And Now… The Present
I’m a little surprised, given the current state of affairs in the United States with idiots screeching like retarded banshees about “assault weapons,” that someone has not yet introduced a medium-caliber lever gun that will take, say, an AR or AK magazine. That would be an effective weapon in the hands of even a halfway-competent shooter. But in this modern era, the makers of lever guns have given over to the Tacticool craze – but not all of them, and for those that have, they still also make some traditional models. In fact, there are some new faces in the lever gun game, and some new combinations of old faces as well. So, let’s look at what the lever gun market looks like right now.
Winchester and Browning
The relationship of Browning and Winchester is complex, somewhat incestuous, and requires some unraveling. As this installment is looking at the present state of affairs in lever guns, we’ll only examine the most recent parts of that relationship.
Remember Winchester’s failure, the sale to New Haven employees, the final collapse and bankruptcy of US Repeating Arms? In 1989, when US Repeating Arms went bankrupt, it was acquired by the Belgian Herstal Group, which owns several other gun companies, including Fabrique Nationale d’Herstal (FN) – and the Browning Arms Company. This didn’t immediately affect lever gun production, which was limited to the Model 94 at that time; but in March of 2006, the company decided to shut down production of the Model 94 along with the Model 70 bolt rifle and the Model 1300 shotgun.
This was a sad day for American shooters; fortunately, the situation didn’t last. In August of that same year, the Olin Corporation, who still owned the Winchester trademark, announced an agreement with Browning to manufacture the 1886 and 1892 lever guns at the Mikoru plant in Japan. In 2010, FN began manufacture of the 1894 Winchester at Herstal. The new lever guns replaced the original stupid cross-bolt safety with a stupid tang safety that, while still extraneous, at least did not screw up the lines of the guns as much.
Now the picture for American lever-gun fans was improving and would continue to do so over the next few years as the Herstal-owned Winchester gradually reintroduced the Model 1866, Model 1873 and the great Model 1895.
Modern Winchester lever guns command a hefty price, with the all models running well over four figures. But with guns as with so many other things, you get what you pay for, and after their trials and tribulations – and bear in mind this is coming from a pre-64 Winchester snob – what you get from the new Winchester is damn good.
In a final and interesting twist, Winchester has now began once more offering the 94 chambered for the .32 Winchester Special, just in case you’re among the folks who doubt that this newfangled smokeless powder is really here to stay. And if a more modern gun is to your taste, Browning still makes their excellent BLR.
Winchester and Browning’s relationship began with the 1886 Winchester and continued through the effective merging of those companies. In recent history, though, another big lever gun manufacturer went through another acquisition, albeit not with a company bearing such a long history of association.
Marlin and Remington
While Marlin finally outpaced Winchester as America’s number one lever gun manufacturers in the 1990s, and while Marlin didn’t suffer the perception of quality lapses in the 1960s that Winchester did, that didn’t withhold them from being caught up in the round of company acquisitions that so many gun companies went through in the 21st century.
Late in 2000, Marlin bought out Harrington & Richardson (H&R), a company best known for inexpensive single-shot shotguns and the budget single-shot Handi-Rifles. But only seven years after this acquisition, Marlin would themselves be acquired.
In early 2007, the great American gun company Remington was struggling. The company had been operating at a loss for years; longtime corporate owner DuPont had divested itself of the firearms manufacturer fourteen years earlier. In June 0f 2007 Remington’s recovery began with their purchase by Cerberus Capital Management, later renamed the Freedom Group. In December of that year, the Freedom Group-owned Remington bought Marlin, bringing the country’s second-oldest lever-gun manufacturer under Big Green. That situation continues as of this writing.
Marlin today offers a larger variety of lever guns than the reconstituted Winchester. The great old 336 is still available in blue and stainless trims, as is the old Model 94. The 1895 and 444 are still available, the 1895 likewise in stainless and blue. The Marlin 39 .22 rimfire is still made and is still an excellent shooter. Marlin has also brought out a couple of new offerings recently on the great old 336 action, that being the 308 Marlin Express, chambered for a sort of rimmed .308, and the Marlin XLR, chambered in the .30-30, .35 Remington and the .308 Marlin Express. The XLR was purpose-made for Hornady’s Leverevolution ammunition, designed to let tubular magazine lever guns use pointed bullets.
While this ammo is turning in some pretty good performance by all accounts, one must be cautious with older Marlins. Overall cartridge length is critical in making lever guns run well, and the Hornady stuff seems to run long. While my old .30-30 336 feeds my handloads with the Hornady bullets just fine, I bought some factory rounds to try in the Bullwhacker, and the .45-70 versions jammed up on the cartridge lifter; they were just a bit too long for my mid-Nineties 1895G to feed well, although it digests every other factory round I’ve tried just fine, including some pretty incredible Garrett and Buffalo Bullet Company loads.
Marlin today is, like the new Winchester, a great company offering great products. Their rifles, like throughout their history, are a bit cheaper than the Winchesters, but that makes them in no way less effective.
But Winchester and Marlin were about to get some company in the lever gun market. There were some new kids on the block, new kids bearing an old name; there were also some old kids bearing an old name who were looking to branch out.
In 1996, a guy named Louis Imperato and his son Anthony Imperato obtained the rights to use the name “Henry” in relation to lever-action rifles, and proceeded to do so, launching the Henry Repeating Arms company and shipping their first model, a lever-action .22 rimfire, in March of 1997. The .22 Henry was followed by the Henry “Big Boy” in a variety of revolver cartridges, after which the Imperatos topped things off by resurrecting the original Henry rifle in .44-40 and .45 Colt calibers.
Henry adopted a marketing tactic that wasn’t exactly new but did set them apart from the Mikoru-made Winchester offerings; they heavily advertised their guns as completely made in the USA. That resonated well with a lot of American shooters and Henry quickly realized success, leading them to expand their line.
The Henry centerfire line was expanded to regular lever gun rounds including the .30-30 and even the .45-70. But like the original, the new Henry rifles have a weakness; the magazine.
While tubular-magazine lever guns from Winchester and Marlin load through a spring-loaded, hinged gate in the receiver, the Henry’s centerfire offerings copied the loading feature from their original .22 and, indeed, from all lever-action .22 rimfires; they load through an aperture in the underside of the magazine tube.
Not only does this seem a rather cheesy cost-cutting feature in a rifle that otherwise seems to be very solid and well-made, it has two other significant disadvantages; first, it requires dismounting the gun and removing the magazine tube to reload, as opposed to poking fresh rounds in through the gate, second, it allows dirt, dust and grit to get into the magazine tube, possibly jamming the gun up in the field.
But then Henry had a stroke of luck with a new rifle called the Long Ranger.
This new offering was something different, a modern lever gun broadly similar to the excellent Browning BLR; the Long Ranger has a gear-driven, short-throw lever driving a rotating locking-lug bolt, a detachable box magazine, and comes chambered in .223 Remington, .243 and .308 Winchester and the 6.5 Creedmoor. This gave shooters a chance at a fully modern big-game lever gun at a much lower cost than the Browning BLR.
While Henry was plowing and sowing this fertile new ground, though, a much older but still family-owned company was looking at the lever gun market and seeing some potential for their own offering.
Mossberg Enters the Market
For a complete story here, we must cast our optics back a few decades.
In 1919, the Great War had just ended, and a company named Marlin-Rockwell that manufactured machine guns duly closed their doors. Among the employees laid off from that company was a 53-year old Swedish immigrant named Oscar Frederick Mossberg.
Since Mossberg had some experience in firearms, going into business for himself seemed the logical thing to so, so he took his sons Iver and Harold and formed the O.F. Mossberg and Sons company. While they started with the .22 caliber Brownie pocket pistol and then moved into rimfire rifles and shotguns, including eventually the famous Model 500, they dabbled in the lever gun market with a .22 rimfire gun, the Model 400, which was manufactured from 1959 to 1964, never achieving much success. But in 1972 Mossberg entered the centerfire lever gun market with the Model 472, essentially a clone of the popular Marlin 336, chambered in .30-30 and .35 Remington.
The 472 was rather more popular than the rimfire 400 had been, but it never approached the very similar Marlin in sales. It’s still a good solid rifle, and it’s not hard to find used examples on the various auction sites; if one is looking for a very reasonably priced, solid and reliable .30-30, there are plenty of worse choices you could make.
Still, one good clone deserves another. In 2008 Mossberg brought out the Model 464 lever-action, in calibers .30-30 and .22 long rifle.
Mossberg and Henry have some interesting things in common. Both companies manufacture only in the U.S; both are still family-owned. But while Henry built lever guns mostly to their own pattern, Mossberg went in for adapting other designs. The Mossberg 464 in centerfire and rimfire versions were a thinly veiled copy of the Model 1894 Winchester and the 9422 Winchester.
Mossberg remains today as it always has been; an American company producing solid, reliable arms at reasonable prices. They may not have the fit and finish of more expensive guns, but if you are afield with a Mossberg in your hands, you can be damned sure it will go bang when you pull the trigger.
Also, Mossberg has one other talent as a company: They can see trends and take advantage of them. As the first decade of the new century ended, they did that with their 464 lever gun.
The Tacticool Lever Gun?
In 2013, Mossberg introduced another version of their 464 lever gun.
The SPX lever gun was, to put it plainly, something of a parody of the Tacticool craze. It used the 464 action, but appended a telescoping stock, a synthetic fore-end with several Picatinny rails and a muzzle brake.
By this point Tacticool-izing lever guns (along with every other kind of gun) was becoming all the rage. Black plastic replaced polished walnut as the stock-making material of choice, while Picatinny rails rather than Redfield or Weaver mounts the choice for mounting optical sights. I’ve relented myself to the extent of placing a Picatinny rail on the forward receiver and barrel of my own Bullwhacker, the better to mount the IER scope that the lightweight .45-70’s recoil warrants.
Still, as noted previously, there may be more thought going into this than old walnut and blued steel-worshipping stick-in-the-muds like me might at first consider. Consider for a moment the state of the gun rights controversy today, and how much of it focuses on “scary” black rifles. Consider the number of jurisdictions who have banned, partially banned or tried to ban scary black semi-autos.
Now, consider how little difference there is for an experienced shooter to deliver aimed rounds from a semi-auto vs. a medium-caliber lever gun. I can tell you this, having served in Uncle Sam’s colors and also having spent damn near fifty years in the game fields, were I in any kind of scrap, had I to choose between a military POGUE who hasn’t fired a rifle except for annual qualifications in his career, or an overweight mall ninja, or an old coot who has owned the same Winchester 94 or Marlin 336 for forty years and is a wizard at using it, I know which one I’d want on my side.
So maybe there’s a bit of smarts behind the Tacticool lever gun thing after all. If there are any Glibs with a good machine shop at their disposal and a head for business, it might be interesting to see if one could come up with a lever gun firing the 7.32x39mm round (which is close to the .30-30 in power) and that accepts AK magazines. Three may be a market for just such a gun.
The continued expansion of the replica market shows that there is an ample market for those guns as well.
Boy howdy, are there ever a wealth of replica guns of all kinds out there today, including many lever guns. While some of them are cheap knockoffs, many more are excellent, finely crafted and beautiful guns, enough to warm any old codger’s heart. Virtually all the Winchester models as well as the 1860 Spencer and the 1883 Colt-Burgess are represented, as are the 1860 Henry. Uberti, Chiappa, Rossi, all are represented, and there are new players that build some neat niche pieces. An outfit called Big Horn Armory is making a copy of the 1886 Winchester they call their Model 89, shooting the thumping .500 Smith & Wesson round. Taylors & Company makes some very fine replicas indeed, including an all-weather takedown clone of the Model 92 Winchester.
In fact, there’s one replica than, in reflection, makes me a little embarrassed that I neglected discussing the original on which the replica is based. I’ll do so now.
In the late 1880s, Winchester was thinking of getting into the shotgun business. They had previously had a contract manufacturer produce some side-by-side doubles known as the Winchester Match Guns, but these were pricey items and only a few hundred were made. An old buddy of mine had one, one of the two Match Guns made in 20 gauge, and in fact the very first 20-gauge shotgun to ever carry the name Winchester. Someone eventually made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, one good enough to enable him to considerably expand his collection of unfired NIB 1940s and 1950s Colt revolvers.
But in 1887 Winchester wanted a repeater. Remember that famous Ogden gunmaker Winchester had just signed a contract with at that time? The company asked him to design them a repeating shotgun. John Browning advocated the pump-action, but Winchester said no; they were a lever gun company, and their repeating shotgun would be a lever gun. In due course Browning designed and Winchester introduced the Model 1887 shotgun, a big, blocky lever gun firing the 12-gauge and 10-gauge rounds. That gun was refined somewhat a few years later and re-introduced as the Model 1901 in 10-gauge only.
The 87/01 was blocky and awkward. Browning continued his insistence that a pump was the way to go, Winchester relented, and Browning gave them the slim, handy Model 1897 pump gun, which Winchester engineer T.C. Johnson refined into the Model 1912, or just the Model 12 – arguably the finest pump shotgun ever made.
But I digress. The Model 1887 lever-action shotgun is made in replica form today by two manufacturers; Chiappa, who makes as good a gun as you can ask for, and Norinco, most of whose products are best suited as boat anchors. Chiappa even makes a version their 1887 replica with a rifled barrel and rifle sights, making it a very fine deer gun for states restricted to shotgun slugs for big game.
And, as usual, the lever gun market has some outliers and oddballs.
And a Few Others
In 1996 Ruger pitched in with their Model 96, a slick little full-stocked lever gun chambered for the .44 Magnum. While the 96 was a handy little thing with some good short-range punch, it didn’t last; Ruger wasn’t known as a lever gun company, and the 96 just kind of faded out.
From 1961 until 1979 shotgun maker Ithaca also sold the Model 49 lever gun, both as a tube-mag repeater and as a single-shot with a false magazine tube. I had a Model 49 for a while, and while Ithaca has always had the reputation of being a solid gunmaker, the 49 is in my experiences something of an exception, being whippy and rather cheap-feeling. I eventually traded mine off for something else, and the fact that I can’t even remember the details of that trade may tell you something of the esteem in which I held that little .22.
And Then This Happened
Another series ended.
I confess to being at a bit of a loss as to what types of guns to write about next. Pump shotguns, maybe? The history of pump-guns goes back nearly as far as the history of lever guns, and there are sure some standout examples (Pre-64 Model 12) from some names (Winchester) we’ve already studied. Maybe a series on shotguns in general, although that’s a wide time-span from the first matchlock fowlers to the present.
There are also some tiny niche gun companies and oddball guns out there with interesting histories. Ever hear of a Hilton revolver? Remember the .22 caliber Daisy VL? The Crosman Trapmaster CO2 shotgun? The GyroJet pistols and carbines? The gun world is an embarrassment of riches for the aspiring historian, and I’m just getting started. Hang in there, True Believers – you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.