Let’s just say that hypothetically you’ve found yourself living in an area due to life’s circumstances, that is run by law makers who don’t give a damn about US Constitutional Law. If you had nothing in the way of defensive long arms, what would you do? Semi-automatic defensive rifles are obviously the best choice for most people, but if you’re in a state where semi-autos aren’t on the menu, what other options do you have? In one such state, new gun buyers are finding that their options are limited to lever action, pump action or bolt guns. Not optimal, but also not the worst. Infringement on freedom is garbage, and we are all hopeful that every state with a ridiculous, “Assault Weapons Ban,” that does absolutely NOTHING to stop any violent crime, will soon fold and involute under the force of the Supreme Court of the United States. Enough for politics…
I am a fan of lever actions. Whether in the futuristic, steampunk guise of, “Firefly,” or in western film classics like, “Rio Bravo,” or modern tales like, “Yellowstone,” or, “Longmire,” the silhouette of a lever gun is unmistakable. Many of us grew up with Red Ryder BB guns, which were also lever action, and that nostalgia sticks with us through adulthood, and persists! Don’t discount the utility of a good lever action though…Colonel Jeff Cooper himself advocated for law enforcement use of the lever gun well into his twilight years (the so-called BROOKLYN SPECIAL) and many of the mainstream trainers you know (Clint Smith, James Yeager, Lee Weems, Randy Cain, Darryl Bolke and others) have either advocated, demonstrated or taught a curriculum specific to manually operated guns for areas where people are subject to gun control laws. They’ve worked for about 160 years now, and they still work today.
WHAT THEY DON’T DO WELL…
CAPACITY: Lever guns are a lot like revolvers in practical use…there are easier ways to operate. Like Tom Givens says, “I don’t carry a semi-automatic pistol so I can shoot more; I carry one so I can reload less.” A good lever gun in a 20” barrel can carry 10 rounds. Some can hold more (especially rimfire variants) and some like the mighty .45-70 hold far fewer. In a civilian defender emergency (e.g. repelling home invaders) scenario, a situation requiring more than 10 rounds would be unlikely. But, if you’re attacked by a team of 11 home invaders, make it interesting for the first ten through the door…so capacity COULD be an issue.
DURABILITY: This one will ruffle some feathers because people LOVE their lever guns. Yes…I know you inherited it from your Grandad and he never had any issues with it, but trust me. If you put it on the range in a relatively rigorous volume of fire class, you will see some issues. Stoppages that tie up the gun severely enough that it won’t run without some love from a competent lever smith. Lever guns have lots of moving parts, several screws and they’re made from a design from a time where smokeless powder wasn’t around, and the metals (like metals are apt to do) expand with heat and that makes tight tolerance parts, tighter! So for large volume classes, where you may fire 250 rounds in an 8 hour course, you can have issues. It would probably be smart to bring a backup gun, so you can alternate between the two when one gets really hot or if you experience a break down that isn’t amenable to immediate action drills (i.e. running the lever again).
INDIVIDUALITY: Like shotguns and revolvers, each are their own individual, and may either be stand outs from their respective kind, or complete lemons, even among makes and manufacturers that are thought of as being normally high-quality. Also, due to variances in headspace, barrel concentricity, and crowns, accuracy can waver from phenomenal to horrid. I had a major manufacturer rifle that had a non-concentric bore which made it zero at 50 yards, about two feet right and three feet high off the bullseye. It would group nice, but I didn’t want to have a gun that was that cockeyed, so I contacted the manufacturer and they gladly replaced the barrel after confirming my diagnosis.
LOADING GATES: Two kinds of loading gates exist (all variants of the, “King’s Loading Gate” which was the original inventor of the side-loading gate back in the 1860’s) and they’re either effortless and you can thumb rounds into them with aplomb, even when you are lacking mechanical leverage (like when the gun is shouldered) OR the loading gate is so tight and sharp, that it takes pieces of your thumb with you when you load it. There are some aftermarket fixes for this issue, and there are a few great gunsmiths who still work on lever guns, but the real geniuses in that subset of gunsmiths are the SASS and CASS (Single Action Shooting Society and Cowboy Action Shooting Sports smiths) who make these guns run like butter and load nearly effortlessly.
AMMO PICKINESS: Rounds in the magazine tube of a lever gun have to be of a certain bullet profile to not only feed effectively, but also to not inadvertently cause a chain reaction of rounds going off in the magazine tube if the bullet noses of the rounds hit the primer of the round in front of it. Not good! Ian McCollum of Forgotten Weapons had this happen to him a few years back with a Henry Rifle, but I believe the etiology of the chain fire in his case was because of the follower impacting the primer of the first round in the tube. Either way, you don’t want to experience that! So in addition to finding ammo that your gun likes, and coincides with the point of aim/point of impact, you need to find one that is a profile that won’t cause a chain fire AND STILL feed into the chamber. Hornady’s Leverevolution rounds have worked in .45-70, .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum and .45 Colt for me. For practice/training ammo, I go for flat nose rounds like the Keith wad cutter profile rounds.
WHAT THEY DO WELL
PROFILE: Long and lean…you can (and I have) set a lever gun in the space next to the center console of my truck and the passenger seat. At less than 2” thick down its entire length it hides well, and stays secure for the drive. I can’t easily do that with my AR’s.
NOSTALGIC AND NON-THREATENING APPEARANCE: Many people equate lever guns with movies, or simply as deer guns and don’t regard them the same way they’d look at an AR-15 or even a Mini-14. They just don’t seem that threatening. Marty Hayes of the ACLDN (Armed Citizens Legal Defense Network) has said that in some actual legal cases as well as mock trials, the appearance of a long gun that was used in lawful self-defense was brought into question. This is hypothetically less-so with traditional looking, archaic firearms designs like the lever gun. People look at them and think of their childhood, John Wayne or their grandparents.
POWER: Leverguns for defensive use, in common calibers like .30-30, .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum .45 Colt and .45-70 have loadings in power levels that vary from low power cowboy rounds, all of the way up to hard cast flat nose rounds that can take any large game in North America. In rounds that are commonly used in revolvers, the longer barrel of the lever gun gives much more stabilization, as well as velocity to the projectile that results in sometimes awesome effects down range. Chuck Haggard and I have used .357 Magnum rounds in the 125 grain range that produced results that were indistinguishable from an AKM firing 123 grain rounds in blocks of Clear Ballistic Gelatin with four layers of denim on the front. BOTH rounds were recovered in the first half of the second block, with nearly identical wound tracks. I’ve also euthanized 150-200 pound pigs before with 158 and 125 grain .357 Magnum rounds with great effect. Bottom line…some Magnum revolver rounds (and .45 Colt) give even better performance out of longer barrels. You just have to figure out which you like, what feeds, and what shoots to the sights (or zeroed optic) on your gun.
SAFETY: A traditional (not with the additional safety devices that silly states have enacted and forced some manufacturers to incorporate like Winchester Rossi and Marlin) lever gun is essentially a single action type trigger attached to a tube feed gun. The trigger does one thing, and that’s release the hammer which fires the round. The lever ejects the fired round and then allows the next round to load into the chamber. You can safely carry a round in the chamber with the hammer down on SOME modern lever actions. Thus, if you need the gun, you simply grab the gun, fully cock the hammer and fire. Of course, you can also carry in a, “cruiser ready,” condition with an empty chamber and a loaded magazine tube, and all that is needed to put the gun into action is rack the lever to load it. The corollary is also true; once you’re done shooting, you have to safely decock the hammer to the down/half-cock condition. Mishaps can be minimized if you are trained to do this safely (READ: the FOUR FIREARMS SAFETY RULES are always in play and full effect).
FUN: People are interesting creatures…we tend to do things more if they’re fun! I’ve used rifles in a professional capacity, and although it isn’t as high-tech or state of the art as self-loading rifles, they are so much fun! And fun, consistent practice lends itself to recent, realistic and relevant training. Shoot the same drills you’d do with your handgun, at the same distances you’d do with your pistol. Yes…some of us may have longer shots in their home. But longer than 25 yards? You SHOULD be doing some 25 yard work with your pistol, but most of it should be done within the bounds of the length of a car (16 feet). The rest, weak hand, multiple targets, the Parrot Drill, The, “TEST,” (or the SUPER TEST) are all in play and for the, “Urban Carbine,” as coined by Clint Smith, we are talking about using a long gun in a space envelope that is normally considered pistol distances.
Thank you for reading! Something a bit different…and while not comprehensive, it’s a start of an interesting project. If this piece proves popular, I will continue to write more about the research and testing I am doing in this area with lever guns. Like, share amongst your friends and on social media and subscribe to my feed if you want to hear more about the defensive use of manually actuated long guns! THANKS AGAIN! -DR. HOUSE