What’s a lever-loving rifleman to do if he’s got a hankering for a pistol-caliber carbine? Marlins are garbage these days, and the rest of the lot (Henrys, Winchesters, Ubertis, Pedersolis and Cimarrons) are gorgeous and expensive heirlooms, almost too beautiful to carry afield. If you’re looking for a working man’s cowboy carbine, Rossi’s Model 92 is the last man standing. How well does this $450 almost-SBR stack up against the other levers we’ve tested? Could it be, dollar for dollar, the best lever-action value out there? . . .
Let’s start right up there at the muzzle.
The Model 92 follows The Cowboy Way when it comes to sighting equipment: a brass-beaded post up front and a semi-buckhorn leaf at the rear. The post is drift-adjustable for windage and the rear leaf has an elevation ramp.
I’m not a huge fan of any kind of buckhorn rear sights, even though they are historically correct. This photo is a bit misleading, because a proper buckhorn sight picture puts the tip of the post at the bottom of the huge rear ‘notch’ instead of the top. This sight picture would send your bullet over the top of the target at any feasible range.
Iron sights just don’t work for some shooters, often due to poor eyesight. B-Square sells this aluminum no-gunsmith mount for about $40. It’s cheap and easily removed, but it looks like an ugly and uncomfortable abomination. Although it’s slightly offset to the left (more discomfort) it also looks like it could deflect ejected cases back into the open action. Even at this price, I’m not particularly tempted to go this route. You just don’t do this sort of thing to a rifle like this; if you want long-range precision you won’t find it with a pistol-caliber saddle carbine anyway.
If you want better sights, have your gunsmith install a Williams or Lyman rear peep sight with a wide-open rear aperture and put a higher-visibility bead up front. This will improve both your speed and precision without sacrificing the cowboy vibe of your cowboy carbine.
Fiber-optic sights are another unobtrusive option, but if you absolutely must put a scope on a saddle-ring carbine like this, make it a long eye-relief ‘scout’ scope and mount it as low as you can. You’ll give up some cowboy cred but you’ll gain some accuracy and target-spotting ability. Rossi sells a fitted Weaver rail section that screws to the barrel for about $15, but you’ll have to remove the rear sight to install it.
As I mentioned, this gun ain’t a tackdriver. Benchrested with a scope, it’s probably mechanically capable of cheap bolt-action rifle accuracy in the 3-4 MOA range. Few Rossi Model 92s will ever shoot that well in real life, because they should never wear a scope, and they aren’t much fun to shoot from a benchrest.
Practical accuracy is more pedestrian, and this two-inch, 40-yard group is fairly typical of what we experienced. The best groups like this one were produced with 255-grain SWC lead bullets over 8.0 grains of Unique.
Like many pistol-caliber carbines, this .45 Colt carbine was extremely load-sensitive when it came to point of impact and accuracy. My 255-grain SWC handloads grouped consistently low and left like this, but they did at least group consistently, in about a 2″ cluster at 40 yards. This 5 MOA accuracy could be extrapolated to predict 5″ or 6″ groups at 100 yards. This is about the same as most parts-kit AKs, along with the very crappiest big-box store bolt guns.
There’s no reason not to think the Rossi could deliver slightly better accuracy if you can try it out with numerous .45 Colt bullets and loadings. Our testing was unfortunately limited to some low-velocity 255-grain RNL factory reloads, some equally sluggish 230-grain JHP factory reloads, and a few boxes of my own medium-strength 255-grain hardcast SWCs. Factory .45 Colt ammo wasn’t just expensive; it was flat-out unavailable at the five local big-box retailers I searched.
Despite the surprising Great .45 Colt Drought in my area, I discovered about 75 rounds of standard-pressure factory reload .45 Colts that were left over from our Smith & Wesson Governor review a few years ago. The leftover 230-grain JHPs had shot very accurately through the S&W Governor so I knew they weren’t defective, but the Rossi spit them out all over the place like John Blutarski in the Faber College cafeteria. 8 to 10 MOA was our typical group size from the Model 92 with this not-optimal load. The leftover 255-grain RNLs were sadly no better.
They were barely accurate enough to plug our steel silhouette target from 40 yards, but that’s a 12″ x 24″ target and every gun (including handguns) should hit it with every shot at that range. Which we did with my Ruger Blackhawk.
These cheap (pre-Panic) .45 Colt factory reloads may have been assembled with .452″ bullets. These will function in both .45 Colt and .45 ACP cartridges, but a .45 Colt should really use .454 cast bullets instead. I didn’t save any of the rounds to mic them, so this is just a theory as to why they performed so well in the multi-chambered Governor but so poorly in the Rossi.
I’m not dazzled by the Rossi’s accuracy, but neither am I disappointed. If a 16″ barrel pistol-caliber carbine can hit the vitals of a whitetail deer at 100 yards, you won’t hear me complaining about it. And if it will blast a tin can at 40 yards and put a huge smile on my face at the same time for $450, it’s all good.
If you can handle a Red Ryder BB gun, you can handle the Rossi ‘El Jefe’ Model 92 (just don’t forget your ear pro.) The Rossi’s lever is smoother, its trigger is lighter, its sights are better and it only weighs twice as much as Ralphie’s blued-steel beauty. It’s only two pounds heavier than an empty Government Model 1911, and it floats like a feather in your hands.
And it’s only 34 inches long, which is almost as short a rifle as you can own without waiting nine months for an SBR tax stamp. Even if you went to the hassle of converting it to a (legal) SBR and chopping the barrel to 12″, you’d only save yourself a measly 4 inches and you’d lose that grin-inducing 9+1 magazine capacity.
As this video shows, the handling of this light, compact gun is extremely lively. Pay no attention to my first-down fumble with the lever here: I’m used to the customized big loop on my Wild West Marlin 1894C, and the Rossi’s lever has a different shape which tripped me up a little bit at first.
I’ve fired some of the crappiest levers and the finest levers made, and I pronounce this Rossi’s lever action to be among the smoothest steel-receiver levers I’ve ever laid hands on. It’s far better than any modern Marlin I’ve handled, and nearly as smooth as Farago’s 75 year-old Model 39 or the brass-framed Henrys and Uberti reproduction 1866s.
La Dolce Innescare
The Rossi Model 92’s trigger is simply outstanding for a lever-action rifle. It has a short pull which is almost completely smooth, with only one minuscule spot of ‘grit’ before the perfectly crisp and predictable break. The pull measures an absolutely consistent 4.0 pounds, with only a modest amount of overtravel. It’s honestly better than many entry-level bolt action triggers.
Once you get up to speed (a pricey proposition if you don’t roll your own ammo) you’ll be sending aimed shots downrange like a latter-day Chuck Connors, with a cyclic rate of nearly 90 rpm. For residents of Stasi states like California or New York, a carbine like this might be the ultimate legal home-defense carbine. Rossi advertises an 8+1 round capacity, but I had no trouble loading and feeding 9+1 rounds. 10 rounds is the same as the rifle magazine limit in some states, and the Model 92’s loading gate is nearly as quick as a bullet button mag swap. At least you can top off your magazine without having to open the action or take the gun off-target.
The ergonomics aren’t all sunshine and trumpets, however, especially for full-sized shooters. The sight radius is shorter than an AK-47’s, and the length of pull is only 0.4″ longer than Mikhail’s Avtomat. This won’t keep you from blasting tin cans or Evil Roy cowboy silhouettes, but it makes bench testing a chore.
Another ergonomic glitch lies in the hinged loading gate on the right side of the receiver. The door has a gentle closure spring (a welcome discovery) but the edges of the gate are squared and excessively sharp. My right thumb was pretty chewed up after less than 200 rounds, and it’s still raw and scabbed-over as I’m typing this.
The Model 92 is light and compact, and with standard-pressure .45 loads it recoils like a yawning house-cat. It’s a great choice for younger or smaller shooters, as well as the recoil-shy. The short length of pull fit my 5’1″ daughter just like a Ruger 10/.22, and her 85-pound frame could balance the short barrel without having to lean backwards like some smaller shooters try to do.
Recoil with .45 Colt cowboy loads was utterly negligible. My slightly more expeditious handloads only gave a mild nudge on the steel butt-plate, like a .223 fired from a bolt-action rifle.
Sometime TTAG contributor ‘Tony’ brought his Ruger LC9 joined me in the Oregon mountains for our testing day. Ammunition availability limited our testing fun to under 200 rounds, and we encountered but a single malfunction: a shooter-induced failure to feed at round count 2.
I’d foolishly turned the receiver nearly upside-down to make sure the empty brass ejected into my range bag, forgetting that top-eject Winchesters don’t always eject or feed reliably when they’re sideways or upside-down. The empty ejected, but the fresh round didn’t come back onto the shell lifter until I poked around inside the action with my finger.
Other than this FTF (which wasn’t the gun’s fault) reliability was absolutely perfect. We didn’t have a single loading problem with any type of bullet, whether lead or jacketed, roundnose or semiwadcutter.
Feeding and ignition were likewise perfect through our limited testing. Ejection was positive and delightful: the empties were tossed about three feet in the air, to land about two feet behind and to the right of the shooter. We didn’t lose a single brass case all day, which is fantastic when you need to handload.
The Model 92 has one feature the original Winchester never had: this slightly awkward (but at least inoffensive) L-shaped safety mounted atop the bolt. It can only be operated while the hammer is at its lowered half-cock position, and not when the hammer is cocked or fully lowered onto the firing pin.
I don’t see the need for a safety on any manually-operated rifle, since the best mechanical safety is an empty chamber and/or a lowered hammer. That being said, I know the rest of the legal and business and insurance world may think differently. I’m glad this safety doesn’t mar the lovely flat sides of the receiver like a Marlin cross-bolt safety, and I’m happy to report that it didn’t interfere with my shooting one bit. I never used it, and it never bothered me.
Fit And Finish
The Model 92 shows solid, workmanlike fit and finish throughout its construction. Metal parts are accurately machined and generally fit together with precision, although there are a few spots where the metal-to-metal fit is less than perfect.
This photo shows an oversized hammer pin hole, one of the few noticeable but purely cosmetic glitches. I was pleased to notice that the slotted screws were not chewed up (unlike modern Marlins) and that there were only minor toolmarks visible on the exterior of the rifle.
A small section of the inside surface of the large-loop lever escaped QC without being polished or blued properly. This kind of blemish shouldn’t happen, but if it were mine I’d hit it with some steel wool and touch-up blueing and still know that I’d gotten a hell of a bargain for $450.
The rest of the metal is a satin blue. The receiver is more brightly polished than the barrel or lever, and the blueing is a bit thin and uneven.
The wood is an attractive, tight-grained Brazilian hardwood with a honey-reddish color. It has an oil-rubbed finish which might not give the best moisture protection, but looks quite simple and handsome. The grain of the wood is simple and clean, with no knots or blemishes.
Wood-to-metal fit was about on par with the metal-to-metal fit. The fit is fairly tight and free of conspicuous gaps (again, unlike modern Marlins) but the wood stands proud of the metal as these pictures show. The metal buttplate, however, is very well fitted to the stock.
On the grand scale of Lever Action fit and finish, this Rossi is better than a modern Marlin, about on par with a new-production Mossberg lever, and of course far below the level of refinement of a Henry, a Winchester-licensed Miroku or a Uberti replica. Those guns are of course 2x to 3x more expensive than the working man’s Rossi, and I doubt they’re any more reliable, sturdy or fun.
Remembering that .357 Magnum ballistics got a tremendous boost from a long carbine barrel, I fired a few rounds through the traps of my chronograph using the 16″ Rossi and a 4.62″ Ruger Blackhawk. We only had a few rounds to spare, so these aren’t the most statistically rigorous figures here and I hope Foghorn will forgive me.
Load: 255 RNL Factory 230 JHP Factory 255 SWC Handload
Ruger 804 fps/365 lb-ft/13 KO 780 fps/310 lb-ft/11 KO 966 fps/528 lb-ft/16 KO
Rossi 945 fps/505 lb-ft/15 KO 930 fps/441 lb-ft/13 KO 1193 fps/805 lb-ft/19 KO
% Gain 17.5%/38%/NA 19%/42%/NA 23%/52%/NA
The Rossi’s 16-inch barrel turns slowpoke ‘Cowboy’ loads into medium-pressure defensive loads, and bumps my medium-pressure handloads up into .44 Magnum territory.
These aren’t earthshaking ballistic figures, but keep in mind that the ‘hottest’ of these loads uses only 8.0 grains of Unique and a cast lead bullet. A total component cost of about $.18 per round will let you blaze away to your heart’s content without waiting for your lottery ‘investment’ to come in.
Unique is a fast-burning pistol powder, which I anticipated would get only a moderate boost from the extra barrel length. Heavier bullets and slower-burning powders can produce significantly more energy if you really need it, and internet forums regularly describe 300 grain .45 WFN bullets moving out at 1500 fps from Winchester Trappers and Rossi Model 92s. That’s only 300fps slower than a standard-pressure factory .45-70.
It has nothing to do with ballistics, but I did notice that my Ruger Blackhawk empties would chamber easily in the Rossi, but the Rossi’s empties could not be inserted into the Blackhawk’s cylinder. The Rossi might have a slightly oversized chamber, or then again my Ruger might have an exceptionally tight cylinder.
Conclusion: A Thing Is What It Is, And Not Something Else
I could wear my computer keys down to their nubs trying to write an exhaustive list of the things this rifle isn’t. It’s not a flat-shooting Super Magnum, it’s not a tackdriver, and it’s got no mall-ninja tacticool pretentions whatsoever. Instead of Picatinny Rail, it’s got a saddle ring with a leather thong.
It is, however, fun and handy. And reliable. And cheap. And light. And light-kicking. And compact enough for almost any shooter over the age of 12. And powerful and accurate enough to take out a coyote or whitetail at 100 yards. And with enough firepower to hold off the entire Dalton gang until the sheriff’s posse arrives.
It’s got a lot going for it, and the only expensive thing about it is the ammo. If you needed another good reason to handload, this rifle is it. You may not ‘need’ a Rossi Model 92 ‘Jefe’ saddle-ring carbine, but trust me: you’ve always wanted one. You just didn’t know it yet.
Type: lever-action carbineMagazine: tubular, gate-fed, 9+1 round capacity
Caliber: .45 Colt (tested), .44-40, .44 Magnum, .454 Casull, .38/.357
Barrel length: 16″
Weight: 4.8 pounds
Construction: blued steel, Brazilian hardwood stock
MSRP: $569 ($450 street)
Ratings (out of five stars):
Accuracy: * * 1/2
Finicky when it comes to loads; expect 5 MOA with loads it likes.
Reliability: * * * * 1/2
A short test, but only one (user-induced) malfunction in almost 200 rounds. Happily feeds and fires all bullet shapes.
Ergonomics/Handling: * * * *
Quick and instinctive, but honestly just a little too small for full-sized shooters. Great for smaller shooters, but the loading gate will bite you.
Fit And Finish: * * *
Simple and sturdy, with a few blemishes. This is a shooter, not a collectible.
Aesthetics: * * * *
The most subjective of all criteria, but a fairly faithful rendition of a classic American design can never look wrong to me.
Customize This: *
Good taste and the love of all that is holy forbid you to mess this gun up by hanging a bunch of crap on it. Install a classic Marble or Lyman rear peep sight and call it perfect.
Overall Rating: * * * *
A versatile and reliable and incredibly fun little rifle, available in almost every revolver caliber known to man. The four-star rating reflects what an incredible bargain this gun is at just $450.