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10 Greatest Lever-Action Rifles of All Time

10 Greatest Lever-Action Rifles of All Time

If numbers excite you, you probably aren't into lever guns. Bolt-action rifles are generally more accurate than lever actions, and lever actions will never match the rate of fire achieved by a semiauto.

That said, if you appreciate history and nostalgia, you probably have a soft spot for the beleaguered lever gun. Your more practical friends will note the gun's weak points, but if you grew up watching John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn or held your breath when Augustus McRae made a stand against an armed posse with only his Henry rifle and a dead horse for cover in Lonesome Dove, you probably own a lever gun. Maybe two.

The lever action played a very legitimate role in America's westward expansion. It could bring meat to your table or protect your land and assets against rustlers.

Nostalgia aside, the lever gun is an effective hunting tool for those willing to live within its limitations. While it can't beat a bolt gun with a light trigger and free-floated barrel in a long-range shooting competition, a lever action in the right hands can be rather accurate, especially given new advancements in rifle design and bullet technology.


Here's a look at ten of the greatest lever actions of all time, from those designed 150 years ago to more modern offerings.


Winchester Model 73

“The gun that won the West” most definitely warrants a mention here, not only because it was a very successful model for Winchester but also because it represented a step forward in rifle design. Unlike the brass-framed Henry before it, the Winchester 1873 featured an iron frame. With a long barrel it was a big, heavy, smooth, relatively accurate rifle, and with a short carbine barrel, the 1873 was highly maneuverable. It was also chambered for pistol cartridges like the .44-40, so the big ’73 helped eliminate the burden of carrying two different types of ammo, which was of special concern when riding many miles in rough terrain. The ’73 deserves a spot on the list for the role it played in Westward expansion, but you can still purchase an 1873 from Winchester today, though they are now made in Japan by Miroku.

1860 Henry Rifle

The original Henry rifle, also known as the 'sixteen shooter, ' was one of the most influential rifle designs of the 1800's and contributed to America's love affair with lever actions. Confederate soldiers who had to face Union enemies armed with the Henry rifle most certainly did not love it. One Confederate famously deigned it the rifle 'you could load on Sunday and shoot all week long. ' The iconic Henry, with its success on the battlefield and its popularity among civilians, laid the groundwork for the lever action's rise to glory.

Browning BLR

The BLR was Browning's stab at modernizing the lever action. Its box magazine and sturdy design allows the BLR to be chambered in a host of popular hunting cartridges like the .308 Winchester and even the Short Mags, offering outstanding ballistics for a lever gun. The aluminum alloy receiver is lightweight, the rotating bolt head offers secure lockup, and it's easy to mount a scope atop the BLR's receiver. The BLR is unquestionably one of the most versatile lever actions ever created, and even after 40 years of production, it's still a winner.

Marlin 336

The rise in popularity of telescopic sights in the early-to-mid 20th century was an iceberg with the potential to sink the lever action design, but Marlin had an answer. Their 336, successor to the Model 36, offered side ejection and a flat, solid receiver that made mounting an optic simple and effective. Although the 336 wasn't the first lever gun capable of easily mounting a telescopic sight, it kept with the traditional exposed hammer/tubular magazine design. More than six million 336s have been produced, so this gun has certainly earned a place on the list of all-time best lever rifles. In the late 2000's, the .308 and .338 Marlin Express cartridges debuted, and the 336 became even more versatile, padding an already impressive resume.

Marlin 1895/444

The 1895 and 444 weren't the first big-bore lever action rifles, but these guns carved out a special niche as serious charge-stoppers. Like the 336 upon which they were based, the 1895 and 444 allow optics to be mounted on the receiver, and the power generated by the substantial .45/70, .450 Marlin and .444 Marlin cartridges offers peace of mind in bear country. I know of multiple North American guides and at least one African PH that rely on the short overall length, prodigious power and rapid cycling of the Marlin rifles to protect them from the nastiest beasts. But the 1895 and 444 are also very capable hunting rifles, and for close to medium-range work on most North American game these rifles perform well if you can handle the significant recoil they generate.

Savage Model 99

It seemed that the Savage 99 would be around forever, but alas, it's gone after almost 100 years of production. The 99 offered several innovative features: a hammerless design with improved lock time, a rotary magazine that could accommodate pointed bullets safely, a cocking indicator and the ability to visually see how many cartridges were left in the magazine. The Savage was also chambered in a variety of cartridges including the .303, .250-3000 and .300 Savage, as well as the .308 Winchester and others. The 99 was a slick-handling rifle with a reputation for accuracy, but it was the gun's own design that eventually doomed it; the high cost of producing the 99 made it too expensive to build and turn a profit, so Savage's superb rifle will likely never be produced again. There are a few still available on used gun racks, but if you see one, you'd better not pass it up.

Winchester Model 94

The Winchester Model 94 is the best-selling sporting rifle of all time in the U.S., so is there really a need to justify its place on this list? For the sake of argument, let's work to vouchsafe the 94 as a great gun. Is it slick and fast? Check. Lightweight, easy to carry, quick to the shoulder? Check. Have generations of hunters relied on this rifle to put meat in the freezer? Absolutely. You could argue that the Model 94 is not without blemishes; it wasn't really designed for use with a scope, it doesn't possess the strongest or the simplest action of the rifles listed here, and it's tubular magazine won't accommodate pointed bullets (Hornady Flex-Tips aside) safely. But this is the 94. I won't guild the lily, but it's safe to say that the 94's design was a huge manufacturing success, and Winchester is once again producing this cherished American gun.

Winchester Model 92

The Winchester 1892 was one of John Browning's earliest successes, and more than one million Winchester 92's were produced by the time Winchester stopped producing the gun in 1945. The Model 92 was designed to be a small but substantial rifle, and the unique, twin-vertical locking system design made the Winchester an extremely durable rifle. The 92 is a classic design with its crescent butt plate and buckhorn rear sight, a slick, smooth, relatively lightweight rifle perfect for fast shooting in heavy cover. The 92 is now back in production and is chambered for cartridges like the .45 Colt and .44 Magnum, so it's still a great option for close-range big game hunting.

Winchester Model 88

Of the many Winchester guns listed as 'bests ' here, only one is no longer in production. It also happens to be the newest design, the Model 88, which came to pass in 1955. The 88 was an interesting gun, believed by many to be the most beautiful lever gun of all time. It featured a front-locking, rotating three-lug bolt and a one-piece walnut stock, and it was easy to mount an optic on the 88's receiver. The short-throw lever allowed for very rapid follow-up shots, and for those who still shunned telescopic sights, the Winchester came with good irons and pointed like a fine upland bird gun. It was chambered in .243, .284, .308 and .358 Winchester, and, for a lever gun, it had a reputation for accuracy. Even though it was a relative commercial success, there wasn't enough interest in the Model 88 to last two decades, and in 1973 the rifle was dropped. Today, it's one of the most sought after used guns, and prices have risen over the last few years.

Ruger 96/44

The Ruger 96/44 had several advantages: a well-designed rotary magazine, short overall length, light weight and a sleek design. It may not look like a traditional saddle gun, but it is perfectly suited for that type of duty. The 96/44, produced from 1996 to 2007, bore a likeness to the venerable Savage 99, which didn't hurt sales, and the 18.5-inch barrel made the .44 Magnum cartridge a whole different beast than when it was fired from standard revolvers, achieving muzzle velocities and energy levels much higher than those found in a handgun. The sleek design of the 96/44 didn't hang up on branches or brush, and at six pounds and less than 38 inches it was easy to tote. The original stocks were plain and ugly, but this was a handy rifle, and the 96/44 can still be purchased on used gun racks for a reasonable price.

Winchester Model 73

“The gun that won the West” most definitely warrants a mention here, not only because it was a very successful model for Winchester but also because it represented a step forward in rifle design. Unlike the brass-framed Henry before it, the Winchester 1873 featured an iron frame. With a long barrel it was a big, heavy, smooth, relatively accurate rifle, and with a short carbine barrel, the 1873 was highly maneuverable. It was also chambered for pistol cartridges like the .44-40, so the big ’73 helped eliminate the burden of carrying two different types of ammo, which was of special concern when riding many miles in rough terrain. The ’73 deserves a spot on the list for the role it played in Westward expansion, but you can still purchase an 1873 from Winchester today, though they are now made in Japan by Miroku.

1860 Henry Rifle

The original Henry rifle, also known as the 'sixteen shooter, ' was one of the most influential rifle designs of the 1800's and contributed to America's love affair with lever actions. Confederate soldiers who had to face Union enemies armed with the Henry rifle most certainly did not love it. One Confederate famously deigned it the rifle 'you could load on Sunday and shoot all week long. ' The iconic Henry, with its success on the battlefield and its popularity among civilians, laid the groundwork for the lever action's rise to glory.

Browning BLR

The BLR was Browning's stab at modernizing the lever action. Its box magazine and sturdy design allows the BLR to be chambered in a host of popular hunting cartridges like the .308 Winchester and even the Short Mags, offering outstanding ballistics for a lever gun. The aluminum alloy receiver is lightweight, the rotating bolt head offers secure lockup, and it's easy to mount a scope atop the BLR's receiver. The BLR is unquestionably one of the most versatile lever actions ever created, and even after 40 years of production, it's still a winner.

Marlin 336

The rise in popularity of telescopic sights in the early-to-mid 20th century was an iceberg with the potential to sink the lever action design, but Marlin had an answer. Their 336, successor to the Model 36, offered side ejection and a flat, solid receiver that made mounting an optic simple and effective. Although the 336 wasn't the first lever gun capable of easily mounting a telescopic sight, it kept with the traditional exposed hammer/tubular magazine design. More than six million 336s have been produced, so this gun has certainly earned a place on the list of all-time best lever rifles. In the late 2000's, the .308 and .338 Marlin Express cartridges debuted, and the 336 became even more versatile, padding an already impressive resume.

Marlin 1895/444

The 1895 and 444 weren't the first big-bore lever action rifles, but these guns carved out a special niche as serious charge-stoppers. Like the 336 upon which they were based, the 1895 and 444 allow optics to be mounted on the receiver, and the power generated by the substantial .45/70, .450 Marlin and .444 Marlin cartridges offers peace of mind in bear country. I know of multiple North American guides and at least one African PH that rely on the short overall length, prodigious power and rapid cycling of the Marlin rifles to protect them from the nastiest beasts. But the 1895 and 444 are also very capable hunting rifles, and for close to medium-range work on most North American game these rifles perform well if you can handle the significant recoil they generate.

Savage Model 99

It seemed that the Savage 99 would be around forever, but alas, it's gone after almost 100 years of production. The 99 offered several innovative features: a hammerless design with improved lock time, a rotary magazine that could accommodate pointed bullets safely, a cocking indicator and the ability to visually see how many cartridges were left in the magazine. The Savage was also chambered in a variety of cartridges including the .303, .250-3000 and .300 Savage, as well as the .308 Winchester and others. The 99 was a slick-handling rifle with a reputation for accuracy, but it was the gun's own design that eventually doomed it; the high cost of producing the 99 made it too expensive to build and turn a profit, so Savage's superb rifle will likely never be produced again. There are a few still available on used gun racks, but if you see one, you'd better not pass it up.

Winchester Model 94

The Winchester Model 94 is the best-selling sporting rifle of all time in the U.S., so is there really a need to justify its place on this list? For the sake of argument, let's work to vouchsafe the 94 as a great gun. Is it slick and fast? Check. Lightweight, easy to carry, quick to the shoulder? Check. Have generations of hunters relied on this rifle to put meat in the freezer? Absolutely. You could argue that the Model 94 is not without blemishes; it wasn't really designed for use with a scope, it doesn't possess the strongest or the simplest action of the rifles listed here, and it's tubular magazine won't accommodate pointed bullets (Hornady Flex-Tips aside) safely. But this is the 94. I won't guild the lily, but it's safe to say that the 94's design was a huge manufacturing success, and Winchester is once again producing this cherished American gun.

Winchester Model 92

The Winchester 1892 was one of John Browning's earliest successes, and more than one million Winchester 92's were produced by the time Winchester stopped producing the gun in 1945. The Model 92 was designed to be a small but substantial rifle, and the unique, twin-vertical locking system design made the Winchester an extremely durable rifle. The 92 is a classic design with its crescent butt plate and buckhorn rear sight, a slick, smooth, relatively lightweight rifle perfect for fast shooting in heavy cover. The 92 is now back in production and is chambered for cartridges like the .45 Colt and .44 Magnum, so it's still a great option for close-range big game hunting.

Winchester Model 88

Of the many Winchester guns listed as 'bests ' here, only one is no longer in production. It also happens to be the newest design, the Model 88, which came to pass in 1955. The 88 was an interesting gun, believed by many to be the most beautiful lever gun of all time. It featured a front-locking, rotating three-lug bolt and a one-piece walnut stock, and it was easy to mount an optic on the 88's receiver. The short-throw lever allowed for very rapid follow-up shots, and for those who still shunned telescopic sights, the Winchester came with good irons and pointed like a fine upland bird gun. It was chambered in .243, .284, .308 and .358 Winchester, and, for a lever gun, it had a reputation for accuracy. Even though it was a relative commercial success, there wasn't enough interest in the Model 88 to last two decades, and in 1973 the rifle was dropped. Today, it's one of the most sought after used guns, and prices have risen over the last few years.

Ruger 96/44

The Ruger 96/44 had several advantages: a well-designed rotary magazine, short overall length, light weight and a sleek design. It may not look like a traditional saddle gun, but it is perfectly suited for that type of duty. The 96/44, produced from 1996 to 2007, bore a likeness to the venerable Savage 99, which didn't hurt sales, and the 18.5-inch barrel made the .44 Magnum cartridge a whole different beast than when it was fired from standard revolvers, achieving muzzle velocities and energy levels much higher than those found in a handgun. The sleek design of the 96/44 didn't hang up on branches or brush, and at six pounds and less than 38 inches it was easy to tote. The original stocks were plain and ugly, but this was a handy rifle, and the 96/44 can still be purchased on used gun racks for a reasonable price.

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