Compact Lever Action Deer Rifles
By Gary Zinn
Since 1895, lever action rifles firing the .30-30 Winchester cartridge have been an important part of the big game hunting scene in the USA and other parts of the world. Lever action rifles, such as the Winchester Model 94 and the Marlin 336, are a natural fit with the .30-30 cartridge.
Thus, it should be no surprise that lever action .30-30 rifles are still made by Winchester, Marlin, Henry, Mossberg and Rossi, all of which make rifles of traditional type with rear locking bolts. This article will review the .30-30 compact rifles offered by these makers in 2016, plus the lever action rifles for rimless cartridges with front locking bolts offered by Browning (BLR) and Henry (Long Ranger).
Over a 120 years of experience shows that the .30-30 cartridge, firing bullets in the 150 to 170 grain range, is fully adequate for taking deer, black bear and other Class 2 class game at ranges out to about 225 yards and Class 3 game to beyond 100 yards. The .30-30 may not be as sexy as more modern small bore cartridges, but it will still get the job done.
Furthermore, the cartridge does its work while generating mild levels of recoil, to the point that it is sometimes recommended as an entry level cartridge for shooters who are new to deer rifles, or who are recoil adverse for whatever reason. For more detailed information on the ballistics and practical capabilities of the .30-30 cartridge, The Classic .30-30 Winchester by Guns & Shooting Online Owner/Managing Editor Chuck Hawks is a good place to start.
Criteria for a compact lever rifle
In the companion article Compact Bolt Action Deer Rifles, I specified that an adult compact rifle should have a short action (.308 Winchester length), a 20 inch or perhaps slightly shorter barrel, length of pull (LOP) not less than 13 inches and a basic firearm weight of seven pounds or less.
I confined my attention to bolt action rifles chambered for non-magnum cartridges in the .257 to .308 bore range and will continue that restriction here. I judge any cartridge below .257 bore to be marginal for deer sized game, while cartridges above .30 caliber, along with magnum small bore cartridges, are unnecessary for Class 2 game.
These ideas about what is a good compact deer rifle are driven by over half a century of hunting Whitetail deer, mostly in the hill country of western West Virginia. My favorite hunting areas feature a mixture of woodlands and brush, interspersed with small pastures and meadows. Most shot opportunities are at less than 100 yards, with good chances at over 200 yards occurring only rarely. My preferred methods of hunting deer are still hunting and stalking. In the habitat and with the hunting methods just described, quick handling rifles that are comfortable to carry are more suitable than are those that are relatively heavy and somewhat unwieldy.
Compact lever action rifles today
I began hunting deer in 1957, at 13 years of age. In my neighborhood, the venerable Winchester Model 94 and relatively new (introduced in 1946) Marlin 336 lever action .30-30 rifles reigned supreme in the deer woods. One saw a few Savage Model 99 lever guns (the .300 Savage cartridge was favored), along with some bolt rifles, either commercial or military conversions. The commercial bolt guns were mostly .30-06s or .270 Winchesters, while the military conversions were usually .30-06s or 8mm Mausers. Iron sights were the norm. A Marlin or Savage lever rifle or a bolt action rifle that wore a simple 4x scope was considered a marvel.
Things have changed. The great Savage Model 99 is defunct, replaced (in a sense) by the Browning BLR rifle. As I have already indicated, Henry, Mossberg and Rossi now offer lever action .30-30s that follow the Marlin or Winchester patterns. The selection of bolt rifles has expanded greatly, as has the number of cartridges chambered for them. Finally, virtually all rifles carried into the woods today wear variable power scopes; guns without some sort of optical sight are as rare as albino bucks.
The traditional design .30-30 carbines from Henry, Marlin, Mossberg, Rossi and Winchester have several common features. These include 20 inch barrels and steel receivers, full length tubular magazines under the barrel, wood stocks and receivers drilled and tapped for mounting scope bases. All come with open sights, but these are seldom actually used for hunting. Marlin, Henry and Rossi rifles, all built on Marlin pattern actions, have solid top receivers and right side case ejection, while Winchester and Mossberg guns, based on the John Browning designed Winchester Model 1894 action, have open top receivers with angled ejection of fired cases to allow mounting a scope over the receiver.
Winchester Model 94
This is, of course, the original .30-30 rifle and we almost lost it. Winchester Firearms went through a series of ownership, management and manufacturing upheavals in the last half century. One result of these travails was that production of the Model 94 was discontinued in 2006, after Winchester was purchased by FN/Browning. It was reinstated in 2011, made by long time Winchester/Browning partner Miroku, so no harm, no foul. Perhaps this is some consolation for losing the great Savage Model 99 rifle, which was discontinued in 1998.
The Model 94 Carbine weighs 6.5 pounds and is 38 inches long. The straight grip American walnut stock has a LOP of 13-1/2 inches. No sling swivel studs are provided. The 2016 MSRP of this classic carbine is $1200.
There are two other Model 94 variants with a 20 inch barrel. One is the Short Rifle, weighing 6.75 pounds and distinguished from the Carbine by a steel fore-end cap, rather than a carbine ring. The other is the Trails End Takedown, which is a takedown version of the Short Rifle. Like the Carbine, these are 38 inches in overall length with a 13-1/2 inch LOP.
In addition, Winchester offers a full length rifle version with a 24 inch barrel called the Model 94 Sporter. This fancy Model 94 comes with a checkered walnut stock, traditional rifle butt plate and a half octagon/half round barrel, but it is not a compact and therefore beyond the purview of this article.
The Classic Winchester Model 94 was designed with an open top receiver and cartridge cases were ejected vertically. When telescopic sights became popular this caused a problem. Scopes had to be mounted in an off-set side mount or forward of the receiver. There was no way to mount them directly over the receiver.
Winchester ignored this problem for decades, but finally altered the action so fired cases would be ejected at an angle out of the open receiver top, thus allowing for conventional scope mounting. All Model 94s made since 1982 have this Angle Eject (AE) feature and come with the receiver drilled and tapped for scope bases. In addition to the traditional half-cock "safe" hammer position, recent Model 94 AE's have a top tang mounted "lawyer" safety, which fortunately is unobtrusive.
Mossberg Model 464
This rifle was introduced in 2008. It is no coincidence that the Mossberg Model 464 is patterned after the Winchester Model 94, which had been temporarily discontinued in 2006. (Production of the Model 94 resumed in 2011.)
The 464 weighs 6.75 pounds and is 38.5 inches long with a 13-7/8 inch LOP. It has a walnut stained hardwood stock with both pistol grip and straight grip versions available, but sling swivel studs are not included. The pistol grip version is checkered, while the straight grip version is not. The open top receiver is drilled and tapped for Weaver #403 scope bases. The 2016 MSRP is an economical $503.
Marlin Model 336
Marlin calls the Model 336C "the flagship of our Model 336 family." The rifle weighs seven pounds and is 38.5 inches long with a 13-3/8 inch LOP. The stock is American walnut, with a pistol grip and a fluted comb. Detachable sling swivel studs are included. A uniquely Marlin feature is Micro-Groove rifling of the bore. Calibers are .30-30 and .35 Remington. The 2016 MSRP of the 336C is $635.
There are four other variants of the Model 336 .30-30 currently in production. The most relevant of these is the Model 336SS, which is the stainless steel version of the 336C. All recent Marlin 336 variants come with a manual, receiver mounted, cross bolt "lawyer" safety to block the hammer, in addition to the traditional half-cock hammer position. Marlin's cross bolt safety is not overly intrusive, but it is more obvious than the Winchester Model 94's tang mounted safety slider.
The Henry Steel Round Barrel .30-30 rifle weighs seven pounds, has a 20 inch barrel with a blued steel fore-end cap and is 39 inches long overall. It has a straight grip, checkered, American walnut stock and comes with a rubber butt pad and sling swivel studs installed. The LOP is approximately 14-1/4 inches, excellent for taller shooters.
The hammer incorporates a sliding transfer bar, so no manual "lawyer" safety is required. The magazine tube is loaded through a port on the tube, in the manner of tubular magazine .22 rifles. (The other brands load through a gate on the right side of the receiver.) This Marlin 336 clone has an exceptionally smooth action and a 2016 MSRP of $850. New for 2016 is a stainless steel version with a hardwood stock, stained black and weather sealed, for $1000.
Henry also offers a fancy .30-30, the Model H009B Brass Octagonal Barrel, with a hardened brass receiver, brass carbine ring, brass butt plate and a heavy, 20 inch octagon barrel. However, this carbine weighs eight pounds and is thus excluded by my definition of a compact rifle.
Rossi Rio Grande
Catchy model name! This rifle, a clone of the Marlin 336, weighs 7 pounds. I could not find a LOP or overall length figure, but I would bet on 38.5 or 39 inches. The stock is walnut stained hardwood, with a pistol grip. Sling swivel studs are included, as is a one-piece Weaver scope base mounted on the receiver. The 2016 MSRP IS $580. A stainless steel version of the Rio Grande is available for about $90 more.
Traditional lever rifles vs. the Browning BLR and Henry Long Ranger
The Browning BLR and Henry Long Ranger are mechanically very different from the traditional lever action rifles already discussed, although both incorporate some traditional lever action styling cues. The BLR and Long Ranger designs are more sophisticated and the rifles have capabilities that cannot be matched by the traditional designs.
The Winchester 94 and Marlin 336 type actions use a large locking lug that engages at the rear of the bolt when the action is closed, much like a single shot falling block action. Cycling the lever downward allows the locking lug to lower and the bolt to open.
These rear bolt locking designs transmit the stress of firing to the receiver frame. This means that the receivers must be properly designed and sturdily built for the gun to be safe, dependable and durable. Hence the solid steel receivers that are found on these rifles. Further, these designs, although proven safe and dependable with the moderate chamber pressures (38,000 CUP) of the .30-30 and similar cartridges, are not as strong as most modern bolt action rifles with front locking lugs.
The Browning BLR and Henry Long Ranger rifles are engineered to bypass the pressure limitations of traditional lever action designs. They are essentially bolt action rifles operated by an lever. The key to this is a rotating head, multiple-lug, recessed face bolt that locks into the barrel breech when the bolt is cycled into battery. An under lever operates the bolt by means of a smooth rack and pinion mechanism.
The new Henry and Browning designs have two more features that differ from traditional lever guns. First, since the bolt to breech lockup takes the stress of firing cartridges, the receiver need not be steel. The BLR and Long Ranger receivers are made of aircraft grade aluminum, which strong enough to securely house the bolt, lever, hammer and trigger module. The point is, although the bolt is heavier than the bolt in a Marlin or Winchester, the aluminum receiver is considerably lighter than a steel receiver.
Finally, the BLR and Long Ranger feed cartridges from a detachable box magazine. The obvious benefit of this is than one may use conventional spitzer (pointed) bullets. Box magazines are also easier to load and unload than tubular magazines, although they hold fewer cartridges. I have pinched my thumb more than once in the loading gate of a Winchester 94 or Marlin 336.
Browning BLR Lightweight
The Browning BLR is offered in two basic styles, the Lightweight and the Lightweight '81. Lightweight models come with pistol grip stocks, Schnable fore-ends and detachable sling swivel bases. Lightweight '81 models have straight grip stocks and a carbine ring to secure the fore-end, but are not fitted with sling swivel studs.
There are solid frame and takedown models of each. (The BLR Lightweight Takedown has been the subject of a full Guns and Shooting Online review.) All models come with adjustable open sights and the receivers are drilled and tapped for scope bases. In addition, the barrels of takedown models are drilled and tapped for "scout style" scope bases. Metal finishes are high gloss bluing with a matching anodized receiver, or matte stainless steel with a matching satin nickel finish on the receiver.
Most BLRs are supplied with checkered, gloss finished, American walnut stocks and fore-ends, but the Lightweight '81 Stainless Takedown model comes with a gray laminated hardwood stock. All stocks terminate with a black rubber recoil pad. The standard BLR Lightweight (blued) with a walnut pistol grip stock carries a 2016 MSRP of $1020. The otherwise identical Stainless Lightweight costs $80 more. The BLR Lightweight '81 (blued/walnut) carries a MSRP of $960, while the Lightweight Stainless Takedown (laminated stock) is $1230.
The Browning BLR is chambered for 14 modern short and long action cartridges ranging from .223 to .450 caliber. Included are several short and standard length magnum rounds.
Browning has been very logical in choosing barrel lengths for the BLR line. All standard short action calibers come with 20 inch barrels. Standard long action calibers and WSM calibers wear 22 inch barrels. The belted magnums (7mm Remington Mag. and .300 Winchester Mag.) have 24 inch barrels. Firearm weights vary with barrel length and cartridge power, with the two big magnums housed in 7.75 pound rifles. As I said, all very logical.
Two calibers meet my criterion of short action, non-magnum cartridges in the .257 to .308 bore range. These are the 7mm-08 Remington and .308 Winchester. BLRs chambered in these cartridges also meet my other key criteria for compact deer rifles, with 20 inch barrels and weight of 6.5 pounds. These rifles are 40 inches long overall and the LOP is 13-3/4 inches.
The BLR is also chambered in .243 Winchester, for anyone who wants it. I personally do not consider the .243 a desirable deer cartridge, but this is a minority position
Anyone who wants a compact lever rifle for hunting all Class 2 and the smaller Class 3 game should be able to thrive with the 7mm-08 Remington or .308 Winchester calibers. The BLR has never been offered in a 6.5mm cartridge, but I will not be surprised if Browning adds the 6.5mm Creedmoor to the BLR line. I say this because the 6.5mm Creedmoor is currently offered in the X-Bolt Carbine.
Henry Long Ranger
Stop the presses! Henry Repeating Arms has introduced a new for 2016 lever action carbine they call the Long Ranger. It has a 20 inch blued steel barrel and a checkered, straight grip, American walnut stock and fore-end with a blued fore-end cap. A black rubber recoil pad and sling swivel studs are standard. It also comes with Weaver type steel scope bases already mounted.
This carbine is 40.5 inches long overall, has a 14-1/8 inch LOP and has a catalog weight of seven pounds. (The actual weight with its empty, all steel magazine in place and the scope bases is 7-1/2 pounds.)
As mentioned above, the Long Ranger features a geared lever action and 6-lug rotating bolt head, housed in a matte black aluminum alloy receiver. This advanced action allowed Henry to initially chamber their new rifle in .223 Remington, .243 Winchester and .308 Winchester. (Henry, please add the 7mm-08 and .260 Remington calibers!) The 2016 MSRP for the Long Ranger is $1015.
A field equipped lever action rifle
I would not take any of these lever rifles hunting without a suitable telescopic sight mounted. A good 2-7x32mm scope is just right for a Browning BLR or Henry Long Ranger chambered in .308 or 7mm-08.
Such a scope, set at 2x, has a wide field of view and quick target acquisition capabilities for short range shots, while the power can be increased for longer range shots. A magnification of 7x is enough for a good sight picture on deer sized animals out to the +/- 3 inch MPBR distance of the 7mm-08 and .308 cartridges (about 260 yards). I would not recommend a higher magnification scope.
On a .30-30 rifle, I prefer a lower power variable scope. For instance, there are a handful of 1.5-4x32mm or 1.5-5x32mm riflescopes that are very suitable for use with the roughly 225 yard practical range of the .30-30.
Right now, my ideal .30-30 scope is the Leupold VX-1 1-4x20 Shotgun Scope with Turkey Plex reticle. At 1x to 2x, the field of view is huge, so one can acquire and track an animal with both eyes open (a good tactic for a moving animal in the woods or brush). The circle in the center of the reticle helps bracket the specific aiming point on the target. On the top end, 4x magnification may not sound impressive these days, but it is sufficient for deer sized game at 200 yards or so. Also, this particular scope is listed as weighing only 8.1 ounces, which means it neither adds a lot of weight to nor greatly changes the inherently good balance of a traditional lever gun.
A good rifle sling is as useful on a lever rifle as it is on a bolt action. While moving around in the woods, I carry my rifle slung under my left shoulder, with the sling shoulder pad toward the butt of the rifle stock. This aims the muzzle down and forward, so I can smoothly mount the gun to my right shoulder from this carry position, using a practiced motion that creates a "hasty sling" to stabilize the mounted rifle. I always do this, whatever shooting position I am taking in the field.
Over the years, I have tried and discarded several types and models of slings. The one I am keeping is the Quake Claw Contour sling, which is far better than any other I have ever used. It has a grippy, but not too large shoulder pad for comfortable and secure carry, and easy length adjustment to get the right fit and tension when I mount the gun.
In his article The Classic .30-30 Winchester, Chuck Hawks reports that a 7.5 pound .30-30 rifle, firing 150-grain factory loads, generates only 11.7 ft. lbs. of recoil energy. The rifles covered here are all listed at 6.5 to 7 pounds in weight and a light weight, compact scope with bases and rings, sling, and magazine of cartridges will add perhaps 1.25 pounds to make the rifle field ready. Thus, the recoil level reported by Chuck Hawks is, if anything, a bit on the high side. Whatever the specific number might be, a lever action .30-30 rifle is a mild shooter.
Not surprisingly, a Browning BLR or Henry Long Ranger in .308 Winchester will kick harder. In the companion article Compact Bolt Action Deer Rifles, I included some indicative calculations. Assuming an eight pound field weight rifle, I calculated recoil of 16.4 ft. lbs. for a .308 Winchester rifle firing 150-grain bullets.
Levers for lefties
One of the disappointments I noted in my review of compact bolt action rifles was the paucity of rifles for left handed shooters. For lefties, lever action rifles present a much better situation. Yes, solid top rifles eject cases to the right and the open top angle eject guns eject upward and to the right. However, this poses no more than a minor annoyance for left handed shooters and it is infinitely better than trying to cycle a right handed bolt rifle left handed.
I know several lefties, starting with an older brother, who have used lever rifles for years. I am right handed, but I have worked a Marlin 336 left handed on occasion. No problem. My only (and hopefully obvious) caution is that one should always wear eye protection when shooting.
A brief note about autoloaders and pump actions
Autoloading and pump action rifles that can be shoehorned into my compact deer rifle parameters are scarce. The only current production sporting rifles that come close are the Browning BAR MK3 Stalker autoloader and the Remington Model 7600 pump action. The BAR comes in .243 Winchester, 7mm-08 Remington and .308 Winchester with a 22 inch barrel, 44-1/8 inches overall length and a weight of 6 pounds, 10 ounces. The Remington 7600 in .308, also has a 22 inch barrel, is 42-5/8 inches long overall and weighs 7.5 pounds.
Then there is the Remington Model 750 autoloader. This rifle is not in production in 2016, but it was produced in 2015 and earlier, so it may be found on the market in .308 Winchester caliber. Barrel length, overall length and weight are the same as the Model 7600. I do not know whether Remington will produce this rifle in the future. The bottom line is that anyone who is really interested in one of these action types has very limited options, unfortunately.
I have a track record with lever action .30-30s. A Winchester Model 94, with open sights, saw me through deer seasons during my college and graduate school years. After an interlude using standard sized bolt rifles, I had a Marlin 336, fitted with a 4x Weaver scope, for a few years. Altogether, I hunted with these lever rifles for some ten years, taking about that number of deer with them.
If someone were to ask my advise about selecting a no-nonsense, fast handling deer rifle, I would recommend that they strongly consider a lever action .30-30 with a low-range variable power scope and a good sling. If they want something more powerful than the .30-30 cartridge, I would point them to the excellent Browning BLR in 7mm-08 or .308, or the new Henry Long Ranger in .308.
A question I had in mind when I set out to write this article, along with the companion piece on compact bolt action rifles, was: "Do compact rifles have a meaningful place in the current hunting scene?" I believe the answer is definitely "yes," both for compact bolt guns and compact lever actions, including those designed to shoot the venerable .30-30 Winchester cartridge.
Copyright 2016 by Gary Zinn and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.