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The Best Lever-Action Rifles

Michael Crites

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In the long and interesting history of firearms, few capture the imagination quite like lever-action rifles. A Winchester 94 with a walnut stock and pistol grip was one of the iconic guns that helped win the American West.

But over a century since the settling of the frontiers, these guns are still relevant, beautiful, and practical. Whether used for taking big game as guide guns, or seeing service during deer season, these firearms might be classic in design, but they can be incredibly practical as well.

Beyond the collection of recommended lever action rifles, we dove into the history of these firearms to highlight their significance and interesting design features — in particular the tubular magazines which were cutting edge for their day, but have since fallen out of favor. Let’s dive in.

Henry Repeating Arms

This lever gun by Henry Repeating Arms represents an update on a classic design. One classic feature — aside from the fact that it’s iron-sighted — is that it retains the availability to fire pistol calibers. 

Specifically, this lever-action is available chambered in .44 magnum, .357 magnum, or .45 Long Colt, and firing pistol-caliber rounds is a classic Wild West feature. If you already have a revolver in one of those calibers, you can match it to your lever gun and all you need is a single box of ammo and a 10-gallon hat.

With an eight-round capacity and open sights, this is a more than capable long gun for hunting small to medium game. Additionally, the walnut stock looks handsome against the dark steel frame. Loading is easy, as this, like most modern takes on bolt actions, loads through the side gate.

Taylor’s and Company

For an even more modernized take on the lever-action, this entry from Taylor’s and Company is an excellent option. You’ll immediately notice the stainless steel receiver and polymer furniture, a pretty stark visual contrast from the 19th-century roots of the design. There’s also a section of Picatinny rail on this gun for mounting optics.

The real trick here is the fact that this is a takedown model. That is to say, the barrel comes off the receiver in just a few seconds. That makes this the perfect backpacking gun, and the .44 and .357 magnum rounds would be perfect for either hunting or if need be, defense from a bear or some other wildlife.

Henry Repeating Arms

Most of the guns on this list are big bores meant for relatively long range. If you’re thinking about getting a lever-action as a first gun, or to give as a gift to a young person interested in the old west, this offering from Henry is great.

Coming with a 20” barrel and a gorgeous combination of a blued receiver and walnut stock, this .22 would be an ideal rifle to learn to shoot one. Holding 15 rounds of 22 LR ammunition, this great-looking and shooting rifle is a great way to introduce people to this fascinating type of firearm.

Marlin

Onto a much bigger bore, in this case, .45-70, the Marlin Dark is a modern interpretation of the lever-action design. This particular model comes with a healthy Picatinny rail section added to the pre-drilled and tapped receiver. This allows for the mounting of any modern optic you’d like: a variable power optic or a red dot commonly serve on these rifles.

The chrome and black finish is sleek and durable, making this a good outdoor gun. Not content to be a safe queen, this one has a sling right in the box. This rifle is practically begging to be taken into the woods for some hunting in rough conditions.

Taylor’s and Company

The most classic interpretation of the lever-action on this list is this one, Taylor’s model 1873. This is an update on an old Winchester design but made with modern machining and quality.

The gorgeous blued receiver and hardwood, pistol grip stock look great. Beyond looks, these 10-round, .357 chambered rifles run as slick as they look. This is an ideal rifle for those looking to get into cowboy action shooting and are looking for a gorgeous rifle with which to start.

Marlin

As far as hunting rifles go, the Marlin Dark 336 is an excellent choice. This rifle, chambered in the 30-30 cartridge, is about the perfect brush gun. With a short 16.25” barrel and clear, open sights, this comes ready to hunt out of the box.

There’s also a lot of rail space up top should you choose to mount an optic, Fit and finish wise, the all-black look is a contemporary take on an old design, proving that lever-action rifles can still fill a role in the 21st century.

History of the Lever Action Rifle

how a lever action rifle works

As a general design, lever-actions date back to the 1820s with a series of Italian revolvers, famous for being one of the first actions capable of shooting “six rounds in under six seconds.” 

From there, the idea spread to the United States, with prototypes appearing in the decades following.

Winchester_1873_Rifle
Winchester’s famous 1873 lever-action rifle

You’ve likely heard of the companies that ended up creating the innovative lever designs. Winchester’s famous Model 1873, the Henry Rifle, Marlin’s Model 1881 were all designs that functioned similarly: large bore rounds loaded with a lever from a tubular magazine. 

Colt’s cap-and-ball Model Ring Lever rifles, however, used a cylindrical magazine similar to a revolver and a loading lever to index the next position and cock the hammer.

During the American Civil War, Spencer rifles saw limited service in the closing years of the war, with the Union seeing the benefits to the individual rifleman being able to substantially increase his volume of fire. This adoption by Union forces was noteworthy as the first adoption of an infantry and cavalry rifle with a removable magazine.

After the war, the US Army continued to use lever actions for about two decades, until the adoption of the first bolt action rifle in 1892. Soldiers and civilians alike continued to find lever actions handy rifles, often shooting the same bullets as their handguns.

Beyond the eventual development of reliable semi-automatic rifles pushing lever guns out to pasture, the replacement of the otherwise much-liked rifles was sped along by the advent of smokeless powder and the Spitzer bullet, which helped usher in the era of modern ammunition. 

When lever actions were invented, bullets, mostly, had round noses. This means stacking them end-to-end in the tube magazines of most lever actions posed no danger.

Spitzer bullets, on the other hand, are pointed. This means that stacked end to end, there’s a possibility of an out-of-battery detonation, causing grave injury to the shooter. Add to this the increased pressures of smokeless powder, and the bolt action’s end in military service soon followed.

Bolt actions, with their internal en-bloc magazines, could hold as many rounds as their lever-action predecessors, and get them downrange just as quickly, but without the engineering shortcomings of lever guns. This led to the widespread adoption of bolt actions the world over.

Today, lever actions are used mostly by hunters and sport shooters: modern variants include all the mounting goodies for scopes and suppressors, making them truly modern rifles.

Why a Lever Action?

There are several good reasons to use a lever action today. First and foremost, they offer a novel shooting experience compared to what most people are used to. That novelty is what draws a lot of folks to lever actions in the first place.

The diverse array of chamberings can make them part of a slick shooting system. If you hunt in a place where you may also need to quickly dispatch an animal or defend yourself from predators, carrying both a pistol on your hip and a rifle on your back makes sense. 

The former is much faster to access, and if they both fire, for example, .44 magnum, you only need to haul a single ammunition caliber carry into the field.

Those same rounds, usually pistol calibers, also suppress quite well in their subsonic formats. Several new models of lever-action include threaded barrels, making that a great option. 

Being able to manually cycle the action with the lever also cuts down on bolt noise, making lever guns solid suppressor hosts. 

Lever guns are also ambidextrous, which gives them a leg up on bolt guns which it comes to user friendliness.

Shortcomings of Lever Rifles

While lever actions are great, a general truism for all firearms is they fall short on a couple of fronts. Lever guns are no exception.

The first shortcoming is capacity. Nowadays, we are used to 30 rounds of a defensive caliber being the standard. Most lever guns hold fewer than ten. While this is, hopefully, more than enough for most situations, it could leave one waiting more in serious defensive situations. 

A second shortcoming is chambering. It’s hard to find a lever gun in .308, 30-06, or more powerful, long-range appropriate cartridges. This is part of the reason that many militaries switched to bolt guns, as did many hunters.

Modern pistol cartridges and the new versions of older rifle rounds are great, but it’s hard to beat the global military standards. 

Also – lever guns are difficult to shoot when prone. This puts a damper on field performance when you may only have one shot — and prone shooting is generally the easiest and most accurate position thanks to the additional stability the ground provides.

With those caveats in mind, lever guns, when used for reasonable hunting and range shooting tasks, are great options, full of history, and more than worth your time.

Sources:

  1. Review of Italian Patents, 1826, Recorded in a journal of science from the era.
  2. Luke Mercaldo et al, Allied Rifle Contracts in America
  3. Chuck Hawks, the 8mm Lebel
  4. The National Museum of American History, the Spencer Carbine

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