The collapse of Remington is a blow to the firearms industry, and to all shooters. A possible silver lining in a dark cloud: Marlin was a Remington holding, acquired by Ruger. Doesn’t matter if you’re a Ruger fan. Ruger has a long track record of good management…and making sound firearms. Due to the changeover, Marlin firearms are not currently in production. This is a shame, but Marlin’s lever-actions will be back. I believe Ruger knew what they were doing and, at least at the start of the pandemic shortages, the all-American lever-action was making a significant comeback.
Popularity of rifle actions has been periodic, to some extent based on existing technology. The first 30 years of self-contained metallic cartridges (1860-1890) was the age of the breech-loading single shot. Effective repeaters (Henry and Spencer) were used in the American Civil War, but until the 1880s no repeaters handled large-cased blackpowder cartridges, so were limited in range and power.
Early in the 20th Century, bolt-actions were catching on elsewhere, but American riflemen had other choices. Like the lever-action, the slide-action is primarily an American phenomenon. The “pump gun” persists as a popular shotgun action, but by 1910 slide-action rifles and early semi-autos competed with lever-guns. The lever-action won, and was America’s preferred repeating action from about 1890 until after WWII.
Bolt-actions were uncommon in the U.S. before WWI. There were no successful commercial American bolt-actions until the Savage Model 20 (1920), quickly followed by Remington’s M30 series and the Winchester M54, which became the Model 70 in 1936. Winchester and Marlin saw lever-action sales starting to fall through the 1930s, but it wasn’t until after WWII that the bolt-action became dominant. All other action types remained available, but the bolt-action was America’s favorite sporting rifle action from at least 1950 until 2000.
In WWII, America abandoned the bolt-action Springfield in favor of the semiautomatic Garand. Back then, it was widely predicted that semiauto rifles would become dominant in the postwar era. Didn’t happen, perhaps because the heavy Garand with its awkward eight-shot clip doesn’t convert well into a sporting rifle.
Its replacement, the M14 (civilian version: Springfield Armory’s M1A series) is a great rifle. However, the M14 it was America’s general-issue service rifle for just a decade, not long enough to earn the charisma it deserves. It was the AR15 action that turned the tide…but it didn’t happen overnight. The AR15 (and similar) semiautomatic sporters didn’t gain huge civilian popularity until the 1990s, a quarter-century after the M16 was adopted by the military.
When the Modern Sporting Rifle (MSR) craze finally hit, it hit big-time. Almost suddenly, AR15s (and clones) were red-hot; at one point 90 firms were making them. I used M16-series rifles in the Marines for 30 years. I know and like the platform, and I have a couple. It’s a great rifle, reliable and accurate. The MSR can be accessorized to your heart’s content, but it has limitations. Action length and magazine box are finite, so there’s only so much power that can be harnessed. You can’t make an AR15 into a general-purpose elk rifle or a long-range target rifle.
A bigger problem for me: Aside from accessories, I find them all too similar. Some guys probably do, but I can’t imagine owning a bunch of MSRs! Maybe some folks agreed, maybe the pipeline was filled, perhaps the demand was satisfied. By 2020 sales of MSRs declined, and manufacturers fell away.
During the pandemic things were weird, with panic buying, low supplies, and high prices. It’s hard to predict what the world will look like when normalcy returns, but in early 2020 (before the wheels came off), all companies that manufactured lever-actions reported excellent sales.
Winchester got a boost from the 125th anniversary of the Model 1894 (in 2019). Browning and Winchester together continued to have sellouts of limited runs of classic lever-actions. Browning’s BLR has never been a big seller, but it’s steady. The BLR is the world’s foremost “modern” lever-action, chambered to high-pressure cartridges, able to handle sharp-pointed bullets, and suitable for conventional scope mounting. Mossberg’s 464 lever-action .30-30 was exceeding projections, especially for the tricked-up “tactical” versions. Henry was selling all the lever-actions they could make.
Marlin, too, was at last doing well. The Remington acquisition included a plant move and massive loss of talent, with a long break in production. Finally, they were up and running, making good guns that were selling well. Their “Dark” series 336 rifles were in huge demand, likewise their big 1895 .45-70s. I have a late-production Marlin Model 1894 .44 Magnum, stainless steel/laminate stock. It is the smoothest, slickest lever-action I’ve ever owned, and exceptionally accurate.
My guess is the next generation of Marlin rifles—under Ruger ownership—will be just as good, and will provide more options to shooters discovering (and re-discovering) the lever-action. Me, I’m kind of a nut on them. I have ARs in different cartridges, love them, can’t imagine not having them…but my lever-actions are a passion. I am not a collector, but I just counted up: Including obsolete and current models, I have lever-actions from six different manufacturers…in eight centerfire cartridges, plus .22 rimfire.
My point isn’t to make a comparison, but the average lever-action probably isn’t as accurate as the average MSR, and they share an important limitation: Like ARs, lever-actions have finite limits on cartridge size. Ultimately, this places limits on velocity, energy, and suitable uses…with exceptions. The 1895 Winchester was chambered to .30-06, but not without rumors of pressure issues. Browning’s BLR is thus the major exception, made in short and long action, and chambered to belted magnums and unbelted short magnums.
Several excellent (long-gone) lever-actions were able to handle the .308 Winchester family of cartridges: Sako Finnwolf, Savage 99, Winchester 88. Henry’s Long Rider and the BLR still handle the .308, and the BLR goes much farther. This type of lever action, side-eject with box magazines, have two important advantages: They allow conventional scope mounting over the receiver, and can be used with spitzer (sharp-pointed) bullets.
The lever-action was developed with a tubular magazine long before spitzer bullets existed. Conventional sharp-pointed bullets cannot be used in a tube because of potential detonation under recoil. The requirement to use blunt-nosed bullets in tubular-magazine rifles has long been a performance limitation because of poor aerodynamics. To some extent, Arthur Savage got lucky; his lever-action used a rotary magazine under the bolt, but it wasn’t initially designed because it allowed spitzer bullets!
Riflescopes didn’t come into widespread use until after WWII, so few lever-actions included ease of scope mounting as a design criterion. Again, Arthur Savage got lucky; in the 1950s, the Savage 99 lever-action was the first production rifle to be drilled-and-tapped for scope mounts as standard! John Marlin also got lucky. Early on, his lever-actions evolved into side-eject, not to facilitate scope mounting, but because he thought it was better than Winchester’s top-ejection.
So, Marlin and Savage lever-actions were ready for the scope era, and the Savage 99 handled spitzer bullets from inception. Winchester engineers probably long understood the growing limitation of top-eject, tubular magazine rifles…but didn’t do anything about either. Finally, in 1982, they changed the Model 1894’s top-ejection to “Angle-Eject,” allowing over-the-receiver scope mounting.
The requirement to use blunt-nosed bullets in tubular-magazine rifles remained a performance limitation clear up until 2005, when Hornady introduced their FTX (Flex-Tip-eXpanding) bullet with sharp but compressible polymer tip. Initially loaded in their LeveRevolution line (with proprietary propellants that increased velocity without raising pressure), the FTX bullet changed the game for tubular-magazine lever-actions. The most common lever-action cartridges are now included in the LeveRevolution line with FTX bullets, including .25-35 and my beloved .348 Winchester. As a companion, there’s now also the MonoFlex homogenous-alloy bullet with flexible tip. In California, we must use unleaded bullets for all hunting. So, out there, I hunt with MonoFlex in .30-30 and .45-70…but there isn’t a MonoFlex .348 bullet…yet!
Although not entirely fair, I think of the lever-action as a short to very medium-range platform. This is fine for me; I don’t always need range. If I do, I use something else. My lever-actions are perfect for pig hunting, and just fine for most of my deer hunting.
We’ll see what the post-pandemic world brings, but I believe the lever-action was enjoying a revival. So, the important question: Why? Nostalgia and tradition count to some of us, to others not at all. To those for whom they count, the lever-action is America: John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, the Gun That Won the West! More practically, the lever-action can be short, light, fast-handling, and fast to operate. Between the Winchester 1894 and Marlin 336 alone, there are more than ten million .30-30 lever-action rifles out there, millions of them in the deer woods every fall. Surely that many of us couldn’t have been wrong?