So, you’ve decided you need a lever action? Congratulations on your choice to add a classic American firearm design to your gun safe, hunting adventures, and range time bliss. Here are a few things to consider before pulling the trigger on that lever-gun purchase, whether it’s your first or 50th.
Know Your Plan
Is this gun primarily for hunting? If so, short-range or long? Or is it rare and for collecting? Do you want a rimfire, centerfire, or even a shotgun? The ultimate key to selecting the best lever action is knowing what checks your boxes. Guns like the Henry Long Ranger and Browning BLR changed the longstanding thinking that lever actions are not good distance shooters. Grab one of them in a caliber like .308, .243, or 6.5 Creedmoor, and you’ll be running up and down the 300-yard range in no time.
Collectors of timeless classics like the Winchester 1873, Henry Original, Marlin, Winchester 1895, Yellowboy, and countless others will value different factors like condition, factory letters, and scarcity. Start the search with a rough idea of your desires, and the lever shopping world is your oyster.
Once you’ve narrowed down the purpose of your latest lever-action acquisition, caliber selection is the next hole to punch. No matter how much the times have changed, the .30-30 Winchester might just be the quintessential lever caliber, followed quickly by the .32 calibers.
However, if big and dangerous game is on the menu, the .45-70 Government should be at the top of the most common list. What if you’re a collector and want to stay true to the roots? Then, it’s hard to piece together a collection without an original .44-40 Win. Thinking of old-school brush busting for deer? How about a .35 Remington.
Handgun calibers have exploded in popularity, especially in Henry Big Boy rifles. Though hunting range will be limited by ballistics, the low recoil and general availability of ammo make rounds easier to find at lower prices. Hunters who favor the hardest-hitting big bores must explore Big Horn Armory and their beefy levers in calibers like .500 S&W, .475 Linebaugh, and .500 Linebaugh.
Last, the most popular and affordable levers are rimfires. Lever-action rimfire repeaters have been available for nearly 150 years on platforms like the Winchester 1873 in .22 Short or .22 Long. Modern production guns from Henry, Winchester, Marlin, and others offer chamberings for .22 LR, .17 HMR. .17 HM2, and .22 WMR. Of course, there are many more chamberings found on lever guns both new and old, so this is just a starting point.
Part of deciding on your plan is considering whether you’ll prefer to do the majority of your shooting with iron sights, an optic, or both. Collectors will most often steer away from optics, opting instead to seek original condition firearms with their correct irons. For practical shooters who buy a lever action not already drilled and tapped for an optics attachment, the road to scoping will likely involve either a gunsmith or special mounts.
Even on factory guns already equipped with sights, hunters often desire improvements. For aftermarket sighting upgrades, there is no better option on the market than American-made Skinner Sights. They offer peeps, front sights, extended Picatinny rails, and more for customizing your lever action. A quality peep is likely the fastest acquiring of all iron sights.
The choice of sights is a natural transition into acquiring a lever gun as a collector, a shooter, or both. There are few pleasures quite as unique as holding an original masterpiece like a first model Winchester 1873 or a true Henry Original. The patina of the long guns tells a story of its history, but fine specimens command a premium in prices that many cannot afford. When that’s the case, savvy shoppers will find a host of quality reproductions honoring those old designs.
Historic guns like the Henry Original have been re-made wonderfully by Henry and Uberti, while the Winchester 1873 is back in production not only by Winchester but also by companies like Cimarron and Taylor’s. If you’re like me and in love with the Savage 99, you’ll be shopping the used market because that gem is long out of production. The same goes for the desirable pre-64 Winchesters or Marlin 39s. Those pre-owned racks, however, offer a mix of minty safe queens and utilitarian shooters, all priced accordingly.
Buy a minty and rare lever gun to admire and appreciate in value or pick up one with a worn exterior and serviceable bore as a hunter. Best of all, buy the lever gun you like aesthetically but aren’t afraid to shoot. These American-designed marvels were, after all, built to be fired and appreciated.
The last of the major considerations when shopping the lever-gun aisles are special features and options. Should you intend to go suppressed, choose a rifle with a barrel that’s already threaded. In addition, rifles like the Henry X-Model are can-ready and able to be loaded without removing the suppressor to charge.
Though it’s an area of constant debate, some lever gun lovers favor small loops while others, usually gloved shooters, want the biggest loop. Generally speaking, it’s usually aesthetics. Other considerations include barrel length. If you’re a brush-busting hunter, shorter carbine lengths will be more maneuverable. Distance shooters should seek longer options. Original Winchesters offered choices like a half-round, half-octagon barrel, and some manufacturers still do today.
Lastly is the matter of loading the rifle. Do you want a tube load or a side gate? Luckily, Henry Repeating Arms has solved that quandary by including both side gates and tubular loading ports on most of their current lever actions. If you plan to travel with your lever gun, or pack it as a survival gun, Skinner’s Bush Pilot, a takedown lever gun series built around either the Winchester 92 or 1886 and chambered in .44 Mag, .357 Mag, or .45-70 Gov, is a legit modern option.
We talk about the lever being America’s great addition to the world of firearms actions. All the major brands started out building those babies right here in the states. As times changed and costs increased, however, some have fallen by the wayside while others have shipped manufacturing overseas.
If authentic USA production is important to you, Henry Repeating Arms remains a shining example of complete American-made pride. We look forward to seeing what Ruger will do with Marlin, but it’s almost certain production will stay stateside.
Even Mossberg’s Model 464 is produced here. It’s a point of honor that Big Horn Armory’s thumper lever actions are built in Cody, Wyoming. This is not to say by any stretch that international lever guns are not as good as American. In fact, some fine specimens are being imported at attractive price points. This is simply a matter of personal preference.
With so many brands, models, calibers, and features, the lever gun market is more happening than most shooters reckon. There are high-end collector choices, well-worn shooters, and everything in between. At the end of the day, you should buy the lever-action gun that makes you – and nobody else – happiest. There is nothing quite like the joy of shooting or hunting with a quality lever action.