December 09, 2021
By Brad Fitzpatrick
A hundred years ago the concept of “the best lever action hunts” would have seemed odd to the hunting public. After all, many hunters used lever guns for everything in those days. Elk or bear, sheep or moose, the lever gun was a go-to for most sportsmen that hunted between the end of the Civil War and the early twentieth century.
So what happened to the popularity of lever-action hunting rifles? Well, bolt action and semiauto rifles took over. These rifles used aerodynamic, pointed bullets with higher ballistic coefficients. Traditional lever guns couldn’t use those same bullets because of their reliance on tubular magazines and the associated risk of chain fire. Also, magnified optics had become standard fare on most big game rifles, and many lever actions, particularly a century ago, weren’t designed to be outfitted with scopes.
These factors caused a dip in lever gun popularity, but they haven’t changed the fact that, in the right hands, and at reasonable ranges, a lever gun is the ideal tool for modern hunters. You won’t see lever actions winning PRS matches, but there are times when a lever gun is the ideal weapon. What’s more, lever guns are just plain fun to shoot.
Here is a list of six hunts that are perfect for lever gun fans.
Whether hunting over dogs, spotting and stalking, or sitting over bait I think a lever gun is the most versatile option for bear hunters. When hunting over bait, odds are you’ll be shooting under 100 yards, and a big, powerful lever gun round like the .444 or .450 Marlins, or even the venerable .45-70, will put a big hole in the bruin. This is particularly important since a bear’s fur and subcutaneous fat layer limit blood trails. These calibers will also offer sufficient power to put the animal down quickly. Other classics like the .30-30 and .35 Remington, and even pistol-caliber lever guns like Winchester’s Model 92 in .44 Magnum, work well.
North Carolina’s Dare to Hyde outfitters suggests their clients bring a scoped bolt gun for hunting bears in open agricultural fields but prefer Marlin .45-70s when following bears in the swamp behind their hounds, and since that camp produces bears that weigh an average of 511 pounds you’d better believe they know a thing or two about stopping big bears up close. You can use a magnified optic for hunting spot-and-stalk bears, but I prefer a versatile peep sight like those offered by Skinner (https://www.petersenshunting.com/videodetail/skinner-sights/378785/452162). With a modern lever gun with a peep sight you’re prepared for just about any bear hunting situation you’ll encounter. Short-barreled lever guns are also a far better backup gun in grizzly country than most any handgun.
Hunting whitetails with a lever gun is the classic big game pursuit. Generations of hunters have carried their .30-30s to the woods in search of deer, and if you think those days are gone you are mistaken: the .30-30, despite its lack of press in recent years, remains one of the top 20 selling centerfire cartridges, so not everyone is chasing whitetails with a 6.5 Creedmoor these days.
Lever guns have some very real advantages over other types of firearms for deer hunting. For starters, they’re well-balanced and offer fast follow-up shots. If you’re good enough to stalk whitetails in cover (a largely forgotten skill) a nimble lever gun that’s well-balanced and short enough not to get hung in brush is the optimal weapon. Lever guns like the Browning BLR and Winchester 1895 feature box magazines that allow for the use of pointed bullets with higher BCs, so lever actions are at home on the wide-open spaces of the Great Plains or Rockies, too. There’s been renewed interest in lever guns since several states (my home state of Ohio included) have legalized straight-wall cartridges for deer hunting. When that legislation passed you couldn’t find a Marlin 1895 or Winchester 1886 rifle on store shelves, and .45-70 ammo was gobbled up almost immediately. Several companies offer handgun-caliber hunting rounds that are perfectly suited to hunting deer with a lever gun, examples being Hornady’s LeveRevolution and Federal’s outstanding new HammerDown ammo. Most lever guns are capable of shooting a couple hundred yards with a practiced shooter, good ammunition, and a good optic or peep sight, yet they’re well-balanced and short enough to maneuver in the tight confines of a blind.
Hogs are a nuisance, and they reproduce at an alarmingly fast rate, so there are no shortage of hog hunting opportunities across their ever-expanding range. Generally speaking, hogs prefer to feed in open areas close to water and heavy brush. The pigs spend most of the daylight hours tucked away in nasty cover and come out at dusk or after sunset to raid crops and root around pastures. Most hogs are killed coming out to feed in the evening. A lever gun gives you the opportunity to put down multiple hogs quickly. Feral pigs are tough, and I’d suspect that I’ve shot at running hogs more than all other game species combined. Many of those pigs had fatal wounds but having to follow a hog into the labyrinth of thorns and snake-infested brush is a miserable task. A smooth-swinging lever gun with good iron sights or a red dot optic offers the best chance of putting a pig on the ground before it crawls back into the thick stuff.
I enjoy hunting pigs from a stand, but I much prefer chasing them on foot in the morning or late afternoon, listening for their vocalizations, keeping the wind in my favor and working my way to their favorite feeding spot. A short-barreled .45-70 with a red dot sight is ideal for that kind of hunting. These guns offer plenty of pig-stopping power should you run into a really big boar with scarred-up shoulder plates. And if you do end up traipsing through the thorns looking for a wounded pig you’ll appreciate the .45-70’s stopping power and mobility.
Several ranches in Texas that offer hunts for exotic game, and the list of available species may contain anything from blackbuck to water buffalo. Depending on the species and the ranch layout you might be hunting in a blind or by spotting and stalking, and that’s what makes these hunts ideal for lever guns. Lever-actions combine close to moderate range capabilities with unmatched handling and maneuverability. Axis, nilgai and other exotics also offer outstanding table fare, so this is a good way to fill your freezer, and since you can usually hunt exotics year round you aren’t restricted to established season dates.
Texas isn’t the only state that offers exotic hunts. Florida and Hawaii are also great destinations, and these hunts can usually be combined with a family vacation. Not all exotic hunting takes place behind fences, either: if you want the ultimate test of your hunting prowess and physical fitness you can chase aoudad in the mountains of west Texas near the Mexico border. This is a spectacular hunt (one of the most underrated in North America, to my mind), but don’t underestimate the game or the country. The mountains of west Texas are steep and unforgiving, and aoudad have adapted well and are experts at avoiding predators.
There’s no need to drag a heavy, long-barreled, bolt gun on a mountain lion hunt with hounds. In fact, such a rifle will turn out to be a liability as you struggle up and down mountains and plow through fresh snow. The challenge with cats is getting into position to make the shot, and that can require long, hard hikes. A lever gun with a sling will fit neatly on your back as you wade through downed trees and climb over slippery peaks, and it won’t add a lot of weight.
Cougars don’t require as much energy to dispatch as bears, so a pistol caliber lever rifle like the Winchester 92, Marlin 1894, or Rossi R92 will do the trick. A lot of people hunt mountain lions with handguns, which is fine, but that requires a steady rest, and most hunters are capable of better accuracy with a light lever gun than they are with a pistol or revolver. What’s more, hunting lions with hounds is a uniquely western tradition, a sport that traces back to the likes of Ben Lilly who chased “varmints” all over the western United States in the nineteenth century. Such a hunt begs for the use of a lever gun.
Elk and Moose in Timber
Not all shots on elk take place across a canyon, and in many parts of the West, you’re more likely to encounter a bull elk slipping through dark timber in the evening than you are to take a shot over a quarter-mile. Northern Idaho is just like this. In the time I’ve spent there I doubt I’ve seen five elk farther than 200 yards away. However, I have seen a lot of elk in the pines, but usually, they saw me first. When you’re hunting that type of country a lever gun makes sence. So long as it fits properly, a quality lever action shoulders like a grouse gun.
I think the ideal elk country gun might be Browning’s classic BLR, which offers the handling of a lever gun and the versatility of a box magazine that allows for the use of modern rounds like the .300 WSM. Two other good (but essentially forgotten) elk country lever-action cartridges are the .308 Marlin Express and .338 Marlin Express. Winchester’s 1895 and 1886, and Big Horn Armory’s 90A in .454 Casull are also excellent options.
Lever guns are equally well-adapted for hunting moose, which spend much of their time in dense alder thickets. A .444 or .450 Marlin or .45-70 with a well-constructed bullet is perfectly capable of taking America’s largest deer species to 100 yards or more. Not to mention, it’s far simpler to slip through willows with a lever gun with irons sights than a scoped bolt gun. If you’re calling moose in thick cover I don’t think there’s anything better than the classic .45-70 to finish the job, and you’ll be awfully happy to have that lever gun should a bear decide to challenge you for your moose meat.
For information on the best lever action rifles for hunting, be sure to check out our gun review on the 7 New Lever Action Rifles for 2021.
The Essentials Gear Box.
Our editors have hand-picked these essential pieces of gear to make you a more successful hunter when you hit the game trails this season.