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5 Classic Lever-Action Guns You Should Try

Join the author on a fortune hunt for some of the most important hunting firearms in American history.

5 Classic Lever-Action Guns You Should Try

All lever-action rifles vary in accuracy, but Savage 99s, among the guns featured below, are usually accurate enough. Top and top right group, a 1919-vintage 1899 Savage groups about as well as the author can see with its pop-up tang aperture sight. Bottom and top left group, this 1950s .300 Savage with scope consistently produces 1.5-inch groups, plenty good enough for the cartridge’s capabilities. (Photo by Craig Boddington)

As I get older, I find that I love my lever-action guns more and more. Nope, I don’t use ‘em in open country, and am unlikely to take one for mule deer, or up a sheep mountain. They have limitations, but they’re just so much fun.

And, they’re a wonderful part of American history. To have no interest in the all-American lever-action is almost like being a godless communist. That said, I accept that many younger folks of the "tacticool" generation just plain missed out on lever-actions.

Sorry for you, but it’s not too late! I’m not suggesting you need to rush out and buy a bunch of guns. You can. Many are still in production, and over the past 150 years, dozens of millions were produced. So, even during our pandemic shortages, you won’t have trouble finding serviceable lever-actions on the used gunracks in any decent gunshop.

You can also ask around. Most of you must know old codgers like me, and most of us have one or two lever-actions squirreled away. Bet they’ll be happy to show them to you, and maybe join you at the range.


So, think of this article as a fortune hunt. There’s no time limit, no extra points for rapid completion. Here, in no special order, are five lever-actions you really should try. Your prize at the end: Familiarity with some of the most important firearms in American history!


SAVAGE 99

John Marlin and Oliver Winchester designed their famous lever-actions around a tubular magazine. Arthur Savage used a box magazine under the bolt, allowing the use of sharp-pointed bullets.

Savage 99
The author has a lot of fun hunting with vintage lever-actions. This Savage 99 in .300 Savage was, is, and always will be an effective deer cartridge. (Photo by Craig Boddington)

His first, the Model 1895, morphed into the 1899, which, in 1920, became the Savage 99. Sadly, the Savage 99 was discontinued in 1997, after about a million were produced. Except for upgrades and rarer models, 99s aren’t scarce and values have remained low.

With its round-bottom receiver, a Savage 99 is a joy to carry. In 1953, it was the first production rifle to be drilled and tapped for scope mounts as standard. I prefer vintage rifles because from 1895 to 1985 all had a unique rotary magazine, with a "cartridge counter" on the lower left of the receiver, showing how many cartridges remained in the five-shot magazine.

Later production (from 1985) used a detachable magazine. Still a great rifle, but at least look at an earlier model!




The strong action was chambered to a host of versatile cartridges. In 1915, its .250-3000 (.250 Savage) was the first factory cartridge to reach 3,000 fps. In 1920, the .300 Savage was designed to approximate .30-06 velocity (of the day).

Savage 99
Prior to 1985, all Savage lever-actions had two unique features: A reliable rotary magazine; and a "cartridge counter" visible on the lower left front of the receiver. The brass "5" indicates there are five cartridges in the magazine. (Photos by Craig Boddington)

From 1956, the .308 Winchester family became more popular. The 99s in .243, .308, and .358 Winchester are common, and some were made in .22-250 and 7mm-08. I have both a .250 and .300 Savage, and love them, but with this rifle the chambering doesn’t matter. You need to try a Savage 99!

Savage 99
Unlike vintage Winchesters, common versions of the Savage 99 haven’t gotten expensive on the used-gun market. The author bought this scoped .300 Savage at Capital Sports in Montana at a very reasonable price. (Photo by Craig Boddington)

A GOOD OLD .30-30

From introduction in 1895 until WWII the .30-30 became America’s favorite deer rifle. The Winchester 1894 is the world’s most prolific centerfire sporting rifle. Marlin’s 336 series is second! The Winchester 1894 is still in production and Henry offers a variety of models in .30-30. The Marlin 336 is currently out of production, but under Ruger ownership it will be back.

Recommended


Between Henry, Marlin, Winchester, and Mossberg’s 464, some 20 million .30-30 lever-actions are out there somewhere. Don’t tell me you can’t find one!

A couple times a year I help my daughter Brittany with her "She Hunts" outdoor skills camp. It’s not altogether altruism. The ranch she uses is overrun with wild hogs! I usually bring a rifle, but once last year I didn’t. I just asked, "Anybody got a .30-30 I can use?"

Lever-action 30-30
Lever-action 30-30s aren’t known for accuracy, but they vary tremendously. Despite short barrel and aperture sight, the author's 1980-vintage M94 Trapper is an exception, capable of turning in exceptionally good groups.  (Photo by Craig Boddington)

Within minutes "Ram" Ramirez handed off his dad’s Winchester ’94. With a 20-inch barrel, short and handy, it’s the quintessential .30-30 carbine. All early Winchester lever-actions were top-eject, meaning they defy over-the-receiver scope mounting. In 1983, Winchester introduced "angle eject," opening the right upper edge of the receiver, ejecting up and to the right, and allowing conventional scope mounting. Since then, the next five million ‘94s have been "scopeable," and most other .30-30s always were.

Although angle-eject, the Ramirez rifle wore traditional buckhorn open sights. No problem, just needed to get close, and we did! By today’s standards, the .30-30 isn’t fast or flashy.

Lever-action 30-30
Winchester went to angle-eject on their 1894 in 1983, and most other .30-30s are readily "scopeable." The author put an AimPoint red-dot sight on his Mossberg 464 .30-30, pretty much doubling its effective range. (Photo by Craig Boddington)

There are exceptions, but accuracy usually isn’t spectacular. Doesn’t matter! With open sights, a .30-30 carbine is fast and deadly on deer and hogs within 100 yards. With scope or, if preferred, a red-dot sight, effective range is extended to perhaps 200 yards. No matter what sights you use, you aren’t going to turn a .30-30 into a long-range rig.

Across the country, there’s a lot of close-range hunting for both deer and wild hogs. The grand old .30-30 is far more effective than its paper ballistics suggest. Also, a .30-30 carbine is light, handy, and a pleasure to carry and shoot.

WINCHESTER 71

The Winchester Model 71 was the final iteration of John Moses Browning’s great Winchester Model 1886 action. Big, beautiful, and smooth, designed to handle the .45-70 Government, and chambered to even larger blackpowder cartridges. With bolt-actions becoming more popular and lever-action sales diminishing, in 1936, Winchester replaced the 1886 with the M71 in .348 Winchester. The .348 was the M71’s only chambering, and the .348 was never chambered to any other production rifle.

Winchester Model 71
Top, a Winchester 1886; bottom a first-year-of-manufacture M71 Deluxe with tang-mounted aperture sight. An important part of the M71’s significance is that it was the last (original) iteration of the great John Browning-designed 1886 action. (Photo by Craig Boddington)

Discontinued in 1958, only 47,000 M71s were produced. Originals are going up in value, so this is the toughest search along anyone’s fortune hunt. Fortunately, Browning/Winchester have done runs of faithful reproductions, and there are also excellent Italian copies. This is an important stop! The M71 was often described as “the greatest lever-action ever made,” and its .348 is the fastest cartridge ever housed in a tubular-magazine lever-action, a 200-grain bullet at a whopping 2,560 fps. More importantly, the M71 is just plain cool with magnificent workmanship, and although it’s a big rifle, the round-bottom receiver feels good in the hand.

Like all early Winchesters, the M71 is top eject, so it’s the Devil to scope, but for close-range work, it’s a real thumper for hogs and black bears.

Winchester M 71
This standard-grade M71 has a Pachmayr side mount with vintage Weaver K2.5. The author concedes that iron sights are more traditional for such rifles, the low-powered scope adds to its versatility. This California hog was taken with a 162-grain Cutting Edge copper-alloy bullet. (Photo by Craig Boddington)

There were just two primary versions (Standard and Deluxe) with rifle and carbine barrel in each. All had pistol-grip stocks with four-round half-magazines. The Deluxe had checkered stock with factory-supplied aperture sight. I’ve had one or another for more than 40 years, and have hunted with them a lot.

The one I have now is a first-year-production Standard, but in the 1950’s, a Pachmayr side mount was added—complete with an old Weaver K2.5. Honestly, I think a scope looks like hell on such a classic rifle, but I can’t see iron sights as well as I once could, so I’m enjoying shooting this M71!

ONE BIG-BORE LEVER-ACTION

The big-bore lever-action had been almost dead for 40 years when Marlin introduced a "new" .45-70 lever-action in 1972. Winchester’s 1886 continued in .33 WCF until 1936, but its big-bore chamberings had long since been dropped.

Big Bore Lever Action
Big Horn Armory’s M89 "Spike Driver" is an intermediate action between the Winchester 1892 and the big 1886. Chambered in .500 S&W, it’s an extremely powerful little rifle, and also very accurate. (Photo by Craig Boddington)

Winchester’s 1895 in .405 Winchester (Theodore Roosevelt’s "lion medicine") was also discontinued in 1936. Marlin’s original Model 1895 .45-70 (with square bolt) was manufactured until 1917, with just 18,000 produced. The great old .45-70 cartridge, introduced in 1873 and seemingly an obsolete relic, was also almost dead in 1972.

In 1964, Marlin modified their round-bolt 336 receiver to handle the .444 Marlin cartridge. They did it again in 1972 with the .45-70, naming the new rifle the Model 1895 in honor of their previous .45-70 lever-action. A lot of folks thought they were nuts, but the concept of a big-bore lever-action caught on.

With short barrel, improved sights, rustproof metal and weather-resistant stocks, it gave rise to a whole new class of big-bore lever-actions we call "guide guns." Fast, fast-handling and, with heavy loads in the strong Marlin action, capable of stopping the biggest bears! At the tail end of Remington production, Marlin .45-70s were available in numerous configurations, and were actually outselling .30-30s.

Big Bore Lever-Action
The big-bore lever actions aren’t just for big stuff. They’re very effective deer rifles. This excellent Texas whitetail went down fast to a 325-grain Hornady from one of the first Ruger-made Marlin 1895s, chambered to the grand old .45-70. (Photo by Craig Boddington)

So, it’s no surprise that, now under Ruger ownership, the first new Marlin lever-action is the M1895 LBS; stainless steel, laminate stock, 19-inch barrel, with ghost-ring aperture on a Picatinny rail strip.

Whether new or used, Marlin’s 1895 is most available and economical, but Winchester/Browning have done numerous runs of the lovely M1886 .45-70s, and Henry offers several versions of their big lever-action. I have an older Marlin .45-70, with walnut stock and long, octagonal barrel. I also have a Big Horn Amory M89 in .500 S&W (it’s awesome) and a gorgeous .475 Turnbull on a new Browning 1886 action.

Last fall, I got my hands on one of the first Ruger-Marlin .45-70s to leave their Mayodan, N.C., factory. I obviously didn’t need it, but it was too slick and accurate to return!

With lots of steel in the action (and magazine tube), big-bore lever-actions are not light, and that’s fine. Recoil is surprisingly mild, but there’s a lot going on when you touch off one of these big boys!

WINCHESTER 1873

The Winchester 1873 is "the gun that won the West." Truly the world’s first perfected repeater, it was enabled by one of the first centerfire cartridges, the equally famous .44-40 WCF.

About 720,000 were made, and were at the time perhaps the world’s most successful production firearm. Winchester ‘73s aren’t scarce, but you probably won’t (or at least shouldn’t) fire an original.

Model 1873
Winchester’s famous Model 1873 is one of the fastest lever-actions the author has ever used. Put a few rounds through a ’73, and you’ll understand why it won the West, and why it’s so popular with Cowboy Action shooters. (Photo by Craig Boddington)

No worries, the 1873 is extremely popular among Cowboy Action shooters. There are plenty of faithful reproductions, including seven variations currently offered by Winchester, with chamberings including .357 Magnum, .44-40, and .45 Colt.

The 1873 was my final stop along my own lever-action fortune hunt! I had long thought the ’73 was ungainly compared to the sleeker, stronger John Browning-designed Model 1892, or the side-eject Marlin Model 1894.

I had long wondered why production continued clear to 1919, when clearly superior rifles in the same power level were in simultaneous production.

That is because I had never fired a Winchester ’73! It is the fastest centerfire lever-action I have ever fired, with a lever throw so short it almost works itself! It is not a strong action. The 1892 action will handle the .44 Magnum, the 1873 cannot.

Winchester 1873
The Winchester 1873 isn’t a strong action, and its chamberings are on the mild side for deer-sized game. Still, it’s great fun to shoot, and perfect for smaller game. This javelina was taken with a Winchester reproduction 1873 in .357 Magnum.  (Photo by Craig Boddington)

Its .44-40 cartridge probably accounted for more deer than the .30-30, but today we’d consider the ’73 marginal for deer-sized game. Also, it’s top-eject with iron sights only. Its speed is what the Cowboy Action folks love, and it sure is fun to shoot. Whether the first or last stop on your fortune hunt, you will love rolling cans with a Winchester ’73!

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