The Lever Action

Borrowed from

Chuck Hawks

The handy lever action has been popular in North America since 1866, when Oliver Winchester introduced the breakthrough Model 1866 "Yellow boy" (so called because of its brass frame), successor to the .44 Henry rimfire lever action. The lever action is the repeating descendent of the falling block single shot. The type is easily identified by the loop lever/trigger guard underneath the action. This leaves the sides of the receiver flat and uncluttered, convenient to carry in the hand or scabbard. The lever is fast and natural to operate from the shoulder, basically by opening and closing the trigger finger hand, although it is not as fast as a pump action. It is also ambidextrous. Many shooters partially remove the butt from the shoulder while operating the lever--this is neither necessary nor desirable, and the lever action shooter should train him or herself to operate the action at the shoulder.

The principal advantages of most lever actions are speed, reliability, high capacity (firepower), and a good trigger pull. Classic good looks also play a part in the continuing desirability of the lever action. The Winchester and Marlin lever action rifles just look "right." Never underestimate aesthetics as a motivating factor.

One disadvantage of the classic lever action rifles (except the Savage 99 and Winchester 95), is that they are not chambered for high intensity cartridges, and their tubular magazines prohibit the use of pointed (spitzer) bullets. It is also fair to point out that the selection of cartridges for lever action rifles is more limited than for bolt action or single shot rifles. Another disadvantage is that lever actions are generally regarded as being a little bit less accurate than a good bolt action or falling block rifle. This may be partly because of their two piece stocks, partly because their bolts lock at the rear, partly due to the rear sight mounting slots cut into their barrels, and (again excepting the Savage 99 and Winchester 95) partly the way their forearms and magazines are attached to their barrels by barrel bands.

Some or all of these points may have some validity, but the fact is that I have had a reasonable amount of experience with both Marlin and Winchester lever action rifles, and I have found them to be quite accurate. Of course, you must mount a good scope on them, just as you would on a bolt-action rifle, if you wish to take advantage of their accuracy potential. It is not fair to compare the accuracy of a lever action equipped only with crude semi buckhorn iron sights to a bolt action equipped with a 3-9x scope. Put the same scope on both rifles, and you will probably find that less than an inch in 100 yard group size separates the two. Get a classic lever action rifle with a 24" or 26" heavy barrel, and spend some time tuning it and working up accurate handloads, as you would for a good bolt action rifle, and even that difference may disappear.

The classic lever action rifles include Winchester's Model 94 (of which there are several variations), Model 1886, Model 1892, and Model 1895. Also Marlin's big bore Model 1895 (and Model 444), Model 336 and its variations, and small frame Model 1894 (also available in various models). Last, but not least, is Savage's famous but discontinued Model 99 series.

The Winchester M-94 is the best-selling centrefire sporting rifle of all time; well over 4 million have been built. Seventy years after its introduction, in 1963, the M-94 was redesigned for easier production. 1964, the year the revised guns hit dealer shelves, was a bad year for most Winchester models, and the introduction of stamped steel parts in the old 94 was a sign of the times. Customer complaints forced a partial return to more substantial looking parts a few years later. Toward the end of the 20th Century, the 94 was again redesigned, this time for side ejection. A rather silly safety button was also added to the right side of the receiver. In 1998 the Winchester catalogue shows no less than 10 variations of the Model 94. An interesting variation is the 94 Black Shadow, with a black synthetic stock. I say interesting because this model's synthetic stock has a level comb with less drop than the other 94 models. A higher comb is a worthwhile idea, as the more traditional M-94 stock is designed for use with iron sights, and has too much drop for most shooters when the rifle is equipped with a scope. As far as I can tell, the Model 94 Walnut is most faithful to the original, and it is available with or without checkering. It is made in .30-30 Win. only, but other models are chambered for the .307 Win., .356 Win., .357 Mag., .44-40, .44 Spec/.44 Mag., .444 Marlin, and .45 Long Colt. Personally, if I were making the decisions at Winchester, I would leave the revolver cartridges to the Model 92, and return the more useful .32 Win. Special, .38-55 Win., and .375 Win. cartridges to the M-94 line.

The new 1886 is chambered for the .45-70 Govt. It has a 26" octagon barrel with a full-length magazine, polished blue finish, and metal crescent buttplate (ouch!). The old 1886 was highly regarded, and the new model, built with modern materials, is bound to be superior.

The reintroduced 1892 brings back one of the best loved Winchesters. It is essentially a small frame version of the famous Model 1886, chambered for the .357 Mag., .44 Mag., and the traditional .44-40 Win. combination rifle/revolver cartridge. Originally chambered in the Model 1876 Winchester (and later in the M-92), it is interesting to reflect that the rather anaemic .44-40 was America's most popular deer cartridge during the last quarter of the 19th Century.

Like the present Winchesters, today's Marlin lever action rifles trace their lineage back to models from the 1890's. The Model 1893 was the forerunner the current line, eventually evolving into today's Model 336. It featured a case hardened, solid top receiver with side ejection, round barrel, and a square bolt. It was chambered for the .38-55, .30-30, and .32 Special, among other cartridges. The Model 1893 begat the small frame Model 1894 and large frame Model 1895, both of which shared the features and appearance of the 1893. The 1894 was chambered for pistol cartridges like the .32-20 and .44-40. The original 1894 was reintroduced (with only minor changes) in 1969, again chambered for what are basically pistol cartridges. The old 1895 was chambered for big bore cartridges like the .45-70 and .45-90.

The current Model 1895 is a big bore version of the 336 action, not a re-introduction of the original 1895. It is the basis for the most powerful of Marlin's current lever action models. These are chambered for the .444 Marlin, .45-70 Govt. and .450 Marlin cartridges. The .45-70 and .450 models have become very popular in North America for hunting large and dangerous game.

The Model 336 is made in rifle and carbine versions, with round and octagon barrels, and straight and pistol grip butt stocks. Various 336 models are chambered for the .30-30 Win., .35 Rem., and .38-55 cartridges. All 336 models (except the economical Model 30 and Glenwood versions, now discontinued) feature genuine American black walnut stocks. A recent addition to the line is the Model 336M, a deluxe .30-30 with a chequered walnut stock and stainless steel metal parts. It is hard for me to imagine a more handsome deer rifle for use in inclement weather. The Marlin 336 is well over 3 million in sales, and is the second best selling sporting rifle in the world, after only the Winchester Model 94.

All 1895 and 336 based models feature a solid top receiver and a round bolt. They eject straight to the side, not up at an angle. The bolt is easily removed so that the barrel may be cleaned from the breech. This receiver, machined from a block of steel, makes for a strong action. The solid top allows easy, low, over the bore, scope mounting. It also allows the use of strong, one piece, scope bases. The Marlin 1895 and 336 are the only traditional lever action rifles with all of these features.

The small frame Marlin is based on the square bolt Model 1894 action, which is a small frame version of the old M 1893. It also has a solid top receiver machined from a block of steel, and side ejection. Like the M 336, the M 1894 allows easy scope mounting with one-piece bases. It is Marlin's counterpart to the Winchester M 92. It is available in several variations, all chambered for "combination" rifle/pistol cartridges like the .38 Spec./.357 Mag., .44-40 Win., .44 Spec./.44 Mag., and .45 Colt. The Marlin 1894 is perhaps the most accurate of the short action lever guns.

There are relatively few lever action rifles chambered for high intensity cartridges, but there are some. The venerable Savage 99 and Winchester 95 (recently restored to production) are two classic examples. The 95 uses a box type magazine, and the 99 uses a spool magazine (some later 99's were built with detachable box magazines), either of which allows the use of pointed bullets. The Winchester was introduced in 1895 in .30-40 Krag, and the Savage in 1899.

The Savage 99 handles short action calibres only; over the years it has been chambered for a wide variety of cartridges. Some that should be of interest today are the .250 Sav., .243 Win., .284 Win., .300 Sav., .308 Win., and .358 Win.

The Winchester Model 95 is a standard length action, and today it is available in .270 Win. and .30-06 Spfd. An original Model 95 was used extensively by Teddy Roosevelt in Africa. In .405 Winchester calibre, he called it his "lion medicine." By selecting a lever action, Teddy showed that he knew a thing or two about hunting dangerous game. A hunter/handloader with a modern lever action in .45-70 or .450 Marlin can pretty much duplicate the ballistics of the old .405 Win., which ought to be food for thought.

Both the Savage 99 and Winchester 95 lock at the rear of the breechblock, and allow cartridge brass to stretch a little more than a front locking action does. This is a disadvantage for the reloader who loads maximum loads, but of little consequence to others.

The now discontinued Sako Finnwolf and Winchester 88 were designed for modern short action, high intensity cartridges. I think of them together because they looked similar--like a bolt action rifle bred to a lever action--and had similar features. Both were produced in the 1960's and 1970's.

The Winchester used a front locking, multilug rotating bolt, much like the modern Browning BAR, BPR, and BLR. Unlike most lever actions, but like the Finnwolf, there was no external hammer. It was a modern and sleek looking rifle, with a slim one piece stock; to my eye it was one of the most aesthetically pleasing rifles ever made. It was a rifle that offered most of the features of a bolt-action rifle, with faster lever action operation. It was moderately popular, and stayed in the Winchester line for several years, but I think it was a rifle out of sync with its time. Lever action fans were perfectly happy with their traditional (and much less expensive) .30-30's, and bolt-action fans would not buy a lever action no matter how good it was. The sample I shot, which was owned by a friend, seemed to be an accurate rifle. The only drawbacks seemed to be that its trigger was neither as light nor as clean as a M-94 or a good bolt action's trigger, and it kicked awfully hard for a .308; or so it seemed to me. It was not a pleasant rifle to shoot. Calibres were .243, .284, .308, and .358 Win.

I don't think the Sako Finnwolf was a very popular rifle. I don't recall ever seeing one in the field, although I vaguely remember seeing one on a dealer's shelf. It looked superficially a good deal like the Winchester 88, and like the Winchester it featured a solid frame, front locking rotating bolt, side ejection, a short throw gear-operated lever, one piece chequered walnut stock, and a 4-shot detachable box magazine. Unlike the M-88, its stock had a Monte Carlo comb, and probably handled recoil better. It was built in .243 and .308.

The relatively new Browning Lightning BLR is made in both long and short action models. It has an alloy receiver, an external hammer, and a chequered walnut stock and forearm. The barrel is a semi-floating type, which attaches to the forearm at only one point. The bolt is front locking with a rotary head, and is operated by the lever through a rack and pinion gear. A detachable box magazine holds 4 rounds (3 in magnum calibres). The BLR is very strong, well made, handles recoil well, and comes standard with Browning's usual outstanding fit and finish. It is the only lever action which handles the 7mm Rem. and .300 Win. belted magnums. Other available calibres include the .223, .22-250, .243, .270, 7mm-08, .308, and .30-06. I would like to see Browning add the 6mm Rem., .257 Roberts, .260 Rem., and .358 Win. to the list of available standard calibres. In .300 Win. Mag. the BLR is a good choice for hunting large and dangerous thin skinned game.

A lever action centrefire rifle has been introduced by Sturm, Ruger & Company. This is their Model 96/44, chambered for the .44 Mag. revolver cartridge. It looks a great deal like their popular 10/22 auto loading rimfire rifle, or their discontinued .44 Mag. auto loading carbine, with its chunky, one piece "American hardwood" stock, complete with barrel band. Like other Ruger carbines, it has a gently curved buttplate, 18.5" barrel, detachable rotary magazine, and streamlined hammerless action. Visually, the main addition is the husky, curved operating lever, snuggled up against a rather shapeless pistol grip. It is clearly intended as a brush country deer rifle.

Unfortunately, comparing the 1998 Ruger and Winchester catalogues, the Ruger 96/44 lists for $100 more than Winchester's Model 94 Ranger (also stocked in cheap "hardwood"), and $56 more than a classic M-94 Walnut rifle, both of which are available in the much more powerful and versatile .30-30 Winchester calibre. The new Ruger's magazine holds 4 rounds, compared to the Winchester's 6. Clearly, the new Ruger is not the "gun that won the west" over a century ago, and I am not sure it is going to win it now.

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