I like all rifles, but lever actions have a particular place in my collection. Here’s why.

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The lever action may seem antiquated, but maybe its old virtues still have value in today’s shooting world!
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There’s been a lot of talk about lever action rifles lately. One well-known person in the industry wrote an article about how much he likes them, and another industry personality wrote a social media rebuttal about how they’re overhyped and we should instead spend our money on semi-auto magazine-fed long guns in case of insurrection. What a divergence of opinion!

I, for one, enjoy the lever action (or, as Doc Wesson calls them, “leever actions”.) It has a definite place in my collection, and in fact for most of the things I need a rifle for it’s usually the one I pick first!

This wasn’t always the case. My first rifle love, when I was perhaps six or seven, was the M1 Carbine. They were sold in the Sears catalog (for the younger folks in the audience, this was pre-1968. In that year the Gun Control Act was passed, effectively eliminating mail order gun sales, but prior to that you could order anything you wanted through the mail — and the Sears catalog had a pretty big gun selection!) I remember staring at the catalog and hoping I’d get an M1 Carbine and a Colt 45 Automatic for my birthday. Never happened, of course, but I could still dream.

Later on I became fascinated with the bolt-action rifle, probably because the gun I was allowed to shoot without supervision was a Winchester Model 67, a single-shot bolt action .22. I loved that gun, to the point of stripping off its old worn finish and applying coat after coat of boiled linseed oil. I dreamed about having one in a “real” caliber and rapid-firing like I’d seen in old war movies. Kids, huh?

For some reason, though, the lever action didn’t appeal to me (neither did revolvers, but we all know how that turned out — don’t we?) We had a Winchester 94 that my Dad used for deer hunting, but it just wasn’t my thing. I spent my time dreaming about Carbines and bolt actions, while I ignored that Model 94 sitting in the closet.

It wasn’t until many years later that the appeal of the lever action finally entered my consciousness. It started on a camping trip when I shot a friend’s Marlin 39A and came away impressed. It was handy, fast, and more accurate than any 10/22 I’d shot — including the one I had with me that day. Of course I just had to get a 39A of my own, and that triggered my lever action love!

I used my 39A in the field for small game, and later added levers in .30-30 (rapidly becoming the most underrated cartridge sold in this country) and .357 Magnum. Along the way I owned, and regrettably sold, models in .44 Magnum and .45-70. To this date I’ve fired many thousands of rounds through lever actions, and though that doesn’t compare to the quantity of .308 and .223 I’ve shot through FALs and AR-15s it’s still a ton more than most!

What is it about the lever action that makes it so appealing?

First, they tend to be short, light, and thin. That makes them easy to handle, to align on target, and to carry. They don’t have protrusions like pistol grips and magazines to snag on things when they’re being retrieved or maneuvered through fences and brush (both of which I encounter on an almost daily basis.) Need to get it out of a trunk or from behind the seat of a pickup? Easy with a lever action, not quite so with something like an AR-15.

The manual of arms is simple: need to load a round into the chamber? Operate the lever. Need to load another? Operate the lever. Is the gun cocked and ready to go? Look at the hammer. For some reason the simplicity appeals to me.

Lots of folks make a big issue about the politically correct appearance of the lever, and I suspect there is some truth to that. I personally don’t worry about it all that much, but I’ve noticed that when walking along a country road with a slung rifle — even here in what is “gun country” — an AR-15 gets lots of looks from passers-by while the lever action is routinely ignored. The lever seems to blend into the background in a way the magazine-fed arm doesn’t.

There are downsides to the lever action, of course. The biggest complaint is almost always lack of capacity. Compared to the 30-round magazines for the AR, the 9-round capacity of a lot of lever actions (some are less, some are more) seems puny by comparison. Seriously, though, when was the last time you heard of anyone needing more than a few rifle rounds to do anything? (Yeah, I know about the Hollywood bank robbery a decade or so ago, but that was both highly unusual, a job for police not me, and largely the result of first responders having no rifles at their disposal to begin with.)

Harder to reload? Yes, they are. Again, when was the last time anyone outside of a war zone anyone needed to speed-load their rifle because they shot it empty? For any plausible use — self defense, hunting, predator control — in the private sector in which I live, the capacity and reloadability of the lever action is significantly more than sufficient for the job.

Would I pick a lever-action for responding to some sort of mass civil insurrection or military occupation? Not if I had a semi-auto available! Would I pick one for long-range sniping of ISIS terrorists? I’d have to be nuts! For anything short of those fantasy scenarios, though, I might grab a lever action before something else.

That’s not to say that I’m giving up on my autoloading rifles, of course! I like them as well, and am glad to have them on hand if for no other reason than I *can*. Still, for those times when I need to quickly grab a rifle I find myself taking a lever action more often than not. They’re still the handiest repeating rifle of reasonable capacity that exists, and I think they get along with their more modern counterparts quite well.

Don’t automatically reject anything just because it’s old; don’t automatically accept anything just because it’s new. Make your own choices based on a realistic appraisal of your needs and the attributes of the thing in question.

-=[ 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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