The lever-action .30-30 may be ancient, but it’s far from obsolete.
By Sam Fadala
Firsts are memorable: First kiss. First .22 rifle. And, of course, that first deer.
Mine came in early light, a jumped buck, one shot at 35 yards with a Model 94 carbine, just like the one comic-book hero Red Ryder trusted. The forkhorn danced a jittery fandango and piled up at just 10 yards. Fascinating!
Later, a scoped Model 70 .270 came along, but I never forsook that smooth-sided lever-action in .30-30 Winchester. The classic hunting gun continues to twang the heartstrings of hunters from the Florida Everglades to the Yukon River.
Olive Frederickson made moose meat in Canada with her .30-30 to feed her hungry children. Teddy Roosevelt dubbed the little .30 an “Ace” after taking a running antelope “a fur piece out yonder.” Mexican cowboys fell in love with the treinta y treinta. Col. Townsend Whelen reported a 300-yard drop on a mule deer during his 1901 British Columbia hunt.
My writer friends who know that I like to hunt with the .30-30, often accuse me of propping up a dead duck, like El Cid, whose wife tied his lifeless body to his saddle in 1099, sending him back into battle. “It’s writers like you,” one of them said, “who keep the .30-30 alive when it should have been buried the day the .308 came out.”
What my friend forgot is that the people voted for the little .30 again and again. It survived the 1906 .30-06 as well as today’s excellent short magnums.
Last year, I decided to forego antlers and hunt for meat only with my Marlin Texan carbine .30-30. To add spice to these outings, I purchased multiple tags and elected to use a different bullet/load for each hunt.
Wal-Mart had purchased a huge ranch north of my Wyoming home, pushing hunters into the southern end of the unit in my turf. The pronghorns were wild. I could not get .30-30 close. Finally, I hiked three miles into a no-roads patch and made a stalk. The shot strained my ability, not the cartridge’s. The 160-grain bullet angled through a front shoulder. A follow-up was required — my fault, not the .30-30’s.
On subsequent trips, I downed two Wyoming mule deer, one Wyoming whitetail and two South Dakota whitetails with one shot each from the .30-30.
I used 10x42 binoculars in spot-and-stalk style. Find with the glass. Pick a route out of sight. Use a wind detector to keep the zephyrs flowing from game to hunter. Slip on a face mask before rising from cover to take the shot.
There’s a good reason for missing with an iron-sighted rifle. Modern hunters cling to the wonderful glass sight. We miss with irons because they do not reveal, as the scope’s magnification does, the nuances of wiggle. And so we touch off with the bead less than properly settled on the target. I have to remind myself to take a rest where one is available, the same as with a scoped rifle. Get as steady as possible and squeeze that trigger for perfect let-off.
Numerous firearms have been chambered in .30-30, including the Thompson/Center Encore pistol and even a few bolt-action rifles like the Model 70 Winchester. I have a single-shot New England rifle in .30-30 that shoots fine with pointed bullets of every brand, especially a particular 150-grain number from Sierra.
Savage’s low-priced bolt-action Model 340 and single-shot Model 219, as well as the same company’s fine Model 99 lever action, came in .30-30. So did Winchester’s single-shot Model 85. Remington had rolling-block rifles in .30-30. Expensive multiple-barrel drillings were chambered in .30-30. The cartridge even enjoyed modest popularity in Europe as the 7.62x51R — 7.62mm bullet, 51mm case length, R for rimmed.
The .30-30 died in most rifles for good reason: Why would a hunter buy a Winchester Model 70, for example, in .30-30 when it also came in .30-06?
But it never failed in two rifles of boundless fame: Winchester’s Model 94 and Marlin’s Model 336. When Winchester announced the demise of the 94 on March 31, 2006, I said, “Okay. But not for good.” I was told I was wrong. As this is written, plans are underway to dig up the dark grave and pull the Model 94 back into the sunlight.
The Marlin .30-30 never passed and continues to do well. In spite of many excellent chamberings in these two rifles, the .30-30 continues to sell briskly. H.V. Stent wrote in the 1974 “Gun Digest,” “Sometimes I wonder if Winchester’s Model 94 .30-30 is what the Haitians used to call a zombie, a living corpse.” Me, too. Likewise the Marlin 336. But these rifles do not exist because of sentiment. They remain because they are still the people’s choice. And the voice of the people drowns out the pitiful squeak of all the experts on the planet.
The ballistic truth is that a 20-inch-barreled carbine in .30-30 propels a 170-grain factory load at 2000 fps, and that’s about it. More ballistic truth reveals that this is sufficient pasta to slam a big buck down to the turf with one shot at modest range.
Hornady kicks its 160-grain bullet away at 2,250 feet per second from the carbine, faster from longer barrels. Winchester’s latest .30-30 ammo surpasses the old. The .30-30 can also be handloaded for increased power. My repertoire of handloads runs from the 110-grain small-game/turkey load to one firing a 190-grain bullet, extracted from .303 Savage ammo, at
Originally, the .30-30 took hold because it offered ray-gun velocity in a day when the speed of sound was the rule in blackpowder cartridges. Express loads might go as high as 1,500 fps by reducing bullet weight, but that was about it.
I’m a doting fan of the .30-06. However, there are times and places when less is more. A .30-30 with less weight and milder recoil in a rifle that handles like an upland shotgun is ideal in thickets and woods.
The .30-30 also costs less than a .30-06. In 1932, a hunter could purchase a Model 94 .30-30 for $36.30 when the company’s Model 03 .22 rimfire cost $35.20. Winchester’s Model 54 .30-06 ran $53.40 that same year. Sounds close, but remember, $17.10 meant something in 1932. And if your heart’s desire ran to the imported Mannlicher .30-06, you had to drop a $100 bill.
In 1939, the standard-grade Model 70 Winchester .30-06 fetched $61.25 while the Model 94 carbine demanded $30. But it wasn’t only money then. And it isn’t only money now. With me, it’s the .30-30 challenge. It’s not longbow/recurve or frontloader difficult, but the little 30 does demand more attention than a scope-sighted magnum. And sometimes I like that.
Model 94 Vs. 336
Two clear winners. Having shot both over a number of years, there can be no doubt that this challenge ends in a tie. I have never, not once, not ever, experienced a jam with either a 94 or a 336.
Have to hand this one to the 94, with a couple of exceptions. The Model 94 lever tucks neatly into the frame. The Model 336 lever does not. It has a bolt running through a “lump”that extends down from the frame. The Marlin Texan 336 does not have the pregnant fore-end, but it still bears the lump protruding from the bottom frame into which the lever is bolted.
Of course, the 336 design is best, as removing that single bolt allows the lever to come away and then the bolt itself and the ejector. Now you clean from the breech. Not only is this handier, but it also allows a clean look right through the bore as you would with a Model 70, for example, by removing the bolt, allowing a line of sight right through the bore.
Both the 94 and 336 are more than sufficiently accurate for big game hunting under normal conditions. If there is an edge, it might run slightly in favor of the 336, especially in its latest form, which is the most accurate Marlin lever action ever made.
The 94 wins this race. While crystal balls are subject to breakage, clearly Winchester’s baby, considering its new lease on life coming up, will one day top 10 million copies. The Marlin does not have to wait for a rebirth. The 336 continues to sell like umbrellas in Seattle.
The Marlin has always been the winner in this category. Remove the single screw securing the lever. Pull the lever free. Drag the bolt out. Dump the ejector. Clean the 336 from the breech. Reassembly is equally foolproof — the ejector pin drops into a notch in the side of the receiver, providing a clear view of proper placement. Shove the bolt in about halfway. Install the lever. Replace the screw. Done.
Considering the older 94s, the 336 leads this race. However, later 94s were beefed up so that both designs are capable of containing a number of different cartridges. My own PH rifle in Africa is a 336. Marlin calls it the Model 1895, but it is a 336 in .45-70.
The Marlin 336 enjoyed side ejection of spent cartridges from the start. The Model 94 did not. Its top-ejection design precluded the normal mounting of a scope sight. Winchester remedied this with its Angle Eject model.
Except for my traditional muzzleloaders, all my hunting rifles wear slings. Marlin has a fore-end cap with integral sling-swivel eye. I like that. Slings can, however, be installed on the 94 with a barrel band quickly and easily.
The 94 Winchester is a bit slimmer, model for model. The fat forearm of my 336 Marlin is now slim. The Marlin Texan’s forearm was born slim and handles just as well as the
Over many years of firing both the 94 and 336, I’ve experienced zero failures of any breed. Both get a huge gold star for mechanical prowess, although the Marlin by virtue of a round bolt leads slightly in this criterion.
Triggers on both models can be improved by a knowledgeable gunsmith. My most-used Marlins have aftermarket triggers from Wild West Guns of Anchorage, Alaska. They’re costly, but 3-pound no-creep is the result.
Toss-up. Some Marlins weigh more than some Winchesters, but the difference is negligible in real-life circumstances. Meanwhile, my Marlin Texan weighs the same, for all practical purposes, as the 94 .30-30 carbine.
Winchester’s Model 1894 (94) glows brighter, history-wise, due to its reputation as “The Gun That Won the West.” This is hyperbole. If any gun won the West, it was a muzzleloader in the hands of the mountain men. In fact, John Marlin’s design of 1893 predated John Browning’s of 1894.
Marlins in recent times have come into their own in this category. You won’t find a good old Marlin in the pages of “The Gun List” for a song. Nonetheless, Winchester 1894s in numerous submodels have led the collection pack over time.
Both models are the highest-selling sporting arms of all time. The reason: Neither ever lied to the hunter packing it in any terrain. Choosing either is never a mistake.
“If you doubt the killing power of the caliber, I can only say you must not have ever used it, because under its limitation, the .30-30 does exactly what it’s supposed to do with proper bullet placement: kill game.”
Walt Hampton, Professional Gunsmith, Gun Writer
“In these days, when many consider the .30-30 inadequate for deer, I think of the Eskimos who used them on barren ground grizzlies and polar bears, of the Mexicans who used them in Sonora on Chihuahua grizzlies, and of Arizonans I knew who thought nothing of tackling those mean bears back in the early years of
Jack O’Connor, Still No. 1 Gun Writer
“As for killing game, I’ve killed a lot of big kudu and gemsbok and warthog with it [the .30-30]. In its range, it does fine. I used it for a while when shooting
Jan Oel0fse, Professional Hunter, Africa
“The owner of the ranch says each year we can have four deer to make the carne seca and, of course, the fresh meat over the fire with corn tortilla and frijoles refritos. My rifle is the only one I ever owned. It belonged to my father and his father before that, a special rifle with the long barrel. Senor Winchester, we all call it. I like to get close, maybe 30 or 40 steps, and then shoot one time only to save the meat. This way, the rifle never misses.”
Vincent Gutierrez, Sonora Ranch
“The .30-30 is very mild in the recoil department when chambered in a light and handy firearm. In fact, the modest recoil dished out by the .30-30 is one of its most endearing qualities. It’s a handloader’s dream. Headspace is fixed by the case’s rim, so the .30-30 doesn’t require any critical resizing or die adjustments.
Holt Bodinson, Gun Writer
“In the hands of fairly good shots and experienced hunters, it [the .30-30] has always done good work. I am not of those who decry it and think it obsolete.”
Col. Townsend Whelen
Reprinted from the July 2008 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.