They did not open the West–muzzleloaders did that–but they did tame it. To this day, the uniquely American lever gun thrives.
Gun history is a northern lake at winter’s end, appearing as a pathway of solid ice when in fact every slippery step may plunge the unwary traveler into frigid waters. Manufacturing records, yellowed with age; fragile personal notes; catalogs from the past; writings of yesteryear; collections; museums–these and other clues bond together to tell the story of firearm development.
We know that by far the major advances in shooting technology originated in Europe. The envelope–we call it a jacketed bullet–belongs to Majors Bode and Ruben of Switzerland circa 1880, five years before French chemist Vielle invented smokeless powder for that country’s 8mm Lebel.
But while the English did have the lever-operated Needham magazine gun, it paled against the breed belonging to the red, white and blue. Furthermore, Paco Kelly, in An American Heritage–Leverguns, tells us that “There was a black-powder single-shot rifle brought out in the 1830s that had an underlever that opened the piece.” It was a Yankee invention. Respected authority of his day (and ours) W.W. Greener wrote in The Gun and Its Development, 1910 edition, “The Spencer appears to have been the first successful breechloading magazine rifle; it was patented in the United States in 1860.” This Civil War repeater had a buttstock tubular magazine with each cartridge levered into battery one at a time. A little later the Henry came along, followed by Winchester, Marlin and Savage, all American lever-action rifles.
Quo vadis? Where have they gone, those leverguns born and bred in 19th century America? Nowhere. Lever-action rifles thrive from Brazilian jungles to North Pole ice floes. They’re especially at home in whitetail thickets east of the Mississippi. Along with hunting, Cowboy Action Shooting boosted the old-style rifle three limbs higher on the popularity tree.
Ruger’s 2002 catalog explained it well: “There is a world of tradition inherent in the lever-action carbine. It is a quintessentially American design, recalling the days of the Old West and generations of hunters. Tradition aside, the lever-action carbine is an immensely practical shooting system. It is compact, rugged and reliable and offers quick follow-up shots when needed with just a brief flick of the wrist.”
What we believed about bolt-action superiority over leverguns has been trampled beneath the hooves of a steed called reality, especially in accuracy and action strength. There is no doubt that the next national benchrest match will be won by a bolt-action rifle. There is also no doubt that a lever-action rifle could be built to compete.
Recently, a Marlin Model 336 Cowboy .38-55 rifle came my way. My shooting partner, Ron Cox, and I took the 24-inch-barrel rifle to the range to wring it out. Out of the box, open iron sights only, the first bullet from a cold bore cut a circle out of the upper left-hand corner of the aiming point. The next two created one figure-eight hole at the bottom of the one-inch square. Total group size at 50 yards ran 0.8 inch center to center.
After chronographing several rounds, Ron, a former SWAT sniper, shot another group. This time three shots created one hole 0.266 inch center to center. We’re in the process of mounting a 12X Leupold scope on the Marlin to satisfy curiosity about 100-yard accuracy. I have Mount McKinley confidence in this rifle’s ability to put a bullet right where it belongs on game up to moose size. That bullet will weigh 240 to 300 grains, handloaded to double-century velocity.
Bolt-actions stand more pressure than leverguns. However, Browning‘s Lightning BLR contains high-intensity cartridges just fine, including the 7mm Remington Magnum. The famous Savage 99, now sleeping ignominiously by the side of the main track, fired the .243 and .308, among other modern rounds. Winchester‘s Model 88, after a totally unsuccessful attempt at a coup over the Model 94, came in the excellent .284 Winchester, that cartridge also hidden today under a shovelful of unconvincing press. The late, great Sako Finnwolf with four-round magazine was also available in .243 and .308.
Long before these rifles existed, Winchester’s 1895 lever-action fired the .30-06 Springfield. While the original Model 1894 locked up with hotter loads, later versions were, and are, capable of handling more breech pressure. Several fine cartridges followed the new 94 design, including the 7mm Waters (7mm/.30-30) and .307 Winchester, a rimmed .308–almost. There is also the .356 Winchester, stronger than the famous .35 Remington. The .375 Winchester, an excellent cartridge, is a puzzlement. This cartridge is ballistically, but not interchangeably, a .38-55. My own .38-55 handloads keep up with it.
Cartridges for lever-actions bridge the waters with .22-caliber speed rockets on one side of the river to heavy-bullet bigbores on the other. For a while, Remington had the .30-30 Accelerator firing a .22-caliber bullet at about 3,000 fps. Marlin’s .450 cartridge is the .458 American wildcat, a shortened .458 Winchester retaining the belt. It launches a 350-grain bullet with bear-stopping performance. The .444 Marlin is another powerhouse. Hornady offers a fine 300-grain bullet for the .444 pushed at 2,000 fps with 51 grains of H-335.
The ancient .45-70 Government thrives in lever-actions. It’s big-game formidable with bullets ranging from 300 to 500 grains. The .405 Winchester is back, and the .38-55 has a new lease on life, which it deserves. It shoots several bullets extremely well, such as Hornady’s 220-grain HP-XTP and the Laser Cast hard-lead missile. Redding/Saeco has fine bullet moulds for the .38-55, including the standard 255-grain Round Nose Flat Point, but also a 225-grain to the left of it and a 300-grain to the right. Lyman also has superb bullet moulds for the .38-55. Current lever-action chamberings also include the .38-40, .44-40 and .45 Colt. The .357 Magnum/.38 Special (and .38 Special only) are offered, along with the .44 Remington Magnum. And of course the .30-30 cartridge continues to shine like a ruby in the sun.
There is no lack of lever-action big-game rifles to choose from. Winchester’s limited New Model 1895 shoots Teddy Roosevelt’s admired Big Medicine round, the .405 Winchester. The same company’s Model 94 Black Shadow is reminiscent of the most handsome 94 of all, the Model 64. This one is available in .30-30, of course, as well as .44 Magnum. There is the Model 94 Big Bore in .444 Marlin. The 94 Big Bore Side Eject comes in .307, .356 or .444. The 94 Trapper has a 16-inch barrel.
Marlin also has a complete lever-action lineup with its Model 1895 .45-70 Guide Gun, 1895M .450 Marlin, Model 444P Outfitter .444 Marlin and many others, including the 336 line, such as the 336SS (stainless) in .30-30 and the 336C in .30-30 or .35 Remington. Also, there is the 336 Cowboy in .38-55. The Marlin 1894, as well as 1894 Cowboy Competition, comes in .45 Colt, .357 Magnum/.38 Special and .44 Magnum/.44 Special. The 1895 Cowboy is a .45-70.
Navy Arms Co. has a tremendous line of replica leverguns, my own Model 1892 .45 Colt being one. There’s the Model 1873, famous for being the One of One Thousand that was the star of the old Jimmy Stewart movie Winchester ’73. This rifle comes in various styles, including a Deluxe Border Model in .357 Magnum, .44-40 or .45 Colt. Going back in time, Navy Arms has the 1866 Short Rifle especially for Cowboy Action Shooting, the 1866 Yellow Boy and the Henry Military Rifle, along with an Iron Frame Henry. Other companies also bring in lever-action replicas. Cimarron has the Winchester in antique finish of charcoal blue, plus a special-order 1873 engraved “One of One Thousand.” Taylor’s Rifles include a Henry Brass Frame .44-40 or .45 Colt, plus a Henry Steel Frame .44-40.
By the time you are reading this, I will be afield with two of my lever actions, including one extended adventure: 30 days running in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming. Both are guns that have undergone modification. The Marlin 336A .30-30 that left the plant during that model’s first year of manufacture, according to the serial number, has been completely refurbished with new blue and wood, as well as a fine Lyman receiver sight. (A Winchester 94 is currently undergoing similar treatment with handsome new wood from Precision Gun Works.)
The second gun is a new Marlin 336 Cowboy .38-55 that took a few changes. First, it was fitted with an Uncle Mike’s carrying strap. Interchanging a plain fore-end cap with one having an integral swivel stud took care of the front end. An Uncle Mike’s swivel eye was installed in the buttstock directly into Marlin’s proprietary bull’s-eye, one of only two features I find negative on the rifle. (The plastic bull’s-eye must be replaced with a hardwood dowel and “JB Weld” before installing the screw-in swivel stud. Otherwise, the stud may not hold, and–wham! Down goes the rifle, right off the shoulder.)
The white diamond located on the back of the rear sight was painted dead black with an indelible marker pen. It is the other feature I don’t care for on this rifle. All the white spot did for me was create an optical fuzz below the front-sight’s gold bead.
Finally, I had Clyde Ludwig’s handsome hammer bolt replacement installed. This was a personal choice on my part. Mr. Ludwig does a fine job on this tiny fixture. The Marlin rifles worked for more than 100 years without an additional safety. As one writer put it, the second safety was a solution to a nonexistent problem. There are two major reasons for lever-action survival. The first is outstanding utility. Even at this late date in the evolution of hunting there are thousands who take to the field annually with iron-sighted .30-30s, confident that at the moment of truth when that whitetail buck breaks cover, venison will be theirs. Fixed with scopes, these lever-action rifles are even deadlier. The accuracy is there. The power is there.
My own handloads for the refurbished Marlin Model 336A .30-30 rifle with 24-inch barrel include a 165-grain Swift bullet at 2,400 fps. These feed through the magazine, but I install only two rounds with any pointed bullet, never more. When one cartridge is chambered, there remains only one in the magazine with no bullet point up against the primer of a round in front of it. I also load 190-grain Silvertips extracted from .303 Savage ammo. These achieve 2,165 fps from the renewed Marlin burning Reloder 15 powder. Meanwhile, the 19th century .38-55 shooting Winchester’s accurate 255-grain Soft Point Flat Nose bullet (also withdrawn from factory ammo for handloading) is entirely adequate for elk in the timber at 1,900 fps with H4198 or Reloder 7 powder.
The other reason for the continued life of the lever action is more difficult to explain. The modern hunting picture is painted in four very different colors: deep purple, hunter green, rimrock red and midnight blue. Where I live–Wyoming–I’m privileged to fill a license as I see fit. Normally, deer, elk, antelope, moose and other big-game seasons begin September 1 for the bow. The tag is still good later as gun seasons open. Deep purple is for archery, high adventure trying to close in for a 30-yard shot with my Ferret IV all-glass-limb recurve bow. Hunter green belongs to the smoke pole, which is challenging but not as demanding as the bow. Rimrock red is for my lever-action .30-30 or .38-55. And if, for any reason, the tag remains unfilled late in the season, the color moves to midnight blue. At that time a death ray goes into action, for me a Frank Wells custom 7mm Magnum with Swarovski 2.5-10X scope or my Morrison-barreled Model 77 .25-284 wildcat topped off with a Bushnell Elite 2.5-10X.
I enjoy the powerful long-range scoped rifle and have no compunction filling a license with one. That’s why they call it a tag–to attach it to a big-game prize. The other categories, however, carry a different value. Last season I took the trail for pronghorns carrying a Savage Model 1899A .30-30 that left the factory 100 years previous. I pushed the envelope with a 150-grain Winchester bullet handloaded to 2,400 fps, but I retained the open buckhorn sight. The centenarian rifle managed a fine buck at 137 yards, the distance checked after the shot with a Bushnell laser rangefinder. I would have appreciated that ‘lope with a .300 Magnum too, but that evening in my lone camp as firelight played on buck and rifle, the glow was special.