Compared: Lever Action .30-30 Rifles (Marlin, Henry, Winchester and Mossberg)
By Chuck Hawks and the Guns and Shooting Online Staff
Having written a Marlin Model 336 vs. Winchester Model 94 Comparison article in 2004, it seemed time to revisit the subject. This time, however, I altered the cast of characters by using the newer Marlin Model 336XLR rifle instead of the older Model 336SS Carbine and replacing the old (USRAC) Winchester Model 94 with the new (Miroku) Winchester Model 94 Sporter rifle. I then doubled my workload by adding the Mossberg Model 464 and Henry Model H009 to the mix, neither of which was available when I wrote the original article, making this the most complete lever action .30-30 comparison possible in 2017.
The lever action rifle is an American tradition. As I wrote in the introduction to the earlier article:
"These traditional lever action designs offer good accuracy, quick handling, fast repeat shots, big magazine capacity, ambidextrous operation and the kind of reliability a man can bet his life on (and many have). The flat action makes these easy rifles to carry and, with no bolt handle sticking out of the side of the action, they are naturals to transport in a horse or motorcycle scabbard. They were designed for big game hunting, but have been used for practically every application to which a rifle can be put, from home defense to revolution."
"They have been used to take every type of big game in North America, from varmints to bison, and similar game all over the world. However, they are best known as deer and black bear rifles chambered for the ubiquitous .30-30 Winchester cartridge, in which role they are unsurpassed."
All of these lever action rifles are very reliable. Operate the lever briskly all the way forward and all the way back and jams are almost unheard of. When a jam does occur the reason is usually operator error, caused by someone moving the lever very slowly, timidly or failing to fully cycle the action. Lever actions were designed for fast follow up shots, and therefore to be cycled quickly.
Like almost all other SAAMI standardized cartridges, .30-30 factory load ballistics are established in 24" test barrels. Reducing the barrel length will probably reduce muzzle velocity by about 10 fps per inch, according to Remington estimates.
I might add that standard .30-30 150 grain and 170 grain flat point factory loads provide a maximum point blank range (+/- 3") in excess of 200 yards from a scoped rifle and sufficient killing power at that distance to anchor Class 2 game. The Hornady LeverEvolution factory load with a soft-tipped, 160 grain spitzer bullet extends the MPBR to 232 yards. The .30-30 is not just a short range (100 yard) deer cartridge, as poorly informed writers sometimes suggest.
Despite its fine performance on Class 2 game (deer, feral hogs, caribou, black bear, etc.) out to at least 200 yards and on Class 3 game (elk) at 100 yards with appropriate loads, the .30-30 kicks substantially less than the .308 Winchester or .30-06 Springfield firing bullets of similar weight in rifles of the same weight. (These are the three most popular .30 caliber hunting cartridges in the world.)
It is an indisputable fact that everyone can shoot more accurately with a rifle that kicks less and bullet placement is, by far, the most important factor in killing power. This makes the .30-30 an excellent choice for anyone, not just recoil sensitive shooters.
Marlin Model 336XLR
The Marlin 336 is the second best selling .30-30 of all time, behind only the Winchester Model 94. It has been offered in various rifle and carbine versions and supplied with walnut, laminated and hardwood stocks.
Today, most Model 336 variations have pistol grip stocks with fluted combs and beavertail forearms. The top of the line, stainless/laminated, Model 336XLR was developed to take full advantage of Hornady's LeverEvolution ammunition and comes with a 24" barrel. It is also the most weather resistant of our test rifles
The 336XLR is the high-zoot, rifle version of the famous Marlin 336C carbine. It comes with an attractive, satin finished, stainless steel barreled action, a half length tubular magazine and a forearm cap, rather than a barrel band. This magazine configuration was chosen to minimize its effect on the barrel's natural vibration and thus accuracy.
Marlin advertising has always emphasized their solid top receiver and right side ejection. Before the advent of the Angle-Eject (AE) modification to the Model 94 in 1982, this was the Marlin's biggest selling point. The solid top receiver is drilled and tapped for scope bases and allows easy, over bore, scope mounting. An offset hammer spur, held in place by a set screw, is provided for scope use.
John Marlin designed his lever action with an external lever pivot screw mounted in "ears" integral with the bottom of the receiver. Remove this single screw and the lever comes free, allowing the round, fluted bolt to be removed. This allows the barrel to be cleaned from the rear and is useful in the unlikely event of a serious jam, as access to the action is otherwise limited to the ejection port cut-out in the right side of the receiver.
The traditional lever action safety has been a "quarter cock" hammer notch. Carried this way with a chambered cartridge, only the hammer must be manually cocked before firing the rifle.
The modern Model 336 action retains this feature, but adds a receiver mounted cross-bolt safety. The Marlin version is, fortunately, less intrusive than the cross-bolt safety Winchester used on the Model 94 between 1992 and 2003. With this safety on, the rifle can be safely carried with the hammer in the full cock position.
Whether releasing the safety is faster or easier than cocking the hammer is a matter for the shooter to decide. The best feature of the safety is that it allows unfired cartridges to be levered from the magazine with the safety on.
The test rifle's trigger pull measured four pounds. This is a clean trigger, without take-up or creep. The 336XLR and the Mossberg 464 have the best trigger pulls in this comparison.
The XLR pistol grip stock and beavertail firearm are gray laminated hardwood, which goes nicely with the stainless steel barreled action. I prefer an honest laminated stock to a "walnut finished hardwood" stock, both functionally and aesthetically.
The wood to metal fit and overall finish of our test rifle was good, better than the Mossberg and generally comparable to the Henry. There is extensive, three panel cut checkering that wraps around the forearm. The butt terminates in a functional, black rubber recoil pad, while the forearm terminates in a stainless steel cap. Detachable sling swivel studs are supplied.
Our G&S Online test rifle averaged 1.6" groups at 100 yards with four different brands of ammo and 1.2" with its favored load (Cor-Bon DPX). This with its scope set at 7x, the highest magnification available. Without question, the 336XLR is an accurate hunting rifle.
Henry .30-30 Model H009
The Henry .30-30 is available with a brass frame and an octagon barrel (Model H009B) or a steel frame and a round barrel (Model H009), as compared here. The brass framed model is definitely the more striking looking of the two, but its octagon barrel makes it very heavy for a .30-30 carbine (8.3 pounds without a scope!) and its bright receiver is highly reflective. As a practical hunting rifle, the blued steel H009 is a more practical choice and it is also $110 cheaper.
The Henry .30-30 action is a slicked-up version of the Marlin 336 type. I say "slicked-up," because from the petite .22 LR to the big .45-70, Henrys are generally the smoothest operating lever actions on the market.
Like the Marlin 336, the Henry uses a solid top, right side eject receiver with a round bolt and the operating lever pivoted externally on a single large screw. Remove this screw and the lever and bolt can be removed from the receiver, allowing the barrel to be cleaned from the breech end or a serious jam to be cleared.
The top of the receiver is drilled and tapped for scope bases (Weaver 63B, or any base designed for the Marlin 336) and barrel mounted, adjustable, semi-buckhorn iron sights are provided. The matte blued metal finish is well executed, if you like matte metal finishes, which I do not.
Without a screwdriver handy, access to the action is limited to the ejection port, which can make clearing a jammed cartridge more difficult than it would be in a Winchester or Mossberg. Fortunately, jams are very unlikely with any of these reliable lever action rifles.
Unlike a modern Marlin 336, the Henry eliminates both the receiver mounted, manual cross-bolt safety and hammer safety notch in favor of a hammer mounted transfer bar and a rebounding hammer. This is definitely a more elegant and attractive approach that eliminates possible fumbling when the time comes to shoot. It is also superior to the sliding top tang safeties used on the Mossberg and Winchester rifles.
You can carry a Henry in complete safety with a cartridge in the chamber and the hammer down. There is nothing to fumble or forget. Just cock the hammer when you are ready to shoot.
The trigger pull on our test rifle was heavy (slightly over five pounds), creepy and gritty. Henry should have done a better job on this rifle's trigger at the factory. It was the worst trigger among our four comparison rifles.
The Henry eschews a receiver mounted cartridge loading gate. Instead, the full length tubular magazine under the barrel is loaded like a tube fed .22 Rifle.
Twist the magazine cap to unlock the inner magazine tube and pull the brass inner magazine tube partway out, until it clears the .30-30 cartridge shaped cut-out in the steel outer magazine tube. Drop up to five fresh cartridges into the magazine and slide the inner magazine tube back into place, locking it.
This system is a bit slower to load than shoving fresh cartridges into a receiver mounted loading gate and you cannot add cartridges without taking the rifle temporarily out of service. However, it is easier on the thumb.
It also allows unloading the magazine at the end of the day by simply removing the inner magazine tube and dumping out the cartridges, rather than levering them individually through the action. (Don't forget to operate the lever a couple of times to eject a cartridge in the chamber, though.)
Henry rifles are generally supplied with a higher grade of walnut than most rifles. This is not guaranteed, but it seems to be the case.
Our test rifle's satin wood finish filled the wood pores. The wood to metal fit of our Henry test rifle is very good, better than the Mossberg and at least equal to the top of the line Marlin XLR and Winchester Sporter models.
The four panel, cut checkering is well executed, although the coverage is not as generous as the Marlin and Winchester. The forearm is a conventional (not beavertail) shape, but it is too thick and could profitably be slenderized.
There is a blued steel forearm cap and the butt stock terminates in a black rubber pad. Steel sling swivel studs are included. Overall, the Henry's stock takes second place, behind the Winchester Sporter.
During the shooting portion of our previous full length Guns and Shooting Online review, the Henry averaged 1.5", three shot groups at 100 yards using Hornady LeverEvolution factory loads with 160 grain FTX bullets. This is good accuracy for any carbine length hunting rifle using a fixed 4x scope and it made the Henry the most accurate rifle in this comparison by the slenderest of margins. (Only 0.1" in average group size over the Marlin.)
Winchester Model 94 Sporter
The Winchester Model 94 is the best selling sporting rifle of all time, with over 7,000,000 sold since 1894. Production of Model 94s temporarily ceased in 2006 with the closing of Winchester's old New Haven, Connecticut plant.
Since 2010, Winchester's Model 94 rifles have been made by Miroku, FN/Browning/Winchester's long time corporate partner in Japan. As it happens, these new Model 94s are the best made in decades, maybe ever. The performance, fit, finish and smoothness of operation are excellent. For this comparison I chose the top of the line Sporter model rifle previously reviewed by Guns and Shooting Online.
Like all Winchester Model 94s, the Sporter features an open top receiver that allows easy access for loading a single cartridge or clearing an (unlikely) jam. The geometry and superior internal polish of the Model 94 action allows the Winchester Sporter to be cycled with slightly less effort than the Marlin 336XLR.
Unlike the highly regarded pre-1964 Winchesters, the front and back of the angle-eject receiver is drilled and tapped for scope bases, just like a bolt action hunting rifle. This allows riflescopes to be mounted low and centrally over the receiver. A knurled hammer extension that threads into the side of the hammer, rather than being clamped to the hammer by a set screw, is included for use with low mounted scopes.
The open top Winchester Model 94 action has a hinged action bottom and an internally pivoted lever. This allows the receiver to be lower and trimmer than a Marlin or Henry receiver and makes the whole rifle slightly lighter for a given barrel length. This is the main factor in the superb handling of Model 94 rifles, which is slightly better than an equivalent Marlin 336C or Henry H009 and clearly superior to any bolt action or autoloading rifle I have ever used.
The Model 94's safety features include a rebounding hammer, manual top tang safety and lever actuated trigger block. The latter means the lever must be held closed or the rifle will not fire. The tang safety does not lock the lever, so unfired cartridges can be ejected through the action with the safety on.
Our test rifle's trigger pull measured 4-1/8 pounds. After considerable light take-up and some smooth creep, it released cleanly. I prefer a three pound trigger on a hunting rifle, but this Winchester's trigger is decent, in third place behind the Marlin and Mossberg rifles in this comparison and much better than the Henry.
The Sporter's 24", button rifled, half octagon / half round barrel is the ultimate in elegance. It is also nicely balanced for offhand shooting. The open iron sights are mounted on the barrel and the metal finish is highly polished and luster blued.
The wood to metal fit of the butt stock and forearm is very good, as is the stock finish and the quality of the black walnut, which has attractive figure with dark streaks. We have reviewed a couple of these new 94 Sporters and, like the Henry, they seem to come with superior walnut.
It is hard to beat a good walnut stock, both functionally and aesthetically. Our Sporter has the nicest stock in this review.
The steel butt plate is worth noting. It is a traditional "rifle" (crescent) type, beautifully luster blued and perfectly fitted.
Generous and attractive three panel, 22 lpi, point pattern, cut checkering adorns the sides of the straight hand grip and wraps around the forearm. As is traditional with Model 94s, the forearm is slender and enhances the graceful lines of the rifle. Unfortunately, sling swivel studs are not included, a serious oversight that must be rectified with aftermarket parts (see the Brownell's catalog).
At the range, our test rifle shot consistent two inch groups at 100 yards with its scope set at 5x, the most magnification available. This relegates it to last place in accuracy among our test rifles.
However, that translates to only four inches at 200 yards, which is about as far as you should push a .30-30, anyway. Considering that even a small deer has about a 10" heart/lung vital area, the Sporter is more than sufficiently accurate for its purpose even at 300 yards, although its cartridge is not.
The Sporter's excellent lines, half octagon barrel, superior metal finish, premium walnut stock and stock finish make it, by far, the most attractive rifle in this comparison. It is also the most expensive, but it is money well spent.
Mossberg Model 464
When Winchester closed their New Haven, Connecticut plant in 2006 production of the Model 94 ceased. Mossberg quickly stepped-in to fill the gap by introducing their Model 464 lever action carbine, based on the Model 94 action and nearly identical in style to the beloved Model 94 Angle Eject carbine. The straight hand stock carbine was reviewed on Guns and Shooting Online.
The Model 464 is also available with a pistol grip butt stock (#41020), but to me the version with a straight hand stock both looks and handles better. Like the Winchester Model 94 carbine that inspired it, it has excellent lines.
Fiber optic front and rear open sights, probably the best factory installed iron sights on any of our comparison rifles, are also an option. More important to the vast majority of shooters, the angle-eject receiver is drilled and tapped for Weaver #403 scope bases to allow scopes to be mounted low over the receiver.
However, for those who know how to shoot effectively with open iron sights, a scope may not be necessary. Randy D. Smith, who wrote the full length Guns and Shooting Online review of the Model 464, managed to achieve sub-two inch groups at 100 yards from a rest using the supplied iron sights and standard Federal 150 grain flat point ammunition. My guess is that a 4x scope would reduce the group size by at least 1/2 inch, essentially tying the Mossberg with the Marlin and Henry in terms of accuracy.
Randy considers the 464's standard iron sights superior to those supplied on the Marlin, Henry and Winchester. A white diamond is centered below the semi-buckhorn rear sight notch and the front bead is clearly visible.
Contributing to the Mossberg's good accuracy is its good trigger pull, which Randy described as, "better than any tube feed lever action I've ever fired." The trigger release is crisp and clean.
Like the Winchester Model 94 AE action, the open top Model 464 receiver has a hinged action bottom and an internally pivoted lever. This allows the receiver to be lower and trimmer than a Marlin or Henry receiver and makes the whole rifle slightly lighter for a given barrel length.
Mossberg departed from Model 94 practice by using a more economical to manufacture round bolt. This works fine and operates smoothly.
The Mossberg handles and carries almost identically to a Model 94 carbine, which is to say slightly better than an equivalent Marlin 336C or Henry H009. The open top receiver also allows easy access for loading a single cartridge, or should the need arise to remove a jammed cartridge.
Like the latest Model 94s, the Model 464 incorporates a rebounding hammer, top tang safety and lever actuated trigger block. The manual safety does not lock the lever, so unfired cartridges can be ejected through the action with the safety on.
The tang safety slider is made of plastic and seems tacky compared to the Model 94's steel safety. Although it seems to work, Mossberg should upgrade this part.
The barreled action is blued, but the metal polish is inferior to the Winchester Model 94. The stock and forearm are made of walnut finished hardwood, rather than genuine walnut, and the wood to metal fit is about average for rifles in this price range, meaning less precise than the other three rifles.
The inexpensive hardwoods used in these "walnut finished" stocks, usually birch, beech or something similar, normally have little contrasting grain or character. The Mossberg's butt stock and forearm are not checkered, which is just as well with walnut finished hardwood. (If you scratch through the surface finish, the wood is a light color underneath.)
Unlike the Marlin 336XLR, Winchester 94 Sporter and Henry H009, the slender (Model 94 type) forearm and the tubular magazine are secured by a barrel bands, rather than a metal cap. Theoretically, the barrel band is a less accurate method of securing the magazine tube to the barrel, but this did not prove to be the case with our highly accurate Mossberg test rifle.
The thin butt plate is solid, red rubber. This is not a recoil pad, but it does keep the butt from slipping on hard surfaces.
These production shortcuts were taken to reduce the retail price compared to competing rifles (Winchester, Marlin and Henry). In this Mossberg has been successful, as the Model 464 carries an MSRP about 39% less than a Henry H009, 47% less than a Marlin 336XLR and 63% less than a Winchester 94 Sporter. Most potential customers would probably rather have a Winchester Model 94, but at over twice the price?
Mossberg does not have the cachet of a famous American "lever action" name. There is no significant history attached to the Model 464.
If it sold at the same price point as a walnut stocked Model 94, Marlin 336 or Henry .30-30, it would have to be much better than its competition, which is not economically possible. Realizing this, Mossberg decided to build a good rifle that could sell at an affordable price and in this they have been successful.
Summary and Conclusion
The legendary handling of these traditional style lever action rifles is not just legend, it is fact. All of our comparison rifles are relatively slender, easy to carry and fast to the shoulder. They point and track more like an extension of the shooter's body than do typical bolt action and autoloading rifles. A hunter whose previous experience has been confined to modern bolt action and autoloading rifles, especially MSRs, will be surprised by how much better these lever actions carry and point.
Nevertheless, they are not created equal. The Marlin 336XLR, with its 24" barrel, pistol grip stock and beavertail forearm is the slowest and bulkiest. The short, lightweight Mossberg 464 is the fastest of our test rifles, followed by the Henry. This figures, as the Mossberg and Henry are carbines with 20" barrels.
The Winchester weighs about as much as the Marlin (both are full length rifles with 24" barrels), but its overall more slender design makes it feel lighter and faster. Being trimmer, it is easier to carry. The Winchester's combination of quick and steady holding would make it my first choice for offhand shots at moving targets.
There are two basic types of actions represented in this comparison, the Winchester/Mossberg and Marlin/Henry. Both are extremely durable and reliable, literally good for a century or more of hard use.
The two types feel different when operated and each has its advantages and disadvantages, none of which are of overriding functional importance. After a lifetime of shooting lever action rifles I appreciate both, but I have developed a slight preference for the Winchester 94 type action. However, a Marlin fan would disagree.
The open top receiver of the Winchester and Mossberg allow for easy loading of a single cartridge directly into the chamber. They also allow superior access for cleaning or clearing a jammed cartridge.
One action feature worth highlighting is the Henry's hammer mounted transfer bar and rebounding hammer. These eliminate the need for a manual "lawyer" safety and simplify operation.
There is very little to choose in accuracy between the Henry, Marlin and Mossberg test rifles. All are sufficiently accurate for 400 yard shots at deer size animals with a reasonable margin for shooter error, which is about twice as far as the .30-30 cartridge should be used.
The Winchester finished last in average 100 yard group size, but as pointed out above, it is plenty good enough for hunting to beyond the MPBR of any .30-30 load and, in fact, good enough for 300 yard shots on Class 2 game (with the same margin for shooter error). Unfortunately, the .30-30 is not a 300 yard cartridge.
All rifles are individuals and special handloads were not developed for any of these rifles. Had they been, the individual group sizes might well have been substantially reduced.
If we were to start over with four different rifles of the exact same models, the accuracy results might be completely different. Despite all the advertising hype, mechanical accuracy is not the key to choosing a good hunting rifle.
A good trigger pull is an important factor in practical accuracy. (How easy it is to shoot a rifle accurately.) In this area, our Marlin 336XLR and Mossberg 464 test rifles were the winners.
Having tested four Marlin 336XLR rifles, a number standard Model 336s, a couple of .30-30 Henrys and many Model 94s over the years, my general impression is that the Marlin XLRs are probably the most accurate of the traditional lever action rifles. (If you can call a stainless steel barreled action and laminated stock "traditional.") That said, the difference is not worth worrying about.
Aesthetically, the Winchester Model 94 Sporter is head and shoulders above the others. It is superior in every way, but perhaps most obviously in its polished and luster blued metal finish.
The Mossberg, despite its clean lines, finishes last in the aesthetic competition, primarily due to its characterless hardwood stock. Then again, it is more affordable. The aesthetics of the other two contenders are somewhere in-between.
The Marlin 336XLR is undoubtedly the most weather resistant of our test rifles. This is a valid concern in some areas, but not in most.
There you have it. There is no clear winner and no clear loser in this comparison. There are differences and individual areas of superiority and inferiority. It is up to you to decide which you like best.
Copyright 2017 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.