The legendary lever action rifle brings the spirit of classic American gun craftsmanship alive with a flick of its iconic loop handle. Over a century since their invention, the smooth cycling of a lever remains one of the most satisfying ways to fire off rapid rounds.
Whether you dream of cowboy shooting glory or bagging a trophy buck or not, the enduring appeal of classic Wild West firearms lives on.
Read on to discover more about the history and features of these classic firearms, and what to look for if you ever decide on buying one of those iconic lever action rifles for yourself.
What Are Lever Action Rifles?
Lever action rifles are a legendary type of repeating rifles! They have a lever that you pull down and up to load the next bullet. Many classic models like the Winchester Model 1873 or “The Gun that Won the West” gave lever actions their western identity that persists to this day. Cowboy movies made them really popular because all the cowboys carried them on their horses. They were good for riding around and shooting quickly if they ran into trouble.
Lots of hunters still use lever action rifles today. The 30-30 round which many of them shoot is just the right size for hunting deer and black bears. The guns also maintain this classic, yet cool look with the wooden stock and barrel. When you use that lever to cock and load rounds, you feel like you’re connecting right back to the old Wild West.
When Was the Lever Action Rifle Invented?
People have been using lever actions since the 1860s. Some of the most famous early ones were made by Winchester and Marlin.
The earliest marketable lever-action rifles were most likely Colt’s 1st and 2nd Model Ring Lever rifles, which were cap and ball rifles manufactured between 1837 and 1841. These rifles featured a ring lever positioned in front of the trigger. Before the American Civil War, various lever-action designs, including the Volcanic pistol, had been developed, but the most notable ones were the Spencer repeating rifle and the Henry rifle in 1860.
The Henry rifle, credited to Benjamin Tyler Henry, featured a centrally located hammer that was cocked by the backward movement of the bolt, unlike the offset hammer commonly found in muzzle-loading rifles. Henry positioned the magazine under the barrel instead of in the buttstock, a concept that most designers have adopted since then.
How Lever Action Rifles Work?
Lever action rifles use a lever to manually cycle the action between shots. Here is a basic overview of how they work:
- Ammunition is loaded into the magazine under the barrel. This holds additional cartridges ready to be loaded and fired.
- To load the first cartridge, the lever is pushed forward. This opens the bolt, allowing a cartridge to come up from the magazine into the action.
- Pushing the lever back into place moves the bolt forward, locking the cartridge into the chamber ready to fire. It also cocks the hammer back ready to fire.
- Pulling the trigger releases the hammer, which strikes the firing pin and ignites the cartridge, firing the bullet down the barrel.
- Once fired, the lever is cycled again, which extracts and ejects the spent casing. As it closes, the next cartridge is lifted up from the magazine, ready to be loaded into the chamber when the lever is cycled.
Advantages of Lever Action
In the hands of an experienced shooter, a smooth lever action rifle is fast, powerful, and extremely reliable – which is why they are still used worldwide over a century after their creation.
Here are some of the main advantages of lever action rifles:
- Faster firing rate: Compared to bolt action or single-shot rifles, a lever action’s cycling speed allows for quicker follow-up shots. While not fully semi-automatic, a skilled shooter can fire off shots rapidly with just a flick of the wrist.
- Compact and maneuverable: Lever actions like the classic Winchester Model 94 are relatively short, light, and easy-to-handle rifles. This makes them ideal for use on horseback, in the brush, and for cowboy-style shooting from the hip.
- Reliable: The lever mechanism is simple, reliable, and rarely prone to jamming or misfeeding rounds even in dusty conditions or when loaded hastily. They continue to fire round after round consistently.
- Capacity: Tubular magazines under the barrel hold considerably more rounds (10+ typically) than most bolt actions. This allows more shots before reloading.
- Powerful calibers: While early cartridges were pistol rounds, many modern lever actions fire high-powered rifle rounds suitable for hunting large game out to 200+ yards. The .30-30 Winchester, in particular, pairs well with levers.
- Nostalgia and fun factor: There’s no denying the old-west nostalgia that these rifles bring to the table makes them extremely fun to shoot for sport and recreation.
Limitations and Considerations
Lever actions also come with some limitations and considerations to keep in mind:
- Limited accuracy: Even well-made lever actions typically can’t achieve the accuracy of quality bolt action rifles.
- Round positioning: Since the rounds are stacked vertically in a tube, the bullet tips end up resting on the primer of the round below, which can lead to accidental discharges if the rifle is severely jolted or dropped.
- Reloading issues: Accessing the loading gate with standard large box magazines can be challenging and slower.
- Exposed hammer: Old West style lever actions often have exposed hammers which can snag on clothing, bushes, or saddlebags when carried.
- Parts wear: The many moving levers, plates, tubes, and springs by nature wear out more over time than simpler bolt action designs. This may impact reliability or accuracy and necessitate skilled gunsmithing. Proper maintenance is key for longevity.
Choosing the Right Lever Action Rifle
The right lever gun for you depends on your needs and budget. With both classic and modern options available, there’s likely a smooth-cycling lever action rifle out there for just about everyone who wants that old-West feel with modern reliability.
Types of Lever Action
The Classic Lever Action Rifle
There are only a few main types of classic lever action rifles. The Winchester Model 1873 is one of the most iconic. Other classic models include the Henry Rifle and the 1866 Yellowboy rifle with its distinct brass frame.
Modern Lever Action Rifles
While vintage models may have their charm, modern lever actions have definitely seen some upgrades. Materials and manufacturing methods have improved, so current models tend to be lighter and more weather-resistant.
Lever Action Rifle Calibers
Lever-action rifles are popular because they are reliable, fast, and accurate. They can be used for hunting, target shooting, or even in the military. These rifles come in many different caliber options.
The cartridges fall into two main categories:
- Low-pressure cartridges with round bullets
- High-pressure cartridges with pointy, aerodynamic (“spitzer”) bullets.
The options available allow shooters to choose the right ammo for their needs. Here are examples of popular calibers for lever-action rifles:
- 30-30 Winchester: This is one of the most widely used calibers. It is a low-pressure cartridge with a rounded bullet, suitable for hunting medium-sized game.
- 45-70 Government is a high-pressure cartridge with a pointed bullet that was originally developed for the Springfield Model 1873 rifle. It is still utilized today for hunting large game such as bear and moose.
- 44 Magnum: Developed in the 1950s, this high-pressure cartridge features a pointed bullet. It is suitable for hunting medium-sized game and is also used for sport shooting.
- 357 Magnum: This low-pressure cartridge developed in the 1930s with a rounded bullet is suitable for hunting small game and is also used for sport shooting.
The Tactical Lever Gun Renaissance
In recent years, the venerable lever action rifle has experienced a remarkable revival. Once considered relics of the Old West, these classic firearms are now making a triumphant comeback, capturing the attention of both seasoned shooters and newcomers alike. But what’s driving this trend?
Adaptation to Modern Needs:
- Lever guns have evolved beyond their traditional wooden stocks and cowboy aesthetics. Manufacturers are now equipping them with modern features, catering to the demands of today’s shooters.
- M-LOK handguards, suppressors, and red dot sights – оnce reserved for tactical rifles – аre finding their way onto lever-action platforms. This fusion of classic design and contemporary accessories appeals to a wide audience.
Gun-Restrictive States and Tactical Alternatives:
- Shooters can enjoy the speed and versatility of a lever action without the legal hurdles associated with AR-style rifles.
- These lever guns provide a slick and fast option for self-defense, hunting, and recreational shooting. Their reliability and ease of use make them appealing to a diverse crowd.
SHOT Show 2024 Highlights:
At the SHOT Show 2024, the industry showcased an array of exciting lever-action models. Among them, Mad Pig Customs stood out as a prominent builder.
- Mad Pig’s lever guns, adorned with sleek M-LOK handguards and other tactical enhancements, attracted attention from enthusiasts and professionals with their innovative design.
- Notably, Mad Pig Customs made waves at the Eotech booth, emphasizing the crossover between traditional lever guns and cutting-edge optics.
New Models on the Horizon:
- Aero Precision, known for its precision rifles, surprised attendees with a prototype lever action based on the Marlin 1895 design. Featuring an M-LOK handguard, a polymer stock, and a full-length Picatinny rail, this tactical lever gun is set to debut in mid-2025.
- Meanwhile, Stag Arms, Aero Precision’s sister company, will produce a more traditional lever gun in the same calibers.
- Bear Creek Arsenal entered the lever gun market with a hefty .450 Bushmaster rifle, complete with M-Lok handguards and a mag-fed design. Additional chamberings like .300 Blackout and .223 Remington are in the pipeline.
Bond Arms LVRB:
- Bond Arms, renowned for its handguns, surprised by venturing into lever-action territory. The LVRB combines AR-15 upper aesthetics with a uniquely lever-driven lower.
Lever Action Rifles to Try in 2024
While the nostalgic classics never go out of style, modern and new lever action rifle options demonstrate that these smooth-cycling firearms are still far more than outdated relics – here are three compelling ones to try out in 2024.
The Browning BLR blends classic design with modern versatility and style. It is known for its accuracy and reliability and is suitable for hunting and sport shooting.
- Caliber: .30/06
- Capacity: 4
- Stock: Laminate, 18 lpi checkering
- Receiver: Aluminum alloy, matte nickel finish
- Sights: Marble adjustable with Tru-Glo fiber-optic front
- Weight: 7.25 lb.
- Length 43 in.
- Barrel: 22 in.
The Henry Golden Boy
The Henry Golden Boy is a lever-action rifle that is a masterpiece of fine-crafted gunsmithing. It is suitable for small game hunters and fans of the Wild West alike.
- Caliber: 22 LR, 22 Magnum, or 17HMR.
- Capacity: 16 rounds of Long or Long Rifle, or 21 rounds of Short for the 22 S/L/LR version. The .22 Mag can carry 12 rounds and the .17 HMR holds 11 rounds..
- Stock: American walnut stock with 18 LPI checkering.
- Receiver: Brasslite receiver with a bright brass finish..
- Sights: Adjustable buckhorn-type rear sight and a Tru-Glo fiber-optic front sight.
- Weight: 6.75 pounds.
- Length: 38.5 inches.
- Barrel: 20 inches.
The Bond Arms Lever Action
The Bond Arms Lever Action is a new firearm model that is expected to be released in the first quarter of 2024.
- Caliber: 223 Wylde (.223 Rem/ 5.56 NATO)
- Capacity: 30-round Magazine Included
- Stock: American walnut stock that has 18 LPI checkering.
- Receiver: Brasslite receiver with a bright brass finish.
- Sights: TBD
- Weight: approximately 6.4lbs w/o Magazine
- Length: approximately 39.5″
- Barrel: 16.0 – 16.25″
Lever-action rifles live on as versatile firearms offering rapid firing, ample rounds, and classic Wild West styling. From the earliest 1860s models to contemporary iterations, lever actions pair nostalgic design with hunting reliability. Whether for small to medium-game hunting, plinking fun, or cowboy action shooting, smooth-cycling levers cover most needs while giving a nod to an iconic American tradition.