Lever action firearms are a classic piece of Americana. These guns bring to mind images of cowboys and pioneers and were once the go-to action for both hunting and combat. But with the invention of the automatic and semi-automatic action, lever actions have fallen out of popularity.
They’re still well-loved though. In fact, for many of us, lever actions were the first guns we ever shot back when we were kids.
Nostalgia, whether for that period or for the cowboy period these guns originate from, drives many people to still use and enjoy lever actions. Plus, they’re just a ton of fun to shoot.
Ready to get a lever action of your own?
We’ve assembled a list of the best lever action rifles out there. But first, let’s talk a little bit more about the background and advantages of the lever action for those of you who aren’t yet convinced.
The Lineage of the Lever Action
Lever action designs date all the way back to 1826, but the first commercially available lever actions wouldn’t be available for another decade, when Colt produced them. Still, Colt’s version wasn’t especially popular, nor were any of the other lever actions that followed in the next few years.
The first major lever actions, the Henry rifle (designed by Benjamin Tyler Henry, who was working for Winchester at the time) and Spencer repeating rifle (designed by Christopher Spencer, an inventor who had worked under Samuel Colt but started his own company to make and distribute his lever action design) were both designed in 1860, right in time for the Civil War. Union forces used both designs, though far more Spencers than Henrys.
Post-war, Winchester was the big name in lever actions, continuing to produce and distribute the Henry design, as well as acquiring then producing the Spencer design after Spencer had to declare bankruptcy in 1868 due to the lack of demand for his rifles once the war ended.
In the 1880s and 1890s, however, more competition came onto the scene and many still popular lever actions were born, including classic designs from companies like Marlin and Savage Arms. Early lever-action shotguns appeared during this era as well.
Alas, for the most part, new lever action designs stopped appearing after World War II, when reliable semi-automatic firearms became more widely available, though new designs still popped up every now and then, both from old experts like Winchester as well as newcomers like Ruger.
Lever Action Rifles Today
Though lever actions aren’t as ubiquitous as they once were, they’re still popular for sporting use and target shooting.
In many ways, lever action rifles were the original pistol caliber carbine.
Primarily a cavalry gun, many lever actions were chambered in revolver rounds like .357 Magnum, .38 Special, and .45 Colt in order to go along with revolvers, minimizing the ammunition that people had to carry and making it easier to grab ammo to reload either gun from horseback.
These days, many hunters that use both rifle and revlver appreciate the ability to use the same ammo in both guns, and lever actions are still as good for hunting as they’ve always been.
Of course, historical gun lovers as well as Civil War and Wild West enthusiasts also get a kick out of lever actions. Lever actions are still used by Cowboy Action Shooters in rifle competition.
They’re less popular for defense, but for those in places with strict gun laws, if you’re allowed to own a rifle at all, you can typically own a lever action. Of course, you should always check your local laws before buying a gun.
The Best Lever Action Rifles
Now that you know the history of lever actions and why you might want one in the first place, let’s talk about some of the best lever action rifles out there. Many of these are old designs from the nineteenth century, or at least based on them, but there are a couple of modern designs as well.
Henry Classic Lever Action Rifle
Henry Repeating Arms was founded in the 1990s, so it’s not a continuation of Benjamin Tyler Henry’s work, but the company was named after him and their designs pay homage to his rifles. Henry is also known for high-quality guns with lever actions that work as smoothly and quickly as a warm knife travels through butter.
And Henry takes pride in being American made. Their corporate slogan is “Made in America or Not at All,” so you know you’re supporting American workers when you buy a Henry weapon.
One of their most popular rifles is the Henry Classic Lever Action, a basic little .22 rifle with a very vintage look and feel that’s an excellent option for new shooters and especially for children.
.22LR has very little recoil and the rifle itself is compact and lightweight, just 5.25 pounds in weight and 36.5” long. It has the famously smooth receiver that Henry is known for and makes a clear, distinct clicking sound when a round is chambered, so it’s easy to use, even for the most inexperienced shooters.
The tubular magazine is easy to load and fits 15 rounds of .22LR, 17 rounds of .22L, or 21 rounds of .22S.
The Henry Classic Lever Action looks like a classic cowboy gun: the receiver and round 18.5” barrel have a blued steel finish and the furniture is made from American walnut.
The lever loop is roomy enough for most hands, but may not be large enough if you’re wearing gloves.
The size, reliability, and high capacity of the Henry Classic Lever Action Rifle make it ideal for both target shooting and varmint hunting. It’s also available as a carbine with a 16.125” barrel and a mare’s leg with a 12.875″ barrel. Both have a large loop lever, which is better for larger hands or shooting with gloves.
Henry Classic Lever Action Rifle
- Smooth, quick lever action
- Super affordable
- 15 + 1 capacity
- Small lever loop
Overall, this rifle is a steal for the excellent performance, great for shooters on a budget. If you want a highly affordable, ridiculously fun to shoot lever action, the Henry Classic Lever Action is unbeatable.
And if you want all those things in a shinier package, the Henry Golden Boy is also a great option.
Henry Big Boy
If you like the Henry Classic Lever Action Rifle, but want something with a bit more heft and power, then allow us to introduce you to the Henry Big Boy.
It’s modeled after the quintessential Western rifle. Remember how we said that the lever action was the first pistol caliber carbine, chambered for revolver rounds?
Well, these days, most lever actions are chambered for .30-30 or, less commonly, .45-70. The Henry Big Boy, however, is available in .44 Magnum/.44 Special, .45 Colt, .357 Magnum/.38 Special, .41 Magnum, and .327 Federal Magnum.
This allows it to be SASS approved for Cowboy Action shooters, but it’s also a great hunting rifle for pretty much any game that you can find in North America. It’s also not a half-bad truck or home defense gun and, like any lever action that’s more than halfway decent, it’s just plain fun for target shooting as well.
It has the same smooth, reliable action as all Henry rifles and a highly accurate 20” blued steel octagonal barrel. It’s 38.5” overall and weighs 8.68 pounds. That’s a bit weighty for a rifle of its size, but it’s also an advantage in that it helps manage the recoil from the powerful rounds it shoots.
Carbine models are also available in all the same calibers as the Big Boy Classic, but with 16.5” barrels and a 35” overall length. Despite the shorter barrel, you can still shoot accurately up to 125 yards, depending on your round of choice.
Another advantage of the Carbine is the larger lever loop. On the other hand, you only get a 7 round capacity compared to the 10 round capacity of the Classic.
Both sizes are well balanced and well-suited for a sling (though it doesn’t come with swivel studs) or saddle holster.
The Classic has a brass receiver and walnut stock, but other models are available with matte steel, case hardened steel, or silver-toned brass alloy receivers. There are even some gorgeous tribute and special editions with beautiful engravings that make excellent gifts for loved ones, including yourself. All of them look great.
They all have adjustable brass sights, but are also drilled and tapped for a scope mount.
Henry Big Boy
- More powerful
- SASS approved
- Tapped for scope mounts
- Heavy for a lever action
Like the Henry Classic Lever Action Rifle, the Big Boy is an excellent value that’s hard to beat. We highly recommend it for hunting, SASS competition, and home defense.
You can’t really go wrong with any Henry that you choose, though.
Marlin Model 336/1895 Big Bore
Henry isn’t the only great lever action manufacturer out there, though. Marlin Firearms Co. was one of the big names during the lever action boom in the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century and they continue to make excellent lever actions, such as the Marlin Model 336 and Model 1895, to this day.
Marlin markets the Model 336 and Model 1895 as separate lines, but they’re so similar that we’re listing them together.
The Model 336 is the direct descendant of the Model 1893, one of Marlin’s first lever action rifles. It was introduced in 1948 and was one of the last designs at the peak of the lever action’s popularity.
There are 11 different rifles in the Model 336 line but for the most part, the differences between them are aesthetic.
All are chambered for .30-30 Winchester, with the exception of the Model 336C 35 Remington. You can probably guess which round it’s chambered for.
Most have a 20” barrel, but the Model 336Y and the Model 336 Dark Series have 16.25” barrels, the Model 336BL has an 18.5” barrel, and the Model 336XLR has a 24” barrel. All have the same Micro- Groove rifling, though the number of grooves, of course, depends on barrel length.
The Model 336Y, Model 336 Dark Series, and Model 336XLR all have 5 round capacities, while the rest hold six rounds. All use the same tubular magazine style, though, just in different sizes.
Except for the Model 336 Dark Series, which has an XS Lever Rail with a Ghost Ring sight, all Model 336 rifles have adjustable folding rear sights and ramp front sights. You can also attach scope mounts to the receivers easily, though the Model 336W comes with a factory mounted and boresighted 3-9x32mm scope.
The inner parts on all these rifles are the same.
Marlin Model 336
- sling swivel studs
- Adjustable, semi-buckhorn, folding rear sights
- Receivers are tapped for scope mounts
- Finish isn't the best
The Model 1895 was released in 1972 but named for the original Marlin Model 1895, manufactured from 1895 to 1917. It’s virtually identical to the 336, but chambered for .45-70 Government. Like the Model 336, there are several different Model 95 rifles, but the differences between them are minor.
Again, we have a caliber exception, which is the Model 444. It’s the same as the flagship Model 1895, but chambered for, you guessed it, .444 Marlin.
It and the flagship Model 1895 have 22” barrels, but most rifles in the Model 1895 line have 18.5” barrels. The Dark Series has a 16.25” barrel and the Trapper has a 16.5” barrel, while the Model 1895CB has an extended 26” tapered octagonal barrel.
They all have the same sights as the Model 336 and the same style of tubular magazine, mostly with a 4 round capacity, though certain models’ magazines can fit 5, 6, or even 9 rounds.
Marlin Model 1895
- Chambered for .45-70 Government
- Great hunting rifle
- Awesome value
- 4 round capacity
All of these rifles, both Model 336 and Model 1895, are excellent hunting rifles whether you’re a lifetime hunter or are looking for a rifle for your first time out, though the Dark Series in both models is primarily intended for target shooting.
The Model 336 is great for taking down deer and other similarly sized game, while the Model 1895 opens up your opportunities to larger game like moose and bear.
The Model 336Y, in particular, is a great first rifle for kids, especially for first deer hunts. It’s designed for young shooters with a shorter barrel and a shortened stock to fit smaller frames.
With so many different rifles in each of these product lines, there are options across most budgets and to fit pretty much any needs and personal tastes. On average, they’re comparably priced to the Big Boy and are a similarly stellar value.
Winchester Model 1894
Lest you think this list is just devoted to Henry and Marlin, we’re wrapping up our rifle list with the Winchester Model 1894, also often called the Model 94.
If you want a real cowboy gun, this is it.
The Winchester Model 1894, truly introduced in 1894 (as opposed to being named after an older rifle) is the classic, archetypical lever action rifle, with a classic walnut stock and blued steel receiver and barrel.
Ever hear “Winchester rifle” used as a categorical term for Winchester lever-action repeating rifles? The Model 1894 is why.
It was the first rifle to ever be chambered for .30-30 (at the time called .30 WCF for Winchester Center Fire) and the first Winchester lever-action to use a box magazine. In the late 1920s, it became the first rifle to sell one million units and, as of 2017, the Model 94 is the best selling centerfire rifle ever with more than 7 million rifles sold.
That’s right, the Model 1894 has been in near-continuous production in the more than 120 years since it was first introduced, with only a brief halt from 2006 to 2010 when U.S. Repeating Arms, who’d been manufacturing the rifle for Winchester, ceased production and Winchester switched production over to Japan’s Miroku Company.
Sure, there have been slight changes, like switching to angled cartridge ejection in the 1980s to allow for scope mounting and the introduction of CNC machined parts and switching the half-cock safety for a cross-bolt safety in the 1990s, but the fundamental aspects of the rifle are still very much the same.
It’s an excellent hunting rifle and one of the most popular choices for deer hunting, though it can also handle larger game like bear.
For those that want the most historically authentic 1894, look for a pre-1964 rifle, as that was the year the most significant changes to the rifle were made. That said, pre-1964 rifles are also highly sought after collectibles and can command a pretty penny in good condition.
Winchester Model 1894
- Introduced in 1894
- Walnut stock and blued steel receiver and barrel
- Very high-quality
Even a new 1894 is far more costly than other guns on this list, running about twice the price of the Marlins and Henry Big Boy depending on the model, and over four times the price of the Henry Classic Lever Action. For the best price, look for a used one that’s a few years old.
It is a very high-quality gun, backed by the biggest name in lever action rifles, but let’s be honest: a lot of what you’re paying for with a Model 1894 is the historical legacy of the rifle. Whether that’s worth it is up to you.
Lever action firearms are an iconic part of the way we remember the Old West which in turn is an iconic moment in history that is uniquely American, but the long history of lever action rifles doesn’t mean they don’t still have a place in modern gun cabinets and safes.
Lever actions make exceptional hunting rifles, but they’re also a blast to shoot recreationally, and the ones we’ve discussed here are some of the best of the best.
Choosing among these rifles (or in the case of the Henry Big Boy, between the different makes of the same rifle) largely just depends on which caliber you’re looking for. Not sure about the differences? Check out our Bullet Caliber Guide and Rifle Caliber Guide for a quick primer.
Pun not intended, though absolutely not regretted either. (Don’t get it? Those guides will help with that, too.)
Do you currently have a lever action (or a few) in your collection? Do you have a dream lever action on your personal firearm wishlist? Let us know in the comments! If you’re looking for other pistol-caliber rifles, check out the best pistol caliber carbines.
Brilliant post! Very simple and informational details about the best lever-action rifles.