|May - June 2003
Volume 35, Number
The Winchester Model 73, Marlin Model 94 and Winchester Model 95 represent evolution of the lever-action rifle. The Remington Model 700 C-style is out of the Remington Custom Shop and features a Burris 3-9x scope. Rifle photo by Stan Trzoniec. Background
It has been a century since Thomas Rynning,
captain of the Arizona Rangers, called in Rangers Oscar Roundtree, Jeff Kidder and Joe
Pearce, my grandfather, for a most difficult assignment. It seems Rynning had received
word from Fort Apache that rustlers had been stealing horses from the reservation and in
order to keep peace in the territory, it was essential they be caught immediately.
As he was one of the better cold trackers
among this group of notoriously tough lawmen, Joe Pearce was selected for the assignment,
and he knew the trails in this part of the territory well. Rynning also acknowledged he
would much rather have these thieves brought back alive, to be dealt with by a judge and
jury and sentenced to the harsh territorial prison as an example to other criminals,
rather than brought back dead.
It was mid-February, and winter in the Arizona
mountains was windy, wet and bitter cold. The Rangers took their best kit and wool
clothing along with plenty of bacon, jerky, coffee, flour and soda. They also saddled
their toughest horses, which were shod, grain fed and in top shape. They rode from Douglas
(Ranger headquarters located on the Arizona/Mexico border) north, across the Sulphur
Springs Valley to the town of Willcox and on to Solomonsville, Clifton and up the Frisco
and BlueRivers into the mountains, fighting severe wind and weather conditions much of the
They traveled day and night in an effort to
shorten the distance between them and the rustlers, who apparently were moving east. The
Rangers would catch an hour or so of sleep here and there as they rested the horses. In an
effort to keep warm and give their horses a break, they would occasionally dismount, hold
the left stirrups with their right hands and let their horses tow them as they
ran alongside at a fast pace. They covered some 200 miles in just a few short days - one
of the fastest jaunts ever recorded by these lawmen.
On the upper flats of the BlueRiver, they
inquired at reputable ranches if anyone had seen the three men fitting the profile of the
rustlers. (The reason I say reputable is that often ranchers were involved in
the rustling activities themselves!) Toles Cosper was one of the larger (and reputable)
ranchers in the area, and his cow-punchers had seen the three tough-looking hombres up
close two days before and were able to give a detailed description, including their dress.
Cosper fed the Rangers, gave them a bed and his best horses, as he too had been regularly
losing stock to rustlers and wanted them caught.
The Rangers headed east across the mountains
toward the Arizona/ New Mexico Territory line, picking up the trail of rustlers driving
some 33 head of stolen horses - 25 head of Apache and 8 head of ranch stock. As per the
instruction of Captain Rynning, they had the authority to proceed across territory
boundaries and continue the manhunt. They found where the three men camped, killed a
yearling steer, ate and left most of the meat hanging. In spite of the fresh meat that
tempted their empty stomachs, the Rangers feared the rustlers might have poisoned it and
refrained from eating.
The trail was just a few hours old, and
knowing they were dealing with ruthless men, the lawmen expected an ambush. They slowed
the chase, quartered back and forth and kept a sharp lookout ahead. They also paid close
attention to the tracks of the outlaws horses, their shoe type and measurements,
including special notes on the boot prints around the camps. When it was time to rest the
horses and eat, they too were hiding much the same as the rustlers; fires from twigs
provided just enough flame to boil coffee and cook hot cakes. They only approached
watering holes after dark, so as not to be seen.
The rustlers continually wound in and out of
timber, rocky ground, brush and snow to disguise their tracks. The Rangers temporarily
lost the trail and were quartering back and forth in an effort to pick it up again. Near
the River they spotted a single rider that fit the description of one of the outlaws:
tall, slender and dressed fancily. The outlaw spotted the Rangers, and a hard chase began.
The rider turned his strong running horse westward, back toward Arizona. The lawmen chased
him for a few miles, but temporarily lost the trail when the outlaw rode into the timber.
Soon they discovered the outlaw had turned east again, a decoy to allow his two partners
more time to get away with the stolen stock.
Again they followed the trail east, and after
two days of hard riding, found the single rider had joined up with his partners. Soon the
outlaws trail circled back west, toward Arizona, in an effort to ditch whomever was
following them, so the Rangers pushed their mounts hard until the trail became hot, then
began slow-trailing, again watching for an ambush. The outlaws pace suggested they
were relaxed and were no longer concerned that anyone was following. The Rangers figured
it was time to move in.
Late in the afternoon they came within sight
of the rustlers at about 300 yards, and Ranger Roundtree hollered for them to surrender.
The rustlers responded by drawing their sixguns and firing at the Rangers. The air was
filled with bullets and, according to Joe Pearce, the outlaws were fair and accurate
with the six-shooters, and the bullets hit close and all around them. (Not bad
shooting while mounted on top a cow pony!
With great speed the Rangers slid off the
backs of their horses, over their rumps and down their tails, grabbing the buttstocks of
the Model 1895 Winchester.30 US (aka .30-40 Krag) carbines, which rested in saddle
scabbards with the butt to the rear. By this time, each outlaw had managed to get off four
or five shots with their sixguns at the Rangers and were more interested in their getaway
than a shootout. Jeff Kidder, who was later killed in Mexico in a gunfight, drew a bead
with his rifle and began to squeeze the trigger, when Ranger Pearce bumped his rifle
sideways and reminded him of Captain Rynnings words to bring them in alive if
possible. The rustlers quickly rode out of sight, and the Rangers picked up the trail.
The stolen stock couldnt be driven as
fast as the Rangers could ride, and the lawmen simply followed at a distance waiting for
the right opportunity. The rustlers circled back toward Arizona in an effort to ditch the
Rangers, but near the Blue they left the stolen stock in an attempt to get away and hoped
that the three men trailing them were cowmen who would just be content to get their stock
back. They guessed wrong.
The outlaws headed toward the timber. It began
snowing, then it turned into a drizzling rain and driving wind, covering their tracks.
Without a trail and nightfall upon them, the
Rangers took refuge in a deserted cabin. Partially tumbled with a leaky roof, it was
described as the best motel room wed ever slept in. They feared the
trail would be completely lost, but guessed the outlaws wouldnt expect any
normal man would follow them under such severe conditions and would become
careless and leave an easy trail to follow.
Long before first light, the Rangers had a
meager breakfast, as supplies ran low, saddled up and began searching for the trail. They
began quartering and in sheltered areas soon picked up glimpses of the trail that had not
been washed away by the night rains. Within a few miles, the trail led them to another log
cabin in a meadow, smoke curling from the chimney.
The Rangers tied their horses in the timber
and, rather than kicking in the door, chose to wait until the outlaws came outside, where
they could order them to surrender at a safe distance with their rifles centered on them.
This would likely save lives on both sides, just as the captain wanted.
The wait wasnt long, as one man soon
opened the door and stepped outside with a cup of coffee and was shortly joined by another
man; both were wearing sixguns. The three Rangers stood up with their Winchester Model
1895s cocked, ready to fire and sights centered on the rustlers chests. Roundtree
hollered, Throw up or well cut you in two. One dropped his cup and threw
his hands in the air, while the other man calmly looked around until he located the three
men and demanded to know who they were. Roundtree hollered, Arizona Rangers,
and the tall man instantly dropped his coffee and put his hands in the air. The third man
was ordered outside, and he too wisely surrendered. The men were disarmed, arrested, taken
before Judge Bochley and sentenced without the Rangers ever firing a shot. The horses were
taken back to the ranches from which they were stolen, and the Apache horses were driven
back to the reservation by a hired cowboy.
The Arizona Rangers were formed in 1901 to
control this extremely lawless territory that was made up of thieves and murderers
from other states and eventually grew to a contingent of 26 men. By 1909 they
arrested and had convictions on over 5,000 criminals, a huge percentage of the area
population! Their fearless reputation and always coming home with their man put terror in
the hearts of many outlaws and considerable numbers left the territory altogether.
While the Rangers never fired a shot in the
above story, this was not always the case, as some were killed in the line of duty, and
many criminals simply would not allow themselves to be taken alive, leaving only one
The Rangers were not issued firearms but were
paid very well and were expected to provide their own. Men in their line of work usually
bought the best available. It is not surprising that in a letter to my grandfather,
Captain Rynning requested each man to have a Colt .45 Six-shooter (no less) and a
carbine .30-40 (no less). Most men chose a Colt SAA with either a 4 3/4- or 5
1/2-inch barrel, while a few opted for the cavalry 7 1/2 inch length. Some men were known
to use shotguns where appropriate, with the Winchester Model 1901 10-gauge lever action
and Model 1897 12-gauge pump seeing use.
The rifle was still their main firearm of
choice, especially since many of the chases and arrests took place in deserts and
mountains, where a long-range repeating rifle proved to be a great advantage. By far the
most popular rifle among the Rangers was the Winchester Model 1895 .30-40 Krag, just as
Rynning outlined. Most preferred the compact carbine version with a 22-inch barrel and
military style rear sight (which flipped up and elevated to 3,100 yards). This gun proved
accurate at longer ranges yet could be carried easily on horseback and was fast handling
when an arrest had to be made in the close quarters of town.
The above story is but a small page in the
history of leverguns in America There are literally thousands of recorded instances where
such rifles have provided reliable service for pioneers, soldiers, lawmen, cowboys and
hunters under the most adverse conditions. In spite of fierce competition from other
action types, the lever-action rifle still generates incredibly strong sales annually.
Some feel a nostalgic link with our heritage helps influence buyers, and there is little
doubt this accounts for some of their popularity, but the vast majority of guns are used
for hunting, ranch work, personal defense or just plain, old shooting.
Other than a few new cartridges, most of
todays best selling models are pretty much the same design they were a century ago,
such as the Winchester Model 94 and Marlin Models 336 and 1894. Winchester reproductions
(and copies) of the Model 1886 and 1892 are basically the same as they were originally.
Because of limited space, we must discuss these generally and cannot include Savage 99s,
Browning BLRs or other modern designs. (These are certainly interesting firearms and
worthy of discussion, but their actions are distinctly different from most leverguns, and
certain comments may not apply to these.)
Today, this is not a
common reason for a buyer to select a levergun, but they withstand abuse and rough
conditions remarkably well. In many areas of the West, there are still real cowboys and
sheepherders who carry a gun daily, in the wide-open spaces. A lever action carbine is a
natural for these working folks, as they are lightweight, carry easily in a saddle
scabbard and function in spite of dirt, rain, snow and salty horse sweat. I have seen
modern Winchester Model 94s and Marlin 336s that were so caked full of dust, rust and
grime that it was remarkable they could still work. Yet, when the time came to shoot a
sheep-killing coyote, a black bear or put a hopelessly sick critter out of his misery,
they seemed to always work - just like the Rangers rifles.
with tubular magazines are not commonly thought of as versatile, as they dont house
modern, high-intensity bottleneck cartridges; but they are available in cartridges that
offer enough power to take a variety of big game and even large or dangerous game
reliably, when we consider that most game animals are taken within 200 yards. For example,
the .30 WCF (aka .30-30 Winchester) is probably the most popular whitetail deer cartridge
ever, as these deer are typically hunted in close cover with most shots being less than
150 yards. The .35 Remington, .44 Magnum and .444 Marlin (all currently available) also
serve nicely in this application.
Post-World War II lever
actions, such as the Marlin Model 1895 and Winchester 1886 .45-70, are capable of handling
+P ammunition that drive 420-grain bullets at 2,000+ fps. If the right bullets are used,
they will completely penetrate moose, brown bear or Cape buffalo and are even suitable for
taking elephant. For the small game hunter, few cartridges can even come close to equaling
the handiness of the .32-20 and .25-20 WCF cartridges. They destroy little meat yet anchor
with authority. Leverguns and cartridges suitable for hunting rabbits to elephants - now
that is versatility!
The cartridges most
commonly found in todays lever-action rifles also have another attribute: low
pressure. For example, .30 WCF and .35 Remington factory ammunition are below 38,000 CUP
and 35,000 CUP, respectively. The popular .357 and .44 Magnum cartridges are held below
36,000 psi, and the powerful .444 and .450 Marlins operate at around 43,500 psi. Standard
(non +P) .45-70 factory loads only run between 18,000 to 20,000 psi. My point is these
cartridges produce less muzzle concussion (or blast) than most modern bottleneck
cartridges, which generally operate at around 65,000 psi. This is something I have come to
appreciate; this low pressure allows fired cases to extract easily.
Besides handling quickly
like a short shotgun, the lever-action rifle can be worked to cycle and fire cartridges
remarkably fast. While I dont generally believe in relying on quick repeat shots for
most hunting situations, this is a feature that is justified in certain situations when
hunting or guiding for dangerous game. Several Alaskan guides are using Marlin and
Winchester leverguns chambered for the .45-70, .450 Alaskan, .450 Marlin and .444 Marlin
and wouldnt use anything else.
A short, handy carbine
chambered in .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum, .45 Colt or even .30-30 make top-notch personal
defense guns as they are easy to shoot accurately and offer substantially more power than
most defense handgun cartridges. They hold plenty of ammunition, and repeat
shots can be incredibly fast with a little practice. Traditional leverguns with tubular
magazines can be reloaded with the action closed, a round in the chamber and the gun
cocked while held to the shoulder and on target. In some defense situations against man or
beast, this is definitely an advantage over rifle actions that must have the action opened
and lowered from the shoulder to load.
While most users of
leverguns prefer to keep them equipped with iron sights to retain their sleek lines and
compact profile, a scope can easily be mounted on modern versions for those who wish to do
I have no idea why, but
with growing popularity of the bolt action rifle in the first half of the twentieth
century, it seems that lever actions were quickly labeled (by some gun writers) as being
inaccurate. This may have been a case where they felt the need to criticize the old
product to make the newer one look better. I have fired dozens of new leverguns (and even
more old ones) right out of the box; while they generally wont shoot as accurately
as a properly tuned bolt action, they were nonetheless accurate.
When Marlin introduced
its Model 1895 .45-70 Guide Gun several years back, I obtained one of the first samples.
Using factory Winchester 300-grain JHP ammunition, that rifle grouped into 1.1 inches at
100 yards (with a 3-9x Burris scope). Space precludes a detailed discussion of the
performance levels of various rifles from Winchester and Marlin (and in other calibers),
but the performance of the Guide Gun was not unusual, and many new leverguns are capable
of MOA performance, or close to that, right out of the box.
We have only scratched
the surface, but the demand for good leverguns remains strong more than 140 years since
their birth. They are reliable, accurate, sleek and have the aroma of campfires that have
been cold for more than a century.
For a copy of
Rifles special edition The Legacy of Lever Guns, call toll-free (1-800-899-7810) or
write to Wolfe Publishing Co., 2625 Stearman Road, Suite A, Prescott, AZ 86301-6155. The
cost is $4.99, which includes postage.