed hammer. It must have open sights and a barrel over 16 inches in length (the minimum BATF requirement). It must fire a centerfire “pistol” cartridge larger than .25 caliber. The bullets it fires must be made entirely of lead and have a muzzle velocity of less than 1,400 feet per second.
In the January 1998 issue, we evaluated three .45 LC cowboy rifles (see the Performance Comparison on page 26). For this article, we decided to try models chambered for the .357 Magnum cartridge. Rossi’s cowboy rifle wasn’t available in that caliber, so we tested the Marlin 1894 Cowboy II and the Winchester Model 94 Trails End.
The Test Rifles
The Marlin 1894 Cowboy II lever-action rifle was the first factory-made long gun specifically designed for Cowboy Action Shooting. The Old West styling of this Marlin provides the nostalgic look and feel wanted by cowboy buffs, while its modern action ensures it functions safely. This model features a tapered 24-inch octagon barrel, a 10-round tubular magazine, side ejection and a closed-top receiver.
The Winchester Model 94 Trails End is a slightly modified version of the company’s standard lever-action rifle that is intended to appeal to the Cowboy Action Shooting crowd. It has a round 20-inch barrel, an 11-round tubular magazine, angle ejection and an open-top receiver. It comes with either a large loop or a standard-size lever.[PDFCAP(2)].
The Marlin 1894 Cowboy II we purchased had a hefty retail price of $691. The blued finish on the steel barrel and receiver was even with a slightly dull appearance and no noticeable flaws. The top and bottom of the receiver was bead blasted to provide a neat matte finish. Other metal parts were nicely polished and finished to match the receiver. The two-piece stock was made of American black walnut with an even satin matte finish and neatly cut checkering. The black plastic buttplate was perfectly fitted and installed, although one of the screws holding it in place had worked itself loose during shipping. We found the screw in the shipping box and reinstalled it. Both pieces of the stock were tightly fitted to the receiver and barrel.
Our Winchester Model 94 Trails End, which retailed for $420, looked somewhat plain next to the Marlin Cowboy II. The even blued finish of the Model 94 was marred by polishing marks, which were noticeable on the steel receiver and barrel. The two-piece American walnut stock was not fitted very well. Excess wood was noted at all wood-to-metal meeting points. The black plastic buttplate was poorly fitted, with 1/32 inch of wood protruding around the edge. Several areas of the wood had visible sanding marks left over from the wood finishing process.
Fit and Finish
In our opinion, the workmanship of the Marlin 1894 Cowboy II was above average. All moving parts were fitted with a minimum amount of clearance, which resulted in a tight and positive functioning action that had a solid feel.
We rated the Winchester Trail End’s fit and finish as below average. Tool marks were found on the interior of the receiver. Moving parts had, in our opinion, an excessive amount of play. As a result, the action did not function smoothly. The large-loop lever did not seem to fit the receiver well. It protruded down from the bottom of the receiver an excessive distance and gave the appearance of hanging loose. The lanyard ring on the left side of the receiver shot loose and fell off during test firing. We installed some Locktite on the threads to keep it in place.
The Marlin Cowboy II’s crossbolt safety, spurred hammer, trigger and action lever could all be operated by the shooting hand without any undue effort. Left-handed shooters did experience some minor problems with the safety. It required the southpaw to release his/her grip and rotate the shooting hand’s thumb around the hammer to push the safety to the left for firing. The crossbolt would only move when the hammer was in the half-cock or full-cock position. Except for some stiffness in the crossbolt safety, all of the controls worked smoothly.
The Winchester Trails End’s hammer was easy to cock with the shooting hand’s thumb. The operation of the crossbolt safety, located at the rear of the receiver just under the hammer, was more suited to the right-handed shooter. Lefties needed to use their shooting hand’s thumb to reach up and push the safety from the right to the left before firing. Unlike the Marlin, this rifle’s safety could be operated with the hammer in any position.
Weighing 7-1/2 pounds and measuring 41-1/8 inches long, the Marlin Cowboy II was noticeably muzzle heavy. This provided very good muzzle stability, but resulted in slower pointing and target acquisition. However, the 24-inch heavy octagon barrel was impressive at taming the .357 Magnum cartridge. When shouldered, the buttplate fit well. The wide comb of the stock presented a very good stock weld for our shooters. The 9-1/4-inch-long forend combined with the straight grip to provide a secure grasp that afforded excellent control of the kick and muzzle flip generated during firing. Felt recoil was much milder than with the Winchester rifle tested.
The Winchester Trails End was noticeably smaller and lighter than the Marlin. At 6-1/2 pounds and 38 inches long, it was a full pound lighter and 3-1/8 inches shorter than its competitor. It was very evenly balanced and pointed fast. The rifle shouldered quickly with an excellent cheek-to-stock fit. The 9-inch-long forend provided an adequate grasp. It and the straight grip could be held securely and comfortably.
The ungrooved 1/4-inch-wide trigger on the Marlin Cowboy II had a firm, crisp 5-1/2-pound release, after some minor takeup. A small amount of overtravel was noticed by our shooters. Given the high price of this rifle, we felt the Marlin’s trigger pull should have been at least a pound lighter. This probably would have improved accuracy and not compromised safety.
Movement of our Winchester Trails End’s trigger was rated as poor to awful by our testers. Its pull had a lot of creep, a very heavy 7-pound release and ended with a moderate amount of overtravel. The trigger’s ungrooved 1/4-inch-wide face had noticeably sharp edges that became uncomfortable to the shooter’s trigger finger after a short time on the range.
Our shooters felt the Marlin Cowboy II’s open sights provided an excellent sight picture. The front sight was a dovetailed blade with a bead-shaped top and a brass-colored face. The rear sight had a semi-buckhorn blade with a white diamond under its U-shaped notch. The rear sight could be manually adjusted for elevation and drifted for windage corrections. Although, not a precision sight adjustment system, it worked adequately.
For sighting, the Winchester Trails End had a dovetailed 1/16-inch-wide front blade with a blued face. The rear sight had a semi-buckhorn blade with a white triangle under its U-shaped notch. The rear was step-adjustable for elevation and driftable for windage. We felt this sight setup provided an adequate, clean sight picture.
The tops of the receivers on both rifles were drilled and tapped for installing a scope mount. An offset hammer spur, for use with a scope, was included with each rifle.
At The Range
Both the Marlin and Winchester functioned reliably with the three brands of commercial ammunition we used in this test.
The action lever of the Marlin Cowboy II was smoother and had a much shorter stroke than the Winchester Trails End. The Marlin’s lever could be completely cycled with the rifle mounted on the shooter’s shoulder and the sights still on target. However, the Winchester’s large-loop lever was stiff and required our shooters to dismount the rifle to completely cycle the action.
Loading both the Marlin and Winchester rifles presented problems. Inserting rounds into the tubular magazine of each rifle through the loading port in the right side of the receiver was not easy. On the Marlin, the size of the port did not accommodate large fingers. On the Winchester, even small fingers did not work well. Inserting a cartridge into the Winchester required the round to be partially inserted by pushing it with the thumb, then using the tip of the little finger to finish pushing it into the magazine. On both rifles, if the rims of the .357 Magnum cartridges weren’t inserted past the loading port’s spring-loaded cover, the rounds would be pushed back out. The small size of the loading port and the cover’s strong spring resistance made loading a challenge. We rated the Marlin more user-friendly than the Winchester. All of our shooters had sore thumbs after test firing these rifles.
The Marlin’s accuracy was acceptable for Cowboy Action Shooting. It produced the best five-shot average groups of the test, 2.89 inches at 50 yards, with Federal 158-grain jacketed hollow points. The Remington and Black Hills ammunition provided 3.70- and 3.75-inch groups, respectively.
In our opinion, the Winchester’s accuracy was adequate. Its smallest five-shot average groups, 3.45 inches at 50 yards, were produced using Federal 158-grain jacketed hollow points. With the Remington and Black Hills ammunition, the rifle managed average groups of 3.63 and 4.13 inches, respectively. Out of the box, the rifle shot 6 to 10 inches left of the point of aim at 50 yards. This required the use of Kentucky windage to bring the groups onto the center of the target.
The Marlin produced slightly higher average muzzle velocities and muzzle energies than the Winchester. For more information, see the Performance Table [PDFCAP(3)].