When I was a young lad back in the late 1960s, there were basically two types of rifles in deer camp: those that were lever actions and those that weren’t. Bolt actions were poised to take my neck of the whitetail woods by storm, but levers, pump guns and autoloaders—most of the pumps and semiautos chambered in .270 Win. or .30-06—were the guns of choice. And while most of the dyed-in-the-wool hunters that made up our motley deer gang gave up their pumps and semiautos as bolt-action rifles and magnum cartridges became vogue, many of the lever guns stuck around. Even today, when it’s time to do a deer drive or still-hunt behind “The Rock,” the weathered Marlin 336s and Winchester 94s usually get the nod.
Lever guns have been with us since the frontier days and embraced by modern whitetail hunters for decades. Not only was the lever action credited as the gun that won the West, they’ve also won the hearts of modern-day whitetail hunters across North America. And while their popularity seems to have waned somewhat in recent years, lever guns remain a fixture wherever orange armies congregate.
Only two of the Big Four whitetail lever-action rifles—Browning BLR, Marlin Model 336, Savage Model 99 and Winchester Model 94—remain in production today. Savage’s Model 99, which was a solid performer well into the later part of the 20th century, was discontinued in 1997 due to decrepit machinery and increased production costs. With almost a century of proliferation, more than 1 million of the rifles were produced. The Winchester Model 94 suffered a similar fate, as financial woes led to its demise in March of 2006, after a production run of more than 6 million rifles.
And while a large battery of lever guns continue to make it to the whitetail woods each fall, the fact that only Marlin and Browning are still producing them to any degree would seem to suggest that this American icon might be slowly headed down the flight path of the passenger pigeon.
Matt Foster, director of marketing for Marlin Firearms, says it ain’t so. “Certainly not for Marlin, and really not for lever actions in general,” he said. “Call them the Harley Davidson of rifles, but lever actions are here to stay. Obviously, from purely a performance standpoint, a flat-shooting magnum could be considered a ‘better’ rifle. On the same note, a top-of-the-line Japanese race bike offers higher performance than a Harley, yet Harleys continue to sell. I believe lever guns appeal to hunters on a core level, not just a need-based criteria.”
Matt and I have been good friends for a number of years, but had never had the opportunity to share a hunt. That changed this past June when he invited me to join him on a hunt in Texas. Hmmm, Texas in June. It’s going to be hot, right? Yup. Snakes? Yup. Scorpions, cactus and such? Oh, yeah. Actually, Matt had me hooked the moment he mentioned we’d be hunting free-ranging axis deer with Marlin 336XLR lever guns chambered in .30-30 Win. I’ve always been a big fan of quick-handling lever-action rifles for on-the-foot hunting, and axis deer provide exciting spot-and-stalk hunting during a time of year when most hunters have swapped their rifles for golf clubs or fishing rods.
I hooked up with Matt, Kevin Howard of Winchester Ammo and a handful of other hunters in San Antonio and drove 2 hours to the ranch where we’d be hunting. There, we quickly sighted-in our guns and got into the field. A few hours later, I got my first look at an axis buck. Many hunters consider the axis deer the most stunning member of cervid family, and I can’t disagree. Both males and females have reddish-brown (almost orange) coats marked by rows of white spots along their sides. They have a black dorsal stripe and white bib on their neck, white inner legs, stomach and under-tail. I watched, enthralled, as the monarch, a classic heavy-antlered three-by-three, followed a group of does through a snarl of cedars and mesquite underbrush.
My guide, Nick, and I had dropped Matt off at a box blind earlier and were on our way back to pick him up. We’d been cruising the ranch’s tangled web of two-tracks and had
seen several axis deer, but no shooter bucks. That changed in a heartbeat as we came around a slow bend in the road and spotted the deer.
Nick braked, backed the truck out of sight and pulled to a stop, while I grabbed for my gun. We quietly exited the truck and eased up into the scattered cover, catching tan-and-white glimpses of deer as they threaded their way through the cedars. Nick waved me forward and I dropped to my shooting sticks as a procession of nervous does walked single file through a narrow opening between two clusters of cedars and mesquite. I leaned into my rifle as the buck broke cover on the tail of the trailing doe. It was quickly apparent he wasn’t going to stop, but the range was short and his pace slow, so I put the crosshairs on the leading edge of his chest and followed through as I squeezed the trigger. The bullet caught the buck high in the shoulder and I scrambled to my feet, trying to keep him in sight as he ambled away. I caught up to him in a small clearing where he was still on his feet, and finished him with a shot to the chest.
Same Format, New Ammo
The most performance-limiting facet of tubular-load lever guns has always been the ammunition. Since bullets are stacked tip-to-primer in the magazine, recoil from firing the chambered round can result in the point of a bullet in the magazine setting off the primer of the round in front of it. Consequently, ammo for these rifles has been limited to ballistically challenged, blunt-nosed bullets. My 80-yard shot in heavy cover on the axis buck is what most hunters would consider appropriate conditions for a lever gun.
ecently, however, two ammunition companies have addressed this issue, and developed bullets intended to boost ballistic performance in lever guns while maintaining safety standards. “Over the past several years, there have been a number of new cartridges introduced from several companies,” said Kevin Howard, who handles public relations for Winchester Ammunition. “These have ranged from small varmint calibers to big magnums, and have caught the attention of a lot of hunters. But perhaps the biggest news for hunting is the improvements in bullets and powders for existing cartridges. These improvements include what are typically known as lever-action cartridges, some of which have been around for more than 100 years.”
In 1895 Winchester Ammunition introduced what would become one of the most popular big game hunting cartridges of all time, the .30-30 Winchester. Now, more than a century later, the company has developed a better mousetrap by adding a 150-grain .30-30 Win. Ballistic Silvertip load to its Supreme line of rifle ammunition, designed specifically for tube-fed magazine rifles. The bullet was co-developed with Nosler, and like other Ballistic Silvertip bullets, has a silver polymer tip and Winchester’s patented Lubalox coating. This bullet/cartridge configuration is designed for pinpoint accuracy and controlled expansion, and designed specifically to safely function in .30-30 Win. tube-magazine, lever-action rifles.
“With new bullet designs and improved powder technology, the performance level of older cartridges has been dramatically improved,” Howard said. “Cartridges such as the .30-30 Win. have been taken to a new level. These improvements stretch the game-taking ability of this cartridge far beyond the ranges our forefathers had when it was first introduced.”
The new Winchester load has a muzzle velocity of 2,390 fps and muzzle energy of 1,902 foot-pounds. The bullet was designed with white-tailed deer in mind and will expand at a wide range of velocities, delivering the knockdown and penetration needed to reach the vitals of deer or other medium-sized big game.
Hornady took a similar approach with its new LEVERevolution lever-gun ammunition. The key to its improved performance is a new Evolution spitzer (pointed) bullet with a red elastomer Flex Tip, which flattens enough to cushion the primer of the cartridge in front of it in the magazine during the acceleration of recoil, yet returns to its original shape instantly thereafter.
The Flex Tip eliminates the possibility of a magazine chain-fire, which has previously prevented the use of pointed bullets in rifles with tubular magazines. The bullet has a higher ballistic coefficient than blunt-nosed bullets, delivering flatter trajectories for increased downrange energy and improved bullet expansion.
Lever Guns, Why Now?
Many attributes that made lever guns popular back when I was just getting into the whitetail game still apply today. They’re still a solid choice for hunters who want a dependable, quick-handling, lightweight firearm with considerable knockdown power at moderate ranges.
And modern advances in rifle construction and improved ammo have facilitated performance improvements. “The popular view is that lever actions are the quintessential gun for close-to- midrange shots or in thick cover,” Foster said. “And among a certain segment of hunters, lever actions are considered the gun of choice by hunters ‘in the know.’ This core group acknowledges two things: that the vast majority of big game animals taken in this country are killed within lever-action cartridge ranges, and that hunting is about the challenge of spot-and-stalk rather than just ‘spot-and-shoot.’ The hunters who feel this way are the main ones buying lever guns. The other group is, of course, those who hunt with lever guns for nostalgic purposes.”
Foster says the trend in lever guns has been to modernize or update them without compromising what appealed to hunters in the first place. “There has been a consistent desire for more powerful cartridges in the lever-action platform,” he said. “Modern powder and bullet technology make this possible without modifying existing firearms. It seems that the two trends are opposed. One segment wants the benefits and nostalgia of a lever action combined with longer range effectiveness, while another core group likes the pugnacious performance of big bores like the .450 Marlin.”
My nostalgic bent takes comfort from seeing lever guns at deer camp each fall, knowing that “The Gun that Won the West” still owns a place in the hearts and souls of North American hunters. And during each Northwoods whitetail season, when I take up my lever-action carbine and wade off through the snow, it’s like taking a walk with an old friend.
New Kids On The Block
Riding a wave of renewed interest in lever-action rifles, two American firearms manufacturers are getting back in the game—Mossberg, with the introduction of its Model 464 in 2008, and the reintroduction of the Winchester Model 94, planned for the near future.
ossberg’s Model 464 is designed for quick handling, reliability, ruggedness and affordability. It features a button-rifled barrel, recessed muzzle crown and a prominent top-tang safety. Chambered in .30-30 Win. (there’s also a .22 rimfire version), the Model 464 has a 6+1 tubular magazine and includes a factory drilled and tapped receiver for easy optics installation. The Model 464 has an MSRP of $473.
If the Winchester Model 94 follows the lead of the reissue of the company’s Model 70 bolt action, the new lever gun will be manufactured in Columbia, South Carolina, and based on the traditional platform. For more information on the Mossberg Model 464 (no information is currently available for the Winchester Model 94), visit HuntingClub.com and click “Web Extras.”