It’s ironic that one of the quintessential American firearm actions also happens to be one of the least-explored by the American firearm industry. The lever-action is not a new notion, a fact outlined by Smith & Wesson in its release of the Model 1854, so-named for the year that Horace Smith and Dan Wesson built a company around their Volcanic Repeating Rifle, a design that dated to the 1840s. Despite their best efforts, the Volcanic was a failure. Smith & Wesson went on to do bigger and better things, while Oliver Winchester bought the Volcanic company and its assets and directed his shop foreman, Benjamin Tyler Henry, to “make this fool gun work.” Of course, he did, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Though that’s not quite the whole story, because as SHOT Show 2024 illustrates, there’s a lot of growth left in what’s already a legacy action. Until recent years, “evolution” in the lever-action world was something that largely occurred in the late 19th century or early 20th century. Prior to the recent slate of new releases, one of the “newest” designs on the market was the Marlin 336, first seen in 1948 and largely based on the Model 1893 design from the same company. For decades after that, the lever-action was seen as traditional, something that wasn’t messed with, even into the days when the AR-15 became king of the commercial rifle world.
One of the biggest introductions at SHOT Show 2024 was the Model 1854 lever-action from Smith & Wesson, the company's first such design since the 1850s. A limited-edition, wood-stocked model was displayed on the show floor.
Today, there are nearly 30 million AR-style rifles in circulation, and without doubt, the features that come with such guns has set consumer expectations, if not an outright standard. Inevitably, lever-action designs emerged that provided some of the flexibility of ARs in terms of accessory attachments and optics mounting. But most of these guns weren’t “new guns.”
In the old Remington Outdoor days, Marlin lured consumers toward its lever guns by showcasing “tactical” lever-actions, featuring skeletonized buttstocks, M-Lok handguards, large-loop levers and lengthy optics rails. But there were two problems with these offerings. One, most of these guns were custom designs, as in they were literally available only through the Remington Custom Shop. Two, despite their appearance, they were still the same 19th-century designs at their core. It was something akin to dressing grandma in goth clothing. You get the idea, but it’s just not right.
Over the last few years, though, we’ve seen the beginnings of a new chapter in the lever-gun world. Not only have more companies come out with “blacked-out” versions of classic guns, we’ve also seen genuinely new options emerge. Within the new market of “tactical lever-actions,” several designs stand out. The Fightlite Herring Model 2024 is one of them, mating a standard AR-15 upper with a specially designed lower complete with a redesigned action that accommodates lengthy AR-compatible STANAG magazines.
The Bond Arms LVRB, pictured here, has been in the worlds for several years, but the company plans to roll out production models in the second quarter of 2024, priced around $1,500.
Too, a similar design is also set to release from Bond Arms. The LVRB uses a camming system within its lower receiver to shorten the throw required to cycle the bolt, allowing the rifle to be operated quickly and also accommodate longer STANAG magazines. The LVRB also promises full compatibility with standard AR-15 upper receivers, bringing a new level of versatility to the time-honored lever-action system.
While these two makers have slanted heavily toward AR styling and compatibility with their designs, other makers have tended toward a balance between innovation and tradition. The new Supreme from Henry Repeating Arms follows somewhat traditional lines in its stock, receiver and fore-end, but it makes use of standard AR-15 magazines, as well as an AR-esque rotating bolt. Then there’s a slate of manufacturers who leaned more traditional with either all-new designs or updated legacy platforms.
Ruger, which famously took ownership of the struggling Marlin brand following Remington’s bankruptcy, is leaning toward tactical with the revived and reworked Marlin Dark Series, which will be available in three models, each based on the Marlin 1895, 336 and 1894 actions, respectively. Rossi USA revamped its R95 line with new Triple Black and Stainless models in .30-30 Winchester, along with a Rio Bravo Tactical model chambered in .22 Long Rifle.
Henry Repeating Arms' Lever Action Supreme Rifle (LASR) was a popular hit at the SHOT Show 2024 Media Day At The Range, where the gun's STANAG-magazine compatibility was on full display.
Aero Precision has developed its own lever-action rifle, a prototype model of which could be seen at SHOT Show this year, complete with a monolithic M-Lok M1895-compatible handguard, a full-length Picatinny optics rail and a fully adjustable, skeletonized M1895-compatible buttstock. Sister company Stag Arms also had a more traditionally styled lever-action rifle aimed toward the hunting crowd, though it had its own updates. Then, of course, there was the aforementioned Model 1854, which uses a traditional action with an external hammer, large-loop lever, right-side loading gate and tube magazine. A blacked-out set of polymer furniture that includes built-in M-Lok attachment points at the front, along with a section of rail atop the receiver and built-in open sights tips the design into “practical-tactical” territory.
All of which begs the question: why? Why now? In introducing its Dark Series at the end of 2023, Ruger President and CEO Chris Killoy remarked on the trend.
“There is a growing demand for more modern lever rifles, and the previous Dark Series rifles introduced Marlin into this space,” Killoy said. “We took a hard look at them and made several significant improvements.”
Though just a prototype model with no concrete plans yet shared about its availability, Aero Precision showcased a lever-action design complete with modern furniture.
From a simple commercial standpoint, it could just be that it’s unexplored territory. Functionally every other corner of the firearm market is replete, some might say oversaturated, with every kind of possible option. Want a handgun? There are literally thousands. An AR-15? Take your pick. Shotguns? If you can think of it, an option probably exists. Not so for the lever-action rifle, which for most of its life, has adhered to pretty similar feature sets. Perhaps companies see opportunity.
What about the political angle? NRA has garnered a number of victories in recent decades that have only expanded the people’s rights to keep and bear arms, but despite those wins, there are still corners of our country where folks are deprived of the right to own AR-15-style semi-automatic rifles and standard-capacity magazines. Lever-actions, though, are accessible in these areas and while it’s not semi-auto-quick, working a lever is pretty darn quick, giving folks the chance to get back on target with a fast follow-up shot.
Then there’s the consumer-driven angle alluded to by Killoy. Smart companies follow consumers, and consumers have made it clear that these are the kinds of guns they want. Why? Maybe it’s as simple as a yearning for something different. Maybe consumers now expect to have the same kind of versatility in every platform as they have in the AR-15. Maybe it just looks cool. The beautiful truth outlined by the Second Amendment is that nobody needs a reason. You can just have it. Regardless, in an industry where technological evolution can be glacial in its pace, it’s refreshing to see advances, and 2024 certainly looks to be a mile marker for the lever-action.