Lever-Action Rifle Renaissance: The Return of An Icon

Nothing is more American than the lever-action rifle. The first viable lever gun was invented by Benjamin Tyler Henry in 1860. Lever guns were on the cutting edge of rifle development through the 1890s, when they were supplanted by bolt actions and, eventually, semi-automatics. Hollywood Westerns sparked a lever gun resurgence in the 1950s that lasted well into the 1970s. Lever-action Marlins and Winchesters were common sights in deer camps across the country, right alongside Winchester Model 70 and Remington 700 bolt guns.

Marlin Model 336
The Ruger-made Marlin 336 is a classic lever action rifle. (Author’s Photo)

But the trend was slowing down by the 1980s. Bolt actions were the deer rifle of choice, with semi-autos surging as well. Those guns offered more caliber and ammo choices, delivering higher velocities, better accuracy, and longer ranges. The lever gun never went away, thanks to enthusiasts like me, but they were scarcer on the ground.

The ‘80s also saw Cowboy Action Shooting rise to prominence, providing another market and outlet for lever gun manufacturers. Winchesters everywhere. But it was still a niche sport, and not enough to drive an industry. It didn’t help that the Marlin Firearms Company experienced some ups and downs in the 20th century’s latter decades. That once-proud company eventually hit rock bottom before Ruger recently resurrected it.

By 2005 or so, however, the wind began to change, if only slightly. That breeze became a trend that blew into 2024 as a full-fledged gale, heralding a new lever action Golden Age. I say it’s about time.

Henry Big Boy Side Gate Carbine
Henry’s brass receiver Big Boy Carbine is emblematic of the lever action Renaissance. (Author’s Photo)

How We Got Here

Winchester is the biggest name in lever action rifles. Like it or not, that’s just a fact. After all, the company had a decades-long head start on everyone else. Winchester marketed the first Henry Rifle until after the Civil War when Benjamin Tyler Henry went his own way after a money and ownership dispute with Oliver Winchester.

But Winchester still had the patents, drawings, and know-how. The 1866 Winchester Yellow Boy bridged the gap to the classic Model 1873. Winchester introduced other well-received lever guns like the 1876, 1882, 1886, 1892, 1894, and 1895. Modern versions of those rifles are available today.

Winchester Model 1873
The Winchester Model 1873 is perhaps the most iconic American rifle ever made. (Photo: Winchester Repeating Arms)

John Marlin entered the picture with the Marlin Model 1881. He followed up with the 1893 and the still popular 1894 rifle. Iconic firearms like the rimfire Model 39A, the Model 36, Model 336, and Model 444 followed in the next century. The Model 1895, counterintuitively, was introduced in 1972.

Winchester and Marlin were the two biggest names in lever guns throughout the 20th century, though Browning made some nice rifles too. But 1997 saw a new company with a familiar name enter the lever gun market: Henry Repeating Arms. More on that later.

New Ammo

Finally, Hornady Manufacturing significantly changed the game with their LEVERevolution ammo around 2005. A limiting factor of most lever action designs was the tube magazine, which necessitated round or flat-nosed projectiles. A spitzer-type bullet could engage the primer of the cartridge in front of it, causing a problem no one wants to deal with. So, lever guns were limited to pistol calibers and slower, shorter-range bullets. This also limited centerfire rifle caliber compatibility. Modern high-performance cartridges’ velocity and range left the lever guns in the dust.

Hornady LEVERevolution ammunition
Hornady’s LEVERevolution ammo helped usher in today’s Lever Action Golden Age. (Author’s Photo)

But the Hornady ammo used soft polymer tips to bring spitzer performance to lever action cartridges. Today, we can get higher velocity, longer range cartridges, with better terminal performance, in traditional lever-action calibers like .30-30 Winchester, .35 Remington, .444 Marlin, .45-70 Gov’t, and others.

Semi-Auto Restrictions

The Federal “Assault Weapon” ban expired in 2004, launching the AR-15 toward its current “America’s Rifle” status. Anti-gun states like California, New York, and others soon began restricting these scary-looking black rifles. Some residents trapped behind the Blue Curtain began looking for alternatives.

Those alternatives included the lever gun. Quality lever-action designs offer fast, smooth actions, ambidextrous controls, and ease of use. They offer large, medium, and pistol caliber options, as well as rimfire. The shorter barrels offer a handiness more akin to the AR-15 than longer-barreled bolt guns. Perhaps best of all, the tube magazines fall outside all but the most ardent anti-gunners’ list of things that frighten them.

Lever action carbine with red dot optic
A red dot-equipped lever action carbine is a very capable self-defense weapon. (David Reeder Photo)

Lever guns began expanding past the hunting and Cowboy Action roles, moving into the tactical and self-defense realm. People attached rails instead of traditional scope mounts. Red dots on lever guns became a thing. Turns out that a slick-actioned .357 or .44 Magnum carbine with a red dot is a very capable defensive firearm.

Tactical Levers

The Tactical Lever Gun Concept has since come into its own, including the Henry X and Marlin Dark Series. But even traditional lever guns have become more amenable to adding accessories like rails, M-LOK handguards, tactical stocks, optics, and lights.

Manufacturers are also introducing full-blown magazine-fed tactical lever guns, complete with collapsible stocks, M-LOK handguards, rails, and even AR-15-style upper receivers. The results are mixed so far, but promising options like the Bond Arms LVRB appeared at SHOT Show 2023 and 2024. The prototype won Recoil Magazine’s Firearm of the Year for 2023. These modern rifles are chambered for popular calibers like .223 Remington and .300 Blackout.

Marlin Model 1895 Dark
This Marlin 1895 Dark comes optic and suppressor ready. (Sara Liberte Photography)

Bond Arms isn’t the only new entry to the lever gun world. Aero Precision has a new Marlin 1895-based tactical lever gun prototype, with a traditional model to be produced by their sister company, Stag Arms. Bear Creek Arsenal also has a brand-new mag-fed lever gun with an AR upper. And Smith & Wesson jumped in with the new Model 1854, a traditional-looking design with features like a polymer M-LOK-compatible handguard, stainless-steel receiver and barrel, and a rail for modern optics. “1854” refers to the year that Horace Smith and Dan Wesson introduced the Volcanic lever-action rifle, whose concept was eventually made viable by Benjamin Tyler Henry six years later. These new lever-action rifles are certainly practical and capable, but they’re also fun. Modern shooters are learning what their grandfathers already knew: lever guns are awesome.

Bond Arms LVRB rifle
The Bond Arms LVRB is probably the most exciting new tactical lever gun. Pictured here with company President Gordon Bond. (Author’s Photo)

Strong Traditions

But the tactical guns haven’t superseded traditional lever actions. Winchesters are as popular as ever, but a relative newcomer and the return of an icon are helping fuel the lever gun’s popularity explosion. We mentioned that Henry Repeating Arms opened its doors in 1997. The last 27 years have seen Henry rise to the top echelons of the American firearm industry. Henry’s recipe is simple. They make handsome, quality lever-action rifles at a competitive price, and they back up their work.

I currently own two Henry lever guns, and they are both among my favorite rifles. They’re beautiful, reliable, and just plain fun. In my opinion, Henry has joined Winchester and Marlin to form the lever gun Big Three. But Henry isn’t resting on tradition. They are also on the leading edge. The new magazine-fed Lever Gun Supreme mixes tradition and tactical with wood furniture, a Picatinny rail, a threaded barrel, and .223 Remington and .300 Blackout chamberings. It also takes standard AR mags.

Henry Repeating Arms founder Anthony Imperato
Founder and President Anthony Imperato has made Henry Repeating Arms into a lever action “Big Three” member. (henryusa.com)

As I noted, Marlin fell on very hard times, none harder than when its parent company, Remington, filed for bankruptcy. I’ve carried a 1963 .35 Remington-chambered Marlin 336 every deer season since 1978. My Mom bought it for my Dad for their first Christmas together. He eventually passed it to me. I love that rifle, and I was saddened by Marlin’s decline and fall.

So, you can imagine how happy I was when Ruger bought Marlin in the Remington bankruptcy sale. I was cautiously optimistic, but it looks like Ruger has done right by John Marlin’s company. The new Marlin 1894, 1895, and 336 rifles are reportedly every bit as good, if not better, than their classic namesakes. I’ve been testing a new Model 336 Classic rifle. I like it so much that I intend to purchase it when I’m done. It’s a gorgeous rifle that I think will measure up to my 1963 model.

1963 Marlin Model 336
My 1963 Marlin 336 is my favorite rifle. It was my Dad’s, and he passed it to me. It will eventually go to my son, pictured with it here. (Author’s Photo)

Even Winchester has gotten in on the action. The company has long rested on its iconic firearms, but they introduced the new rimfire Ranger at SHOT Show 2024. I handled it and was very impressed by the updated features, like the aluminum receiver and easy takedown process. I think it will be very well-received, and I plan to get one sooner than later.

Lever Action Explosion

There has never been a better time to be a lever gun enthusiast. We have more quality options, with more available features, than ever before. Traditional rifles to tricked-out tacticool guns, with everything in between. Modern calibers, including .450 Bushmaster, are becoming common while still retaining old favorites like .30-30 Winchester, .45-70 Gov’t, and .44 Magnum.

Winchester Ranger
Winchester’s new rimfire Ranger is a cool new design. (Author’s Photo)

If you’ve been thinking about jumping on the lever-action train, what are you waiting for? Lever guns are easily my favorite style of rifle. Sometimes, I pick them up just to run the action. There’s really nothing better than a slick, quality lever action. Large loop or standard, rifle length or carbine. Tactical or traditional, or maybe a little of both. Lever guns are among the most satisfying rifles to run and among the most fun to collect. Do yourself a favor and check one out at your favorite gun store. You might just get hooked.

William "Bucky" Lawson is a self-described "typical Appalachian-American gun enthusiast". He is a military historian specializing in World War II and has written a few things, as he says, "here and there". A featured contributor for Strategy & Tactics, he likes dogs, range time, and a good cigar - preferably with an Old Fashioned that has an extra orange slice.

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