A little while back I listened to an instructor describing the travails of teaching beginners to shoot at mid-range targets, which means 200 to 600 yards.
“No lever actions,” he said. “I don’t want to see another damned lever action on the line.”
What he said, applied across the board, is probably taps for the lever-action. Long range is not what these guns were made for, and long range, these days, is all the rage. This is not the fault of the lever gun. It was not designed for that job. From the 1860s up until the Spanish-American War, if you wanted to shoot at long range, you bought a falling-block.
The lever-action has had a hell of a run. The Henry lever gun, which made its debut in 1860, was our first successful repeating rifle. Its descendants, most notably the Winchester 73, were the guns that won the West. From the Civil War to World War I, the lever was the quintessential American action. The Model 86 Winchester, I believe, was the finest firearm ever to come out of an American factory. The Savage 99 was probably half a century ahead of its time, and was in production for 100 years. For decades, the Winchester Model 94 and the Marlin Model 336 defined “deer rifle.”
The typical lever action was reliable, fast-firing, and flat, so it fit very nicely in a hand or a saddle scabbard. In a time when riflemen prided themselves on how close they could get to what they wanted to shoot, it was ideal. But World War I started the lever’s decline. Doughboys—those who lived—became enraptured of the 03 Springfield. Then came the first practical scope sights, and the handwriting was on the wall.
Attempts have been made to convert lever actions into something approximating a bolt action. The Model 88 Winchester, which was chambered for high-intensity cartridges, was one attempt, but it was never accurate. The ungainly Browning BLR was another, as was the Sako VL63 Finnwolf, whose lever operated a series of gears to run the bolt back and forth, and is as slick as glass. I’m told it’s accurate, but if this is true, or how accurate, I have no idea. It is, by all accounts, a truly fine gun, but it never sold well. There was a lever gun called the Seecamp, which was made to handle magnum-length cartridges, but never got past the prototype stage.
For a while, the Marlin Guide Gun in .45/70 was trendy, and justifiably so. Loaded with standard factory ammo, it makes a fine deer gun. Shoot it with the souped-up ammo that’s now available, and it can handle much bigger critters. I shot a couple of Guide Guns (the New Haven-made guns) and one of Jim Brockman’s truly nifty upgrades that would group right along with a good bolt-action. But they were still 200-yard rifles.
The lever gun has had its day, and a hell of a day it was. But the present and the future belong to the bolt-action and the AR.