The Lever Action

By Chuck Hawks

The handy lever action has been popular in North America since 1866, when Oliver Winchester introduced the breakthrough Model 1866 "Yellow boy" (so called because of its brass frame), successor to the .44 Henry rimfire lever action. The lever action is the repeating descendent of the falling block single shot. The type is easily identified by the loop lever/trigger guard underneath the action. This leaves the sides of the receiver flat and uncluttered, convenient to carry in the hand or scabbard.

The lever is fast and natural to operate from the shoulder, basically by opening and closing the trigger finger hand, although it is not as fast as a pump action. It is also ambidextrous. Most shooters remove the butt from the shoulder while operating the lever. This is neither necessary nor desirable, and the lever action shooter should train him or herself to operate the action at the shoulder.

The principal advantages of most lever actions are speed, reliability, high magazine capacity and (at least potentially) a good trigger pull. Classic good looks also play a part in the continuing desirability of the lever action. The various Winchester, Henry, Marlin, Browning and Uberti replica lever action rifles just look "right." Never underestimate aesthetics as a motivating factor.

One disadvantage of the popular lever action rifles (except the Browning BLR, Winchester 95 and the discontinued Sako Finnwolf, Savage 99 and Winchester 88), is that they are not chambered for high intensity cartridges and their tubular magazines prohibit the use of conventional pointed (spitzer) bullets. Hornady has solved that problem for lever action rifles with tubular magazines by introducing their LEVERevolution ammunition line with Flex-Tip spitzer bullets. It is this bullet that made the high-performance .308 Marlin Express cartridge a viable possibility.

Another disadvantage is that lever actions are generally regarded as being a little bit less accurate than a good bolt action or falling block rifle. This may be partly because of their two-piece stocks, partly because their bolts lock at the rear, partly due to the rear sight mounting slots cut into their barrels and partly because the forearms and magazine tubes of most models are attached to their barrels by barrel bands. It is also fair to point out that the selection of cartridges for lever action rifles is more limited than for bolt action or single shot rifles.

Some or all of these points may have some validity, but the fact is that I have had a reasonable amount of experience with Uberti, Marlin, Henry and Winchester lever action rifles and I have found them to be quite accurate. Of course, you must mount a good scope on them, just as you would on a bolt action rifle, if you wish to take maximum advantage of their accuracy potential. It is not fair to compare the accuracy of a lever action equipped only with crude semibuckhorn iron sights to a bolt action equipped with a 3-9x scope. Put the same scope on both rifles, and you will probably find that less than an inch in 100 yard group size separates the two. Get a lever action rifle with a 24" or 26" barrel, such as a Marlin XLR model and spend some time tuning it and working up accurate handloads, as you would for a bolt action rifle, and even that difference may disappear.

The centerfire lever action rifles available new today include Winchester's Model 1895 and the Marlin Models 1895, 444, 336, 308, and 1894. Henry offers both rimfire and centerfire models. Uberti produces beautifully made replicas of Henry and early Winchester rifles and the thoroughly modern Browning BLR is styled to resemble a classic lever gun. The Ruger 96/44 is a lever action rifle with contemporary styling.

Winchester Model 94
Win. 94. Illustration courtesy of U.S. Repeating Arms Co., Inc.

The Winchester M-94 was the best-selling centerfire sporting rifle of all time. Seventy years after its introduction, in 1963, the M-94 was redesigned for easier production. 1964, the year the revised guns hit dealer shelves, was a bad year for most Winchester models, and the introduction of stamped steel parts in the old 94 was a sign of the times. Customer complaints forced a partial return to more substantial looking parts a few years later. Toward the end of the 20th Century, the 94 was again redesigned, this time for side ejection. A rather silly and unsightly safety button was also added to the right side of the receiver, but in 2003 the safety became a slider on the top tang, a great improvement. Unfortunately, the Model 94 story came to an end in 2006 when the Belgian interests that had acquired USRAC (who produced Winchester rifles) a few years previously closed the US plant.

Non-catalog Winchester brand firearms are commissioned on a special build basis by large customers such as distributors and buying groups. Among the non-catalog Winchesters in 2007 was the Model 1892 (now produced for Winchester by Miroku in Japan). This is one of the best loved and most fondly remembered Winchesters. It is a small frame lever action that is usually chambered for the .357 Mag., .44 Mag., and the traditional .44-40 Win. combination rifle/revolver cartridges.

Another Miroku made, limited edition, non-catalog Winchester lever action is the Model 1886. For 2007 500 Model 1886 rifles were produced only in caliber .45-90 BPCR, although they have also been made in the standard and much more popular .45-70 caliber.

The Winchester Model 1895 (recently restored to limited, non-catalog production by Miroku) is another classic Winchester replica. The 95 uses a box magazine that allows the use of pointed bullets. (There is, however, no provision for scope mounting.) The Model 1895 was introduced in .30-40 Krag but has recently been produced by Miroku in .270 Win., .30-06 and .405 Winchester. The current version is a takedown rifle in .405 caliber.

Winchester Model 1895
Winchester Model 1895. Illustration courtesy of U.S. Repeating Arms Co., Inc.

An original Model 95 was used extensively by Teddy Roosevelt during his famous African safari. In .405 Winchester caliber, he called it his "lion medicine." By selecting a lever action, Teddy showed that he knew a thing or two about hunting dangerous game. A hunter/handloader with a modern lever action in .444 Marlin, .45-70 or .450 Marlin can pretty much duplicate the ballistics of the old .405 Win., which ought to be food for thought.

Marlin lever action rifles trace their lineage back to models from the 1890's. The Model 1893 was the forerunner the current line, eventually evolving into today's Model 336. It featured a case hardened, solid top receiver with side ejection, round barrel, and a square bolt. It was chambered for the .38-55, .30-30, and .32 Special, among other cartridges. The Model 1893 begat the small frame Model 1894 and large frame Model 1895, both of which shared the features and appearance of the 1893. The 1894 was chambered for pistol cartridges like the .32-20 and .44-40. The original 1894 was reintroduced (with only minor changes) in 1969, again chambered for what are basically pistol cartridges. The old 1895 was chambered for big bore cartridges like the .45-70 and .45-90.

The current Model 1895 is a big bore version of the 336 action, not a re-introduction of the original 1895. It is the basis for the most powerful of Marlin's current lever action models. These are chambered for the .444 Marlin, .45-70 Govt. and .450 Marlin cartridges. The .45-70 and .450 models have become very popular in North America for hunting large and dangerous game.

Marlin 336SS
Marlin Model 336SS. Illustration courtesy of Marlin Firearms Co.

The Model 336 is made in rifle and carbine versions, with round and octagon barrels, and straight and pistol grip butt stocks. Various 336 models are chambered for the .30-30 Win., .35 Rem., and .38-55 cartridges. Rifles chambered for the .308 Marlin cartridge carry "Model 308" desigantions, but are built on the exact same 336 action. Most of these Marlin rifles (except the economical Model 336A versions) feature genuine American black walnut stocks.

Recent additions to the line include the XLR Models, deluxe stainless steel rifles that come with 24" barrels and laminated hardwood stocks to take advantage of the superior ballistics of the Hornady LEVERevolution line of cartridges. It is hard for me to imagine a more suitable deer rifle for use in inclement weather than one of these Marlin XLR's.

All 1895, 444 and 336 based models feature a solid top receiver and a round bolt. They eject straight to the side, not up at an angle. The bolt is easily removed so that the barrel may be cleaned from the breech. This receiver, machined from a block of steel, makes for a strong action. The solid top allows easy, low, over the bore scope mounting. It also allows the use of strong, one-piece scope bases. The Marlins are the only traditional, centerfire lever action rifles with all of these features.

The small frame Marlin is based on the square bolt Model 1894 action, which is a small frame version of the old M 1893. It also has a solid top receiver machined from a block of steel, and side ejection. Like the M 336, the M 1894 allows easy scope mounting with one-piece bases. It is Marlin's counterpart to the Winchester M 92. It is available in several variations, all chambered for "combination" rifle/pistol cartridges like the .38 Spec./.357 Mag., .44-40 Win., .44 Spec./.44 Mag., and .45 Colt. The Marlin 1894 is perhaps the most accurate of the short action lever guns.

Henry Big Boy Rifle
Henry Big Boy. Illustration courtesy of Henry Repeating Arms Co.

Henry Repeating Arms produces a line of rimfire lever action rifles with black or brass colored frames in .22 LR, .22 WMR, and .17 HMR. These are accurate, well made rifles. More recently Henry introduced their Big Boy .44 Magnum centerfire rifle. This very striking and somewhat expensive rifle features a solid brass frame, buttplate, and barrel band. The remainder of the metal parts are steel, including the octagon barrel, and finished in a polished blue. The stock is American walnut. The Big Boy looks something like the "Golden Boy" rifle of 1866 and it is made entirely in the USA. It is a very striking rifle.

The Browning BLR is a modern lever gun made in both long and short action models. It has an alloy receiver, an external hammer and a checkered walnut stock and forearm. The barrel is a semi-floating type that attaches to the forearm at only one point. The bolt is front locking with a rotary head and is operated by the lever through a rack and pinion gear. A detachable box magazine holds 4 rounds (3 in magnum calibers).

BLR Lightweight
Browning BLR. Illustration courtesy of Browning.

The Browning BLR is very strong, well made, handles recoil well and comes standard with Browning's usual outstanding fit and finish. It is the rifle that appears on the back of Guns and Shooting Online Tee shirts. The BLR is the only lever action which handles the 7mm Rem. and .300 Win. belted magnums. Other available calibers include the .223, .22-250, .243, .270 Win., .270 WSM, 7mm-08, 7mm WSM, .308, .30-06, .300 WSM, .358 Win. and .450 Marlin. In .300 Mag., .358 and .450 Marlin the BLR is a reasonable choice for hunting dangerous thin-skinned game.

The now discontinued Sako Finnwolf and Winchester Model 88 were designed for modern short action, high intensity cartridges. I think of them together because they looked similar--like a bolt action rifle bred to a lever action--and had similar features. Both were produced in the 1960's and 1970's.

The Winchester used a front locking, multilug rotating bolt, much like the modern Browning BLR. Unlike most lever actions, but like the Finnwolf, there was no external hammer. It was a modern and sleek looking rifle, with a slim one piece stock; to my eye it was one of the most aesthetically pleasing rifles ever made. It was a rifle that offered most of the features of a bolt action rifle, with faster lever action operation. It was moderately popular, and stayed in the Winchester line for several years, but I think it was a rifle out of sync with its time. Lever action fans were perfectly happy with their traditional (and much less expensive) .30-30's, and bolt action fans would not buy a lever action no matter how good it was. The sample I shot, which was owned by a friend, seemed to be an accurate rifle. The only drawbacks seemed to be that its trigger was neither as light nor as clean as a M-94 or a good bolt action's trigger and it kicked awfully hard for a .308. It was not a pleasant rifle to shoot. Calibers were .243, .284, .308, and .358 Win.

I don't think the Sako Finnwolf was a very popular rifle. I don't recall ever seeing one in the field, although I vaguely remember seeing one on a dealer's shelf long ago. It looked superficially a good deal like the Winchester 88, and like the Winchester it featured a solid frame, front locking rotating bolt, side ejection, a short throw gear-operated lever, one piece checkered walnut stock and a 4-shot detachable box magazine. Unlike the M-88, its stock had a Monte Carlo comb and probably handled recoil better. It was built in .243 and .308.

Winchester Model 96/44M
Ruger 96/44M. Illustration courtesy of Sturm, Ruger Co., Inc.

A lever action centerfire rifle has been introduced by Sturm, Ruger & Company. This is their Model 96/44, chambered for the .44 Mag. revolver cartridge. With its chunky, one-piece "American hardwood" stock, complete with barrel band, it looks a great deal like their popular 10/22 autoloading rimfire rifle, or their discontinued .44 Mag. autoloading carbine. Like other Ruger carbines, it has a gently curved buttplate, 18.5" barrel, detachable rotary magazine, and streamlined hammerless action. Visually, the main addition is the husky, curved operating lever, snugged up against a rather shapeless pistol grip. It is clearly intended as a brush country deer rifle.

Unfortunately, comparing the 2007 Ruger and Marlin catalogs, the Ruger 96/44 lists for about $100 more than Marlin's Model 336A (also stocked in "hardwood"), which is available in the much more powerful and versatile .30-30 Winchester caliber. The new Ruger's magazine holds 4 rounds, compared to the Marlin's 6. Clearly, the new Ruger is not the "gun that won the west" over a century ago, and I am not sure that it is going to win it now.

Uberti 1866 Short Sporting Rifle
Uberti 1866 Short Sporting Rifle. Illustration courtesy of A. Uberti S.R.L.

Finally, I must briefly mention the Uberti lever action replica rifles. These are expensive and extremely well-made replicas of early Henry and Winchester rifles. Models as of this writing include the 1860 Henry, 1866 "Yellowboy" Winchester and Model 1873 Winchester. All are excellent replicas and very well finished. In our experience they are also extremely accurate rifles, although they must be used with their supplied iron sights as there is no provision for scope mounting. The smoothness and reliability of the basic Henry/Winchester action upon which these rifles are based simply cannot be beaten. They are chambered for various revolver cartridges, usually .38 Special, .357 Magnum, .44-40 and .45 Long Colt.

Note: There are full length reviews of most of the rifles mentioned in this article on the Product Review Page.

Back to Rifle Information

Copyright 1999, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.