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Montana X-treme
Rifle Magazine
May - June 2003
Volume 35, Number 3
ISSN: 0162-3583
Number 207
On the cover...
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
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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 way.

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 Rynning’s 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 couldn’t 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 we’d ever slept in.” They feared the trail would be completely lost, but guessed the outlaws wouldn’t 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 wasn’t 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 we’ll 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 alternative!

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 today’s 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.

Traditional leverguns with tubular magazines are not commonly thought of as versatile, as they don’t 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 today’s 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 don’t 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 wouldn’t 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 so.

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 won’t 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 Rifle’s 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.

Accurate Powder
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