There’s no rifle that’s more American than the lever-action. From the Civil War forward, it has represented a pioneering and cowboy spirit, and it is recognized around the globe as an iconic American firearm. Though largely viewed today as an old-timer’s rifle, with limited reach and power, lever guns remain the choice of many discerning hunters who understand the importance of an easy-carrying, fast-handling, fast-shooting rifle.
Since the mid 1800s, there have been dozens of rifle and revolver cartridges chambered for lever-action rifles. Most have come and gone without much fanfare, but a handful changed the game. Some of the oldest, like the nearly 150-year-old .45/70, are still widely used today, while some of the most recent and effective are now all but forgotten.
Here’s a look at the 10 best lever-gun rifle cartridges of all time. We’re not talking about cartridges suitable for drop-box or rotary-magazine lever guns like the Savage 99 and Browning BLR. These are the best cartridges compatible with traditionally styled, tube-fed, lever-action rifles.
Best Lever-Action Cartridges of the 19th Century
1. .45/70 Government (1873)
Originally developed for the Trapdoor Springfield and even used in some military gatling guns, the .45/70 is arguably the cartridge that best represents America. Sure, the 30-06 is a patriotic favorite, but the .45/70 has been around a lot longer and is amazingly versatile. With ammunition mimicking the original loading it is a great deer cartridge, especially now in states allowing straight-wall cartridges for deer. With second level loads it will get the job done on any non-dangerous game anywhere in the world. And with the heaviest .45/70 loads, you have enough gun for anything walking planet Earth. In 1881 Marlin was the first to chamber the .45/70 in a lever action rifle, and though it experienced a brief period of uninterest, it is more popular today than ever before.
2. .30/30 Winchester (1895)
Of all of America’s most beloved rifle cartridges, the 30-30 Winchester is the only one that does not have a military heritage. It’s also the cartridge most often thought of in conjunction with the lever-action rifle. By modern standards it is an anemic antique, but those who have used it know it can get the job done on everything from whitetail deer to moose. At about the time the 30-30 Winchester became 100 years old, ballistic engineers began to create incredibly good hunting bullets. And today, with bullets like the Hornady FTX, Barnes Triple Shock, and the Federal Fusion, the 30-30 is capable of things never before thought possible. The lever-action 30-30 fits right in with baseball and apple pie.
Best Lever-Action Cartridges from 1900 to 1950
3. .32 Winchester Special (1901)
Introduced for Winchester’s 1894 lever action rifle, unlike the older 32-20 Winchester and popular .32-caliber handgun cartridges of that time, the 32 Winchester Special fires a bullet with a 0.321 as opposed to a 0.312 diameter. Though early on it was moderately popular with hunters, a limited selection of 0.321 caliber bullets and the already established and trusted popularity of the 30-30 Winchester hampered major acceptance of the cartridge. Still, there were a lot of rifles chambered for the 32 Winchester Special by Winchester and Marlin, and many of those who have used it swear it hits harder and is more lethal than the older 30-30.
4. .35 Remington (1906)
Designed specifically for, and originally introduced in, Remington’s Model 8 semi-automatic rifle, the 35 Remington found it’s true fame in a Marlin lever action rifle. For those who prowl the deep timber, most consider it a superior cartridge to the 30-30 Winchester. Though that’s debatable, it’s hard not to appreciate a 200-grain, .358-caliber bullet, with a muzzle velocity of more than 2000 fps. Currently there are no rifles being manufactured in this chambering and with Ruger’s acquisition of Marlin, it’s unknown if there ever will be again. However, don’t expect those who own a 35 Remington to be giving them up anytime soon; many consider it one of the best brush cartridges of all time.
5. .348 Winchester (1936)
Specifically developed for the Winchester model 71 lever action rifle, the 348 Winchester will push a 150-grain bullet to almost 2900 fps and a 200-grain bullet to 2500 fps. That’s straight-up 30-06 performance from a lever action rifle. Hunters noticed this and the 348 Winchester was a sensation up until after World War II. It is often referenced as the finest big bore lever-action cartridge of all time. With its short-magnum like proportions, if the 348 Winchester was re-introduced today in a quality lever-gun it would likely become a big hit. However, the cartridge is quickly and silently slipping into extinction and in another decade may be all but forgotten.
Best Lever-Action Cartridges Since 1950
6. .444 Marlin (1964)
Since it uses the same 0.429-inch bullet diameter as the 44 Magnum, this cartridge could be considered a 44 Magnum, Magnum. It was introduced in the mid 1960′s during a slump in the popularity of the 45-70, and while not its equal it is a fantastic big bore lever gun cartridge that is now gaining new-found appreciation in states allowing straight-wall cartridges for deer hunting. The 444 Marlin proved to be an immediate success and found favor with those who hunted, deer, elk, and bear in the timber. In 2020, prior to Marlin’s acquisition by Ruger, Marlin offered their exquisite looking 150-year anniversary rifle chambered for the 444. Could it be the last of the 444 lever-guns?
7. 7X30 Waters (1976)
As the 20th Century progressed, flat shooting cartridges began to erode the popularity of the lever action. After World War II many had abandoned the platform looking for bolt-actions with longer reach. In 1976, gun writer Ken Waters, looking to increase the reach of the 30-30 Winchester, necked the 30-30 cartridge case down to 7mm, loaded a flat point bullet, and called his creation the 7×30 Waters. In less than 10 years Winchester recognized the beauty of Waters’ design and introduced it in their 1894 lever-action. Marlin followed suite and it looked like the 7X30 Waters, with its flatter than a 30-30 trajectory, was off to a great start. Interest quickly waned, and even though it is a great lever-gun cartridge, its time in the sun was short.
8. .375 Winchester (1978)
The 375 Winchester is actually a story of three cartridges. Shortly after the introduction of their 1894 lever action rifle, Winchester chambered the rifle for the 38-55 Winchester, which was originally a 0.377-caliber cartridge designed by the Ballard Rifle & Cartridge Company in 1884. The 38-55 Winchester was quite popular for a time but began to fade after the turn of the Century. In 1978 Winchester reintroduced a slightly shortened version of it for their new Big Bore Model 94 and called it the 375 Winchester. With the ability to push a large diameter 200-grain bullet to 2200 fps, it was immediately appealing to anyone wanting to hunt the biggest of big game with a lever gun. Now, 20 years after the 375s introduction, only about 1 out of 10 big game hunters have ever heard of it.
9. .307 Winchester (1982)
Quite possibly the most effective big game cartridge ever created for a traditionally styled lever action rifle, the 307 Winchester was short lived. Introduced in a modified 1894 Winchester called the Big Bore, the 307 is essentially a 308 Winchester with a rim. Almost duplicating 308 Winchester velocities, it can get the job done on big game all over the world. With modern powders like AR Comp, handloaders can even duplicate the original 30-06 load of a 150-grain bullet at 2700 fps. In 2007 Marlin introduced a modified 307 Winchester called the 308 Marlin Express. It too had short-lived popularity and now, sadly, both cartridges are being lost to history.
10. .356 Winchester (1982)
Introduced as a companion cartridge to the 307 Winchester, the 356 Winchester was a rimmed version of the 358 Winchester. Though available in Winchester and a few Marlin lever actions, the 356 never really developed much of a following. Given that it was more powerful than the 35 Remington and that the 358 Winchester was considered one of the premier woods hunting cartridges, this seems odd. However, like it’s 307 Winchester sibling, the 356 Winchester is now fading into obsolescence and it’s doubtful it will ever see a resurgence. In 2009 Marlin tried fill the void left by the 356 with their 338 Marlin Express. But like Elvis, it too has for the most part, has left the building.