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Best Drills For Learning to Shoot Lever Guns

Hunting, defense and even fun, the lever-action rifle is a useful tool. Here are some great drills to master shooting the classic lever gun for any situation.

Best Drills For Learning to Shoot Lever Guns

Without question, the lever-action rifle is the most iconic of all American firearms. It is indelibly linked to the notion of wild frontiers and cowboys, and as I’ve said many times before, “Everyone has a little cowboy in them.” Surprisingly, even in this day of shooting from ridgeline to ridgeline, the lever-action remains very popular. What might be more surprising is even with that popularity, there are lots of shooters who are not competent with lever guns. Sure, shooting is one thing, but managing and running a rifle is another. Running a lever gun is a bit different than it is with other guns. The good news is that, with the right kind of practice, you can become proficient with the rifle that “won the West.” Here are four lever-action rifle training drills designed to elevate your efficiency to John Wayne or Lucas McCain levels.

Conditionally Speaking

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The Ammo Caddy attaches to the rifle’s stock by a Velcro pad. This allows it to be removed or used in conjunction with extra Ammo Caddys.

Before we get into the training drills, it’s important you understand the various conditions of readiness for a lever-action rifle. Knowing these conditions helps you know your rifle and fosters safe handling practices. Also, understand that we’re talking about traditional lever-action rifles that feed from a tube-fed magazine and load through a side gate in the action. Conditions for magazine-fed lever guns like the Savage 99, Browning BLR, and Winchester 88 are a bit different.

Condition 1: Magazine tube loaded, round in chamber, hammer cocked, and safety off.

This is the proper condition for a lever-action rifle right before it’s fired. It is also the condition of a lever gun immediately after it has been fired, and the action has been cycled. A lever gun should not be carried in this condition. Some lever-actions have a safety. Traditionalists scoff at their existence, and they’ve been known to cause a click in the field when the shooter forgets they’re engaged. In Condition 1, the safety is not engaged.

Condition 2: Magazine tube loaded, round in chamber, hammer forward or at half cock, and safety off.

This is the generally accepted carry method for a lever-action rifle. The hammer must be manually cocked before the rifle can be fired. For lever guns with safeties, Condition 2 is with the hammer cocked and the safety on.

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With the right ammunition, a lever gun in .45-70 is suitable for anything walking the earth, but you must shoot straight and manage your weapon correctly.

Condition 3: Magazine tube loaded, chamber empty, hammer forward or at half cock, safety off.

Some prefer this method of carry for lever guns. When the need to shoot arises, the action is levered as the rifle is brought to shoulder. In Condition 3, the safety — if so equipped — should not be engaged as it creates an additional needless step to execute before a shot can be fired.

Condition 4: Magazine tube empty, chamber empty, hammer forward, and safety off.

This is the typical condition in which lever guns are stored.

The Drills

Now with administrative matters out of the way, let’s look at the drills. Though all these drills involve shooting at targets — and the goal is to hit the targets — the primary purpose of the first three drills is to teach you how to manage your lever gun. Sure, you want to get the hits, but focus on the manipulation of the rifle first. Marksmanship is one thing, but firearms competency and gun handling skills are another. You can learn a lot about a shooter’s proficiency just by watching them handle their firearm.

Recommended


Drill #1: Rapid Fire

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The Rapid-Fire Drill is more of an exercise in managing the lever gun than it is one of accuracy; hitting a 6-inch target at 25 yards should be easy.

This drill is designed to develop your ability to swiftly acquire a sight picture on a target and to engage that target quickly with multiple rounds. From a practical standpoint, it could replicate shooting at a dangerous game animal or a dangerous human animal intent on doing you harm. For this drill, you’ll need a 6-inch target at 25 yards. Start by standing with the rifle in the high ready position, buttstock on your hip, and the muzzle between your eyes and the target. The rifle should be in either Condition 2 or 3, depending on your preference. At the go signal, bring the rifle to your shoulder, aim, and fire three rounds as fast as you can to get hits on the 6-inch target. Three hits in less than seven seconds is good, under six seconds is very good, and if you can do it in less than five seconds, that’s outstanding. This drill helps you learn to shoulder the rifle and get the sights — iron sights, red dot, or riflescope — on the target quickly. The key to mastering this exercise is learning to cycle the action of the lever gun without ever removing it from your shoulder. Keep both eyes open and begin levering the action at the peak of recoil.

Drill #2: Just One Shot

This next drill deals with manipulating a lever-action rifle when it is empty or after you have run it dry. It replicates a situation where you have an unloaded lever-action rifle in one hand, a single cartridge in the other hand, and you need to shoot at something in a hurry. With a 6-inch target placed at 50 yards, start the drill with the rifle in Condition 4 and with a single cartridge in your off hand. At the start signal, work the lever opening the action and drop the cartridge into the action, then close the lever and engage the target. You can shoot from the standing, kneeling, or seated positions. If you can get your single hit in less than seven seconds, that’s good. If you can do it in less than six seconds, that’s very good. Anything under five seconds is outstanding. If you’re going to drop to a more stable field shooting position, do so as you open the action and drop the cartridge into the ejection port. Alternately, you could load the single cartridge through the loading gate and then lever it into the action, but this takes more time.

Drill #3: Shoot & Load

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For the Shoot & Load drill, you must load two cartridges from either a butt cuff or belt loops between the first and last shot of the drill.

One of the great features of the lever gun is that you can shoot and load it without ever having to take the rifle from your shoulder. Yeah, sure, you can do this with a bolt-action, an AR-15, or any other magazine-fed rifle, but with those rifles, you must remove the ammunition source or open the action to add more ammo. Not with the lever gun. Much like a pump or semiautomatic shotgun, you can just keep shoving ammunition in through the loading gate of your lever gun until you don’t have any more ammunition to shove in. The lever gun is a sort of “load-as-you-go” kind of weapon. I got into a shootout with a buffalo in Africa one time, and the ability to do this proved very beneficial. I am, after all, still here to tell the story.

For this drill, place your 6-inch target at 75 yards. You start the drill in the standing position but at the start signal, you can drop to the kneeling or seated positions if you like. Begin with the rifle in Condition 1, 2, or 3, but the magazine tube must only contain one cartridge. So, you have one round in the chamber and one round in the magazine tube. Your goal is to fire two shots, but after you fire the first shot and cycle the action, you must load two cartridges into the rifle without taking the rifle from your shoulder. Ideally, you would load these from a butt cuff or belt loops. My favorite is the Versacarry Ammo Caddy as it’s more adaptable and not as bulky as other products, but anything is better than nothing. The only time that matters is the time between the two shots. If you can load two cartridges and then get a second hit on the target in less than 12 seconds, that’s OK. If you can do it in less than 10 seconds, that’s decent. Anything less than eight seconds is great. The beauty of this technique is that at any time while you’re attempting to add more ammunition to the rifle, if necessary, you can fire a shot. As you’re loading the rifle, it will be in Condition 1, so all you must do to shoot is place the sights on the target and press the trigger. If you’re after dangerous game or in a self-defense situation, this feature sets the lever gun apart from the rest.

Drill #4: The Marksman

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The Marksman Drill with the lever gun is one shot on an 8-inch steel plate at 100 yards, conducted ideally in less than four seconds.

The previous three drills all deal with managing and working the action of a lever gun. This drill is a bit different. It deals strictly with shooting while standing on your hind legs. As cool and historic as the lever gun is, none of that matters if it cannot be used with precision. Everyone has a different idea of what precision with a rifle really means. Modern-day Creedmoor shooters think precision is hitting a snuff can at 300 yards from a bipod rest. That might be true, but a cowboy’s marksmanship is when you can deliver a bullet where it is supposed go with nothing but your two feet touching the ground. For this drill, you’ll need an 8-inch target or steel plate placed at 100 yards. Start with the rifle in both hands, loaded with one round only, and in Condition 2 or 3. At the start signal, all you have to do is hit the target with your one and only shot. Tom Horn could probably have done this in about two seconds, but you’re not Tom Horn, so a hit in anything less than three seconds is outstanding. If you can get your hit in less than four seconds, that’s good, but if it takes you much longer than that, well, you need more practice at basic marksmanship. Like a grisly old veteran and crack-shot once told me, “If you hold long, you hold wrong.”

Parting Shots

With enough practice and persistence, these drills will elevate you from fumbling your firearm like Billy Crystal in City Slickers to slinging lead down on the range like Lucas McCain. Neither a paper bad guy nor a real villain darkening your doorstep will stand a chance.




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