Hunting with a lever-action rifle is a unique experience; in this day of high-magnification optics and high ballistic coefficient bullets, the lever rifles seem to be a throwback to a bygone era. However, looking at a good number of hunting scenarios—especially our deer-hunting here in the Eastern U.S., the thick forests of the Pacific Northwest and the many hunts over feeders throughout the Southern U.S.—the lever guns and their associated cartridges pose no real handicap. Quite obviously, a round-nosed bullet from one of the slower, rimmed cartridges isn’t the best choice for taking a buck across a bean field, but for shots inside of 150 yards, where the majority of my shots in New York have been, these guns and their cartridges work quite well.
Now there are lever guns like the Browning BLR, Savage 99 and Winchester 88 which can handle many of the rimless and even belted cartridges more closely associated the bolt-action and autoloading rifles, and while these guns are operated by a lever, the cartridges can use spitzer bullets (due to a lack of a tubular magazine) and behave much more like a bolt rifle.
For the purposes of this list, I’d like to limit the choices to the cartridges which operate best in the tubular magazine lever rifles, and those cartridges as classic as the rifles which fire them. And I’m going to cheat a bit, listing the .22 Long Rifle as a choice that need not be debated. Here are my top five lever-action rifle cartridges.
1. .30-30 Winchester This cartridge has certainly earned its position at the top of the list, as the .30-30 Winchester was and is synonymous with deer hunting. A slim, trim lever rifle chambered in this cartridge makes a great choice for the woods and forests; I killed my first deer with a Winchester 94 in .30-30, my Dad killed his first deer with a Marlin 1893 in .30-30. The claim is still made that the .30-30 has accounted for more deer than all other cartridges combined; while that may have been true once, the .30-30 has definitely put an immense amount of venison on America’s tables since its release in 1895, and continues to do so each season. The 150-grain load at 2400 fps and the 170-grain load at 2200 fps are easy on the shoulder, yet effective within 125 yards or so. Long live the .30-30! Its younger brother—the .32 Winchester Special, released in 1901—is very close in performance to the .30-30, but never was as popular.
2. .45-70 Government The oldest cartridge on this list, the .45-70 Government can pretty well do it all, across the continent, providing the shooter can get close enough. Still popular in Alaska for all of its big game, the range of bullets used in the .45-70 make it quite the all-around choice. Released in 1873, the .45-70 has survived all sorts of competition, and still keeps chugging along. The original load used a 405-grain lead bullet at 1350 fps, with a rainbow-like trajectory, but for its time, it was cutting edge technology. I like some of the modern iterations, like the 300-grain Federal Fusion load at 1850 fps and the Hornady LEVERevolution load with the 325-grain FTX bullet at 2050 fps. My Dad has a wonderful Browning 1886 centennial in .45-70 with an octagon barrel, and it shoots like a dream. Want a thumper of a lever gun? Look to the .45-70 Government; it’s ‘enough gun,’ without beating you to a pulp.
3. .348 Winchester This is a personal favorite of mine, as it is one of the most powerful cartridges developed for a lever gun, and it was the only available in what I feel to be one of the most handsome lever guns: the Winchester Model 71. My favorite load from this cartridge drives a 250-grain bullet at 2350 fps, though the 200-grain bullet has been the most popular. Though Winchester’s Model 71 was discontinued in 1958, many rifles are still available on the used market, in good shape. Hornady offers a 200-grain FTX bullet in their LEVERevolution line, giving those who don’t handload an option to fuel those old Model 71s. The .348 Winchester is in the same class as the .338-06 and .35 Whelen, and is suitable for all North American game animals.
4. .38-55 Winchester One of the original chamberings for the famous Winchester Model 1894, and a prominent choice for the Marlin Model 1893, the .38-55 Winchester has the claim to fame of being the father to both the .30-30 Winchester and the .32 Winchester Special. With the traditional load pushing a .375-inch-diameter 255-grain bullet to a muzzle velocity of 1320 fps, the .38-55 may seem anemic in comparison to modern cartridges, but for deer and black bear in the Eastern woods, the .38-55 works as well as it did 125 years ago. It’s not a powerhouse, but in my book it, certainly has the ‘cool’ factor. In a modern firearm, Buffalo Bore offers a hot-rodded 255-grain bonded core flat point at 1950 fps, giving just over 2,000 ft.-lbs. of muzzle energy. Winchester released a modern, higher pressure variant in 1978—the .375 Winchester—but the .38-55 hangs on to this day.
5. .405 Winchester President Theodore Roosevelt, just after concluding his second term in office, took his son Kermit on what would be one of the most epic safaris across East Africa; among his battery of firearms was a Winchester Model 1895 chambered in .405 Winchester—his “medicine gun.” Using a 300-grain bullet of .411-inch-diameter at 2200 fps, the .405 Winchester gives just over 3,200 ft.-lbs. of energy at the muzzle. In spite of the low Sectional Density (0.252), Roosevelt used the .405 Winchester with good effect against lions, and recently hunters have used it against Cape buffalo and hippopotamus. Winchester brought the 1895 rifle back, and Hornady offers their 300-grain InterLock in their Custom line, and there are many good component bullets available to the handloader, including the Woodleigh Weldcore, Barnes TSX and the aforementioned Hornady InterLock. The 1895 was chambered in a number of really good cartridges, like the .30-40 Krag and the .30-06 Springfield, but to me, the .405 Winchester conjures images of exploration, adventure and big-game animals. If it was good enough for Teddy, it’s good enough for me.