Is the old lever action half-cock safety really all that safe?

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We’ve all been taught about the half-cock notch on lever action rifles. How safe is it, really?

When I was growing up lever action rifles (with the exception of the Savage 99) had no safeties. It was assumed, and taught, that the safe way to carry a lever action with a round in the chamber was to lower the hammer to the half-cock notch. When needed, the hammer was thumbed back as the gun was brought to the shoulder.

Fast forward to today and most lever actions come with some sort of safety. The Marlin lever actions, for instance, have a crossbolt type safety that blocks the hammer; the Rossi leverguns use a rotating safety in the bolt which locks the firing pin. (I haven’t actually seen a modern Winchester lever action, but I believe they now sport a tang safety which blocks the sear.)

The recommendation for dealing with a chambered round would seem to need changing; rather than lower the hammer to half-cock, one presumably simply puts the safety on. Is that really any better than the old half-cock notch?

I recently got an email from Ed Harris which touched on this very subject. Talking about the Marlin pistol-caliber lever actions, he says:

“The crossbolt safety of modern Marlins is wonderful and permits safe carry with the chamber loaded. This is safer than carrying with the hammer down and safety off, because in that manner the gun could fire if the hammer were struck or the rifle dropped.

When I worked at NRA I was aware of accidental discharges when the hammer jarred off the half-cock notch. The hammer being heavy enough, and pistol primers sensitive enough, the gun would fire even with the reduced hammer fall from the half-cock. We set this up in the lab and reproduced it with .38 Special loads regularly. Less often with harder primers in .357 and .44 Magnum, but it could still occur.”

I don’t doubt his findings, though I wonder just what it takes to get the hammer to fall from half-cock! I’ve tried it with my Marlins and my sole (pre-safety) Winchester, and the ledge on the half-cock notch effectively prevented the hammer from dropping when the trigger was pulled. It was necessary to slightly thumb the hammer back to clear the ledge, pull the trigger, and let the hammer go. It would seem to be a rather implausible happenstance under normal conditions, but there you go.

Using a primed but otherwise empty case to test the hammer drop from the half-cock position, I was able to get fairly consistent ignition with Winchester Small Pistol primers. From this I can confidently conclude that if the hammer does happen to fall from half cock, it can indeed set off the primer of a pistol cartridge.

I think it’s important to point out that not all Marlins have a half-cock ledge. My pre-Microgroove Model 39a, for instance, has neither a safety nor a ledge on the half-cock notch; putting the hammer to half-cock and pulling the trigger will result in hammer fall. It wasn’t enough to detonate rounds in my testing, but it makes enough of a dent in the cartridge rim that I’m certainly not going to trust the thing! All of my other Marlins are of post-’54 vintage and have a shelf on the half-cock notch, which seemingly prevents hammer fall when the trigger is pulled.

So, what’s the bottom line? If you have a safety on your levergun, I’d suggest that you use it. Naturally having a safety engaged doesn’t change the rules of gunhandling, and definitely should never be considered license to do something stupid with that firearm, but I believe it makes the lever action rifle safer to handle than the half-cock notch.

If your rifle doesn’t have a safety, I’d strongly recommend that you test your half-cock notch before relying on it. Make sure you have an empty gun; then double-check that it’s empty. Keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction and bring the hammer back to half-cock. Pull the trigger; if the trigger feels like it’s locked and won’t move, you have a ledged half-cock notch. I would not feel unsafe with a round in the chamber and the hammer on half-cock, but I’ll certainly heed Ed’s warning: if the hammer does slip, the round may detonate!

If your particular rifle doesn’t have that ledge — if the hammer dropped when you pulled the trigger in your test — I would consider it unsafe to carry with a round in the chamber. That’s the way I treat my 39a.

(In any case, make sure that you always keep the muzzle pointed in a generally safe direction as much as possible.)

I know, those safeties ruin the lines of the lever action and make it seem like the modern world is impinging on the tradition of the old guns. In this case, though, we do seem to have made some progress in the safety of our rifles!

-=[ Grant Cunningham ]=-

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About the Author:

Grant Cunningham is a renowned author and teacher in the fields of self defense, defensive shooting education and personal safety. He’s written several popular books on handguns and defensive shooting, including "The Book of the Revolver", "Shooter’s Guide To Handguns", "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals", "Defensive Pistol Fundamentals", and "Practice Strategies for Defensive Shooting" (Fall 2015.) Grant has also written articles on shooting, self defense, training and teaching for many magazines and shooting websites, including Concealed Carry Magazine, Gun Digest Magazine, the Association of Defensive Shooting Instructors ADSI) and the popular Personal Defense Network training website. He’s produced a DVD in the National Rifle Association’s Personal Firearm Defense series titled "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals" and teaches defensive shooting and personal safety courses all over the United States.
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