The Combat Lever Action Rifle
By Uli Gebhard
Living in one of the most restrictive states in the US one is sometimes forced to get very creative to find effective defensive tools.
For those who are not familiar with California's laws, centerfire autoloader rifles are highly restricted to the point where many police officers will err on the side of caution and take a rifle in for safe keeping if they are not sure whether or not it fall under California Assault Weapons Law.
That said, two years ago, I began looking at non-autoloading rifle platforms that will allow a quick rate of fire, handle fast and ambidextrous, have a good choice of effective calibers and hold a decent amount of ammunition. Gabriel Suarez' work on the combat lever action rifle came to mind and I began researching this platform.
Lever Action Platforms:
There are currently two basic systems on the market: Closed-Top/Side eject and Open-Top/Top Eject. What do those terminologies mean and what kind of an impact do they have on us as a user?
The distinction between Closed-Top and Open-Top refers to the layout of the frame when the bolt is opened.
Examples for open-top rifles would be Winchester 94, Mossberg 464 and Rossi 92 Rifles where the bolt covers all or the majority of the top-rear surface of the receiver. When the lever is thrown downward, the rifle opens up on its top surface to allow ejection of the spent shell.
The advantage of this design is that it allows very easy access to the breech when the bolt is retracted to the rear. We will revisit this point later when we come to reactive reloads, meaning that we have to get rounds into a rifle that has been shot dry.
Closed-Top rifles have a solid receiver top with an ejection port on the right side. Samples of this Type are Marlin 336 and Marlin 1894c models. The advantage of the Closed-top design is an overall stiffer, stronger receiver.
There is one other characteristic that I need to take a look at: All of the above rifles have loading gates on the right side of the receiver. Single rounds are fed through this port into the magazine tube. There are very few lever-actions out there that have a different loading system. Henry, for example uses a removable magazine spring assembly and a loading port in the lower front of the magazine tube. Since this system makes it very difficult and cumbersome to top the magazine off, I will exclude these rifles from the scope of this article. Don't get me wrong: from all the feedback I've seen, those are good rifles, but I would not make them my first choice in terms of a fighting tool.
The first thing most people notice about most lever guns, especially a carbines, is how light they are compared to an AK or AR. I'm not talking about vintage reproductions with an eye-catching heavy octagonal barrel. I'm talking about the basic lever action rifles that one can find at a Sporting goods store.
The low weight makes it a very fast handling gun – and fast on target is good. It comes fast from a porte-arms carry to the shoulder and bringing the rifle around to track is easy. In a mechanical sense: little mass equals little inertia – in common terms, low weight does not have a whole lot of resistance against motion. Snap shots with a lever action rifle are fast, regardless of the ready-position. The same goes for following a laterally moving target. All these movements are swift and require less effort than a heavier fighting rifle such as a modern autoloader. Skeptical? Have a small statured novice handle an AR (just a basic gun with little or no attachments) and a lever gun like a Winchester 94 trapper. Both have a 16” barrel, hence are comparable in size. Most likely, the novice will prefer shooting the lever gun due to its handling characteristics. We’ll revisit these later in a different context.
The light weight is also advantageous if the Lever-Action is used as a bug-out rifle. Lower weight here translates into ease of transport over longer distances. This may not be a huge aspect for people in Urban areas, but consider how many people live in rural places and may have to walk a healthy distance after their car breaks down to get to a phone or to an area with cell-phone coverage. Traveling light has its advantages.
Speaking of transporting the rifle hidden in plain sight: A fully-loaded lever-action fits easily into a camp-chair bag. I've had students help me unload my car when we got to set up for class at the range and most of them were quite surprised that the last bag in the car did not hold another chair, but my rifle.
There are others who take it a step further and remove the shoulder stock for storage. It's only one screw that holds it in place and that screw seems to interact nicely with the screwdriver of a Swiss-Army knife. This is sure not the fastest way to get the rifle into action, but it makes for very compact dimensions for transport.
Caliber Choices and Ammo Capacity:
The aspect of the caliber is two-fold: While each caliber has its ballistic advantages and disadvantages, the size of the cartridges will directly impact the magazine capacity of the rifle.
A handgun-caliber round is overall shorter and will allow for more rounds in the magazine tube than a rifle-caliber in a comparably-sized rifle.
Lever guns typically come in either revolver-type calibers or in the classic lever-action chamberings such as 30-30 and 45-70. There are quite a few other rifle calibers still out there, but I want to keep the focus on those calibers that are common today. Let’s take a closer look at both general variations: the handgun-equivalents and the classic lever-action cartridges:
The most common handgun calibers offered in lever rifles today are .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum and .45 Long Colt. On Rossi and Marlin rilfes .357 and .44 can usually also handle their smaller siblings: .38 Special and .44 Special – offering the option to train with a less expensive round.
One other aspect that comes to mind is that Ruger considered the .44 magnum powerful enough to be a hunting round. They dedicated a magazine fed-lever action (discontinued after 11 years), an autoloader (in production for 13+10 years, now discontinued) and a bolt-action rifle (current production) to that caliber, which shows the popularity of the .44 magnum as a hunting round. I think we can say with a decent level of accuracy that this round seems to have a pretty good reputation for taking game down.
As far as the .357 is concerned, two associates of mine used to go hog-hunting with.357's during handgun season.
These chamberings bring a more than decent amount of power to the table. Another aspect is that many people carry Revolvers in .38/.357 or .44 as their every day defensive tool. Those rounds will have a decent ballistic effect when fired from a 2-inch to 6-inch revolver. 16-inch or more of carbine/rifle barrel increase the muzzle velocity and with that the amount of energy that the projectile carries. In plaintext: the lever action rifle can shoot the same ammo as your revolver and gives the round more oomph on the way –nice!
Classic Rifle Calibers
What about those rifle calibers of old? 30-30 is roughly the ballistic equivalent of a 7.62x39 – a rifle round of choice for many Suarez International students. The projectile will punch through quite a bit of material that some people may consider cover. Recoil on the other hand is bearable. One nice side effect of the thirty-thirty being a non-military round is that was still relatively easy to get even during recent ammunition shortages. It has been around for a long time and people have hunted with it equally long. That said, there are quite a few well-designed expanding bullet types on the market – if it expands well enough to bring a deer down, chances are that it will also help a good deal if you are faced with a two-legged predator.
Now, some people dismiss the 30-30 as not powerful enough – same as the 7.62x39. That be as it may – another option is the 45-70, available for example in the Marlin Guide Gun. This round was designed to take down big game up to the size of a buffalo. That in mind, it should be sufficient to take care of the common bad guy – even if he is hiding behind a car door or something similar.
While the 45-70 is an expensive round, it is also build on a straight casing, which makes it relatively easy to reload.
In terms of ammunition, we also encounter two limitations of the classic tube-fed lever action rifle.
The main limitation of the lever action rifle is its capacity. Depending on caliber and overall length, a lever gun can hold anywhere from 3+1 to 10+1 rounds. Reloading the magazine is relatively slow, since every round has to be loaded individually – no stripper clips or speedloaders can improve that. If one choses to use a lever-action rifle as a defensive weapon, I highly recommend investing into training cartridges and practicing proactive reloads. The idea is to fire a shot or two and immediately push more rounds in through the loading gate. One technique that makes the reloads less cumbersome is to push a round in the majority of the way and hold it with the left hand still inside the loading gate, while the right hand brings another round up. Repeat until the rifle is full. With this sequence you do not have to go through the effort of pushing every single round all the way into the loading gate until it is locked in place. As a failsafe option, practice pushing rounds in until the last round bottoms out part of the way in. You fight as you train and if you work on a tactile feedback (round does not go in) rather than trying to remember a specific number you are much more likely to be successful. Keep a dump pouch or similar in your gear to discard non-used rounds. This can be as simple as a nice, large opening in your ready bag that allows the rounds to fall easily into it.
Now, from what I've seen in my classes, the gun will eventually run dry... now what?
There are a couple of possible answers: If the opponent is within striking range, you have a 5+ lbs impact weapon in your hand. Practice striking your opponent with the muzzle of the rifle and include follow-up strikes. The latter part is important: again, you fight like you practice and if your dry-runs stop after the first strike, you will find yourself in a real fight, having smashed the bad guys teeth and hesitating with what to do next.
Transition to Pistol
Second option: the rifle runs dry and you have a couple of seconds until the bad guy closes the distance. In this case sling the rifle and go to pistol. 3.5 seconds and you're back in business with at least another 5 rounds, hopefully more, depending on what kind of handgun you carry.
I'd like to touch briefly on the sling. A simple 2-point sling with decent length works best for me. The left hand dives in underneath the fore-end (fore-end on left forearm) the right hand remains in position and rotates the butt of the rifle up and counter-clockwise. Once the hand is behind your head you let go and let the sling catch the rifle. While the rifle settles, go for the pistol. I've seen students guide their rifles to a soft, gentle stop. Folks, this is not the time for pleasantries but for aggressive and decisive action. The .5 seconds that make the settling of the rifle more comfortable will not do you any good if these are the .5 seconds that give the bad guy the opportunity to tackle you and foul up your draw. Again, on the risk of sounding like a broken record: you fight like you train.
If the rifle is shot dry and you have quite a bit of distance on your side, throw the lever down and load a single shell into the open ejection port. This will sound very familiar for people who shoot shotguns a lot and have the habit of loading the first round into the chamber through the open breach. This is exactly the same principle
I mentioned earlier the advantage of the open-top receiver design of the Winchester 94 and similar rifles. This layout provides plenty of access area to dump a round into the open breech. This is true regardless whether you fire your rifle left-handed or right handed.
A side-eject gun will be considerably slower to reload in this way, since the ejection port is smaller. It also means that a side-eject gun can be loaded most effectively with the right hand, limiting ambidextrous options.
We timed this reloading method and found that even with a 30-30 a firing rate of 3.5 seconds from shot to shot can be accomplished. This requires some additional support gear. Bear with me, I'll get to it in a bit.
No Magazines: Weakness and Strength
So, the lever-action rifle uses on on-board tubular magazine to store the ammunition, unlike a modern autoloader with a detachable magazine. Is that truly a disadvantage? In terms of capacity, the answer is clearly yes. However, lets look at it from a different aspect: With an autoloader, one has to log magazines around and store them in a dump pouch during mag changes. Sure it's fast, but it also means extra gear and dedicated bags.
When I ran the Lever Action Gunfighting rifle course for the first time I used a very basic shoulder bag that held loose ammunition – done! I did not have to worry about keeping magazines. It was the lightest and most compact bag setup I ever used while teaching a rifle class. In terms of simplicity less gear means less weight and less bulk. Even when I upgraded the interior of the bag with loops to hold the rounds more readily available, it remained very compact.
Simplicity of Operation
Feed rounds through the loading gate until no more rounds fit. Swing the lever forward and back get on the sights and press the trigger. Repeat that sequence until the gun goes “Click”.
This concept seems to be easier for most novice shooters than having to deal with an external magazine of an autoloader.
Now add low weapon weight to this equation. I run classes for autoloading rifles as well as for lever actions. The drills are similar. One thing I noticed this fall after working primarily on lever action material during the summer is that the lever action students never complained about the weight of their weapon when we went through dry runs over and over. Credit to my students, none really complained, but it was visible after keeping their rifles up a good stretch of time, that they welcomed the relief when I told them to go to “safe and sling”. The weight issue also reflects in a way earlier experience, when several years ago I’ve got a couple of people started on rifles with a Winchester 94 in .357 Magnum. All tried the AR or AK/Saiga during the same session, but many preferred the lever gun.
Their reason was primarily the low weight, but also the ease of operation and (here is where the comparison is not on equal ground) the low recoil of the .357 compared to 7.62 x 39 and .223.
The students were also more at ease with a rifle that they could reload with single rounds from a dump pouch or directly from the box – without having to deal with a removable magazine.
This does obviously not apply to the more trained shooters but there is certainly an advantage to a completely self-contained system that does not rely on external components (magazines).
Lever guns are ambidextrous in the shooting operation. It does not matter which hand you operate the lever with – no re-thinking or re-training required.
Most autoloaders in comparison have the bolt handle on the right side (such as the AK, SKS, M-1A and SU-16 to name a few. One can train to manipulate it equally well with either hand, but it is a different motion when used with the right hand compared to operation with the left.
Again, this is not an issue for people with a higher level of training. However, For others who use a weapon only occasionally, it is a lot more important.
Where is ambidextrous operation important? When working corners and while shooting on the move.
When I approach a doorway with a long gun, I want to expose as little of myself as possible, regardless which side I approach from. If the door opening is to my left, even being a mainly right-handed shooter, I need to have the ability to use the rifle from my left shoulder, so that only a small portion of me is visible as I progress forward. I also need the ability to cycle the rifle fast and decisively, regardless of the shoulder I'm running it in.
In our Gunfighting series of classes we introduce our students to movement to avoid incoming fire. We are sure not the only ones who have figured out that fast lateral movement works to our advantage. In case I have a moving target and the first round misses, I need the ability to get another follow-up round downrange fast and accurately! The lever action gun handles very naturally and allows for smooth, swift operation from either shoulder.
Shooting the rifle on the move could fill an article in in itself. I want to keep it brief: a shooter should always have the rifle seated in the shoulder of the direction that he is moving to. In other words, if I move to the right, I use the rifle in my right shoulder, if I move to the left, I use it in my left shoulder. This way, I can maintain my aim towards the target without winding my body up. A natural posture will result in less resistance from the body and in more accurate shots.
The dreaded Political Correctness
Last Point: We live –unfortunately- in a world where many people have swapped common sense for political correctness. A modern-day fighting rifle is not politically correct. In the contrary: some people inadvertently associate the AR-15 with our military and a no-no for civilians. They will also associate the AK-47 with terrorism. They do not see the benefit of a robust and reliable weapon that has long since served as a civilian defense rifle, around the world as well as here in the US. They see the image of Osama bin Laden and his thugs training with the AK-47 to take their Jihad to the US.
The lever gun on the other hand has been an icon in many western movies, enabling the good guys to prevail. Score one for political correctness. This may not be a huge issue in many areas of the US, but living in CA, believe me, it is an argument that bears quite a bit of weight.
First and foremost, it is a good choice for overly restrictive states such as California and for others where a “black rifle” is problematic. As many restrictions as we have on firearms, lever action guns are not affected by them, unless someone wanted a version chambered in .50 BMG – but that is rather unlikely.
For those of us shooting revolvers, the lever gun can be a nice extension of the handgun. As Gabe discussed in his article about pistol caliber carbines: they have a niche in the close range area and for smaller statured / recoil sensitive shooters.
In larger chamberings they have a place as a very basic, low-profile CDR (Civilian Defense Rifle). All it takes is the rifle itself, a dump pouch for the ammunition and a carrier that holds rounds alongside the barrel such as the Minuteman ammo cuffs for fast single-round top-off’s. A lever-action requires less support gear than an autoloading fighting rifle since it does not require exchangeable magazines.
The only other enhancement I would suggest is a red-dot such as an Aimpoint H-1 to improve quick target acquisition.
To close things – I bought a Winchester 94 chambered in .357 about twelve years ago to complement our revolvers. It has accompanied me on a couple of road trips as backup, way before I got my first Saiga and also way before I started working with the close range gunfighting material.
I always enjoyed shooting it, mainly as a larger plinker, but I did not fully appreciate its potential until I started looking into the lever gun as a bug-out, get off the X rifle. Now that I have worked with it quite a bit, I am sure that this weapon stays in the family arsenal!
Suarez International Staff Instructor