A few deer seasons ago when the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks expanded the permitted weapons category for use of special centerfire rifles and calibers during the primitive weapons seasons, the whole world of primitive hunting in Mississippi was turned upside down.

Or, as some would aptly argue, it turned it around. 

All of that water under the bridge had nothing to do with limiting the use of traditional black-powder rifles. Many hunters still get a thrill out of hunting with the ol’ smokepole and vanquishing their vision of the shot while the white-blue smoke cleared. But, many hunters were put off by the front loading ritual and the cleaning chore afterwards.

Young hunters were not taking to the old ways at all. 

So, in the spirit of attracting new and old hunters back to the primitive weapons seasons, the state instituted the new rules allowing modern, single-shot rifles in calibers .35 and larger. This was still a limited field of options, but sufficient to get the ball rolling.

And roll it did. 

Trial, error and recoil 

“When the new primitive rifle rule went into effect for the primitive deer hunting seasons, all my buddies rushed to the store to buy an H&R Handi Rifle in .45-70,” Rankin County’s John Cockrell said. “For some time it was the gun and caliber of choice, but that quickly changed.

“Pretty soon dealers’ shelves were full of these used single-shot rifles. There were tons of them for sale at the gun shows, and most of them in like-new condition. I wondered why. Then a dealer asked me if I had ever shot a Handi Rifle in .45-70. I had not. He replied just try it once and you’ll know why all these .45-70s came back.” 

The single-most-popular rifle for this new classification proved to be the Harrington & Richardson 1871 Handi Rifle. It is a lightweight, single-shot, hammer-cock rifle. When chambered in the .45-70, keeping in mind that cartridge was a very popular choice for killing bison in the 1880s, the combination was said to “kick on both ends” — and indeed it does. The muzzle blast is nothing to snort at, either.

It was way too much kick and blast for most hunters to endure. 

“I began to look around the landscape and do some research on the Internet,” Cockrell said. “There really were not that many choices because the approved rifle characteristics were fairly well defined and pretty limited. The options were the .45-70, .38-55 Winchester, later the .35 Whelen, the .44 Magnum, the .500 Smith & Wesson and the .444 Marlin. Technically the .357 Magnum could be used since it is actually a .38 caliber, but it was fairly anemic for deer hunting. So that was it.

“I picked the .444 Marlin, and bought the first Handi Rifle I could find available. Apparently others had discovered what I did and were buying up the .444s at a fast clip.

“In all, it has turned out to a good choice and moderate compromise for deer hunting during the Mississippi primitive weapons seasons.” 

Unlikely appeal 

The Marlin Rifle Company announced the introduction of the .444 in 1964. It was essentially designed for the Model 336 lever-action rifle to add a new power range for Marlin’s lever guns to exceed the killing level of the .44 Magnum. 

The .444 extends the killing effectiveness range and terminal ballistics of the .44 Magnum. They both originally used the same 240-grain, soft-point bullets and were factory loaded by Remington.

In the hunting woods and fields, the .444 Marlin proved considerably more powerful than the very popular and widely used .30-30 Winchester. It even beat out the new .35 Remington brush buster.

In terms of power, the .444 is quite comparable to the .348 Winchester or the .358 Winchester, though some might snicker at that idea — me included. Still, the .444 Marlin is a very “affable” deer cartridge. 

The effective hunting range of the .444 Marlin is still roughly 150 yards, although new ammunition by Hornady has significantly improved on the overall ballistics of the cartridge. 

Hornady’s new LEVERevolution ammo line carries the .444 with a newly designed 265-grain FTX (which stands for Flex-Tip) bullet. Its muzzle velocity is listed at 2,325 feet per second with bullet energy of 3,180 foot pounds.

This beats the old Remington factory standby load by 238 foot pounds.

If sighted in at 3-inches high at 100 yards, it is only 1.5 inches low at 200. Easy enough to hit a deer at those ranges using a good riflescope. 

All in all, the .444 Marlin is a good mid-range compromise round for the Mississippi primitive weapons deer season. Its recoil is manageable, the terminal ballistics are adequate at moderate ranges and, with the new Hornady ammo, is a sure bet for killing your next white-tailed deer.