Stretched pistols

Rifles chambered for handgun cartridges ideal for deer

Posted: February 4, 2018 at 2:40 a.m.

A lever-action rifle chambered for magnum pistol cartridges makes an excellent deer-hunting package for places where shots are 75 yards or less.

Bolt-action rifles are the standard for accuracy, but the lever-action rifle emblemizes American deer hunting.

Lever guns are synonymous with the .30-30 cartridge, but standard pistol cartridges are, within limits, equally effective for deer hunting in lever guns, too.

In fact, lever guns chambered for pistol cartridges might be even better choices than the .30-30 for deer hunters who typically shoot 75 yards or less, especially if you are sensitive to recoil.

Winchester, Marlin, Henry and Rossi lever-action rifles are available in .357 Remington Magnum, .44 Rem. Mag., and .45 Colt. The Henry Big Boy is also available in .32 Federal and my favorite, the .41 Rem. Mag. These cartridges are suitable for deer in certain handguns, but they shine brightest in rifles.

Why? A rifle's longer barrel allows more powder to burn and hold expanding gas longer than a pistol length barrel to push a bullet down a bore. The additional "steam" drives a bullet faster out the muzzle. For example, a 20-inch rifle barrel will give factory .44 magnum ammo 200-400 extra feet per second over a 71/2-inch handgun barrel.

More speed generates more energy, and more energy improves bullet performance.

Don Keller, a Little Rock gunsmith, said rifles increase the potential killing power of pistol cartridges.

"I'm 'old school.' I like a big, slow bullet," Keller said. "If you use a big slow bullet, the entrance hole is going to be big, and the exit hole is going to be bigger.

"A .45, .44, .41 and even a .357 caliber is larger when comes out of a barrel than most rifles," Keller continued. "If you're starting with an expanded bullet already, you are going to get reasonable velocities out of a rifle length barrel as opposed to a pistol."

Keller, an ardent fan of the .41 Remington Magnum and its big brother wildcat, the .414 Super Magnum, said handgun cartridges might even be more powerful at close range than a .30-30 because of bullet size. The aforementioned handgun cartridges contain wider, heavier bullets that rifles can launch at velocities comparable to that of the .30-30, which itself is slow compared to more modern centerfire cartridges.

Keller builds custom pistols for .41 Rem. Mag., but he also makes custom deer and hog rifles by converting Marlin 336 lever-action rifles to .41 Mag. and to 414 Super Mag. He describes the latter as a 41 Magnum case lengthened by 3/10 inch.

"I get real good results on deer and hogs with it," Keller said. "I would not hesitate to pull the trigger out to 75 yards with that gun on any deer in Arkansas."

Hotrod pistol loads are well suited for a lever gun because its strong action and beefy construction tolerate greater chamber pressures than a handgun. If you reload your own cartridges, you can load pistol cartridges hotter than you would for a handgun. That will allow you to squeeze maximum horsepower from these compact cases and actualize their potential.

"I would not recommend this to anyone else, but I've got some 170-grain, 41-caliber bullets that I chronographed in excess of 1,800 feet per second from a Ruger Blackhawk with a 61/2- or 71/2-inch barrel," Keller said. "That same bullet in an 18-inch barrel is over 2,000 feet per second. With a 170-grain, .41-caliber bullet, 2,000 feet per second is equivalent to several rifle cartridges that people would not think twice about carrying, such as a .30-30 or .35 Remington."

That formula translates to .44 Mag., as well, and also to .45 Colt, which a reloader can squeeze until it howls.

"If you reload, you can bring that 45 Colt velocity up beyond what you would normally want in a pistol," Keller said. "That would make a real cool short range deer rifle."

With its long sighting plane and more stable two-hand hold, a rifle is inherently more accurate. Its linear recoil transfers the brunt of the force to the shoulder.

The hands and wrists absorb all of a pistol's recoil energy. Forget all the usual blustery qualifiers and disclaimers that always accompany these kind of comparisons. Handguns chambered in .44 Mag., .41 Mag., or .45 Colt are not pleasant for anyone to shoot.

A lever gun tames them into kittens on the giving end, but makes them even more ferocious on the receiving end.

"You just have to accept the limitations," Keller said. "If you shoot a big bullet, you have to accept that you're not going to shoot over 75 yards."

Keller advises against putting scopes on pistol cartridge rifles to avoid the temptation of taking unethical shots.

"If you put a scope on it, you're going to try to stretch it on out there," Keller said.

A lever gun/pistol cartridge combination is ideal for some of my piney woods stands, but it's also perfect for still hunting in the mountainous regions of my state.

My choice for this work is a Henry Big Boy Steel in .41 Rem. Mag. It's a pure working rifle with a matte blue on the metalwork and a plain, straight-grain walnut stock. Its light weight encourages extended carry sessions, and it snaps to the shoulder and points like a good bird gun.

I discovered its advantages as a mountain gun in 2016 during a controlled hunt at Madison County Wildlife Management Area. You get flickering glimpses of deer in the hardwoods, and it's challenging to acquire a moving target through a scope. You can get on target much quicker through open sights on a lever gun.

I also adapted my hunting tactics to suit the rifle. I simply work harder to get closer to game, and the lever gun makes me feel more competent hunting in thicker cover.

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Sports on 02/04/2018