Lever-Action Rifle Calibers: The Top Three for Hunters

by | Jun 13, 2023 | Guest Blogger, Hunting, Turnbull Restoration & Manufacturing Blog | 10 comments

Above: Turnbull-finished Marlin 1895CB in .45-70 Gov’t

Like Us, Guest Author Scott Severson Loves Hunting with Lever Guns

By Scott Severson, HuntTested.com
Lever-action rifles are more popular than ever and it’s with good reason. Some designs simply cannot be improved on with time. Hunters of course have known this for over 150 years. Lever guns are fast handling, easy to carry, accurate, and aesthetically the nicest-looking rifle you can own. If you’re considering hunting with a lever-action rifle, the question is, what caliber do you choose? For your consideration, here are my top three choices for lever-action calibers for hunting.

First things first. I am well aware that any discussion of which caliber is “best” is an invitation for passionate debate. Before you tell me my recommendations are crazy, understand that I had some very simple criteria that each round had to meet. First, it had to be commonly available. You may argue the .50-110 Winchester is the best lever gun caliber of all time, while it’s an amazing round and super popular with hand loaders, you’re going to have a heck of a time finding it in any sporting goods store. My second criteria is versatility. If you only have one lever gun that you hunt with, it should serve you for a variety of game. With that out of the way, let’s look at my top three recommendations.

.44 Magnum

The .44 Magnum is my first choice for a lever gun hunting round. Original lever guns like the first Henry rifles and the 1873 Winchester were chambered in pistol calibers like the .44-40. It made a lot of sense at the time as you only had to carry one type of ammo in your cartridge belt for your revolver and your rifle. Firing a pistol round through a longer rifle barrel significantly aided the round in velocity and hunting effectiveness.

My hunting partner, Al, hunts deer on our hunting lease in Iowa with a .44-magnum caliber rifle. It is a great little gun to carry through the thick woods and ravines of southern Iowa where our shot opportunities are mostly within 75 yards and it’s certainly “enough gun” for whitetails.

Lever guns chambered for the .44 Magnum, (and other pistol calibers for that matter) typically offer higher magazine capacity than traditional rifle cartridges. So if you want a fast-handling deer rifle that can hold 10 rounds, you might consider a .44 Magnum lever gun.

Benefits of the .44 Magnum in a Lever Gun for Hunters

  • Low recoil – this is a great round for a young or recoil-sensitive hunter
  • Greater magazine capacity
  • Ammo is typically less expensive than traditional rifle calibers
  • You can also shoot even less expensive .44 Special ammo for target practice
  • A bonus if you already have a .44 magnum revolver

.44 Magnum Lever-Action Applications

  • Close-range deer-sized game and hogs

Favorite Lever-Action Rifles to Consider in .44 Magnum

  • Marlin 1894
  • Winchester 1892
  • Henry Big Boy

.30-30 Winchester

Next is the .30-30 Winchester or .30 WCF. When most people think about a “deer rifle” the image they conjure in their brain is of a .30-30 Lever action. The .30-30 cartridge has been with us since 1895 when it was marketed for Winchester’s new lever gun, the model 1894. It is easily the most popular lever gun cartridge of all time so my choice of the .30-30 as a favorite is not unique.

The .30-30 is a great mid-range cartridge. It’s going to carry more range and ballistic energy than the .44 Magnum, but it’s still mild in the recoil department compared to other centerfire rifle calibers. The average .30-30 load will generate about 14 ft-lbs of recoil, compared to about 25 ft-lbs of recoil in the popular .30-06. If your shots are all under 200 yards, you’ll have a lot more fun shooting the .30-30, and for most hunters, it’s the only rifle you would ever need.

Benefits of the .30-30 Winchester for Hunters

  • Effective to 150-200 yards, (Effective range extends to about 250 yards with Hornady LEVERevolution soft ballistic tip ammo)
  • Reasonable ammo cost
  • Versatility – The .30-30 has down every critter on four legs on the North American continent

.30-30 Winchester Applications

  • Ideal for deer and black bear

Favorite Rifle for the .30-30 Winchester

  • Marlin Model 336 (The new Ruger made 336’s are exceptional)
  • Winchester Model 94 – of course!

Marlin vs Winchester

I’m a Winchester fan and have several Winchesters in the gun safe. But when it comes to lever guns, I will take the Marlin design every time.

For me, the Winchester wins on sheer aesthetics, but the easy takedown design for cleaning and the flat top receiver that allows for easy scope mounting make the Marlin rifle design the clear choice for me.

What’s your favorite lever-action rifle for hunting? Feel free to comment below.

.45-70 Government

Here’s where things get interesting. The .45-70 Gov’t is the oldest cartridge of the bunch being introduced in 1873. But despite being long in the tooth, it’s wildly popular today, and a personal favorite.

One of the reasons for the current popularity is some states are now allowing straight-walled rifle cartridges like the .45-70 in deer hunting zones that are currently shotgun only. That’s the case where I hunt in Iowa. It makes sense as the .45-70 ballistics are only marginally better than a modern 12 gauge sabot slug fired through a rifled slug barrel. However, given the choice, I’ll take the .45-70 every time for its fast handling and ease of carry in the field.

Benefits of the .45-70 for Hunters

  • An effective round for deer-sized and larger game
  • A variety of ammo choices for different applications and it’s readily available
  • Ability to use in shotgun-only zones in some states

.45-70 Applications

  • Deer, Bear, Elk, Buffalo, T-Rex?

Favorite Rifle for the .45-70

  • The Winchester 1886 is the quintessential rifle to own in .45-70
  • A close second choice is the Marlin 1895

Historical Favorite Lever Gun Cartridges

Here are two bonus picks for your consideration. These did not make my list because ammo is not readily available. But if you’re willing to special order ammo, or reload, I would also consider the .348 Winchester and the .38-55 Winchester. These are two classic lever gun cartridges that used to be wildly popular but have largely fallen out of favor.

The .348 is interesting as only one gun was made for it. The Winchester Model 71. The 71 was made to replace the 1886 and has very similar lines. It was a very high-quality gun and expensive to manufacture. It ultimately lost the popularity contest to bolt guns and was discontinued in 1958. The .348 remains a powerful and versatile big game load.

The .38-55 Winchester is an interesting load as it was a precursor to the .30-.30. Technically, the .30-30 is a necked-down .38-55 cartridge. The .38-55 started as a black powder cartridge and later went on to be a smokeless round. It was very popular in the late 1800s with guns like the Marlin 1881. It was also an original chambering for the Winchester 94.

Lever Action Rounds for Hunting Final Thoughts

I may be partial, but I wholeheartedly believe that a high-quality lever action rifle is the ultimate choice for the majority of hunters. When it comes to hunting, you simply cannot go wrong with a lever gun chambered in any of these preferred rounds. Now, I’m curious, what’s your personal favorite lever action round for hunting?

Related Content

By Scott Severson

By Scott Severson

HuntTested.com

Scott is the editor of HuntTested.com. HuntTested.com is committed to providing the best in-depth content, resources, and reviews on the gear that hunters need to be successful in the field. HuntTested covers guns, big game gear, upland game gear, camping, and outdoor feature stories.

Read more posts by Scott Severson here.

10 Comments

  1. Glen Healey

    The .358 Winchester is my favorite lever gun cartridge. Favorite Bolt gun Cartridge also for Northern Missouri Whitetail. It puts the 35 Rem to Sham but I love 35 Remington. I hope Ruger will make the 336 in more substantial Calibers 38/55 , 35 Rem , .358 Win, 444 375win the list goes on forever.

    Reply
    • Steve Fischer

      Sold my Savage 99 in 358 Winchester 2 years ago and I still miss it

      Reply
    • Arthur L Shingler

      I agree! I’d add in the 356 and maybe the Marlin Express calibers, too.

      Reply
  2. Marshall Copkney

    I Love My Browning BLR 7MAG.It’s Been The Truth For Me

    Reply
  3. Walleye

    Great article and comparisons. Don’t over look the venerable straight-walled and rimmed Winchester 405. Depending on the load, its more powerful than the 45-70 and will kill anything in North America. And as a bonus, there are plenty of well-loved and mechanically sound Winchester Model 1895’s out there to deliver the bullet.

    Reply
  4. Steve Fischer

    I agree with your picks, have all 3, but the other one I have draws the most attention and that’s a Winchester 1895 saddle ring carbine in 30-06. Made in 1925

    Reply
  5. Dave Baldessari

    Marlin model 93 38-55 my go-to New Hampshire dense woods rifle.

    Replaced original model 93 30-30 worn barrel with pristine bore original 93 38-55 barrel I came across. Local old timer New Hampshire gunsmith recut the chamber and perfectly head spaced it; accuracy amazing for a lever gun.

    Reply
  6. Curt R Schwieso

    I really liked you piece on Lever Action Rifles. The video was well done and informative. Keep up the great insights into the hunting world.

    Reply
  7. Scott Severson

    Thanks for all the great comments, everyone. Glad you liked the article!

    Reply
  8. Ken Mattes

    Let’s not forget those Savage 99’s in .303,.250-3000(.250), and .300 Savage calibers, also made in.30-30 Winchester, .32-40 and .38-55 as a hammerless contemporary to the Winchester 94 and Marlin 93. I still have my Marlin .444 from 1980 pre-safety! I regret letting go of my Browning 86 .45-70 and BLR in .358 Winchester just because they were made in Japan. How about a Model 88 Winchester in .243, .308 or .358 Winchester? A dandy modern lever gun that’s easy to mount a scope on. My 1895 Winchester in .35 WCF is a powerful rifle as is my 1876 in .45-75. Bring ’em all back Made in America! I love leverguns!!

    Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *