The All-American deer gun is back. Thanks to recent advances in polymer-tipped, spire-point bullets that are safe to use in tubular magazines, lever-action rifles--once generally considered to be short-range, big-woods specialists--are now as capable as many short-action bolt rifles. Even the top-selling deer round of all time, the venerable if traditionally lackluster .30/30, is now a potent deerslayer capable of accurate shots out to 300 yards in today's lever guns. The result is renewed interest in these traditional rifles from hunters--and a surge of new options from rifle manufacturers. Here are four of the latest levers you'll see in gun shops this fall--and unlike some of the older versions, all four of the models here feature receivers that are drilled and tapped for modern optics.
Mossberg Model 464: The Specs: 20" barrel; 6.7 lb.; .30/30 The Skinny: Mossberg's latest lever action has the look and easy-carrying balance of Winchester's legendary Model 94. This modern lever, however, has an ejection port designed so spent cartridges clear a receiver-mounted scope. The action is a pleasure to operate, and like Mossberg shotguns, the rifle has a top-tang safety that you can operate without having to move your trigger finger. Its rubber butt pad and hardwood stock are simple but serviceable. Overall, it's a light, easy-to-shoulder gun that won't empty your wallet. The Model 464 is now available with a straight stock or a pistol grip. $497-$535; 800-363-3555; mossberg.com
Browning BLR Lightweight Pistol Grip Stainless: The Specs: 20" (standard) or 22" (magnum) barrel; 61⁄2 or 63⁄4 lb.; .243 Win., .308 Win., .270 WSM, or .300 WSM The Skinny: Because the BLR is fed from a clip and not a tubular magazine, it can be chambered for a variety of short-action cartridges, including magnums with pointed bullets. As such, it has long been the most powerful lever on the market. The aluminum receiver keeps weight down; the steel-to-steel lockup of the rotary bolt to the barrel extension provides the strength of a bolt rifle. New for 2009, the Pistol Grip Stainless model features a weather-resistant, satin-nickel finish that looks great. Like all BLRs, this one is nicely balanced, and the action is smooth if a touch slower than traditional levers. $979-$1,099; 801-876-2711; browning.com
Henry .30/30: The Specs: 20" barrel; 8.3 lb.; .30/30 The Skinny: The company that introduced the lever action in 1860 has finally added a .30/30 model for deer hunters. Available in either a blued receiver with round-bull barrel or a solid-brass receiver with octagonal barrel, the new rifle has a handsome, straight-grip American walnut stock. A Marbles adjustable buckhorn rear sight and brass-bead front sight add to the gun's classic good looks. Both versions are heavy for a .30/30, but like all Henry levers, the action is silky smooth, and the gun is backed by a lifetime warranty, with a customer-service policy that is second to none. $750 blued; $970 brass; 201-858-4400; henryrepeating.com
Marlin 338MXLR: The Specs: 24" barrel; 7 lb.; .338 Marlin Express The Skinny: This is a souped-up Model 336 chambered for the new .338 Marlin Express, a rimmed, short-action cartridge with long-range trajectory and terminal energy similar to the .30/06. It has all-stainless-steel metalwork, a laminated hardwood stock, a fluted bolt, an extra-long barrel for increased velocity, and a Pachmayr Decelerator recoil pad. The model I handled was heavier than listed and felt a little bulky but seemed rock solid. It can handle any deer hunting situation--from the deep woods to open prairie--and should build on the 336's reputation for reliability. $805; 203-239-5621; marlinfirearms.com