With today’s high-magnification optics and high ballistic coefficient bullets, hunting with a lever-action rifle is a unique experience. Lever guns appear to be relics of a bygone period. However, a lot of hunting situations—especially our deer hunting here in the Eastern United States, the dense forests of the Pacific Northwest, and the numerous hunts over feeders in the Southern United States—show that lever guns and their accompanying cartridges don’t really present a disadvantage. However, for shots inside of 150 yards, where the majority of my shots in New York have been, these rifles and their cartridges perform rather well. It goes without saying that a round-nosed bullet from one of the slower, rimmed rounds isn’t the ideal option for taking a buck over a bean field.
Now, there are lever guns like the Browning BLR, Savage 99, and Winchester 88 that can handle many of the rimless and even belted cartridges that are more closely associated with the bolt-action and autoloading rifles. Despite the fact that these lever guns are operated, the cartridges can use spitzer bullets (due to the lack of a tubular magazine) and behave much more like a bolt rifle.
I’d like to restrict the options for this list to cartridges that work best in tubular magazine lever rifles and those that are equally as iconic as the rifles that fire them. And I’m going to somewhat cheat by designating the .22 Long Rifle as an option that can be decided upon immediately. Here are my top five favorite lever-action rifle cartridges watches.
1. 30-30 Winchester caliber
Given that the.30-30 Winchester was formerly and continues to be associated with deer hunting, this cartridge has earned its place at the top of the list. I shot my first deer with a Winchester 94 in.30-30, and my father shot his first deer with a Marlin 1893 in.30-30, both of which are excellent choices for the woods and forests. Even if it may have been accurate at one point, the.30-30 has undoubtedly contributed significantly to the enormous amount of venison that has been served on American tables since its introduction in 1895 and continues to do so each hunting season. the 2400 fps 150-grain load and the 150-grain load at 2400 fps and the 170-grain load at 2200 fps are easy on the shoulder, yet effective within 125 yards or so. Long live the .30-30! Its younger brother—the .32 Winchester Special, released in 1901—is very close in performance to the .30-30, but never was as popular.
2-The .45-70 Government.
The.45-70 Government, the oldest cartridge on this list, can pretty much do it all across the continent if the shooter can get close enough. The.45-70 is still a favorite choice in Alaska because of all the huge game there, and it uses a variety of bullets. The.45-70, which was introduced in 1873, has endured numerous competitors and is still in use today. The initial load had a 405-grain lead bullet traveling at 1350 fps with a rainbow-like trajectory, although it was state-of-the-art for its day. I enjoy some of the more recent variations, such as the Hornady LEVERevolution load with the 325-grain FTX bullet traveling at 2050 fps and the 300-grain Federal Fusion load doing so at 1850 fps.
This is a personal favorite of mine since the Winchester Model 71, which I believe to be one of the most attractive lever guns, was the only one that could use one of the most potent lever gun cartridges ever created. Although the 200-grain bullet has historically been the most common, my preferred load from this cartridge travels at 2350 fps with a 250-grain bullet. Even though the Winchester Model 71 was put out of production in 1958, numerous good-condition examples can still be found on the used market. In their LEVERevolution series, Hornady offers a 200-grain FTX bullet, offering people who don’t handload a choice of ammunition for their vintage Model 71s.
The.38-55 Winchester has the distinction of being the ancestor of both the.30-30 Winchester and the.32 Winchester Special. It was one of the original chamberings for the renowned Winchester Model 1894 and a popular option for the Marlin Model 1893. The.38-55 may seem underpowered in compared to contemporary cartridges since the conventional load propels a.375-inch-diameter, 255-grain bullet to a muzzle velocity of 1320 fps, but for deer and black bear in the Eastern forests, the.38-55 still performs as well as it did 125 years ago. Although it’s not a powerhouse, it most definitely has the “cool” element in my book.
5. .405 Winchester
As soon as his second term in office came to an end, President Theodore Roosevelt took his son Kermit on what would turn out to be one of the most memorable safaris through East Africa. Among his arsenal of weapons was his “medicine gun,” a Winchester Model 1895 chambered in.405 Winchester. The.405 Winchester delivers slightly over 3,200 ft.-lbs of energy at the muzzle when firing a 300-grain bullet with a.411-inch diameter at 2200 fps. Roosevelt employed the .405 Winchester with good results against lions despite its low Sectional Density (0.252), and more recently, hunters have used it against Cape buffalo and hippopotamuses.
There are numerous good component bullets available to the handloader, such the Woodleigh Weldcore, Barnes TSX, and the aforementioned Hornady InterLock. Winchester brought the 1895 rifle back, and Hornady provides their 300-grain InterLock in their Custom line. Many excellent cartridges, including the.30-40 Krag and the.30-06 Springfield, were available for the 1895, but to me, the.405 Winchester evokes ideas of exploration, adventure, and large game animals. Teddy deemed it adequate, so I will also consider it adequate.