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The Comeback of the Lever-Action Rifle

The lever action is uniquely American, and it has had ups and downs over the 19th and 20th centuries. Amazingly, it's making a 21st-century comeback.

The Comeback of the Lever-Action Rifle

From the advent of self-contained metallic cartridges until after World War II, the lever action was America’s choice. Between Marlin, Savage, and Winchester, some 20 million lever-action centerfire rifles have been produced. Generations of Americans used lever actions to fill their larders, and today, untold thousands of hunters still take their bucks with Grandpa’s old .30-30.

Because of size, distinctive appearance, or craftiness, some bucks become local legends. In our Kansas woods, we hunted a massive cow-horn spike for four seasons. His antlers were 18-inch daggers rising from Coke-bottle bases, his found sheds were like massive clubs. Everybody knew about him. Nobody wanted him breeding does or fighting, but in deer season he became a ghost.

A frosty, calm opening morning in 2019. I was in a treestand on my creek. I heard a soft crunch in frozen grass behind me and craned my neck to see an oxbow over my left shoulder. The deer was hidden by overhanging cedar, but his reflection was clear in the pool. Just four legs, then he took a step. I saw one long spike in the watery mirror.

Old spike cowhorn taken with a lever-action Mossberg 464 in .30-30
Lever actions are making a comeback in the 21st century. This ancient cowhorn spike was a local legend in Boddington’s Kansas neighborhood, and he fell to a Mossberg 464 in the good old .30-30 on Opening Day in 2019.

I got the .30-30 lever-action Mossberg 464 around and shot him as he stepped clear. Neighbor Mark Woods had been finding his sheds and wanted this deer. I admired the old buck, then texted Mark: “Old Spike is down!”

First Came the Decline

As many deer hunters know well, the .30-30 remains an effective deer-getter. Of the couple dozen deer stands in our southeast Kansas timber, we have just one that might challenge the practical range of a traditional lever action. Even so, none of our hunters have ever used a .30-30…except me.

The slide action offered some competition and still has regional followings. Early semiautomatics were predicted to take over, but the self-loader didn’t become really popular for nearly a century. The bolt action unseated the lever gun, but it took a while.

It wasn’t exactly the bolt action that nearly killed the lever gun. The culprits were bullets and scopes!

The lever-action Winchester 1894 is the world’s most prolific sporting rifle, followed by the Marlin 336. The sharp-pointed bullet wasn’t known until 1898, long after Marlin and Winchester tubular-magazine designs were well-established. Arthur Savage’s lever action also predates the Spitzer-style bullet. Some years passed before the advantage of the Savage box magazine was appreciated. By then, tubular-magazine Marlins and Winchesters were dominant. To preclude possible detonation in the magazine, until the creation of Hornady’s innovative Flex Tip bullet, tubular magazines were restricted to blunt-nosed bullets with poor aerodynamics.

Rotary magazine of Savage lever action
The Savage lever action utilized a unique rotary magazine. From the beginning, it was able to handle Spitzer-style bullets and could easily accept a scope, but some years passed before these advantages were known.

The box magazine bolt action experienced no such restriction. For close-range hunting, the instant energy transfer and quicker expansion of a roundnose or flatnose bullet still yields advantages, but many shooters wanted the downrange capability of aerodynamic bullets. Tubular-magazine rifles were left behind.




Riflescopes were uncommon among hunters through the 1940s. The aperture, or “peep,” sight was the precision sight. By 1950 the magnifying riflescope had been perfected and was trusted, and within a decade, scopes were in almost universal use.

In descending order, Winchester, Marlin, and Savage were the most popular lever actions. The traditional top-eject Winchester defied conventional scope mounting. I doubt Oliver Winchester, B. Tyler Henry, or even John Browning envisioned this as a disadvantage. It’s also unlikely that John Marlin and Arthur Savage saw their solid-top, side-ejecting receivers as advantageous for scope mounting.

As scopes came into common use, both companies took advantage of the marketing opportunity…almost too late. The bolt action was king. The lever action was difficult to produce and was becoming more expensive and less profitable as sales declined.

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It didn’t happen after either World War, or even post-Vietnam, but around the turn of the millennium, the semiautomatic, especially the AR-15 platform, suddenly skyrocketed in civilian and sporting popularity. At the peak, some 90 manufacturers were making “ARs.” I must be odd; I used an M16-series in the Marines for 30 years, but I retired in 2005 with little fascination for the platform. Whatever, they became the darling of a new generation of shooters, and the lever action was nearly left in the dustbin of history.

Then An Attempt to Keep Up

The “lever-action companies” were long aware of their continuing slide into oblivion. The Savage 99 was actually the first production rifle to be “drilled and tapped” for scope mounts as standard. With a strong action and a box magazine, Savage led the way with high-velocity American cartridges: .22 Savage High-Power (1912), .250 Savage (1915), and .300 Savage (1920). In 1956 the 99 was adapted to .243 Winchester, .308 Winchester, and .358 Winchester, with later offerings including .284 Winchester, 7mm-08, and .22-250 Remington.

As American shooters craved velocity, Winchester made heroic efforts to maintain its lever-action heritage. The powerful, fast .348 Winchester was brought out in 1936 on the big Model 1886 action, and the fast .219 Zipper (on the 1894 action) came out in 1937. However, the potential of both cartridges was limited by blunt-nosed bullets.

In 1955 Winchester introduced its Model 88, a modern box-magazine, side-ejecting, rotating-bolt lever action with a solid-top receiver. Introduced in .243 Win., .308 Win., and .358 Win., the fast, rebated-rim .284 Win. was added in 1963. The Model 88 was an awesome and successful rifle, but it was discontinued in 1973 with 283,000 produced. It was Winchester’s fourth most popular lever gun, following the Models 1894, 1892, and 1873.

Cape buffalo taken with a Marlin Custom Shop lever action in .45-70
The .45-70 isn’t exactly versatile, but it’s more capable than often given credit. This gorgeous rifle from the Marlin Custom Shop took this fine Cape buffalo, proving that with modern loads in a strong lever action, the old .45-70 is absolutely buffalo-capable.

But Winchester wasn’t done with lever actions. In 1978 it beefed-up the 1894, bringing out the “Big Bore 94” chambered for the powerful .375 Winchester, but the problems of blunt-nosed bullets and scope mounting persisted. Using the reinforced Big Bore receiver, the company brought out the .307 Winchester and .356 Winchester cartridges in 1982. These cartridges duplicated the .308 Win. and .358 Win. at the muzzle, but blunt-nosed bullets reduced retained velocity.

The .307, .356, and .375 Winchesters were not popular, but the best was yet to come. In 1983 “Angle-Eject” finally solved the scope-mounting issue. Today, millions more rifles later, angle-eject Winchester 94s accept a scope mounted low over the receiver.

Due to the flat-topped receiver, Marlin never had to worry about scope-mounting issues. The tubular magazine remained a limitation, but the company just kept making lever actions. Over time, the 336 Series was chambered to a dozen cartridges, including .219 Zipper, .307 Win., .356 Win., and .375 Win.

Marlin did some smart things that will continue to impact a lever action renaissance. In 1964 it introduced the .444 Marlin, essentially a lengthened .44 Magnum case, resulting in a faster and more powerful cartridge. In 1973 it introduced the Model 1895 in .45-70, later adding the .450 Marlin (belted ahead of the rim to preclude chambering in .45-70 rifles). It’s not true that the .444, .45-70, and .450 Marlin rifles are based on a beefed-up 336 action. Externally, all three are 336 actions, with steel removed inside to accommodate the larger cartridges.

And let’s not forget the “other” Marlin, the short-action Model 1894, also chambered to a dozen cartridges. The 1894 has a square bolt as opposed to the 336’s round bolt, but it’s also flat-topped with side ejection. In years to come, it might become common to disparage Marlin production under Remington ownership (from 2010 to 2020). I’ve worked with several Marlins from the Marlin Custom Shop in Sturgis, South Dakota. They were magnificent, as you’d expect of rifles from any custom shop. I also have a late-manufacture Model 1894 .44 Magnum from the old Ilion, New York, Remington factory. It is as silky smooth as any lever action has a right to be, and it’s amazingly accurate.

Marlin lever action in .338 Marlin Express with Hornady ammo and targets
This thoroughly modern Marlin in .338 Marlin Express offered genuine 300-yard performance. Regrettably, the Marlin Express cartridges never had a chance to become popular, and they deserve a second chance.

As most readers know, Ruger purchased Marlin in late 2020, and after a year out of production, the Marlin 1895 .45-70 is back, now made at the Ruger plant in Mayodan, North Carolina. The 336 and 1894 are in simultaneous production and will soon follow. (More later on the new Ruger-Marlin.)

In 2007 Marlin teamed up with Hornady for the most revolutionary development in lever-action rifles since smokeless powder. The result was the .308 Marlin Express cartridge. The .308 ME saw the debut of Hornady’s FTX bullet and LEVERevolution ammunition line. The FTX and later MonoFlex bullets feature “compressible” polymer tips that, for the first time ever, allow sharp-pointed, aerodynamic bullets to be safely used in tubular magazines. The fatter-cased .338 ME followed shortly. I used the fast and powerful .338 ME for elk and moose in 2008. I reckon it’s the most versatile cartridge ever chambered to a tubular-magazine lever gun.

The Marlin Express cartridges were caught up in Marlin’s change of ownership, with no chance to become popular. Hopefully, under Ruger ownership, they will have another chance. In the meantime, Hornady’s LEVERevolution line has expanded to include most cartridges developed for Marlin and Winchester tubular-magazine rifles. Using proprietary powders, LEVERevolution ammo usually increases velocity over traditional loads. More importantly, better aerodynamics flatten trajectory and carry more energy farther downrange. You can’t turn a .30-30 into a .300 Magnum, but bullet shape changes the game. To achieve a 200-yard zero with a traditional 150-grain bullet at a velocity of 2,390 fps, you must sight-in a .30-30 about 3.5 inches high at 100 yards. Hornady’s 160-grain FTX load at 2,400 fps can be sighted-in just 1.5 inches high at 100 yards for a 200-yard zero. It has four inches less drop at 300 yards, with 40 percent more retained energy.

Box of Hornady LEVERevolution ammo with FTX bullets with compressible polymer tips.
Hornady’s FTX bullet with compressible polymer tip allows an aerodynamic bullet to be used in tubular-magazine rifles. Currently, the LEVERevolution line includes most traditional lever-action cartridges.

The Savage 99 and Winchester 88 are long gone, likewise the lone European lever action, the Sako Finnwolf. Anything can be done with CNC machining, but they all seem unlikely to come back. However, any discussion of lever actions must not overlook Browning’s BLR. Numbers have never been large, but the BLR has been in production for 50 years. It is a rotating-bolt, box-magazine, solid-top-receiver lever action with a short lever throw, currently available in a half-dozen variations and 17 chamberings with short and long actions, making it the only lever action ever chambered to belted magnum cartridges. Best known for its tubular-magazine rifles, Henry also has the box-magazine, side-eject Long Ranger in .223 Remington, .243 Win., .308 Win., and 6.5 Creedmoor.

The .444 Marlin wasn’t a huge seller in 1964. Neither was the Model 1895 in .45-70 at first, although the appearance of the first new .45-70 rifle in a generation created some buzz. I would never describe the .45-70 as “versatile.” It is powerful, and in strong, modern actions, you aren’t restricted to milder Trapdoor Springfield loads. Big lever actions have long been popular among north-woods deer hunters, in order to anchor large-bodied bucks “DRT” (Down Right There). The big lever action is also a traditional Western rifle, so folks started carrying new .45-70s (with powerful new loads) for bear hunting, and some bear guides started carrying them for backup.

And Now a Comeback

This evolved into what is now a term: “Guide Gun.” Implied is a large-caliber lever action with a short barrel, sling-swivel studs, fast sights, rustproof metal, and a sturdy weatherproof stock of laminate or synthetic. In late Remington production, Marlin offered a number of 1895s and 444s that would surely qualify, as does the new Ruger-Marlin 1895 LBS .45-70. It was polished stainless steel, a laminate stock, and a 19-inch barrel. The “guide gun” also brings back a concept that almost vanished from sporting rifles: a good aperture sight. More accurate and sturdier than most iron sights, the peep sight is also faster, especially with a large “ghost ring” aperture.

Ruger retains this feature on the new 1895 LBS along a HIVIZ fiber-optic front sight. The ghost ring rear is mounted on an 11-inch Picatinny rail. Okay, I can’t exactly imagine a rail strip on my old Winchesters—wouldn’t be useful anyway since they’re top-eject—but I concede that mounting optics is greatly simplified by the rail system, and this is a feature that younger shooters, immersed in ARs and “tactical” firearms, expect. Yes, they also expect a threaded muzzle, which the 1895 LBS has.

Marlin does not have an exclusive on “guide guns.” Browning/Winchester has offered appropriate rifles, and there are offshore copies of several Winchester models. Henry has several versions of its big .45-70, including “all weather” and with rail. Sized for the .500 S&W cartridge, Big Horn Armory’s Model 89 splits the difference between the big Winchester 1886 action and the small 1892. In carbine-length barrel, the .500 S&W is bear (and buffalo) capable. BHA lever actions are traditional top-eject, with the excellent bolt-mounted Skinner ghost ring aperture sight standard.

One would think the .30-30 deer rifle would be the core of the lever-action market. In fact, in late Remington production, the .45-70 was the best seller, so Ruger has led with the 1895 LBS .45-70. At the tail end of Remington production, Marlin’s Dark Series (blackened hardwood stock, dark Parkerized metal, ghost ring sights on a rail, and a threaded muzzle) made a tremendous splash. In the 1895 .45-70, the Marlin Dark was a guide gun. In 336 .30-30 or 1894 .357, it was just a lever-action rifle with a whole new look.

Author Craig Boddington with a Texas hog he took with a Ruger-made Marlin 1895.
In November 2021, this Texas hog was the first animal known to be taken with the newly released Ruger-manufactured Marlin 1895 LBS. The rifle performed extremely well.

I’m a dinosaur, and I love my lever actions. The Dark Series was nothing more, or less, than a good old Marlin with a facelift and some Botox. From what I gather, younger shooters loved it, folks who had never given a lever action the time of day. It wasn’t the guns that killed Remington and thus Marlin. Titanic had already struck the iceberg, and the Dark Series couldn’t plug the hole.

Ruger is a trusted name in firearms, with a long heritage of good guns and strong leadership. I visited the Mayodan facility in November 2021 and watched some of the first Marlin 1895 LBS rifles come off the line—the same line that will produce the 336 and next to the line that will produce the 1894. The LBS was first, and according to my contacts there, they expect to unveil a growing line of Marlin lever actions. Ruger is deadly serious about producing a Marlin lever action that both Bill Ruger and John Marlin would be proud of. From what I’ve seen, the company will.

By accident of timing (and some begging), I received the first 1895 LBS released from Mayodan and was able to take the first game to fall to this new/old lever action. Fit and finish were superb, accuracy was amazing, action operation was as slick and smooth as, well, custom-shop Marlins. I shot a couple of nice bucks with it on my son-in-law’s Texas ranch. Before that, I shot hogs on a buddy’s Texas lease.

There, it was my screwup that most endeared me to the rifle. Most current lever actions have a manual safety in addition to the traditional hammer safety notch. Marlins have long had a crossbolt safety on the receiver, but some of us dinosaurs are still accustomed to older lever actions without such niceties. A good-sized hog came out at sunset and offered an easy shot. I squeezed the trigger and heard the loudest click in the world.

Suspecting a misfire, I instantly worked that smooth lever. Somewhere in there I remembered the safety, hit it, and shot the hog with a much tougher running shot…all so fast that John Wayne would have been jealous.

The lever action will never again be America’s dominant rifle action. No lever gun is likely to win a benchrest match. With the exception of the BLR in .300 Magnum, a lever action is not a long-range rifle. But the lever gun is fast and sweet-handling—not just a piece of history, but effective, accurate, and much fun to shoot. There are plenty of choices, old and new, and so many shooters waiting to be introduced—or reintroduced—to this all-American classic. The new/old Ruger-Marlin offers a fresh start!

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