Out of curiousity, which barrel length do you prefer in a lever action rifle chambered for 44mag that will be used for all around use (Woods gun/Target fun)? Why? Does your preference change when it comes to choosing one chambered in .357mag?
I prefer the 20 inch barrel, it balances the best for me. Longer barrels in the pistol caliber carbines don't seem to give much higher velocities anyway. In Rifle #199 (January, 2002) Brian Pearce stated in an article that every inch of barrel past 16 inches only gives an increase on average of 2 to 15 fps. It seems that choosing a carbine based on how it personally balances is the best bet. The article was titled "Sixgun Cartidges in Rifles."
I am a huge fan of the 16" barrel in rifles chambered for pistol catridges. It makes for a light weight, fast handling rifle that's perfect for pack, truck or just plinking.
The 16" length gives more than enough tube for complete combustion and generous velocities in the pistol calibers.
The only advantages that I can see for the 20" are aesthetic (some like the longer look), balance (as Dutch said, but this is a matter of personal preference) and slightly longer sight radius (a non-issue if you install a receiver sight or ghost ring set up).
My personal favorite is the buttery smooth Marlin 1894 with a 16" barrel.
I don't have the .44 in 16", but I do have the .45 trapper and the 18" Timber Carbine. I like the shorter bbl's, they work well in the NE hardwoods.
I have a 20" 9422, and a pre-64 .30-30 in 20", both have their merits.
I personally would buy any pistol caliber rifle in a shorter bbl, and save the 20" for rifle ctg's.
The .444 was only offered to my knowledge from Win. in the shorter bbl'd models for a few years, but the Timber Carbine with it's ported bbl. shoots so well I cannot see what adding the extra length to make 20" would do.
I believe that just as the others have said, it's a matter of aestetics.
Speaking of aesthetics there's nothing like the graceful uncluttered lines of a Winchester 94 or Marlin 1894 (with the older thin forearm) sporting a long, slender 24" (preferably octagon) barrel. They're works of art.
I have a 20" M94 in 45 Colt, which I like the looks and feel of (as the 16" trappers feel too short to me). Anyway, I also have a 5.5" Ruger Blackhawk in 45 Colt. I chrono'ed some loads last weekend out of both. The bottom line was:
Pistol - 1200 fps
Rifle - 1564 fps
(these are the average velocities of the 5 shot strings I fired). With a 364 fps difference and a 14.5" barrel length difference, the "velocity per inch" is 25 fps, so you are giving up maybe 100 fps with the 16" trapper (at least with the loads I chrono'ed - which happened to be 22.5 gr WW296 and a 300 gr lasercast bullet)
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