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Top 8 Lever Action Deer/Big Game Hunting Rifles

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When it comes to deer hunting, nothing says "tradition" quite like a lever-action rifle... especially the old flat-sided Winchester and Marlin rifles chambered for 30-30 Win. But these aren't the only lever guns that have enjoyed success with big game hunters... other designs have proven themselves useful and popular, too.

1. Marlin Model 336

Marlin 336 lever action rifle in 35 Remington
Photo © Russ Chastain
Marlin's Model 336 is one of the most successful lever-action rifles in history - and deservedly so. Whether chambered for 30-30 Win or the harder-hitting 35 Rem, the 336 provides a strong, smooth, well-designed action in a rifle that is a pleasure to carry and shoot. Side ejection and a solid top allow for easy, solid scope mounting above the bore.

2. Browning BLR

Browning's BLR, introduced in 1971, is their offering to lever action lovers, and it has gained quite a following with some hunters. The rotating bolt allows for positive lockup, and side ejection makes scope mounting a breeze. The detachable box magazine also makes it a standout rifle. Chamberings from 22-250 through 450 Marlin.

3. Marlin Models 1895 & 444

Marlin big-bore lever-action rifles are just as good as the smaller 336 - and they should be, since they are simply scaled-up versions of the same gun. Chambered for 45-70 (Model 1895) or 444 Marlin (Model 444), these guns pack a wallop, and will handle tougher game than their smaller antecedent. These full-grown lever guns are some of the most dependable and accurate knocker-downers I've used.

4. Marlin Model 1894

Marlin's Model 1894 is a bit different than their other lever guns - but just as good. Instead of the round bolt found on those above, the 1894 has a flat-sided bolt that sits flush with the receiver, featuring a solid top and side ejection for proper scope mounting. This model has been made in three chamberings (357 Mag/38 Special, 41 Rem Mag, and 44 Rem Mag/44 Special), but the 41 seems to have been eliminated from the lineup. Of the calibers listed above, I recommend nothing less than 44 Magnum for big game.

5. Ruger Model 96/44

Ruger's Model 96/44 is a sweet little rifle. Though it looks a lot like my old favorite Model 44, the 96 has a detachable rotary magazine instead of the tubular mag found on its semi-auto predecessor. Side ejection and solid top receiver for scope mounting. My experience indicates this is a very smooth and accurate little gun, excellent for close-cover brush hunting. Chambered for the 44 Rem Mag. Unfortunately, this fine rifle was discontinued in 2007, but can still be found on the used-gun market.

6. Savage Model 99

Though it has long been discontinued, the Savage 99 is a rifle that broke the mold for lever-action rifles. The built-in rotary magazine (later a detachable box mag) allows for the use of pointed bullets, unlike the tubular mags often found on lever guns. The action is both strong and smooth, with a wide and hand-filling receiver rather than the tall and slim style found on the Marlin 336 and Winchester 94.

7. Winchester/USRAC Model 94

Even though large-scale production of this model ceased in 2006, the Winchester Model 94 may still be the most-recognized lever-action rifle in the world still in widespread use. While not as inherently smooth or strong as the Marlin Model 336, the Model 94 has a loyal following, and it has done the job for many years. Common complaints include the open-top receiver which makes scope mounting inconvenient. Chamberings from 30-30 Win to 480 Ruger. Domestic manufacture of these rifles was discontinued in 2006 with the closing of Winchester's USA factory, but some versions have since been built in Japan by Miroku.

8. Winchester Model 88

Although built only from 1955-1963 (a post-64 version was built until 1973), the original Winchester Model 88 has a loyal following, and is often sought after by hunters and collectors. Like the Savage 99, the 88 departed from traditional lever-action design and appearance. Its rotating bolt with forward locking lugs offers bolt-action strength without the worry of venting gases or a broken bolt hitting the shooter in the face. Chambered for 243 Win, 284 Win, 308 Win, and 358 Win.

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