When 27-year-old John Moses Browning sold all rights to the single-shot rifle he’d designed, he absolved himself of having to sell them one at a time for $25. The small Ogden factory he operated with his brothers could be used to build repeaters. He’d already designed two.
Winchester’s Thomas Bennett lost no time putting John’s genius to work. He was so impressed with the first design, he bought it for $50,000, an enormous sum in those days. The Model 1886 featured the 1885’s vertically sliding lugs and offered buffalo-busting punch in a lever-action rifle. It became one of 11 firearms John sold to Winchester between 1884 and 1886.
Browning’s rifles gave Winchester its greatest successes. The Model 1892 in .44-40 proved popular not only in the West, but abroad. The bullets hit hard enough to settle fights and kill most game. Colt chambered its 1873 Peacemaker in .44-40, so shooters with an 1892 didn’t need to inventory more than one type of ammunition.
The 1886 and 1892 fathered the 1894. About that time, two other prominent gun designers, John Marlin and Arthur Savage, turned out their first successful lever rifles. Marlin was 18 years old in 1853 when he apprenticed in a machine shop for no wages. After six months he was earning $1.50 a week.
His first gun designs were pistols, then Ballard rifles. The first successful Marlin lever gun was the Model 1881 in .40-60 and .45-70. It sold for $32. The 1888, developed by L.L. Hepburn for the shorter .32-20, .38-40 and .44-40, preceded the 1889, which introduced side ejection, a more reliable carrier. Hepburn’s 1893 was the 1889 for longer cartridges. The Model 1895, a bigbore, followed. It appeared in nine chamberings, from .33 Winchester to .45-90, and was made until 1915.
Laminated stocks are becoming more common on lever actions like this large-looped Marlin carbine in .45-70 Government.Arthur Savage developed his hammerless lever-action rifle beginning in 1892, when he was 35. The Savage No. 1 had a 29-inch barrel and an eight-round magazine. Submitted for Ordnance trials, it was beaten out by the Krag-Jorgensen. Savage refined the rifle for the sporting market, trimming its lines by paring magazine capacity to five. He formed the Savage Arms Company in Utica, New York, in 1894. The following year he introduced his rifle with a new .303 Savage cartridge as the Model 1895. It was far ahead of its time, with a strong, side-ejecting action. Its spool magazine allowed use of pointed bullets–a feature Arthur Savage didn’t trumpet, because in those days blunt bullets and short-range shots were the rule. A hunter from British Columbia claimed 18 kills (including grizzlies) with one box of cartridges in his 1895. The rifle was modified in 1899; the .303 disappeared as a chambering after World War II. With his .250 and .300 Savage cartridges, Arthur Savage correctly divined that the future lay in high-speed smallbore hunting rounds.
By the 1920s smokeless powder had nudged aside cigar-size black-powder rounds. Marlin’s 93 rivaled Winchester’s 94 in sales. The Marlin 1895 would not appear again until 1972. A new Marlin “for American big game” appeared in 1937. The Model 1936 had a solid frame and Ballard rifling in a carbine barrel. It came in .30-30 and .32 Special and cost $32.
Meanwhile, the 1886 gave way to the Winchester Model 71, bored for the new .348 Winchester. It was the only chambering, and it appeared nowhere else. Available in rifle and carbine versions, the 71 came in plain and deluxe form. Costly to manufacture, the 71 was also an anomaly in a field increasingly dominated by scope-sighted bolt actions.
Upping the Power
Just last month I visited Cooper’s Landing, Alaska, as it was half a century ago. Well, not actually. I was at the bench, concocting loads for the .450 Alaskan. This potent wildcat, a necked-up .348 with a sharper shoulder, is attributed to Harold Johnson, who built rifles in the postwar North. Loaded stiff, the .450 Alaskan beats even the British .450/400 that in another day seemed a match for Bengal tigers and Africa’s heavy game. Even my case-forming loads drove 400-grain bullets over 2,000 fps. This converted 71 and a Browning reproduction 71 in .348 Improved belong to fellow rifleman Steve Kerby. While working their levers, I imagined hunters in woolens and shin-high leather boots, probing alder jungles for brown bears and willow thickets for moose.
Not much happened with bigbore lever rifles after World War II, unless you count Winchester’s hammerless, front-locking Model 88 in .358 Winchester in the mid-’50s. That rifle lasted 20 years. Like Savage’s 99, which also chambered the .358, the 88 lacked traction in a market dominated by bolt actions.
During this past decade, Hornady’s FTX bullet in LeverEvolution ammo has revived interest in lever actions. The soft-polymer-tipped spitzers are safe in tube magazines, but fly flat. Hornady also hiked bullet speed. LeverEvolution ammunition, and now FTX component bullets, serves 11 chamberings, including magnum handgun rounds for Marlin 1894s and Legacy Sports 1892s.
Building on that success, Hornady engineer Dave Emary devised a cartridge that matches the .308 Winchester ballistically but cycles in a 336 and hews to a 47,000-psi pressure limit. Next he fashioned an even more potent round. Based loosely on the .376 Steyr, the .338 Marlin Express with a 200-grain bullet matches the muscle of a 180-grain .30-06. The bullets scribe almost identical arcs. LeverEvolution .338 ME ammo is also accurate. With a Marlin 1895, I zeroed a Leupold/GreyBull 2.5-8x36X scope at 100 yards, then fired one shot prone at each of five longer ranges: 200, 300, 400, 500 and 600 yards. I used the GreyBull dial, calibrated for Hornady’s load, to change zero. No sighter shots. Each bullet struck inside a 10-inch circle.
Not even the mighty Winchester 1895 in .405 could hit at that range. T.R. liked the 95, noting that the rifle “did admirably with lions, giraffes, elands and smaller game” on safari. He also favored the 1886, no matter that it lacked the 95’s vertical-stack magazine and so required blunt bullets.
The muscular elegance of the 1886 continues to charm shooters. As original 86s have become as costly as double rifles, few of us can own one. Browning came to the rescue a few years ago with 1886s built in Japan. I had a chance recently to use the latest version, an 1886 Extra Light. By most measures, this Miroku-built rifle is superior to the original 86. Hornady’s 325-grain .45-70 LeverEvolution load registers 2,050 fps at the muzzle and carries 1,500 ft-lbs to 200 yards, but recoil isn’t brutal. A shotgun butt spreads the punch and keeps the rifle on your shoulder. The Browning’s lovely balance and slim profile, with cabinet-quality fit and finish, give it favored status here. Golf-ball groups at 50 yards make it a match for any game as far as you can effectively use the front bead.
While the .338 Marlin Express gives you the most downrange muscle from a commercial lever action, you get even more up-close smash from the .450 Marlin in the 1895 or in Browning’s BLR. The BLR’s six-lug rotating bolt head bottles higher pressures than rear-locking mechanisms can.
Originally a short-action rifle, the BLR now comes in 15 long- and short-action chamberings. Alloy receivers have replaced steel. I carried a takedown BLR in .450 Marlin to Namibia. A 325-grain LeverEvolution bullet from the .450 clocks 2,225 fps at the muzzle and packs 3,574 ft-lbs. In comparison, the company’s 300-grain .405 load registers 2,200 fps, 3,224 ft-lbs. Equipped with an XS receiver sight, this carbine is lighter, but absorbs recoil better than T.R.’s .405.
A lever neatly inset in the fore-end pivots to the tug of your finger. Then you pull the barrel/fore-end assembly free of the receiver. The hardcase stows in small spaces. My .450 retained zero when reassembled and took down a gemsbok with a quick offhand shot. The flat-sided BLR makes sense in scabbards, too.
Less aggressive bigbore rounds include the .444 Marlin, which underwhelmed shooters when it debuted in 1964 with a flatnose 240-grain bullet. The ballistic coefficient of a cantaloupe made it a short-range missile in Marlin’s 1895. Hornady’s 265-grain FTX bullet at 2,325 gives the .444 much more authority.
But does lever-gun utility depend on pointed bullets? Hardly. My latest bigbore lever action is from Bighorn Armory, which is building rifles that resemble, at heart, Winchester’s 86, 71 and 92. There are differences: brushed stainless steel, a bigger lever and guard, slimmed vertical lugs, modern bolt-mounted receiver sight. Cycling the Bighorn Model 89, you’ll notice shorter bolt movement. That’s because the 89 is chambered in .500 S&W.
“It’s manageable in a rifle,” says Bighorn Armory President Frank Ehrenford when he showed me an 89 prototype. Even loaded stiff, with 41.5 grains of H110 driving a 400-grain flatnose softpoint at 1,950 fps, this rifle behaves. Well-balanced, it feels light, but its eight-pound heft tames recoil. So does the one-inch-thick recoil pad. The receiver sight with medium aperture is a fine match for the XS front sight.
At my range, the 89 has performed well. Winchester 400-grain Platinum Tip HPs and Hornady 350-grain XTPs fed dutifully from the five-shot tube magazine. So did flatnose softpoints, if I threw the lever smartly. At just under six pounds, the trigger requires a firm hand, but the long, well-shaped grip provides comfortable leverage. Hornady’s 350-grainers clocked 2,100 fps. Platinum Tips registered 1,955 fps.
Even if you never probe the deep woods or fill a saddle scabbard, a lever action can bring you to a romantic place. Its lean waist in your fist feels right; cycling the loop comes naturally. If you must shoot farther or more accurately–or hit harder–than you can with a modern lever action, I’d like to know what, and where, you’re hunting.