If you’re looking to add another rifle to your collection (and, if you’re a shooter, who isn’t?), I have a suggestion. Bolt guns are nice, and semi-autos are certainly popular these days — but what about some cutting-edge technology from almost 200 years ago?
The first lever-action firearm was an Italian revolvers built in the 1820s, but lever rifles did not become popular until 40 years later. We still shoot them today because they’re basically Daisy Red Ryder BB guns for adults. You can’t help feeling a little like John Wayne when you shoot one of these iconic classics of our great country.
Lever-action rifles can be easily identified by a loop under or behind the trigger that you place your hand into. This is actually the lever, which is operated by pushing your hand down and forward. That opens up the action and pushes a round from the magazine (usually a tube under the barrel) into the breech. Pulling your hand upward and back will close the chamber. For consecutive shots, this action is simply repeated until you’re out of ammunition.
The very first lever-action rifle was the Spencer Repeating Rifle, developed in 1860. It had a seven-round magazine that could be easily removed and replaced when empty. It was called the repeating rifle because shots can be repeated very quickly compared to a bolt-action rifle. This capability led it to be the first magazine-fed infantry rifle — essentially, the AR-15 of the 1800s, if you will.
There were significant advantages to using a lever-action rifle besides a higher rate of fire. The ease of the action allowed a shooter to maintain a better sight picture with consecutive shots versus other actions of the era. Also, lever-action rifles can be easily used by lefties.
There are also some disadvantages. The action is nearly impossible to cycle from the prone (lying down) position. This is why the military no longer uses the rifle. On the whole, lever guns are not as accurate as bolt-action rifles. Because of the placement of the tubular magazine, these guns cannot be suppressed. If you would like to put a scope on one, avoid models that eject from the top of the breech.
Another disadvantage stems from the fixed tubular magazine. Because you will be loading rounds from end to end, with the bullet of each cartridge pushed against the primer of the one in front of it, you cannot use pointed bullets. The recoil of the gun firing could potentially cause one of the points to set off the primer of the cartridge in front of it.
A few lever rifles, such as the iconic Savage 99, use box magazines to overcome this problem. The Browning BLR is the only box-magazine lever-action still in mass production. However, Hornady has another solution: A series of performance ammunition called LEVERevolution, designed to give lever-action enthusiasts optimal distance and accuracy using cartridges that have blunt tips.
Lever guns come in a variety of calibers, from .22 rimfire to .45-70. The barrel lengths can vary from short carbines to longer target-style lengths. The range of the rifle will depend on the length of the barrel and the caliber, but most any lever action should get you out to at least 100 yards. These are good guns for short- to medium-range hunting or sport shooting.
Which lever action is right for you most likely will depend on on the caliber you desire to shoot and the health of your pocketbook. Henry, Winchester and Marlin make a wide variety of high-quality rifles.
One of the most popular and most economical choices is the Marlin 336. The smooth action of this rifle allows you quicker follow-up shots. It will set you back roughly $500 to $600.
The Winchester 1873 is officially known as the gun that won the West. While this was nothing more than a marketing ploys by Winchester, it has been featured in many Hollywood movies about the Old West. The good news is that it is still in production today. Prices for this rifle start at roughly $1,200.
The Winchester 1886, chambered in .45-70 or .450 Marlin, is one of the strongest lever actions. A new production model can be purchased for $1,300 and up.
The Browning BLR starts at around $1,000 and is a great gun for long- or short-range shooting. The tight locking bolt and smooth action on this rifle gives it superior accuracy over other lever guns.
Lever-action rifles are great for many applications. Unlike the Daisy Red Ryder BB gun, it does not have a compass in the stock or this thing that tells time, but taking one out to pop off some tin cans will make you feel like a kid again.
Jenny Malone grew up in the Charlotte County area and is an NRA-certified pistol instructor and range safety officer. You can talk guns with her at J&J One Stop Gun Shop at 2324 Tamiami Trail, Port Charlotte.