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Of Lever Rifles And Elk

Big glass on a long-range bolt gun can fill your freezer, but a saddle rifle in cover satisfies the soul.

We’d seen plenty of elk. But this one was near, a soft shape against thick conifers swathed in fog. The Blue Mountains loomed far beyond. I crept to a young pine. The cow was quartering steeply away. Sights aligned, I broke a twig to swing her about. It worked. The report was more a pop than a blast, the strike dull on its heels.

“Did you get it?” asked my hunting buddy.

The animal was gone.

            “Yes. But let’s approach as if I didn’t,” I said.

            The elk lay dead short steps from where it had taken the bullet, 60 yards from the muzzle.

            My rifle that day, a Savage 1899 in .303 Savage, had been built soon after the Great War. It wore a Redfield receiver sight and a gold bead. My 170-grain Hornady flat-point, handloaded to 2,100 fps from the 20-inch barrel, brought just over 1,300 foot-pounds to 60 yards – about what the .30-06 delivers at 450.

            As elk can be hard to approach and can endure hits from powerful rifles, why would a hunter use an iron-sighted saddle gun and mild 19th-century loads with blunt bullets?

            It’s not a stunt. Many elk (and moose and grizzlies) fell to the .303 Savage and kin before optical sights got a serious look. In that day, the tube magazines of lever rifles were all loaded with flat- or round-nose bullets.

Winchesters of that design followed the company’s introduction to a young John M. Browning. In 1883 company vice president Thomas G. Bennett traveled west to buy rights to an obscure single-shot.

Browning and his four brothers were building it by hand in Ogden. “Ten thousand dollars,” said the lad. Bennett’s jaw must have dropped. He offered eight. The next 17 years would give Winchester more than 40 Browning firearms designs. Even before that single-shot appeared as the Winchester Model 1885, Browning used its vertical lugs in a lever rifle to replace the company’s big but weak ’76. The 1886 was an instant hit, so Bennett requested a short-action version. John delivered the Model 1892 in 30 days!

            Over a million 1892 rifles sold. With the .38-40, .32-20 and .25-20, it chambered Winchester’s first centerfire cartridge, the .44-40, or .44 WCF, introduced in the less reliable 1873. Browning proposed next a lever-action rifle without the visible vertical lugs of the ’86 and ’92. The Model 1894 appeared first in .32-40 and .38-55, both with black powder loads. Our first smokeless hunting cartridge, the .30-30 (.30 WCF) soon joined them, with the .25-35, as Winchester began installing nickel-steel barrels. Theodore Roosevelt, whose first Winchester had been an 1876, favored an 1894 in .30-30 on Western hunts. By the turn of the century, one in every four sporting arms in the U.S. was a Winchester.

In those days, the .44-40 downed many elk – as did anemic .45-70 loads in the “trap-door” Springfield single-shot, but the first lever-rifle round with truly superior credentials was the .30-30. The first elk I shot with this cartridge was no measure of its lethality.

I’d found the herd just after dawn, winks of brown and dun threading dense aspens. Hurrying alongside, glimpsing pieces of elk, I probed for a gap. A windfall covered my sprint. At 19 steps, a bull offered no shot to his ribs. My bullet broke his neck behind the skull.

            A couple of years later, a rut-crazy six-point thundered into a steep conifer patch and all but ran me over. My first .30-30 bullet centered his chest. He dashed into cover, then paused. When he didn’t fall, I risked moving slightly to find a shot alley. The second bullet pierced his heart.

During the 1890s, John Marlin and Arthur Savage earned patents for lever rifles. The top-ejecting Marlin 1881 in .40-60 and .45-70 sired the 1888 by L.L. Hepburn. His 1889 ejected to the side; his Model 1893 fed .30-30-length cartridges. Marlin side ejection would gain favor as scopes became popular. The ’93 competed ably with Winchester’s ’94. The .32 Special arrived in 1902 as an alternative to the .30-30 in Winchester and Marlin rifles. Its .320 bullet was the same weight, and driven at about the same speed, as the .30-30’s. Legend has it, .32 Special barrels with 1-in-16 rifling welcomed black-powder loads that fouled .30-30 bores with 1-in-12 twist. At the dawn of the smokeless age, it proved a solution in search of a problem. In 1937 Marlin fielded “a new gun especially for American big game”: the $32 Model 1936. A year later the 336 replaced it.

            I’ve hunted elk with my 336 in .32 Special. After botching a hard-earned shot in the Wind River Range under cold gray skies, I trudged up a trail in patchy snow, glumly aware my season might well be finished. In a saddle, I sat to glass. Among drooping black conifer limbs in a burn above, a branch curved defiantly up. My 7×35 B&L made it out as an antler. The rifle’s bead all but hid what little shoulder I could see. At the report, the elk vanished. I climbed and found blood. Fifty yards on, the bull lay dead.

            Marlin came up with a more powerful lever rifle in 1895, in seven chamberings, .33 Winchester to .45-70. It lasted 20 years. In 1972 it was resurrected on the 336 action with modified gate and innards, in .45-70. Meanwhile, the 336 added the .35 Remington and, in 1965, the .444 Marlin. A pal uses a .444 with iron sights to keep elk in his freezer. Limited runs of 336s have since sold in .308 and .338 Marlin Express, and in .375 Winchester. The 1895 later appeared in the frothy .450 Marlin.

            On a sunny Colorado afternoon, I spied an elk easing into an island of aspen on a steep sage slope below. Sounds indicated the patch held a herd.

“You won’t get a shot,” declared my pal, shaking his head. “You’ll be spotted outside that clump. If by magic you do get inside, you’ll bump a cow before you see a bull. That pocket will drain faster than a beer stein in a chugging match.”

So challenged, I spent the next hour on hands and knees, entering the aspens within feet of a calf. When my pooling scent reached a cow, I jumped up, thumbing the Marlin’s hammer. The thicket exploded with stampeding elk. A wink of antler caught my eye. Three quick blasts from my .45-70 tumbled the exiting bull.

            In 1935 Winchester announced a sequel to its 1886. The Model 71 fired the new .348, a cartridge with .30-06 punch at the muzzle. Alas, its future was undermined by high production costs and the trend to scoped bolt rifles. The 71 fell out of Winchester’s line in 1957. It and the .348 still excel in elk cover.

Arthur Savage’s hammerless repeating rifle earned him patents in 1892, when he was 35. Notable for a coil mainspring and a buttstock held by a through-bolt, it still lost to the Krag-Jorgensen in military trials. Revamping his rifle for hunters, Savage barreled his Models 1895 and 1899 to .303 Savage, a new round much like the .30-30 but with a slightly heavier bullet. Roosevelt, ever a Winchester man, declared his 1899 one of the best-built rifles he’d owned! “Incomparable!” gushed W.T. Hornaday after shooting a moose “at a distance of 350 yards.” China missionary Harry Caldwell used his .303 Savage on tigers.

            Another John Browning lever-action appeared in Winchester’s stable in 1895. Per the Savage, its magazine was in the receiver’s belly. Chambered to powerful bolt-rifle cartridges — the .303 British, .30-40 Krag, and .30-06 — as well as the company’s potent .405, the Model 95 Winchester was evidently used by itinerant miner John Plute to shoot a records-setting bull elk in 1899. Plute lived in a boarding house and supplied venison to the Elk Saloon in Crested Butte, Colorado. As the story goes, locals didn’t believe his description of antlers he’d left in Anthracite Creek. So, after packing out the meat, he rode back to retrieve them. The saloon accepted them to settle a bar bill. In 1961 the Boone and Crockett Club would declare Plute’s the world’s record elk; but he wouldn’t see the score. One night in 1922, riding home from a party at a ranch, he was pitched from the saddle. He died two days later.

            In 1920, Savage introduced a new, more powerful cartridge for its 1899 rifle and re-dubbed it the Model 99. The .300 Savage, hurling 180-grain bullets at 2,370 fps, shot flatter and hit harder than did the .303 and .30-30. The 99 was also bored for the .250/3000, designed by Charles Newton in 1913 to send 87-grain bullets at an eye-popping 3,000 fps! (Newton apparently recommended 100-grain softpoints at 2,800 for big game). In 1939, still-hunting in the Beaver Flattops, Bill Goosman carried a .250. Catching elk-scent, he eased toward it. The shot came suddenly at 45 yards. The aperture sight gave Bill quick aim. The bull fell. The enormous antlers would rank high on B&C’s non-typical list, established in the 1980s.

            I’ve used the .250 on elk with lethal effect and hunted with a fellow whose 99 in that chambering had taken 20 bulls, most big-antlered beasts. As with the .30-30 and kin, it begs favorable shot angles and careful placement to avoid crippling. Only .25 bullets designed for controlled upset make sense for elk.

            Legion are opinions on elk cartridges. Most hunters afield these days shot their first elk after Roy Weatherby developed his belted .257, .270, 7mm and .300 Magnums. Many brought scoped bolt rifles in 7mm Remington or .300 Winchester Magnum on their first elk hunt.

While elk are durable beasts that don’t wither at a nudge, the current trend to hard-kicking super-magnums is mostly to kill elk far from the rifle. Lever-rifle enthusiasts I know, especially those hewing to iron sights, thrill to the close approach. The top tier of smokeless lever-action rounds has always dealt lethal blows beyond ranges at which most elk are killed. Pre-WWII lever-rifle loads in .33, .35 and .405 Winchester, .300 Savage, .30-40 Krag, .303 British, .30-06 and .348 have plenty of smash. Ditto modern .30-30 and .45-70 ammo. And the .460 and .500 S&W for Bighorn Armory’s traditional lever-actions.

After WWII, cartridge rosters got longer. And lever rifles got stronger. Winchester’s hammerless Model 88 came in 1955, a rotating bolt bottling pressure from the new .308 Winchester. The .243 and .358 soon followed, the .284 in ’63. The 88 was gone in a decade. Sako of Finland produced the similar Finnwolf from 1962 to ’74. Savage’s 99 appeared in chamberings as powerful as the .284, .308 and .358.

 In 1969, Browning announced its exposed-hammer BLR in .243 and .308. Like Winchester’s 88 and the Finnwolf, it had a rotating bolt, and the trigger traveled with the lever. BLR manufacture moved from Belgium to Japan in 1974. Six years later, under a fresh BL ’81 moniker, it chambered the 7mm-08, .358, .450 Marlin, .270 WSM and .300 WSM. A long-action version followed for the .270 and .30-06, the 7mm Remington and .300 Winchester Magnums. A rifle much like the BLR was introduced recently by Henry Repeating Arms. The Long Ranger is chambered in .243, 6.5 Creedmoor and .308.

            Bolt-rifle cartridges and scopes give modern lever-actions the reach of, well, scoped bolt rifles. For me, they lack the appeal of iron-sighted lever rifles pre-dating WWII. Beyond the history you hold in a pre-war rifle, there’s a purity of purpose. You’re not out to shoot elk. You’re afield to hunt, slipping into forest where elk might be within slingshot range, a mile ahead, or not there at all, where you must mind every decision, every step, where you’ll see the glint in the animal’s eye over the bead, and know you’ve truly earned the shot.

            Wearied by long days and steep hikes at 9,000 feet, I made one more effort up an endless ridge.

            The bull was hidden save for his back tines, with which he’d been shredding an aspen. A pod of cows on the timbered face between us had me pinned. An hour passed. I’d shifted position twice, slightly, to no benefit. Conifers were a dark sea below the animals. The canyon was deep, a mile wide.

            Shadows had grown long and slim when the cows sifted down into the Doug-firs and out of sight. The antler tops pivoted, dipped and were gone. No! A week’s effort had come to naught.

            Then, in a fit of charity, the mountain shrugged an elk up into a meadow denting the timber about 150 yards away. Another cow followed. I steadied the Savage on shadow’s edge.

            The bull emerged at a fast walk, the crosswire of my K4 bobbing along on his shoulder. Just stop! But when he did, a bole blocked his great chest.

            As if hearing the thump of my pulse, he took a step, now quartering to. I pressed the final ounce. The round-nose Core-Lokt, a bullet as old as the rifle, drove deep. He fell and lay still.              The perfect elk rifle? An aging lever-action that pulls you close to elk and sends the bullet where the bead quivers, fat and bold, against the forward ribs.–Wayne van Zwoll        

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