Top 5 Classic Lever-Action Rifles

The lever-action platform has been around for centuries. And while a lot of new, tactical-styled options are on the market today, it’s the classics that stand the test of time. After all, a lever was the Gun That Won the West for a reason. We’ve selected our top 5 classic lever-action rifles that we think exemplify what levers are all about. Check out our list of classics and tell us what you think we missed in the comments.

winchester model 1873
Pictured is an anniversary edition of the classic Winchester 1873 rifle. (Photo: Winchester)

Winchester Model 1873

Of course, any good classic lever list starts with the Winchester Model 1873, the lever gun known as The Gun That Won the West. This wasn’t Winchester’s first lever gun (that was the Model 1866), but the Model 1873 was an improvement over the 1866 in a few ways.

For one thing, the frame materials were better. The 1866 featured a bronze alloy frame, and the 1873 Winchester used a steel frame. The chambering changed as well, from the .44 Henry of the 1866 to the centerfire .44-40 with the 1873. As time went on, the 1873 was offered in other calibers, but it was that original .44-40 that was immensely popular.

There was also a “One in One Thousand” run of precise Model 1873s in 1875. Those rifles had the best barrels possible and were given a unique finish. Winchester sold them for $100, which was a high price at the time. You’re not likely to ever find one, but if you did, it would be an incredible firearm to own. Only 136 were sold with the last one selling in 1875, so you can see why the odds of finding one today are so poor.

marlin model 1894
The Marlin Model 1894 in .25-20 WCF is shown here. (Photo: Ancestry Guns)

Marlin Model 1894

As its name suggests, the Marlin Model 1894 began production in 1894. This is another model that was designed with stronger components. Marlin strengthened the action itself and made it with a steel receiver. The 1894 also offered new safety measures like a two-piece firing pin that was meant to prevent accidental discharges. One of the reasons the Marlin Model 1894 was well-received was that it was a side-ejecting lever gun, which was helpful in climates where a top loader could freeze and fail.

The Marlin Model 1894 was produced in a variety of barrel lengths and calibers. Chamberings included the .218 Bee, .32-30 Winchester, .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum, and .45 Colt. Of course, the .44 Magnum didn’t come along until 1969, when Marlin decided to produce the Model 1894 in a short-action offering. This lever-action rifle was used by everyone from cowboys to outlaws to gold prospectors. Different variants have remained in production throughout the years, so while an original might be hard to find, you can certainly get your hands on a newer model.

henry repeating rifle
The Henry Repeating Rifle was a game-changer for soldiers during the Civil War. (Photo: Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum)

Henry Repeating Rifle

The Henry Repeating Rifle was designed in 1860 and entered production just in time for use in the American Civil War, but it’s most famous for its use at the Battle of Little Bighorn (you might know it as Custer’s Last Stand). This lever-action rifle was favored by many as it offered a much higher rate of fire than the single-shot rifles of the time. With practice and the ability to reload quickly, the Henry Repeating Rifle could be fired up to 24 times in one minute.

The effective range of the Henry Repeater was a bit of an issue as it was originally chambered in .44 Henry Rimfire, so it was really most effective under 100 yards. However, it was still a favorite among military men and lawmen, thanks to the greater rate of fire. 14,000 Henry Repeating Rifles were made before production halted in 1866, and according to historians approximately half of those were purchased privately by soldiers.

savage model 99
The Savage Model 99 was hammerless and had a rotary magazine. (Photo: Eldred’s)

Savage Model 99

Arthur Savage began designing the Savage Model 99 in 1892, but it didn’t hit the market until 1899. The first model was chambered in .303 Savage with quite a few other calibers coming out as time went by. The rifle featured a rotary magazine with a six-round capacity and a hammerless design.

With time, the Model 99 was redesigned with a detachable box magazine. Additional chamberings included .375 Winchester, .25-35 Winchester, .300 Savage, and .30-30 Winchester. There were numerous variants made, such as the 99E, which was made with a more cost-effective birch stock and didn’t have the round counter on its side like other models (the “E” stood for Economy). Then there was the 99T, which was only made in small numbers between 1935 and 1940. The Savage Model 99 went out of production in 1997, but you can still find them here and there. After all, this is a gun that enjoyed production numbers in the millions.

marlin 1895
The Marlin 1895 has gone through quite a few different evolutions. (Photo: Bradford’s Auction Gallery)

Marlin Model 1895

Sure, it’s another Marlin, but this is one that’s enjoyed a lot of iterations and remains in production today. Like most lever guns, the Marlin Model 1895 is named for the year in which it first entered production. That first Model 1895 was a black powder gun offered in .40-65 Winchester, .40-82 WCF, and 45-70 Government. There were 18,000 of the original 1895 made.

Production resumed in 1972, although the gun had been redesigned. After that, there were quite a few variants produced. During that time, Marlin was under the Remington family of products. When Remington ran into some financial hardships, Ruger acquired Marlin and resurrected the Marlin 1895… and it’s better than ever.

What’s your favorite lever-action rifle? Share your experiences in the comments.

Kat Ainsworth Stevens is a long-time outdoor writer, official OGC (Original Gun Cognoscenti), and author of Handgun Hunting: a Comprehensive Guide to Choosing and Using the Right Firearms for Big and Small Game. Der Teufel Katze has written for a number of industry publications (print and online) and edited some of the others, so chances are you've seen or read her work before, somewhere. A woman of eclectic background and habits, Kat has been carrying concealed for over two decades, used to be a farrier, and worked for a long time in emergency veterinary medicine. She prefers big bores, enjoys K9 Search & Rescue, and has a Master's Degree in Pitiless Snarkastic Delivery.

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