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New Life for Levers

New Life for Levers

Innovative ammo from Hornady extends the range of the tube-fed lever-action rifle.

By Ralph M. Lermayer

At one time, lever-action rifles ruled the roost. Early bolt guns and one-shooters were sneered at as second best. It used to be that every new cartridge introduced, even the early sizzlers like the .22 Savage High Power, made its debut in a lever gun. Most of the high-velocity varmint chamberings were eventually shifted to bolt actions, as the superior accuracy of those guns became obvious. But a definite niche, filled perfectly by the lever guns, hung on, and to this day still does.

In situations where long-range accuracy and magnum power are second in importance to fast handling and quick second shots - the realm of the close-cover whitetail hunter - levers matched to moderate-power cartridges were, and still are, king.

Three guns and a single cartridge choice dominated sales: the Savage 99, an incredible piece of upscale machinery; the Winchester 94, the most ergonomically perfect gun ever to fit in a hunter's hands; and the Marlin 336, possibly the strongest of the trio, tough, accurate and reliable to a fault. All were chambered for a host of different calibers and cases, but in spite of an onslaught of competition, the vintage .30-30 was, and remains, the top lever chambering.

The reasons: It's easy on the shoulder, doesn't drain the pocketbook, and in spite of numbers that seem pale on paper, it dumps deer with authority when used in close cover. Its matchup to the lever guns was a marriage made in heaven. No black bear or deer hunter cruising the dark timber is the least bit undergunned with that package.

Much of the continuing popularity of lever designs comes from a factor universal to all of them: They shoulder fast and instantly feel good in the hand. Put a lever in the hands of a total novice, and he'll instinctively shoulder and point it perfectly.

The fact that lever guns chamber a second round with the simple flip of the fingers make it fast and natural to rechamber a new round without having to shift the rifle from the on-target position. Once the target is acquired in the scope or iron sights, you can easily rechamber a round in a lever without taking your eye (or muzzle) off the target. Anyone who has sent lead after a white-tailed buck flashing through the timber understands the benefits of finger flicking a lever action.

That lever gun's slim fore-end, grip and action all contribute to its great feel and balance. The slender receiver fills the hand naturally. It owes it svelte design to the fact that there is no bulky magazine. Of the trio, only one, the Savage 99, had a box magazine, but much design effort went into reducing its bulk. The 94 and 336 rely on a tubular magazine to maintain their ergonomic balance as well as provide the best way to feed the unique demands of lever-action mechanics. Tubular magazines were, and are, the best way to feed a lever gun and keep its fast-handling characteristics, but they come with a trade-off.

New Life for LeversYou couldn't use spitzer bullets because the sharp point of one bullet would be centered directly on the primer of the one in front while in the tube. Recoil or a hard rap could drive that sharp point forward and set a bullet off in the tube, causing one heck of a glorious mess.

The solution, long used and accepted as "just how it is" by lever users, is to use ballistically inferior flat-nose bullets. The trade-off was worth it. Give up a little range and accuracy for the other benefits.

The Solution

Well, that limitation is now gone. Hornady's new lever-action spitzer bullets have made a whole new act out of that old dance team.

When shooting lead-nosed bullets in hard-kicking bolt-action rifles, the nose gets deformed by recoil. The fourth or last round stacked in the magazine gets mashed to a pulp by the time you chamber it. Manufacturers solved that problem with polymer tips. Hard polymer tips don't get beat up and deformed in a magazine by recoil slamming the stacked bullets hard into the magazine wall with every shot. Nosler's Ballistic Tip was the first to address that problem, and set the trend.

The current lever breakthrough came about as an offshoot of the mass move by manufacturers to incorporate these sexy polymer tips in their bullets. Whether by a stroke of genius or dumb luck, someone at Hornady figured out that these normally hard polymer inserts could be made soft, yet still deliver increased aerodynamics and retain their integrity in flight. On impact, they drive into the nose cavity like a plunger and create fast, controlled expansion.

Most importantly, because they're soft and flexible, they can't accidentally set off a primer when loaded against other cartridges in a tubular magazine. On recoil, they simply mush back, then return to their original high-BC shape.

These new bullets have moved the potential of even Gramp's vintage .30-30 up into the big league ballistically. They are called LeveRevolution, are factory loaded by Hornady, and are safe and accurate in any lever gun.

While the .30-30 rifle is the primary consumptor of lever bullets, Hornady is also making them available for other common lever chamberings including the .444, .450 Marlin, .45-70 and even the .35 Remington. All those previously handicapped with inferior ballistics by the necessity of flat-nose bullets are about to undergo a major metamorphosis. The accompanying chart shows the potential of the new bullets compared to the previous stats.

New Life for LeversThe Velocity Gains

The increased velocity over traditional loadings is a result of two changes. Some bullet weights are slightly reduced. In the case of the .30-30, where a 170-grain bullet is considered standard, the Hornady offering is  160 grains. The .35 Remington stays at 200 grains, yet moves out almost 200 fps faster. The .444 increases the standard weight from 240 grains to 265 grains, yet still increases velocity over its lighter counterpart. The .45-70 ups the hunting weight to 325 grains with almost a 200 fps gain, and the .450 Marlin drops 25 grains in bullet weight while boosting speed by 125 fps. And, most significantly, these spitzer shapes maintain velocity longer, delivering far more energy on target at the longer range.

The second change is a result of new propellant technology. New powders that burn cooler, have smoother pressure curves and generate higher velocities translate into increased accuracy at the longer ranges.

With the new components, the .30-30 now duplicates .300 Savage performance and comes very close to standard .308 factory loads. The ballistic coefficient of these spitzer loadings extends the range of the .30-30 to a realistic 300 yards. That is territory never before associated with this cartridge or lever guns in general. All the other loadings share equally impressive performance increases.

Marlin Responds

Immediately sensing the boon to performance these new bullets would bring to lever guns, Marlin's Tony Aeschelman set the wheels in motion to modify the company's flagship, the .336, to best maximize the new ammo. Enter the .336 XLR ó externally, a major facelift and internally, mechanically tweaked to take advantage of the new ammo.

A stainless exterior is matched to a new barrel 24 inches in length. That extra length further increases the velocity potential for all the chamberings. In the .30-30, it boosts the output by almost 160 fps. The face of the magazine follower has been changed to better suit the new nose design, flawlessly feeding the entire tube from first to last shot.

A laminate stock that can't shift in foul weather now wears a fully functioning recoil pad. That makes a pussycat out of the .30-30 and greatly diminishes felt recoil in the powerhouse chamberings.

Does the longer barrel affect the fast handling? I think it does, a little, but it's still fast to the shoulder and points right where you're looking when it gets there.

Subscribe Today!Aesthetically, the XLR is elegant, which does negatively tweak my sense of nostalgia a bit. I like my lever guns to sport the same well-worn and much-used appearance my ranch hat shows. They don't look right to me unless they're dinged up, scabbard-worn and a little stained. The XLR is just too doggone pretty, but it's not just another pretty face.

This rifle shoots. The folks at Hornady warned me in advance it would surprise me. Wayne van Zwoll stopped at the ranch for an elk hunt and proceeded to show me a target full of sub-1-inch 100-yard groups he fired earlier with the rifle. Typically, levers don't shoot that well at 100 yards, and I would have been quite content with 1-1/2 to 2 inches, but both advance warnings held true.

The .336 XLR in .30-30 sent to test for this article punched consistent æ- to 1-inch groups with the factory-loaded 160-grain LeveRevolution ammo. In my standard Plain Jane .336, the ammo never exceeded 1æ inches, clean or dirty, and held to 2 inches or under in my very well-worn vintage pre-64 Model 94. That's about half the group size these older guns deliver with conventional flat-nose bullets in factory loads. These bullets will make any .30-30 sing, and in the XLR, they are stellar.

Claimed muzzle velocity from a 22-inch barrel is 2,400 fps with the 160-grain .30-30. My chrono registered 2,450 from the older .336 and nearly 2,680 in the longer-barreled XLR. Set 3 inches high at 100 yards, shots are dead on at 200 and about 12.5 inches (top of back hold) at 300. This isn't Grampa's "thutty-thutty."

In spite of all the hoopla, and my admitted fondness for long-range magnums matched to accurate bolt guns, I have long been an admirer and frequent user of a lever .30-30. Mine have ridden many miles in my scabbard. Where I live, in the heart of ranching and prime elk country, lever guns show up with regularity, packed by the hardcore horse and cowboy types riding the ridges each season. With these new bullets, especially in the more muscular calibers, I expect many elk and a pile of venison will succumb to the bite. I just hope these guys don't rag on me too much when they see this pretty XLR riding in the scabbard on my mule.

Reprinted from the July 2006 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.

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