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Modern Bullets in Lever-Gun Cartridges

Advances in bullet design have stretched the performance envelope for lever-action rifles.

2/28/2013

Choosing a bullet for a lever-action rifle cartridge has long been no more complicated than selecting one toward the lighter end of the weight range for deer or one of greater weight when more penetration is needed for larger game. Examples include the Hornady 200-grain flat-nose in the .348 Win. for whitetails and the Barnes 250-grain Original for moose, elk and black bear. That plan works as well now as it did years ago, but the latest crop of bullets from various companies offers those of us who love to hunt with the old tubular magazine lever guns even more options from which to choose.

Swift is now offering its A-Frame bullet reconfigured for the velocity windows of various lever-action rifle cartridges. Like the other A-Frames, front and rear lead cores are separated by an integral partition with the front core bonded to a thick copper jacket. Called the Lever Action Series, all have flat-nose profiles and are currently available in 0.308-inch-diameter (150 and 170 grain), 0.348-inch, 200 grain, 0.458-inch, 350 grain and two others, 0.474-inch, 400 grain for the .475 Turnbull and 0.509-inch, 450 grain for the .50 Alaskan, .50-110 Win. and other cartridges using a nominal bullet diameter of 0.510 inches. Although not new, .44-cal. A-Frame handgun bullets in 240, 280 and 300 grains are equally suitable for use in the .444 Marlin.

The A-Frame’s construction allows Swift to design a bullet for low-velocity expansion on soft targets, such as deer, without sacrificing penetration on larger game. The 350-grain, .45-70 Gov’t bullet typically opens up to just over 0.500 inches at an impact speed as low as 1,250 fps while at 1,500 fps, frontal diameter is in the 0.600-inch range. The latter impact velocity is about what the .45-70 Gov’t in the Marlin Model 1895 is capable of at 175 yards. At 2,500 fps, which is well beyond the impact velocity range of the .45-70 Gov’t in the Ruger No. 1 and deep into .458 Win. Mag. country, frontal diameter averages around 0.700 inches. Up to 2,300 fps, weight retention runs close to 100 percent while at 2,500 fps it is around 85 percent. Regardless of impact velocity, enough of the shank remains intact to ensure deep penetration.

Monolithic bullets of several diameters from Barnes are designed for use in tubular-magazine rifles and huge nose cavities ensure expansion. Measuring 0.220 inches in diameter, the cavity in the 300-grain TSX FN bullet for the .45-70 Gov’t extends back to about its midpoint. The cavity of the .30-cal. 150-grain bullet is not as deep, but its diameter of 0.120 inches represents 39 percent of bullet diameter and that’s huge. According to Coni Brooks at Barnes, the .30-cal., 150-grain TSX FN will expand at impact velocity as low as 1,500 fps while the 300-grain, .45-cal. version is good down to 1,150 fps.

Hornady FTX bullets in diameters ranging from 0.308 inches to 0.458 inches have received a lot of attention because they are pointed yet safe to use in tubular magazines. Out to 200 yards, which is about the maximum range game is usually taken with most lever-action guns, they don’t shoot a great deal flatter than blunt-nosed bullets, but their retained velocity increases downrange energy. When both exit the muzzle of a rifle in .45-70 Gov’t at 2,100 fps, the 325-grain FTX delivers 20 percent more punch at 200 yards than a 300-grain hollow-point. Latest from Hornady is the MonoFlex bullet of monolithic, Flex Tip design in 0.458-inch, 250 grains and two 140-grain bullets with different cannelure locations, one for the .30-30 Win. (No. 30310), the other for the .308 Marlin Express (No. 30311).

Dave Emary, chief ballistic scientist at Hornady, says MonoFlex and FTX bullets of various calibers expand when impact velocity is as low as 1,500 fps although it needs to be up around 1,700 fps in order for frontal diameter to open up enough to increase effectiveness on game.

Let us now take brief looks at loading these bullets in some of America’s favorite cartridges.

.30-30 Winchester
Rifles in .30-30 Win. in the hands of no small number of Alaskans still account for game ranging in size from blacktail deer to moose, and today’s controlled-expansion bullets make the grand old cartridge more effective than ever. Several years ago, in response to requests from gun shop owners in our biggest state, Federal decided to add to its Premium line of ammunition a .30-30 Win. load with a stouter bullet. It turned to Nosler and, as a result, we have a 170-grain round-nose Partition in Federal Premium Ammunition and as a reloading component from Nosler.

For quite some time the Nosler bullet had no competition among moose and black bear hunters—and then came the 150-grain TSX HP from Barnes, followed quite recently by the Swift 150- and 170-grain A-Frames and the Hornady 140-grain MonoFlex. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that no one handloads this ancient cartridge anymore. During 2011 RCBS sold more .30-30 Win. dies than .25-06 Rem., .204 Ruger, .270 WSM, .300 Rem Ultra Mag and .338 Win Mag.

.32 Winchester Special
I recall as a youngster campfire debates among adult hunters that was about .30-30 Win. versus the .32 Win. Spl. Back then, the .32’s supporters had young minds convinced it killed deer more quickly but upon growing up it dawned on us that both cartridges push 170-grain bullets along at about the same velocity, making them performance peas of the same pod.

The .32 Win. Spl. was pretty much a forgotten cartridge until Hornady unveiled a 165-grain FTX bullet for it and, while it is doubtful that its introduction will result in a flood of new rifles chambered for it, there are already many Model 94s and Model 336s out there just begging to be dusted off and taken to the hunting fields. The rifle used in my tests, a Marlin Model 336 ADL with a 24-inch barrel, consistently shot the Hornady bullet inside 2 inches at 100 yards. It gladdens my heart to see the cartridge I used to take my very first deer once again enjoy a bit of time in the limelight.

.307 Winchester/.308 Marlin Express
Hornady produced a short run of .307 Win. ammunition loaded with the 165-grain FTX bullet, but just as quickly as it raised my hopes for one of our all-time great deer cartridges, a change in game plan resulted in it being dropped, and the .308 Marlin Express was introduced instead. (I still think they would have sold more .307 ammo).

I really cannot complain because in barrels of the same length, the .308 Marlin duplicates .307 Win. performance and that makes it suitable for use on any hoofed game in North America at reasonable distances. Hornady’s 165-grain FTX bullet went a long way toward giving the cartridge momentum during the year of its introduction and while it is an excellent bullet for game perhaps as large as caribou, hunters are more likely to choose the 170-grain Swift A-Frame or Nosler Partition when moose, elk or huge black bears are on the menu.

Lever-action loading data part 1

 

.348 Winchester
I used to have a Winchester Model 71 with a 20-inch barrel, a nicely checkered stock, and Winchester’s 98-A aperture sight sitting atop its bolt. It came with a quick-detachable “NRA-style” leather sling. The 24-inch barrel of my current Model 71 is about 100 fps faster with most loads. The .348 Win. recipes I have used most through the years push the Barnes 220- and 250-grain Original along at respective velocities of 2,400 and 2,250 fps. I have taken several deer with the 220-grain bullet, and believe me when I say the 250-grain bullet will dump a Texas nilgai on its nose with one shot.

New bullets make me anxious to head to the woods with one of my all-time favorite rifles. With a 30-percent improvement in ballistic coefficient, retained velocity of the Hornady 200-grain FTX at 200 yards is about the same as for a flat-nose bullet of the same weight at 125 yards, and that increases its effectiveness on deer. The Swift 200-grain A-Frame is soft enough to be used on deer yet capable of plenty of penetration on larger game so think of it as the mice-to-moose bullet that fans of the .348 Win. have long awaited.

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3 Responses to Modern Bullets in Lever-Gun Cartridges

gary thalmanm wrote:
August 21, 2013

My Winchester model 94, 30 30 works well with winchester or remington 150 or 160. I tried two boces of leverolution ammo and it would not eject spent rounds. I had to remove then with my fingers. Anyone else experience this? Perhaps my rifle is in need of some gun smith work. Advise anyone

Tom wrote:
May 25, 2013

@Joel, that's why modern replicas of the Winchester '92 are available in the modern pistol calibers like 357 Mag, 44 Mag and 454 Casull. They make for a handy little rifle that can really deliver the ultimate potential of these pistol calibers, while allowing fun shooting at the range for a fraction of the cost of rifle-caliber ammunition. And, recoil and performance can be tailored to the shooter.

Joel wrote:
March 04, 2013

Interesting. But gunmakers should consider modern pistol rounds--9MM, 45ACP, 40S&W, 10MM Auto. These rounds are capable and are much less expensive and much more suitable for fun shooting, plinking. 10MM would likely shine in a compact lever gun. Imagine a Trapper lever action with 10 rounds of 10MM.