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Traditional Lever Actions

Traditional Lever Actions

A few years ago my wife Eileen and I were visiting the used rifle rack at Capital Sports in Helena, Mont. On the rack was a Henry lever-action .22 Long Rifle, with what Henry calls the “large loop lever,” like the one on Chuck Connors’ Winchester in The Rifleman. She picked it up and discovered the little rifle was quite light, and since the price was right it followed her home.

This startled me a little but not totally. Unlike many women, Eileen hates shopping for clothes, partly because when she looks for the same practical jeans she bought last time, they’ve disappeared into the fashion pit. But she doesn’t mind shopping for firearms, which is the reason she owns a dozen light shotguns from Remington pumps to British side-by-sides. The Henry called in the same way, and would be useful for ground squirrels.

Eileen learned to shoot “gophers” on two country places where we lived for 9 years. In both, her office overlooked our garden, and in summer I’d often be working in my own office and hear the crack of a rimfire, signaling the demise of another lettuce raider. She soon discovered the virtues of a tube-magazine .22, since when filled with 15 or more Long Rifles, a rifle could be shot at gophers for days without reloading—exactly like the original Henry, “that damned Yankee rifle they load on Sunday and shoot all week.”

Her first gopher rifle was a scoped Marlin bolt action I’d purchased with paper-route money in the 1960’s, but until the Henry she’d never found exactly the right tube-magazine .22 for herself. She discovered she could shoot the open sights on the Henry very well—and if a gopher evaded the first hollowpoint, another could be levered into the chamber quickly, without losing sight of the gopher through a scope.

Today most new American rifles are designed for scopes, along with other gadgets. I recently spent three days at Gunsite, the shooting school in Arizona, taking a “practical hunting” course using bolt-action rifles. As our group of a dozen students attached several “necessary” stuff such as adjustable cheek-pads and bipods to Ruger American .308’s already equipped with 3-9X Redfields, Gunsite’s Ed Head commented, “Yep, let’s take a nice light hunting rifle and turn it into a 9-pounder.”

The traditional outside-hammer, tube-magazine, iron-sighted American lever action is the antithesis of the add-on rifle. It appeared during the last half of the 19th century, when self-contained cartridges became almost universal, smokeless powder replaced black and rifle design went in several directions.

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The Model 71 Winchester was a modernized version of the 1886, but by the time it
appeared in the 1930’s most of the continent didn’t hold many elk or grizzlies.
Hunters accustomed to scopes often won’t believe it, but 2-inch groups at 100 yards
(below) are plenty accurate for just about any hunting with iron sights.
This one shot better after John relieved fore-end stresses.

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Our Rifle

The lever action turned out to be an essentially American branch. They never became popular outside of North and South America, and in the United States lever-action Winchesters became “The gun that won the West.” The virtues of the first Henry and the 1866 and 1873 Winchesters were particularly useful on the Western frontier. Their cartridges were compact, yet powerful enough to kill deer and aggressive humans to the limits of open sights, and the magazines of the Winchesters could be reloaded while the chamber was still full and the hammer still cocked.

A bunch of rounds fit in a barrel-length tube magazine, and plenty of extra ammo (for both the rifle and a revolver using the same shells) could be carried on a cartridge belt or saddlebag, simplifying supply problems out where stores were rare. Such handy rifles became part of the daily outfit of many people.

Eventually these lever-action-packin’ people included “Native Americans” who already inhabited the West, but during the 1870’s and early 1880’s single-shot rifles firing larger cartridges eliminated the millions of bison plains Indians depended on for food and shelter. The big Winchester 1886 lever-action, capable of firing similar rounds, didn’t appear until the bison were gone. The only justifications for big, black-powder lever-actions were elk and grizzly bears, and both animals soon followed the bison to near extinction.

The 1886 Winchester also appeared in the same year as the French Lebel rifle, chambered for the first smokeless rifle cartridge. Between a lack of large animals and new technology, Winchester’s largest lever-action was almost obsolete when born, and chambering the smokeless .33 Winchester in 1903 didn’t really help. Marlin’s Model 1895 ended up in the same boat.

In 1935 Winchester remodeled the 1886, calling it the Model 71 and replacing all the older rounds with the .348 Winchester. The 71 only lasted until 1958. Over 70+ years, total production of the 1886/71 amounted to a little over 200,000 rifles—and during the quarter-century at the tail end, a Winchester sold three-quarters of a million “pre-’64” Model 70 bolt-action rifles. While reproductions of the 1886 and 71 have been sold by both Browning and Winchester during the past few decades, the larger traditional lever-actions quickly became answers in search of questions, though quite a few 1886’s, 71’s and Marlin 95’s ended up further north in Canada and Alaska, where grizzly and brown bears sometimes required the quick application of several heavy bullets.

The first Model 71 I encountered in the field belonged to a guy on Kodiak Island, who worked as a bear guide in spring and fall and a fishing guide during summer. His nickname was Skippy, due to his fondness for peanut butter, an Alaskan wilderness staple. I met him during a July fly-fishing trip for red and king salmon. Skippy packed his 71 for defense against bad-attitude bears—and he’d had to shoot a couple over the years. While guiding during bear season, however, he carried a stainless-synthetic Model 70 in .338 Winchester Magnum.

I’ve owned a few larger traditional lever-actions, including a Marlin .45-70 and a Browning reproduction Model 71 carbine, but apparently they just don’t grab me or most other American hunters, possibly because they don’t possess the virtues of the original shoot-all-week rifles. They’re generally fairly heavy, and their magazines don’t hold as many of the longer rounds.

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Even modern deer camps east of the Mississippi usually have
at least one traditional lever action among the scoped rifles.

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Barsness took his first deer (above) with his father’s Marlin .30-30. In the
early 20th century the traditional lever action became associated with the
traditional eastern deer camp (below).

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Scarce Game

By 1912, when Arizona and New Mexico became the last contiguous territories to become states, deer and black bear were the only big game animals left in most of the US, and most hunting was for even smaller game, whether varmints eating crops and domestic animals, or edible squirrels, rabbits and wild turkeys. Unlike today, when 30 million whitetails infest large parts of the country, hunters had to actually search for deer, moving slowly through likely areas. Consequently, shots tended to be close, and often at moving deer—and a quick repeat shot or two might be necessary, as deer ran between trees and around brush.

Lighter lever actions became much more useful, whether for a New Englander tracking a buck through snow, a Southerner out to collect squirrels or a turkey for supper, a rancher checking on sheep or cows, or a trapper running his line. A Marlin or Winchester carbine was handier to carry than larger rifles, and ammo was less expensive, with smaller bullets doing less damage to meat or hides.

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In some parts of North America a lever action rifle became as essential
as an axe. Some traditional Eastern hunters regard the Marlin 336 in .35
Remington, such as this one, as far more powerful than any .30-30.

Heavyweights

Even rifles with 26-inch octagon barrels weren’t nearly as heavy as the big lever-actions or single-shots, or even unaltered .30-40 Krags, 1903 Springfields or, in Canada, Lee-Enfields. Among the early lever-actions I’ve owned have been a Winchester 1894 in .25-35 made in 1898, and a Model 92 .25-20 made 15 years later, both with octagon barrels. The .25-20 weighed 7.25 pounds despite a 24-inch barrel, and the .25-35 under 8 pounds with a 26-inch barrel. Marlin and Winchester carbines usually weigh less than 7 pounds, and until recently hunters who wanted bolt-actions that light found them very scarce.

Partly this was due to the obligatory scope, but before WWII most American bolt actions weighed at least 8 pounds without one. During the first half of the 20th century many gunwriters considered heavier rifles desirable, partly because they often hunted for game larger than deer, so preferred bolt actions chambered for relatively powerful cartridges. But average citizens often preferred light, handy lever-actions.

This era lasted a lot longer than many of today’s hunters realize. I grew up in Montana and one day when I was about 10 (making it the early 1960’s) my family went for a Sunday drive. Even considering inflation, gasoline was about half the price it is today, and being able to just go look at countryside was considered a nifty freedom, especially in parts of the West.

On that Sunday we drove through the Bridger Mountains, finding a saddled cow horse dragging its reins as it grazed not far off the road. Most western horses are trained to stick around when their reins fall on the ground, but this one also had a traditional lever-action rifle in the saddle scabbard. Back then a lot of Montanans left the keys in the ignition of their vehicles, but didn’t leave rifles in saddle scabbards since horses sometimes get a notion to roll around on the ground. My father commented on this, and a 1/2-mile afterward we found a gray-haired cowboy walking along the road, looking for his horse. He was pretty grateful for the ride back to his horse and Winchester.

I started big game hunting a few years later, and killed my first deer with my father’s Marlin 336 .30-30. My father had poor vision so the rifle was scoped, unlike many “deer rifles” back then, but the range was at most 40 feet so irons would have worked as well. In fact the late Texas gun and hunting writer John Wootters once commented that scoping a traditional lever-action was almost a crime, since their stocks were designed for quick aiming with iron sights, and their major virtue quick handling in close cover. (On the other hand, my friend John often scoped “modern” lever-actions with hammerless actions.) Many traditional lever rifles never even had sling swivels, because after all they were meant to be in your hands, or a saddle scabbard. I’ve left many of mine swivel-free, and not suffered terribly.

By the time we encountered that de-horsed cowboy, Winchester had already made over two million Model 94’s, more than twice the combined total of 1886’s, 71’s and pre-’64 Model 70’s—and today the number is over seven million. Over six million Marlin 336’s have been produced, and that doesn’t include their original Model 93, or the Model 1936 that preceded the 336. Then there are all the smaller Marlins and Winchesters, as well as various lever-actions made by other companies.

Offhand (an appropriate word here), I can remember owning well over a dozen traditional lever actions, about evenly split between Marlins and Winchesters. The chamberings included the .22 Long Rifle and .22 Magnum, the .25-20, .25-35, .30-30, .32 Special, .348 and .38-55 Winchesters, plus the .35 Remington and .45-70 Springfield.

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An aperture sight certainly helps when hunting small game.
This Marlin .22 will group five shots into an inch at 50 yards.

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The 1886 Winchester is revered by many modern hunters,
but was almost obsolete when introduced.

Shoot Well?

John Wootters would have been happy to know only three have had scopes, my dad’s .30-30 and a pair of Winchester Model 9422M’s. Somehow a scope doesn’t seem inappropriate on a rifle chambered for the .22 Magnum, though my Marlin 39A only has a Williams receiver sight. One of the modern objections to traditional lever-actions is they’re not accurate, but accuracy is relative. I can recall only one iron-sighted lever-action not capable of grouping into 2 inches or less at 100 yards with at least one load, and that was my Browning 71 .348—at least at first.

The reason traditional levers aren’t supposed to shoot well is all the stuff hanging on the barrel, including the fore-end, barrel bands and magazine, but after taking the 71’s fore-end and magazine apart and relieving some stresses, it also shot into 2 inches at 100 yards. Finer accuracy simply isn’t required for shooting game at ranges appropriate to iron sights, whether squirrels and rabbits with a .22 Long Rifle or deer and elk with a centerfire. The big problem normally isn’t accuracy, but modern shooters unfamiliar with iron sights.

The last big game animal I killed with a traditional lever action was a West Virginia whitetail taken a few years ago. As in most of the eastern half of the Lower 48, there are plenty of deer in West-by-God, but due to hunting pressure they were hiding in thick cover. Before dawn on the third morning I sat against a big oak tree on the edge of a myrtle thicket, facing west so the sunrise over my shoulder would illuminate the open sights on my Marlin .35 Remington, and confuse the vision of any deer heading into the myrtles to bed for the day. The range turned out to be a little longer than on my first mule deer, but not by much. It’s time to do something similar again, to remind me of how so many Americans hunted for so many years.
By John Barsness

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