Prompted by my friends over at the Liberal Gun Club, this is another in an occasional series of revisiting some of my old articles which had been published elsewhere over the years, perhaps lightly edited or updated with my current thoughts on the topic discussed. This is an article I wrote for Guns.com, and it originally ran 3/26/2011. Some additional observations at the end.
In an earlier article, when I said you’d get about a 15% increase in bullet velocity when using a pistol caliber carbine over a handgun, I lied.
Or, rather, I was neglecting one particular class of pistol ammunition which can develop upwards of a 50% increase in velocity/power in a carbine over a handgun: the “magnums,” usually shot out of a lever-action gun. This would include .327 Federal Magnum, .357 Magnum, .41 Magnum, and .44 Magnum.
These cartridges are rimmed, initially developed as powerful handgun rounds, and have their origins in black powder cartridges. This history is important for understanding why they are different than most of the other pistol cartridges and the carbines that use them.
We’ll start with the .357 Magnum, the first of these cartridges developed.
Back in the 1930s a number of people, Elmer Keith most notable among them, were looking to improve the ballistic performance of the .38 Special cartridge. This had been a cartridge originally loaded with black powder. Black powder takes up a lot of space – typically two to four times as much space as smokeless powder of a similar power. Meaning that when people started loading .38 Special cartridges with smokeless powder, the cartridge was mostly empty.
Now, if you were looking to get more power out of a .38 Special, and you saw all that unused space in the cartridge, what would be the obvious thing to do? Right – add more smokeless powder.
The problem is, many of the handguns chambered for the .38 Special using black powder were not strong enough to handle .38 Special cartridges over-charged with smokeless powder. And having handguns blowing up is rough on the customers. Heavier-framed guns could handle the extra power, but how to distinguish between the different power levels and what cartridge was appropriate for which guns?
The solution was to come up with a cartridge, which was almost the same as the .38 Special, but would not chamber in the older guns because it was just a little bit longer. This was the .357 Magnum.
There are two important aspects of the cartridge as far as it applies to lever guns. One is just simply the ability to use more gunpowder (a typical gunpowder load for a .357 magnum uses about half again as much as used in a .38 Special.) And the other is that you can get more complete combustion of the gunpowder used, perhaps even use a much slower burning gunpowder. This means that the acceleration of the bullet continues for a longer period of time.
How much of a difference does this make? Well, from the BBTI data for the .357 Magnum, the Cor Bon 125gr JHP out of a 4″ barrel gives 1,496 fps – and 2,113 fps out of an 18″ barrel. Compare that to the .38 Special Cor Bon 125gr JHP out of a 4″ barrel at 996 fps and 1,190 fps out of an 18″ barrel. That’s a gain of 617 fps for the .357 Magnum and just 194 fps for the .38 Special. Put another way, you get over a 41% improvement with the Magnum and just 19% with the Special using the longer barrel.
Similar improvements can be seen with other loads in the .357 Magnum. And with the other magnum cartridges. And when you start getting any of these bullets up in the range of 1,500 – 2,000 fps, you’re hitting rifle cartridge velocity and power. The low end of rifle cartridge velocity and power, but nonetheless still very impressive.
There’s another advantage to these pistol caliber lever guns: flexibility. Let’s take that .357 again. On the high end of the power band, you can use it as a reliable deer-hunting gun without concern. But if you put some down-loaded .38 Special rounds in it, you can also use it to hunt rabbit or squirrel. I suppose you could even use snake/rat shot loads, though most folks don’t recommend those loads due to concerns over barrel damage. Shooting mild .38 Special loads makes for a great day just plinking at the range.
One thing that I consider a real shame: you can get good quality lever guns for the .357, the .41, and the .44 magnums. But to the best of my knowledge, no one yet makes a .327 Magnum lever gun. I would think that such a gun would meet with a lot of popularity – properly designed, it should be able to handle the .327 Federal Magnum cartridge, the .32 H&R cartridge, even the .32 S&W Long. Again, with the right powder loads, this would give the gun a great deal of flexibility for target shooting and hunting small to medium sized game/varmits.
So, if you like the idea of having a carbine in the same cartridge as your handgun, but want to be able to maximize the power available to you, think about a good lever gun. It was a good idea in the 19th century, and one that still makes a lot of sense today.
Some additional thoughts …
I’m still a little surprised that no manufacturer has come out with a production .327 mag lever gun, though occasionally you hear rumors that this company or that company is going to do so. But I must admit that as time has gone on I’ve grown less interested in the .327 cartridge, since firearms options are so limited — definitely a chicken & egg problem.
One very notable absence from the above discussion is the .22 WMR (.22 Magnum), for the simple reason that we hadn’t tested it yet when I wrote the article. You can find a later article about it here.
Something I didn’t address when I wrote the article initially was ammunition which was formulated to take greater advantage of the longer barrel of a lever gun. Several manufacturers produce such ammo, perhaps most notably Hornady and Buffalo Bore. A blog post which includes the latter ammo out of my 94 Winchester AE can be found here, with subsequent posts here and here.
And lastly, there’s another cartridge we tested which really should be included in the “magnum” category, because it sees the same increasing power levels out to at least 18″ of barrel: .45 Super. This proved to be more than a little surprising, since it is based on the .45 ACP cartridge. Most semi-auto firearms which shoot the .45 ACP should be able to handle a limited amount of .45 Super, but if you want a lever gun set up to handle the cartridge you’ll have to get it from a gunsmith.
Today we’re going to see what the results are for a couple of different high-end 1911 platform guns. The first is an Ed Brown Kobra Carry (reviewed here), a Commander-sized (4.25″ barrel) single stack designed as a concealed-carry gun. We made no modifications of it for the more powerful loads. Here it is during our testing:
As I said with the other two posts about these tests, it’ll be a while before we have all the data crunched and the website updated, but I thought I would share some preliminary thoughts and information through a series of informal posts.
Quick note about the data below: All the ammo used, with the exception of the four * items, were part of our overall test sequence and had three shots made over the Oehler chronograph (which is a double-unit, and automatically records and then averages the two readings), representing a total of 6 data points. I’m just giving the overall averages here; the full data will be available on the website later. The four * ammunition types only include two shots/four data points through the Ed Brown Kobra Carry, since it is a typical length for a self-defense gun. That’s because we only had one box of each of this ammo, and were wanting to get data which would be of the greatest use to the largest number of people.
Ammo Ed Brown Kobra Carry Wilson Combat Hunter
.45 ACP Low Recoil Std P 185gr FMJ-FN 798 fps / 261 ft-lbs 791 fps / 256 ft-lbs
.45 ACP Std P 230gr FMJ-RN 811 fps / 335 ft-lbs 819 fps / 342 ft-lbs
.45 ACP +P 185gr JHP 1130 fps / 524 ft-lbs 1139 fps / 532 ft-lbs
.45 ACP +P 230gr JHP 952 fps / 462 ft-lbs 970 fps / 480 ft-lbs
.45 Super 185gr JHP 1257 fps / 648 ft-lbs 1312 fps / 706 ft-lbs
.45 Super 200gr JHP 1175 fps / 613 ft-lbs 1216 fps / 656 ft-lbs
.45 Super 230gr FMJ 1067 fps / 581 ft-lbs 1105 fps / 623 ft-lbs
.45 Super 230gr JHP 1084 fps / 600 ft-lbs 1109 fps / 627 ft-lbs
.45 Super 255gr Hard Cast 1061 fps / 637 ft-lbs 1074 fps / 653 ft-lbs
.45 ACP +P 160gr Barnes TAC-XP 1121 fps / 446 ft-lbs 1162 fps / 479 ft-lbs
.450 SMC 185gr JHP 1310 fps / 704 ft-lbs 1350 fps / 748 ft-lbs
.450 SMC 185gr Bonded Defense JHP 1254 fps / 645 ft-lbs 1294 fps / 687 ft-lbs
.450 SMC 230gr Bonded Defense JHP 1103 fps / 621 ft-lbs 1108 fps / 626 ft-lbs
Critical Defense .45 ACP Std P 185gr FTX 969 fps / 385 ft-lbs 976 fps / 391 ft-lbs
Critical Duty .45 ACP +P 220gr Flexlock 932 fps / 424 ft-lbs 936 fps / 427 ft-lbs
.45 Super 170gr CF 1249 fps / 588 ft-lbs 1259 fps / 598 ft-lbs
.45 Super 185gr XTP JHP 1285 fps / 678 ft-lbs 1339 fps / 736 ft-lbs
.45 Super 230gr GD JHP 1071 fps / 585 ft-lbs 1099 fps / 616 ft-lbs
*Federal HST .45 ACP Std P 230gr JHP 815 fps / 339 ft-lbs
*G2 Research RIP .45 ACP Std P 162gr JHP 961 fps / 332 ft-lbs
*LeHigh Defense .45 Super 170gr JHP 1165 fps / 512 ft-lbs
*Liberty Civil Defense .45 ACP +P 78gr JHP 1843 fps / 588 ft-lbs
As with the other guns I’ve posted about, the general trends are pretty clear with the power rising as you go from standard pressure to +P to Super/.450 SMC, and topping out at about 750 foot-pounds of energy in a couple of loads. And it is interesting to note that the 185gr loads seem to be the “sweet spot” in terms of power across the board.
Of course, pure power is just one component for what makes a good ammunition choice. Bullet design & penetration is extremely important when considering a self-defense load. Shootability in your gun is also critical — because if you can’t recover quickly from shot to shot, then you may limit your ability in a stressful situation. Likewise, if the ammo doesn’t function reliably, or damages your gun, that is also a huge factor.
Most of the ammo we tested functioned very well in both 1911 platforms. Interestingly, while we had experienced FTFs (failure-to-fire) with a number of the different Double-Tap rounds in both the Bobergs and the Glocks, we didn’t experience any such problems with either 1911.
The larger platform of the Wilson Combat Hunter handled the recoil very well, even from the hottest loads. Recoil was a little more noticeable with the Ed Brown, but only by a slight amount. As I noted with the Glock 21 converted for the .460 Rowland, I was impressed that The Wilson Combat Hunter didn’t have any problems cycling even the lightest loads reliably.
Another note: we were unable to detect any damage or unusual wear to either gun, though it is possible a steady diet of loads of that power could cause some over the long term.
Lastly, I ran some .460 Rowland Buffalo Bore 230gr JHP cartridges through the Wilson Combat Hunter, since we had only had one type of ammo for that gun when we did the .460 Rowland tests. That had been Cor-Bon Hunter 230gr JHP. The Cor-Bon tested at 1213 fps / 751 ft-lbs, and the Buffalo Bore tested at 1349 fps / 929 ft-lbs of energy.
Look for more results, images, and thoughts in the days to come.
- .25 ACP
- .30 carbine
- .32 ACP
- .32 H&R
- .327 Federal Magnum
- .357 Magnum
- .357 SIG
- .38 Special
- .380 ACP
- .40 S&W
- .41 Magnum
- .44 Magnum
- .44 Special
- .45 ACP
- .45 Colt
- .45 Super
- .450 SMC
- .460 Rowland
- 6.5 Swedish
- 9mm Luger (9×19)
- 9mm Mak
- 9mm Ultra
- black powder
- Boberg Arms
- General Procedures
- Shotgun ballistics