While the primary concern for any lever action rifle to be used for defense is reliability, there are certainly some accessories and enhancements we want to put on the gun to bring it into the modern era of capability. Trust me, if the cowboys had the tools we do now, their lever actions would have been suited with such:
Most lever actions come stock with iron sights and newer variants of lever actions that have a flat top receiver typically come drilled and tapped so that you can add a rail to put an optic. As it pertains to pistol caliber lever guns, we are talking about guns that are 100-150 yard guns, realistically. Adding an actual scope to a lever gun makes sense if it is a hunting tool, but if it is primarily a personal protection gun a small red dot or just good iron sights make more sense as a large optic negates the compact and sleek profile of the weapon.
I have kept a small red dot optic on my Marlin 1894c lever gun that I have had for a few years now, though some time ago I switched back to exclusively iron sights on my lever rifles, for a couple of reasons. First, I have significant astigmatism in my eyes so red dots appear as red blobs for me and my precision is limited with them anyway. I can see iron sights clearly, and I can see scope recitals clearly, but red dots are problematic for me.
Second, a lever gun can’t really be set up to use co-witnessed iron sights through the red dot the way that we typically do on an AR. This convinced me to use a quick-detach base for the optic, something I seriously suggest you do if you use a red dot on a lever gun that is a defensive weapon, as batteries can fail at the most inopportune times despite how reliable modern red dots are. You don’t want to be unable to aim the gun during an emergency.
The traditional buckhorn sights that come on most lever guns are useable but very limited and these are the standard on the traditional Marlin 1894s. When I bought my Henry X Model lever action that has a modern fiber optic front and rear sight I was blown away with how fast and accurate these iron sights are. Therefore, I pulled the red dot off my Marlin and went with a fiber optic iron sight upgrade for that gun as well. Less fuss, more simplicity.
We are all different in this regard, but I would suggest that some good fiber optic irons, or a red dot with a quick-detach base, is the way to equip a fighting lever gun, based on your preference. If the gun will be set up for quick access in home defense a red dot that can be left constantly on, with a long battery life, makes sense as you would not want to have to screw around turning on the optic when home invaders are coming down the hallway. If the dot is gone due to battery failure you want the quick-detach mount so that you can flip the optic off in a split second and go to the iron sights.
If the gun is set up as a defensive tool you need to put a light on it; this proves far more problematic for lever rifles than for AR15s that ooze rail space. Traditionally built lever rifles have no rails, period, so attaching a light means attaching a rail. For this reason I am particularly fond of the Henry X Model as it provides a rail and two rail slots at the front of the fore end, which is all that is really needed.
If you have a lever gun that has no rail for mounting a light, you can invest in a fore end that facilitates such attachments or you can do some customization. Companies such as Midwest Industries and Ranger Point Precision make aluminum and polymer hand guards for lever guns that have rail attachment points all over them, so this is one option. This does, however, make your lever gun look like the bastard child of a Winchester 92 and a BCM AR15, but function takes precedence over form if we are seriously setting up a lever rifle for self-defense.
Alternatively, you could attach a small rail section to the side or bottom of the front of the wooden fore end, but this means putting holes in an otherwise nice piece of gun furniture. Again, a personal decision. Regardless of how you do it, you must put a light on a defensive long gun. I put a bi pod adapter that has a section or rail and attaches to the sling swivel on my Marlin 1894 and this worked fine after some customization to hold a small light. I favor handgun style short range, high lumen, defensive lights for a lever gun as realistically the gun will be used at short distances for such purposes and these small, yet powerful, lights add very little bulk to the gun.
A lot of guys hate the idea of adding a fore end with rails on it to a lever action rifle as it does, indeed, look out of place. However, I liken it to a Remington 870 shotgun: the 870 can range anywhere from a traditional wood furniture wing master hunting gun to a tactical blacked out door kicking gun. While the gun remains essentially the same the added “tactical” furniture offers functionality, the most important of which is the ability to mount a light. If the lever rifle will serve a self-defense purpose the addition of a light is paramount, so odd looking or not, you need to add this ability to the rifle.
The lever action is a limited ammo gun, similar to a tube fed shotgun. Therefore, like a defensive shotgun, having a reload of ammo on the gun itself makes sense. The easiest way to accomplish this is with a butt stock ammo cuff. Traditional leather cuffs can be put on the gun but I actually just attach a 6 round shell card via industrial strength velcro to the stock of each of my lever rifles that provides a quick reload of six more rounds of 357 magnum. With eight rounds in the gun and another six on the stock the majority of social circumstances should be resolvable in a civilian self-defense context with this loadout.
I am an adamant believer that a defensive rifle needs a sling on it. For a lever rifle, however, the typical two-point tactical sling that we usually use on AR type rifles does not necessarily work so well. A more traditional two-point sling of the hunting variety tends to be more useful on a lever gun. I really like the Wilderness Tactical Langlois Rhodesian slings on my lever actions; these slings work as a normal carry sling to put the gun on your shoulder, but also provide the double-loop that allows you to run your arm through to form a stabilized shooting position very quickly. Whatever sling you choose, resist the urge to add extra ammo to the sling itself; while this seems like a good idea the extra weight of the ammo swings around and destabilizes your shot.
Reliability and Ammunition Concerns
There is a perpetuated myth that states that lever actions are exceedingly reliable. Again, I would liken it to a pump shotgun: it can be reliable but needs to be set up correctly and run vigorously. Mechanically, lever guns can be problematic even beyond user error. I find that they tend to shake themselves apart after firing for even short durations and relatively low round counts, and the screws in the receiver tend to back out. Add lock tight to the screws everywhere to prevent them from backing out and inspect them after shooting sessions.
Lever rifles are particularly ammo sensitive so you need to fully test to find a reliable load, sight the gun in for that load, and stick to that load. Certain guns will have problems feeding rounds with particular bullet designs, such as wide-cavity hollow points, as this can cause the bullet to get hung up while feeding from the lifter into the chamber. You need to thoroughly test the load that you will use for any specific gun.
Many out-of-the-box lever rifles have stiff and gritty actions that need breaking in or some gunsmithing to make better. Some also have bad triggers which require a replacement or some gunsmithing to lighten. All such considerations should be taken into account with the primary concern of reliability in mind, and the ability to run the gun smoothly is essential for reliability.
So, these are my primary suggestions for setting up a lever action rifle for self-defense use. In the next article I will provide an overview of primary considerations for using the gun in this capacity. Stay tuned.