by Keith Wood - Saturday, August 6, 2016
There are few tangible items as that are as iconic of the United States of America as the lever-action repeating rifle. Due not only to their widespread use across the American frontier but also to their depiction in countless westerns on television and the silver screen, the lever-action is as welded to the image of the American West as the Colt revolver, the cowboy hat or the saddled horse. That said, I have never been much of a lever-action guy. Sure, I own lever-actions and have hunted with them, but they’ve never really been at the top of my list. I say this because I want to make it clear that I don’t really have a dog in the following fight—I tried my best to approach the creation of this list with a great measure of objectivity. So here, in no particular order, are the top five lever-action rifles of all time.
Winchester Model 1894
One could certainly argue that the ’94 isn’t the best lever-action of all time, but its sheer popularity over a period of many decades earns it a place on this list. Designed by John Browning himself and released in 1894, this repeating rifle eventually sold over 7.5 million units. Though the rifle has always worn the Winchester name, it has actually been produced by three separate firms of various ownership in both the U.S. and Japan over its 122-year history. Though the 94 was chambered in various cartridges, it is best known and most closely associated with the 30 WCF/30-30 round. The 94 is lightweight and, in its 20-inch barrel configuration, is compact and easy to carry whether in a saddle scabbard or by hand. The 94’s greatest drawback was its inability to adapt to the scope era, thanks to the top-eject receiver design. Later versions adapted the receiver to allow for traditional scope mounting, but the rifle never really regained its earlier popularity. It has been written that the combination of the Model 1894 and the 30-30 cartridge have taken more whitetails than any other rifle or cartridge. While that is a nearly impossible claim to prove or disprove, that combination has certainly accounted for a pile of venison.
When I was a young prosecutor, I was fortunate enough to work in the courtroom of Judge David Harper. Judge Harper was a hunter and a shooter and had a love affair with the Savage 99. I’d sit in his chambers for hours as he taught me the virtues of one of the world’s great lever-action rifles. Billed as the “Rifle of the 20th Century” by its maker, the 99 was an evolution of the earlier Model 1895, which has the distinction of being the first successful hammerless lever-action rifle. The Savage 99 afforded hunters the opportunity to use then-modern cartridges such as the 250-3000 with aerodynamic spire-point bullets thanks to its rotary magazine which was later replaced with a detachable box. The judge had examples in nearly every cartridge available and was always looking for more. When I left the practice of law to become an NRA lobbyist, he was known to have me track down rare Model 99s in out of the way gun shops in various corners of the U.S. where I happened to be working. Savage 99s ranged from full-stocked “musket” examples in .303 Savage (which were not actually .303”) to octagon barreled rifles and lightweight carbines in a variety of chamberings. Harper has left us, but his sons and grandsons will be equipped for many lifetimes of hunting thanks to his collection of Savage 99s. The company’s marketing was right: the Savage 99 was the lever-action that bridged the gap to 20th century cartridges.
Winchester Model 1895
This rifle makes our list for the simple reason that I’ve always been a fan of the design. To me, the 1895 is the most attractive of the Winchester lever-actions and is indicative of the period in history when the United States became a world power. This model Winchester also has the distinction of being the last lever-action designed by the great John Browning himself. The 1895 differed from other lever-action designs of the period in that it used a box magazine rather than the more popular tubular magazine. Just as we saw with the Savage 99, the 1895’s departure from the tubular magazine allowed it to use pointed spitzer-style bullets. What differentiates the 1895 from the Savage is that it was chambered for longer and more powerful cartridges including the 30-40 Krag, .303 British, 7.62x54mmR (made for the Imperial Russian military), 30-06 Springfield, and the .405 Winchester. The latter round was probably best responsible for the Model 1895’s popular exposure, thanks to its role in Theodore Roosevelt’s 1909 East African safari. What other lever-action has been so widely (and successfully) used on African dangerous game? The 1895 was discontinued in 1940 but is available today under the Winchester name, produced in Japan. Though never produced in the numbers of many other Winchester designs, the 1895’s unique design earns it a place in the top five.
Henry Model 1860 Repeating Rifle
How do you create a list of lever-action rifles without including the design that first forged the lever-action repeater onto America’s soul? Designed in 1860 and produced during America’s bloodiest war, the Henry rifle represented a leap forward in terms of infantry firepower. While troops could reportedly fire three shots per minute with the Springfield Model 1861 rifle-musket of the day, the .44 rimfire Henry could be fired 16 times without reloading. The rifle, and its shorter carbine version, were used by both sides during the Civil War though neither army used them in significant numbers. Despite the advance in technology, the U.S. Army didn’t learn its lesson when it came to embracing the lever-action. Sixteen years after the Henry’s creation, Lakota and Cheyenne warriors used the superior firepower offered by their Henry 1860s, as well as other repeating rifles, to obliterate Custer’s single-shot armed troops at Little Bighorn. The Henry rifle itself was not produced in great numbers, but its innovative design sparked a genesis of firearm designs that forever changed the American frontier.
I could have chosen any of Marlin’s lever-action designs for this list but I chose the 1895 because it is the one that has probably best maintained its relevance into the 21st Century. Bolt-action and semi-auto designs have largely replaced the lever-action in general big game hunting usage, but there are some areas where a lever-action can still stand on its own. When it comes to short-range encounters in thick brush, especially when those animals are big and potentially mean, the lever-action’s compact dimensions and high capacity can become real advantages. I’m talking about places like Maine and Alaska where bears or moose might be on the menu or in southern swamps or thickets where feral hogs are hunted at arm’s length. Marlin’s 1895s, specifically in its more compact “G” series of rifles, deliver a great deal of power in a very small package. Chambered in the ancient but potentially powerful 45-70 Government and the more modern .450 Marlin, there isn’t much on the planet that these rifles can’t be used to stop. I have a Marlin “Guide Gun” that is my go-to carbine for hound hunts— you can carry it all day with comfort and I wouldn’t hesitate to use it on anything on this continent with the right handloads. Marlin is owned by Remington now but the guns are still made in the U.S.A. and, thanks to modern equipment, the quality of the machining is probably better than ever. The Marlin 1895 is one of the great lever-action designs of a company whose roots go back 146 years.
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