No other rifle action in existence is more American than the lever-action. While bolt guns and semiautomatics win in popularity with today’s shooters in the United States, the lever gun still has a large following. No other rifle action drips with the history of 19th-century America as does the lever-action.
There are some generalities about lever guns that merit discussion: reliability and accuracy. It is true that lever-action rifles are more complicated than bolt guns—and maybe even semiautomatics.
Timing Is Everything
A bolt-action rifle is about as simple as a repeater can be, and the mechanics of even a semiauto are pretty simple. A traditional lever-action has to be timed perfectly to accomplish firing, ejection and feeding a cartridge from a tubular magazine without something going wrong.
A good example is the Winchester Model 94 I own. It is chambered for the .357 Magnum cartridge, which is a dandy cartridge when fired from a rifle-length barrel. Even better is the .357 Maximum cartridge. The Model 94 action is plenty long enough to handle the extra length of the .357 Maximum cartridge, so I figured the .357 Max in that handy carbine would be an ideal lever gun.
Not so simple. That little rifle has been to four of the top gunsmiths in the nation, with each trying to get the rifle to feed reliably. So far, none was successful. It feeds .357 Magnum cartridges flawlessly, but the longer Maximums will not feed. The timing is off.
As for bolt-action rifles being more accurate, there is truth to that also. While a good lever gun can be very accurate, most will not perform on par with a bolt gun. I have some lever guns that are very accurate, and every lever gun I own is accurate enough. But if I had to grab a new gun off the rack and bet on its accuracy, I would grab one of the modern, relatively inexpensive bolt-action rifles that are now on the market.
Still, as mentioned, lever guns are plenty accurate enough to accomplish their intended tasks—primarily hunting. In the field, while I admire an accurate rifle, a gun that is capable of placing shots in a tight, 1-inch cluster at 100 yards is really wasted on me, because I have at least a 4-inch wobble simply standing on my hind legs like a human being, especially firing at a moving target while attempting to catch my breath and gain my footing on the side of a hill. At that point, the weak link in the accuracy equation is usually the hunter. However, the record for the tightest group I ever fired was held for many years by a Savage Model 99 chambered in .358 Winchester.
“Lever guns have been around for over a century, even predating many of the single-shot rifles of the 19th century.”
Lever guns have been around for over a century, even predating many of the single-shot rifles of the 19th century. The earliest were the Hunt and the Jennings rifles, but the first to gain any success were the lever-action rifles made by Smith & Wesson in the 1850s. This “Volcanic Repeater” would later be the initial design for the Henry and the earliest Winchesters.
Oliver Winchester was a shirt maker who had invested in the Volcanic company, and when Horace Smith and D.B. Wesson dropped out of the company, Winchester then owned the designs and machinery. After he hired B. Tyler Henry as shop foreman, the lever-action design was improved and modified into rifle form, thus beginning a long era of leveraction dominance in America.
Others who contributed greatly to the success of the lever gun in America were Nelson King, John Browning, John Marlin and Arthur Savage. King invented the side loading gate through which the magazine could be easily loaded. Marlin designed strong rifles with side ejection and smooth actions. Browning designed lever-action rifles and shotguns that are among the strongest and most popular to this day, and Savage designed the Models 1895 and 1899, which were decades ahead of their time.
Today, while most new shooters reach for a bolt gun or a semiautomatic, the lever gun is still very popular, with superb rifles made in the United States by Marlin, Henry and Big Horn. Countless replica lever guns of 19th-century designs are imported to the United States from Italy, Japan and Brazil; all are of quality manufacture and materials. Shooters today have a great selection of high-quality lever-action rifles from which to choose—chambered for cartridges from the widely popular .22 rimfire up through the 500 S&W Magnum.
“… While I admire an accurate rifle, a gun that is capable of placing shots in a tight, 1-inch cluster at 100 yards is really wasted on me, because I have at least a 4-inch wobble simply standing on my hind legs like a human being …”
Connecting With The Past
When I was a teenager back in the 1970s, the lever-action rifle was very popular for hunting whitetail deer and other game, and a new .30-30 Winchester, Marlin or Mossberg (often rebranded with store brands such as Western Field and Ted Williams) could be purchased for $99.
Today, the lever gun’s popularity with big-game hunters has given way to other designs, with inexpensive bolt-action rifles now dominating the hunting market and semiautomatic rifles rapidly gaining popularity with hunters.
Still, the lever-action rifle and shotgun are as useful as they ever were, offering good accuracy and quick follow-up shots for hunters of both small and large game. The lever-action is reliable, handy, fast-shooting and connects the shooter with the past like no other design.
Jeff Quinn is a full-time writer/reviewer on Gunblast.com, an online gun magazine started in 2000. He has also written for the Gun Digest Annual and enjoys living life in the woods of Tennessee, where he raises Longhorn cattle … and his grandkids.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the February 2018 print issue of Gun World Magazine.