The History and Origins
The original (at least significant) lever action rifle was the Spencer repeating rifle. A seven shot magazine feed rifle; the lever action would cycle the rounds, ejecting the old and loading a new round. But wouldn’t cock the hammer. You would need to load then cock the hammer.
The Henry rifle took this concept, moved the tubular magazine from in buttstock to under the barrel and added cocking the hammer to the cycle (invented by Benjamin Tyler Henry, a gunsmith employed by Oliver Winchester).
Remember now; we are talking about the time where black powder was still used for propellant. It was also a time where the majority of rifles were single shot, break open design. Suddenly, the speed of which you could fire increased dramatically. A distinct advantage for warfare – and we are talking about the time of the American Civil War.
It’s hard to overstate the change that going from a single shot to a repeater was in the firearm world. We now take it as given that a rifle will have minimum a four round magazine. But there was a time where everything was a single shot. The lever action changed all that.
By the 1890s, the lever action rifle had solidified into basically what you still see today.
Push the lever downward and the bolt unlocks, moves backwards, ejects the old cartridge and cocks the hammer. Then it slides forward, carrying the new cartridge into the chamber ready to fire.
I am holding a Rossi Puma Model 650. It’s a 16” .44 Magnum Stainless action, wood stock lever action and holding eight rounds in the tube magazine. This is an ‘economical’ replication of the original designs. Made in Brazil, this is the sort of rifle popular as a bailing gun for pigs or anyone wanting a bit of nostalgia in their hunting.
This isn’t a review of this particular firearm, though. Instead, it’s more an overview of the place of a lever action in today’s world.
And here’s the thing – beyond nostalgia – is there any point to owning a lever action in today’s modern times? Maybe, maybe not. Let’s have a lot at some of the advantages and disadvantages compared to more modern designs.
Short, hard hitting, simplistic
There is no arguing that there is an appeal to a short, easy to manoeuvre, lightweight rifle for closed in bush hunting. Often, when the maximum expected range is no more than a hundred meters, accuracy isn’t the primary concern. Weight and manoeuvrability become more important. As well as the ability for the selected firearm to push through scrub and bush and hit hard at short distances.
This particular rifle is a 16” model. There are longer options, and the theory would be that the longer barrel will give you more velocity and more accuracy.
The 16 is quick to aim (for iron sights) and easy to carry in heavy bush. You just get the feeling with a lever action rifle, that it’s build to work and shoot without any fuss.
Cycling while staying on target
It is said that a lever action is easier to reload without having to break your sight picture on the target. Personally, I think that’s debatable. Depending on how you train, or even if you train at all – I think that it is more than possible to cycle a bolt action without having to break check weld. I think it is more a case of people getting into the habit of dropping the rifle (which can also happen with a lever) while chambering the next round. A bit of dry fire, on either system soon remedies this.
There is of course, however, a real disadvantage of trying to reload a lever action while prone. The lever is going to hit the dirt hard. In fairness, the lever action doesn’t seem the kind of firearm you are going to be setting up for long range shooting. If you want to shoot out far, a bolt action seems to be a no-brainer anyhow.
That’s not to say a lever action can’t be accurate. A bolt action, though, but its nature is generally, almost always, going to be more accurate. 1
Having a tube magazine, especially one with a barrel band fixing it to the barrel, is never going to help accuracy.
This is the push behind this particular article. All firearms, if handled improperly, can be dangerous. The lever action has a couple of features/limitations that need you need to know about to ensure you stay safe while handling one. These features have been changed and improved upon over the years. So it is important that you understand and know your particular gun and how it works.
The half cock
It was and still is common practice to carry a lever action rifle at half cock. What does this mean? Well, first of all, we need to appreciate that many lever actions have an external hammer system. You can see and manipulate the hammer – cocking it, decoking it and so on. This is like many pistols – both semi-automatic and revolver. It’s the traditional system and still common in some areas.
Half cock is when you load the firearm and carefully holding the hammer, pull the trigger and lower the hammer down to a ‘half-cocked position’. This would serve two purposes. Firstly, it would keep the hammer from resting on the firing pin – which in turn would now be sitting on the back of a primer. Hit the hammer hard, say, from slipping and dropping the gun and the hammer could hit the firing pin. Then hitting the primer and setting off the gun. Half cock keeps the hammer away from the pin. Some people hold the theory that a half cock wouldn’t be enough actually to drive the pin into the primer and set off the charge. Half-cock was a method of not quite having the rifle ready to shoot, but nearly. So when you needed to, you could pull the hammer back and fire.
Here comes the first of the issues. Some lever action rifles will still fire from a half cock. Does yours? Have you ever tested it out to check? Or are you assuming that this is the case? What I would suggest, like many things firearm related – is that you don’t rely on something you may have read, either in a magazine or online. Instead, head down to the range and test it out on your firearm. Get set up, pointed towards a berm and a target and put that lever action on half cock, then try to pull the trigger. What happens? One of three things. The hammer falls and the round doesn’t go off; the hammer falls, and the round goes off. Or, like in the case of this Rossi – nothing happens. As modern lever actions often won’t have a block where the trigger won’t drop the hammer. Older lever actions, it will. Don’t trust the manual – you need to test this on your particular, specific firearm.
Safety – if it has one
Safeties are a bit of a new thing on lever action rifles – now they are standard, but this wasn’t always the case. So it is important to understand if you rifle has one and how it works. On this Rossi, it’s not quite what you would expect. Instead of stopping the hammer falling altogether, it puts a block in place that stops the hammer dropping far enough to hit the firing pin and igniting the primer. Does it work on this particular rifle? I don’t know – I haven’t shot it yet. So before I would rely on it – I would be off to the range to load it up and test it, again, this particular rifle. If it works – great! But when it comes to firearms safety it is up to the individual to test and know how their particular firearm works. Get the theme here?
The loading and unloading process is another area where attention needs to be paid when it comes to the lever actions.
First, at the end of a hunt or days shooting, you’re likely tired and ready to head home, but remember the fundamentals. Rule number two in fact – Always point firearms in a safe direction. If you aren’t pointing the barrel in the direction of someone, you are unlikely to hit them if something goes wrong.
Unloading a lever action, for many models, means cycling live rounds through an action and a cocked hammer.
If you are in a hurry just to empty the gun and head off, this means you are only one step away from a negligent discharge.
This comes down to trigger disciple as well as some basic preventive measures. Again, dependent on the firearm in your hands.
On the Rossi in my hands, there is no reason, if I cycled through the remaining rounds, forgetting about basic finger positioning, that I couldn’t set the firearm off while doing so.
There are a couple of things that could prevent this happening.
First – again, being aware where the muzzle was pointing. For many guys, I suppose, unloading a firearm is a simple and perceived ‘safe’ process, so their awareness would drop. Don’t. Maintain the muzzle discipline at all times. Remember rule number one? Always treat a firearm as loaded. You would never point a loaded firearm at someone. So never point a firearm at someone.
If it has a safety (that you have tested), then use it. On the Rossi, we now have a second layer of protection – the rifle points in a safe direction and the safety will stop an ND.
If you want to be sure – then half cycle the action to get the remaining rounds out. Let’s be blunt though – this is a lot of pissing around. You are likely going to lose a round in heavy bush when it goes flying off somewhere, and most people will never do this.
Pointy tipped rounds
The other disadvantage of the tube magazine is that you need to avoid modern, ballistically superior pointed tipped rounds. The danger of having pointed rounds stacked behind each other during recoil is obvious, but for those who are still catching up – a primer is ignited when hit by a pointed metal object. You only want this to happen while the cartridge is in the chamber, not sitting behind another live round, and so on.
However, in modern times, Hornady has addressed this issue by building ammo specifically for the lever action. Their Leverevolution ammo features an elastomer tip. Plastic primarily, meaning you get some of the ballistic advantages of the pointed tip. Without the danger of it setting off a chain reaction in your hands.
Suppression – save those ears!
This is a big sticking point for me. Many lever actions, due to the tube magazine, can’t take a suppressor without significant modification. Personally, the notion of shooting a .44 magnum, 16-inch barreled gun without hearing protection – doesn’t appeal to me. These days, a hunting rifle has to have a suppressor on it – that’s a non-negotiable point now. I have shot my 7mm08 without a suppressor in Woodhill due to their requirements, basically banning PPE and I do not want to do that again. Some can and I would seriously suggest you look into it before you commit to a shooting platform.
Wait – so why would I want a lever action rifle?
Good question. There are a couple of arguments that get put forward.
They are cheap. Which can be the case, but that true with bolt actions (and even some AR platforms these days). This Rossi 650 is a thousand-dollar gun. Is that cheap to you? Depends on I guess on how much you earn, doesn’t it? A thousand dollars gives you a lot of options in guns these days. So I don’t think that’s a deciding factor.
This is an article about the action, not the cartridge, but the fact remains, that the lever action is often available in many of the traditional, classic rounds – you can get it in .44, .375, 30-30, 30-06 whatever other cartridge that your grandfather used. All good cartridges that have stood the test of time and will drop anything you hit with them under 100 meters. It’s hard to dismiss the advantages of a large, flat nosed projectile as shorter distances. However, you can even get new lever actions in .308 or .223 if you want. But’s let’s remember, it’s (as of this article) 2016 – so we have new numbers to consider. 6.8 SPC, 6.5 Grendel, 300 Blackout subsonic and suppressed. Modern times, modern thinking on velocity versus projectile width and weight. In recent times, the designs of firearms have moved on, and for hunting, I am keen and willing to use any technological advancements to improve my rate of success.
However, it’s this certain nostalgia that I think is the lever actions biggest appeal.
There is no doubt that the moment you pick up a lever action, you want to start swaggering around like John Wayne. The lever action, thanks to Hollywood, holds such a massive amount of history and lore around it. It is a great illustration of how much an inanimate object can carry a story and sense of place without having to do anything. Just ask any Cowboy Action Shooter – there is no denying that a lever action brings out a certain style and sense of place of time.
I want one. Despite everything I have gone over, all the disadvantages I can see in the platform – I still want one. I just stand here, cycle the action, hear and feel all the heavy, mechanical metal movement going on and just want to go out and shoot it. It will be loud; it will be clunky and it will be fun.
Is there still a place in a gun safe for a lever action?
Most definitely, and I think that despite the fact it might end up sitting next to a brand new, modern, optically sighted semi-auto with a highly refined and optimised cartridge, a lever action is always going to be a fun, rewarding and worthwhile gun to shoot.
Cowboy Action Shooting – it’s like Cosplay, but with firearms.
locking lugs, even more, simplistic in design ↩