The old .30-30 Winchester (or .30 WCF, for .30 Winchester Center Fire) has been around for a long time —since 1895, to be exact.
In this day and age of polymer pistols, “black” rifles, and cartridges that can take out a critter in another zip code, is this old creature still relevant?
As my Swedish friend Lars is in the habit of saying, “Ja sure – you betcha!” Even though it’s 127 years old, it still outsells some other calibers intended for the deer woods.
Why, you ask? Well, let’s explore! We will talk about the history of the round and run you through some of our favorite models.
Summary of Our Top Picks
Table of Contents
History Of The .30-30
One of the reasons that the .30-30 is still popular is that it still works.
It works because it was designed to fill a void in rifle calibers — that of a mid-power 30-caliber cartridge that could be used in lever action rifles.
Back in 1895, hunters were, by and large, equipped with lever actions. The Winchester 1894 had just been introduced and was selling like hotcakes.
But, it was available in only two calibers: .38-55 and the .32-40 Winchester. The former being slow and heavy, with the latter failing to produce 1,000 ft/lbs of energy.
So, Winchester brought out a .30 caliber round that pushed a 160-grain bullet at 1,970 fps, delivering right around 1,400 ft/lbs of energy.
This was a godsend for deer and other hunters, who snapped up rifles in the new caliber.
Marlin, the storied manufacturer of lever rifles and a direct competitor to Winchester, was not to be left behind.
When they brought out their 1893 lever rifle in .30 WCF, they re-named it the “.30-30,” the name we know by today.
They, and the Union Metallic Cartridge Company, did not want to give free publicity to a competitor by calling the cartridge by its .30 Winchester name.
With both companies now building rifles in this new and more powerful caliber, it took off.
What About Today? Why’s It Still Popular?
This old boy still has plenty of zip out to a couple of hundred yards, making it a viable choice for medium-sized game like deer, hogs, and even black bears.
With ammo readily available and rifles for sale, the .30-30 remains a winner.
Chambered in handy, light lever rifles, the .30-30 delivers under 11 lbs of recoil energy — about half that of the .30-06.
Previously, lever gun users were stuck with only round-nose bullets to prevent the tip of the round from hitting the primer of the next round in the magazine tube and causing a detonation.
Hornady created LeverEvolution ammo, which uses a polymer tip to avoid any unintended primer strikes. This allows the use of bullets with better ballistic coefficients and expansion, which has ultimately helped .30-30 stay relevant in today’s market.
Overall, It’s a tame-kicking mid-range thirty caliber chambered in light, handy rifles with readily available ammo. It gets the job done out to 150 yards nearly every time and doesn’t beat you up doing it.
Best 30-30 Rifles
1. Marlin 336
My all-time favorite lever action in .30-30 is the Marlin 336.
Marlin was acquired by Remington in 2007 and subsequently acquired from Remington by Ruger in 2020. There was a large gap in the production of the 336, but the rifles have just started limited production again under Ruger in the last few months.
Marlin only produces the 336 Classic in the 20-inch barrel right now, but that is the barrel length you want if you want the full meal deal on ballistics.
Why do I like this gun? There are three main reasons.
First, it uses side ejection, not top ejection. The fired cases come out the side, which makes way for my second reason…scope mounting.
You can easily mount a scope or red dot on the top of the receiver since the fired cases aren’t bouncing off it as they exit the rifle. (I’m personally not a fan of scopes on levers, but that’s just me).
The last reason is that it is the only one on the list to have a pistol grip stock. That does aid a bit when you’re shouldering the rifle…at least for me.
The new classic versions are admittedly much more expensive than the older versions. If you can find one of these used, especially a “JM” stamped pre-Remington model, check it out.
What do you think of the Marlin 336? Rate it below!
2. Winchester 1894
Oliver Winchester was not the first to produce a lever rifle, but he sure put his stamp on it. His lever rifle of 1866 gave the original Henry a run for its money.
Winchester kept upgrading his guns, culminating in the most popular of them all, the 1894.
If you’ve seen many Western movies or TV shows (especially those featuring the Duke), you’ve most likely seen two iconic firearms…the Colt 1873 “Peacemaker” revolver and the 1894 Winchester lever rifle.
John Wayne’s 1892 Winchesters sported a large loop that allowed him to twirl it around and cock it. It locked the lever rifle’s popularity in the minds of shooters at the time.
Here is why I like the Winchester. First, it is iconic. I don’t use that term a lot because I want it to mean something. So, when I use it, I mean it.
The Winchester rifles are THE lever action rifles that won the West in many people’s minds.
Whether you’re John Wayne on a movie set or a hunter headed to the deer woods, you could surely do worse than to have one of these in your hand.
Secondly, it’s a quality firearm. It’s built to last. My brother had a rimfire version back in the ‘80s, a 9422, and it was very well-made, reliable, and accurate — they’re just good guns.
Although Winchester stopped mass production of these in 2006, they still sell high-end versions of the Model 94.
As with the Marlin, the current production versions are expensive, but the long-time popularity of the 94 means the used market is flush with them.
3. Henry Steel Side Gate
First, the side gate. Many Henrys load only via the magazine tube by twisting the end plug to open the port, sliding the mag tube out, and dropping in the cartridges. The side gate models allow you to load the rifle via a gate on the right side of the receiver while still being able to use the regular tube loading method.
The other reason I chose this one is the finish on the receiver.
Henry sent me a Big Boy .44 Magnum with a polished brass receiver for a review a few years ago. I say polished; I mean polished!
You could use it as a mirror to check your teeth or comb your hair, but I was hesitant to take it into the woods because I didn’t want to scratch it up.
I also don’t want the sun to catch it and send up a flash that might spook whatever critters were in the vicinity, hence my preference for the less-flashy finish.
Another plus is the inclusion of sling studs. It also features a brass bead on the front sight and is drilled and tapped for scope mounts.
Henry’s quality is legendary. The company builds some truly excellent rifles, and everything is made in the United States.
Prices range from $800-1000, which isn’t too bad for a quality lever-action deer rifle in these inflationary times.
4. Mossberg 464
OK… what happens if you don’t have a grand to put towards a lever gun? There’s the Mossberg 464.
Sadly these have been discontinued as of 2021, but you can still hunt these down on the used market.
The original MSRP of $339 means that even second-hand in the current crazy lever market, you can probably snag one for a reasonable price.
The gun is built pretty much like the others…20-inch barrel, hardwood stock, side gate, ramp rear sight. OK, so maybe the stock doesn’t show all that pretty swirly grain that some of the others do, but that doesn’t affect the guns’ usefulness.
I mention below that I reviewed a Mossberg .30-30 a couple of years ago. It was solid. I especially like the tang-mounted safety…this is the only one of our four rifles herein to have one there.
If you want one to take on with you on your boat or in harsh weather, Mossberg offered a version with a laminate stock and Marinecote finish.
For a budget rifle, the 464 and its variants have a lot going for them.
Can you buy a deer rifle with more “oomph” and better ballistics and trajectory than the .30-30? Sure.
Let’s face it, many cartridges and rifles outdo the .30-30 in several ways, but that doesn’t diminish its capabilities.
For some reason (or several reasons), the 127-year-old cartridge still retains popularity, even in the face of many other deer cartridges that are superior on paper.
If you want a round that will put deer-sized game down for the count out to 150 yards or so and not beat your shoulder (or your wallet) up while doing it, the .30-30 still has it. If you’ve never shot one, you need to.
Do you have any experience with the .30-30? Is it still relevant to you? Let us know in the comments below! Already have one? Check out our article on the Best .30-30 Ammo!