While the Colt Peacemaker is often called the gun that won the west, it’s a lie.
The west was settled by the shotgun and won by the lever-action rifle (specifically the 1873).
For many American’s knowledge of the lever-action rifle has been limited to cowboy movies or to grandpa’s old 30-30 and they consider them all to be the same… they aren’t.
I think the main reason for this lack of on-going interest is that the arms selected by the military and police have long been the standard that civilian arms have been measured by, and while there were some units that used lever guns, they were more likely to be found in the hands of western ranchers and Indians (who liked them because they could be employed much like their familiar bows).
There are a couple of reasons that the big army never fielded a lever-gun.
- There was a fear that giving troops that much firepower would inspire them to waste ammo
- The early models weren’t strong enough to load military calibers
- A lever gun is hard to shoot prone (at least it is hard to shoot it twice, prone)
Today when we talk “lever guns” there are many choices, but if you limit it to those chambered in .357 there are essentially 4 models that get discussed.
Winchester Model 1866 “Yellow Boy”
The 1866 was an improvement on the Henry design in that it had the side loading gate that we currently think of on all lever-action guns.
Originally offered in .44 rimfire the “yellow boy,” which gets its nickname from the brass color of the receiver, was never offered in a very powerful cartridge because of the high pressures and it is still thought of as a rimfire gun (.22LR) by many; however reproductions are currently available in the common .38 special and .45 Colt calibers.
Hey that isn’t a .357! I know I just really like the Yellow Boy and the .22LR versions or the new “Silver Boy” would be great trainers. Plus it is good to know the heritage.
Winchester Model 1873
The 1873 uses the same type of toggle style action as the 1866, but it was available in 3 popular handgun calibers of the day. In fact, the 44-40 model was so popular that Colt made a revolvers chambered in the same cartridge so that people who carried a ’73 didn’t have to carry 2 different types of ammo.
The toggle style action of the 66 and the 73 both allow for them to be “Short Stroked” meaning that as much as 50% of the motion required to cycle a round can be eliminated from the throw and they can be extremely fast in competition.
Winchester Model 1892
While the first 2 guns used a toggle action, the last 3 all use locking blocks. This allows them to be stronger, but it also keeps them from being able to be short stroked.
The 1892 is also the gun you have probably seen the most in movies as they are typically cheaper and easier to find.
Unlike the Winchester 1894 (likely your grandpa’s ‘ole 30-30), The Marlin 1894’s action is sized for pistol calibers like the other models mentioned.
Arguably it is the strongest of all of the guns mentioned, but its real stand out feature is that it is side eject. This means you can scope the rifle, if that is what you are after, but you may not want to shoot it left-handed.
Lever Actions by the Numbers
|Model||R92-56011||1892 Model Solid||Texas Brush Popper (1873)||1894C|
|Caliber||357/38Spl.||357/38Spl.||357/38Spl.||357 Mag. / 38 Spl.*|
|Barrel Length||20 in.||20 in.||18 in.-Rnd||18.5 in.|
|Style||Carbine||Short Rifle||Short Rifle||Carbine|
|Capacity||10 Rnds.||12 Rnds.||10 Rnds.||9 Rnds.|
|Frame||Stainless Steel||Case Hardened||Case Hardened||Yep|
|Finish||Stainless Steel||Standard Blue||Standard Blue||Blued|
|Stock/Forearm||“Wood”||Walnut||Checkered Walnut Pistol Grip||Checkered American Black Walnut|
|Weight||5 lbs.||6.65 Lbs.||7.35 Lbs.||6 lbs.|
Which lever-action is better?
That depends on you!
Like most things, for a new lever-action, you get what you pay for and the Cimarron and Uberti guns are going to be of a higher quality, be smoother and have a better fit and finish.
That said, if you want a rim-fire or a race gun, the ‘66 and the ’73 would be great choices. If you want a plinker, a hunting gun or a home defense gun the later models with the locking blocks should be stronger and more reliable. The only real definites are if you want a scoped rifle, buy a Marlin and if you want a light rifle buy a Winchester 1892 Carbine clone.
To be there are very few guns prettier than a Winchester pattern lever gun and I’d ALMOST sell my AR for that Texas Brush Popper. Which one would be your pick? Let me know in the comments below!
*** Note ***
The featured image for this post is a picture of Badlands Bud from End of Trail and was “borrowed” from the Single Action Shooting Societies Facebook page. If you want to see a lever gun used to its fullest potential, SASS Shooters like Badlands Bud are the guys to watch.