The lever-action is part of our heritage, as American as apple pie, motherhood, and John Wayne. In rifle tastes, many of us have gravitated to super-accurate, flat-shooting rifles; others to adaptable, fast-shooting (and also accurate) semiautomatics. I’m okay with these, but as I grow older, I find myself circling back to lever-actions!
The Winchester 1894 and Marlin 336 alone account for ten million rifles! The majority of these, thus the majority of lever-actions, were chambered to .30-30. Although mild by today’s standards, the .30-30 remains a fine deer cartridge!
No lever-action is an extreme-range platform. Depending on which action or model, lever guns are hampered by some combination of pressure limitations, action length, two-piece stocks, tubular magazines, and sight restrictions. Over time, many of these problems have been solved, or at least mitigated: All Henry, Marlin, Mossberg, and Savage lever-actions can easily be scoped, as can all Winchester 1894s since 1982, when “Angle Eject” came in. Historically, blunt-nosed bullets with poor aerodynamics had to be used in tubular magazines. Hornady’s Flex-Tip bullet with compressible polymer tip solved this, instantly improving ballistics.
Last fall I took my Kansas buck with a Mossberg 464 lever-action .30-30. The rifle wore an Aimpoint red-dot sight, and I used Hornady’s 140-grain Monoflex bullet (homogenous alloy with the Flex Tip). So, my setup wasn’t exactly the lever-action grandpa might have used.
For three seasons we’ve known about a mature “cow-horn” spike, but he eluded all efforts to get him out of the gene pool. Last fall, on opening morning, “Old Spike” presented himself broadside 40 yards from my tree-stand. For that shot, neither optical sights nor the modern load mattered much, and the .30-30 performed perfectly. However, no matter how sighted or loaded, a .30-30 is, at best, a medium-range rifle, and ideally limited to deer-sized game.
Over the years, numerous attempts have been made to increase both the power and range of lever-action rifles. The former is easy: Just get a bigger hammer, usually a bigger action capable of housing larger and more powerful cartridges! First Marlin (M1881) and then Winchester (M1886) developed actions capable of housing big cartridges like the .45-70. The big-bore lever-action, today often called “guide gun,” remains popular today. With the right loads in a strong action you can hunt very large game with such a rifle…up close. Extending the effective range of the lever-action and making it a truly versatile hunting rifle is another story, but, going back a full century, there have been and are options.
The John Browning-designed M1895 Winchester included .30-06 in its chamberings, and its box magazine under the bolt allowed use of then-new spitzer bullets. However, like all top-eject lever-actions, the 1895 pretty much defies over-the-receiver scope mounting. Back then, nobody envisioned a time when riflescopes were in universal use, or the pressures and velocities we now take for granted were normal.
Even so, Arthur Savage apparently had a pretty good crystal ball. From the start, Savage lever-actions were suitable for sharp-pointed bullets, and in 1915 the .250 Savage (.250-3000) was the first factory cartridge to break 3000 fps. All Savage lever-actions can be scoped, but in the 1950s the Savage 99 was the first production rifle drilled and tapped for scope mounts as “standard.” The .250 Savage is fast and versatile, but most hunters judge it too light in bullet weight and caliber for game larger than deer.
In 1920 Savage introduced the .300 Savage, approximating .30-06 performance of the day. As propellants improved and velocities crept upward, the .300 Savage has lagged behind…but not by all that much! With a 150-grain bullet at over 2700 fps, the .300 Savage remains fast enough and flat enough to do anything most of us need to do. Although no longer chambered in new rifles, the .300 Savage remains in common use. I figure it’s the first of the few general purpose cartridges chambered to lever-actions.
Based on a shortened .30-06 case, you could say the.300 Savage was the forerunner to the .308 Winchester. Introduced in 1952, the .308 was not designed for lever-actions…but there are plenty of lever-action .308s, and the.308 is a very great hunting cartridge. The Savage 99 was quickly adapted to .308, and was the most popular chambering in the 99’s later years. The .308 was also the most popular chambering in the Winchester M88. The 88, Sako Finnwolf, Browning’s BLR, and Henry’s Long Ranger are all box-magazine rifles, allowing spitzer bullets and easily scoped; and .308 was (or is) a common chambering.
Okay, the .308 is not my concept of a long-range cartridge: Accurate and effective but just not fast enough. However, the .308 Winchester is hard-hitting and versatile. Between new manufacture and the rich used rifle market, .308 lever-actions are plentiful.
Sadly, other versatile lever-action options are limited for the same old reasons: Action length or strength, plus tubular magazines or sight limitations. However, there have been numerous attempts! In 1955 Winchester necked up the .308 cartridge and created the .358 Winchester, powerful for its size…but not very fast.
In 1963, the .284 Winchester offered “.270-like” performance in the M88 lever action. Both the .284 and .358 were chambered in the Savage 99 and Sako Finnwolf but, oddly, neither cartridge caught on. I’ve had M88s, Savage 99s, and BLRs in .358, a wonderful medium-range cartridge…I wish I’d kept them all! The BLR is the last factory rifle chambered to .358. I should probably get one while I still can!
Concerned over flagging lever-action sales, in 1982 Winchester introduced the .307 and .356 Winchester cartridges in a beefed-up version of the M1894. In semi-rimmed cases, they duplicate .308 and .358 Winchester performance…at the muzzle. Neither were popular; Hornady’s Flex Tip bullet technology didn’t yet exist so both the .307 and .356 suffered the old tubular-magazine curse of flat-tipped bullets that lose velocity fast.
In 2007, using new FTX bullet technology, Hornady teamed up with Marlin to create the .308 Marlin Express, following up in 2009 with the fatter-cased .338 Marlin Express. These were (and are) the most versatile cartridges developed for tubular-magazine rifles. With spitzer FTX bullets, the .308 ME essentially duplicates .308 Winchester performance. The .338 ME, based on Hornady’s .376 Steyr case, pushes a 200-grain bullet at 2565 fps, slightly faster than the old .348 Winchester. Coupled with its aerodynamic FTX bullet, downrange performance is better.
Sadly, timing was poor: Production and lever-action sales were down, Marlin was being sold, and a great cartridge languished. I never messed with the .308 ME, but I used the .338 ME quite a bit. I reckon it the most versatile cartridge ever developed for a tubular-magazine lever action. Three inches high at 100 yards is dead-on at 300…with plenty of power when it gets there.
The .338 ME test rifle I had was the most accurate tubular-magazine rifle I’ve ever had my hands on. It accounted for a good bull elk at something over 200 yards, and a big Shiras moose on a Colorado mountain. That .338 ME is one of many test rifles I wish I’d kept. Lever-actions are seeing a resurgence, and I hope Marlin gives it another chance.
I don’t consider the .338 Federal (.308 case necked up to .33) a “lever-action” cartridge, but in the BLR it certainly could be. The .348 Winchester is a lever-action cartridge. Developed in 1936 for the Winchester M71, the last iteration of the big 1886 action, the .348 is (at least arguably) the most powerful factory cartridge ever housed in a tubular-magazine lever gun. The 200-grain bullet at something over 2500 fps was most popular. For larger game, a 250-grain load at 2350 fps definitely hit harder!
I’ve had at least one M71 .348 since the mid-1970s. I love the .348, but it has the Lever-Action Curse times two: Its tubular magazine requires blunt-nosed bullets that lose velocity fast. And: The top-eject M71 is pretty much relegated to open or aperture sights, so downrange cartridge potential is almost a moot point.
These have been dilemmas throughout my long love affair with the M71 and its .348 cartridge! There was a time when I could resolve aperture sights well enough for 250-yard shooting, but those days are over. Last year, Hornady introduced a LeveRevolution .348 load with a spitzer 200-grain FTX bullet at 2560 fps…but, with iron sights, who cares? Well, I guess I cared enough to buy another M71, this one with an old Pachmayr side mount and a vintage Weaver2.5X scope!
Honest, I don’t think of the .348—or, for that matter, any lever-action—as an open-country setup. The primary exception is the Browning BLR, uniquely chambered to a slew of modern cartridges all the way up to belted and short magnums! However, I tend to use my lever-actions in situations where I can predict shots and keep them within about 200 yards. With this scoped M71, I have that capability…and it will thump hard when the bullet arrives.