Lever guns are an interesting category. They are something that basically everyone who’s owned a gun here in the US has seen and held, but not necessarily owned. That’s a shame, because lever guns are uniquely American. Lever guns were invented here in the good ol’ U S of A, and never really caught on anywhere else. To be fair, lever guns are also generally associated with the Old West and cowboys, which are also uniquely American.
That’s not to say that lever guns have no place with today’s gun buying public. Quite the opposite, in fact. Their unique blend of old and new features make them a good option for many people even in 2018. Lever guns still hold a place with hunters who hunt in thick brush and with guides in bear country due to the fast-handling characteristics of lever guns and their tendency to be chambered in heavy, hard-hitting calibers. But what of the home defender? First, let’s look to see where these odd, early repeating rifles came from.
Lever guns can be considered the 19th century’s iteration of the assault rifle concept (note: Assault Rifle and Assault Weapon are different things). They were first chambered in smaller, lighter recoiling calibers than the standard rifles of the era, allowing them to be accurately fired faster than the standard rifle could be. Although it wasn’t long until they came chambered in full-size rifle cartridges. John Browning’s BLR comes to mind.
So, the lever gun is modern in it’s design intent of a light, handy, quick to shoot rifle with a high (for the time) capacity magazine full of highly controllable cartridges (the same reasons most people would pick an AR today). A rifleman armed with one of these can do a lot of work in a hurry to this day, even more so back in the 1860s when Benjamin Tyler Henry’s Volcanic rifle was first produced. InRange TV recently started a new series discussing the lever gun concept.
But, it’s not a modern gun. It’s not semi-automatic, it’s not fed from a box magazine, it still has an old school cool about it. A look at a traditional lever gun with it’s steel receiver and wood furniture brings to mind images of lone rangers on horseback, lonely nights out below the stars, good guys and bad guys dueling at high noon, but nothing even remotely related to the needs of a person living in the 21st century. It needs to be manually operated to cycle the action. The capacity is about half of a rifle in an unrestricted state, and requires a lot more time to reload than a box-fed rifle. The sights are glorified pistol sights. The wooden fore end means attaching a light (mandatory for any weapon that might be used at night) to the gun falls somewhere between problematic and impossible. The idea was great at the time, but technology has passed the lever gun by.
*Pic from @buffallodiller on Instagram
It will never have the follow-up times of a semi-auto rifle, but that’s about the only true downside of a lever gun. Considering that most states with ‘assault weapon’ bans on the books have specific carve-outs for tube fed guns, even a traditional lever gun is a solid option. With the ability to upgrade your old-school blaster with the things that make modern guns so much more usable, you can quickly overcome most of the remaining downsides.
Having a lever gun chambered in magnum revolver cartridges lets you beat out your mag-restricted brethren in round count without having to give up much in terms of ballistics in normal engagement ranges. Getting your rifle chambered in a rifle cartridge will increase it’s range significantly, but at a cost of capacity. Henry Repeating Arms makes box magazine fed lever guns in .308, .243, and .223, but they each carry about 3+1 rounds. With lever guns today, you have to pick a compromise between range and capacity, unfortunately.
As for adding optics, the hardest part is adding a rail and but that’s easier to do now than even a few years ago. Midwest Industries makes picatinny rails for Marlin 1895 rifles. The Henry Repeating Arms company drills & taps all their centerfire receivers for pic rails and sells them on their website. Traditionalists always cry “heresy” when they see a modern optic on a lever gun, but they are the ones who chose to devote themselves to an arbitrary weapon configuration, not me.
For guns that will be used almost exclusively up close, a red dot is a great addition. The lever gun is a fast-handling gun from it’s inception, so adding a red dot only makes sense.
For lever guns that are expected to see a little more distance, a low power variable optic in the 1-4x or 1-6x range fits the bill. The LPVO may have been designed for ARs, but the aspects that make them great for all-purpose gas guns carry over very well to lever guns. The LPVO is almost-to-just as fast as a red dot on 1x but can be cranked up for more precision when needed. This might be an even better option than the red dot.
Finally, and most recently, the front handguard. As far as I know (that doesn’t mean much), Midwest Industries brought the first M-Lok handguard for a lever gun to market. It was for the Marlin 1895, and it released in November 2017. As of this writing, they have also started releasing them for certain Henry rifles as well.
*pic from Midwest Industries
The thing I like the most about this gun is that it’s got the weapon mounted light. For any gun that might be used at night, a clear, bright, white light is necessary. Mandatory. The 4th rule of gun safety states: “Know you target, and what’s beyond it.” How can you know your target if you can’t see it? How can you positively ID something to the degree that you are willing to use lethal force on it? People say they can, but I hope I never find out.
The thing I like 2nd most about this gun is the aesthetic. I kind of love it.
[UPDATE 5-11: Henry Repeating Arms has shown off a modernized concept gun called the “X Series” and is basically their take on the above. It looks like this whole modern lever thing is catching on.]
Two other options I know of exist in the same vein as the above guns.
#1: The Marlin 464 SPX in .30-30
*pic from Mossberg’s website
This has actually been on the market for a few years now. I think it is one of the few guns that actually looks terrible. That means a lot, I like a lot of stuff and can appreciate most stuff people say looks bad, but the 464 SPX is something else. It doesn’t really improve the lever gun concept much beyond have a few arbitrary pic rail slots on the fore end. The receiver is drilled and tapped for scope bases. I don’t have any idea how the adjustable stock is useful on this gun, but it’s there. It only comes in .30-30, so the capacity isn’t great. In conclusion, left swipe.
#2: The Troy PAR in .223
If the idea of a lever gun just isn’t your thing at all, you feel you really need an AR-15, but for some reason you absolutely cannot get one or by the time you do it’s so neutered that it might as well be a muzzle loader (looking at you, California), the Troy PAR might be what you’ve been looking for. It’s a pump action AR. No, it’s not a lever gun and therefore might be a little outside the scope of this post, but I feel that a modern-styled, manually operated repeating gun that fed from standard-capacity 30 round AR mags fit the spirit of this post to a T. This gun is a manually operated AR, not much more to be said about it.
In conclusion, the lever gun is a relic of the past that has recently had some new tech applied to it that really brings it into the 21st century. It’s not the best option for defense, but it’s far from inadequate and possibly the best choice in some places. Plus, making a purist cry is its own reward
[Featured Image taxed from here]