The Cowboy Assault Rifle

By Bob Campbell published on in Firearms

Many folks do not realize that cowboy guns had quite a military career—and not with the U.S. Army. The Army used the hard-hitting Springfield .45-70 during most of the Plains wars and then switched to the bolt-action Krag Jorgensen. The other “lever-operated bolt guns” (as referenced in period literature) simply were not robust enough for military duty. That did not stop Japan, Turkey and many other nations from purchasing thousands of rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition from Winchester.

Rossi 92 carbin lying on a rock on green grass

The Rossi carbine is the perfect go-anywhere, do-anything rifle.

During a particularly critical engagement, the Turks decimated Russian troops at close range using the Winchester .44 lever-action rifle. They used the lever-action rifle much as we would use a submachine gun today. Impressed, the Russians later purchased Winchesters, this time the powerful Winchester 1895 rifle. That is all interesting and practical information. In America, many police agencies utilized the lever-action rifle, most famously the Arizona Rangers who used the Winchester 1895 rifle in .30-40 Krag. Many others used the Winchester 1894 in .30-30 WCF.

Another popular variation was the pistol-caliber carbine. The Winchester 1873 and the much-improved 1892 model were popular with Western lawmen. The short lever throw of a rifle chambered for a pistol-caliber cartridge gives excellent leverage; you could put down a lot of lead if needed.

The .44-40 WCF from a rifle barrel is not quite up to .44 Magnum ballistics from a handgun; although 200 grains at 1300 fps or so is good for what the rifle was designed to handle. Many agencies kept that rifle on hand for decades. I think the Winchester 1892 carbine is a great all-around problem solver. I have fired the Remington Model 8 and Winchester .351 self-loaders. The design of each offered cops and prison guards a reliable rifle with moderate punch. I would rather have the Winchester ’92 in .44-40 in most situations. Unfortunately, other than the expensive Japanese-produced Browning clones, the Winchester has long been out of production.

The Rossi Lever-Action Rifle

Rossi 92 with barrel pointed to the right on a gray background

Flat, reliable and fast handling, the Rossi has much to recommend.

Enter the Rossi lever-action rifle. The Rossi is a clone gun (a close copy at any rate) of the Winchester 1892. The rifle is well made of good material and often accurate for the type. The Rossi is available in .357 and .44 Magnum as well as traditional lever-action pistol calibers. The Magnums make a lot of sense in modern times, regardless of whether you own a handgun in the caliber.

Let me get this on the table—while much is made of the commonality of having a handgun and a rifle chambered for the same cartridge, I could care less. It is OK as far as it goes, and I am usually carrying the .45 automatic when carrying the Rossi lever action. If you want to hunt with a pistol-caliber carbine, you need a .44 Magnum, and maybe even a Marlin, so you can mount a scope. If personal defense, pests and hog hunting at moderate range are part of the game, the Rossi rifle looks good.

My example, chambered for the .45 Colt, was never chambered in the original ’92 rifles. Ballistically, it is not as good a long-range rifle as the .44-40. The .45 Colt throws a big bullet, and that is good for personal defense. In the rifle, recoil is low. You do not quite realize the power you have in this rifle, though it is considerable. As an example, even the milder loads outstrip the .45 ACP +P from a pistol.

Partial shot of the Rossi 92 focused on the short throw, on a white background

The short throw of the pistol-caliber carbine allows a trained shooter to keep a good cadence of fire.

It is a neat-handling carbine, and with a 16-inch barrel, it is a compact package. The lever-action rifle balances at the receiver, which is why you see so many Winchester rifles with the finish worn at the receiver, right at the balance point.

Highlights

I own several good AR rifles, and you should as well, even though nothing is as light, handy and easy to store as a lever-action rifle.

  • The rifle is well made of good material, with good fit and finish.
  • There are no gaps where the wood meets the metal.
  • The bolt operates smoothly.
  • The twin, locking lugs are more than sufficient for containing the pressure of the .45 Colt cartridge.
  • The leverage is such that it is easy to manipulate. Remember, do not press down but forward.
  • The rifle is smooth and fast; repeat shots are possible.
  • The buckhorn rear sight is adjustable and easily used well to more than 50 yards.
  • The front post is clear.
  • Loading the rifle is easy; simply thumb a cartridge into the loading gate.
  • You have nine .45 Colt cartridges on tap, which should be enough to solve most problems. You may top off the magazine one at a time, if desired. My example features the big ring lever. That is way cool for looks and cowboy-action fun, but perhaps not so great for rapid manipulation. If you are wearing gloves in the winter, the big ring looks better.

I ordered the rifle in .45 Colt because I have quite a few .45 Colt cartridge cases, and I like the cartridge—plus, I was curious.

Rossi 92 and a box of Hornaday ammunition on a light blue background

For general use against pests and predators and for personal defense, the Hornady Critical Defense loading is ideal.

For cowboy action and economy, the .357 Magnum looks better. The .357 digests all .38 Special loads as well. And I do prefer the old Colt cartridge. Most of my firing has been with lead bullets, either cowboy-action loads or my own handloads. The .45 Colt Rossi feeds, chambers, fires and ejects all loads with equal reliability. A bonus is that the .45 Colt cartridge, like all handgun cartridges, gets a boost in velocity when fired in a carbine barrel.

Firing the Rossi

Here are some results:

Manufacturer Load Velocity
 Winchester  225-grain PDX  1090 fps
 Hornady FTX  185-grain Critical Defense  1180 fps
 CORBON  225-grain DPX  1310 fps

Best Uses for the Rifle

First, this is a fun rifle to shoot. Anything this well made and smooth in operation is a joy to use.

Green box of CORBON ammunition on a gray background

The CORBON Hunter is a powerful round ideal for hogs, deer and bear at close range. Remember, a .45 Colt rifle is close in power to the .454 Casull revolver.

With a proper loading, it would be a good hog gun in the close range, head-long pursuit that is often deemed hog hunting. It would do for deer to 50 yards, with the sights and accuracy the limiting factors. I have fired a long-barrel Rossi 92 in .357 Magnum that would cut 2 MOA on demand at 100 yards. The .357 Magnum carbine is pretty accurate—good for 2-3 inches at 50 yards. The Rossi carbine in .45 Colt is good for about 3-4 inches off the bench rest at 50 yards.

Another reason for choosing the Rossi is personal defense. It is a neat, flat and handy truck or home-defense gun. If damaged, lost or confiscated while the police sort things out, it is inexpensive enough that its loss would not be a hardship. It handles quickly, points naturally and hits harder than any .45-caliber handgun.

I like the Rossi carbine. It is an uncommon mix of a great value, a useful defensive firearm if need be and a pleasant recreational rifle.

Two cargridges with focus on the front area

That is a lot of frontal area on the CORBON Hunter loading!

Postscript

If you are in one of those areas that is sometimes subject to unwanted intrusions by bears, load the CORBON Hunter .45 Colt. The big, flat-nose slug puts out a lot of horsepower. At close range from a .45 Colt rifle, you are in .454 Casull territory for power, with far less kick and greater accuracy since you are using a rifle. The Rossi carbine is still surprising me with its capabilities.

Do you have a favorite lever action? Weigh in with your thoughts in the comment section.

SLRule

Bob Campbell is a former peace officer and published author with over 40 years combined shooting and police and security experience. Bob holds a degree in Criminal Justice. Bob is the author of the books, The Handgun in Personal Defense, Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry, The 1911 Automatic Pistol, The Gun Digest Book of Personal Protection and Home Defense, The Shooter’s Guide to the 1911, The Hunter and the Hunted, and The Complete Illustrated Manual of Handgun Skills. His latest book is Dealing with the Great Ammo Shortage. He is also a regular contributor to Gun Tests, American Gunsmith, Small Arms Review, Gun Digest, Concealed Carry Magazine, Knife World, Women and Guns, Handloader and other publications. Bob is well-known for his firearm testing.

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Comments (43)

  • WM

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    Most of you are seriously out of touch with reality. All the talk about shtf etc and taking a moose at 500yds…la la la..you intend to do all of this when? right..Not at all. The Rossi or marlin etc or other clone will get the job done in any realistic situation you are ever likely to encounter, They are small, light, powerful enough, period. The best firearm to have in any situation is the one you have, closely aligned with your “thinking” brain in gear!! If I have one firearm, I can get any other one I need in a shtf situation, period. Since that is so far removed from reality, you need to really think what the firearm may be used for in the context of reality….camping, emergency, possible civil unrest after a storm etc…in that case..the lever gun does all you need, but a good ole Shotgun is better yet. We all need to stop dreaming and face reality..the Mad Max syndrome is designed to sell firearms etc and if you buy into the hype..you are just part of the problem.in MHO…thanks

    Reply

  • JSW

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    I have the Taurus version of the Rossi, in .357 caliber. Close inspection of the rear sight indicates a drilled and tapped receiver suitable for scope mounting. The only problem is losing the sight and its elevation slide.
    I’m happy with how mine shoots- two MOA at a hundred, better than my Marlin ’94. The action is smooth, and the trigger is fine, though again I give the edge to Marlin for butter smooth action- of course, several thousand rounds more down range may help the Taurus to be more smooth.
    As to owning an AR… well, not my cup of tea.

    Reply

  • larry

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    I understand perfectly what you mean. A good handgun caliber lever rifle will serve most any home defense need. Easy to master the function if not it’s potential. I too own my go – to M1A NM as well as my backup M1 Garrand in 30-06.

    Reply

  • Ricky Ricardo

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    Opinions are straying my from my base statement:I too own a Springfield M1-A NM,use it as a primary “go-to”rifle and believe in the .308, for all the given reasons.
    But the slant of the article seemed to be ok with someone buying a lever gun in a basically pistol caliber, as a primary defense gun.
    So many buyers now days,and Im not talking about purists,want one “go-to”gun,have little or no military or LE experience and,good advice to the contrary,prob wont ever shoot more than 1-300 rds in their new weapon.
    I still say they, as I said earlier,are better served with a “light handy carbine”(which the M1-A NM certainly isnt,nor is my .375 H&H)like the Mini rather than a lever gun clunker.
    ’nuff said.

    Reply

  • brent

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    i have the Rossi 92 in 357 with a 20 in barrel and a marbles peep sight on the tang.Iron sights for 50 yrds and the marbles set for 100. it is a great little gun.

    If you want midrange fire power in a non black gun package this carbine is hard to beat..yes you only have ten rounds but you can keep the weapon on target durring a reload.(try loading a mag when all your sticks go dry) with practice you can lay down serious suppresive fire till you run out of ammo.

    158grains at 1800 fps is enough to drop most things at 100 yrds

    Reply

  • larry

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    Namely the “Henry Repeater in 44cal Rim Fire”

    Reply

  • Firestar

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    I too like the 45 LC, and although I have the AR’s too, there is smething to be said for that big slug you get eith the 45. I have the Taurus Thunderbo,t a 45 Colt slide-action copy of the old Colt Lightning. The action, as Colt touted at the time,, is faster than the Winchester. The trigger can be held down and the gun will fire as fast as the acton can be worked, and the repositioning of the rifle forced by a lever action is much reduced. As the author says, the recoil of the 45 Colt in a carbine is surprisingly light

    Reply

  • Merle

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    Actually, the US military has used lever guns. All the way back in the Civil War, no less. And there have been a few cases of limited issue, but not widespread use.

    Reply

  • jrhenry

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    I have the Rossi 92 with the standard lever in 45 Colt. I also have some 325 grain Bear load 45 Colt ammo from HSM. I shoot is only occasionally in my 45 Colt Ruger Blackhawk. Stout! Can I shoot this ammo in the Rossi? I attempted to get an answer from Tauras Rossi and I only got a vague reference to the SAMMU specs.

    Reply

  • Ricky Ricardo

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    While I agree that as a “handy little carbine” this Rossi is a well made item, for someone who needs an all around carbine,I feel they would be better served with kicking in the extra 75-100 bucks and getting a Mini-14.
    20 rds beats 9 any day and the 223 is way better for most all projects,especially if you are returning fire from beyond a 150 yds.
    Most people getting into firearms these days are going with a single rifle they expect to cover any situation.
    While the lever action carbine serves well as a “niche weapon”,and the Rossi’s are as good as most,if Im “one rifling”it, the Mini is a better choice.

    Reply

    • larry

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      Come on Ricky… Let’s keep this in perspective. You know as well as I (maybe) the lever carbine is a relatively short range rifle to begin with. I have a 45LC lever rifle specifically for short range and “Non Dangerous” game. But let’s face it, a 223 is far from my first choice at ranges over 100yds. If I want that bull moose or grizzly or buffalo for my dinner table I would certainly rather be 500yds away than 150yds and in when the hammer falls. Not to forget the ballistic energy at impact of a 30-30, 45LC, 45-70 is far and away greater than a 22 (223).

      Reply

    • Ricky Ricardo

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      Of course there are better rounds/calibers out there for various purposes…Id much rather engage a dangerous enemy with my .375 H&H than my wifes Mini.However,I stand by my statement in relation to, as I said, the modern gun buyer who wants a “1 gun”do-it-all rifle,is better served by a semi-auto carbine with 20-30 rounds of .223 than 9 manually operated .45’s…..I carry a .45 on duty,and would refuse to carry a .22….apples and oranges..I stand by my comments..dont take them out of context and make it a discussion about calibers

      Reply

    • larry

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      It seems a 22, however powerful with a 20-30 round magazine is your choice, but consider, M1A, AR10, FNFAL…etc all have the same mag capacities (20-30) and use a far superior cartridge (308/7.62×51) in range and takedown power. Again, I would rather have the “Enemy” as far away as possible not up close and personal but still have the ability to deal with up close and personal with devastating results.
      With All Due Respect.

      Reply

    • Rocky

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      The 5.56x45mm aka .223 cal. was engineered as a caliber to wound, as opposed to kill, for our military. (although it does take some strange wound tracks and an entry in the shoulder could result in an exit from the ankle) It takes three enemy soldiers off the battlefield, to care for one wounded one (including the wounded soldier), and enormous amounts of precious materials, to try to save/fix them up again. In caliber, it is little more than a .22 sized, albeit higher powered projectile. Our soldiers can also carry far more of them, than the previous 7.62x54mm aka .308 cal., due to being lighter in weight.
      As far as utilizing it for a hunting weapon, it is more in the varmint round category. While, with proper shot placement, it can be used for deer sized game, it’s neither recommended, nor even legal, for such, in some States. Better suited for prairie dogs, all of the way up to coyotes.
      I own and love, a Ruger Mini-14, but I own a rifle in .308, as well, for larger critters, such as the black bear that came up in my front porch, recently and scared the Be-Jesus out of my wife @ 1:am. (he would have faced my Taurus Judge loaded with 00 Buck, at that moment, but I didn’t shoot him, as he ran away, far and fast. He was only after the wife’s bird feeder, which has since been removed)
      btw; the Ruger Mini-30 would make a far better choice, in 7.62×39 Russian. It is a larger caliber round, with far lower recoil, than the .308 would be, in say, an M1-A, as well as being shorter and easier to bring into play.
      While there is no single weapon, chambered in some magical round, that is good for everything, if I could only have one rifle, it wouldn’t be chambered in .223 cal. The only reason that I even have a Mini-14 in .5.56×54 and a rifle chambered in .308, is because that’s what our military and most police depts. use. Thus, if the SHTF, there would likely be ammo available in those few calibers, even if you had to ‘borrow’ it from the above mentioned sources.
      I have yet to decide which caliber of rifle, that I would own, should I only be able to have one, as I have multiple rifles and haven’t had to consider such a purchase. I likely never will. Far better to have multiple firearms, for multiple purposes, in my humble opinion, if one can afford to do so.

      Reply

    • Elton P. Green

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      I don’t know, but I think some of you are kind of missing the point. The idea here as I read the article, is a camp and knock about rifle that will not set the user back a lot but can be used against large critters with teeth and in a pinch as a self-defense weapon. It needs to be handy, fast and have a good wallop at close range. It needs to have sufficient penetration for big bears who may come into camp at night and still be able to take game at ranges inside 150 yards. Now I own a mini14 in .223. I also own three M1 Garands, one HK91, two bolt guns also in .308/7.62 NATO, two bolt guns in 30-06, two 300 WinMags,a 25-06, a 6mm Rem. and a .35 Whelen. I’ve carried the M16 in various configurations in various parts of the world. But this isn’t about fighting a war or defense during the apocolypse. Its about having a light, handy rifle for defense in the wild. I’m not going to shoot a bear with a 5.56 if any other rifle is available. I wouldn’t use it on a mountain lion or a deer, either. Both the toothy ones would probably kill me before they died, and the deer would run to the next county before expiring. And then the Game Warden would arrest me. But I own a Rossi .44 magnum that will work great for all those animals inside 100 yards. And in a pinch it will handle two or three two legged attackers, too. I use 300 grain hard lead bullets in it at about 1500fps. It has about 22 inches of penetration. My next rifle for this work is either the HK or the M1 in Tanker configuration. Both will handle up to 180 grain 308 bullets. But both rifles are less handy for close work, which is what would be needed in a camp at night. Muzzle flash would also be a problem with the .308 or 30-06 in short barrels. The .44 doesn’t have that problem. Even better for this use is the .480 Ruger or the 454 Cassul. Both deliver 45-70 levels of penetration and energy. By the way, the .223 is not a very good people round either. At 250 yards and beyond, you’re shooting a man with a .22 magnum or less. I much prefer any of the heavier calibers. The 5.56 is not as effective at 300 meters as the 7.62 NATO is at 500 meters. The main thing is that the .44, the .308 and the 30-06 will stop a bear and anything else in North America at close range. The .223 won’t. Apples and Oranges. That .44 with the short barrel fits real good under my pickup seat, too.

      Reply

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