There is hardly a rifle that is more enshrined in American culture than the lever-action. These are the rifles that helped tame the Wild West. These are the rifles that have been in the hands of guides and trappers and frontiersmen.
These rifles for a time were the most common afield in search of deer for the family table and a nice trophy for the den wall. And if there is one cartridge modern shooters associate most with the lever-action rifle, it is the equally venerable .30-30 Winchester.
Lever-action .30-30s once ruled the nation in the hands of lawmen, outlaws, hunters, trappers and soldiers. But time has moved on, and against the march of time and technology the venerable old lever-actions’ best qualities no longer shine so brightly.
But does this mean they are no longer valid for hunting, or defense? Hardly! The lever guns’ best qualities- nimble handling, sturdy reliability, a quick follow-up shot and capacity enough to solve most problems easily- make them as viable today as over 150 years ago.
In this article, we’ll be looking at the best lever-action rifles chambered in .30-30 you can own as part of your survival planning.
Why a Lever-action at All?
It is easy to dismiss the lever-action rifle as a throwback, a nostalgic memento of an era long since passed. Some vocal detractors decry them as far past their prime, and that they bring nothing to the table over a bolt action semi-auto rifle. Are these critics right? Is the lever-action simply a “hipster” gun today?
Let’s look at some of the most common complaints against them:
“Lever-actions cannot handle really powerful cartridges.”
This accusation has some teeth. There are very few lever-action rifles and carbines that can handle modern high-pressure ammunition (one of the few is Browning’s BLR).
This is a consequence to the comparatively weak lock-up of the lever-action compared to a bolt-action, and definitely a reason for the decline of the lever-action in the hands of hunters and long range shooters.
The iconic .30-30 is squarely middling when it comes to .30 caliber performance. Even big bore rounds available to lever-actions and traditionally classified as stompers like the .45-70 pale in comparison to today’s larger magnum rifle cartridges.
What’s more, the typical magazine arrangement in a lever-action, that of a tubular magazine, means that pointed spitzer bullets are out of the question as the point of one loaded cartridge will rest on the primer of the next. Upon firing, a detonation is more than a rare possibility
If you want range and accuracy, you need really fast, pointy bullets. This combination is hard to obtain in a lever-action design.
“Lever-actions are not that accurate.”
This argument too has merit. Compared to almost any bolt action and many semi-auto’s, lever-action rifles are rarely anything more than acceptably accurate. This is again simply an inherent byproduct of the action.
Now, what is acceptable to one person may not be acceptable to another, but generally a 1 MOA lever gun is unheard of. 2 MOA is a more attainable standard of mechanical accuracy to shoot for and even that is rarely achieved from a factory gun and ammo combo.
If you truly need hair-splitting accuracy, perhaps a lever-action rifle is not the right choice for your task.
“Lever-actions are slow to load.”
It seems the critics may be closing in on their hat trick. No matter the loading procedure of a given lever-action design, you can be certain it is going to be slow going, the rare detachable magazine models notwithstanding.
When the time comes to stoke your rifle, you’ll be thumbing rounds one at a time into the tube through a side located loading gate (not the surest and most positive of arrangements) or you’ll be removing a follower tube from the front of the magazine before dropping loose rounds into a slot before replacing the follower (more moving parts).
Combined with their limited capacity, this can make lever-actions very hungry guns when the tempo of fire must be increased. Compared to any semi-auto or most bolt actions, loading a lever gun takes more time even with lots of practice.
The Lever-action remains a Viable Choice
Well, after all of that, you’d be forgiven for forgetting all about lever-actions for your survival needs. That would be a mistake, though; the grand old lever-actions are more than enough gun for almost any one. Read on to hear my rebuttals of these most common complaints.
Lever-actions Are Plenty Powerful for Dispatching Man or Beast
While your typical lever gun chambering will not set the world on fire with any performance benchmarks, one must be reminded that their typical cartridges, including the .30-30, have been stacking bodies for over a century, and doing it well.
While they remain somewhat constrained by the inherent limitations of the design, modern lever-action rifles made with cutting edge manufacturing techniques and materials are far stronger than their elders, and can withstand higher pressure versions of the classic rounds.
Take the .30-30 as a for instance: the closest “modern” analogue to this round is the 7.62x39mm, and while the typical 7.62 load shoots a little faster and flatter, their ballistics are very close.
No one has anything bad to say about the 7.62x39mm from an “intermediate thirty” perspective, so why all the hate on the .30-30 Winchester?
Lever-actions Are Accurate Enough
Against man or beast, it will be the very rare shot that exceeds 200 yards in all but the most specific situations. As a general purpose defensive gun or game-getter, almost any lever-action will put a sizeable chunk of lead on target.
There is nothing wrong with our relentless quest for better, as that is the soul of genuine progress, but bearing in mind a general purpose rifle’s accuracy requirements, a lever-action rifle is entirely adequate.
I am not making a case for mediocrity; more accuracy is always good, period, but it is not fair or even reasonable to discount a lever-action simply because it cannot obtain an arbitrary accuracy standard.
If a given lever gun is capable of only 3 MOA, that is a three inch group at 100 yards and a 6 inch group at 200 yards. Consider the size of that on your own body, or superimposed on big game; while that standard may be laughable to the latest precision bolt action, it is still acceptable for real work.
Lever-actions Hold Enough Ammo for the Task at Hand
No doubt lever-actions are slow to load compared to nearly any other long gun design. You got me.
But unless you are an infantryman on a battlefield somewhere your lever-action rifle likely holds more than enough ammo to take care of the problem at hand, meaning reloading the gun quickly is less important than some would have you believe.
Consider your average self-defense shooting in the U.S. is concluded in two to three rounds, and even when hunting you will rarely have an opportunity for more than 1 or 2 follow up shots, and you come out to an average of two to three times as much ammo as required loaded in the gun (if chambered in .30-30).
Every round in the gun is an opportunity to solve a problem, and much like accuracy capacity is always “the more, the better,” but unlike accuracy capacity also comes with a linear weight penalty. More ammo equals more weight and as a class one of the lever-actions best attributes is its swift, nimble handling.
There are also some things that lever guns do exceptionally well compared to other guns. Consider these perks of choosing a lever-action over some other design.
Ask any seasoned rifleman who has been around the block with guns and he will likely tell you that lever-actions rule the roost when it comes to sheer easy handling. Lightweight and often superbly balanced, a lever-action is quick to the shoulder and quick when transitioning targets.
As a happy accident of its action, a lever gun is unquestionably the quickest long gun to charge while bringing it into action from an unloaded state. A flick of the wrist and you are ready to fire at a moment’s notice.
This makes them especially useful for those who prefer to keep their weapons Condition 3: loaded magazine, hammer down on an empty chamber. As manually operated guns go, lever-actions are among the fastest designs.
Condition 3: loaded magazine, hammer down on an empty chamber. As manually operated guns go, lever-actions are among the fastest designs.
The Best .30-30 Lever-actions You Can Own
Below is a list of what we feel to be the best .30-30 lever guns you can own today, and each was chosen based on its suitability as a modern, hard-use survival gun, not a historic or novelty item.
So that means that some iconic and vaunted designs will not be on this list. So for you lever gun fans, don’t get twisted up over it.
Winchester Model 1894 / Model 94
One of the most iconic and popular lever-actions of all time, the Winchester 1894 was produced continually from 1894 to 2006, and to date over 7 million have been produced, making it one of the most prolific rifles of all time.
In the mid 1960s, Winchester made the decision to drastically cheapen production of the gun. The resulting guns took a noticeable dip in quality, and as such “pre-‘64” rifles of this model command a premium.
After a short hiatus from 2006 through 2010, these guns are being produced again, only under contract by Miroku in Japan.
Originally chambered in a pair of black powder cartridges, this venerable rifle was the harbinger of the smokeless powder era, ushering in the age with the .30 WCF before later being later rechristened the .30-30, which remains the most popular lever-action cartridge to this very day.
Called the ultimate lever-action by several prominent authorities on firearms: potent, light, nimble, and reliable. Everything a lever gun should be. So long as you can find one made after the 1950’s or so you should be assured of having a reliable, quality gun that has the strength to handle modern loads.
Marlin Model 336
Introduced in 1948, Marlin, the single most prominent contemporary competitor to Winchester, unveiled what would become one of the most loved and successful lever-actions of the 20th century.
A direct successor to the Marlin Model 1893, this new lever-action was stronger than its inspiration with a new locking system and solid topped receiver that allowed easy mounting of a scope, something the Winchester 1894 lacked.
This extra beef resulted in a heavier gun, but one well suited to the rigors of harsh field conditions when hunting. The simple, forged internals and heavy duty coil springs exhibit very long life and excellent wear characteristics.
Unlike the Winchester above, which was a complex and difficult to assemble design, the Model 336 was designed from the outset to be a simple gun to service. The lever arm, bolt, cartridge carrier and ejector are all easily removed and replaced for routine maintenance or repair.
Second only to the Winchester 1894 in units sold with 3 ½ million, the Model 336 is another iconic lever-action, and one that is quantifiably stronger that its competitor.
If you want a lever-action that can withstand a heavy firing schedule and laugh, or one that will easily accommodate a scope, the Marlin 336 is your ticket.
Henry All-Weather .30-30
Henry Repeating Arms’ motto is “Made in America, or not made at all.” Fitting, since they produce what is certainly one of the best machined, fitted and finished lever-action rifles in production today.
Well known for their line of brass and silver receiver lever-actions in all calibers, it would be a shame if you missed out on their hard-use series of lever guns, the All Weather.
Retaining the famously slick and fast Henry action and pairing it up with a matte hard chrome plating on all metal surfaces and a synthetic coating over the wooden stock and forearm, this Henry is solidly built.
Don’t misunderstand; for all their good looks and flash, the other Henry rifles are seriously reliable and dependable rifles, but the thought of marring those beautiful finishes brings tears to the eyes of most (to say nothing of how conspicuously visible they are to the eyes of animals and humans)!
Not so with the All-Weather .30-30. Nearly impervious to all forms of corrosion, and packing in 5 rounds of ammo into a slender, accurate package, despite its front-loading design this may be the best American lever-action in the business today.
If you need a lever-action that will withstand the worst of nature’s fury on extended wilderness forays, the Henry All Weather is your best choice.
The lever-action is not dead. Far from it, millions of Americans and more people around the world still depend on them the same as our ancestors did; hunting, defending home and hearth, or surviving in the unforgiving wild. The lever gun’s innate qualities make them as suitable now as then.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.