The Big Lever Action


A California wild hog taken with a Marlin .45-70. The old .45-70 is awesome for hogs and black bears, but that’s actually part of the problem — most factory loads available today are superb for medium big game, but not designed for really large animals.

In the perennial deep-freeze that is Antarctica, some of the explorers’ camps are preserved as if in time capsules. An early American camp can be visited. In a supply shelter one can see stacked boxes of .50-110 Winchester cartridges. In the blackpowder era, that was the largest cartridge designed for repeating firearms, originally housed in the Winchester Model 1886 lever action. Why in Antarctica? The northern polar region was explored first, so the deduction is obvious: Early explorers expected to find polar bears, and wanted to be adequately armed!

Although each has variations, there are six primary rifle actions: Single-shot, multi-barrel, bolt-action, lever-action, slide-action, and self-loading. Although it’s possible, the latter two have rarely been scaled to accept cartridges for the largest game. Single shots were universal in blackpowder days. British and European gunmakers developed the large caliber double as we know it today. The bolt-action was primarily a European development with Mauser taking credit for creating an extra-large “magnum” action capable of housing the largest cartridges. The lever action, however, was almost purely an American development, and until after World War II was America’s preferred sporting rifle action.

This Marlin 1895 cuts a one-hole group at 50 yards with its traditional “buckhorn” sights and Hornady’s 325-grain FTX load. I don’t know how accurate it really is because these days 50 yards is about my limit for resolving iron sights.

Among hunters, the lever action has long surrendered to the bolt action in popularity, and among American shooters no other design has seen the astounding popularity of the AR platform. However, the lever action remains an icon, as American as apple pie, motherhood and John Wayne. The Duke’s favorite, the fast-handling Winchester 1892, has made a major comeback in Cowboy Action Shooting, along with Winchester’s ’66 and ’73 and Marlin’s 1894. These rifles with compact actions are essentially chambered to pistol cartridges. As a hunting rifle, the classic form of the lever action is the good old .30-30, still wielded effectively in Winchester, Marlin, and now Mossberg lever actions by millions of American deer hunters—and sometimes stretched to black bear and elk. Then there are more powerful lever actions, with at least theoretical capability for the world’s largest game.

Although less frequently chosen than powerful bolt actions, double rifles and single shots, there are hunters who want to use their lever actions for the largest game, from our biggest bears to buffalo—and even elephant. Good reasons include familiarity, nostalgia…and just to use a rifle that’s different. Good idea or bad? Why not? But you have to make sound choices.

OPTIONS

Doug Turnbull and Boddington with a Turnbull-customized Winchester Model 1876. The ’76 was the first successful repeater able to handle large-cased cartridges. The action is not strong, so its .45-75 cartridge is about equal to the .45-70’s mild blackpowder load.

The first successful repeater for large cased cartridges was the Winchester 1876 Centennial. Its shorter, bottle-necked .45-75 was intended to duplicate .45-70 Government performance in a repeater. That it did, but the ballistics replicated were the mild figures of the Trapdoor Springfield cartridge then in use. Modern replicas of the ’76 are available, but they’re not a strong action. In his Dakota ranching days, Theodore Roosevelt used it for grizzly, but in any chambering you must accept blackpowder velocities, so it’s marginal. Introduced a decade later, the John Browning-designed Winchester 1886 had a longer action. It originally housed the .45-70 Government cartridge and could accept cartridges up to the .50-110. It was also stronger, easily making the transition to smokeless powder.

: Left to right: .33 Winchester, .348 Winchester, .358 Winchester, .356 Winchester, .338 Marlin Express. These powerful “medium-bore” cartridges were all designed for lever actions. All are just fine for elk, moose or bears, but are not suitable for thick-skinned game.

In smokeless form it’s most popular chambering was the .33 Winchester, and in 1936 it was modified as the Model 71 in .348 Winchester — one of the most powerful factory cartridges ever chambered in a lever action. Recently reintroduced by Browning and Winchester, the .348 lives on, and has been followed by other medium-caliber cartridges, including the .356 and .358 Winchester and the .338 Marlin Express. I’m a big fan of the .348, love the .358, and I’m sorry the .338 Marlin hasn’t been more popular. These are all awesome cartridges for black bear, elk or moose and, with care, can be used on big bears. In my view, they are not suitable for buffalo. This is not purely theoretical. Many years ago, I used my .348 with 250-grain bullets to take a bison. I flubbed the brain shot and performance with body shots wasn’t impressive. I wouldn’t try it again.

The Winchester 71 action is pretty strong. Years back it wasn’t uncommon to rebarrel .348s to the wildcat .450 Alaskan or .450 Alaskan Ackley Improved, propelling a 400-grain bullet at possibly 2,000 fps. Essentially duplicating .450/.400 ballistics, with the right bullets these could handle just about anything that walks! I had one in .450 Alaskan Ackley Improved for a time, but with the slender butt it was the worst-kicking rifle I ever owned!

Boddington’s Doug Turnbull Model 1886 in .475 Turnbull shoots extremely well with both Cor-Bon 400-grain expanding bullets, left, and 400-grain flat-point solids. Both bullets are designed to be safe in tubular magazines.

You don’t need to go to such lengths to find a lever action that is at least buffalo capable. Designed for blackpowder, the .45-70 has a generous case. In ultra-strong actions, such as the Ruger single shot, you can approach .458 Winchester Magnum ballistics. This is not possible in any lever action, but there are at least three and often four sets of loading data for the .45-70. Mildest are loads intended to be safe in the Trapdoor Springfield. This is a weak action, and both original rifles and replicas are still in use, thus loading data and factory loads from major manufacturers are kept conservative so as to be safe in Trapdoor rifles.

The Model 1886 is a much stronger action, and the Marlin 1895 is stronger yet. Some manuals give separate sets of data for each, but all offer loads that considerably enhance performance above original blackpowder specs. In a strong lever action of modern manufacture, it is quite possible to get a 400-grain bullet up to 1,800 fps. This will not match .450/.400 ballistics (400-grain bullet at about 2,050 fps), but enough buffalo have been taken with lever action .45-70s so loaded that it appears they don’t often notice the difference.

These are probably the best choices for a lever action for buffalo-sized game. Left, .45-70 with Garrett’s 420-grain Super Hard Cast bullet; .450 Marlin with 405-grain bullet; .475 Turnbull with 400-grain Barnes bullet.

A quick discussion about the .405 Winchester — Roosevelt aptly called it his “lion medicine,” and he was right. In the lever action Winchester ’95 it probably is perfect for lion. For larger game its problem is bullet weight. Chambered in the Ruger, you can go up to 400-grain bullets and duplicate the .450/.400, making it clearly elephant-capable. You can’t do this in the Model 1895. The action isn’t strong enough and you don’t have enough action length. The original bullet weight was 300 grains, light for caliber, and that’s about all you can fit into the 1895.

Modern bullets do improve the equation. Larry Potterfield (of Midway USA fame) has used his original 1895—with modern bullets—on Cape buffalo with no problem, but I don’t recommend it. I am convinced you’re better off with a strong .45-70 Winchester or Marlin with heavy loads.

There are other options. The problem major manufacturers have with heavy .45-70 loads is they will fit in any .45-70, so despite all printed warnings there’s no way to keep foolish folks from chambering them in a Trapdoor Springfield. Enter the .450 Marlin. It is essentially a .45-70, but with a belt ahead of the rim precluding chambering in a .45-70. Ammunition for the .450 Marlin is thus loaded to higher pressure (and performance) than any standard .45-70 load. Only chambered in Marlin 1895s, the case doesn’t add strength to the Marlin action so the .450 Marlin won’t do anything more than heavier .45-70 loads—but it is a more “over the counter option.” The .450 Marlin, as loaded by Hornady, produces 2,225 fps with a 325-grain bullet. This is 200 fps faster than the same company’s load (with the same bullet) for the .45-70. More important for dangerous game, the traditional 405-grain .45-70 bullet can be handloaded or custom loaded as high as 1,950 fps in either .45-70 or .450 Marlin, yielding about 3,500 ft.-lbs. of energy…but only in strong modern actions.

The tubular magazine of a lever action is slower to load and unload than a bolt action, and if you lose count in the heat of battle it’s impossible to know how many cartridge remain in the tube.

Then there are heavy wildcats. These are primarily designed around the ’86 action since it accepts a larger case diameter, while the .45-70 pretty much maxes out the Marlin 1895. The .450 Alaskan, still seen, was a forerunner, but more common today is the Doug Turnbull-designed .475 Turnbull. Based on the old .50-110 case and using a .475-caliber bullet, Turnbull went to the trouble of having this cartridge “SAAMI-approved.” That means that the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Institute, America’s governing body for such things, has standardized dimensions, pressure and performance. So although nowhere near as common as the .45-70, the .475 Turnbull is not a wildcat; brass and bullets are available, and loaded ammunition is available from specialty suppliers. Using a flat-pointed 400-grain Barnes bullet, the .475 Turnbull produces 2,150 fps for 4,100 foot-pounds of energy—plenty of gun by anyone’s standards. Mine, with the extra weight of a 26-inch octagon barrel and a slim rubber recoil pad, is actually pleasant to shoot, and amazingly accurate.

I have not used the .45-70 or .450 Marlin in Africa, but friends have with no problems. A while back, I took my 1886 in .475 Turnbull to Mozambique. The professional hunters in camp were intrigued. They’d never seen a rifle like that; everybody wanted to shoot it and they all loved it! The buffalo I shot with it did not love it—it worked perfectly!

LOADS AND BULLETS

This was as close as we could get to these Mozambique buffalo—not all that far, but with the .475 Turnbull’s traditional buckhorn open sights a simple shot suddenly wasn’t so simple. The 1895 Marlin action is more readily adaptable to optical sights.

Here is where things get complicated. It is amazing that the .45-70, introduced in 1873, not only remains with us, but is as popular as it is. The problem is that most American hunters use a big lever action for wild hogs and black bears, for which they’re perfect, and big woods whitetail hunters use them to anchor their bucks right there, in their tracks. To be honest, these are my primary uses as well! Cape buffalo power is not required, nor are “buffalo-capable” bullets.

Several companies still offer the traditional “blackpowder equivalent” 405-grain .45-70 load at about 1,394 fps. It hits very hard on soft-skinned game, but lacks the velocity to ensure penetration on buffalo-sized game. Most companies also offer lighter bullets—250 to 350 grains—at higher velocities. They shoot flatter, yet still hit like freight trains on smaller big game, but lack the bullet weight and design for really big stuff. There are solutions, but you won’t find them at your local hardware store. Garrett Cartridges, for instance, offers a .45-70 +P load with a 420-grain “Super Hard Cast” flatpoint bullet at 1,850 fps. This is enough velocity and enough bullet. Don’t underestimate how well a hard-cast bullet penetrates at that velocity! I shot another bison with similar loads, and they went straight through! Garrett’s packaging is very clear on “modern firearms” they consider safe for these loads, so pay attention. Marlin 1895s and recent Browning/Winchester 1886s are on the list. Handloading is, of course, always a solution, just note that in tubular magazines you must use very blunt-nosed or flat-tipped bullets. I would not put a traditional round-nosed solid in a tubular magazine!

A very nice Mozambique buffalo, taken with an 1886 Winchester in .475 Turnbull. Performance was perfect.

The .475 Turnbull is a slightly different animal because it was designed for large game. You won’t find it at the corner store, but Cor-Bon makes factory ammo, and Barnes makes 400-grain flat-nosed expanding bullets and solids that are safe in tubular magazines. Rifle cranks will note that 400 grains is light-for-caliber for a .475-inch bullet, but the homogenous alloy construction mitigates this. Elephants have been taken with the solids, and I’ve had excellent penetration on buffalo with both expanding bullets and solids.

LIMITATIONS AND SOLUTIONS

In the early years of the past century, when the lever action was America’s darling, much was made over how much faster the lever action is for repeat shots. Early gunwriters actually did “speed drills” with inconclusive results. Turns out that if a shooter learns to shoot a bolt action properly, without removing it from the shoulder, the lever action isn’t much faster, but absent a lot of practice it probably feels more natural to run a lever gun without taking the rifle down, thus retaining the sight picture.

So while a lever action is fast, it isn’t really faster. With traditional lever guns capacity is dictated by the length of the tubular magazine, which is dictated by barrel length. So a lever action might hold more cartridges than a bolt action, but is definitely slower to load and requires more dexterity. It is also slower to unload. A minor point: It is impossible to tell at a glance how many cartridges remain in a tubular magazine!

With Cerakote metal finish, camouflage stock and rail mount, this Marlin 1895 from the Marlin Custom Shop is as modern as tomorrow and the action is really slick and smooth.

One of the biggest limitations with many big lever actions is the sighting equipment. Although aperture sights are an option, top-eject rifles like the Winchester ’86 and ’95 defy conventional scope mounting. Both my Turnbull .475 and a Marlin .45-70, with traditional “buckhorn” rear sights, are absolute tack-drivers at 50 yards—but I can no longer resolve iron sights well enough to know how they group at 100 yards, and on game I’m pretty much done short of that distance.

Obviously, the side-eject Marlin offers more options. I just got in a Marlin 1895 from their Custom Shop, now relocated to Sturgis, South Dakota. While the Turnbull rifle and my old Marlin are gorgeous and traditional, both with long octagon barrels, this Marlin is just plain cool, with Cerakote metal finish, camouflage stock and an action that has clearly seen a lot of work. It is slick and smooth and darn near opens itself. Supplied is an adjustable aperture sight on a rail mount; for me it was almost perfect, just a couple inches off at 50 yards. Initially I’ve put an Aimpoint Micro on it, but at some point I’ll probably put a scope on it because I’m curious as to how well it really shoots. I don’t know if I’ll take it to Africa or not, but I just might—it would be perfectly at home!–Craig Boddington

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