When shopping for any firearm, specifically a lever-action rifle, it’s easy to get caught up in brand desire, image, tradition, or other intangibles. At the end of the day, will that get you the rifle you actually need? Maybe it will, but most often, it doesn’t.
Before even stepping foot into a shop, consider why you’re interested in a lever-action rifle in the first place. Perhaps it is nostalgia; maybe your grandfather had a particular gun, and you’d like one in keeping with tradition. Perhaps you’re a collector and want a specific make and model to add to your collection.
The best caliber lever-action rifle depends on the rifle’s primary intended use. There are a variety of calibers available because there are so many applications and uses. Generally speaking, the best caliber rifle is the one you can and will operate under the circumstances you intended it for when you made the purchase.
Choosing the Right Caliber for You
These are two of very few reasons to make an emotional or heart-based decision on a rifle. More often, you’re shopping for a gun for a specific purpose. That purpose is what should drive your ultimate purchase decision.
Perhaps you have nuisance species on your property. A person living in bear country will have a different definition of “nuisance species” than someone residing in prairie dog country. This will undoubtedly impact the caliber that makes the most sense for you.
Perhaps you want to carry a rifle for protection when you camp or travel. Or maybe you simply want something all-purpose. This will also impact caliber, as will the location where you intend to store the rifle to have it readily available.
1. .32-20 Winchester
One of the most commonly recognized, known, and used rounds for lever-action rifles is the .21-20 Winchester. This round is also known as the .32 WCF, which stands for Winchester center fire. This caliber round dates back to 1882, arguably earlier by some sources.
Due to age and reliability, the .32-20 round is as synonymous with the lever-action rifle as the lever-action rifle is with the American cowboy. It is an old standard, as practical as it is flexible in its application. It has to be to remain so popular more than a century after its introduction.
The round’s name is also practical, describing the cartridge and the charge. .32 refers to the 32 caliber bullet or size of the projectile round. The 20 refers to the standard weight of 20 grains of gunpowder, traditionally black powder, that power the round.
Small in gauge but packing a powerful punch, the .32-20 round is prevalent for hunting small game and smaller pest species. This is because the round packs enough punch to kill smaller animals, but the round is small enough not to destroy the meat or the pelt.
Interestingly, the .32-20 Winchester had a bit of a resurgence in popularity in recent years with sport shooters. This is due to the overall versatility of the round. The small caliber round combined with a balanced load of powder results in an accurate shot, free of the disruptive recoil often experienced when using larger rounds.
2. .30 30 Winchester
The .30 30 Winchester round, or .30 30 Winchester Center Fire, is another round that dates back to the late 1800s and is quintessential to the lever-action rifle and its draw. Despite its deep roots and age on the market, the .30 30 round remains very popular today.
One of the most popular rifle rounds available today, the .30 30 round is exceptionally well balanced in terms of sheer velocity and stopping power. Just like the prior round, the .30 refers to the caliber of the projectile, whereas the 30 refers to the weight of the gunpowder to back it up.
The .30 30 round is popular with hunters today because of the extra power and powder to move the projectile through thick brush and into the target. It has adequate stopping power but isn’t a massive, devastating round.
This combination makes it an excellent choice for slightly larger game, such as deer. The .30 30 Winchester is still the round of choice for hunters in many parts of the US year after year, making it an excellent selection for your lever-action rifle.
3. .357 Magnum
The .357 Magnum round is another well-known, seemingly standard round. This round originated in response to the new and wildly popular .38 Special round in the mid-1930s. They are virtually the same diameter and can be used interchangeably in many weapons of either caliber.
The .38 Special was a black powder round, whereas the .357 Magnum was developed as a smokeless round. The .357 packed a higher punch due to denser powder but could still be chambered in the same weapon as a .38 Special.
Developed for personal protection and to penetrate more solid objects such as vehicle doors, the .357 Magnum has evolved into more of an all-around caliber of ammunition over the last several decades. It is still popular for protection but is becoming more commonly accepted as hunting ammunition.
Mainstream sources have many hunters convinced that a larger caliber round packing a higher punch of gunpowder is necessary to drop a prizewinning deer, but experts disagree. A .357 Magnum round was developed with adequate stopping power for home intruders.
As such, a well-placed .357 Magnum from a lever-action rifle is more than adequate to bag a deer within 200 yards, give or take a few. When hunting with a .357 Magnum caliber lever-action rifle, you need to focus on the fundamentals of shooting.
4. .45-70 Government
The .45-70 Government round is another old standard that is almost so common it’s easy to forget as a prominent option for a lever-action rifle. With initial design and manufacture dating back to 1873, this round has been refined to be perfect for its intended application.
As with other similarly named rounds, .45 refers to the diameter of the projectile in inches, while 70 refers to the grain weight of black powder in the cartridge to propel it. The term Government refers to its initial use by US military forces before it was made available on the open market.
This is a larger round with more firepower than the previous caliber ammunition options and a larger bullet. As logic dictates, this round has greater distance and stopping power, although, at greater distances, accuracy declines accordingly.
Many calibers of ammunition have come since the .45-70 Government became available, but this is still around because the combination of size, velocity, and balance makes it an ideal choice for large game.
There certainly is an element of nostalgia to choosing a .45-70 Government caliber lever-action rifle, which is reminiscent of the days of the Old West, but consider how this ammunition was used then. If this ammo can bring down bison, it is certainly capable of stopping large or dangerous game on your hunt.
Elk, bear, moose, wild hogs, and much more are no match for this round, even when it must pass through dense foliage or thick brush. It will cause more devastation on lesser-sized game, so it is likely not your best choice if you’re looking for a round for smaller game or small pest species.
5. .444 Marlin
Moving into a more modern era for lever-action rifle ammunition and caliber, the .444 Marlin was developed in the mid-1960s by firearms manufacturer Marlin. Using the stopping power of the .44 Magnum for inspiration, Marlin developed this round caliber for use in a long barrel, harnessing speed, packing a punch, and landing with accuracy.
When this round was developed, the .45-70 Government ammunition was difficult, if even possible, to find on the market in the US. This also contributed to the need and subsequent success of the .444 Marlin, as it had an immediate niche to fill once it entered the marketplace.
So what is the actual application of the .444 Marlin caliber lever-action rifle today? Much like the .45-70 Government, the .444 Marlin effortlessly takes down big game in thick timber and heavy brush, making it the go-to for many hunters even today.
For those living in a place away from other homes or buildings but needing home protection, the .444 Marlin caliber lever-action rifle is a logical choice. The fewer moving parts of the lever-action rifle combined with the stopping power of a large bore round make this a severe threat to anyone attempting to cause you or your family harm.
6. .348 Winchester
The .384 Winchester round is another American-made round, but it is young by comparison to some of the previously mentioned caliber of ammunition. When Winchester redesigned the 1886 to be more cost-effective, a new round was designed in hopes of catching the attention of previous customers.
As a result of this effort, in 1936, the Model 71 lever action rifle was released by Winchester along with a slightly more powerful round, the .348 Winchester. It did provide Winchester the uptick in interest and sales as anticipated.
While the .348 Winchester fell out of favor for a while, primarily due to similarity with other rounds, it has made a bit of a resurgence as of late. As modern hunters’ interest in shorter range shooting has increased, so has the use of the .348 Winchester.
This round is most effective at closer ranges than several of its hunting round siblings by the same manufacturer. Seasoned hunters report that you can use the .348 Winchester at greater distances, but larger game may run a bit before stopping due to blood loss. As such, this round is best when used at a shorter than traditional range for medium and large game.
7. .22 LR
The .22 LR or .22 Long Rifle is the highest-selling ammunition in the world today and is a great caliber option for lever-action rifles. This is a small caliber projectile powered by more gunpowder than a standard .22 round, making it accurate at a greater distance.
Because the powder load is still relatively small, this round produces minimal recoil, making it an ideal round for learning to shoot and to use as training rounds for developing good fundamentals of shooting.
Training and practice shooting aside, you may be wondering why the .22 LR caliber lever-action rifle would be the best choice for anyone. Assuming you don’t live in an area with big game that may disrupt your home or property, a .22 LR lever-action rifle is the perfect all-around rifle.
Those with small pets, kids, and even hobby farms rely on a .22 LR to protect their space from small predators and pest species. The minimal recoil makes this a very accurate weapon. Add to it that .22 LR is extremely cost-effective ammunition to purchase, and this is a great tool to have in your toolbox regardless of application.
What Is the Smoothest Lever Action Rifle?
Some people may still be on the fence about a lever-action rifle, given that it does take more effort to load and chamber rounds in this weapon. Given the more manual nature of the gun, this leads folks to wonder what is the smoothest lever-action rifle on the market today?
A .22 is the smoothest lever-action rifle available today, specifically, a Henry .22 lever-action rifle. The company expressly set out to make a smooth-action rifle and takes pride in how effortless and enjoyable their .22 lever-action rifle operates.
Henry Repeating Arms is a relatively young company but has quickly established itself as a leader in quality, yet inexpensive, guns for everyone. The .22 makes an excellent choice for a long gun around the home, ranging from plinking for fun to dispatching small pest species.
Many consider this a great first gun for people to learn about due to the smooth operation and the nearly imperceptible recoil. It is a weapon that can serve as the first gun to teach young and old folks alike, allowing them to learn the basics before challenging themselves to something more significant in size, weight, or caliber.
For more, check out How To Choose the Best Rifle for Target Shooting.
Hey, I’m Jim, and I’m the author of this website. I have been teaching people a wide variety of survivalism topics for over five years and have a lifetime of experience fishing, camping, general survivalism, and anything in nature. In fact, while growing up, I spent more time on the water than on land! I am also a best-selling author and have a degree in History, Anthropology, and Music. I hope you find value in the articles on this website. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or input!