There’s just something undeniably Old School Cool about lever-actions. They’re fun to shoot, and they are reminiscent of one of America’s most iconic periods of history, the Wild West.
Of course, it’s hard to justify taking a true piece of history to the range, especially since many of those old rifles were only designed for the more corrosive black powder, and may not be able to handle cleaner modern cartridges.
Fortunately, if you want to live out your cowboy/cowgirl dreams, there’s a number of modern lever-actions that you can get your hands on that will be just as rugged and reliable as the rifles our ancestors used to tame the Wild West.
Let’s take a look at some basic lever-action knowledge to get you started, and then we’ll dive right into our recommendations for the best lever-action rifles.
Back in 1855, Horace Smith and Dan Wesson bought out the patent on the Volcanic Repeating Rifle, and with the help of a group of investors (that included Oliver Winchester, yes that one) created the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company.
The Volcanic Rifle was a commercial flop, Smith and Wesson on to do their own revolver, and Winchester bought out the other investors and renamed the newly-formed company the New Haven Arms Company.
Winchester then brought in Benjamin Tyler Henry to redo the Volcanic rifle, and a few years later, the now famous Henry Rifle was released into the wild.
Following the Civil War, New Haven Arms became Winchester Repeating Arms, and the 1866 Winchester, an updated Henry Rifle, was released.
After that, the Winchester model 1873 became “the gun that won the West” and was the most popular repeating rifle around until John Moses Browning joined Winchester and helped them release the Winchester 1894, versions of which are still being produced today.
A year later, the .30 Winchester Centerfire, which we now know as the 30-30 Winchester, was released as the first smokeless cartridge on the market. Almost 8 million rifles later, the Winchester 1894 is one of the most enduring rifle designs in history.
In 1897, John Marlin came onto the scene with two lever-action designs with side-ejection ports. One of them, the Model 39 rimfire, has been in constant production for over a century. The Model 36 would go on to become the Model 336, which you’ll see below in our recommendations below.
Today, a number of these venerable lever-action rifles are still up and kicking in one form or another. And while the AR-15 and the AK-47 may have beaten them out as the repeating rifle of choice for most people, there’s still plenty of reason to pick up a lever-action of your very own.
First, they’re just as reliable as they’ve always been, with simple parts and rugged designs. They’re also available in a variety of calibers from .22LR on up to buffalo-slayers like .45-70 Gov’t and .450 Marlin, which make them incredibly versatile.
A dolled up Marlin 1895 SBL
Lever-actions are in a sense the first ever pistol caliber carbines as well, and lightly-recoiling (from a rifle) cartridges like .357 and .44 Magnum are easy to shoot all day, plus you get a good uptick in velocity over the traditional revolvers chambered in these calibers. This makes a good lever-action rifle a fantastic option for a more robust means of self-defense to backup your revolver.
Most importantly, for me at least, they’re just freaking fun.
Holding a lever-action rifle, you’re instantly connected to the wild frontiers of America back when many people lived and died by their guns, and their ability to use them. There’s something undeniably cool about that.
One of the oldest, continually-produced firearms available, the Winchester Model 94 is a titan of the lever-action world, and arguably one of the guns that cemented the lever-action as not just an icon of the Old West, but as an essential piece of Americana.
It’s changed a bit over the years, and there have been some production issues here and there, but the newer modern lever action rifles are as solid as you could ask for, as are the pre-1966 versions if you can find one for sale at a reasonable price.
The new production models feature angled ejection, a tang-mounted safety, and the top of the receiver is drilled and tapped for a scope mount, making this an excellent option for target shooting or hunting.
I’d be willing to wager that more white tail deer have been put down with the .30-30 cartridge than almost any other, even if the cartridge’s star is dimming these days, but it’ll still get the job done on any medium-sized game smaller than an elk, and you can stretch it to larger game if you’re confident in your shot placement and are hunting in close areas.
I love the direct connection to history that this rifle has, and if you’re a fan of the Old West, you will too. Most importantly, it’s a handy, accurate little gun that’s competently made, and will handle all your ranch rifle needs.
The Marlin 1895 is another lever-action rifle with a long lineage, and like the Winchester 1894 it has had a few rocky points in its history. In Marlin’s case, the early Freedom Group years caused some issues (big surprise) but those issues seem to have been worked out now.
I’m currently on my fourth Marlin 1895, and not because the first three had issues. I just have four different models because this is one of the best lever action rifles.
I don’t have a problem, leave me alone.
Seriously, the Marlin 1895 comes in enough different variations that there’s something here for everyone. I’m particularly fond of the SBL which comes with a laminated stock and a top-mounted picatinny rail for mounting a scope.
You also have great options in the Guide Gun model, the standard, old-school 1895 model, and the new Dark Series model. All these options have a loading port, side-eject, a tube magazine, and are chambered in .45-70 Gov’t.
Whatever model you end up going with, you have a solid gun with a huge wealth of aftermarket upgrades and even custom manufacturers like Wild West Guns that will turn your 1895 into something truly one of a kind.
You can also easily upgrade or replace just about every internal component yourself, with a minimum of tools (or effort) making these excellent project guns). I love them because, as a gunsmith with a small shop, I can make some absolutely bonkers-looking guns, without sending them out for any mill work that I can’t do in-house.
For the average consumer, this also means that you have options to upgrade and customize your gun that you can do right at home.
The Marlin 336 is another classic that’s been with us for over 100 years, and almost 70 years in its current form.
This legendary lever gun has been responsible for keeping the deer populations of America in check for generations, and the modern guns really live up to that legacy. I personally have probably put at least a ton (like an actual ton) of venison in the freezer over the years with various 336s, and I don’t plan on stopping.
They’re available in .35 Remington and 30-30 Winchester, and you have several finish options available including the Dark Series, stainless models, traditional blued models with various wood furniture options, and some synthetic options.
Overall, this might be my favorite lever-action, and it’s certainly one of the most versatile, especially in 30-30, making it a good choice for hunters, and those who just want a handy rifle to keep around for plinking or varmint control.
There’s also just as many aftermarket options as there are for the 1895, and you can do…basically anything to your rifle. You can even make it a Space Blaster and live out all your Firefly/Space Western dreams.
The rifle that started it all. Henry offers the largest variety of lever-action rifles of any manufacturer other than reproduction manufacturers like Uberti, which we’ll cover in a minute.
Henry has multiple centerfire options, a huge variety of .22LR options, and even some .410 shotgun models. They offer several finishes, from their Goldenboy and Silverboy finishes that everyone loves, to classic blued options.
More recently, they have also started offering an extremely tough and corrosion-resistant option in the form of their All Weather finish, which is geared towards rough traveling through difficult terrain, especially where salt and water are an issue.
As far as function goes, Henry rifles are good to go, and as dependable as anything on this list. They all load from a tube and lack a loading gate, but the fit and finish is better than anything else on this list, and the triggers are great too.
In all honesty, if I had to trust my life to a lever-action on a regular basis, I think I’d pick a Henry All Weather model. Best of all, like the Marlin models, there’s a huge array of after-market upgrades and spare parts so you can tweak and customize your rifle to be as unique and individual as you are.
Uberti 1873 Rifle (Winchester 73)
Finally, if you’re looking to really get your hands on a modern lever gun that harkens back to the Old West, why not get one that’s as close to an original as possible?
Uberti is an Italian manufacturer of some fairly high-quality reproductions of many different guns from 19th Century America, including a number of reproduction lever-actions. You can also get shotguns and revolvers from them to complete your Old West collection, but we’re here to look at lever guns.
And there’s a lot to look at.
Uberti has several dozen options, including Mare’s Leg-style guns, but their most popular model by far is the Winchester 1873 reproduction.
I have one and it’s exactly as fun as it sounds, and I’ve even killed a few coyotes with it. It’s a good looking gun too, with a fairly accurate look, albeit with modern materials and finishing.
All in all, if you’re looking for something for cowboy action shooting sports, or just want something closer to the original lever-actions of old, this is the option I would recommend.
There are plenty of options and variations, from carbines to full-length rifles, and a few different calibers as well.
The lever-action rifle is a quintessential part of American history, but it also has a strong presence on the modern firearms landscape.
These guns are all great shooters, and great fun to boot. I’m happy to have them in my collection, and I know you will be too after you pick up one up from this list of best lever action rifles.
Which of these lever-actions rifles do you like the best? Is there one you want to add to your own collection? Let me know in the comments?