We talked with Judge Roy Bean the other day. The one we spoke with had nothing to do with holding court, hanging strangers at a whim or running a frontier saloon named The Jersey Lily. He and seven others shot an IPSC match with black powder revolvers back in 1979, giving birth to the Single Action Shooting Society, over which Judge Bean now presides.
The S.A.S.S. eventually begat Cowboy Action Shooting, and the rest is history in the making. No other shooting sport is growing as fast. It got a foothold in California, moved into Arizona, then Texas, is presently spreading rapidly through Florida, Pennsylvania, Georgia and doubling the number of active participants nationwide every 12-15 months. Kids, moms, dads, grandpas and is grandmas are all getting into it. When they shoot, they wear authentic western or western-style clothes and use an alias appropriate to the 19th Century or based on a Hollywood character from a film depicting the period. No one can use the same alias and the more familiar legendary names from the past – i.e. Judge Roy Bean, Billy The Kid, Doc Holliday – have long been acquired. The lack hasnt kept Saloon Sue, The Dakota Roamer, Painless Potter or Digger Deep off the firing lines.
Gun Tests wanted to take a close look at some of the hardware that Cowboy Action shooters use in their competitions. So, we bought and tested three .45 Long Colt rifles designed for this type of shooting. They were the Marlin Model 1894 Cowboy, the Rossi Model 92 SRC and the Winchester Model 94 Trails End.
All the rifles meet the criteria for Cowboy Action main, team and side matches in that they are lever action, tubular fed and have exposed hammers. Each chambers a centerfire pistol cartridge larger than .25 caliber. Each has open iron sights and a BATF legal barrel over 16 inches in length. The bullets they fire must be composed entirely of lead and leave their muzzles at less than 1,400 feet per second. It is generally believed by Cowboy Action shooters that cut rifling delivers greater accuracy with lead bullets propelled at low velocities. Therefore, the Rossi and Marlin barrels have been button or swaged rifled while the Winchester barrel has been hammerforged around the cutter.
How We Tested
During this head-to-head test, each rifle was fed 200 rounds of ammunition. Accuracy testing was done on an outdoor range at 50 yards using a rifle rest and open sights. We fired five 5-shot groups with each of three kinds of ammunition: Winchester 250-grain cast lead flat nose, Black Hills 250-grain round nose flat point and Remington 225-grain lead semi-wadcutter. Accuracy and velocity results are recorded in the accompanying performance table.
How each compares follows:
Marlin Model 1894 Cowboy
The Marlin Model 1894 Cowboy is a .45 Long Colt lever action rifle that combines Old West styling with a modern action. It features a tapered 24-inch octagon barrel, a 10-round tubular magazine, a closed-top receiver and side ejection. This model has a suggested retail price of $691.
Our 1894 Cowboys fit and finish was very good. Its steel barrel and action had an evenly blued finish with a medium polish. The only noticeable shortcomings were a few sharp edges on the ejection port and the bolt. The front of the magazine was solidly dovetailed to the bottom of the barrel. Most moving parts had a moderate amount of play.
This Marlin had a two-piece stock made of American black walnut with a uniform satin (Mar-Shield) finish. Its checkering was neatly cut. The blued steel forend cap and the black plastic butt plate were expertly installed. Both portions of the stock were carefully mated to the rest of the gun.
At the range, the 1894 Cowboy functioned flawlessly with the ammunition we used. Inserting cartridges into the tubular magazine through the loading port in the right side of the receiver was the easiest of the test. Despite one small hitch during the levers return, action movement was the smoothest. Spent cases were ejected about 1 foot to the right.
We felt this Marlins handling was more than satisfactory for its intended use. It was the heaviest and most muzzle-heavy of the rifles tested. This provided the best muzzle stability, but slowed pointing and target acquisition. Shouldering was more than satisfactory, and the butt plate fit the shooters shoulder well.
The stocks wide comb provided a very good cheek-to-stock fit. Some thought the 9 1/4-inch-long forend was a bit short, but it and the straight grip afforded a secure grasp. The kick and muzzle flip generated during recoil was the mildest of the test.
All of our shooters could readily cock the external hammer with the thumb of their firing hand. However, the crossbolt safetys operation was better for right-handed shooters than southpaws. When pushed from left to right, it prevented firing by blocking the hammer from moving forward far enough to reach the firing pin. The crossbolt couldnt be moved unless the hammer was pulled back slightly. There was a half-cock notch on the hammer.
Considering this Marlins comparatively high price, we felt the movement of its ungrooved 1/4-inch-wide trigger should have been cleaner and lighter. After a minor amount of creep, its pull released at a heavy 5 3/4 pounds. There was a small amount of overtravel.
In our opinion, the Model 1894s open sights provided a well-defined sight picture. The front was a dovetailed blade with a bead-shaped top and a brass-colored face. The rear, made by Marble, consisted of a semi-buckhorn blade with a white diamond under its U-shaped notch. The rear sight was step-adjustable for elevations corrections, and the base of the sight could be drifted to the left or right for windage changes.
To accommodate the install-ation of an optical sight, the top of the receiver was drilled and tapped for a scope mount. A clamp-on reversible offset hammer spur, needed to operate the hammer when a scope is installed, was provided with this rifle.
Our shooters considered this Marlins accuracy to be average for a .45 Long Colt rifle. At 50 yards, Five-shot groups averaged from 2.63 inches with Winchesters 250-grain CLFN Cowboy load to 3.53 inches with Remingtons 225-grain LSWC ammunition.
Although its muzzle velocities were the highest of the test with the Remington load, the 1894 Cowboy yielded the slowest average velocities with either of the two 250-grain Cowboy loads.
Rossi Model 92 SRC
The Brazilian-made Rossi line of lever action rifles imported by Interarms are based on the 1892 Winchester rifle. This year, the manufacturer introduced a new .45 Long Colt version of the Model 92 SRC. It features a 24-inch half octagon barrel, a forend cap and a classically-shaped butt plate. The gun retails for $429.
Workmanship on the Model 92 SRC we acquired was, in our opinion, average. All of its steel parts had a highly polished, blued finish. But, numerous shallow tool marks were noted on interior surfaces, and the edges of the bolt were sharp. Some parts had so little play that it hampered their freedom of movement.
Both portions of the stock were made of Brazilian hardwood with a very dark antique-looking finish. Wood-to-metal mating was acceptable, but the stock edges along the tangs on the top and the bottom of the receiver were ragged. The blued steel forend cap and butt plate were well installed.
This Rossis functioning was reliable. But, the movement of its action was the roughest of the test. There was a hard hitch toward the end of the bolts rearward travel that tended to cause the shooter to short stroke the lever, resulting in a failure to feed.
Loading this rifle was difficult due to the small size of the loading port in the right side of the receiver and the heavy tension on the ports spring-loaded cover. When inserting rounds, a bit of brass was shaved off the cartridges rim by the front edge of the port.
Our shooters liked most, but not all, of the Model 92s handling qualities. The rifles overall weight was light enough to make target acquisition fairly quick, while its balance was muzzle-heavy enough to provide good muzzle stability. However, we thought the metal butt plate was slippery, uncomfortable, and made shouldering less than natural.
Although the comb was on the thin side, it afforded a good cheek-to-stock fit. The 11 1/2-inch long forend and wide, straight grip provided plenty of gripping area. Felt recoil was noticeably heavier than that of the Marlin in this test.
Excluding the trigger and the action lever, this Rossis only control was the external hammer. Right- and left-handed shooters could readily cock it with the thumb of their firing hand. The manual safety was a half-cock notch on the hammer. We considered the ungrooved 1/4-inch-wide triggers pull to be about a pound too heavy. After a small amount of creep, it released cleanly at 5 1/4 pounds. There was some overtravel.
In our opinion, the Model 92 SRCs weakest point was its open sights. The front was a 1/16-inch-wide post pinned to the barrel band. Due to its brass color, the post was difficult to see against a white background. The adjustable rear had a plain blade with a U-shaped notch. Since the notch was much wider than the front sight, obtaining a consistent sight picture wasnt easy.
There was no means for mounting a scope on this rifle. Installing an optical sight on top of this rifles receiver would block its ejection port.
This Rossis accuracy was nearly as good as that of the Marlin Model 1894 Cowboy. We obtained five-shot average groups that measured from 2.80 inches with Winchester 250-grain CLFN Cowboy ammunition to 3.75 inches with the Remington 225-grain LSWC load.
Chronograph testing showed that both of the 250-grain Cowboy loads yielded their fastest average velocities from this .45 Long Colt rifle. The Remington 225-grain ammunition generated its second-best velocities.
Winchester M94 Trails End
The new Winchester Model 94 Trails End is a modified version of the manufacturers standard .45 Long Colt lever action rifle. It features a 20-inch round barrel and an 11-shot tubular magazine. Variants with a standard or a large loop lever are available. The gun also has an open-top receiver and angle ejection.
For this test, we acquired a $398 Trails End with a standard loop. Its workmanship was, in our opinion, good. All steel surfaces had an evenly blued finish with a medium polish. The lanyard ring on the left side of the receiver was well constructed, but we doubt many people are going to use it. Minor tool marks were noted on the sides of the bolt, but no sharp edges were found. Most moving parts had a moderate amount of play.
This Winchesters two-piece stock was made of American walnut with a satin finish. There were some minor sanding marks on the buttstock, but the installation of the black plastic butt plate was faultless. The front surfaces of the buttstock were almost flush with the receivers top and bottom tangs. The forend was securely fastened by a barrel band.
During live fire testing, the Trails End didnt malfunction with the three kinds of commercial ammunition we tried. But, loading rounds through the loading port in the right side of the receiver and into the tubular magazine wasnt very easy. We had to push hard to overcome the magazine followers heavy return spring. In spite of a few hitches, the actions movement was fairly smooth.
This Winchester was the lightest and most evenly balanced rifle of the test. So, it had the least muzzle stability, though not unsatisfactory, and pointed the fastest. Shouldering was quick and natural. The nicely rounded comb provided a stable, comfortable cheek-to-stock fit. Most shooters thought the 9-inch-long forend was too short, but the straight grip could be grasped comfortably.
Cocking the external hammer wasnt a problem. The manual safety was a crossbolt at the rear of the receiver. When pushed from left to right, it blocked the hammer from hitting the firing pin. This safety could be engaged and disengaged without retracting the hammer.
Like all Model 94s, the Trails End also had two passive safeties. One was a trigger stop, which disengaged when it was depressed by the action lever, to prevent firing if the action wasnt fully closed. The other was a rebounding hammer, which didnt come into contact with the firing pin unless it was released by the trigger from the cocked position. This prevents firing if the gun is dropped or mishandled. Movement of the ungrooved 1/4-inch-wide trigger was, in our opinion, only acceptable. After a lot of slack, its pull released at 5 1/2 pounds. There was a minor amount of overtravel.
For sighting, the rifle had a dovetailed 1/16-inch-wide front blade with a straight face. The rear was a semi-buckhorn blade with a white triangle under its U-shaped notch. The rear sight was driftable for windage corrections and step-adjustable for elevation changes. We thought this arrangement provided a clean sight picture.
For those who prefer a scope, the top of the receiver was drilled and tapped for a scope base. A reversible offset hammer spur, which screwed into a hole in the hammer, came with the rifle.
Our shooters felt this .45 Long Colt lever action rifles 50-yard accuracy was below average. Five-shot groups averaged from 3.40 inches with Remington 225-grain lead semi-wadcutters to 4.10 inches with Black Hills 250-grain round nose flat point Cowboy load.
Due to the Trails Ends 4-inch shorter barrel, its average velocities were slower than those of the Rossi Model 92 SRC. However, the difference between the performance of the two rifles was only a matter of 4 to 12 feet per second.