Rewind the clock a century, duck your head into any deer camp and you’d easily see a rack of lever-action rifles ready for the hunt. Winchesters, Marlins, Savages—all would be well represented in a plethora of different cartridges.
Today, the bolt-action rifle dominates the scene. That’s in no way a bad thing, but there are those who still embrace the lever-action for their deer hunting. I’m one of them. At least once a year, I take one of my lever guns out deer hunting, and I love it.
There for the Close-Up
Why would—or wouldn’t—a hunter in the East choose a lever-action rifle as their primary deer gun? Well, I don’t see any reason why a hunter whose shots are predominately inside of 150 yards wouldn’t choose a lever gun, especially one of the modern versions, which are fully capable of wearing a scope. For those who have a nostalgic connection to the methods of our grandfathers or, even better, who may have access to actually hunt with grandpa’s vintage lever gun, taking a whitetail with just such a rifle is simply great fun. They give a quick follow-up shot, something our forefathers certainly appreciated, and they can be cycled easily while keeping the rifle on the shoulder and keeping your eye on your quarry. Let’s look at some of the different models available.
Winchester’s Model 1894
The Winchester Model 1894 is certainly one of the most iconic American firearms ever. With more than 7,500,000 rifles produced, it has earned its place in history.
It was the first to be chambered for a smokeless powder cartridge, the .30-30 Winchester, in 1895. It was and still is a light and handy rifle. While it is available in other cartridges today, the .30-30 is classic deer medicine and makes a great choice for the deep woods hunter of the East. Modern variations can be topped with a scope if you so choose, but even when using iron sights, the rifle and cartridge are plenty of gun for the average woods shot often inside of 75 yards. The rifle is available in both rifle and carbine lengths, i.e., think longer and shorter barrel choices, respectively. I personally prefer the longer barrel, as it increases the sighting radius when shooting iron sights.
Many of the new 1894s are what’s known as “angled eject,” meaning that a spent cartridge casing is thrown out of the receiver at an angle, so a scope can be mounted on the center of the bore, nice and low. Early Winchester 94s were “top eject,” throwing empty cases straight upward and making a scope mounting impractical.
Marlin’s Model 336
Equally popular is the Marlin Model 336, which has the advantage of side ejection and, so, allows a scope to easily be mounted on the receiver. The Marlin was originally available in both .30-30 Winchester and .35 Remington, and the rival between the two cartridges remains a hotbed of discussion to this day. Both cartridges work just fine, and Marlin’s simple yet effective lever design has put all sorts of venison on the table for decades. The 336 is compact, strong and accurate. Barrels tend to stay on the short side—20-inches is the most common length—making the 336 a dream to carry in the thick stuff. Find a 336 that shoots well and you’ve got a deer hunting companion for life.
The Soft-Point Way
There are many other whitetail-capable lever-action rifles, such as the Winchester Model 1873 and Model 1886 or the Henry .30-30, from which you will find the option for round barrels, octagon barrels, blued steel, stainless steel, etc. All of them utilize a tubular magazine, which means the cartridges will be lined up nose to tail within the magazine (rather than stacked atop each other as with a bolt-action rifle), with the bullet tip of one round resting on the primer of the cartridge ahead of it. It is for this reason that flat-point or roundnose bullets have historically been required for the tubular magazine rifles in order to avoid magazine detonation during recoil.
Hornady’s modern line of LeveRevolution ammunition, which uses a “spitzer,” or pointed, bullet with a pliable, rubbery tip that’s designed specifically for safe use in tubular magazine rifles—has upped the lever-rifle game by allowing hunters to extend the range of their rifle with these farther-flying projectiles while keeping them and their firearms safe. It is a line of ammunition definitely worth looking into if you love a lever-action for deer hunting and want a little more reach.
There are a few other lever-action designs worth mentioning that don’t use a tubular magazine, and these are fully capable of shooting higher-pressure, more powerful cartridges. The Savage Model 99 is an iconic design, though it’s been out of production for nearly two decades and has become collectable. Find one on a used gun rack in good condition and you’ve got a treasure on your hand. Utilizing a rotary magazine (or a detachable box magazine in some models) the 99 is an excellent rifle. My Grandpa used one in .308 Winchester for the majority of his hunting career and took many deer with it.
The Winchester Model 88—long out of production—used a rotating bolt and detachable magazine, and displayed fine accuracy. If you can find one, think long and hard about it, as it is a very cool rifle.
Browning’s BLR is another of the modern lever guns, perfectly at home in any hunting situation. Chambered in classic cartridges like the .30-’06 Springfield and .270 Winchester and using a detachable magazine, this is certainly a level-action not relegated to close-range work. Take this one anywhere a bolt-action chambered for the same cartridge could go.
They’re Portable, Too!
Many lever guns are available in a “take-down” configuration, meaning that the rifle intentionally disassembles into two pieces for ease of travel, making a cool rifle even cooler. A lever-action rifle is much narrower than its bolt-action counterparts and so it fits very nicely in your hand while heading to the stand or stalking whitetails along the logging roads. They are often lighter weight and shorter overall than other rifles, too, which makes long still hunts or maneuvering in tight quarters easier.
What’s not to love? Spend a little time with one in the fall woods, and you’ll easily understand why Grandpa appreciated his lever-action rifle so much.
Phil Massaro’s expertise both with firearm and sentence has quickly given him a hard-earned reputation in the outdoor industry. Hunting in his native New York state since the age of 14, Massaro now travels the world, pursuing everything from the whitetails and black bears of New England to red stag in Scotland, Cape buffalo in Zambia and Mozambique, elephant in Zimbabwe and water buffalo in Australia. His work appears regularly in the NRA’s American Hunter and Shooting Illustrated, Gun Digest, Guns & Ammo and Dallas Safari Club’s Game Trails Magazine, often accompanied by the photography of his wife, Suzie, also an avid hunter. When not writing or hunting, he works as a professional land surveyor alongside his father, and he also manages to squeeze in time at the reloading bench of Massaro Ballistic Laboratories, the custom ammunition company he founded. No, he doesn’t sleep.