Do Lever Actions Have a Place in Tactical Applications?

Lever actions have been around since the 1800s. No question about it, the lever action rifle is old school. That can be both good and bad. It’s good, because the design is enduring and still popular enough to keep it going, and there’s a reason for that.

It can be not so good because the features are not the latest, greatest, most modern available. Lever actions are not typically constructed of lightweight polymers and aluminum alloys like many modern semi-autos are these days. Most lever actions are made from wood and steel, at least historically.

Here in Pennsylvania, the lever action has been a staple for deer hunters for decades, especially among older hunters. I’ve known guys who have hunted for years with one box of ammunition. They take their rifle off the rack, head out into the woods, fire one or two shots as they bag their deer, and then the rifle goes back onto the rack again until next year. Some of them will go as far as to take the rifle to the range the week before hunting season opens and fire a round or two just to make certain the sights are still zeroed. So a box of ammo lasts for a number of years with these guys.

Marlin .30-30, backpack, and Buck hunting knives.
The lever action is a staple with hunters for decades, making it very familiar to most people.

In areas where shots are typically not very long, such as in the woods, the lever action will routinely suffice perfectly. The most popular calibers in my area of PA are .30-30, .35 Remington, and a smattering of .357 and .44 Magnum. Mostly, it’s the .30-30, though, almost overwhelmingly.

One thing we must consider: This design has been around for well over 100 years. In fact, the first one was invented in 1860 by Benjamin Tyler Henry. The lever action was The gun to have until after WWI when the bolt action began taking the world by storm.

The Modern Look

There is a new trend for lever actions. Synthetic stocks and handguards are being used now, and rail systems are being attached to fore ends in an effort to bring the lever gun up to “modern” times. Some lever guns these days look more like a ray gun such as we might see in “Star Wars.”

Ultra-Modern lever action.
Some lever actions are being radically modernized with synthetic materials, stocks, and rails. They would look at home in “Star Wars.” (Photo courtesy of SWAT Magazine)

The fore-end rail systems and Picatinny Rails will allow various accouterments to be bolted onto the rifle. We’re seeing scopes, lights, and lasers being attached. Essentially, the lever gun is going the way of the AR-15 carbine; turning a lightweight, handy carbine into a heavy, bulky weapon. Some of those I’ve seen appear to nearly qualify as a crew-served weapon. Unfortunately, some shooters believe that adding gadgets will enhance their shooting skills, which is seldom the case.

Readers may have guessed by this time that I’m a crotchety, old-fashioned codger. Personally, I prefer the classic, old-school look of a lever action, with nice wood stocks. Despite that, I’ll admit to liking the looks of the Ruger Guide Gun in lever action with the stainless steel finish. It’s slightly modern looking, yet it retains a certain amount of class.

Ruger recently took over Marlin and is producing lever-action rifles, so I think we’re going to see some great things coming from them.

Drawbacks

Let’s take a look at some drawbacks and advantages of the old lever rifle.

  • Limited capacity: Most lever action rifles of rifle caliber are limited to around six rounds, give or take. Pistol calibers enjoy higher capacity.
  • Rate of Fire: Obviously, it’s going to be somewhat slower than a semi-auto.
  • Manipulation: The user must refine the movements of working the action of the lever in order to gain the most advantage of the platform. Improper technique adds time. The rifle must remain shouldered and the operator brings the lever down and back smartly. It’s difficult to do while in the prone position.
  • Tube magazine: It doesn’t hold many rounds and is a bit slow to load.
  • Slow loading: It has to be loaded one round at a time.

Advantages

  • Tube magazine: Wait, didn’t we say this is a drawback? Yeah. But on the flip side, it’s durable. And, unlike box magazines, it won’t get lost and is not likely to get broken.
  • Side loading gate: Despite being slow to load, lever actions with a side loading gate can have their magazine topped off one round at a time. Semi-autos with box magazines do not enjoy that feature.
  • Fairly easy to maneuver: Especially the 16-inch barreled carbines such as the Marlin 336Y (Youth) Model, which is shorter than the M-1 Carbine, which is known for being very short.
  • Availability: Lever actions are popular in the hunting field and can often be found at local gun shops fairly cheap.
  • Ammo Availability: The hunting rounds that most lever actions use are likely to be readily available while rounds used in military semi-autos have already been snatched off the shelves.
Marlin .30-30 and Lionsteel Bestman knife.
The side loading gate on this Marlin 336 can keep the magazine topped up during the action. The knife is the Bestman model from Lionsteel Knives.

In The Courtroom And Public

Perception is huge. When many members of the public see an AR-15, they get nervous (or worse). It is perceived as a Black Ray Of Death, capable of wiping out a small city or continent in mere moments.

However, when they see a lever action carbine/rifle, they see a “Cowboy Gun.” A hunting gun. It’s about as low-key on the Richter Scale as we can get for a firearm as far as alarming the local populace. Where I live, no one would give me a second glance if I were outside my home with one. They’re very commonplace.

Being prepared to defend ourselves without alarming people nearby is an advantage. Yeah, it’s great to have the attitude of, “I don’t care what others think.” However, do we really need to create a stir and a fuss? I’d rather be low-key and fly under the radar.

Trial

And, God forbid, if we ever have to use our rifle in self-defense, what happens in the courtroom is going to matter. At some point, members of the jury are going to see the weapon you chose to use on that fateful day.

Which would you rather have the prosecutor hold up, a “Cowboy Gun” or an AR-15 with a scope, light, laser, and other add-ons? Don’t get me wrong—I love the AR-15 and other semi-autos! I have a few myself. For defense, they’re hard to beat.

But winning in court partly has to do with appearances. And we want to appear to be the most reasonable, sane, down-to-earth person that we can possibly muster up. We want the jury to identify with us. How many members of that jury do you suppose will have an AR or AK platform at home waiting to defend their homestead? I’m willing to bet not one. Or even if we’re lucky and there’s one on the jury, the rest will not be.

M-1 Carbine, Marlin 336Y, AK-47, AR-15 carbine.
Which rifle in this lineup looks the least threatening? That’s right, the old lever gun. Notice that the Marlin 336Y (16-inch barrel) is actually shorter than the semi-autos shown here.

Inmates have a joke, and some get a tattoo of 13 1/2. Do you know what that stands for? It means 12 jurors, one alternate, and a half-assed chance. Except, it’s not a joke. It’s for real. I spent my entire professional career in the legal/law enforcement system, and I’ve seen innocent people locked up with my own eyes. Trust me, the court system is not something that you want to take lightly.

I guarantee the prosecutor would hold up the AR-15 we used and say something akin to, “Mr. So-And-So was just waiting to use this weapon of mass destruction on someone, and now he had the chance!” And that’s not going to look great for us and our case.

It’s quite probable that if we use a more mundane weapon for defense, it will be more accepted, despite the fact that whatever we happened to use fires a projectile. Again, it’s all about appearances.

Widely Accepted

As I mentioned, the old lever gun is going to be more socially acceptable than a great many other weapons. An additional thing to consider is the legal aspect.

aiming a lever action around a corner.
Will the lever action effectively work to defend yourself and your family? You betcha! As a fighting rifle, you could do a lot worse. It’s used daily by thousands across the nation, including hunters and ranchers.

In many states, semi-autos are stringently regulated, if not outlawed. Owning an AR-15 might not be legally possible in certain areas. However, we’re not aware of any locality that prohibits hunting rifles. Consequently, anyone can own a lever action, within reason. For many people, that is going to be a factor that they need to consider.

Add Ons

As mentioned, I’m a purist and prefer the classic look of a lever gun, without scads of gadgets attached. That said, I can’t fault anyone who adds a light to his rifle, because target identification is paramount in darkness. I could also see adding a low-power scope or even a red dot sight for close encounters. Maybe even a side saddle ammo carrier on the stock. Beyond that, I can’t see dressing up this type of rifle.

On the other hand, if the black, tactical look is your thing, have at it! It’s your rifle, and I can’t fault your tastes if they differ from mine.

Overall Effectiveness

Will a lever gun suffice to defend your homestead from intruders? We believe it will. And with the number of people modifying lever actions, as well as the schools offering courses specifically aimed at lever actions, we’re not alone in our opinions.

With a little practice, a shooter can attain a respectable rate of fire and keep the lever gun’s magazine topped up and running.

Author with .30-30 lever action.
Lever action rifles and carbines can work in close quarters for defensive use. This is a Marlin 336Y in .30-30.

We have to ask ourselves how many attackers we expect to descend upon our location. Anything within reason can be handled by a cool head and a good lever gun.

No, we wouldn’t want to be dropped into a hot landing zone in a combat situation with a lever action rifle, nor conduct a SWAT operation with one. There are more specialized tools for such things.

For the homeowner, though, looking to defend his family, the lever gun will do it fine. And let’s not forget the thousands of hunters, ranchers, and outdoorsmen who tote lever actions daily. They take game, sometimes dangerous game, with these rifles. It stands to reason that two-legged predators will be stopped by these rifles too.

The lever action might be one of the best-kept secrets going today. It’s a good idea to pick one up. It has been around for well over a hundred years and will continue to soldier on into the foreseeable future.

Jim Davis served in the PA Dept. of Corrections for 16 ½ years as a corrections officer in the State Correctional Institute at Graterford and later at SCI Phoenix. He served on the Corrections Emergency Response Team (CERT), several of those years as a sniper, and also the Fire Emergency Response Team (FERT). For 25 years, he was a professional instructor, teaching topics including Defensive Tactics, Riot Control and Tactical Operations, Immediate Responder, and cognitive programs as an adjunct instructor at the DOC Training Academy. He was then promoted to the title of corrections counselor, where he ran a caseload and facilitated cognitive therapy classes to inmates. His total service time was close to 29 years. He was involved in many violent encounters on duty, including incidents of fatalities.

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