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)

  • OldGringo

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    I collect levers and have many including Rossis and Marlins in 357 and 454. My scoped Marlin will shoot 1 and 1/4 inch groups at 100 yards with 125 grain reloads. Never scoped the Rossis but with open sights I can only do maybe 4-5 inches at 50 but I am old. The 454 Rossi can be loaded with 45 Colt brass to more than any 44 mag can ever do and the Rossi in 44 mag or45 Colt can be loaded to the max found in at manual. I do like carrying the same caliber pistol and rifle sometimes, just for grins. The 454 will shoot 300 grain bullets as fast as my 45-70, kicks like heck, but it will do just that. Can never go wrong with a lever gun. And they do not make some people go into hysteria like ARs.

    Reply

  • Elton P. Green

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    I bought a Rossi ’92 about 2 years ago at a gun show here in Colorado Springs. It is the short-barreled 16 1/2 in. barrel rifle in .44 Magnum. I have rung steel with it at 100 yards with full house hand loads. I have had no problems with this rifle as far as fit, function and accuracy is concerned within its limitations. It is a great camp rifle and knock-about rifle. I have used it with .44 Special loads and .44 Magnum loads up to 300 grains and it works with them all. The 300 grain LFN bullets had to be crimped on the highest groove to make the round cycle due to bullet length, but they work fine. It is a great hog gun in the brush and a good truck rifle for serious social situations. I really like this rifle. I wouldn’t mind having it in a 20″ too.

    Reply

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