The Loveable Lever
September 23, 2010
Once America's darling, the lever-action rifle is still a fine choice.
We like to call the lever action the "all-American rifle action," but in truth the slide action, self-loader and lever action were all primarily American designs. Of these three, however, only the lever action rose to become America's most popular sporting repeater.
The single-shot rifle reigned for the first few decades of the cartridge era here in North America, but gradually lever actions from Winchester, Marlin and Savage gained ground and were the darlings of American hunters for perhaps the first half of the 20th century.
The bolt action began its ascendancy after World War I and by 1950 had become top dog. Since then, the lever action has been relegated to niche markets: "brush guns," "saddle guns" and now "guide guns."
The great old .30-30 — and modern successors such as the .307 Winchester and .308 Marlin Express — remain useful deer rifles, and the lever action retains its appeal as a fast-handling, fast-operating, easy-to-carry rifle. But since the passing of the Model 88 Winchester and Savage 99 only rarely has the lever action been viewed as a general-purpose hunting rifle. It is equally unusual today for it to be considered a primary choice for game larger than deer.
This was not always so. Early lever actions chambered cartridges that were, in effect, not much more than pistol cartridges, the .44-40 being the classic. But the Winchester '76 added strength and length and was chambered to powerful blackpowder rifle cartridges.
The John Browning-designed 1886 Winchester perfected the tubular magazine lever gun, at least in my eyes. It made the transition to smokeless, with its most popular chambering eventually becoming the .33 Winchester. Marlin's big lever actions followed the '86 and are still with us today.
Then came the box-magazine lever guns. The 1895 Winchester was chambered to .35 and .405 Winchester, both serious cartridges. The Savage 99 — a truly great rifle — came next, but it gained its versatility from fast cartridges such as the .250 and .300 Savage and was not chambered to a larger caliber for many years.
Until after World War II the only real choices for big-bore, powerful lever actions were the Winchester '95, the '86 and its successor, the Winchester 71 in .348.
This changed in 1955 with Winchester's introduction of the .358 Winchester and the slick rotary-bolt Model 88 lever action, replacing the Model 71 in .348. The Model 88 was actually Winchester's third most popular lever action, following Models 94 and 92. The .358 was also offered in the Savage 99 and is still chambered in Browning's BLR. Marlin's .444 came along in 1964, followed by the reintroduced 1895 in .45-70
Winchester fared less well, with multiple failed attempts to go big bore with its Model 94. Neither the .356 nor the .375 Winchester proved popular, although both are fine short- to medium-range cartridges. But there has remained significant interest in big-bore lever actions, with limited runs of new 1886, 71 and 1895 Winchesters in various chamberings.
Today the playing field is narrow, but there are several very good choices in big lever guns.
The .30-30 remains a great deer cartridge. Faster rounds such as the almost-forgotten .307 Winchester and the recent .308 Marlin Express are much more versatile, but when you step above the American standard .30 caliber you are generally thinking about game larger than deer or deer hunted under special conditions: close cover, big-bodied deer, the desire to anchor your buck on the spot.
There have been, and still are, many great short-range over-.30 cartridges, including the .32 Winchester Special, .35 Remington, .38-55 and .375 Winchester. But they all lack the velocity to be truly versatile, not just on larger game but to extend their hitting power to at least a couple hundred yards.
The author believes the .338 Marlin Express is a great cartridge and the only lever-action round that's truly a general-purpose elk rifle. It's demonstrated excellent accuracy in the rifles he's tried as well.
The .348 Winchester was the first lever-action cartridge to offer a combination of bullet weight, frontal area and velocity. Introduced in 1936, the original loads were a short-for-caliber 150-grain bullet at a screaming 2,925 fps and a 200-grain load at a respectable 2,535 fps. A 250-grain load at 2,350 fps was later added.
Based on the old .50-110 blackpowder case, the .348's base diameter maxes out the Model 71 (1886) action. It is the only commercial cartridge to use the .348-inch bullet diameter, and the Model 71 Winchester was the only factory rifle so chambered.
I have long had a soft spot for both the rifle and its cartridge, and I have owned one or another Model 71 continuously for more than 30 years. It's an ideal black bear and wild hog cartridge, a real thumper, and definitely has both the power and trajectory for shooting to at least 250 yards.
Its big limitation is that it is difficult (if not sacrilegious) to put a scope on the Model 71. I've always used it with an aperture sight and have made a few shots beyond 200 yards, but that's starting to get pretty fancy. So I've generally relegated it to a short-range role.
For years the only factory load remaining has been the 200-grain Winchester Silvertip, which works well enough, but since I don't try to utilize its full range capabilities I prefer the slower, harder-hitting, deeper-penetrating 250-grain bullet.
My handload with IMR 4064 and a Barnes Original 250-grain flat point duplicates factory ballistics of 2,350 fps, and it's a real killer. Just recently I took my old Model 71 to coastal Texas and used it to hunt nilgai in the oak mottes. Of course it worked well, and I get great satisfaction when I take game with that classic old rifle.
Realistic accuracy with the Model 71 is hampered by iron sights, and downrange performance is diminished by the blunt-nosed bullets necessary in a tubular-magazine rifle. Its replacement, the .358 Winchester in the Model 88 Winchester — and, later, Savage 99 and Browning BLR — suffers from neither problem. These actions feature box magazines and are suitable for scope mounting.
I have never understood why the .358 hasn't been popular. A necked-up .308 Winchester case, it's a tidy little cartridge that has little noise and recoil yet offers fantastic performance. With the 200-grain bullet — the only remaining factory load — it is the equal of the .348 at 2,530 fps.
With the 250-grain bullet, which I prefer, it lacks the case capacity to equal the .348. However, with handloads it isn't difficult to get a 250-grain bullet up to 2,250 fps, possibly 2,300 — and with a more aerodynamic spitzer bullet this will quickly overtake the .348's flat-point bullet.
The .358 Winchester is another cartridge I have rarely been without. I've owned and hunted with them in Model 88 Winchesters, Savage 99s and BLRs. Like the .348, I tend to regard it as a medium-range cartridge ideal for black bear and wild hogs, but thanks to riflescopes and spitzer bullets it will really do much more. I have taken a Model 88 .358 to Africa, and in 1999 I used the same rifle to take a great Shiras moose in Wyoming.
The .356 Winchester, introduced in 1982, is essentially a semi-rimmed version of the .358, initially offered in a beefed-up version of the Winchester 94. Because of pressure limitations it was loaded slightly lower than the .358, with the 200-grain bullet producing 2,460 fps. Limited by the flat-point bullets required in the tubular magazine, it wasn't as versatile as the .358 and didn't sell well.
Clearly both the .348 and .356 could benefit from Hornady's LeverEvolution ammo and its flex-tip FTX bullet. We might see a LeverEvolution load for the .348, but the .356 may not be popular enough to warrant it.
One of Boddington's all-time favorites is the .348 Winchester in the Model 71, which he used to take a nilgai in Texas. These free-range exotics are tough to get close to and tough to bring down.
However, the FTX bullet coupled with new propellant technology are the secrets behind the new .338 Marlin Express. The case is actually larger than the .308 Marlin Express and based on a rimmed version of the .376 Steyr. While it won't appeal to traditionalists like the .348 or .358 does, it is actually the most versatile cartridge ever chambered to a tubular-magazine lever action.
The side-ejecting Marlin is readily compatible with scopes, and the Hornady LeverEvolution factory load produces 2,560 fps with a 200-grain bullet and pretty much follows the curve of a standard 180-grain .30-06 at 2,700 fps.
One of the drawbacks is that the propellants which make this possible are not available to handloaders, so it's difficult to equal factory ballistics on the bench. Also, other than the FTX, there aren't a lot of component .338-inch bullets suitable for tubular magazines. But the .338 Marlin Express is truly a great cartridge, and even though I'm a heavy-bullet fan I haven't missed a 250-grain bullet.
Accuracy in several different rifles has been spectacular, far above what I would expect from a two-piece-stock, tubular-magazine rifle. I've used it on elk and moose, and it is one of very few lever-action setups that I consider really suitable for general-purpose elk hunting. You could shoot to 300 yards and beyond if you needed to — and have the necessary power when you got there.
It is not the only choice in this arena. The .338 Federal would be an ideal candidate for rebarreling a Model 88 or Savage 99, making available the rich array of .338-inch bullets.
The BLR is currently offered in .325 WSM, a fine cartridge that offers amazing performance from a lever action. This is clearly a nontraditional choice in a lever action but, after all, the BLR with its short lever throw and rotating bolt is a non-traditional lever action.
Choices in true big bores are equally limited. There are the pistol cartridges, but in factory rifles the big bores truly suitable for big game are the .444 Marlin, .45-70 and .450 Marlin.
Actually, I'm not so sure about the .444, which is really a .44 Remington Magnum on steroids — with a longer case but the same .429-inch bullet. It is excellent for dropping whitetails in their tracks, not bad for black bear and wild hogs, and can certainly be used on larger game like elk and moose in heavy cover — but its primary failing is that its bullets are short for caliber. With a 240-grain bullet at 2,350 fps and a 265-grain bullet at 2,200 fps, it is questionable for big bears, and it's out of the question for really large game.
The .405 Winchester in the 1895 is better, traditionally using a 300-grain bullet of .411-inch diameter at 2,200 fps. This is still light for caliber, which is perhaps why Theodore Roosevelt called it his "lion medicine," not his "buffalo medicine."
However, today's bullets are quite a bit better than what Teddy shot. I have used standard 300-grain loads on water buffalo with no problem, and others have used them on Cape buffalo. Surely the .405 would be just fine for big bears and the largest non-dangerous game; just keep in mind that the '95 will be an iron-sighted rifle, which is probably more limiting than the capabilities of the cartridge.
The next step up in caliber is the .45-70, introduced in 1873 and still popular. There are at least three levels of power available for this great old warhorse. Standard factory loads, either a 405-grain bullet at 1,330 fps or a light-for-caliber 300-grain load at 1,800 fps, must be (and are) loaded mild enough so they won't blow an old trapdoor Springfield to smithereens.
I'm not knocking these loads at all. Kept to short ranges, those big bullets are incredibly effective on medium-size game such as black bear and wild hogs and can certainly be used for elk and moose in close cover.
However, both the '86 and Marlin 1895 actions are stronger and will handle a lot more pressure. So the next level of power is either handloads or specialty loads like Garretts that are designed for lever actions.
The .450 Marlin, introduced in 2000, is really just a .45-70 with a belt ahead of the rim (which prevents it from being chambered in any .45-70), loaded to the strength of the Marlin lever action.
This cartridge is designed for maximum performance in a tubular-magazine lever action, and while andloaders don't need it, lovers of big lever actions who don't handload need it badly. At its best it is a fine cartridge for big bears and heavy stuff like moose.
So when you come right down to it, there's really nothing you can't tackle in North America (and beyond; see our web exclusive) with today's lever guns.