The lever-action rifle was cutting-edge firearm technology when it was introduced more than a hundred years ago, and it’s showing no signs of slowing down in popularity or practical application today. If anything, there has been a resurgence in the demand for reliable lever guns, with applications for everything from thick-country bear stoppers to backwoods deer rifles and truck guns.

In states that only allow straight-wall cartridges for deer hunting, a good lever-gun is the natural choice. But how do we squeeze maximum performance out of our rifles with factory ammunition?

The Hammer Down booth at SHOT Show.
The HammerDown line was first introduced at Federal’s 2020 SHOT Show booth. The ammo company worked in tandem with Henry Repeating Rifles to optimize the new cartridges for modern lever-action rifles and carbines. Federal Premium

This is a question that Federal Premium set out to answer with their HammerDown line of ammunition. Each component of this ammunition is selected and specialized specifically for lever-action rifles. It prioritizes utter reliability and accuracy, and both ballistic and terminal performance are pushed to the limits so that each individual load will reach its full potential. Federal Premium is known for innovation, and its ability to make a good thing even better. Accomplishing that requires extraordinary attention to detail. Here’s how Federal pulled it off.

Consulting the Experts

For detailed input on ammunition specifically tailored to lever-action rifles, the engineers at Federal Premium worked with the folks at Henry Repeating Rifles, one of the top manufactures of lever guns today. To make improvements, you have to know where improvements can be made, and these folks have seen it all. They know exactly what makes these rifles tick, where problems can arise, and how to make a rifle run more smoothly.

A lever-action rifle with a tubular magazine presents a more complex feeding and cycling process than most box-magazine-fed rifles. If quality ammunition isn’t used, that complexity can present more opportunity for challenges at inopportune times. The nickel-plated cases you’ll see in this ammunition aren’t entirely unique, but they’re also no-brainer, as a harder surface with less friction leads to a smoother and more reliably-cycling cartridge.

Some less-obvious details in the HammerDown line are that each bullet profile is tailored to provide smooth and safe feeding, while also maximizing the ballistic performance. Another small, but important, detail is that the case rims and edges are beveled just enough to remove any burrs or catching edges. This may not seem like a big deal for many styles of rifles, but tubular magazine-fed rifles present their own set of challenges when it comes to reliable feeding. Rather than being pushed up through a magazine and stripped off the top, the cartridge must be able to slide smoothly down the magazine tube, into the action, and feed up into the chamber without catching on anything. With rimmed cartridges, any imperfections or sharp edges on the rim are just waiting to cause issues; simple beveling of these edges eliminates this potential malfunction immediately.

The Hammer Down booth at SHOT Show.
The new ammo was displayed at SHOT Show 2020 with a rifle from Henry Repeating Arms’ newest X Model line of lever guns, which have been updated with modern polymer furniture, weather-resistant finishes, attachment points for accessories and optics, and a side loading gate. Federal Premium

Ballistic Performance

Once Federal had a reliable cartridge, the next step was to optimize the HammerDown’s velocity and accuracy specifically for a lever gun. Many lever actions are chambered for what are traditionally handgun cartridges, but the handgun-geared ammunition can be lacking when it comes to performance out of a lever rifle. Each HammerDown caliber is designed to maximize accuracy and reduce drag, and each cartridge uses specifically-formulated propellant to reach the maximum velocity potential of that cartridge when fired through the rifle. Finally, a Gold Medal primer provides an ultra-reliable and consistent ignition source.

This optimized combination yields velocities that provide superior ballistics, especially in the cartridges that are traditionally loaded for handguns, while staying within SAAMI velocity and pressure standards. The increase in performance of these cartridges is staggering, with the HammerDown .357 Magnum load at 1,610 fps, as opposed to a comparable Federal handgun hunting load coming in at 1,180 fps, over 30 percent increased velocity. Similarly, the .44 Magnum load clocks in at 1,715 fps compared to 1,250 fps, and .45 Colt is almost doubled in speed going 1,400 fps compared to 800fps.

Federal's new HammerDown lever-gun optimized ammunition is available in .30-30 Win, .44 Rem Mag, .357 mag
Federal’s new HammerDown lever-gun optimized ammunition is available in .30-30 Win, .45-70 Govt., .44 Rem Mag, .357 Mag, and .327 Fed Mag. Federal Premium Ammunition

Terminal Performance

For any bullet to achieve maximum effectiveness on game, it needs to toe a delicate line, balancing accuracy, expansion, and weight retention based on a specific velocity range. But bullets used in lever-action rifles haven’t always been tailored to perform properly in that application. Federal Premium has specifically designed the HammerDown line for each offering with the perfect balance of accuracy and terminal performance.

Each bullet is molecularly bonded to the jacket, ensuring maximum weight retention, and each caliber is also tailored to its specific velocities to provide maximum expansion. The larger offerings come in a jacketed soft point with a small, hollow divot, and the smaller offerings have a more pronounced hollow point to aid expansion. With this, the .44 Magnum, .357 Magnum, and even .327 Federal Magnum become even more formidable deer-sized game cartridges than they ever would be from a handgun platform, or with other current factory ammunition offerings. The reliable, but controlled, expansion in a bonded bullet will help maximize terminal performance without sacrificing penetration.


Federal Premium’s HammerDown will be hitting the shelves in five chamberings. The larger class of cartridges featuring the jacketed soft point bullets are as follows:

  • .45-70 Government at $55.99 per box (20)
  • .30-30 Winchester at $29.99 per box (20)
  • .44 Rem Mag at $31.99
  • .357 Magnum at $27.99 per box (20)
  • .327 Federal Magnum at $33.99 per box (20)