Without question, the lever-action rifle is the most iconic rifle ever made. Although, as a design, the rifle dates back to 1837, it is best regarded as the rifle design that won the American West.
Colt built the first lever rifles under the Patent Arms Mfg Co. These rifles were listed as #1 and #2, respectively, and were the start of the long line of rifles built under the Colt firearms license.
In most cases, the Winchesters are regarded as the best in the line of lever-action rifles. While there was Henry’s, Spencer’s, and Marlin’s over the years, the Winchester and the famous 1873 model opened the door toward western expansion of and made the rifle, and all the designs that followed the icons that followed them are today.
Cartridge Caliber Selection When Buying A Lever Action Rifles
There was a time when owning a lever-action rifle was a death sentence in shooting large caliber or high-velocity cartridges. However, these were old wives’ tales, and the only reason many lever actions were ever sold in small-caliber offerings was that back in the day, the American cowboy wanted a rifle that used a cartridge that could also be used in his handgun. One round with two purposes, that is to say, both close and long-range applications at once.
When things turned, modern cowboy action shooting took over the lever rifle sales; competition shooters wanted rifles and chambered ammunition like the 45 Colt Long, 357 Magnum, or 44 Magnum rounds. But, again, these were used in both handgun and rifle events on the range, and again it was, and still is, simpler to keep a system going that makes use of a single type of ammunition all the time. Now enter the heavies. And everything moves way up in energy, velocity, and raw kinetic stopping power.
In the 1940s and ’50s, big game hunters bought and used hundreds of 300 Savage model 88’s, Winchester Model 99, new 308 Winchester, and cowboy rifles in a buffalo hunter class 45-70 Winchester from Uberti Arms. Even back then, I would not have wanted to be downrange even well out to 500 yards with one of these selected cartridges tracking me down over a set of iron sights.
Today the modern lever rifle, and by example, none better than Browning Arms. Their series of lever-action offerings can put all of the heavies cartridges in a hunter’s hands using their model BLR series rifles.
Cartridge selection today runs from the 22 Long Rife rimfire, through the 243 Winchester, 308 Winchester, 30-06, and right up to the massive 300 Winchester Magnum. The last round I have listed would take on almost anything globally in terms of big game and is a selected round as used by the American Army sniper unit and squad-level operations in the Middle East today.
Currently, by my count, and it could be a bit low, the lever-action rifle can be obtained as chambered in no less than fourteen different high-intensity centerfire varmint and big-game cartridges.
Except for lacking great scope sighting mounts on the older style 94’s, the lever-action rifle just has no major drawbacks at all. Buy one and shoot it for life is what seems to be the pattern with most owners of the lever-action firearm.
In terms of my use of the lever-action as I hunt all across the USA and additional foreign countries at times, my gun vault holds a nice little Henry 327 Federal and the time-honored Winchester Model 94 chambered in 30-30 Winchester.
My brake lever single shot rifles also considered lever actions chamber the massive and very effective Remington 7mm belted magnum and the 45-70 Winchester. With these, I have taken American bison in large numbers during commercial hunts on the Triple U ranch at Fort Pierre South Dakota.
Never let it be stated that the lever gun can’t do the deed because of its inability to handle heavy cartridges. As previously stated, those lighter chambered rifles were used by open range cowboys, competition three gun shooters as paired to the SASS cowboy action games, and folks that just wanted a light rifle around the ranch or farm.
My 327 Federal is nothing more than a revisited Winchester 32-20 of old. The first set of numbers references the caliber being 32, and the second the grains of black powder used in the cartridge back in the old days being 20 grains.
Now the modern smokeless round is called 327 by definition. The 32 H&R Magnum is offered for another rifle by the H&R firearms company and is the third cartridge that will also chamber in my sweet little 32 calibers Henry lever-action rifle.
As for my second lever action, this rifle is by far the most manufactured rifle ever made in the country. Dated 1894 as a production start date, the Winchester model 94 as chambered in 30-30 Winchester has taken more game down to the size of moose, elk, or bear by a single 170 grain round nosed bullet.
In the west, when I came here almost 20 years ago out of Minnesota’s timber country, the 30-30 Winchester as it was often referred to was hanging in the back window of almost every pickup truck in South Dakota. The old school Winchester Model 1894 30-30 is still very much alive with all the fancy modern chassis rifles in autoloaders and turn bolt designs.
When I hunted Australia for five years, the Model 94 was showing up on horseback saddle scabbards, truck rifle racks, and on ATV hunting rigs in the bush all the time. The backcountry Aussies loved the small, fast-handling lever gun as used against pigs, deer, kangaroo, and about anything that got in their way.
As a final note here regarding buying ammunition for the tube feed lever rifles like the Henry, Marlin, and Winchester models. The folks at Hornady Ammunition have come up with a solution to pointed bullets in lever rifle magazine tubes.
The cartridges are called “LEVERevolution.” In this case, the bullet carries a soft poly tip that is pointed for dynamic ballistics effect. Still, upon set back recoil in the magazine tube, it moves against the primer on the cartridge ahead of it and allows some lessening of resistance.
Also, when this bullet hits a warm target, it pushes the soft nose section into the hollow point cavity of the bullet’s nose. It increases expansion as a result of the now compressed polymer material. I have dropped 1400 pound buffalo with a single round to the neck with this load at a range of 135 yards with my 45-70 Winchester in a Sharps buffalo rifle.
In the end, and when selecting a cartridge for the lever-action rifle, what is necessary and required is to decide what the rifle’s use will be as applied to shooting this rifle. Small game around a ranch house, or farm, general carry in a vehicle for defense, the dispatch of critters, or just a Sunday afternoon plinker, the type, size, and cartridge power will change, as will the possible brand of the rifle.
Currently, the options are many in terms of buying into the lever-action rifle design today. As previously indicated, the Browning line is well dressed and flexible in terms of chamber offerings. The BLR rifles are built into a takedown model and full-size heavy game rifles. The finish is stainless steel for fighting bad weather or a deep, well-finished blue for the hunter who wants elegance in his rifle. The best part of Browning Arms is its outstanding construction. There is no issue using the state-of-the-art bullet designs in this box magazine cartridge fed receiver system.
These are not bargain-basement rifles, but they are also some of the best lever action rifles built in the world today.
As a second option here, don’t pass over the fine rifles built by Henry Arms. Henry is an old company with state-of-the-art development and engineering to keep the lever rifle up to date in terms of metallurgy and design. Henry is well known for its Golden Boy models built with all brass receivers and rifles like my 327 Federal in black iron and walnut. Tube-fed magazines with over-ejection keep the rifles traditional. Still, materials are very current, and CNC has taken over the basic, milling to perfection on the rifles with hand fitting to follow in the production line at Henry Arms.
The company is a leader in sub-caliber rifles and 22 LR designs. The 44 Magnum, 357, and 22 LR are major sellers for a Henry lever-action rifle. However, don’t pass the heavies here because Henry builds the 30-06 Springfield, 30-30 Winchester, 38-55 Winchester, and the buffalo cartridge in 45-70 Government. These rifles can be loaded through the tube magazine or side gate, giving the shooters some additional flexible levels of field application.
With a move to the third and final example of lever rifles, Marlin comes to the surface. Again these are not lightweights in the lever-action rifle family. From the rimfire Model 39A to the heavies chambered in Marlin 444, this company offers big game pounding tools at a working man’s price tag.
The 45-70 is again my go-to rifle in this brand name in my book. As noted, I have hunted the big-bore both for buffalo and mule deer out here in my part of western USA. Heart-long hits on big trophy mule deer or neck brain shooting buffalo, the big gun can do the deal in spades. Built with side ejection that allows scopes if desired and offered in 45-70 Government, this is a first-class game getter, to be sure.
In terms of pricing, these rifles and most of the others listed here are in the bracket of 800.00 – $1000.00 or a bit more, depending on the choice of brand and caliber. Currently, most are liable through Cabela’s, Bass Pro, PSA, and Brownells.
Note: However that will not include custom shop options as Marlin Arms offers with their hand detailed rifle designs.
Pros And Cons Of The Lever Action Rifles
Before buying into the lever gun, you need to know the good, bad, and just plain ugly of these types of weapons. The lever action is faster than most bolt guns, but speed will mean pulling off the target when working the action with most shooters. This takes time and can be cause missed shots.
When I was a young boy, my first deer rifle was a Winchester Model 1894 in a hexagon barreled long tom 25-35 Winchester. The rifle held seven rounds, and I could hunt for a month straight without reloading.
On the last day of deer season, I had five deer run across me at close range in heavy timber without seeing a thing previously. Coming up with the 25.35, I almost emptied the rifle, and when the smoke cleared, I had only hit a couple of trees. Moving the lever, I was just shooting all over the place with no solid cheek weld at all, but at just under nine years old, my dad gave me a break and a lesson. Make the first shot count every time.
After that, save for only two of hundreds of deer, goats, kangaroo, and hogs, I have never used more than one shot. Those two I left out were shot at over 500 yards running and using a spotter calling in my misses and hits as I reloaded the bolt action rifle at the time. Both of those ultra-long-range deer took a total of three total rounds apiece for those that many want to know such facts.
The problem with the lever rifle is that if a cartridge gets jammed in the action, some considerable work can be the result. I have seen more than one cowboy with all the parts of a Model 94 scattered on the bench due to a feed issue or some broken part. Thankfully these problems are few and far between regarding the rifle that won the west.
If the hunter does their part, the lever-action will deliver the mail very well. Lever actions are tough and built with solid steel all around the receiver. These rifles can take on some very heavy loads right up to a bear hunter’s needs or even a massive wild boar being harvested by a woodland hunter.
Best Lever Action Rifles Reviews
This point with an overview of the current offerings available through the firearms marketplace. I have selected several rifles that I think represent both quality, affordable pricing, and rifles that will last the shooter a lifetime. In other words, well-built guns from the muzzle to the buttstock.
1. Browning BLR
Browning Arms come up first in terms of their offering of the BLR referenced early in this review. The BLR is different from several other brand offerings in lever-action rifles.
This rifle is an ultra-modern design built with state-of-the-art materials and methods. Design-wise, the rifle uses a separate box magazine, which allows all types of bullet designs to be applied to ammunition sed with the rifle.
Browning builds these rifles well and is made with selected materials, including walnut on several grades. Field guns first, but works of art as well, to be sure.
The Brownings can be obtained in a wide range of cartridge chamberings ranging from varmint class cartridges to heavy big game loads.
Designed with a recessed bolt face just like the heavy turn bolt rifles and making use of side ejection, the rifles are set up nicely for scope mounting. Balance and speed are other factors that make the Browning great game rifles across the board.
2. Marlin 1895
Staying with the heavyweights but moving along with more traditional Lever rifles, Marlen introduced the 1895 Guide Gun. This lever action is chambered in 45-70 Government and retains deep cut Ballard type rifling, straight traditional grip style. The total overall length is 37 inches at 7 pounds of glass optics.
The 45-70 can stop about anything in North America; this is a backup rifle for guides but a solid choice for the big game hunter who wants to shoot a lever action and big bore cartridge in combination.
3. Henry Original
For the traditionalist in firearms that wants the classic rifle in a lighter round, the Henry Original Rifle is front and center.
This rifle makes use of the Henry trademark all heavy brass receiver and deep-blued barrel. This rifle is the classic American western frontier Indian fighting rifle and the primary long gun carried by hunters and outlaws alike.
Cowboy action is the best event for these rifles today, and they are chambered in a variety of cowboy action rounds like the 44-40 or 45 Colt. This is the same rifle as Henry’s in the 1850 model save for the caliber.
Walnut stock, brass fittings, and butt plate, as well as a folding rear ladder sight in keeping with the real deal back in the day.
4. Uberti 1866 Yellowboy
Staying with the historical lever-action rifles, I turn your attention toward the Uberti line of rifles. These are an offshoot of Benelli Italy; they are one outstanding and beautiful rifle.
The rifle I will feature here is their Uberti 1866 Yellowboy. This rifle is built with a solid brass receiver. Hence, the name Yellowboy came from the American Indians who found the rifle and named it because of its yellow color.
If you don’t know Uberti as a gun company, be advised that several very high-grade rifles in the cowboy action class today are built by three folks under a ghost name. However, in terms of material and quality artistry, the lever-action offered by this manufacture just can’t be beaten.
The rifle is offered as a “Short Rifle,” “Carbine,” and “long rifle.” The barrels are cut as octagonal, except the Short rifle, which uses a round barrel. These rifles carry all brass fittings but the plate and end caps.
Cartridge chambering in this rifle includes 38 Special, 44-40, and 45 Colt. The rifle is set up for cowboy action or even western reenactment events.
5. Heny Long Ranger
Also, in the current trending toward modern high tech design and materials. This lever-action rifle is much like the Browning line of lever actions in that it is an advanced roller action, uses side ejection, which makes it easy to mount a scope, and uses the box magazine.
As such, this rifle as a lever gun will handle and is chambered for a wide range of fast mover varmint rounds and big-game cartridges. The rifle can be obtained in .223 Rem, the new 6.5 Creedmoor, 308 Winchester, several others.
6. Winchester Model 94
Last but not least, I present the world Winchester Model 94. While there are many take-off models of the rifle built by several manufacturers today, there is only one true Winchester Model 94, which is built by that company only.
Today, the rifle is offered by Winchester in several different configurations. These models include the 94 Short Rifle, Carbine, and Sporter. Additionally, these rifles are offered in various cartridge chamberings. Still, to my mind, the 30-30 comes up as the only show in town when it comes to cartridge selection by the buyer.
From the horse saddle scabbard to the rifle rack in the back of the pickup truck, nothing has a Model 94 30-30 Winchester feel and fit. Open hammer for single-action shooting. A long throw lever that you can’t short-stroke if you tried, and the fastest set of buckhorn sight ever slapped on the barrel of a rifle.
Today special mounts can be obtained for the Model 94 Winchester 30-30. Because the rifle top ejects spent cartridges, the mounts are offset. With a smaller scope that will not get in the way of ejecting spent hulls, this becomes a very effective rifle when used in timber country, especially when a bit longer shots are required.
My personal Model 94 uses the scope and down-the-barrel buckhorn sights as well. I have never used more than a single round of 170 grain 30-30 to bring home the winter meat.
The preceding review has been somewhat extensive but illustrates a real future for the lever-action rifle today. As of late, there even seems to be a major resurgence in action design. Whether you are buying new or searching out an old-school model of the rifle, the options are numerous in the marketplace today.
I have been writing firearms and outdoor material of over 50 years to date. I have hunted across the world including Russia and a great deal of time professional hunting in Australia. I currently live in the American west and hunt all across the Black Hills of South Dakota, and the Big Horn mountains. I have specialized much of my work as a load developer in shotguns and rifles. I have run a small company that builds suppressor barrels of my design, and load tests for writing purposes and consulting. My commercial names include Ballistics Research & Development / Metro Gun Systems.TM. You can find more info on me here.