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Traditional Lever Actions for Whitetails

PhotoBy Randy D. Smith

-- I've hunted white-tailed deer for over 30 years, and I have no idea how many I've harvested.  I consider a lever-action .30-30 carbine to be the perfect deer hunting tool. The .30-30 cartridge delivers a lot of moderate-range power, exhibits low recoil and is accurate.  Traditional tube-feed, lever-action rifles are quick handling and far more accurate than many give credit.

I have owned a .30-30 Mossberg Model 472 for more than three decades, and it has never malfunctioned, misfired, or failed me. It will still produce 2-inch 100-yard groups using 150-grain Federal ammunition. No other rifle I have owned has taken such a wide selection of game in as many different circumstances, and it has never worn anything except traditional open iron sights. 

Three Marlin lever-action rifles that the author uses often. The top rifle is a Marlin in 308 Marlin Express, the middle is a .30-30 restored as a scout carbine and the bottom is a .45-70 Guide Gun.
Hornady's introduction of polymer tipped LEVERevolution bullets in traditional tube-feed deer rounds such as the .30-30 Winchester, .35 Remington, .444 Marlin, .45-70 Government and .450 Marlin have caused many to reconsider the traditional lever-action rifle. Gun dealer racks that were once overflowing with used lever-action rifles are now often empty.

The Winchester Model 94 was the most popular choice in this category for over a century. Used Model 94s are also available in .307 Win, .356 Win, .375 Win., 32 Special, .38-55, .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum, 45 Colt, 444 Marlin, 7-30 Waters and .25-35. Since production of the Model 94 ended, prices seem a bit high to me right now, but if one is in your closet it may be time to dig it out and find out why it was so popular for so many years.

If there was ever a perfect deer hunting carbine, the Marlin 336 is it. Besides, the .30-30 rifle is also chambered in 35 Remington, a popular woods round. I bought my father a new .30-30 Marlin for his 80th birthday, and he hunts with it every season. He seldom shoots a deer more than 50 yards away, and he needs a manageable firearm. My oldest son owns a pre-safety 336, and I am amazed at how well he can shoot it. 

Two very quick sighting systems for whitetail hunting. The Marlin .308 is sighted dead-on at 200 yards with a Williams receiver sight. The .30-30 is equipped with a long eye relief 2.5X fixed power scope. It is difficult to say which is quicker, but the scope works better in low light conditions. Most hunters would benefit from mounting a scope on the .308 Marlin Express, but I prefer to use the Williams receiver sight.
All of our .30-30 lever actions were iron sighted except one. I picked up an abused 336 at a very reasonable price. It was mechanically sound and had an excellent bore. I decided to restore it as a scout-style carbine. I stripped the surface rust and refinished the metal to a dark blue. I discarded the inexpensive, beat up hardwood stock and replaced it with a Ramline synthetic version. I removed the rear sight and installed an Ashley Scout scope mount system. I mounted an inexpensive long eye relief 2.5X fixed power scope. I have around $350 in this rifle and everything fell together perfectly. 

Using Hornady LEVERevolution loads it will group with any bolt action I own. The Scout scope system on a .30-30 lever action helps retain the inherent balance qualities of open sight carbines yet produces a very quick sighting system. At the time I was writing an article on scout-type bolt-action carbines for predator and deer hunting. Frankly this old Marlin outperformed some very fine new bolt-action rifles in the field. The combination of LEVERevolution rounds and the Marlin's scout configuration has proven to be exceptional.

LEVERevolution rounds in .30-30, .308 Marlin Express, and .45-70. Many will argue, and I was one of them, that there is no need for such high-performance cartridges in a lever action because of the ranges and conditions common to lever-action hunting. However, I've found that these rounds work extremely well when longer range shots are needed. Unless I am hunting strictly in deep woods, I gain so much advantage with the LEVERevolution rounds that I am now reluctant not to use them.
Mossberg recently introduced the Model 464, a new lever-action .30-30 carbine with an open top, angle ejection system similar to the Winchester Model 94 AE and a cylindrical-style bolt similar to Marlin designs. This gives the Mossberg a robust feeding and ejection system, which does very well with LEVERevolution-style ammunition. I tried to be first in line to get one for testing and wasn't far from it. This Mossberg is quite capable of matching the performance of any Marlin or Winchester with traditional or LEVERevolution ammunition.

I quickly learned, however, that I needed to mount a scope on this rifle to take full advantage of LEVERevolution rounds. I went with a 1.5-5X Weaver Grand Slam and the rifle easily groups inside of 1.5 inches at 100 yards. I will be carrying the rifle on my fall hunts.

Among the fastest on-target and deadliest lever actions I've owned was a stainless-steel .45-70 Marlin Guide Gun with XS Ghost Ring sights. What a fine rifle! If you have any plans to hunt larger game yet retain the qualities of a good whitetail hunting carbine, this is among my top recommendations. I let it go in a moment of weakness for what I thought was a high price. I finally replaced it with a blue steel version. I'll be more careful with this one.

Another excellent Marlin rifle is the Model 1895 .45-70 with a petite Pentax Lightseeker 0 powered scope. The barrel is 4 inches longer and is not quite as quick as the Guide Gun but it is superb. Big bore Marlins are also available in .450 Marlin and .444 Marlin. Any of these rifles will benefit from ghost ring sights or quality low-powered scopes for the ranges at which they are most effective.

The rifle on the right is my first centerfire rifle, a Mossberg Model 472 in .30-30. The Marlin and the Mossberg are pictured with levers half opened to show the difference in design. Because of its design, I have always thought that the Mossberg is quicker at cycling rounds than either the Marlin or the Winchester 94.
Perhaps the best all-around lever-action deer rifle I've ever used is a Marlin 308MX in .308 Marlin Express. I tried a receiver sight on this rifle but quickly abandoned it for a 1.5-5X Weaver scope to take advantage of the .308 Marlin's range. This is a lightning fast, flat shooting, powerful, 200-yard rifle.

I haven't had a chance to use it on anything larger than white-tailed deer nor at the ranges in which it would be most effective, but the .308 Marlin Express is a round any potential deer rifle buyer should consider. This cartridge should give new life to the tube-feed, lever-action rifle. I always wanted a Marlin 336 with the power and range of a .30-06. This one is close enough.

There are few other designs that manage to equal the lightweight, easy handling and responsive traits of traditional lever-action rifles. With the added performance of LEVERevolution ammunition, many may find that the tube-feed, lever-action rifle is all they will ever need.

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