It would seem that the first thing that comes to mind when the words 'lever action rifle' is the Marlin Company. Even so, are they truly the people's champ when it comes to this weight class? Let us look.
Who else makes lever actions?
Winchester was the Pepsi to Marlin's Coke in the world of cowboy carbines for generations. Their John Browning-designed Model 94 has, with the exception of a few gaps, was in constant production for 112 years. In 2006, the line ended in the US. Its still around, just being made by Miroku Corp of Japan and imported by Browning for about three times the cost of a Marlin 336. (Moreover, you still can't put a scope on top of the receiver)
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Speaking of Browning, the company has long made small numbers of the BLR (Browning Lever Action) rifles
. These were not invented by John Browning but rather by Karl R. Lewis, the man who invented the Dan Wesson revolver. Today Miroku in Japan makes them and, while quality just oozes from them, they are a little pricey (like around $800.) On the bright side, their detachable box mag allows them to carry pointed rounds and full size cartridges like the 7mm Mag and 30.06.
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Mossberg today is the primary competition for affordable lever action rifles on the market. Their 464 series
is well made, using CNC machined receivers rather than cast. Based on the Winy 94, they have the same basic action style but angle-eject to the side so that you can mount a scope on top of the receiver. They sell these in both SPX and ZMB (zombie killing model in a tactical stock!) styles in .30-30 and 22LR for price points that dance all around the $500 area.
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And in other cowboy gun offerings, Brazilian made Rossi rifles
are starting to become a little more available. It used to be that the only examples you could find of these guns were in the shooting magazines, but now the company is making no less than 30 different variants. They have them in yellow boy, stainless, and blued finishes, and rifle and carbine lengths with round or octagonal barrels and regular or large loops. These are all revolver caliber only guns-- so don't expect to go big game hunting with them. They are, on the bright side, a little more inexpensive at around $400ish for new guns.
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Henry offers their 22LR Little Boy and revolver caliber (.44 Magnum, .45 Colt & .357 Magnum) Big Boy series of Cowboy action guns that are growing in popularity. Weight (8.68 pounds unloaded) is a little high as is price (MSRP of $899) for these octagon barrel throwbacks, but they cover a niche that Marlin can't meet with its $700 Model 1894s.
How the current Marlins stand up
It would seem that the Marlin 336 series of six shot tubular magazine .30-30s are the benchmark for new production deer guns in the country. Mossberg makes a good attempt to compete, but seem to be a little higher in their street price with less of a legacy to fall back on. However, the new Mossbergs are being offered in a tactical styling with black composite stocks and accessory rails, which makes them unique.
The revolver caliber Marlin 1894s are getting a lot of competition from Rossi and Henry, but some dismiss the Rossi's for their quality control and the Henry for their price.
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In large caliber lever actions, Browning gets the advantage in being able to use standard modern rounds in their BLR. Marlin's answer to this is the legacy Model 1895
series of big bore guns that include such old-school long range rounds as the .45/70 Government, and the Model 308MXLR in 308 Marlin Express. Half a dozen of one and six of the other so to speak.
Competitors come and go
Marlin has been in the lever action game since 1881 and in 2008, they made their 30 millionth lever gun. With the exception of a couple pesky world wars that interrupted production, and the occasional bankruptcy, the company has had a lever rifle on the assembly line for 135 years.
In that time, they have fought for the hearts and minds of the public against many would-be competitors that have came and went.
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Savage for nearly a century marketed their Model 99, with its box magazine giving it an advantage over Marlin's tube-fed designs. Savage however, threw in the towel and since 1998, just makes bolt actions and the occasional semi-auto.
As already mentioned, Winchester went from making thousands of tube magazine Model 94s and box magazine Model 1895s each year to closing their line in 2006 and letting Browning pick up their designs for manufacture overseas.
Ruger tried lever guns by taking their 10/22 rifle and beefing it up for 44 magnums. Known as the 96/44, they only were in production for eleven years before the company threw in the towel on the concept in 2007.
Remington briefly made the Model Nylon 76 "Trailrider," a plastic stocked 22LR as their only modern lever action rifle. Of course you can give them a pass as they acquired Marlin in 2007 lock, stock, and barrel so all Marlins made since then are technically Remy's.
But that is another story...