December 28, 2020
For many fans of traditional tubular-magazine lever actions, optical sights are often looked upon with a certain level of disdain. For such purists, the original open “buckhorn” setup or a peep/receiver sight is the only acceptable arrangement.
Granted, most arguments against optics generally are aesthetic in nature. And this really isn’t all that hard to understand. After all, why load up the trim lines of a saddlegun with anything but unobtrusive iron sights? Imagining The Rifleman’s Model 92 Winchester with anything but “as-issued” open sights is heresy.
But aesthetics, even in the world of tubular-magazine lever guns, aren’t necessarily all that cut-and-dried. The Winchester Model 94 is the epitome of blued steel and walnut tradition. Mossberg’s synthetic-stocked 464 SPX borrows heavily from AR/chassis gun platforms, yet both are, at the end of the day, tubular-magazine .30-30s.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to stay within tradition, but unless we’re talking Cowboy Action competition, this brand of purism can be excessive—not to mention inefficient. Or, if you’re the sensitive type, unfair. Why? Well, for those of us with aging eyeballs, a bit of optical help eventually shifts from “welcome” to “mandatory” (if we’re lucky enough to last that long!).
This “help” can take a few forms: (1) a conventional scope arrangement, (2) a forward-mounted long-eye-relief Scout-type scope, or (3) a red-dot sight (or green dot, as the case may be).
Iron or Glass
Once open sights become more of a challenge than they were back when many riflemen were in their visual prime, lots of them go to peep, receiver, or ghost-ring sights. When even an aperture the size of a train tunnel is no longer enough, a conventional scope is often the next step. Whether the rifle is a top-ejecting model (say, a pre-1982 Winchester M94) or a side ejector (like a Marlin 336) usually determines your options as far as mounting arrangements go.
But however you end up hanging the scope, it can interfere with one of the great pleasures of a lever gun, namely being able to easily grab and carry it by the receiver one-handed. Nobody I’ve seen recently—and we’re talking normal-sized humanoids—has a big enough hand to do this comfortably with even a low-mounted scope.
With a forward-mounted Scout scope arrangement, this grasping problem becomes a non-issue. In fact, prior to today’s Scout scope concept, shooters had been using forward-mounted scopes on top-ejecting Model 94 Winchesters with the old Redfield Model 294 scope/mount setup.
This arrangement—forward thinking as it was—lost a certain amount of commercial appeal once Winchester went to the Angle Eject system in 1982 and conventional scope placement became possible. However, many still prefer forward-mounted, long-eye-relief scopes on a lever gun. Others just don’t want that much gear atop a quick-handling carbine, no matter how far forward it is.
The Electronic Age
When it comes to a discussion of long guns, red-dot sights are usually associated with ARs, but they do have a lot to recommend them for lever-gun use. Whereas a conventional scope reticle is usually a superior arrangement at (very) long yardage, most traditional tubular-magazine lever guns—and their various chamberings—are at their best at ranges (and in conditions) where a quick-to-acquire red dot works just fine.
And should you get ambitious in terms of target distance, you’ll stand a better chance of connecting with a 150-grain .30-30 using a 2- or 3-MOA red dot than you do with a receiver sight—let alone late-19th-century buckhorn sights.
And as an added plus, the red-dot unit can be placed so that it doesn’t interfere with grabbing the rifle amidships. Naturally, for aesthetic reasons, most prefer the reflex unit on a lever gun to be as small as possible. And most I’ve used have been installed rearward on an integral rail. As far as a “modern” box magazine lever gun chambered to calibers like .308 Winchester, .270 Winchester, or the like (Browning BLR), the case for a scope makes more sense.
But plenty of lever guns feature integral rails—several of the Marlin 336 series, M95 series, and M94 pistol-caliber carbine line, not to mention Pedersoli’s thumping .45-70 Boarbuster and Rossi’s R92 Triple Black carbine in .44 Magnum. Then there are a slew of Henrys, Winchesters, and Mossbergs that will accept aftermarket rails—Picatinny and Weaver.
While you’re probably going to want to dial the red (or green) dot’s intensity down to a pinprick size for zeroing or shooting tiny groups, you’re going to want it bigger and brighter and easier to pick up in hunting situations, which often include less-than-ideal lighting conditions.
As far as the actual MOA of the dot, around 3 is probably the best all-around for traditional lever-gun hunting applications. You can get them bigger or smaller, if that’s your preference. There are plenty of red-dot sights to choose from. Makers include Aimpoint, Burris, Holosun, SIG SAUER, Trijicon, TRUGLO, Crimson Trace, and others.
A rail, like the ones offered by XS Sights, is far and away the easiest way to install a red dot on a lever gun. Burris does offer a FastFire Red Dot Reflex Sight Mount specifically for the Model 94 that’s designed for the company’s line of FastFire Red Dot sights. The FastFire 3 with its 3-MOA dot is a good choice for lever guns and has an MSRP of $287 to $299.
Trijicon has been making sights for military applications for decades now. The company’s optics are a bit pricey, but they are exceptionally well regarded. The MRO 1X25 Red Dot Sight features a 2-MOA adjustable dot and retails from $579 to $639 depending on the mount option.
If you’re interested in speedy “switch-outs” for removing your red-dot unit for scope or iron sight use, several makers offer QD mounts to be used in conjunction with a rail. Aimpoint’s Accro QD series mounts are excellent, offering a return to zero on reinstallation.
More and more lever-action fans are finding out that red-dot sights don’t necessarily equate to “black guns” and tactical talk. They’re pretty useful in the field as well.