The Lever Action

A Truly American Action

The lever action is American. Other nations do bolt actions well with their Mausers and Mannlichers. But other nations just don’t get the lever action—I suppose because other nations didn’t have Oliver Winchester, John Browning, Arthur Savage and John Marlin.

From the beginning of the self-contained cartridge era and for a century, the lever action dominated America’s hunting fields. Following the WWI, bolt-action rifles slowly began making inroads.

Millions of soldiers had been trained in their use. Inexpensive military surplus rifles and ammunition became available. There was increased interest in more powerful, flat-shooting cartridges such as the .30-06.

Nonetheless an American hunter was still far more likely to carry a lever rifle than any bolt action. I was a boy in the 1950s, growing up in a rural environment where just about every household had a .22, a shotgun and a deer rifle.

Almost always the deer rifle was a lever action. There were Winchester 92s and 94s, Marlin 36s and 336s, and Savage 99s. One fellow had a .303 Savage 99 on which he had somehow attached a 3/4″-diameter scope, the first I’d ever seen.

The real enthusiasts had 99s in .250 and .300 Savage. A few, much admired and envied, had the new Winchester 88. One friend of Dad’s had two 88s, in .243 and .308. A modest man, he carried his fame lightly.

In the early 1960s, dreaming of the day I’d order my own deer rifle, studying catalogs on cold winter evenings as the snow swirled around the isolated farmhouse, the only decision was whether it would be an 88 or a 99.

We didn’t know it at the time, but the lever-action era was coming to an end. Several factors came together. Millions of military surplus bolt actions were available at low cost. The Winchester 88 I wanted cost $140, and might as well have been a million. With hard work and thrift I was able to afford $17.88 for a Lee Enfield .303.
By Dave Anderson

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