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Lever Action Deer Rifles

By Randy D. Smith


Winchester Model 94 Sporter
The Winchester Model 94, most popular sporting rifle of all time. Illustration courtesy of Winchester Repeating Arms.

While AR and bolt action rifles dominate the news, traditional lever action rifles keep rolling along in popularity and may still be the best choice for the woods. There are more lever action models on the market than ever, chambered in an ample variety of effective deer cartridges.

The appeal and practicality of the lever action deer rifle goes far beyond historical nostalgia or playing cowboy. I have hunted deer for most of my adult life with lever action rifles and appreciate their handling qualities, portability, dependability and accuracy.

Yes, I included accuracy, even though many of you may have read or heard that lever actions are not as accurate as bolt action rifles. I have owned and shot many lever action rifles that were very accurate. Some very good bolt rifles could consistently better them, but only by fractions of an inch.

Tight groups from the bench rest do not totally reflect the effectiveness of a deer rifle. Lever action rifles have delivered buck dropping performance for me at ranges from 30 to 300 yards, depending upon the round I was using and were usually on target quicker with faster backup shots in all situations.

Even semi-autos have a problem matching lever actions in flushing deer situations. I am not talking faster repeat shots, but rather more precisely aimed and successful backup shots at nearly the same speed. It has always seemed to me that the mental process of assessing where the first shot landed, chambering another round, realigning sights, taking a lead on running game and making a careful shot decision was better served with a lever action than with a semi-automatic rifle.

While I am levering another round into the chamber with instinctive muscle memory that requires little or no concentration, my mind is adjusting for a better target solution. While I may miss my first snap shot, I very seldom miss the second on fast moving deer. I have never enjoyed the second shot hit ratio of a lever action with any semi-auto. I have always felt that I shot too early, without fully preparing for the attempt with the semi-auto. While this is a subjective opinion, I'll bet that many experienced lever action deer hunters will agree with me.

Today, the North American deer hunter enjoys the largest selection of firearms ever offered. Depending upon state regulations, deer can be hunted with primitive and space age muzzleloaders, bolt action, single shot, double barrel, pump action, semi-auto sporters, military style semi-automatic rifles, historical replicas, rifled and smooth bore shotguns, magnum revolvers or anything else you care to mention, except ray guns.

Many states are rewriting regulations to include the current crop of popular AR style rifles. I see more of them in the field every season. I suspect the bolt action is the most popular choice in deer rifles. Bolt guns have a lot going for them. They are dependable to a fault, offered in a wide variety of cartridges, accurate, can be inexpensive and are configured for every conceivable hunting challenge.

All the while, the most popular North American deer rifle for the greater part of the 20th Century, the lever action, seemed to be fading into the mists of time. In 2006, the closing of Winchester's New Haven plant seemed to be the end of the legendary Model 94. The sale of the Marlin Company to a conglomerate and the closing of its New Haven, Connecticut, factory looked like the death knell for the 1894, 1895 and 336 Model Marlins.

The idea of the people controlling Remington also owning Marlin seemed about as logical as loaning a prize ram to a wolf pack. To be frank, some pretty shoddy Marlins were placed on the market during the transition. "Barrel Droop" problems, a misalignment of the barrel and receiver assembly, and poor quality control issues have nearly ruined Marlin's reputation. As far as I am concerned, Remington's reputation has been in the toilet for over a decade.

Contemporary Lever Action Rifles

Yet, in spite of these events, there are more lever action deer rifles from various foreign and domestic manufacturers being sold than ever before. Excellent historical replicas from Uberti and other European firms sell quite well to collectors, hunters and cowboy action shooters.

When the Winchester Model 94 rifle was discontinued, Mossberg entered the market with the competitively priced and functional Model 464, a Model 94 derivative. I owned one for a couple of years and thought it was superior to the later model, rather shoddy Winchester 94s being put on the market just before the model's demise. I have never felt, however, that the 464 is as good a rifle as the old Mossberg 472 and 479 series (a Marlin style lever action) of the 1970s. Even so, the 464 is the lowest priced new .30-30 on the market and well worth the money.

Rossi of Brazil markets dependable Model 1892 Winchester clones and a Marlin look alike called the Rio Grande in .45-70 and .30-30. Browning markets their excellent BLR line, which is sold in many fine gun stores. Henry Repeating Arms has a complete line of North American manufactured brass and steel framed lever action rifles in .357 Magnum, .44-40, .44 Magnum, .45 Colt, .30-30 and .45-70 calibers. Workmanship is excellent, as is company support. The Italian Chiappa Arms company offers a complete line of Model 1886 replicas in .45-70 and several versions of the Winchester Model 1892. The Chiappa .45-70 Kodiak and .44 Remington Magnum Alaskan Scout feature a show stopping hard rubber stock coating, Skinner sights and a hard chrome metal treatment.

Winchester's new Model 94, 71, 1895, 1892, 1886 and 1873 rifles, now made in Japan by Miroku, are better than the originals. Available calibers include: .30-30 and .38-55 (M94); .348 Winchester (M71); .30-40 Krag, .30-06 and .405 Winchester (M1895); .357 Magnum, .44-40, .44 Magnum and .45 Colt (M1892); .45-70 (M1886); .357 Magnum (M1873). Incidentally, modern Winchester angle eject (AE) Model 94 rifles are just as easy to scope as Marlin or Browning solid top lever actions.

Because of the tube feed mechanisms where cartridges are aligned end to end, lever action rifles were historically limited to flat nose bullets. More efficient pointed (spitzer) bullets could not be used. This changed with the Model 1895 Winchester, which used a fixed, stacked feed magazine system similar to a bolt action rifle. The original Model 1899 Savage used a rotary magazine and late Model 99s used a detachable box magazine.

Many used Model 99 Savage rifles are available in calibers such as .243 Winchester, .300 Savage and .308 Winchester. Ditto the discontinued and often lamented Winchester Model 88 (calibers .243, .284, .308 and .358 Winchester). The modern Browning BLR lever action rifle is chambered for a wide variety of modern high intensity cartridges, including magnums, and feeds from a removable magazine. (Chuck Hawks, Guns and Shooting Online Owner/Managing Editor, has a BLR in .358 Winchester caliber that he swears by for hunting Class 2 and Class 3 game out to 200 yards. - Editor.)

If semi-custom rifles appeal to you, the Big Horn Armory Model 89 lever-action rifle is an American made hybrid featuring elements of the old Winchester Model 86 and Model 92 lever-action design features in a modern platform capable of handling the powerful .500 S&W Magnum revolver cartridge. Grizzly Custom Guns converts standard Marlin lever action rifles into highly functional trail, survival and dangerous game carbines. Clearly, there are plenty of lever action rifles to appeal to almost any need, taste and price range.

Cartridge Experiences

Lever action carbines chambered for traditional handgun cartridges are popular with cowboy action and recreational shooters. The Winchester Model 92, Winchester Model 1873, Marlin Model 94 and Henry Big Boy are examples. These carbines are generally lightweight, low recoiling and hold a large number of cartridges. I know of no lever action model that is smoother or quicker than the Model 1873. Any of these carbines are adequate, especially for the recoil sensitive hunter, for shooting deer with jacketed bullets at a maximum range of 100 yards.

In the late 19th Century and into the early 20th Century the .44-40, a cartridge delivering about as much energy at the muzzle as modern .357 Magnum rifle loads do at 100 yards, was very popular and considered to be an efficient deer cartridge. This cartridge was designed by Winchester for the Model 1873 with a tapered shoulder that helps prevent powder contamination. Production of the original Winchester 1873 in .44-40 continued into the 1920s.

I wrote a historical gun column for several years and hunted with several replica rifles. I have taken a number of whitetail deer with .45 Colt, .44 Magnum, .454 Casull and .44-40 carbines in this category. These were mostly European replicas of the Winchester Models 92 and 73 manufactured by Rossi and Uberti. I hunted with a modern, out of production, Ruger Model 96/44 for a couple of seasons, as well. All were used with standard open sights.

My best whitetail was a big eight point buck taken with a full frontal shot at around a hundred yards with a Uberti 1873 Sporting Rifle chambered in .44-40. He dropped in his tracks. The vast majority were does and small management bucks taken at ranges from 30 to 70 yards in thick brush.

The .45 Long Colt was not an original historical rifle offering and is considered by most to be too light for deer. I own a Rossi Model 92 and I never had any bad experiences with this round on short range Kansas deer. It is a very handy little carbine and I hunt small and medium game with it. I often use it to dispatch unwanted varmints around the farmstead and as a camp gun. Open sight 100 yard accuracy is quite good, better than any .44 Magnum I have tried.

I have better rifles for deer hunting and no longer use the Rossi for that purpose, but I would not hesitate to use it for the short range southern deer that seldom weigh more than 130 pounds. Better choices for deer hunting would be carbines chambered for .44 Magnum or .454 Casull.

When the .30-30 was introduced it was considered a big game cartridge. The .30-30 has taken millions of deer and was commonly used for heavier game, such as elk, bear and moose. Today, the .30-30 is assumed to be something of a weak sister compared to more modern rounds and it has remained popular largely because of the lever action rifles in which it is traditionally chambered.

Actually, at ranges out to 200 yards the .30-30 is a nearly perfect deer round. The .30-30 cartridge is relatively cheap to buy, produces low recoil, is accurate and effective on the largest of deer. I often hunt everything from coyotes to feral hogs and deer with the 150-grain .30-30 load, because ranges are generally moderate in the country I inhabit.

One very effective Marlin 336C I own is equipped with a 1.5-4 power Alpen scope and is normally loaded with 160 grain Hornady LeverEvolution rounds. In spite of reservations I bought and modified a .30-30 Marlin Model 336Y (Remington made or "Marlington"). It may not be pretty, but it is one of the most accurate lever action rifles I have ever owned and it is a constant companion in my ranch truck.

For open country deer where ranges will occasionally be farther than 150 yards, I have a Marlin in .308 Marlin Express equipped with a 4-12x Bushnell scope. The .308 Marlin Express is a LeverEvolution round designed by Hornady for Marlin. It makes a tube feed Marlin competitive with .308 Winchester and .30-06 bolt action rifles.

The .308 Marlin Express cartridge has not proven to be very popular. Its slightly more powerful counterpart, the .338 Marlin Express, has been even less so. That is too bad, because both of the .308 Marlin Express rifles I have owned have proven to be excellent. I consider the .308 Marlin Express to be the single best lever action deer round ever created.

I have also owned and hunted with Browning BLRs in .243 and .30-06, as well as a Winchester Model 1895 in .30-06. There are gone. After trying them all I preferred the balance and handling qualities of the Marlin, especially when compared to the difficult to scope and hard recoiling Model 95 Winchester. The Brownings were excellent rifles. A .243 BLR was one of the most accurate rifles I have ever owned.

I have only hunted once with a rifle chambered in .32 Winchester Special. The .32 Special was brought out by Winchester around 1901 as an alternative to the .30-30 that could be reloaded with either black or smokeless powder. (Winchester .32 Special rifles were rifled 1:16 specifically to accommodate black powder reloads. - Editor.) For all intents and purposes, the .32 Special performed exactly like the smokeless powder only .30-30. My .32 was an old, beat up Model 94 Winchester loaner that had clearly seen better days. I took a running six point buck at 35 yards, as he flushed from deep cedar cover.

The .35 Remington cartridge has been around since 1906 and remains popular in heavily wooded areas of New England and the Southeast. I have had experience with the .35 Remington in my own custom 336 Marlin. It has been professionally cut down to a 16 inch barrel with matte bluing and a synthetic stock. It is equipped with a Weaver 1.5-3x scope. At the time, I bought the carbine for its design, rather than the cartridge. Trajectory is close to the .30-30 and recoil is slightly heavier. Ammunition can be difficult to locate in some areas and is a bit more expensive.

I think the .35 Remington hits harder than the .30-30 and everything I have shot with it, from whitetails to feral hogs, has simply dropped dead on the spot at various ranges out to 120 yards. I normally use the Remington 150 grain factory load, rather than the traditional 200 grain load. It has plenty of horsepower for anything I hunt on the plains. If you run into a 35 Remington for sale, think twice before passing it by. It is a perfect fit for someone wanting more power than the .30-30 and less recoil than the high intensity medium bore calibers.

The .45-70 Government cartridge is an exceptional short range, big bore round. Variations of the 1886 Winchester, Marlin 1895, Rossi Rio Grande and the Henry H010 are chambered for it. This round is commonly associated with the Marlin Guide Gun, a carbine designed for use as a dangerous game defense weapon. It is a popular choice with many Alaskan and Rocky Mountain bear guides.

These .45-70 lever actions are excellent brush and forest deer rifles where heavy trauma clout helps reduce wounding of flushing deer. They work very well with ghost ring (aperture) sights and low magnification scopes. I use a standard, open sight Marlin Guide Gun with 300 grain loads for hunting whitetails in thick stands of cedar, blow down forest, tall sage brush and plum thickets where ranges seldom exceed 70 yards. I own the Guide Gun mainly for big hogs in heavy cover and protection during mountain packing and camping trips. Recoil can be heavy, especially with Hornady 325 grain LeverEvolution rounds and 400+ grain conventional bullets, but the .45-70 is in its element when used for big game in a lever action rifle.

I don't know if Marlin will ever manufacture a new 336 in .444 Marlin again. The popularity of the .45-70 has dwarfed sales of what I consider to be one of the more effective lever action deer, hog, and elk rifles. The .444 Marlin was conceived before the .45-70 was reborn and was criticized because many bullets designed for .44 Magnum handguns did not perform well at .444 rifle velocities. Modern bullet designs improved the round in both range and penetration.

My second generation .444 Marlin is equipped with a Williams receiver sight and sports a 24 inch barrel. It is responsive, powerful and accurate. Recoil seems more manageable than a short barreled .45-70 Guide Gun, but it is significant. Hornady manufactures a .444 LeverEvolution round which greatly extends the potential of this rifle. The .444 Marlin will simply hammer whitetails out to 150 yards with very little adjustment in sighting if the rifle is zeroed two inches high at 50 yards.

I have not hunted with some of the more powerful rounds, such as the .338 Marlin Express, .348 Winchester, .358 Winchester and .450 Marlin. Generally, these are not associated with deer hunting, but are intended for larger game. For a few years, Winchester manufactured Big Bore 94 rifles in .307 (similar to the later .308 Marlin Express, but factory loaded with flat point bullets), .356 (a rimmed version of the .358 Winchester loaded with flat point bullets) and .375 Winchester (a souped-up .38-55), but these rounds never caught on with the public. They kicked pretty hard in lightweight Model 94 carbines.

It seems that the tube feed lever actions are most accepted by deer hunters in .30-30 and for larger game (as well as deer) in .45-70. That is reasonable, because both are exceptional hunting choices at the medium ranges where lever action carbines are most effective. The less popular .308 Marlin Express, .338 Marlin Express, .35 Remington, .358 Winchester, .38-55 and .444 Marlin also have their place, as do lever action carbines chambered for combination rifle/handgun cartridges. I, of course, like them all.

Conclusion

I have some nice bolt action rifles. It would be difficult to part with my .30-06 Ruger Model 77 and .375 Ruger African. I even bought an AR to be fashionable for predator hunting articles, but the novelty soon wore off. I recently traded the AR for a .223 Browning BLR and look forward to some fall horseback coyote calling. For whitetail deer, however, the vast majority of the time I will be packing a tube feed lever action and not feeling the least bit handicapped.

A Short List of Lever Action Cartridges Designed for Tubular Magazines

This chart is intended to give you a general idea of the relative performance of different standard loads for lever action rifle cartridges. There are a wide variety of loads available from many different ammunition manufacturers, so this list is intended to be representative, not all inclusive.

It does not include Hornady LeverEvolution loads, which are more efficient due to their polymer tipped pointed bullets and exclusive propellants. (Except for the .308 and .338 Marlin, which were designed specifically for LeverEvolution ammo and for which other loads are generally unavailable.) Calibers are listed in order of increasing muzzle energy.


Cartridge Bullet Weight Muzzle Velocity Muzzle Energy
.45 Colt 225 grains 960 fps 460 ft. lbs.
.44-40 200 grains 1245 fps 688 ft. lbs.
.38-55 255 grains 1320 fps 987 ft. lbs.
.357 Mag 158 grains 1830 fps 1175 ft. lbs.
.44 Mag 240 grains 1760 fps 1650 ft. lbs.
.454 Casull 300 grains 1600 fps 1814 ft. lbs.
.30-30 150 grains 2390 fps 1903 ft. lbs.
.35 Rem 200 grains 2084 fps 1929 ft. lbs.
.32 Spec 170 grains 2283 fps 1968 ft. lbs.
.45-70 300 grains 1810 fps 2182 ft. lbs.
.307 Win 150 grains 2693 fps 2416 ft. lbs.
.308 Marlin 160 grains 2660 fps 2514 ft. lbs.
.348 Win 200 grains 2530 fps 2840 ft. lbs.
.338 Marlin 200 grains 2565 fps 2922 ft. lbs.
.444 Marlin 265 grains 2400 fps 3389 ft. lbs.
.450 Marlin 350 grains 2100 fps 3427 ft. lbs.

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Copyright 2014 by Randy D. Smith and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.

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