Short Cartridges in Long Guns

Apr 15, 2019

What’s the point, right? Why use a handgun cartridge in a longer, heavier, less-handy package than the handgun – there has to be a good reason, right?

There can be a range of reasons but right now pistol-caliber carbines are all the rage. While a good many are the AR15-type variant, set up for range games and the like, others are clearly intended for field use of one kind or another as well as certain security/law enforcement and personal defense applications. It’s a market segment that seems to be enjoying a rebound.

For many, the lessened blast, down-range damage and costs associated with shooting outweigh the relative lack of power for the firearm of this size. That’s not at all bad. Going back in time, the 19thCentury, someone thought it’d be good to have ammunition commonality between belt-gun and shoulder gun. The 44 WCF cartridge was designed for just such a role, being chambered in Winchester lever guns as well as Colt revolvers.

There was only one cartridge to supply and it would feed either gun. That’s okay, but it was quickly turned another direction with the 32-20, a cartridge that was loaded in one format for revolvers and another for rifle use. That wrecked the utility of an otherwise terrific cartridge.

When the pistol-caliber carbine is a 'take-down' version like the Ruger PC Carbine, the utility is enhanced. As to the butt-mounted magazine pouch, it's discontinued but stay tuned: someone may start making them again.

That was then. This is now and the most plentiful, cheapest to buy centerfire round in America appears to be the 9x19mm auto cartridge. It’s loaded in enormous quantities and that helps drive the price down. Having a long gun with the capability of shooting that pistol cartridge can be helpful when the amount of centerfire rifle ammo dwindles.

And shooting the carbine accurately at distance is far easier for most of us than the pistol. When checking the zero of the Ruger PC Carbine, I fired five rounds standing off-hand at a fifty yard steel target. Four rounds of the five clustered into two inches. That’s better than I can hold with the pistol.

I recently came into possession of a sample of the Marlin M1894 CST, a ca. 16” barrel 357 Magnum carbine. The weather was still horrible the last time I had it out but I got it into rough zero at fifty yards with Federal American Eagle 158 gr. JSP ammo. I put three hits into just under 2 ½”.

It took some turning to get that rear XS aperture up far enough to bring the hits into A-zone territory, but it was cold enough I imagine my shooting was compromised.

The little lever action carbine is built for quick handling especially in close. It has some external durability, weather-resistance, with a stainless steel barreled action. That 16 ½” barrel keeps it short but along with the painted buttstock makes it a joy to shoot at ‘pistol-plus’ ranges.

The ghost ring aperture, this one by XS Sights, is handy too. Fast but precise enough. The aperture is large, surrounded by a thin rim. When centering the front sight, a white-line post, the rim disappears, hence the moniker “ghost” ring.

I’ve not yet gotten to check the 357 over a chronograph to see what we could expect from revolver ammo in this long gun. I’d last done that with another 357 lever gun – a Henry Big Boy – comparing loads from a 2.5” revolver, a 4” revolver and the ca. 16” tube of the carbine. I found that some loads gained less than 300 feet-per-second from the shortest to longest barrel. The greatest spread was over 700 feet-per-second with a single load. I’m thinking it was a fluke, with most loads gaining up to five hundred fps from shortest barrel to longest, giving the carbine loads a boost into 1,700 fps territory. It was much easier to shoot those loads in the carbine, which weighs in at around 6.5 pounds, than the revolvers.

Don’t expect that much difference with the 9x19mm pistol round. The ammo is loaded for pistol length barrels. Unless you’re using some specialty ammo, like ARX Inceptor, you can expect carbine velocities from 1,200 fps to 1,500 fps – and that’s not consistent across brands and loads.

Still, the handgun caliber carbines are pleasant to shoot, they’re fun and mostly cheaper than their rifle-caliber carbine brethren to shoot. You can shoot pistol caliber carbines in more locations, as centerfire rifles then to make more racket and have a longer down-range impact potential. You can also add the fact that steel targets last far longer when shot with handgun-calibers than rifle calibers.

I’m looking forward to trying more loads with the Marlin M1894 CST. It’s a fun gun and has been trouble-free.

- - Rich Grassi