The Golden Days Are Here

Lever fans rejoice — these are the best of times!

The Browning BLR kept the concept of a modern lever action — one chambered to modern
cartridges and adapted to scope use — alive with a whole range of models.

In the early 1960s I was a pre-teenager fascinated with hunting and shooting — well, in addition to fishing, camping, hiking, baseball, hockey, archery and even golf. Hunting for the most part meant deer hunting and almost every household had some sort of “deer rifle.”

At this time and place, lever-actions predominated. Old timers (anyone over 40 was an old-timer to me) often had Marlin or Winchester carbines in .30-30 or .32 Special. The more serious hunters generally had a Savage 99 in .300 Savage or .308 Win or a Winchester 88 in .308 Win. I recall a couple of Winchester 100s or Remington 740/742 semiautomatics and one or two Remington 760 pumps.

Military surplus bolt-action rifles were fairly common as they could be purchased for a fraction of the cost of commercial sporting rifles. One friend of my dad’s stands out in my memory because (1) he would sometimes let me tag along when he was hunting, and (2) his rifle was a Winchester 70 .270, both of which were unique in my experience.

An original high grade Winchester 1876 (top) with a model 89 from Big Horn Armory.
These Big Horn rifles aren’t cheap but the quality is absolutely superb.

Can’t Stop A Wave

What began as a trend towards bolt-actions really got going after WWII, became an unstoppable wave in the ’50s and ’60s and achieved almost total dominance by the ’70s. Several factors came into play — the introduction of new magnum cartridges, a tremendous growth in cartridge reloading and increased interest in accuracy. More and more the bolt-action was seen as the choice of the more serious and capable rifle shooters.

An article I read in the early ’60s predicted the demise, within a decade or two, of every action type except bolt-actions and semiautomatics. The bolt-action would be the choice of enthusiasts interested in maximum accuracy, powerful cartridges and reloading. The casual, once-a-year hunters would gravitate to the semiautomatic.

As predictions go this one wasn’t too bad. Pump-action rifles have their devoted followers but in no great numbers. The few new pump guns to appear didn’t sell very well or last very long. The Remington pump rifle remains in production and seems to fill what modest demand there is.

An early BLR model, this .308 has a steel receiver and straight grip.

Bad Times

For lever-action enthusiasts such as myself, the decades from the ’60s and into the ’90s were a melancholy era. Of the more “modern” lever actions, the Winchester 88 was discontinued in 1973, the Sako Finnwolf in 1974. The Savage 99 staggered along a bit longer. Savage did a good job of maintaining quality — in fact I consider the 99A as made from 1971–1981 one of the neatest 99s ever made. But price increases made necessary by inflation and reduced demand finally took their toll. Other than Winchester commemoratives and Marlin big bores, the lever action market looked dire.

One of Dave’s favorite Henry’s — the steel-frame, big-loop Big Boy carbine, this one
in .357 Magnum and featuring a glove-friendly large lever ring.

Miroku of Japan makes replicas of several classic Winchester designs, such as
this 1892 short rifle in .357 Magnum, with exceptional fit and finish.

The “Golden Years” Return

But events don’t move just one way. Today the lever-action market is probably stronger than at any time in the postwar era. Some of the reasons:

1. The Browning BLR — Browning kept the concept of the modern lever-action rifle alive with the BLR, adding new models and even adapting the rifle to accept magnum cartridges. The BLR styling may not suit everyone’s taste but it has always been a high quality and reliable rifle

2. Cowboy action shooting — The popular sport created a demand for traditional-style rifles, and a great many makes and models appeared to fill the demand.

3. Pistol-caliber carbines — Cowboy action shooters made pistol-caliber carbines more desirable. A few lever-action fans had long appreciated the utility of a compact, light carbine in .357 or .44 Magnum while new makes and models attracted the attention of many more rifle enthusiasts.

4. Winchester and Marlin are back — Browning/Winchester introduced Miroku-made replicas of several of the classic Winchester models, made to very high standards. Marlin went through some bad times but recently has committed the resources to once again meet the quality standards of a proud name.

5. Henry Repeating Arms — From its beginning with a basic .22 lever action this company has seen amazing growth, adding many new models and chambering for a wider range of cartridges. The company’s uncompromising commitment to quality and customer service has won it a loyal customer base.

And let’s not overlook Big Horn Armory, whose virtually custom-quality rifles are highly prized by discriminating lever-action enthusiasts. For those of us who love lever actions these are good days. My main enthusiasm right now is for compact .357 Magnum carbines. I can’t believe I overlooked such useful and enjoyable rifles for so long!

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