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    Gun Test: Rossi Frontier .45 Colt Rifle

    For most of my life, I have kept a lever action rifle handy for all around use. I have taken more game with the lever action than any other type. During my time as a peace officer, I kept a Winchester Model 94 .30-30 WCF lever action rifle in the trunk on more than one occasion. Such a rifle can solve most of the problems encountered. Today, however, I will be reviewing a Rossi Frontier that I recently acquired.

    Rossi Frontier lever action rifle with stainless steel barrel and standard lever
    The Rossi carbine is available in several versions. This is a stainless-steel version with the standard lever. For hard use, this is probably the preferred version.

    I have the greatest respect for the AR-15 rifle and enjoy firing and using my .223 rifles. Few rifles are as versatile, accurate, and reliable as a good AR-15. Few rifles may be used for varmints and deer by simply changing loads and then fired in a competitive match the weekend!

    Lever Action Rifles

    I simply like the lever action and value its simplicity and ruggedness. I have seen lever actions in the hands of outdoorsmen, scouts, and working cowboys that were beaten, battered, and even muddy. These things happen after a decade or two of use. But the rifles always work. When the likely profile is that you will only need a shot or two, but the the rifle needs to hit hard, a powerful lever action rifle is a viable choice.

    Recently, I was in the market for a short, handy, lever action rifle. I did not seriously consider a Trapper model in .30-30 but sought out a pistol caliber carbine. There are many reasons for this choice. First, it is easier to find a range that allows pistol caliber carbines, and this is a real consideration in many areas. Second, I am an enthusiastic handloader. So long as the brass holds out, and I can obtain lead, primers, and powder, I will be shooting.

    255-grain SWC handload on the left and Hornady FTX, right
    The 255-grain SWC handload on the left will solve a lot of problems. The Hornady FTX, right, is accurate and mild shooting.

    I don’t hoard ammunition; I simply keep a reasonable supply. Ammunition is for practice, training, hunting, and personal defense. My retirement portfolio contains other choices! While I like the pistol caliber carbine, I am not sold on the carbine and handgun combination. When carrying the Rossi Frontier lever action rifle, I am as likely to be carrying a .357 Magnum revolver as a .45, and more likely to carry my everyday 1911 .45 automatic. A long gun and a handgun are for different duties and compromise is evident.

    The lever action carbine slips behind the seat of a truck easily. It is flat, light, and may be made ready by quickly working the lever action. Once ready, it may be made safe by simply lowering the hammer. Accuracy isn’t the long suit of the short pistol caliber carbine, but it is accurate enough for most chores to 100 yards. Versatility is the long suit. It is a bonus that a good example isn’t expensive.

    Rossi Frontier

    I somehow found myself in the possession of Winchester 95 and Savage 99 high-power rifles, and a good Henry .22 LR rifle, but no short, powerful carbine. I addressed this deficit in the battery by purchasing a Rossi 92 carbine. These rifles are available in .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum, .45 Colt, and .454 Casull, and I have seen examples in .44-40 as well.

    close up of the nose of the Barnes X bullet in .45 Colt
    This is a Barnes X bullet in the author’s handloads. The .45 Colt is a versatile number that works best inside 50 yards.

    The .357 is economical and the best choice for Cowboy Action. With magnum loads it is a fine defense caliber and will do for deer. The .44 Magnum is a great caliber. I have used it to drop large boar hogs and it hits like Thor’s hammer. The .44-40 is a handloading proposition for real power. I happened along a .45 Colt example. The Rossi Frontier looked good, with nice Brazilian wood and the popular large ring lever.

    Since I had plenty of .45 Colt brass the choice wasn’t difficult. I have reached that pleasant stage in life where every firearm doesn’t have to have a well-defined mission to earn its keep, and where a specialized firearm that does a few things well is good to have. The Rossi Frontier was destined to serve as a go-anywhere do-anything rifle. For short range hunting, probably an opportunity rather than a planned hunt, to dispatch predators, pests, and dangerous animals, and for personal defense on the road, the Rossi seemed a good fit.

    Despite my Scot blood, I am not the cheapest guy in the world, but the Rossi frontier set me back less than $400, and I like that. This is the first example I have owned in .45 Colt, but the particulars of the rifle are familiar to me. The sights are pretty basic. There is a front post with a small brass bead and an open sight in the rear. The front post is adjustable for windage—with the proper punch—and the rear sight may be adjusted for elevation by use of the sight ladder.

    Saddle ring and thong on the Rossi Frontier rifle
    The saddle ring serves little purpose for most of us. The thong needs to be ditched for serious use.

    You must know how to use these sights. I have heard more than a little grumbling concerning the difficulty of sighting in similar rifles. The front post must be set in the bottom of the rear notch for the proper point of aim. You do not hold it in the upper part of the rear leaf, or you will shoot impossibly high.

    The tubular under-the-barrel magazine holds eight rounds. The lever action rifle was once referred to as a bolt gun—period. Literature is hard to read sometimes but interesting. The bolt is locked by rear locking wedges. The rifle is unlocked by working the lever. As the lever travels downward, the bolt moves to the rear and the extractor pulls the spent case from the chamber. A fresh round is fed from the magazine into a shell carrier. As the lever is closed, the carrier feeds a fresh round into the chamber. Rearward travel of the bolt cocks the hammer.

    This is a generally reliable and trouble-free system. However, be certain you learn to properly use the lever action. The lever is pressed forward, not down, and a certain cadence of fire comes with practice. I have witnessed the occasional malfunction in which a cartridge jumps from the magazine and under the carrier. This is devilishly hard to clear.

    sliding bar and rear buckhorn sight on the Rossi Frontier lever action rifle
    The rear sight is a good example of lever action rifle gear, with a sliding bar or ladder for adjustment.

    A pistol caliber carbine—such as the Rossi 92—has more leverage than a .30-30 rifle, and the action may be manipulated more quickly. If need be, you may put out a lot of lead with the Rossi 92. If you keep extra rounds on the belt, the Rossi may be topped off one round at a time.

    The Rossi Frontier weighs about five pounds loaded. It is only about 34 inches long—that’s compact. With the 16-inch barrel, this rifle handles quickly and tracks between targets well. It is no trick to keep steel gongs moving at 50 yards. To test the rifle, firing at the 50-yard line, I set up an Innovative Targets steel target. This target is a great training aid. Using the steel insert (rated for pistol calibers), I was able to ring the target on demand.

    As far as ammunition, the Rossi Frontier was fired for the most part with my personal handloads using a 255-grain cast SWC. With the .44 Magnum carbine, I have had to crimp over the bullet shoulder in order to assure feed reliability (Loads intended for use in a revolver sometimes did not feed correctly in the carbine). This wasn’t the case with the .45 Colt carbine.

    Rossi Frontier Lever Action rifle with enlarged lever loop
    Short, handy, light, and powerful, the Rossi Frontie .45 Colt carbine has much to recommend.

    Most of these loads generate about 800 fps from a revolver. At 25 yards, the handloads struck a bit right and low but this was easily adjusted. In factory ammunition, there are several distinct classes of ammunition. These include cowboy action loads that are lighter than standard, standard pressure lead loads, and standard pressure personal defense loads.

    There are heavy hunting loads, such as the ones offered by Buffalo Bore. I fired a representative sample of each class of load. I fired a quantity of the Winchester 225-grain PDX JHP defense load and also the Speer 250-grain Gold Dot JHP load. Each was mild to fire and accurate. The bonded bullets should be excellent for personal defense.

    I also fired a quantity of the Hornady Critical Defense. This 185-grain bullet struck below the point of aim but gave good feed reliability. It would have been easy to adjust the sights, if I wished to deploy this loading. I also fired a small quantity of the Buffalo Bore 225-grain all-copper bullet. What struck me is that these loads are practically indistinguishable as far as recoil. Each was mild, with no more recoil than a .410 bore shotgun. Only the Buffalo Bore load was noticeably hotter. But you are getting serious horsepower.

    Here are a few velocity figures:

    Winchester 225-grain PDX 1,090 fps
    Hornady FTX 185-grain Critical Defense 1,180 fps
    Buffalo Bore 225-grain Barnes 1,310 fps

    Note: The Buffalo Bore 225-grain Barnes load breaks at 1,054 fps in the Colt 4 ¾-inch barrel revolver.

    Bob Campbell shooting the Rossi Frontier rifle with an ejected case in the air
    Note the ejected case just at the author’s shoulder. This is a fast handling carbine!

    The .45 Colt was designed for black powder way back in 1873. As such, it is sometimes smoky and not as efficient as more modern calibers when loaded with smokeless powder. However, a good quantity of the Black Hills cowboy action load gave both good accuracy and a full powder burn. A tight chamber and 16-inch barrel increase ballistic efficiency. As an example, the Black Hills cowboy action loading breaks about 780 fps from a 4 ¾-inch barrel revolver, but over 1,000 fps from the Rossi carbine.

    While the bullet doesn’t expand, it will do whatever the .45 Colt has ever done. The cartridge enjoys an excellent reputation as a manstopper. As for the gain in velocity over a handgun when ammunition is fired in the carbine, the average is a 100-fps gain with standard loads while heavier loads may gain 140-160 fps. This is a useful increase in power over the revolver, but the real advantage is in accuracy. It is much easier to quickly get a hit with a carbine than with the handgun.

    The action of the Rossi Frontier is easily the smoothest lever action I have used including original Winchester carbines. Pistol caliber carbines have plenty of leverage. The action is both smooth and reliable. The wood to metal fit is good, if not flawless. A point of contention is the L-shaped safety found on the bolt. I simply ignore it. I would not remove it—some may wish to use it.

    Levr action rifle and revolver both chambered for .45 Colt
    While the combination of a revolver and rifle chambered for the same cartridge has some merit, the author feels that they are a compromise and chooses his long and short guns on their own merits.

    Another source of some discussion was the large loop lever. This large loop is a great addition for use with gloved hands, but otherwise it isn’t more efficient than the standard loop. In fact, it may be slower to use than a standard loop. Still, it is the same large loop that Lucas McCain and Josh Randall used in the cinema and some like the looks.

    It is fast enough but, in the final analysis, serves no useful purpose and makes the light and flat carbine more difficult to store. I would not have sought out a big-ring carbine. It was simply what was on the shelf. I did not feel strongly enough about the large ring to let it interfere with my decision to purchase the rifle. The same goes for caliber. Much could be said for the .44 Magnum version. However, the .45 Colt is a proven defense loading. At moderate range it will take deer-sized game cleanly. I had the ammo. As for the buckskin tong around the saddle ring, ditch it. It sometimes interferes with handling.

    Another option with the Rossi 92 is the availability of shot loads. I used a handful of Speer/CCI shot loads in the carbine with good results. I did not cycle the rounds in the action more than one at a time. I would load a single shot cartridge in the magazine, feed it into the chamber, then load another. You feel the cartridge crunch a little as it chambers.

    Long octagon barrel version of the Rossi Frontier rifle
    The lever action Rossi is also available with long and octagon barrels.

    I have the impression that the shot capsule might crack and crumble in the magazine from the force of a metal cartridge head under spring pressure butting into the plastic shot carrier. You would have a mess! The shot pattern is useful to 5 yards or so, to deal with vermin and reptiles. I like the option in a go-anywhere carbine.

    When the Rossi is taken as a whole, it is a capable carbine for many situations. It isn’t particularly accurate, but it is accurate enough. It is inexpensive and fires a proven cartridge, with a good reserve of ammunition. If saddle rings and the big lever appeal to you, the Rossi has much to recommend. But it is also a good performer, and this is an attractive combination. When you look past the cinema depiction of the rifleman, you realize that Lucas McCain was smart to deploy a rifle, and it gave him an advantage.

    Accuracy Results, 50 yards

    Load3-Shot Group
    Black Hills 250-grain FP 2.7 inches
    Winchester 255-grain Cowboy 2.9 inches
    Winchester 225-grain PDX Defender 2.0 inches
    Speer 250-grain Gold Dot 2.95 inches
    Hornady 185-grain Critical Defense 2.75 inches
    Buffalo Bore 225-grain Barnes 2.8 inches

    This is as close as I could hold. However, the carbine may be more accurate in the intrinsic sense. I took every advantage including shooting glasses, a good rest, and a target with a red center.

    Lever actions have always embodied the spirit of the American Rifleman, and the Rossi Frontier is no exception. The only question remaining is which caliber would you choose?