Let’s face it, shooting a lever gun is a bit more work than a semi-automatic rifle. They are generally harder to load, working a lever takes a bit of practice to get good at, they are heavy, and for the most part, lever guns are harder to accessorize. I was honestly a little nervous when Ballistic’s editors tagged me to head up a brand-new category. But that changed when I learned it was Ballistic’s Best Lever-Action Rifles. I’m obsessed with these relics of the rifle world.
Ballistic’s Best Lever-Action Rifles
The first task was gathering the contenders. Other categories within Ballistic’s Best have tons of options for guns, and all of them can be ordered in the same caliber, making it a little easier. New lever-action rifles are a bit tougher to find in 2023. There are only a handful of brand-new models, and it is nearly impossible to stick to a caliber for testing purposes. I decided immediately to just look for new models no matter the caliber. After the rifles were secured, it was time to source test ammo. A huge thank you to Hornady and Remington for coming through bigly with all the calibers we needed to get the job done.
The Test Crew
Trying to find shooters to come out and shoot seven new guns for free is not a very hard sell. I really wanted a diverse group of shooters, so I called up some friends and family with different experience levels when it comes to lever guns.
I grabbed my friends Linas, Chris, Marcus, Dustin, Amy, and my dad, Steve (AKA Ned Flanders). Linas happens to be the content director at Athlon Outdoors, and is an avid shooter and kind of a lever-action nut like me. Chris is a veteran and former LEO who used to be the firearms instructor for his department. Marcus is also a veteran who worked as a sniper in the Army. The dude has probably forgotten more about guns than I have ever known.
Dustin is a good friend of mine who got me into hunting. He works as a firefighter and is an avid shooter and all-around gun nut. Then you have my dad. Dad didn’t shoot guns until I became a firearms instructor about 14 years ago. My dad loves his Henry Golden Boy .22 but really has never shot bigger calibers, so he was the perfect person to give these evaluations a kind of outsider’s perspective.
Our last shooter was kind of a surprise—a game day addition if you will. Amy is Dustin’s much better half and came along for the ride not knowing she was about to be handed seven new guns to test out and evaluate. Amy shoots often but never really worked a lever gun, so not only did this allow me to get a woman’s perspective but also another inexperienced lever-action shooter’s view. We had seven guns so why not have seven shooters?
Meet The Guns
TriStar sent us the beautiful case-hardened model chambered in .410. The LR94 comes with a 24-inch barrel, some beautiful Turkish walnut furniture, a leather-wrapped lever, and this model had a gold trigger in it. It was a looker for sure. The TriStar comes with a decent set of sights and the rear is adjustable. Shooting the shotgun was a blast. It had hardly any recoil and was very comfortable to shoulder.
I was able to run all of my rounds through the gun with no issues, although some of the shooters did experience some soft primer strikes. The consensus was that the safety mechanism under the lever is not the best design. You have to squeeze the lever into the stock in order to pull the trigger. It caused a few issues while shooting, but with some practice you could easily get efficient with this gun. I personally would add this gun to my collection as a nice little snake gun or small-game shotgun. Plus, you can’t deny a lever-action shotgun is just plain fun. (tristararms.com)
Chambered in the classic lever-action caliber .30-30, the R95 features a hammer-forged barrel, a smooth hand-finished lever action, large loading gate, and it is drilled and tapped for optics. That’s on top of the walnut finish and the 5+1 capacity in the tube. The fact that it’s compatible with rails and handguards that work with another major manufacturer’s lever action is an added bonus, as well. The Rossi was a fan favorite on the range, and it was one of the guns I was most excited to shoot. The loading gate is big, and loading the .30-30 rounds was a breeze.
The gun itself only weighs around 6.5 pounds, which makes it very easy to handle. My 10 rounds went really fast since this gun was so easy to keep on target. I got one of my 8-inch swinging Caldwell steel targets moving enough that I knocked it over. The lever was very smooth and the gun, although fairly lightweight for the caliber, handled felt recoil very well. This Rossi could easily adapt into a hunting rifle thanks to the 30-30 chambering. With incredible value, reliability and a nice classic overall look, the Rossi R95 was on the top of lists and seemed to really surprise some of the shooters. (rossiusa.com)
How could it even be a lever-gun showdown without a Marlin in the mix? Our Marlin 1894 was chambered in .44 Magnum. A reintroduction of a classic, the Model 1894 sports a beautifully finished American black walnut stock and forend with clean and crisp checkering that accentuates both the aesthetics and utility of this iconic rifle. The new Marlin 1894 really isn’t much different from the original except the new-age manufacturing processes create tighter tolerances, which results in better reliability and creates a very clean, attractive rifle.
The receiver, lever and triggerguard plate are CNC machined from alloy steel, and the barrel is also made of alloy steel with a blued receiver that is finished in a very attractive satin finish. Marlin throws a set of adjustable semi-buckhorn sights on the barrel, which worked great for quick target acquisition. The soft rubber buttpad on the back end absorbed recoil very well and aided everyone in more accurate follow-up shots.
The tubular magazine will accept 10 rounds of .44 Rem. Mag. or 11 rounds of .44 Special. The loading gate is unfortunately small and very tight, which resulted in some slower loading. I experienced some feeding issues that none of the other shooters experienced. I think when trying to run the lever fast I was not bringing the lever all the way forward. The loop is sort of squared off and just didn’t work well for my style of shooting. I bet with some extra work on my end, the lever would become familiar.
The Marlin was one of the most attractive rifles on the table for those who like the more classic lever-gun look, and it performed as expected for boasting that Marlin badging. In .44 Magnum, the gun works well for shorter-distance deer hunting or simply a head-turner on any range. (marlinfirearms.com)
Chiappa Arms 1892 Wildlands
After the Marlin, we then grabbed a small little lever gun called the Wildlands. This shorter rifle was chambered in .357 Magnum. I was a big fan of the overall aesthetics of this gun. It is small and just screams varmint hunting or backpacking. The Chiappa has a more modern look with black synthetic furniture and a short, 16.5-inch threaded barrel, plus this particular model is a takedown version, which breaks the gun in half for easy transportation. The threaded barrel allows for the addition of your favorite muzzle device or my personal favorite, a suppressor.
The Wildlands sported an awesome lever—the big paracord-wrapped loop was very easy to operate and comfortable to throw. The factory-installed Picatinny rail on the top of the gun makes for easy installation of your favorite optic, but for those who like iron sights the rear peep and fiber-optic front sight offered a fantastic sight picture, making it easy to get on target quickly. The tubular magazine is removable for maintenance and to take the gun down. One small downside was the loading gate. It is very small and drew blood on my inexperienced dad when he pinched his thumb in the door trying to shove a round in.
Everyone who shot the Wildlands complained about the gate and how hard it was to load. I personally loved shooting the gun but wasn’t a huge fan of loading it either. I think this was actually my favorite gun out the whole bunch to shoot, but the price point being on the high side of the table and that loading gate definitely affected the overall group consensus on this one. (chiappafirearms.com)
POF USA Tombstone
The fifth gun on the table was the most modern rendition of a lever gun that we had access to. POF owns a reputation for innovation and thinking outside of the box, and the Tombstone provides another prime example. It’s a modern-day tactical lever gun chambered in 9mm. The rifle comes with one 20-round magazine, the same utilized by the POF-USA Phoenix. The Tombstone’s compact overall length is just 36 inches, and it comes in at a very light weight of 5.75 pounds unloaded.
The trigger is a proprietary non-adjustable design featuring a fairly smooth pull and crisp break. The 16.5-inch steel barrel has a short 10.5-inch rail with M-LOK slots and Picatinny rails on the top and a small one on the bottom front for accessories as well. The top of the rail is open in the center exposing the barrel, which makes for a unique look but sort of makes it tough to find a comfortable grip in my opinion.
On the upside, the integrated XS ghost-ring sights allow for quick target acquisition, and POF’s removable dual port muzzle brake cuts down recoil to nearly nothing when shooting. You can also run your favorite suppressor by removing the muzzle brake if you want to go silent. The buttstock is made by Magpul and comfortable to shoulder. The lever itself is squared off and oversized. Although comfortable to throw, the sound of the lever is less than desirable for anyone that loves the mechanics of lever guns. It almost sounds and feels more like a BB gun than a 9mm carbine.
During testing we experienced catastrophic failure to the point that two shooters were unable to complete testing because the gun seemed to not be seating rounds fully in the chamber, which caused the Hornady brass to actually split into two pieces, leaving pieces lodged in the chamber. We also experienced issues with the magazine. We suffered one round stuck in the magazine at one point. Each of the five shooters experienced feed issues with rounds going nose-up out of the magazine, jamming into the top of the receiver. When I was able to get the gun to run a few rounds in a row it was by far the most fun rifle to shoot out of the seven on the table. It was unfortunate that our sample had issues. (pof-usa.com)
Henry X Model 360 Buckhammer
Another iconic brand when you think of lever guns is Henry Repeating Arms, so of course we had to grab one of their newest models to test as well. The 2023 Henry lineup didn’t have any brand-new actual models but did have a brand-new caliber that is definitely worthy of testing. Developed by Remington in collaboration with Henry, the 360 Buckhammer provided one of the most surprising calibers tested. The Henry X Model, designed specifically for the task, handled the large round. The 360 Buckhammer is a straight-wall cartridge that is perfect for states with caliber restrictions like what I deal with in Michigan.
Digging deeper, the synthetic furniture shaves off some weight compared to wood, which is nice because the gun weighs just over 8 pounds even with the synthetic furniture. The black also gives the gun a more tactical look while somehow maintaining the classic lever-gun look that the purists know and love. A Picatinny rail section at the bottom of the forearm is an excellent location for a bi-pod, and some M-LOK slots on the side of the forend are available for any other accessories you might want to add. The round, blued steel barrel features a 5/8×24 threaded end for a suppressor or other muzzle device. Bright, high-contrast green and orange fiber-optic sights make lining up the shot quick and intuitive, and the receiver is also drilled and tapped to accept a Weaver 63B scope base.
The five-round tubular magazine utilizes a loading gate but still offers top loading as well. Shooting my test rounds out of the Henry went way too fast. The loading gate was super easy to operate even with the larger size of the round, the lever is super smooth with very little play, and the gun handles the recoil exceptionally well. You definitely knew that someone was shooting the X Model on the line, though—that baby hits targets hard with extreme accuracy. (henryusa.com)
Uberti USA 1866 Yellowboy
Our final gun was the beautiful Uberti 1866 Yellowboy chambered in .45 Colt. This rifle gets its name thanks to the brass frame, and the Deluxe model is heavily engraved to fancy it up even more. The rifle is a remake of the classic that was originally chambered in the long-obsolete .44 rimfire. To make it accessible to the modern shooter, however, Uberti chambers it instead in the much more available .45 Colt. The Uberti 1866 Yellow boy features a 20-inch blued barrel and beautiful, satin-finished walnut furniture. The lever and hammer are case hardened, adding to the overall beauty of this rifle.
The lever is clean, smooth and easy to operate with little to no wobble. On the stock you get a beautiful brass buttplate, which I was not personally a fan of when shooting the rifle. I guess I don’t shoulder a .45 Colt hard enough and every time I threw the lever the gun would slip off my shoulder a little. Uberti has a loading gate that is fairly easy to use. It started off a little tight but quickly broke in, and all the shooters mentioned how easy loading was after the initial few rounds from the first shooter.
Shooting the Yellowboy was fun. The top-eject design ads to the overall experience when shooting this one. Watching brass fly past your face straight up in the air is just cool. It is one of those lever guns that makes you feel like you are in the Old West. It’s a truly classic design that really hasn’t changed much since 1866 other than the caliber. (uberti-usa.com)
Since this was the first year for the Lever-Action category there were no expectations from any of the shooters for any of the guns. It was very interesting how everyone kind of gravitated to the same guns right off the get-go.
Unfortunately, we did experience a few malfunctions out of some of the most intriguing guns on the table—the POF Tombstone, for one. Also, the TriStar’s lever has that strange safety that forces the shooter to squeeze the lever in slightly when shooting. It took a little practice to get the hang of that, and a few shooters experienced malfunctions that were caused by that safety, I believe. Personally, this was one of my favorite guns to shoot and I love the idea of the lever-action shotgun. With some training and more trigger time I think the lever safety wouldn’t be an issue.
The rest of the group ran great, but one gun stood out over all the others. This lever action is a tried-and-true model that gives a modern feel to the old design that everyone seemed to love. The addition of the new 360 Buckhammer chambering also helped push the Henry X Model over the top and earn the crown for Ballistic’s Best Lever Action. The modern twist with rails and a threaded barrel, plus the fact you can load through the gate or the end of the tube, give the Henry a little advantage. Furthermore, the new round was developed by Remington in collaboration with Henry, and every part of the rifle just works perfectly to handle the new caliber.
It wasn’t everyone’s absolute favorite rifle to shoot, but it was on everyone’s radar all day after shooting it. Personally, I love this gun, and the new chambering is a great all-around hunting round that can be used effectively out to 200 yards with ease. With the numbers all added up, the Henry X Model 360 Buckhammer definitely deserved the title of Ballistic’s Best of 2023.
|Henry X Model 360 Buckhammer
|Chiappa 1892 Wildlands
|Uberti 1866 Yellowboy
|TriStar LR 94
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