June 27, 2020
In recent decades, the lever-action rifle has appeared to be on the ropes. We lost some great designs, including the Savage 99 and Winchester 88, and sales of traditional lever guns were slipping. In the early 2000s Winchester’s best-selling 1894 saw its first break in production. More recently, Marlin was out of production for several years. But, baby, look at lever actions now.
Marlin is back and selling new variations of their 94, 336, and 95 lever actions as fast as they can make them. Winchester is also back, and faithful reintroductions of their classic lever guns consistently sell out. Although production runs aren’t huge, Browning’s sleek, fast BLR offers modern alternatives. Mossberg reports steady sales of their 464 .30-30. Henry, very much a lever-action company, is doing well. And there are other alternatives, including Big Horn Armory’s “new” Model 89 and some excellent off-shore reproductions of classic designs.
Right now, the lever-action is once again hot. And in my opinion, it deserves to be.
The lever action is one of America’s most significant contributions to modern firearms. It was the first successful repeating action, and in the 160 years of repeating rifles, almost all lever-action designs have been American. Almost the only exception was Sako’s excellent Finnwolf, but unfortunately, it’s also gone.
The field of new lever actions chambered to modern, high-intensity cartridges is very limited. Actually, there are just two: Henry’s Long Ranger in .308 Winchester and Browning’s BLR. The BLR is currently chambered to 17 cartridges, including four WSMs and two belted magnums.
Regardless of action type, any .308 Winchester is suitable for most North American hunting, and a BLR in a fast-stepping magnum will do whatever a bolt-action magnum will do. The M88, although Winchester’s fourth best-selling lever action, is getting hard to find and Sako lever actions are scarce. However, used Savage 99s are available and affordable. So, if you want full-spectrum versatility from a lever-action, you can have it.
However, despite today’s hunger for long-range performance, not every North American hunter wants to reach way out there, and many of us don’t need to. Across the country, many of us hunt thicker cover, where long-range shooting isn’t necessary. You’re probably thinking whitetails, but most black bear and wild hog hunting is done at close range, and there are plenty of situations for elk and moose where reach isn’t necessary. Instead, a premium is placed on fast handling and easy carrying. In close cover shots are often fast and presentations aren’t always perfect. Sometimes a fast second shot saves the day! The lever action isn’t as fast as a semiauto and is no faster than a slide action, but for most of us, a lever gun is faster for repeat shots than a bolt action and much faster than a single shot.
Fast, Effective & Fun
Don’t overlook the fun factor. When you venture afield with a lever-action rifle, you must feel at least a small surge of patriotic pride. The lever action is John Wayne, fast-firing Chuck Connors as The Rifleman, and even Teddy Roosevelt. Lever actions are American history. To some extent, I think it’s the fun factor that is renewing interest in the all-American lever action.
Without efficiency this wouldn’t make sense, but the lever-action is more effective than we give it credit for. Lever actions have been chambered to many cartridges, from pistol cartridges on up to pachyderm-capable powerhouses. Even so, the gold standard and most plentiful lever-action cartridge is the .30-30, 125 years old and chambered in millions of rifles. The .30-30 isn’t red-hot, but it propels .30-caliber bullets from 140 to 170 grains at moderate but meaningful velocities, from a low of about 2,225 fps to nearly 2,500 fps. By today’s standards this isn’t impressive, but these ballistics have been adequate for deer-size game for 125 years and remain so today.
The lever action does not have a reputation for extreme accuracy, but it depends on the rifle. I’ve had tubular-magazine Marlins and Winchesters and some vintage Savages that were tack-drivers—and some that were not. However, as with power and range, adequate accuracy depends on what you need.
I’ve never seen a lever action that wasn’t accurate enough for 150-yard shots at deer. This means that given adequate power they were plenty accurate for larger game, and I’ve seen many that shot well enough to reach much farther.
Sights are a genuine limitation, especially with many older rifles. I derive satisfaction from the added challenge of using iron sights, but as I get older, my effective range has shrunk. Armed with new prescription shooting glasses, I can again use aperture sights comfortably to about 100 yards, open sights somewhat less. I still use iron sights for short-range situations, such as black bears and wild hogs, but I’m pretty useless before sunrise, and I lose the last few minutes of shooting light. We all know that dawn and dusk are critical periods, so this is a real problem with traditional lever actions, especially those older rifles that I don’t want to drill and tap for optical sights.
That said, most modern rifles are suitable for optical sights. All Winchester 1894s have been Angle-Eject and drilled and tapped for mounts since 1982. Side-eject Marlins have been able to accept scopes for generations, and the Savage 99 was the first factory rifle to be drilled and tapped clear back in the 1950s.
Okay, I’m not crazy about the look of scopes on traditional lever actions, but you can’t hunt if you can’t see. A while back I picked up a Savage 99 in .300 Savage with factory aperture sights. I loved it and shot some hogs with it, but I hadn’t seen an eye doctor in a while and conceded that I couldn’t resolve the front sight. Mad at myself, I sold it. Then I got new glasses and found another 99 in .300 with a vintage 4X scope.
Every fall I sit on a couple of stands with my 1906 ’94 in .25-35, accepting that I can’t start at dawn and must quit at sunset. This fall, with a mission to take a buck with a .30-30, I put an Aimpoint on a Mossberg 464, which is also angle eject, drilled and tapped. I have plenty of spots to choose from.
A red-dot sight on a lever-action offers flexibility out to moderate ranges, but please don’t infer that I’m anti-scope. I have a bright, clear scope on an incredibly accurate Marlin 1894 .44 Magnum, which is awesome for pigs and deer in poor light. I’ve often put scopes on other Marlins, and all the BLRs and Winchester 88s I’ve used have been appropriately scoped.
Other Choices, Other Game
A .30-30 is the most common lever action, followed probably by Marlins and Winchesters in pistol cartridges, originally .44-40. Although it’s often used, the .30-30 is not an ideal elk cartridge. The .44-40 certainly is not. With proper bullets I suppose we could make an argument for lever actions in .44 Magnum and so forth, but the real shortage in lever actions is versatile, general-purpose cartridges.
Winchester tried in the ’80s with their “big-bore 94” in .307 and .356 Winchester, but at that time the lever-action was at its nadir, and neither cartridge went anywhere. Marlin tried again in the early 2000s with the .308 and .338 Marlin Express. Coupled with Hornady’s LeveRevolution technology, these are, in my view, the best (and certainly most versatile) cartridges ever chambered in tubular-magazine rifles. I hunted both elk and moose with the .338 ME, with awesome accuracy and performance. Unfortunately, both of these cartridges were almost lost to Marlin’s changes in ownership and manufacturing facilities.
As Marlin comes back into full production, I hope they try again, but above .30-30 and below the big bores, current options are few. My old buddy Payton Miller is a fan of the .35 Remington, slow but hard-hitting. I am a fan of the faster .358 Winchester. However, no current rifles are chambered to .35 Remington, and the BLR is the world’s last .358 Winchester still in production. Shame! I am also a huge fan of the .348 Winchester, which was only ever chambered to the Winchester M71, the last iteration of John Browning’s big, smooth 1886 action. I have owned one or another M71/.348 since I was in my 20s, often used for hogs and black bears—even bison. Browning/Winchester has done several runs of remanufactured M71s, keeping ammo available, and Hornady has added .348 to the LeveRevolution line. Italian Firearms Group also has a gorgeous and faithful copy. I think I’ll keep the M71 I have now, a first year of manufacture Deluxe, with an aperture sight on the rear of the bolt.
In modern, versatile cartridges, the BLR and Henry .308 are almost the only answer in new rifles and the used-gun rack provides more solutions. Keep in mind that there are no flies on the .308 Winchester (or the old .300 Savage). Also, most Savage 99s and all Winchester 88s (and Sako Finnbears) can be easily rechambered, rebored, or rebarreled to the big family of .308-based cartridges, including .260 Remington, 7mm-08, .338 Federal, and .358 Winchester.
Interesting is the huge growth in big-bore lever actions (a.k.a. the “guide gun”). Marlin saw a new, untapped market when they brought out their .444 Marlin and a new Model 95 .45-70 and followed up with the .450 Marlin. Please note: The .450 Marlin is not more powerful than a .45-70 loaded to the gills—but the .450 Marlin cannot be chambered in a .45-70 rifle.
Doug Turnbull has made a great business building .475 Turnbull rifles on ’86 Winchester actions. I have one and love it; it’s a buffalo-thumping machine. I’d use it more, but the top-eject 1886 action is iron sights only, so I have to be careful where I take it. Ultimately, seeing and thus hitting the target is more important than what you’re hitting it with. So if a dangerous-game lever-action suits your fancy, you might be better off with a Marlin .45-70 with optical sights. Turnbull also offers the .470 Turnbull, scaled down to fit the Marlin action.
The Big Horn Armory M89 Spike Driver, chambered to .500 S&W, is another big-bore lever action. Essentially a remanufacture of the John Browning design, the BHA action is shorter than the 1886, and longer than the 1892 (thus the in-between “89” designation). The .500 S&W is hell on wheels in a revolver and gains velocity in a carbine-length barrel. Beautifully made and very accurate, the BHA is a bear-proof “guide gun.” It’s also among few lever actions I’d consider fully adequate for African buffalo, provided you stoke it with proper bullets.
The big-bore lever action is a fascinating market, but it’s specialized. As it was in the 1890s, it’s the American deer hunter who makes or breaks sporting rifles. In recent years many hunters abandoned the lever-action, but a lot of them are coming back home. I’m among them. Deer season is coming soon, and I can’t wait to get back into the woods with my lever actions.