Lever Guns

Some of us who have a little—or a lot—of grey hair are saddled with an anachronistic affinity toward the lever-action rifle. Whether it’s because we spent too much time watching “The Rifleman” on television or too many John Wayne movies and are all wrapped up in nostalgia, or, perhaps we just cannot go with the flow in semi-automatics, a lever gun just seems to make us feel better.
Most of us with this affliction started our shooting careers with a lever-action rifle. Witness the popularity even today of the Daisy Red Ryder BB gun. I had a Daisy Model 1894 “Spittin’ Image” when I was a kid. Later on when I became a rifle sophisticate, I followed the crowd and bought bolt actions. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I finally bought—actually traded for—a real lever-action rifle. I traded an H&K Model 91 straight across for an 1895-vintage Model 1886 Winchester in .45-90 WCF. I still have it and occasionally shoot it. Shame on me, I have yet to take it hunting.
The lever action was the first successful repeating firearm made. It is also the first so-called “assault rifle” for the latter part of the 19th century, at least in terms of function. As manually operated repeaters go, the lever-action rifle has a lot going for it. For one thing, it takes a series of somewhat complex engineering tasks and combines them into relatively simple overall movements by the shooter in order to fire the rifle. Lever guns are remarkably compact and easy to handle. Since they were originally intended to be carried on horseback, they are lightweight and have no protrusions like bolt knobs and such to hang up in the scabbard or dig into the horse’s hide. Although there are some modern bolt actions that fire intensely over-bore cartridges, the lever action can safely handle some pretty powerful stuff like the .30-06, .450 Marlin and even the .500 Smith & Wesson Magnum.

One shot at about 90 yards from this Marlin 1895 Guide Gun in .45-70 took care of this record book black bear. Lever guns are still an excellent choice for hunting.

One shot at about 90 yards from this Marlin 1895 Guide Gun in .45-70 took care of this record book black bear. Lever guns are still an excellent choice for hunting.

Cowboy action shooters fueled the latest renaissance in lever-action rifles. As my generation—the “Baby Boomers”— matured and became more affluent, we enjoyed playing the same games we did as children from such TV shows as “The Rifleman,” “Gunsmoke,” “Bonanza” and “Wanted Dead or Alive.” All of those shows featured lever-action rifles, and some had rifles altered for theatrical drama. The mare’s leg that Steve McQueen used in “Wanted Dead or Alive” would be classified as a short-barreled rifle if one tried to make it from an existing rifle. As a side note, I was once privileged to handle the gun from that TV show. They got around the short-barreled rifle problem by having the barrel made from aluminum. It would safely fire blanks, but real cartridges are a no-no. Anyway, there are a couple of manufacturers making replicas of that mare’s leg today, and they get around the idiotic SBR law by claiming it is manufactured as a handgun.

Dave took this very nice whitetail buck with a Winchester Model 1894 in .25-35 WCF at 60 yards.

Dave took this very nice whitetail buck with a Winchester Model 1894 in .25-35 WCF at 60 yards.

We “Baby Boomers” are facing the end of our trail now. Cowboy action shooting has had its peak, in terms of attendance, and so the popularity of lever guns may also have hit its pinnacle. Those of us who are lever-action aficionados remain a strongly dedicated bunch, though. There also remain some younger fellas who appreciate the lever gun, so it is unlikely that lever actions will be completely dropped from the rifle market for quite some time.
As a hunting tool, lever actions are still well suited for the task at hand. Mention “deer rifle” to almost anyone, and it will conjure up an image of the Winchester ’94 and the .30-30 cartridge. I’ve probably killed at least a dozen whitetail deer with a ’94 in both .30-30 and .25-35, and I have never lost a deer hit with either cartridge. Want to go bigger? The .45-70 is a genuine big-game thumper of a cartridge, and I killed my largest black bear with one from an 1895 Marlin Guide Gun.

Who says lever actions aren't accurate? Dave shot this 100-yard group with a 114-year-old Model 94 in .30-30 with Federal Classic factory loads.

Who says lever actions aren’t accurate? Dave shot this 100-yard group with a 114-year-old Model 94 in .30-30 with Federal Classic factory loads.

For a self-defense rifle the lever gun is just as good as it was more than a century ago. If your locale is subjected to hoplophobic law makers and you can’t possess an AR-style rifle, a lever-action rifle chambered for .357 or .44 Magnum will fill the bill for virtually any home-invasion scenario you can imagine.
Now I would not trade in my ARs or any other rifles just to have a larger gaggle of lever guns. But whenever I have one with me, I am not concerned one whit that I might be considered to be under armed.

Dave Campbell
Dave Campbell began his hunting career with a spear off the southern California coast in the late 1960s. It did not take long for him to graduate to the gun on land. Campbell is the founding editor in chief of the NRA’s tremendously successful Shooting Illustrated magazine. In 2006 he also edited the iconic book of terminal ballistics, Rifle Bullets for the Hunter—A Definitive Study. He returned to his beloved Wyoming in 2007 as a freelance writer, though he usually refers to himself now as a “recovering editor.”
  1. Peter Caroline Reply

    Lever guns rule! My first was a Daisy Golden Eagle BB gun that “an enemy of the family” (according to my mother) gave me when I was seven. I took my first bison with an 1886 Bullard in .50-95 Win. Express. And last Shootists Holiday, I picked up a nice Model 94 AE .30-30 in a swap with a wandering minstrel of our acquaintance. My only regret about lever guns is the nice compensated Marlin Guide Gun that I foolishly traded for I forget what.

  2. Brad Woodward Reply

    My first deer rifle was on loan to me from my Grandfather, an old at that time (1966) Winchester model 94 in .32 Special. It was promised to me upon my Grandfather’s demise, however that sentimental rifle went to someone else. An older ’94 in 30-30 is one thing that I would love to add to my collection, Thank you for bringing back some very fond memories.

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