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Lever Action Rifles

Lever-Action Shootout

by Joseph von Benedikt   |  July 10th, 2017 0
Top to bottom: Winchester 94, Marlin 336C, Mossberg 464.

Top to bottom: Winchester 94, Marlin 336C, Mossberg 464.

For well over 100 years the most popular configuration in a lever action is a .30-30 caliber carbine with a handy, maneuverable 20-inch barrel. But a few years ago, it looked like the era of readily available lever actions was over as Winchester closed its doors and Marlin experienced production delays after it manufacturing facilities were relocated.

For a while Mossberg was about the only source for a hunting-ready lever action .30-30 with its Model 464, although Winchester and Marlin are now back in the fold as well. So for those of you pining for a new all-American hunting tool, here’s a head-to-head performance review featuring a classic .30-30 carbine from each.

When requesting test samples, I specified 20-inch barrels in .30-30 Win. caliber, in a standard configuration without bells and whistles. Marlin sent its Model 336C, which the company considers its flagship lever action. Although it has several nice but subtle features such as checkering and a grip cap, it’s not fancy. In fact, it’s the second least expensive model the company offers. A thin rubber buttpad does little to dampen recoil but prevents the rifle from slipping and clattering to the tile floor when it’s propped in the kitchen corner. Capable sights, decent straight-grain walnut and a satin metal finish complete the package.

Mossberg provided a sample of its pistol-gripped Model 464. Like the Marlin, it features checkered walnut stocks and a thin rubber buttpad. Sights feature fiber-optic inserts, which are helpful in low light but less robust than simple steel sights. One Model 464 costs less—the straight-gripped version without checkering or fiber optics—but only by $37. The nicer version is worth the dollars.

After the first Winchester I received wouldn’t accept a scope, I swapped it for the 94 Short Rifle, which has the same 20-inch barrel as the carbine but sports a steel fore-end cap and optic compatibility for a measly $30 more. A traditional (and slippery) plastic buttplate graces the carbine, and the clean, straight-grain walnut stocks are free of checkering.

To give each .30-30 carbine a fair and equal shake, I mounted matching Leupold VX-3 2.5-8x32mm riflescopes for accuracy testing. The slim little optic is one of my favorites for any quick-handling, lightweight hunting rifle, and it’s particularly suitable for a lever gun.

I also used Leupold hardware to mount the scopes. Putting an optic on the Marlin was painless. I simply screwed down the mount, installed the rings and leveled up the scope before torqueing the screws to spec.

The Mossberg was equally easy—once I’d obtained the correct bases. Oddly, the carbine takes two of the front bases intended for a Winchester. Once that dilemma was solved and the duplicate hardware obtained, the Leupold mounted up beautifully.

The Winchester base protrudes forward and partially blocks the ejection port, and I was initially concerned it would interfere with ejection, but both empty cases and unfired cartridges ejected without argument. However, all things considered, a pair of No. 403 Weaver cross-slot bases is an easier solution.

With Winchester 94 Short Rifle, the bases and rings screwed into place perfectly. With only low rings on hand, I had to finesse the optic to just the right spot to prevent interference with the rear sight. Medium-height rings would work better unless a scope without a belled objective housing was used.

What with barrel bands, weighty magazine tubes hanging from slender barrels and fore-ends that are anything but free-floated, I suppose it would be kinder to allow one’s .30-30 carbine to cool between groups, but lever actions are often shot fast and frequently, and I wanted to see how well they held their point of impact and accuracy. So I fired three consecutive three-shot groups with each type of ammunition without pause except to reload. I did allow the carbines to cool thoroughly between ammo types.

To my surprise, accuracy didn’t deteriorate materially as the barrels heated, and in the case of the Winchester—which started out good—accuracy got even better. Nor did point of impact wander appreciably.

Also surprising is that the Winchester averaged the best overall accuracy. Many Marlin aficionados will boast that rifles from their favored company will outshoot the average Winchester, but in these new-made lever guns the Winchester ruled. Although each of the other two produced sub-two-m.o.a. averages with one type of ammunition, the Winchester scored sub-two-m.o.a. with two of the three types of test ammo.

As you’ll see by perusing the accuracy charts, the Marlin preferred Barnes VOR-TX 150-grain TSX ammo, the Mossberg shot the Hornady LeverEvolution 160-grain Flex-Tip best, and the Winchester—perhaps appropriately—shot Winchester 170-grain Power-Point into tidy groups indeed. It fact, it shaded just outside of one m.o.a., eyebrow-raising accuracy from a lever gun.

It’s interesting to note that the faster-twist rifles, the Marlin and the Mossberg, shot bullets in the lighter-weight range better, while the Winchester’s slower 1:12 twist provided best accuracy with the heavier 170-grain bullets. That’s counterintuitive to conventional bullet-stabilizing expectations—until you factor in the extra length of the all-copper Barnes 150-grain TSX and the boattailed, polymer-tipped Hornady 160-grain Flex-Tip. Although the 170-grain Winchester is heavier, its flat-nosed, flat-base, lead-core design makes it easy to stabilize.

I also tested for reliability. Why? As one buddy would put it, “There’s a picture of a lever action beside the definition of ‘reliability’ in the dictionary.” Perhaps I have an extraordinary ability to make things malfunction and break, but I’ve used lots of gun designs that should never jam yet they do. So as I shot the three lever guns, I kept track.

Only two hiccups stood out. One was minor: The Marlin was stubborn to load. Not that the cartridges stuck, but the loading gate was really tigh,t and the path into the tubular magazine felt rough as the rounds were thumbed in.

The other issue occurred with the Mossberg. After each empty was ejected and the lever was closing, the new cartridge heading into the chamber tended to hang up halfway in. A quick joggle on the lever usually resulted in its letting go and chambering easily, but at least twice it stuck hard, requiring me to finger it out and start over.

By very design a lever action should run fast and smooth, so I couldn’t really ignore the problem. However, it’s worth noting I’ve had considerable experience with Mossberg’s Marinecote 464—an early weather-resistant iteration now discontinued—and it ran like greased lightning.

The Marlin (l.) and Mossberg guns have checkered wood and barrel bands on their fore-ends while the Winchester’s (r.) wood is not checkered and the fore-end is tipped with a steel cap.

The Marlin (l.) and Mossberg guns have checkered wood and barrel bands on their fore-ends while the Winchester’s (r.) wood is not checkered and the fore-end is tipped with a steel cap.

As for the Model 94, it loaded, fed and fired in stellar fashion—just as one would expect from the highest-selling lever-action model (more than 7 million units) in history.

With accuracy testing complete, I spent some time shooting each of the lever-action carbines casually, thumping distant large targets, shooting at smaller ones up close, and levering fast shots into a half-bushel box at about 25 yards as quickly as I could. Which leads us to the way they feel.

LeverActionComparisonIf you’re accustomed to and appreciate straight-grip long guns, Winchester’s Model 94 carbine with its traditional straight wrist will feel good. Otherwise, you’re almost sure to prefer the pistol-grip designs of the Marlin and Mossberg.

All three carbines balance beautifully in the hands, are responsive in the extreme, and shoulder and point nicely. Decades ago—after mankind’s primary mode of transportation shifted away from horseback—Marlin beefed-up the fore-ends of its carbines. As a result, trying to push one into a saddle

The Marlin (shown) and Mossberg feature pistol grips, which most hunters prefer over the straight grip of the Winchester—although the latter certainly is more traditional.

The Marlin (shown) and Mossberg feature pistol grips, which most hunters prefer over the straight grip of the Winchester—although the latter certainly is more traditional.

scabbard sucks, but they feel good in the support hand and point more naturally than their more slender cousins. I’ve always thought the fat fore-ends look ugly and don’t feel right to me, but in fairness I must admit they do rest comfortably in the hand.

While bead front sights were once popular for deep-woods, fast-and-close shooting, I grew up shooting match-type post front sights and struggle to achieve consistency with a bead. However, they are traditional, and many shooters do well with them.

The only real ergonomic issue I encountered with any of the three carbines was with the Mossberg’s lever, and it was a result of the wood-to-metal fit along the lower tang behind the trigger, where the wood stands considerably proud. Like the Winchester, the Mossberg features a trigger block activated by opening the lever. To fire, the lever must be squeezed

Unfortunately, manual safeties on lever actions are here to stay, but at least the sliding tang safeties on the Mossberg (shown) and the Winchester are a little less egregious than the crossbolt on the Marlin.

Unfortunately, manual safeties on lever actions are here to stay, but at least the sliding tang safeties on the Mossberg (shown) and the Winchester are a little less egregious than the crossbolt on the Marlin.

completely closed, and occasionally when I squeezed it the lever it pinched a fold of skin from the fleshy lower part of my birdy finger. It got my attention, I can tell you.

I despise any sort of safety other than a half-cock notch on a lever action, but they appear to be here to stay. There’s nothing worse than squeezing a trigger on a good buck and hearing the horrible loud “click” that signifies your failure to disengage the safety. You’ve then got to ear the hammer back again (another click), thumb the safety off (and yet another click) and hope against hope you can get another crack at the buck.

Complaints registered, I prefer the tang-located safeties of the Winchester and Mossberg to the crossbolt safety of the Marlin. They are much easier to access without shifting your firing-hand grip. However, the actual safety slide on the Mossberg is made of plastic, and I don’t think plastic belongs on a lever action.

When it comes to fit and finish, I’ll just come right out and say the Winchester Model 94 has the best

If you’re looking for true utility in a lever action and don’t care about tradition, the Mossberg’s fiber-optic sights are going to be handier in the woods than standard open sights.

If you’re looking for true utility in a lever action and don’t care about tradition, the Mossberg’s fiber-optic sights are going to be handier in the woods than standard open sights.

wood-to-metal fit, and the high gloss blue on the metal parts is both superbly beautiful and appropriate. It will shrug off corrosion more easily than a coarser finish, too. As for the walnut stocks, the finish is simple and non-shiny. A bit better filling in the wood pores and a few coats of hand-rubbed oil would bring out the depth and beauty of the wood better, but there’s nothing ugly about it as is.

Next best on the fit and finish scale is the Marlin. Wood-to-metal seams aren’t perfect by any means, but they’re respectable, and the metal has a nice brushed satin finish. The wood is finished in a spray-on varnish, a durable option.

Finally, the Mossberg features a brushed satin finish similar to that of the Marlin. It offers respectably tight wood-to-metal joints, but in most areas the wood stands a bit too proud for my taste. In the lower tang area mentioned earlier, it creates a bit of discomfort. On a favorable note, I prefer the Mossberg’s slender fore-end to the bulky fore-end of the Marlin, and the reddish stain on the well-filled walnut is very attractive.

LeverActionAccuracyResult
This isn’t really an apples-to-apples comparison because you can literally purchase two of the Marlin or Mossberg rifles for the cost of one Winchester. As you’ve seen throughout the evaluation, the Winchester consistently outperforms the other two, which makes good sense: If you’re going to pay that much more you should get more performance.

Candidly, I didn’t expect it to turn out that way. You pay a good deal for the Winchester Model 94 name, and, conversely, Marlin rifles have an outstanding reputation for offering tremendous performance for the dollar. Frankly, I expected the two to run neck and neck through most of the tests.

The takeaway? If you like fine rifles and want one superb, classic, historical tool that will offer the utmost performance of its genre, pony up the money for a Winchester Model 94.

If, on the other hand, you want the allure of a lever action coupled with a more practical price tag, opt for either of the other two. The Marlin is an established name in lever actions, and features an action legendary for strength and smooth operation, but the Mossberg runs about $100 less. You won’t go wrong with either.

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