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Hornady LEVERevolution Ammunition

By the Guns and Shooting Online Staff

LEVERevolution Ammunition.
Illustration courtesy of Hornady Manufacturing Co., Inc.

The ammunition companies have put an inordinate amount of effort into premium ammunition for new and/or not very successful calibers such as the Remington Ultra Mag and SAUM cartridges or the Winchester WSM and WSSM series, while often neglecting the proven cartridges that top everyone's best seller lists.

The .30-30 Winchester is the best selling centerfire sporting cartridge in history, bar none. Yet, because it is chambered primarily in lever action carbines that most gun writers' disdain, practically no one pays any attention to either the cartridge or the rifles that shoot it. Except consumers, that is, who have made the Winchester Model 94 and Marlin Model 336 the best selling hunting rifles of all time.

Hmm, let's see--we have the best selling of all cartridges and the best selling of all rifles--and they have been largely ignored (at least until very recently) by all of the big ammo manufacturers since the end of the Second World War. Meanwhile, development money and resources are being poured into cartridges that will never make the top 30, let alone number one in sales. What is wrong with this picture?

Plenty, and Hornady has finally kicked over the traces and, thinking outside of the box, created a real breakthrough in factory loaded ammunition for lever action rifles. The new loads, dubbed "LEVERevolution" will initially be available in .30-30 Winchester and .35 Remington, followed by .444 Marlin, .45-70, and .450 Marlin. .30-30 and .35 Rem. ammo is hitting dealer shelves as I write these words (December 2005), and the other three calibers will be available starting in the Spring of 2006.

The key to the LEVERevolution ammunition, two years in development, is a new Evolution spitzer (pointed) bullet with a red elastomer Flex Tip. This tip flattens enough to cushion the primer of the cartridge in front of it in the magazine during the acceleration of recoil, yet returns to its original shape instantly thereafter. The Flex Tip has been tested at temperatures from -40 to +130 degrees F, and also passed 15' drop tests in full magazine tubes and many rounds of proof loads. The Flex Tip eliminates the possibility of a magazine chain-fire, the bugaboo that has prevented the use of pointed bullets in rifles with tubular magazines.

These new Evolution bullets deliver a markedly higher ballistic coefficient than the round nose and flat point bullets previously loaded in cartridges designed for use in lever action rifles. Downrange, these sleeker bullets retain more of their initial velocity and deliver more energy on target.

The new bullets are claimed to be exceptionally accurate and to deliver terminal performance (penetration and expansion) comparable to a conventional 170 grain FP bullet at short range and far superior at long range. During Hornady's ballistic gelatin tests the Evolution bullet gave substantial expansion and produced a large wound cavity even at 300 yards, while at that range the standard 170 grain FP bullet simply sailed through the gelatin block without expanding. The early independent tests and field reports that I have seen tend to confirm that the Evolution bullets' terminal performance is approximately as claimed.

Spitzer bullets are longer than flat point bullets and must be seated deeper in the case to maintain the same cartridge overall length. The Evolution bullets all wear their crimping cannelure pretty far forward. The cannelure also to helps to control expansion. Toward the rear of the bullet is the internal Hornady InterLock, designed to mechanically lock the shank of the core in the jacket after expansion.

In addition to new bullets, the LEVERevolution factory loads feature new powders that deliver higher muzzle velocity (MV) than traditional standard velocity loads at no increase in pressure. Like all Hornady factory loads, LEVERevolution ammo is loaded in virgin brass cases to SAAMI specifications.

Out of curiosity, I pulled the bullet from a LEVERevolution .30-30 cartridge and found it to be loaded with about 35.1 grains of ball powder. I won't claim that I captured every tiny kernel of powder, in fact I know that I spilled some, but that weight should be somewhere in the ballpark. The Evolution bullet weighted exactly 160 grains.

When I examined the powder under a magnifying glass it looked like a duplex load of some sort, as some powder kernels were very small and round, while others were larger and flattened. All I can say is don't try to duplicate this load at home!

It has taken some 145 years, but we finally have spitzer bullets in high performance, factory loaded .30-30 ammunition, as well as four other calibers popular in traditional lever action rifles. The initial LEVERevolution loads include a 160 grain Evolution spitzer/boat tail bullet in .30-30, 200 grain Evolution spitzer/flat base bullet in .35 Remington, 265 grain Evolution spitzer/flat base bullet in .444 Marlin, and a 325 grain spitzer/flat base bullet for the .45-70 and .450 Marlin.

Also in the works is a 300 grain Evolution bullet for the .500 S&W revolver cartridge, to be introduced Spring 2006. After the initial demand for the new factory loaded ammunition is met, all of these bullets will be available as reloading components.

The SST-like 160 grain .30-30 boat-tail bullet (BC .330) has the least air drag of the Evolution designs, followed by the .35 flat base bullet (BC .300). The latter has a profile similar to other .358", 200 grain spitzer bullets. The .265 grain .444 and 325 grain .45 bullets remind me of little pointed fire plugs. Bullets of that caliber and weight are simply too short to make really good candidates for streamlining. In addition, unlike the .30 and .35 bullets, there are deep folds in these bullets' jackets just behind the red elastomer tip that cannot be beneficial to their BC. Still, these bullets are superior to previous flat point and round nose designs. Here is a comparison of the sectional density (SD) and ballistic coefficient (BC) of the Evolution and selected conventional Hornady bullets.

.30-30 (.308")

160 grain Evolution - SD .240, BC .330
150 grain RN Interlock - SD .226, BC .186
170 grain FP Interlock - SD .256, BC .189

.35 Remington (.358")

200 grain Evolution - SD .223, BC .300
200 grain RN Interlock - SD .223, BC .195

.444 Marlin (.430")

265 grain Evolution - SD .205, BC .225
265 grain FP Interlock - SD .205, BC .189

.45-70/.450 Marlin (.458")

325 grain Evolution - SD .221, BC .230
300 grain HP - SD .204, BC .197
350 grain RN Interlock - SD .238, BC .189

Here are Hornady's advertised ballistics for the new LEVERevolution factory loads, taken in 24" test barrels, showing velocity (fps) / energy (ft. lbs.):

  • .30-30, 160 grain - 2400/2046 @ muzzle, 2150/1643 @ 100 yds, 1916/1304 @ 200 yds, 1699/1025 @ 300 yds.
  • .35 Rem, 200 grain - 2225/2198 @ muzzle, 1963/1711 @ 100 yds, 1721/1315 @ 200 yds, 1503/1003 @ 300 yds.
  • .444 Mar, 265 grain - 2325/3180 @ muzzle, 1971/2285 @ 100 yds, 1625/1606 @ 200 yds, 1380/1120 @ 300 yds.
  • .45-70, 325 grain - 2050/3032 @ muzzle, 1729/2158 @ 100 yds, 1450/1516 @ 200 yds, 1225/1083 @ 300 yds.
  • .450 Mar, 325 grain - 2225/3572 @ muzzle, 1887/2569 @ 100 yds, 1585/1813 @ 200 yds, 1331/1278 @ 300 yds.

And here are the Hornady trajectory figures for those loads, based on a rifle with a scope mounted 1.7" overbore and zeroed to shoot 3" high at 100 yards:

  • .30-30, 160 grain - +3" @ 100 yds, +0.2" @ 200 yds, -12.1" @ 300 yds.
  • .35 Rem, 200 grain - +3" @ 100 yds, -1.3" @ 200 yds, -17.5" @ 300 yds.
  • .444 Mar, 265 grain - +3" @ 100 yds, -1.4" @ 200 yds, -18.6" @ 300 yds.
  • .45-70, 325 grain - +3" @ 100 yds, -4.1" @ 200 yds, -27.8" @ 300 yds.
  • .450 Mar, 325 grain - +3" @ 100 yds, -2.2" @ 200 yds, -21.3" @ 300 yds.

The .30-30 Winchester is by far the most popular of the LEVERevolution calibers. Its Evolution bullet is the only boat-tail design (so far). This is fitting, as the .30-30 is the only small bore cartridge on the list. Medium and big bore hunting cartridges benefit less, in a practical sense, from bullets with a high BC, as they are typically used at closer range. Drive a heavy bullet fast enough to markedly benefit from a spitzer/boat-tail shape and the recoil becomes truly punishing, as demonstrated by the .338 Lapua and .378 Weatherby Magnums. As you can see by the Hornady ballistics figures, it is the .30-30 that benefits the most from the new Evolution bullet.

We contacted Steve Johnson at Hornady and, at our request, he graciously sent Guns and Shooting Online a supply of .30-30 LEVERevolution ammo to test for this article. As soon as the new ammo arrived, Bob Fleck and I headed for the range with an assortment of .30-30 rifles.

At my request, Guns and Shooting Online contributor Jon Y. Wolfe chronographed some LEVERevolution .30-30 ammo for this article. John wrote, "I used three Winchester 94s. Gun 1 is a 1967 Classic with a 25 1/4 inch barrel in good condition, Gun 2 is a Winchester 94 with peep sights and a 20 inch barrel, and Gun 3 is a Winchester 94AE with a Bushnell 4x scope and a 20 inch barrel."

"I used standard Federal 150 and 170 grain factory loads with advertised MVs of 2390 fps and 2200 fps respectively as control ammunition. The temperature was 56 degrees F. Velocities were taken with the chrono placed 10 feet from the muzzle; except, using Gun 3 with the scope, I shot over the chrono at 100 yards to get a velocity figure."

Here are Jon's chronograph results:

Gun #1 (25 1/4" barrel)

  • Hornady LEVERevolution 160 grain Evo - Average velocity 2326 fps; extreme spread 21 fps.
  • Federal 150 grain FP - Average velocity 2239 fps; extreme spread 13 fps.
  • Federal 170 grain FP - Average velocity 2062 fps; extreme spread 10 fps.

Gun #2 (20" barrel)

  • Hornady LEVERevolution 160 grain Evo - Average velocity 2236 fps; extreme spread 30 fps.
  • Federal 150 grain FP - Average velocity 2200 fps; extreme spread 5 fps.
  • Federal 170 grain FP - Average velocity 1993 fps; extreme spread 12 fps.

Gun #3 (20" barrel)

  • 10' from muzzle: Hornady LEVERevolution 160 grain Evo - Average velocity 2249; extreme spread 34 fps.
  • At 100 yards: Hornady LEVERevolution 160 grain Evo @ 100 Yards - Average velocity 1995; extreme spread 33 fps.

These results indicate that in a full length barrel the Hornady LEVERevolution .30-30 ammunition is averaging about 75 fps faster than the traditional Federal flat point ammunition. This is a welcome velocity increase. From the 20" barrel of a carbine the LEVERevolution ammo averaged a whopping 140 fps faster than the traditional ammo.

With that encouraging news Bob Fleck and I took three lever action .30-30 rifles to the Isaac Walton outdoor rifle range south of Eugene, Oregon to do some shooting with the new LEVERevolution ammunition. The three rifles involved were a Marlin 336SS (stainless steel) equipped with a Weaver V3 scope, an antique Winchester Model 1894 (manufactured in 1896) with buckhorn open iron sights, and a Winchester Model 94 equipped with a Leupold M8 2.5x IER Scout scope. All have 20" barrels. The first two rifles are Bob's and the scoped M-94 is mine.

We did our shooting for record with the scoped rifles at 100 yards, and at 25 yards with the iron sighted Model 1894. At 100 yards we used Champion Score Keeper targets, and we used Hoppe's S-10 targets with a prominent orange bullseye at 25 yards.

We did all of our shooting from a bench rest. We fired at the 100 yard targets using lead sleds weighted with a single 25 pound bag of lead shot. At 25 yards we used a sandbags padded with a towel. The weather was chilly with a low overcast and a high temperature in the mid-40's F.

After setting-up our equipment the first thing we discovered was that neither the Marlin 336 or Winchester 94, zeroed to hit 3" high with conventional 150 grain Flat Point ammunition, would even hit the paper with the new LEVERevolution ammo. That sent us to the 25 yard line to re-zero both scoped rifles, where we were able to "walk" the red tipped spitzer bullets into the center of the target with about three shots from each. Good scopes with accurate adjustments really help when it becomes necessary to sight-in a rifle!

We found that the pointed Evolution bullets made it easier to slip the cartridges past the loading gates of all three rifles. In both the Marlin and Winchester rifles the new ammunition fed very smoothly and precisely. The new bullet form is definitely an improvement when it comes to loading and feeding.

While we were at the 25 yard line, Bob fired a 5-shot group with the old Model 1894 carbine, with pretty dismal results. With its Marble buckhorn sight bottomed out the rifle printed a 2 5/8" group centered approximately 3 1/2" high. That would translate to about 14" high at 100 yards and off the paper, so we discontinued testing with the Model 1894.

Back at the 100 yard line, things improved, and how! Bob and I took turns shooting 3-shot groups with both rifles, expending a total of about 60 rounds of ammunition. Here are the results:

  • Marlin 336, 3x scope - Smallest group 3/4"; biggest group 2"; average group size = 1.41".
  • Winchester Model 94, 2.5x scope - Smallest group 1"; biggest group 1 13/16"; average group size = 1.44".

Congratulations to Hornady! Those are the best averages ever achieved with either rifle shooting factory loaded ammunition. In fact, in my Winchester M-94 (for which I have records) that average group size is tied with the average achieved with my best handload in that rifle. (A load using a Speer 110 grain Varminter bullet, not a big game hunting load.)

One of the nice things about most .30-30 rifles is that they are not hard kickers. I calculated the recoil energy of the new load (160 grain bullet at a chronographed velocity of 2240 fps) in a 7.5 pound rifle at 11.6 ft. lbs. In terms of subjective recoil, the new Hornady LEVERevolution 160 grain load felt nearly identical to the traditional 170 grain .30-30 flat point factory load in our rifles. Personally, I don't think that anyone could tell the difference.

Bob and I returned from the range extremely pleased with this new Hornady LEVERevolution ammunition. It is superior both ballistically and in accuracy to all previous .30-30 factory loads tested to date. Of course, all rifles are different and your .30-30 may prefer some other bullet or brand of ammunition. But if you use a .30-30 for big game hunting, you owe it to yourself to at least try this new LEVERevolution ammunition in your rifle. In fact, if I owned any rifle in a caliber for which LEVERevolution ammo is available, I'd certainly give it a whirl.

Hornady, a family owned company under the direction of Steve Hornady and with Senior Ballistics Engineer Dave Emary, has become the creative leader among American ammunition makers. To the Company's recent credit is the creation of the .17 HMR and .17 Mach 2 rimfire cartridges; the .204 Ruger and .450 Marlin centerfire cartridges; SST bullets for rifles, muzzleloaders, and even shotguns; and now LEVERevolution ammunition and Evolution bullets. They are doing something right in Grand Island, Nebraska!

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