11 November 2023

Categories of Commercial Sporting Rifles Destroyed by the NFA - Pocket Rifles and Trapper Rifles

 I've talked about the National Firearms Act of 1934 a lot. More like I've yammered about how I don't like it. The NFA did a lot to stifle development and general sales of rifles that were readily available before it's enactment. While I'm biased against the NFA, there are definitely firearms that were impacted that simply didn't fit within the idea of regulating gangster guns. While I don't believe in limiting people to guns that someone may define as "sporting" for the sake of this article, I'll talk about two guns that work within the confines of "sporting." They are "sporting" rifles used by people for legitimate reasons that still make sense today but were regulated into oblivion. Let's take a look at the categories then go over what I want.

Pocket Rifles

Pocket rifles are what we would call a survival rifle today. Similar guns exist today but not with the shorter barrel lengths. Basically, they were a single shot, breach loading rifle that appeared after the Civil War. The idea is simple. You have a short rifle that can be carried easily for the taking of small game animals while on a trail. If you're heading into the wilderness for some time, this stows nicely on a pack or elsewhere that can help keep you fed. I have seen in auction, versions of these rifles with barrels as short as 8 inches. That had surprised me as I had only ever seen 10, 12, 15 and 18 inch versions before. 

Apparently, they were fairly popular though I don't know to what extent. Given that a very large number of these guns would have been made prior to 1899, the examples surviving by 1934 would have been antiques and not regulated. Any gun made after 1899 would have been regulated. What would have been an inexpensive hunting rifle would have required an incredibly expensive tax to be paid. For example, an advertisement from 1894 has a 10 inch Stevens Pocket Rifle at $12.25. In 2023 money, that's about $438. That inflation is painful. That said, in 1934, the Pocket Rifle cost, if adjusted for inflation is $19.07. Imagine that you are a regular person with a modest income. You have purchased a 10 inch Steven's Pocket rifle in 1933 for $19. Then in 1934, some Democrats tell you that your new rabbit hunting gangster gun requires a $200 dollar tax stamp. You're not going to pay that. That's 10 times the cost of the rifle. Let's adjust for inflation. Say you bought that rifle in 2022 for $416. Then Congress says you have to pay a tax of $4600 dollars to keep that rifle. Will you be keeping that gun? No you won't. All you wanted was a .22 rimfire rifle to hunt rabbits but now you can't keep your new 10 inch barrel rifle. 

It wasn't just rifles as well. The Marble's Game Getter combination gun ran into the same fate. The Game Getter had similar barrel lengths but had a second barrel under the .22 rimfire barrel for special 44-40 cartridges. The 1908 version of the small game hunting gun would handle the .22 Short, Long and Long Rifle cartridges with the .44 barrel underneath using .44-40 shotshells (like the CCI shot shells we have today). Some of those shells had .44 caliber round ball loads that could have likely taken larger game as needed. Maybe not deer though I could see someone trying. 

I recommend visiting Marble's website for a better history. 

Today, the rolls these guns play have been filled with rifles like the AR-7 or the Henry Survival Rifle or the Chiappa Little Badger. They are easily packed rifles with barrels that meet the current 16 inch minimum for Title 1 under the NFA. Alternatively, take-down guns like the Ruger 10/22 can be setup to do a similar roll. The Ruger rifle does have a pistol version called the Charger in a take-down that could be fitted with a stock but that would require a $200 stamp.  Congress did fess up to having made the mistake of regulating the Game Getter which is why we have the AOW $5 stamp. A $5 stamp is much more palatable on a $19.00 rifle than $200 for a stamp. It took them 4 years to do it though.

Trapper Rifles

Trapper rifles, as we call them today, are shorter rifles carrier by woodsman, who didn't need the rifle specifically to take Big Game but were more for defense. Winchester sold factory rifles such as the Model 1873, 1892 and 1894 with 14 and 15 inch barrels. Today, Trapper rifles will usually have 16 inch barrels to comply with the current iteration of the NFA. Again, pre-1899 rifles would be covered as antiques but if you had a newer one, there is a $200 tax stamp. 

The shorter barrels help with maneuverability in the woods. The longer barrels may get caught up in the brush and branches of the trees common to areas where fur-bearers (think beaver) live. The rifles still retain their ability to take larger game but at reduced distances. With a 20 inch 1894 in .30 WCF you might be able to take a deer at 200 yards but with the 14 inch barrel, that would likely be reduced to around 100 yards. That's not a huge loss as much hunting is done in that range anyway. The pistol calibers like .44 WCF or .38 WCF would not have faired well at range but a 1873 or 1892 with a 14 or 15 inch barrel is still a viable short range hunting rifle, especially with the express rifle loads available.

My Purposes

While everyone's needs are different, I'll do my best to go over why I want these rifles and how the short barrel versions fit into my life. I'll give two examples of rifles I have that, if trimmed down, can still do the same job they do now but with the shorter barrels. 

.22 LR

Simply put, .22 LR makes up a very large part of my ammunition consumption. Understanding the loads I use helps me as a shooter. The weapons I use in .22LR vary from revolvers and semi auto pistols to bolt action, lever action and semi auto rifles. Let's look at the velocity performance of .22 LR. 

I have used Remington's 36 grain Golden Bullet before and I still have a little left from my old stockpile. The above image is from testing done by Ballistics By The Inch. From 2 inches of barrel to basically 11 inches of barrel, the velocity is increasing pretty steadily. After 11 inches the velocity is pretty much the same. That chart demonstrates that there is fundamentally no reason from a cartridge performance perspective to use a barrel beyond 11 inches with this factory load. Other loads are similar with them having varying barrel lengths being the practical cut off point. Some are 10 inch and some are 13 inch. Each one varies a bit. Some actually do better with the 18 inch barrel but all the testing BBTI did shows around 12 inches is the shortest barrel length to achieve near maximum velocity for many .22 LR factory loads.  

One of my favorite .22 LR rifles is my Henry H001. It has the 18 barrel. I knew they had a 16 inch but years ago I had chosen the 18 inch. I think it was just the cheapest option. While having 15 rounds in the longer magazine is nice the shorter 16 inch still has 12 rounds of 22 LR for the Youth model. Looking further still, the 12 inch barrel version of the H001, the Mare's Leg, holds 10 rounds or .22LR. As a short range, small game hunting rifle or barn yard rifle, that's pretty good. Though if I had a rat problem, the 18 inch barrel with 21 rounds of .22 Shorts it pretty hard to beat. For a woods small game rifle, I'm happy with the 12 inch barrel. The NFA requires me to pay a $200 stamp for me to take the 12 inch barrel model and put a stock on it. If you want the shortest possible rifle for in the woods while still making full use of your .22 LR loads, you need to pay the taxes. Otherwise, anything longer is merely compliance. 

.357 Magnum

The old .357 Magnum works similarly to the .22 LR. Per BBTI's findings, the 158 gr loads they tested showed that one favored the 16 inch barrel while the other load favored the 14 inch barrel. 

In their chart above, the maximum velocity recorded came from a 16 inch barrel at 1739 while the 14 inch showed 1732 fps. That's the difference between one cartridge to the next. That means 14 inches is the shortest barrel needed to achieve near maximum velocity. What this chart doesn't show is that the velocity from even just a 6 inch barrel is still useable. In their real world testing with a Korth 5.8 inch barrel, they got 1259 fps. That should be good enough to take a deer around 50 yards. You can extend that range with a better bullet design expanding at lower velocities. 

If you had a modern version of the Winchester 1892 chambered in .357 Magnum and used the traditional 14 inch barrel similar to how the 1800's versions of the guns were, you'd have a greatly improved rifle by simply using the new cartridge. That isn't to say the .38-40 version of the gun wasn't useful but by having the faster moving magnum, we can get even more distance than before. I have successfully taken deer with a 16 inch barrel version of the Marlin 1894 and have no reason to believe the same cartridges wouldn't work in anything shorter. In fact, I chose the Remington 158 gr SJHP because of it's performance from both a rifle and a revolver. It works in my 16 inch 1894 and it works in my 4 inch revolver. It doesn't matter if it has a stock or not.  

I like my Marlin 1894 a lot. Having 8 rounds in the magazine is very handy but I would very much like to see how the 14 inch version would do as my truck rifle and hunting rifle for on the Little Farm. My understanding is that Marlin did make 14 or 15 inch versions in the early 1900's. 


While shortening the barrels on my two lever action rifles by just a few inches seems trivial, I argue the same. Why regulate a rifle by just a few inches? Why not optimize your situation? The two examples above are for older cartridges and older rifle designs, what if we fully modernized? What can we achieve? How about a 10 inch .300 Blackout AR-15 or bolt-action instead of the .357 Magnum? I know .300 Blackout works on deer since I've done that successfully. The NFA and your imagination are the only limiting factors on putting together a viable multipurpose rifle or short hunting rifle. Given those limitations, I think it's time to repeal the NFA so your imagination is the limiting factor.  

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