6 Types of Lever Guns: Which Do You Prefer?

by
posted on May 7, 2024
LEDE Iamge

I was recently evaluating a new-for-2024 lever-action rifle when I ran into an important question—at least, important for someone working up a firearm review. Looking over the features, I wondered how it should be categorized? This elicited a second question which had been simmering on a mental back burner for some time, namely, do modern lever guns have categories?

I've been a fan of lever-actions for some time now. During my time as a gun writer, I've sought out opportunities to work with rimfire, centerfire, .410 Bore shotguns, lever-action handguns and even a Non-NFA firearm variant. In recent years we've seen a resurgence in lever-action popularity. In fact, some members of the industry called 2024 ‘the year of the lever gun’ due to all of the new models launched at SHOT show.

But what's been creeping up on us over the last decade or so is the diversification of lever-actions into sub categories that have yet to be clearly defined. I went back to the rifle at hand, looked it over once more, and in a Rube Goldberg machine-like fashion its category title came to mind. It also made me laugh because it was true. So I went ahead and worked up a total of six sub-divisions to encompass the whole of lever-gun-dom.

Just a reminder before continuing that there's a difference between having fun with a topic of conversation and making fun of a shooting-sports enthusiast's preferences. Rest assured, my goal is to have some fun talking about one of my favorite platforms. Not every single levered gun in the marketplace is going to be my cup of tea. But no matter where they land on the feature-set spectrum, I'm eager to test drive as many of them as I can.

Winchester Lever Action Calendar

1. Good Ol' Cowboy Guns

Since the arrival of the cartridge-firing Spencer and Henry repeating rifles in 1860, blued-steel and hardwood-stocked lever-actions in a variety of configurations and calibers have been in action from battlefield to homestead. They've proven to be handy, reliable and flexible. Many of today's well-known manufacturers, including Colt, Marlin, Savage, Smith & Wesson and Winchester, have roots in the lever-gun business.

Lever-actions played an important role in the settling the Western United States. Their popularity as field and hunting rifles dipped after the First World War when bolt-action rifles became a go-to option for harvesting medium and large game. In more recent years, Modern Sporting Rifles (MSR) of the AR variety have been muscling in on the American hunting scene.

But despite the ups and downs in their more than 150-years of production history, the earlier lever-action designs have yet to go completely out of style. Materials and manufacturing processes have advanced and many of the modern production versions of these guns now ship with receivers that have been drilled and tapped for scope mounts. Nevertheless, the looks and lines are the same. And if we're honest about it, there has yet to be a modern process that successfully duplicates the satisfying heft of properly finished American Walnut stocks and the gleam of polished, blued carbon steel. Call them Fudd guns or geezer gats if you must, but they are considered classics for a reason!

2. The Tacti-Fudds

Now, there are those who want to dip their toes into long-gun modernity. However, they don't want to stray too far from the tried-and-true lever guns of the past. Adding just a dash of 21st-century features to the 19th-century recipe will meet these customer requests and give manufacturers another model for their catalog using mostly the parts they have on hand.

Wooden Lever Gun

A model that skirts this category is the top notch Henry Repeating Arms Frontier .22 Long Rifle outfitted with a Picatinny optics rail and a 24-inch octagonal threaded barrel. It looks and handles just like classically styled Henry H001 series rimfires, but it's an absolute hoot to shoot with a sound suppressor and a red-dot optic installed!

Lever Action on stump

But if I had to pick a model that I think exemplifies this lever-gun sub set it would probably be the Rossi R95 Triple Black series. Now available in pistol and rifle calibers, the R95 has a design that sticks very close to that of the classic Marlin 336. However, the Triple Black models feature a threaded muzzle, Picatinny optics rail, an overall matte-black finish (including the hardwood stocks), and a length of black paracord braided around the lever loop. I've test fired the .30-30 Winchester version and enjoyed the range time. It looks cutting edge but feels utterly friendly and familiar to us.

3. Techno Pops

Much like the synthesizer-driven and computer-modulated music that's been popular in dance clubs since the late 1970s, the lever-actions I'm calling the Techno Pops somehow pull off the balancing act of being both vintage and futuristic at the same time. If your Pops or Grandpops squints a bit, Techno Pops still look like a lever gun in regards to the control layout, barrel profile and stock shape. But a closer look reveals modern metal finishes and polymer stocks in addition to the tactical optics rail and threaded muzzle.

Lever Action in lead sled

The first Techno Pop options I worked with were members of the Henry X Model series which launched in 2020. It was a good move on Henry's part to bring their platform a big step into the 21st century by installing lightweight black polymer stocks, including a fore-end with two MLOK accessory slot, a short Picatinny accessory rail and a bright fiber-optic sight system. But my inner Fudd was quite pleased with their choice to switch to polymer without significantly altering the profile of the stocks. A more recent addition to this category is the Smith & Wesson Model 1854 chambered in .44 Magnum, with a satin stainless steel finish.

Model 1854 on two stumps

4. The Cyborgs

“We have the technology. We have the capability to make the. . .” lever-action rifle AR accessory compatible, stronger with skeletonized aluminum and polymer, and with faster reload times thanks to stock-mounted shell holders. We can build the cyborg repeater!  For those of us who are old enough to remember the TV show, yes, I borrowed that opening from The Six Million Dollar Man.

Cyborg Lever Action on white

At the heart of these rifles is a traditional lever-action receiver, barrel and a fixed tubular magazine. But the organic components (i.e. wooden furniture) have been surgically removed and replaced with fore-ends and shoulder stocks inspired by AR-15 and modern precision rifle designs. Some models also incorporated more recently developed Cerakote-type coatings in various colors. The goal is a lever-action that can weigh less, has increased weather resistance and the conveniences that come with modular accessories. And it certainly doesn't hurt that the cyborgs look sleek and futuristic.

Midwest Industries lever actions with MLOK slots

In the past this category has been primarily populated with at-home builds using aftermarket parts from 3rd party providers, like Chisel Machining, Midwest Industries (shown) and Ranger Point Precision. But the gun manufacturers have already started to catch on and are now offering models fully outfitted from the factory, including the Ruger-managed Marlin Dark Series; the G-Force Arms .410 Bore Skeleton Tact shotguns; and at the 2024 SHOT Show, Aero Precision showed off a yet-to-be-named prototype which may launch at the end of this year or early next year.

5. Lever-Action MSRs

There are plenty of folks who want to own AR-15-pattern rifles and, in some cases, hunt with them. But some states are festooned with laws and regulations restricting or banning semi-automatic AR-15s. However, the law makers in these same regions have no quarrel with manually operated, lever-action rifles and carbines. So just as the cyborg guns work to give a 19th century design a dose of 21st century features, the lever-action Modern Sporting Rifles (MSRs) take a step back in time to legally sidestep AR-inspired restrictions.

Lever Action fed by AICS magazine

The lever-action MSRs are, for all practical intents and purposes, AR-15s that fire more slowly. The guns included here can be fitted with interchangeable Mil-Spec AR-15 uppers in various calibers, including .223 Rem./5.56 NATO, 300 Blackout, .350 Legend and .450 Bushmaster. This makes them eminently practical for use as hunting guns.

It's the lower receivers where we see the key changes. The magazine well, magazines and controls remain, for the most part, AR-like in their configurations. But the internals have been significantly modified to accommodate the external lever loop used to cycle the action. The other quite noticeable change is to the shoulder stock. Technically speaking, these guns could be outfitted with an AR buffer tube supporting an adjustable 6-position stock. But stock adjustability is a sticking point in some States. This is why the guns mentioned here have lower receivers and lever shapes specifically designed around fixed shotgun stocks, like those available for the Remington 870.  

Bond arms MSR lever action

This year at SHOT Show, Fightlite announced that they will be offering a revamped version of their lever AR dubbed the Herring Model 2024, and Bear Creek Arsenal was showing off a prototype of their interpretation of this platform. Another model that I'm looking forward to working with in the near future is the Bond Arms LVRB. In development since 2019, the company has put a good deal of R&D into making this lever AR reliable with a short, clean lever stroke. I'm curious to see if it will live up to the positive press it's received so far.

6. Lone Wolf Levers

As with any mixing and merging of differing design influences, the industry has yielded a few lever-action models which defy simple categorization. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying these lone-wolf models are Frankenguns or ugly ducklings. Instead, they march to the beat of their own drummer and exhibit some intriguing creative thinking and innovative feature combinations.

Patriot Ordinance Lone Wolf Lever Gun

Released in 2023, the Patriot Ordnance Factory (POF) 9mm Tombstone answers the question of what a modern pistol-caliber carbine would look like if it were a lever-action. This gun is a unique in-house design which fires from the curved 20-round removable magazines the company originally designed for its Phoenix pistol. It's even available in an SBR configuration with a 12.5-inch barrel.

Lifestyle image with henry lever action

Another new-for-2024 model that I am looking forward to handling again is the Henry Supreme, which was available to shoot at the SHOT Show Day at the Range. The first model is chambered in .223 Rem./5.56 NATO and feeds from AR magazines. This lever gun keeps Henry's hardwood stocks and blued steel features with a profile that's a cross between this company's 9mm semi-automatic Homesteader carbine and the box-magazine-fed Long Ranger centerfire rifles. If all goes well, models chambered in additional AR-compatible calibers will be joining the Supreme lineup in the future.

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