For the Love of Levers

by Terry Wieland

If there is a great American rifle, it is undoubtedly the lever gun. With one or two (mostly forgettable) exceptions, no one but Americans has ever made a lever action. And while they have fallen out of favor over the past half-century, at least with the self-styled cognoscenti, I have yet to meet a man at a shooting range whose eyes don’t light up at the sight of a Winchester ’92.

I mention the ’92 particularly because, to me, it epitomizes the lever action’s virtues, with none of its drawbacks. Much like the pump shotgun, the lever-action is possibly the most ergonomic repeating rifle ever made. No, let me rephrase that: It is the most ergonomic, bar none. It is also, to use the word coined by British gun writer Gough Thomas back in the 1960s, eumatic.

There are subtle differences in meaning between ergonomic and eumatic, but possibly the best way to differentiate between them is that an ergonomic mechanism is easy to use, whereas a eumatic one is a positive pleasure to use. Today, writers of press releases attach the word “ergonomic” to any rifle that is not actually a danger to life and limb, and some of the contraptions so described leave one at a loss for words. They are as easy to settle into as a straitjacket, and just about as comfortable.

The venerable Winchester Model 1892, this one in .38-40. With the ability to scatter 15 fast shots without reloading, it’s a formidable short-range weapon — the best lever action ever designed.

Compare this with the mechanism of the Winchester ’92, which is a scaled down ’86, designed by John M. Browning. The ’86 was designed to handle big buffalo cartridges, and it does so remarkably well, but never without feeling heavy and ungainly. Scaled down to accommodate cartridges like the .44-40 and .38-40, however, the ’92 became a smooth, deadly instrument that scatters a dozen meaningful shots downrange in a matter of seconds.

Neither the .44-40 nor the .38-40 is a long-range cartridge. Practically speaking, 125 yards is the maximum effective range — which is fine, because that’s about what the ’92’s open sights will usefully accommodate.

Probably the thing about the Winchester ’92 that makes it so near-perfect is that it’s a superb balance of all the different factors: Weight, size, balance, sights, power, effective range, and so on. Even its other chamberings, the .25-20 and .32-20, which are small-game cartridges at best, do not benefit much from even a tang sight, never mind a scope.

The Winchester ’94, which has sold vastly more than the ’92 ever did, has many of the same virtues but, if one wanted to be extremely picky, one could argue that you can’t get the full benefit of the .30-30 or .25-35 without a scope, yet the rifle does not lend itself to scope mounting. And, in fact, if you do manage to attach a scope to it, you seriously degrade its other ergonomic qualities, such as ease of carrying and quickness into action.

The ’94’s long-time rival, the Marlin 336, purported to solve these problems with side- rather than top-ejection, allowing the positioning of a scope low over the receiver in the most natural position. And true, it does all those things. Whether this is in fact an improvement is another question.  Undoubtedly, there are gains — although not huge — but there are losses, too. Put a scope on a Marlin 336 and it doesn’t carry very easily, nor does it slide effortlessly into a saddle scabbard; get around this by fitting it with a sling, and you’ll find it hanging on your shoulder in those critical few seconds when a whitetail is bounding away and you wish it was in your hands.

In the 130 years since the ’92 and ’94 came on the scene, various attempts have been made to improve on them by eliminating perceived weaknesses, like the danger of using spitzer bullets in a tubular magazine, or locking up the breechblock near the bolt face, to improve accuracy. None of these designs proved to have lasting value — not the Winchester 88, nor the Sako Finnwolf (remember that one?) nor even the Savage 99, desirable though it is in its own ways.

The Winchester ’94 you buy new, today, is not the one you would have bought even 40 years ago, much less 100, but it’s unmistakably a ’94, nonetheless. It’s so much the great American rifle, along with the ’92, there isn’t even a real second-place finisher.


Our shooting editor’s first big-game rifle was a Marlin 336 in .35 Remington — his 15-year-old brain’s attempt to improve on the ’94 in .30-30.  He then fitted it with a Williams 5D receiver sight and a sling, thereby further reducing its efficacy.  It’s been a long road back.