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.
Jump to: Lever-Action Rifles We Recommend
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
Henry Classic .22
Marlin Model 1895 SBL
Henry Long Ranger
Winchester Model 94
|Highlight||Best Rimfire||Best All-Around||Best Long-Range||Most Classic||Most Tactical|
|Weight||5.25 lbs.||7.3 lbs.||7 lbs.||6.75 lbs.||6 lbs.|
|Scope Mount||3/8" Grooved Receiver||Picatinny Rail||Drilled and Tapped for Rail||Drilled and Tapped for Rail||Picatinny Rail|
|Chamberings||.22 LR||.45-70 Govt||
|Product Notes||Product Notes||Product Notes||Product Notes||Product Notes|
Other companies make lever-action rifles chambered in .22 LR, but none are more iconic than Henry’s offerings. Fancypants folks usually opt for the Golden Boy, and it is available in the more powerful .22 Mag and .17 HMR. But for the money, I like the Classic model with the American walnut stock and simple blued receiver.
The action is buttery smooth, and the rear sight is fully adjustable. The front sight is a simple hooded black blade, which can at times be difficult to pick up against the black rear notch. Still, I’ve found these little guns to be surprisingly accurate. Find ammo they like and mount a magnified optic, and they’ll print one-inch groups at 50 yards. Not bad for a sub-$400 gun, and plenty accurate enough for the squirrel woods.
The new Ruger-made Marlin rifles are everything we hoped they’d be, and the 1895 SBL might be the best of the lot. I like this model for hunting purposes because it adds new-school features to an old-school design without going full-hog tacticool. The picatinny rail, threaded barrel, fiber-optic front sight, and stainless steel barrel/action offer useful advantages in the woods, but the curves of the gun remain classically western. The nickel-plated bolt also makes the action buttery smooth to operate, which is important for followup shots. The gun is (by all accounts) impressively accurate. The 410 stainless steel barrel features cold-hammer forged rifling, and Ruger’s manufacturing process is second-to-none.
If you prefer even more classic styling, Marlin/Ruger also offer the 1895 in Trapper and Guide Gun models. Whatever model you select, the trick is to find one in stock. Putting in an order with your local gun shop is one option, though Ruger advises customers against putting down a deposit unless your shop has a confirmed shipment. They can be had on the used market if you absolutely need one today, but you’ll pay a premium.
The tubular magazine of a traditional lever-action rifle restricts the type of cartridges that can be safely chambered. The nose-to-primer arrangement of the cartridges in the tube means that it’s dangerous to run pointy-nosed bullets (for obvious reasons). To get around this obstacle, gun makers have developed lever-action rifles with box-style magazines, and Henry’s Long Ranger is the best of the bunch.
The Long Ranger can be had in .223 Rem./5.56 NATO, .243 Win., .308 Win., and 6.5 Creedmoor. The receiver is drilled and tapped for scope mounts, and some models also feature iron sights (if you’re into that kind of thing).
The Long Ranger is ideal for hunters who operate in open landscapes but still prefer the maneuverability and smooth handling of a lever gun. The cartridges on tap can reach out much farther than traditional lever-gun chamberings, and the Long Ranger can compete with bolt guns in terms of accuracy. It won’t beat out a truly accurate bolt gun, but it’s fully capable of producing one-inch groups at 100 yards with premium ammunition.
If you’re looking for a wider selection of chamberings and finishes, Browning’s BLR is another great option in this category.
Does it get any more classic than a Winchester Model 94? Considering that the “94” is shorthand for 1894, I’d say the answer is no. When people think of a lever-action hunting rifle, this is the rifle that comes to mind nine times out of ten.
Fortunately for us, Winchester is still producing this legendary rifle a full 129 years after its invention. I’m a fan of this Trails End Takedown model chambered in .30-.30 Winchester. Some may complain that the .30-30 is fatally underpowered when compared to more recent offerings. To those people I point to the hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of dead whitetail taken with the old Winchester. (For larger game like bear, Winchester also offers this model in .450 Marlin, which competes with the .45-70 in terms of power.)
The rifle comes apart where the receiver meets the barrel, and it can be reassembled quickly in the field. This allows for easier transport in a backpack, and it also makes cleaning from the breech end a much quicker project than on most lever rifles. The hammer-block tang safety is located on the top of the stock at the rear of the receiver, which is a familiar position for many bolt gun hunters.
You don’t have to like it, but tactical lever guns are here to stay. What makes a lever gun “tactical”? All-black furniture and a picatinny rail are dead giveaways, but functionally speaking, an accessory-compatible forend is the defining characteristic. Some hunters opt for the modern design because they live in a jurisdiction that restricts semi-automatic rifles; others just like to own a firearm that looks like a prop from Mad Max. Whatever the reason, tactical lever guns offer greater versatility and accessory compatibility than the traditional design.
The great American lever gun companies offer some tactical-ish models, but I don’t like to think about that. Instead, I decided to highlight the Levtac-92 from Citadel. Citadel firearms are manufactured by Armscor in the Philippines, and their take on the lever gun is chambered in .357 Mag., .44 Mag., 45LC, .410 Gauge. The M-LOK handguard allows users to mount lights, grips, and other accessories along the entire length, and the 16.5-inch threaded barrel is ready to rock suppressors and other muzzle devices. Joking aside, this would make a pretty sweet pig gun if you run a big green flashlight instead of the 1,000-times-more-expensive thermal or night vision optics.
The stock is what you might call a "Tupperware" stock, and I wouldn’t expect pinpoint accuracy. But this is also the least expensive of the lever guns on this list, and there are plenty of aftermarket parts available if you’d like to spruce it up.
Photo Credit: Justin Holt, @holtworks