There’s just something about a lever gun that is symbolically American. Maybe it’s the romance of the old West or just one too many John Wayne movie, but they hold a special place in my heart and my safe. I have to admit the first centerfire rifle I ever bought was a 444 Marlin.
Here in the southeast, lever guns used to be the mainstay for deer hunting before the bolt-action bean field guns made their debut. From the swamps of Florida to the thick woods of Alaska everyone regards them as great brush guns—but they can be so much more.
I find it interesting that the 45-70, a “brush gun” cartridge, was adopted by the military due to its greater range and accuracy than its predecessor. From Trapdoor’s to Gatling guns the 45-70 has proven itself a performer and a legacy round that refuses to die.
The base gun for my quest to be able to use a lever gun for a bit more hunting begins life as a 45-70 Marlin GSBL, one of the hardiest finished lever guns Marlin ever produced. The black and green finishes over the stainless and laminate gun blend well in the outdoors and protect it from the elements.
To get the most from any rifle it at least needs a good trigger and sight system. The factory trigger, though not bad, is not what I would consider good. The same could be said of the barrel mounted buckhorn style sight.
Upgrades and Additions
Replacing the factory trigger with a Wild West Guns Trigger Happy Kit resulted in much smoother, no flop, lighter trigger that definitely aided in shooting groups at distance. The installation is easy and the folks at WWGs are super supportive. They’ve been doing custom lever guns since the 1990’s and make their own parts to ensure quality rather than outsourcing—I dig small shop USA-made!
The factory trigger pull averaged just under 7 ½ lbs. on my trigger gauge, while the new WWG trigger averaged in at just over 3 ¼ lbs. This resulted in a tremendous difference in feel when shooting the gun though still heavy enough to be safe in the field.
The folks at WWGs are gunsmiths, shooters, hunters, and competitors so they are big on reliability. I took their advice and installed one of their “Bear Proof Ejectors and aluminum magazine followers to decrease the odds of having issues down the line.
The Bear Proof is a one-piece unit that replaces the factory two pieces, and the anodized aluminum follower replaces a factory plastic unit. WWG offers all 3 parts as a package deal in the Lever Happy Tune Kit.
I also opted to add a WWG Big Loop Lever for faster follow up shots and their Quick Release Screw to allow a tool-free lever/bolt removal for cleaning. They designed their lever based on experience gained from Alaskan hunting and Cowboy Action Shooting a great blend.
The limited sight radius provided by the sight being mounted on the barrel is easily improved by mounting a rear sight on the receiver or a scope. The XS Sights Lever Rail with Ghost Ring is the perfect answer for maximum versatility.
The XS rail screws to the top of the receiver and uses an insert in the rear sight dovetail of the barrel to firmly secure it to the gun. The peep sight at the rear of the rail provides a significant increase in sight radius and a lot of options for scope mounting positions. The XS rail stood up to the recoil of many, many rounds and kept the sights and scope securely in place for rock solid, repeatable performance.
Using XS Sights or another receiver mounted peep extends your sight radius from 13″ to 21,” a greater than 50% increase in sight radius. This and the trigger change alone extended the reach of the big bullets easily to 200 yards.
The 200 yard groups were now looking pretty good and seemed to already burst the bubble of the “Brush Gun” stigma on the gun and cartridge, but to really maximize this blaster and make this be my go-to gun for deer, hogs, elk or whatever at reasonable distances than I still needed a bit more.
A few years ago it would have been difficult to choose a scope that would support both the quick up close shooting needed in dense woods and longer range holdover needs of the 45-70 lever gun. Luckily Nightforce released their NX8 model earlier this year and it is exactly what this gun needs.
The NX8 is a very small 1-8 power scope with an illuminated mil-based reticle. The NX8 weighs just over a pound and is only 8 ¾” long. This small size supports mounting it very low and close on top of the gun. Equally important is the generous 3.75” eye relief that allows shooting the 45-70 and having space to not get tagged by the scope under recoil.
On 1x with the reticle illuminated it is just as fast to shoot as the gun is with iron sights, allowing shooting with both eyes open to track your prey. While on 8x with the mil-based reticle it allowed me to make shots using the proper elevation hold to engage targets at longer distances.
Yes, I know I just put way more money on top of the gun than the gun itself costs. That’s typical with bolt guns too. If you want to really see a rifle perform, it usually takes more money in glass than it does for the gun.
The next major component needed to maximize the performance of this lever operated, large diameter lead dispenser was the right bullets. The 405 grain bullets have been around since the late 1800’s; I think we should be able to do better than that. The biggest bullet problem is that the tubular magazine doesn’t allow pointed bullets due to the dangers of the bullet point detonation the primer in front of it during recoil.
Hornady addressed this issue a few years back when it came out with its LEVERevolution ammunition utilizing a Flex Tip design. This allows higher ballistic coefficient bullets, which improves the performance of tubular magazine rifles.
The Hornady 325 grain FTX rounds performed well in initial group testing so were chosen for the longer range testing as well. They have a higher BC than the 250 grain or the 405’s. Deer I have shot with these rounds dropped in their tracks. No need for following blood trails when well hit with these thumpers.
First stop was a few shots across the Ohler chronograph to determine what velocity the available loads were leaving the 18.5” barrel. This data was needed to determine what the elevation holds needed to be for longer ranges.
Hornady 250 Grn FTX LEVERevolution
Hornady 325 Grn FTX LEVERevolution
Remington 405 Grn Flat Point
I was truly astonished by the first group shot with the 325’s and the NX8, it was a 1.18” group of 5 rounds, with four of the five forming one large hole. The 100-yard accuracy testing proved the Marlin would be deadly on targets well beyond brush gun ranges and that heart/lung shot accuracy could be possible out to 300-400 yards.
At 200 yards the Hornady 325’s shot a respectable 2.75” 3 shot group, while the 250’s came in under 3” as well. Moving back to 300 yards, the 325 FTX rounds still managed a fantastic 4.5” 3 shot group; so the Marlin 1895 45-70 with this load was managing 1.5 minutes of angle accuracy out to 300 yards-impressive.
The Hornady ammunition was doing its part for sure, but the scope and the trigger were instrumental in allowing me to see, hold over and break the shots. The NX8 zoomed up to 8x and its .5 mil reticle allowed the elevation holds and precisely aim the shots, a very well designed piece of glass. The WWG’s trigger, at less than half the weight of the original, made the job of getting the shots off when the crosshair was settled so much easier.
I had initially planned to use a muzzle target crown cutter to put an 11 degree target crown on the muzzle but after seeing these results decided to leave the business end of this lever gun just like it is.
Pushing the Envelope
With such great results out to 300 yards, it seemed appropriate to stretch testing on out to 400 yards. Data shows that between 300-400 yards the bullets fall back below the speed of sound and this often times causes instability in bullets making that transition, negatively affecting accuracy.
The Marlin/ Nightforce/ Hornady/ WWG setup had proven to shoot 1.5 MOA out to 300, which should equate to about a 6” group at 400 yards. I wouldn’t typically do 400-yard shots with this gun in the field due to wind errors, but it’s nice to know the true capability of the scope/ rifle/ ammunition combination.
The first 3 Hornady LEVERevolution 325 grain bullets made an impressive sub-6-inch group at 400 yards. Quickly following up those three with two more rounds opened the five-round group up to around 12 inches, all in a vertical string along the same axis.
Shooting at 400 yards revealed several items of interest: the magnification and clarity of the Nightforce NX8 made it easy to still see and engage targets at that distance. Secondly, that even the slightest breeze causes inches of drift on the big slow moving slugs. As with most rifles, accuracy goes downhill as the barrel heats up. Regardless, how many of these do you need on-target to get the job done?
The 1895 with all its upgrades performed well beyond expectations when set-up and pushed to the max. It was 100% reliable in feeding, ejecting, firing and left little else to be desired. The WWG’s Trigger and the Nightforce scope really made this gun come alive as a performer.
Whether you decide to fully maximize your Marlin or just use a portion of the mentioned upgrades depends on purpose and budget. I know without a doubt that this gun is up to the task of taking deer, hogs, bear, elk or whatever crosses its path out to 300+ yards.