Lever action rifles were designed as fighting weapons over 150 years ago. While modern semi-auto rifles are generally better for the specific role of self-defense, lever rifles are still incredibly capable weapons in the hands of those who can run them competently. I liken the lever rifle to the pump action shotgun: old technology but far from obsolete. Many well-trained shotgunners would prefer a pump shotgun in their hands for home defense over any modern sporting rifle. A competent lever action shooter is likely to feel equally confident with a lever rifle.
While a shotgun has a huge advantage in close-range power and hit potential, I actually prefer the lever rifle over shotguns as I like the versatility and extended range the gun offers. I will not argue that a lever action rifle is as good for personal protection as an AR15 or similar semi auto rife, but I will argue that the lever gun is up to the task of self-defense in a civilian context if you are competent with it. Here are the major considerations for building the needed skills with this platform:
Staging the Gun for Access
A lever rifle can be staged for quick access in a similar manner to a defensive shotgun in “cruiser ready” condition; a loaded tube but empty chamber. Upon accessing the gun just shoulder it and run the action. I prefer to store a lever gun with loaded tube but empty chamber as the firing pin makes a small indent upon closing the action on a cartridge (AR15s do this as well). I would not recommend clambering the same round many times. So, to avoid issues, I simply store all long guns in cruiser ready condition.
The manipulation of the hammer is how you effectively make the lever gun safe or make it ready to fire, so consider the hammer the equivalent of the safety on an AR15, and in a similar fashion your dominant hand thumb should stay on the hammer then entire time the rifle is in a ready position. Should you need to fire, cock the hammer back as you raise the gun into a firing position. Similarly, whenever you lower the gun back to a ready position, if there is no immediate need to fire, safely lower the hammer to the half-cock position (for Marlin rifles) or to the fully lowered position (for Henry rifles).
The way to safely lower the hammer for either Marlin or Henry rifles is to pull the hammer all the way back with the thumb and hold it in position, then depress the trigger while still holding the hammer back, and immediately release the trigger as you slowly lower the hammer down. On a Marlin the hammer will stop at the half-cock position, and on a Henry the hammer will lower all the way down. The hammer-down position is safe on the Henry as long as the finger is off the trigger while you lower it down.
Cycling the Gun Efficiently
The lever rifle is drastically subject to user-induced malfunction and most of these issues can be attributed to not running the lever completely forward and back, and not doing so vigorously. The lever action must be run with authority, quickly, and with power, just as you must run a pump action shotgun with speed and power. As long as you consistently cycle the action with authority you are unlikely to have a malfunction as long as the gun has been fully vetted for reliability and the ammo being used is reliable in the gun.
The best way to practice this manipulation is with snap caps in dry fire. Load several snap caps into the tube and cycle and fire each one. Be sure that all of the snap caps cycle without a malfunction as this is likely a good indication that you are gaining the ability to cycle the gun without issues. I would suggest not using the lever rifle as a defensive tool until you become proficient with this operation and fully test it with live ammunition at the range.
Most lever action afficionados keep the thumb of their dominant hand at the side of the rifle grip when cycling the action as wrapping the thumb back around to fire each shot wastes time. The truth is, however, that rate of fire tends to be over-rated in most civilian self-defense, and as long as you establish a technique that reliably cycles the gun without inducing malfunctions you will probably be able to shoot the gun as fast as is ever necessary.
Reloading the Gun
The lever rifle is a limited capacity gun so it must be treated as such. The best comparison is to using a tube-fed shotgun; if you need to use the gun in a defensive emergency, during any time of opportunity, you want to be stoking the tube with ammo to replace what you have fired. The most likely place to carry this replacement ammunition for a lever rifle is on the stock in a butt cuff or ammo carrier of some kind. There are a number of variations on how to retrieve the ammo and get it into the loading gate, but that is beyond the scope of this article. You will need to experiment to find the method that works best for you.
Generally, right handed shooters will find that accessing the spare ammo with the dominant hand and feeding the cartridges into the loading gate will work best. You will find that this is a fumble-prone procedure, even compared to reloading a shotgun, as the cartridges (particularly handgun cartridges) are small and difficult to manipulate. There is also the option to place a cartridge directly into the open chamber if the gun is completely dry and cowboy action shooters and other lever rifle masters spend time practicing this skill. For realistic self defense I am of the opinion that loading directly into the chamber is of limited value and I would recommend spending such training time on practicing stoking the tube back up.
One other observation regarding reloading the lever rifle is this: you will see a lot of demonstrations online and elsewhere of people loading the tube through the side gate and they will leave each cartridge only partially inserted past the loading gate so that the next cartridges can be used to push it in. This technique makes loading easier on your thumbs. I think it is better to practice loading each cartridges completely into the tube because should you need to fire and cycle the gun you will be unable to cycle a second round with a cartridge hanging out of the gate like that. If the gun’s loading gate is stiff look into after-market loading gates or ways to break the gate in to fix the problem.
As long as the gun is in good working order and fully vetted for reliability with the ammo you are using for it, the most likely malfunctions to appear are user induced feeding errors. Inducing a feeding error by short stroking the lever is quite easy to do, so the first step in mitigating such a malfunction is to practice running the action vigorously. Beyond this, however, consider some remediation techniques:
Sometimes a round tends to tip up too far on the lifter and can hit the top of the chamber. When this happens the lever will stop in its travel back to the closed position at almost full extension. If this happens you can often simply bring the lever back out to full extension and then close it again and the round will usually feed.
If this technique does not clear the malfunction you might need to kick the round that is on the lifter out of the feed way. To do this, open the lever all the way, tilt the rifle so that the opened port is facing downward towards the ground, and give a vigorous shake, or even a slap to the side of the receiver that is facing upward to fling the problematic round out of the chamber, then quickly close and re-cycle the action.
There are some malfunctions that will render the gun useless unless cleared with tools, such as the infamous “carrier jam” that the Marlin 1894 seems especially prone to. The way to avoid such a problem at the worst possible time is to make sure the gun runs 100% with your chosen ammunition and to run the gun vigorously and correctly. Any other malfunctions are typically something that can be cleared quickly.
This ends this series on setting up and using a lever action for defensive purposes and I hope you found some value in it. The lever action rifle, though dated technology, is still a great do-it-all firearm even in the 21st Century. Be sure to put in significant time practicing with this platform if you indeed want to utilize it as a defensive tool.