Back In Time… What About Pistol Caliber Rifles?

You know, in the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth American hunters killed millions of head of medium game with rifles chambered for pistol cartridges. They made excellent repeaters because the cartridge length was short and they could hold a lot of them. It was said of the Henry repeater that you could load on Sunday and shoot all week.

Most of these were chambered for .25-20, 32-20, .38-40, and .44-40. The first two were considered to be too light for deer-sized game but they accounted for an awful lot of venison in farmer’s barns. The other two are more powerful and were considered to be entirely acceptable within reasonable ranges; out to 100 yards or a little more.

They were all handicapped because of their lead bullets. Today pistol rounds are available with jacketed soft point and hollow-point bullets as well as lead. The lead doesn’t expand as well or as reliably as the jacketed bullets. Today, also we have a better selection of chamberings. You can still get rifles and carbines chambered for the old .44-40 but you can also get them in .357 and .44 magnum as well as the .45 long Colt.

Most of today’s pistol caliber rifles are lever-action but not all. You can get lever rifles from American companies like the model 1894 from Marlin as well as the model 1892 from Winchester.

There are a few single-shot rifles made in pistol calibers as well as some bolt guns. Sturm Ruger offers their Model 77 rifle in .357 Magnum and in .44 Magnum. They are both stainless teel, synthetic stocked offerings.


My copy of Gun Digest lists these comparisons:

.357 158 grain Magnum from a rifle at 1830 fps for 1175 ft/lbs energy at the muzzle

.44-40 200 grain from a rifle at 1190 fps for 629 ft/lbs energy at the muzzle

.44 magnum 240 grain from a rifle at 1760 fps for 1650 ft/lbs energy at the muzzle

So, it would seem that either of the more modern calibers, according to parameters set down when people were hunting to eat, are entirely sufficient for that use today. And, the still provide the same advantages of compact firearm, compact ammunition, and less expensive ammunition that they did a century ago.

I have found that if I shop a little I can get .357 ammunition for about $20 for 50 rounds. That’s about what we pay for twenty rounds of rifle ammo. Here are some evaluations of some pistol caliber rifles:

Ruger 77-357

Ruger 77-44

Marlin 1984 .44

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10 Responses to Back In Time… What About Pistol Caliber Rifles?

  1. SemperFi says:

    I am in the market for a rifle that also shoots a pistol round. I have looked at the Henry Big Boy Rifle in .44 Mag and I like what I see but I haven’t held or fired one.

    Any opinions on this rifle? The website is below.

  2. Jim22 says:


    I have had no experience with that model but I’d be interested in what you learn. It sounds like you and I have been thinking along similar lines. Here are a few reviews. Hope they help:

    • notamobster says:

      Not quite what you’re looking for, but imagine the visceral reaction your intended target will have when he sees your pistol:

  3. Rockheim says:

    I always enjoy Hickock45’s videos. I’ve subscribed to his channel and watch them often… Lots of good information about almost any firearm you’d care to see.. 44mag Lever another Marlin 1894 ch2 Marlin 1894 45 colt

  4. Locke n Load says:

    You guys are so far over my head in this arena I feel like a little kid listening,lol.
    That .44 lever tho, I recognize that. The cattle haulers carry them in their cabs. Most DOT guys in cattle country won’t bust the balls of the bull haulers about carrying a rifle because they know its not for offensive purposes. Trust me, if you roll a rig and the fats come out limping you really need to think about doing th humane thing. Those .44s fit the bill.
    Ever seen a cattle rig roll? its a slow motion Great Escape, only more sad.

  5. Greg says:

    I have, for some months now, been looking at a variety of inventory to supplement my home defense/hunting needs (small deer)(zombies).

    My PRIMARY wish list item is to keep ammunition the same as what I might already have in stock for say… a revolver. So, if you have a .44 Magnum or .45 or similar, you may want to consider that caliber when determining your new lever action, bolt or carbine.

    I like the Ruger Camp rifles. You have to find them USED. No longer in production.
    I like the Lever Actions in the same caliber as a Revolver so I buy only ONE box (crate) for both.

    Anyway, you get the picture. Consider supplies, reloading, etc….

    Okay, lastly, I would really like to get the Ruger 7.62 semi auto with a variety of mag sizes in order to dual purpose the rifle for hunting of deer legally and then pop in a different one and sit up in the turret nest and defend the fort.

    I like the AR-10 models too… as well AR-15, but not exactly a deer rifle, right? I do not want to look like Orambo rolling in on BinLayinDown while hunting a small deer or pig.

    Peace. buy now and buy much.

  6. BigJimTX says:

    I wouldn’t count out the 5.56 for hunting. I just dropped a 300+lb boar with PMC XTac 55 gr FMJ. The advantage to 5.56 is availability. The XTac ammo is $.34/ round. I think it is important to diversify your ammo needs. It ensures that you should be able to run any ammo you find.

    I like the rifles in pistol calibers, but I find they are somewhat limited. You can get the same lever gun in 30/30 and have much more knockdown power.

    I actually prefer pistols in rifle calibers. Magnum research lone eagle and Thompson contender are two that immediately come to mind. They are easy to pack and have enough punch to drop anything within 100yds. Of course the magnum research BFR is on my “want really bad” list and it comes chambered in lots of good choices including .308, 7mm-08, my personal favorite – .444 marlin, and 45-70, among many more.

    If you are looking at the pistol chambered rifles, there is a lever gun that is considered a pistol that looks promising. Basically is a SBR with a short stock, making it classified as a pistol.

    Just my $.02

  7. SemperFi says:

    Just read the review on the Henry .44 Mag at TheTruthAboutGuns and was I impressed by the impression the rifle left on the author. He was just about gushing in praise for the weapon. I am not a big game hunter but when he said that anything within 100 yards would drop like a rock, I felt this may be the gun for me.

    And the point I took from his article was in the short sentence where he declared, “It won’t matter for hunting; if your deer (or elk or moose or whatever) isn’t down after ten rounds of .44 Magnum you need to give up hunting and take up Contract Bridge.”

    After 20 years of Marine Corps Expert Marksmanship, I don’t think I will miss many.

    Thanks for the links and assistance.

    And to all those of the Brotherhood, Happy Birthday!

    Ooh Fuckin’ Rah!

  8. Jim22 says:

    BigJimTX, I have tried hunting with pistols when I lived in Alaska. I also took deer there with a .223 on Kodiak island.

    The .223 worked very well, the pistol not so much. It was a T/C Contender in .375 Win. I shot a small caribou at about 60 yards from Creedmore position.

    Pistols, even powerful ones, are just too hard to shoot well. Rifles, even lower power ones, worked better for me.