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THE .38-55 IS BACK!


At the SHOT Show two years ago it was my privilege, along with Bob Baer and Brian Pearce, to meet with three of the top brass from the Marlin Firearms Company. Baer had set up the meeting through Marlin's Tony Aeschliman, so the three of us, all levergun fans in general and fond of Marlins in particular, could express our ideas as to what Marlin should be offering.

We met for over an hour and they listened to everything we had to offer as well as questioning us about other possibilities. I am not going to say that we three are responsible for the great leverguns now coming forth from Marlin. They were in all probability already on the same wave length as we were. Whatever the situation, we are now seeing the results of exactly what we talked about. Namely, octagon barrels, straight grip stocks, long barrels, short barrels, and old time (some un-informed souls would even call them obsolete!) chamberings. The latter includes the .38-55, .40-65, .32-20, and .38-40.

New for this year from Marlin is an offering of short, handy leverguns with octagon barrels and straight grip stocks on a limited basis through one particular distributor, Davidson's, in both .41 Magnum and .45-70. Two new standard catalog items are Long Range Cowboy Leverguns from Marlin in both .30-30 and .38-55.

Everyone surely knows the .30-30 from "Mom, Apple Pie, The Flag, and .30-30" fame. The Model 1894 Winchester was chambered in .30-30, not in 1894 but one year later in 1895 as it became one of the first, if not the first, smokeless powder rifle chambering. This was at the same time that the .30-40 Krag in the Model 1895 Winchester also appeared. Interestingly enough, both rifles are still in existence. The Model 94 has been made in various calibers and chamberings with millions upon millions available, while the American home of the .30-40, the 1895 was resurrected by Winchester several years ago.

The original chamberings in the Model 1894 Winchester were the .32- 40 and .38-55 both black powder cartridges. Both were dropped long before I was born. However, in recent years Winchester has used both for chamberings for their Commemorative '94 leverguns with the .32-40 finding its away into the John Wayne Commemorative and the .38-55 found in the Legendary Lawman as well as the Chief Crazy Horse Commemorative. More on this later.

Marlin's Model 336 Cowboy joins the other Marlin Cowboy offerings, the Model 1894 in .45 Colt, .44-40, .44 Magnum, and .357 Magnum (Please! bring forth a .38-40!!) all of which owe their existence and great popularity to the grand shooting sport known as Cowboy Shooting. Quality leverguns are required for this and although some competitors use original leverguns, both Marlins and Winchesters, from the last century, many opt for the newer, stronger, more reliable, and less expensive modern leverguns. Probably the levergun most seen at Cowboy Shooting gatherings, at least in my area, is the Marlin 1894 Cowboy.

For those not entirely familiar with Cowboy Shooting, the sport requires a shotgun, two single action sixguns, and a levergun all pre- 1900 style, that is one that was manufactured before or is of the type manufactured before the turn of the twentieth century. This means they may be examples as originally manufactured or replicas thereof. While most folks are looking forward to the twenty-first century, Cowboy Shooters are still stuck in the nineteenth century!

The leverguns for the main match MUST be chambered in a sixgun cartridge with the most popular among those more prone to authenticity being in .44-40, .38-40, and .32-20, while the those Johnny-come-lately modern cartridges, the .44 Magnum and .357 Magnum are also allowed with proper loads. The most popular sixgun cartridge for competitors is the .45 Colt with companion leverguns so chambered being used even though there were no leverguns chambered in .45 Colt prior to very recent times. It just is almighty handy to have the sixguns and leverguns chambered for the same round!

So where do the Marlin 336 Cowboys in .30-30 and .38-55 enter the picture? Two ways. Cowboy Shooting is addictive and often spills over into other areas of shooting with many of those taking part also looking to acquire and use other period firearms and chamberings. The addition of the .30-30 and .38-55 in a levergun reminiscent of long bygone days gives the Cowboy Shooter an authentically styled hunting rifle. Secondly, side matches, long range rifle side matches, are becoming increasingly popular at Cowboy Shooter gatherings. These two levergun chamberings are perfect for this aspect of Cowboy Shooting.

Unless one looks at the hole in the barrel, the two Model 336 Cowboy leverguns from Marlin are virtually identical with the more observant among us able to distinguish the slightly heavier .30-30 from the .38-55. To identify the .38-55 cartridge we can work backwards from the .30-30. The .38-55 is a relatively straight-walled case, it is slightly tapered, that was designed for black powder. With the coming of smokeless, the .38-55 was trimmed from 2.1295" to 2.039", necked down to .30 caliber and a real piece of Americana emerged as the .30 WCF, more commonly known as the .30-30. The modern version of the .38-55, the .375 Winchester, was formed by trimming the .30-30 by .019", beefing up the cartridge case, and necking it back up to .375. DO NOT USE .375 WINCHESTER AMMUNITION IN .38-55 RIFLES!!!

The .38-55 leverguns normally have a groove diameter of .377-379" while most jacketed bullets for the .375 Winchester are in the .375" diameter size range. This makes the .38-55 particularly favorable to cast bullets. Both Marlin and Lyman offer old time designs for the .38- 55 with RCBS's #37-250FN having a gas check.

The 336 Cowboy features a 24" full octagon barrel, straight-gripped stock with checkering on both forearm and butt stock, typical Marlin quality in both excellent wood and blue finish, and standard Marlin sights consisting of the adjustable rear on an elevator and a bead front. The front sights on both the .30-30 and .38-55 Marlin 336 Cowboys are too short for my use causing both leverguns to shoot high. This is now academic as the .30-30 carries a scope while the .38-55 is fitted with the excellent Ghost Ring style "peep" sight by Ashley Outdoors. These are great sights for quick use in a hunting situation as the rear sight is very small and unobtrusive with a large aperture allowing the user to pick up both target and front sight immediately.

Also present is the now standard cross bolt safety that our ancestors never needed. A wise man once said something to the effect of "Lord give me the courage to change the things I can change, the serenity to accept the things I can't change, and the wisdom to know the difference." Complaining about cross bolt safeties, or any kind of safety, on leverguns is certainly a classic example of beating a dead horse and trying to make it run. Unless society changes drastically and we go back to operating on individual responsibility instead of trying to make everything with more moving parts than a crayon idiot proof, safeties are a given.

The left side of the octagon barrel is marked "MODEL 336CB-38/55 WIN". You will note that this use of ".38/55" is different than my preferred ".38-55" use. Apparently there is no one way that is more correct than the other way. Winchester marks their barrels .38-55 and various reloading manuals use it one way or the other. The same is true of .30-30, .30/30; .44-40, .44/40; and even .30-06, .30/06.

Both Model 336 Cowboys, as all of the other 1894 Cowboy Models chambered for sixgun cartridges, carry a full magazine tube under their octagon barrels. Magazine capacity in the full length tubes found on the 336 Cowboy is eight rounds.

With its long heavy octagon barrel the 336 Cowboy, be it in .30-30 or .38-55 chambering "hangs easily" on target from the shoulder in a standing position. Short barrels make dandy brush guns but long barrels are easier to shoot at least for most of us.

The groove diameters on .38-55 rifles has varied over the years and in different makes and models. A call to Marlin confirmed that their .38-55 barrels are cut at .378". With this in mind I tried cast bullets sized to both .377" and .379" experiencing no practical discernable difference in accuracy. They both shoot exceptionally well. Winchester's factory offering, a 250 grain jacketed flat nose at a very mild black powder type velocity of 1200 fps is a tack driver with groups of 5/8" at 50 yards. Full test results are in the accompanying chart. I have settled on a loading for my general use of RCBS's 250 grain flat nosed gas check design, #37-250FN, sized to either .377" or .379" and loaded over 33.0 grains of H4895. Muzzle velocity is 1700+ fps and both shoot into 1/2" or less at 50 yards. I can't ask for anything more than that! Some might look at the 250 grain cast bullet at 1700 fps and think that it isn't much. Compared to the .338 or .375 H&H it isn't. However 1700 fps with a 240 grain bullet is the standard .44 Magnum carbine performance and no one dare say that this load is not a good up close hunting load for just about anything. The .38-55 does it with a flatter trajectory and deeper penetration.

The .30-30 Marlin Cowboy is exceptionally accurate. I feel the heavy stiff octagon barrel has a lot to do with this. It is almost boring shooting factory loads as everything tried grouped exceptionally well. Again full test results are in the accompanying table. For the traditional hunter who understands the .30-30 and realizes it is a much better cartridge than those that prefer the high velocity offerings will allow it to be, the Marlin .30-30 336 Cowboy is a grand choice for deer, black bear, and in the hands of one who gets close, takes his time, and places his shot carefully, even elk and moose.

Shortly after acquiring the 336 .38-55, I walked into Shapel's and spotted a most ornate levergun on the back rack. Before examining it too closely I looked first at the price tag, which seemed more than reasonable and then to the barrel marking. My heart soared as I read ".38-55 WIN." This beautiful Model 94 was a Chief Crazy Horse Commemorative. Barrel length, as with the Marlin 336 Cowboy is 24" albeit in this case round rather than octagonal, and the case colored receiver is nicely etched on each side with Indian hunting scenes.

The front end cap is also case colored, wood is good quality walnut and is strikingly set off with brass tacks, five on each side of the forearm, and a lucky 13 surrounding an Indian medallion on the right side of the butt stock.

Sights are standard Winchester levergun rear with a gold bead front sight. As with the Marlin, the front sight needs to be taller for me so it would seem that I am the problem not the leverguns! This is a commemorative worth seeking out at gun shows and gun shops.

I held the torch high for a .38-55 for many years. I tried to quench the flame by using trimmed .38-55 brass in my Winchester Model 94 .375 Big Bore. It did not help. Now suddenly I find myself with not one but two .38-55 leverguns. Ain't life wonderful?


LOAD MV  GROUP @ 50 yds.
Federal 170 Soft Point Hi-Shok 2020 7/8"
Hornady 150 Round Nose 2350 5/8"
Hornady 170 Flat Point 2220 3/4"
Remington 170 Core-Lokt 2199 3/8"
Speer Nitrex 150 Flat Point 2310 3/4"
Speer 130 Flat Point/37.0 gr. H322 2667 3/4"
Speer 170 Flat Point/32.0 gr. H322 2203 3/8"
Fusilier 150 GC/20.5 gr. H4895 1365 1 3/8"
Fusilier 170 GC/20.5 gr. H4895 1454 1"
Fusilier 170 GC/28.0 gr. H4895 2060 1 5/8"
Bull-X 170 CSJ Moly/17.5 gr. H4895 1363 1"
Bull-X 170 CSJ Moly/6.5 gr. Red Dot 1244 1 3/8"
Winchester 255 Soft Point 1209 5/8"

Cast Bullets Loads RCBS #37-250FNGC Sized to .377":

LOAD MV  GROUP @ 50 yds.
22.5 gr. XMP5744 1639 1"

33.0 gr. H4895

1708 3/8"
30.0 gr. Reloader-7 1729 1 1/4"
30.0 gr. H322 1804 7/8"

Cast Bullets Loads RCBS #37-250FNGC Sized to .379"

LOAD MV  GROUP @ 50 yds.
22.5 gr. XMP5744 1635 1"
33.0 gr. H4895 1708 1/2"
33.0 gr. H4895 1758 1 1/2"
30.0 gr. H322 1800 7/8"


Winchester 255 Soft Point -1257

Cast Bullets Loads RCBS #37-250FNGC Sized to .377":

LOAD MV  GROUP @ 50 yds.
22.5 gr. XMP5744 1693
33.0 gr. H4895 1744 1 1/2"
30.0 gr. Reloader-7 1916
30.0 gr. H322 1795

Cast Bullets Loads RCBS #37-250FNGC Sized to .379"

LOAD MV  GROUP @ 50 yds.
22.5 gr. XMP5744 1674
33.0 gr. H4895 1758
30.0 gr. Reloader-7 1881 1 3/4"
30.0 gr. H322 1839

Readers can obtain more information on the Marlin 336 Cowboy as well as other fine leverguns by contacting The Marlin Firearms Co., at P.O. Box 248, North Haven, CT 06473; phone: (203) 239-5621. They are on the net at http://www.marlinfirearms.com/.

For excellent Ghost Ring sights for any rifles Ashley Emerson is the man to contact at Ashley Outdoors, 2401 Ludelle, Fort Worth, TX 76105; phone: (817) 536-0136. They can also be found at http://www.ashleyoutdoors.com/.

For jacketed bullets suitable for use in the .38-55, the place to go is Northern Precision for excellent bullets for any rifle or sixgun. They ship from 329 S. James St., Carthage, NY 13619; phone: (315) 493-1711.

This article was originally posted on www.sixguns.com






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