The Model 96 Lever-Action Carbine shot better and faster than the Model 1894 .44 Magnum Lever Action.
The growing popularity of Cowboy Action Shooting is spurring new interest in a variety of lever-action guns, particularly in a “newcomer” cartridge (if compared to the ages of other cowboy rounds)—the .44 Magnum. Because it can be chambered in both rifles and revolvers, the versatile .44 Magnum can serve double duty on the cowboy range, or it can serve its owner in the field as a capable short-range hunting cartridge in either a handgun or long gun.
Regardless of its application, the .44 Magnum is raising the fortunes of several companies, chief among them Marlin and Ruger. Marlin lever guns are possibly the most heavily used cowboy-action rifles, due in part to the strength of .44 Magnum sales, including the $477 Marlin Model 1894 .44 Remington Magnum. Ditto that for the $419 Ruger Model Ninety-Six Lever Action Carbine, a more modern-looking .44 Remington Magnum first introduced in 1961, then discontinued, then reintroduced in 1996.
We recently took a look at these two guns to gauge their suitability as companions to handguns Performance Shooters might already own, and as items appropriate to action shooting. Here’s what we found:
How We Tested
All testing was conducted with the scope set at 7x for a 100-yard range shooting from a bench using an Uncle Bud’s bench bag. This unique bag grips the forend of the rifle between two suede sandbags and aids in reducing recoil while providing a constant resistance. The rear of the gun was supported by a Bench Wizard bag from Ultra Light Arms. In addition to doing an excellent job of supporting the butt end of the rifle, the Bench Wizard features two 5-pound sandbags connected by a webbing that fits around the rear of the gun to effectively add the weight of the bags to the gun, thus controlling recoil.
One might assume that recoil would not be a problem in a mild caliber like the .44 Remington Magnum, but it does have a cumulative effect. When shooting a test of more than 100 rounds in a short time, it can influence the shooter. By reducing the felt recoil to virtually nothing, we ensure that the shooter’s ability doesn’t deteriorate due to accumulating recoil.
We tested the Federal Classic 180-grain hollow point, Winchester 210-grain Silver Tip hollow point, Remington 240-grain soft point, Speer 270-grain Gold Dot flat point and Black Hills 300-grain hollow point with the Hornady XTP bullet. The 300-grain load was a disappointment in these rifles, particularly the Marlin. As mentioned elsewhere, the rifling would not stabilize these heavy bullets.
Velocities were measured 15 feet from the muzzle using an Oehler 35P chronograph. All groups were at 100 yards, which is the practical extreme for these guns. All groups were measured center to center of the widest holes to the nearest 0.1 inch.
Before the test each rifle was cleaned using Shooter’s Choice MC-7 Bore Cleaner on a patch, followed with a clean patch. Then a bronze brush saturated with Shooter’s Choice MC-7 was passed through the bore several times. This was followed by several clean patches and then with a couple of patches soaked with Birchwood Casey Gun Scrubber. The gun was then cleaned with the Outers Foul Out Electronic bore cleaner and again given the patch and solvent treatment, this time using Shooter’s Choice Copper Remover. This was repeated until each bore was completely clean of any fouling as indicated by clean patches with no black marks from powder fouling or green stains from copper fouling. The rifles were not cleaned again until the test was completed.
After a couple of fouling shots the testing began. Each rifle was used to fire three three-shot groups with each of the ammo selections. The groups were fired in rapid succession with all nine shots for each selection fired before the rifle was allowed to cool. The rifles were rotated with each ammo selection so the barrel could cool before starting with the next brand. This not only allowed evaluation of the accuracy of the rifle with this load, but also firing nine shots in a short time span allowed us to see the rifle’s reaction to heat.
Actually, testing required firing far more than the final 90 rounds, because when we switched to a new ammo, it was often necessary to search for the point of impact by shooting at the top center or bottom center of the target. If a bullet hole could be located through the spotting scope, the rifle scope would be adjusted accordingly and the test would proceed. Both guns showed a propensity for flyers, sometimes missing the target completely, with the Marlin being the worst of the two, we thought.
Also, the Marlin had a habit of throwing the first shot to a different point of impact than those that followed. Accuracy was not great for either rifle, but testing conditions and that we were testing at the guns’ extreme range must be considered. We suspect that as velocities dropped downrange the slow rotation of the bullets caused them to destabilize slightly. Groups at 50 yards were much tighter than the expected one half of the 100-yard groups.
Ruger Model 96 Lever-Action Carbine
This slick little $419 carbine is not all that different from the original Ruger .44 Semi-Auto Carbine. The overall length is an inch longer at 373/4 inches. The hammer-forged barrel is 181/2 inches and comes equipped with a banded front sight and a fold-up dovetail rear sight. Length of pull is 131/4 inches, and the trigger broke at 4.5 pounds. There was a lot of slack before reaching actual sear engagement, again showing a tendency to follow military design. But it’s also something the semiauto lacked. However, once you take up that slack, the trigger breaks surprisingly crisp and clean with just a little overtravel. With a Nikon 2x-7x scope mounted, the Model Ninety-Six weighs just a shade over 61/2 pounds.
The stock is one piece with a barrel band in the front and a curved plastic buttplate. The overall look and design of the stock is slightly military, and there is no checkering. The wood is listed as American hardwood. Whatever that is (probably birch) was stained to look like something like walnut. Fit and finish is as good as we’ve seen in any factory rifle at this price point. There is a pistol grip, and the lever is curved to fit its contour.
The safety is a crossbolt in front of the trigger, and there is a small brass pin that protrudes as a cocking indicator on top of the receiver. The lever has a short throw that most adults can accomplish without removing their thumb from the stock. It pivots in a section of cast metal that protrudes 1 inch below the bottom of the gun and also contains the safety. The lever also has a curved section that travels from the bolt to the lever itself, reminiscent of the Savage 99 and Winchester Model 88 lever actions. The action was smooth and fed all the tested ammo very well with no failures. Cycling the action has a quick feel to it and is nothing like the feel of traditional lever actions. The gun cocks on opening, but does so with ease. With the smooth action and short throw, this is one of the fastest lever actions we have tried.
The lever must be opened slightly to remove the box magazine. At least that’s what the directions said, but we were able to remove the magazine with the lever in the closed position. The magazine holds four cartridges and one in the pipe, giving it a five-round capacity compared to the Marlin’s 11.
The receiver has an integral raised portion along the top that serves as a base for scope rings. It is machined to receive the standard Ruger-style rings, which are supplied with the rifle. Surprisingly, there are no sling-swivel studs supplied with the rifle. These are considered standard on almost all modern rifles, and their omission is glaring.
We think the carbine’s stock should fit small- to average-sized adult males well and most women quite well. The one-piece stock creates a thicker feel at the balance point when carrying the gun. It feels more like a bolt action that the slab-sided, thin-receiver feel of a traditional lever action. However, the gun balances well and is comfortable to carry and use.
The sharp-edged, curved butt plate is not the best design, in our estimation. It is slippery and does nothing to disperse recoil. Fortunately, the .44 Magnum is a well-behaved cartridge in a carbine, and recoil is mild. However, we feel that the gun would be more practical with a flat, wide rubber buttplate or recoil pad.
Marlin Model 1894 .44 Magnum Lever Action
The original Marlin Model 1894 was made from 1894 to 1933 and was chambered for .25-20, .32-20, .38-40 and .44-40. The new 1894 is a smaller, shorter action than the famous 36 action. It was brought back in 1969 and has been chambered for a variety of calibers including the .218 Bee, .25-20, .32-20, .357 Magnum, .38 Special, .41 Magnum, .44 Magnum, .44 Special, and .45 Colt. Currently chambered are the .44 Magnum, .357 Magnum, and .44-40 (Cowboy II model only).
The two-piece stock has a metal forend cap and a straight rubber buttplate. Checkering is machine-cut on the forend and pistol grip at 16 lines per inch. The wood is American black walnut and is finished in a satin semi-gloss that Marlin calls Mar-Shield. Fit and finish was mostly satisfactory, but the wood on the buttstock was a little ragged where it m et the receiver on the left side. The stock is straight gripped with a length of pull of 131/2 inches.
In addition to the traditional half-cock hammer notch, there is a crossbolt safety on the top-rear receiver. This safety blocks the hammer from hitting the firing pin. The squared off lever has a short, but more traditional throw. It pivots in a section that protrudes half an inch below the bottom of the gun. The action has the jerky feel of a traditional lever action, but fed all the ammo tried with no failures. Some, however, did catch on the feed ramp, causing a slight hesitation in the action cycle. The gun cocks on opening with the bolt pushing the hammer back to the full-cocked position.
The tube magazine loads via a side plate in the receiver and is mounted under the barrel. It holds 10 cartridges and, with one in the pipe, gives the carbine an 11-round capacity. The receiver is drilled and tapped for a scope base. With the Marlin’s side ejection there are no problems with mounting a scope—a problem on some older top-ejection lever actions. Sling swivel studs are supplied with the rifle.
The $477 Marlin has the long admired, slab-sided, thin-receiver feel of a traditional lever action when it is carried on the balance point. It is a joy to carry and points well. The overall length is 371/2 inches. The Micro-Groove barrel features 12 shallow grooves and is 20 inches long. The gun is equipped with a ramp front sight and a rear sight in a dovetail. Trigger pull is 3.75 pounds and breaks relatively crisp and clean with a little overtravel.
Mounted with the 2x-7x Nikon scope, the Model 1894 weighs 7 pounds.
Performance Shooter Recommends
The Ruger was definitely the better rifle, in our view. It shot 20 percent better than the Marlin and costs slightly less. Its faster rate of rifling twist is also important with today’s trend toward heavy bullets. For those reasons, it gets our nod as the better buy.