Best Lever-Action Hunting Rifles

Gear We Use
Best Lever-Action Hunting Rifles

I didn’t watch this show as a kid, but I’ve recently discovered (thanks to my lovely wife) the hit 1950’s western “The Rifleman” starring Chuck Connors. Connors plays a quick-shooting but peace-loving cowboy named Lucas McCain, and I’d put it up against any John Wayne movie for spurring viewers to the nearest gun store to pick up their own lever action law enforcer.

Mid-century Hollywood probably sold more lever rifles than any marketing campaign in history, but these classic firearms offer the modern day hunter more than just nostalgia. Lever guns are pleasant to shoot and to carry, accurate, intuitive to operate, and just plain cool. I don’t know about you pilgrims, but that’s good enough for me.

How to Pick a Lever-Action Hunting Rifle

Beyond the obvious difference between a lever action and other types of actions, there are a few additional things to keep in mind when selecting a lever gun for hunting.

First, lever-action rifles have complex histories, and many of the most famous models are no longer being made. For this gear review, I’m going to stick with quality rifles that are currently in production. You can find some of the most famous models on the used market, but that’s sometimes a tricky proposition and you’re going to pay a pretty penny. For those interested in purchasing a classic, the Winchester Models 1886, 1888, and 1873 come to mind. (Yes, Winchester kind of cornered the market back in the day).

It’s also worth noting that sometimes a gun company will stop making a certain lever gun, only to have a different company resurrect it–for better or worse. The most recent example of this phenomenon occurred in 2020 when Ruger purchased Marlin from Remington. Remington’s quality control was subpar by most estimations, but Ruger has promised to restore Marlin to its former glory. The consequence for would-be gun owners is that a rifle made by “Marlin” means something much different between 2007 and 2020 than it does after 2020.

Besides being easier to find and less expensive, current production rifles usually account for the other considerations you should keep in mind when purchasing a lever gun. If you want to mount an optic, be sure you understand how your gun’s mounting system works. Many modern guns are made with picatinny rails, which is great. Others are drilled and tapped for a rail, but you have to purchase that separately. Others require a different type of scope rings than the standard picatinny.

The safety mechanism can also change from gun to gun. Some offer a familiar cross-bolt push button safety while others just rely on the user lowering the hammer while pressing the trigger. If you plan to hunt with a round in the chamber, be sure you’re comfortable with and confident in the safety mechanism that comes with the rifle.

Finally, it’s important to understand the limitations of whatever caliber you select. With a few notable exceptions, lever guns are limited in the kinds of calibers they can be chambered in. Hornady’s LEVERevolution ammo allows for more aerodynamic bullets to be loaded in a lever gun’s tubular magazine, but most are still offered in the tried-and-true .22 LR, .30-30 Winchester, .45-70 Government, .357 Magnum, and .444 Marlin (among a few others). These are all great cartridges and more than capable of doing damage in the whitetail woods, but they’re not great long-range options. Select a cartridge carefully and be sure it’s appropriate for your hunting scenario.

Jump to: Product Notes

Lever-Action Rifles We Recommend

Product Notes

Photo Credit: Justin Holt, @holtworks

Sign In or Create a Free Account

Access the newest seasons of MeatEater, save content, and join in discussions with the Crew and others in the MeatEater community.
Save this article