June 09, 2020
Even in this age of ARs and precision-bolt guns, tubular magazine lever-actions are still with us. Although the various templates originally from Winchester or Marlin made their appearance mostly in the late 19th century, all have benefited from advances in ammo, metallurgy, design and, in many cases, the sheer craftsmanship and dedication of makers with a loving commitment to past tradition and aesthetics. At any rate, we all love our lever guns, and here we’d like to introduce readers to what we consider seven of the top specimens on today’s market. Some are domestic, some imported. But all are pretty nice.
Uberti 1886 Hunter Lite
Famed for repros of classic American frontier-era revolvers and rifles, Italy’s Uberti pulled all the stops out in this beautifully crafted take on what many feel to be Winchester’s ultimate lever-action—and one of John Moses Browning’s finest achievements. The heart of the rifle is a locking block action that permitted the use of considerably more powerful loads than the toggle-link Model 1876. But what remains of the original lineup of calibers is the great .45-70.
Uberti’s Hunter Lite is a graceful take on the original platform. It sports a round 22-inch barrel and—at 7.2 pounds— is a full two pounds lighter than the long, octagonal barreled Sporting Rifle model. Its half-magazine configuration means a truncated capacity of 3+1 instead of the 8+1 of the Sporting Rifle, but this is, as the name implies, a hunting rifle. And what’s a couple of extra .45-70 rounds between friends in the field?
Cowboy Action types might appreciate the weight and higher capacity of the Sporting Rifle, but if you’re a big game hunter with a love of lever actions throwing considerably bigger and heavier bullets than a .30-30 or .35 Rem., this could be the one.
If it’s whitetail you’re after, 300-grain JHPs are fine. But for bigger stuff, there are heavier loads on the .45-70 menu. The company says it’ll handle “mid-grade” loads, which covers most available commercial options with the exception of some of the monster heavy loads from specialty outfits like Buffalo Bore or Garrett.
An A-Grade walnut stock and color case-hardened frame push this one into the premium class, and that’s reflected in the $2,119 suggested retail price. www.uberti-usa.com.
Mossberg 464 SPX
It’d be tough to come up with a more quintessentially American lever gun than a tubular-magazine .30-30, but Mossberg turned the template on its head with the 464 SPX by borrowing elements from the AR as well as bolt-action chassis rifles.
The resulting hybrid of the tactical and traditional can best be described as a “space-age saddle gun.”. It features a black synthetic six-position tactical stock and a Picatinny tri-rail fore-end. The muzzle is threaded for the included flash suppressor, or you could replace that with a sound suppressor or other muzzle device.
Three-dot adjustable fiber-optic sights replace the traditional step-adjustable buckhorns, but for the optically minded, the 464 SXS is drilled and tapped for scope mounts, and the ejection port is angled for ease of clearance. The barrel is 16.25 inches and, with an OAL of 34 inches and a seven-pound weight, this could well be the ideal compact pickup-truck rifle—despite its decidedly non-traditional appearance.
It would also make a sensible defensive item for those who don’t want an AR. Modern .30-30 loads—specifically Hornady’s 140- and 160-grain MonoFlex and FTX LeverEvolution offerings—come a whole lot closer to .308 performance than you might think. In fact, Hornady now offers a 175-grain Sub-X subsonic load for the .30-30 if you decide to add a suppressor. The suggested retail price of the 464 SXS is $574. www.mossberg.com.
Marlin Model 94 CSBL
Originally designed for popular handgun cartridges of the day, Marlin’s Model 1894 was strengthened and reintroduced to accept the .44 and .357 magnums in the 1970s.
This latest iteration features the outstanding XS Sights adjustable aperture rear and white-line ramp front. But if you really want to take advantage of this rifle’s capabilities, you can use the integral Picatinny rail for either a scope or a red-dot sight. And thanks to its side-ejection format, the rail runs long enough for either conventional or Scout-type scope placement.
The CSBL’s big loop lever is just big enough, meaning good for cold weather gloves, but not big enough for the type of fancy twirling you may recall from old “The Rifleman” reruns.
A carbine is capable of pushing heavy .357 loads into “real rifle” territory. And this one does just that from its 16.5-inch barrel. Buffalo Bore’s 180-grain Hard-Cast LFNGC clocked 1,871 fps. Hornady’s 140-grain FTX LeverEvolution chronographed 1,772. The speed king turned out to be Buffalo Bore’s 140-grain Barnes all-copper HP at 1,966 fps, which gave me three-shot 100-yard groups with a scope of 1.5 inches.
The CSBL features Ballard rifling rather than the old Micro-Groove arrangement, which can produce iffy results with cast bullets. But the CSBL I got to shoot liked most magnums. But the “cheapo .38 Special option” is a large part of this carbine’s charm.
The 1894 CSBL is a good-looking rifle. While it’s decidedly not retro, I really liked the stainless steel /gray-black laminate stock combination. The suggested retail price of $1,214 does put it up there as far as Marlins go, but when stoked with .38s, this would be an excellent centerfire transition tool for a youngster. Besides, you can shoot a whole lot of bulk-pack .38s for the price of a 20-round box of premium .30-30 or .45-70. And that’s an amortization opportunity we can all relate to! www.marlinfirearms.com.
Winchester Model 94 Deluxe Short Rifle
No way we could put together a lever-action roundup without some form of Winchester’s iconic M94, and this one’s a beauty. Flat-sided, trim and grab-able, It features the standard 20-inch barrel, high grade (V, VI) oil-finished, checkered black walnut stock, shotgun buttplate, color-case receiver and gloss blued finish.
The Deluxe Short Rifle is the M94 you reward yourself with after a lifetime of standard grade specimens. With apologies to fans of the .25-35 and .32 Win. Spl., it’s chambered for the only proper cartridge for an M94—.30-30 Win. It also features the familiar buckhorn open sights, but in a concession to the times—not to mention older eyes—it’s drilled and tapped for scope mounts, and the hammer is drilled and tapped for an included hammer spur extension.
Like all Miroku-built M94s, this one features a tang safety which, although redundant on an exposed hammer lever gun, is a considerable improvement aesthetically over the button safety on previous U.S.-made models before domestic production ceased in 2006.
I’ve owned a couple of M94s over the years, from pre-angle-eject Trapper carbines to turn-of-the century octagonal barreled rifles, but nothing this upscale. If it was mine, it’d reside in a fleece-lined, high-grade saddle scabbard for transport. Suggested retail is $1,850. www.winchesterguns.com.
Browning BL-22 Micro Midas
With the discontinuance of Winchester’s 9422 and Marlin relegating the Model 39 to custom-shop status, the sad truth is there aren’t as many lever-action .22s on the market as there once was. But Browning’s BL-22 lineup is still around, thankfully. And the Micro Midas has a retro cool factor that rimfire semiautos just can’t quite match.
Scaled down for smaller shooters (read: kids), this little rimfire lever gun’s tubular magazine handles the non-magnum .22 trifecta: Short, Long and Long Rifle. Although in terms of performance, the .22 LR should be your hands-down pick, particularly for small game.
And by “scaled down,” we’re talking a 16.25-inch barrel, 31.5-inch overall length, 12-inch length of pull and a four-pound, 12-ounce weight. Just as important as the abbreviated dimensions as far as the kids are concerned is a short, 33-degree lever throw.
The steel receiver is grooved for scope mounts, but if I was going to teach a kid how to shoot, I’d start off with the open adjustable sights. Irons, thank God, aren’t a total anachronism yet. Anyway, there’s time enough to transition to glass once iron sight basics are absorbed.
The rest of the features are what you’d expect in any BL-22—American walnut straight-grip stock with gloss finish and a blued receiver and barrel. The tubular magazine’s capacity is 10+1 (assuming .22 Long Rifle). Suggested retail price is $519. www.browning.com.
Rossi R92 .454 Casull
This handy little stainless Brazilian import pretty much tops out the power level for pistol-caliber lever guns. The .454 Casull is about as close as you’re going to get to low-end .45-70 performance in a short-throw carbine. Company literature calls it “the ideal saddle rifle for bear country.” With 2,000 fps capability with a 300-grain bullet from the R92’s 20-inch barrel, this certainly doesn’t sound like an idle boast.
I had the opportunity to use one on a hog hunt a while back. I got a shot at a 200-pound hog at about 60 yards, and that 300-grain bullet ironed him out decisively.
The capacity is nine rounds, and considering the weight and length of the R92, that translates to a lot of power on tap. With its 6.5-pound weight, it’s unlikely you’re going to want to stick with an exclusive diet of .454 Casull. You do have a .45 Colt practice/plinking option, and while the price differential between the two isn’t quite as pronounced as you’ll find with the .357/.38 Special situation, it’s nothing to sneeze at. Suggested retail price of the Rossi R92 .454 Casull is $896. www.rossiusa.com.
Pedersoli 86/71 Boarbuster Mark II
This Cerakote-finished 19-inch barreled take on Winchester’s Model 71 is nothing if not eye-catching. The original M71 (1935-58) was Winchester’s final modernized take on the 1886 platform. Unlike the original’s .348 Win. chambering, the Boarbuster can be had in .444 Marlin and .45-70, both far easier to obtain these days than .348 ammo. Either has more than enough power for everything up to moose and big bear, and both will do an excellent job on deer and hogs.
The synthetic stock is adjustable for comb height so you can tailor it for use with the iron sights or whatever red-dot optic or scope you want to hang on the barrel-mounted integral rail. No worries about top ejection here.
In fact, considering the Boarbuster’s purpose, a long-eye relief Scout-type scope of low magnification would be ideal, whether for European-style driven boar, or spot-and-stalk hogs here in the U.S. of A.
The integral rear sight can be mounted at either end of the rail/base, giving you a short 1.57 inches or longer 7.87 inches from the action. And both front and rear sight are coated with a fluorescent varnish for low light shooting. Suggested retail price is $2,570; www.davide-pedersoli.com.