The lever action rifle has seen a resurgence in the past few years and I have written about this trend several times. While there is a variety of speculation as to why this popularity has ticked up, including the idea that political restrictions might crack down on auto loading rifles, I think the simple answer is “AR Fatigue.” The scout rifle, precision rifles, and bolt actions in general, have all become increasingly popular as well in the past few years, and AR Fatigue undoubtedly accounts for that as well. We all love ARs, but after a couple of decades of unrelenting work with that platform, many of us have turned to new projects. The lever gun is one such avenue.
Lever action rifles are not just nostalgia, and they are not just a good escape from AR Fatigue either; they are absolutely practical for a number of uses. These guns still make great close-range hunting options for medium game, and they are fun as range toys. Beyond this, however, the lever action rifle remains a very capable self-defense tool. While most of us would agree that an AR or AK variant is superior for this particular task, the lever rifle can do most of what would be needed in a civilian self-defense context and offers some other practicalities that make it a very versatile defensive tool.
Top Three Reasons for My Love of Lever Rifles
- They are legal and more politically acceptable in restricted areas, for now, making them great guns for traveling. Unfortunately, this is a thing. The lever rifle can go most places within the United States, often places an AR or other magazine fed semi auto can’t.
- They are easy to transport and store. I find a lever rifle typically easier to transport than other options as they are quite sleek in design, go in and out of a case easily, can be pulled from behind a seat easily, etc…, and have no associated magazines. Throw the rifle and a box of ammo in the trunk and you go well armed with little hassle.
- They are easy to carry in the woods and field. I particularly like lever rifles for the field as they are easier to carry, in my experience, than ARs or even light-weight bolt rifles. The design of a lever action makes it slim and generally short, and very maneuverable.
The Benefits of Magnum Pistol Round Lever Rifles
I am particularly fond of pistol caliber lever rifles, especially those chambered in 357 Magnum. While the quintessential lever action rifle cartridge, the 30-30, is more powerful, the magnum pistol rounds (typically 357 Magnum and 44 Magnum) gain a lot of ballistic power when fired from a rifle-length barrel. Some 357 Magnum loads clock in well over 1,000 foot pounds of energy from the rifle, so there is good power coming from this cartridge for personal protection against two and four legged threats alike.
The other advantages that pistol caliber lever guns offer over the 30-30, as it applies to personal protection, is that the magazine capacity is usually 8-10 rounds as apposed to 5-6 rounds of the rifle round in the same length gun. Also, the recoil and blast are lower, particularly on the 357 Magnum, making it a better alternative to use indoors, if necessary.
With all of this said in praise of pistol caliber lever guns, it should be obvious that rifle caliber lever guns, such as the wide-spread Marlin 336 chambered in 30-30, are certainly capable defensive weapons. The 30-30 hits significantly harder than the 357 Magnum, or even the 44 Magnum, and has significantly more range.
Therefore, while I think there is a good argument for the magnum pistol round lever guns for defensive purposes, an individual who spends a lot of times in areas with large and furry predators, or where making farther shots might be necessary, may be better served with a 30-30 or even the powerhouse 45-70 chambering. If your main intention is using the gun for home-defense I would go with 357 or 44 Magnum. If you live in grizzly country and keep the gun in the truck for your forays into the wild, I would opt for one of the rifle calibers.
While I know that there are a few other manufacturers making lever rifles, I think that Marlin and Henry are the two obvious choices here for a base gun to set up as a defensive tool. As of this writing Marlin has been sold to Ruger and is currently out of production, but hopefully they will start putting out quality guns once Ruger sets them up. Henry is fairly consistent with quality offerings and may be more widely available in the near future.
Up until recently Henry rifles were a no-go as a defensive tool, in my opinion, due to the fact that they had no side loading gate. Traditional Henry rifles have always required being loaded through a removable tube insert from the front of the gun. Part of using a lever action as a defensive tool is being able to top the gun off by feeding it through the side loading gate, similar to the way you would approach fighting with a shotgun.
Modern Henry models now have loading gates, including the excellent X model that I have. Apparently, most of their offerings will be coming with side gates going forward, so any of their pistol caliber rifles with a side gate will make for a good base gun. These modern Henrys have a side gate but still retain the removable loading tube. This is a huge advantage because, to unload the gun, you can simply unchamber the chambered round, leave the action open, and remove the tube to dump the rounds out. On a Marlin you need to manually cycle the action for each round to unload the tube.
A second advantage Henrys have over Marlins is the absence of the useless and problematic cross-bolt safety that all more modern Marlins have. This was added to the Marlin design by lawyers who obviously know nothing about guns. Safety with a lever rifle is maintained through manipulation of the hammer; once the hammer is lowered into half-cock the gun is on safe. The cross-bolt safety is nothing but an added layer of complication and potential problems on the modern Marlin guns. Henry does not have this abomination. Older Marlins also don’t have this stupid addition, but finding such older generation Marlins is difficult.
Pertaining to rifle caliber guns chambered in 30-30 or 45-70, the obvious choices are the Marlin 336 and 1895, and the Henry rifles with side gates chambered in these cartridges. As with the pistol caliber guns the henry rifles have the advantage of no push button safety and the additional loading tube for easily unloading the gun. However, the better Marlin 336 models have typically been rock-solid guns with the exception of a few years when Remington first took over Marlin production.
Choosing a lever action platform requires some personal research and consideration. There may be no wrong answer, go with the rifle that has the feature set you best like. The most important aspect of any defensive gun is reliability, so regardless of the brand or model that you choose, you will need to burn some ammunition and fully vet the gun’s reliability before you put it into defensive use.