Using a Lever Gun for Self-Defense
February 25, 2019
In the late 1800s, the lever action was the AR-15 of its day: easy to load, fast to shoot, and sporting plenty of firepower. In a couple decades it made muzzleloading and breechloading single-shot rifles entirely obsolete, and it has been touted as “the gun that won the West” ever since the Indian Wars.
Unlike with the AR-15, naysayers didn’t fear and loathe the lever action as an “assault weapon” useful only for mass murder. Folks were practical back then. They admired lever guns, but some cautious riflemen worried that their high-capacity and speedy function would promote sloppy shooting.
In long-gun terms, the lever action is still a fine choice for personal protection. In fact, even though most models were designed well over a century ago, a good lever-action carbine arguably places third among top choices for self-defense, trumped only by AR-15/AK47-type firearms (first choice) and pump-action shotguns (second choice)—and there are those who mount a stubborn argument that a lever gun is actually a better choice than a pump shotgun.
I happen to be one of them. Most lever-action rifles carry more ammo, recoil less, and are far more capable past 30 yards than a shotgun.
I recently attended a Gunsite course titled “The Craft of the Lever Gun,” and while instructors included a broad spectrum of field skills, much of the course was focused, as head teacher Lew Gosnell (who won the first World Championship of Cowboy Action Shooting at End of Trail) put it, on “Gunsite kind of stuff.” In other words, fighting skills. Fighting skills tailored to lever actions.
I’d like to share them here with you. Some of them are simple; some take practice. Some are intuitive, and you may already be doing them; others may give you an “ah hah!” moment.
Unloading without Chambering
This seems a funny way to start a list of lever-action fighting skills, but the fact is lever guns have a bad reputation for accidental discharges, and generally ADs occur while running live rounds through the action in order to empty the tubular magazine. Accidentally bump the trigger as the lever closes, and the round goes off.
There are a couple ways to empty a tubular magazine without allowing the potential for an AD. With some designs, you can use the tip of a cartridge inserted through the loading gate to depress the magazine cutoff. Perfected, this technique will bring the loaded rounds pouring backwards out of the loading gate. However, since only some designs allow this, the simpler way is to start each cartridge into the chamber a half-inch or so, at which point the guts of the action release the rim and the live round can simply be tipped out the ejection area. Once it falls into your palm, finish closing the lever to position another live round on the lifter and repeat until empty.
I thought I did this. Long ago I trained myself to keep my head up and my eyes moving while topping off box magazines in bolt-action rifles or swapping magazines in AR-type rifles. To my surprise, I had a hard-to-break habit of dropping my head and staring at the loading gate as I thumbed cartridges into my lever action. Also, I had a habit of dropping the rifle to waist height near my belt, learned from years of pulling rounds from a cartridge belt and feeding them into the loading gate.
Whether you’re fighting for your life or hunting, the last place you should look while reloading is down. Keep the rifle high and look over it as you transfer fresh cartridges from a stock-mounted ammo carrier or from a gun belt. My instructor suggested it was okay to briefly glance at the action to orient the nose of each fresh cartridge into the loading gate, but by the end of the course, I was refilling my magazine without looking at all, enabling me to stay much more aware of my surroundings. It takes practice and—most importantly—repetition to implant the technique into muscle memory. Otherwise, you’ll revert to old habits when you’re under stress.
Load What You Shoot
Like a Louis L’Amour hero, thumb fresh replacement cartridges into your shootin’ iron immediately after the shooting stops, whether you fired one round or emptied the gun. Learn to top off your magazine while moving, meaning now you have to perform “alert loading” as described earlier while walking and running. Practice, practice, practice.
Thumb Lives on the Hammer
I was surprised (although I shouldn’t have been) that the Gunsite instructors insisted students begin all exercises with a round in the chamber of their lever actions and the hammer lowered to the halfcock notch (or in the hammer rebound position for modern guns like the Mossberg 464 I used). Makes sense, making for fast first-round hits, enabling an extra round on tap, and is perfectly safe.
Because I was so used to running the gun’s lever as I shoulder my Mossberg 464 rife, I ejected more than one loaded cartridge into the dirt as I brought my gun on target during the early hours of the class. Instructor Gosnell drummed into us the mantra that while the rifle is in the hands, the thumb lives on the hammer, ready to ear it back while raising the rifle to shoot. Once I adopted that, I quit habitually running the lever. It was no surprise that from then on my first shot became significantly faster, too.
Like a pump-action shotgun, every good lever-action rifle likes to be run enthusiastically. Tentatively pushing the lever forward and meekly drawing it back again is a great way to jam up your rifle. As Gosnell put it: “Run it like you’re trying to break it.”
As soon as all the students adopted this attitude, malfunctions with the variety of lever-action models being used for the course virtually vanished.
Another hard habit for almost all the students to shrug off was the inclination to lower the rifle after each shot and comfortably work the lever with the rifle off the shoulder. Instead, Gunsite’s instructors insisted we work the lever with the rifle shouldered, eyes on the target, immediately after firing.
Following through properly was surprisingly challenging when told to fire one shot only. Keeping the rifle shouldered, eyes focused on the target, and running the action aggressively was psychologically easier during a string of shots. This is another skill that must be ingrained into muscle memory through long practice. Otherwise, at the moment of truth, you’ll revert to old—i.e., bad—habits.
Another lever-gun situation rife with ADs is when lowering the hammer on a live, chambered cartridge. ADs occur when the hammer slips from beneath the thumb as it’s lowered and impacts the firing pin with enough force to detonate the primer.
It happens. We watched one of the students—a part-time writer and retired law enforcement officer of considerable gun-handling skill—launch a .45-70 bullet skyward during one moving/shooting drill. It happened to me once while hunting as a teenager. Thankfully, I’d learned the art of muzzle control.
It’s possible to prevent this by inserting the support-hand thumb between the hammer and the firing pin before lowering the hammer. Doing so is awkward and sometimes uncomfortable, but if you struggle even slightly with hammer control, acquire the habit.
If you have strong hands and good control, you’re most likely fine simply paying close attention as you lower the hammer with your firing-hand thumb. If this is the method you choose, be sure the hammerspur is aggressively textured. Most of the slip-firings occur with lightly textured or worn-smooth hammerspurs and when not paying close attention.
Another tip is to install and use the scope-compatible hammer side-extension included with most modern lever guns whether you use a scope or not. These extensions provide an added measure of contact and thus control.
Single-Load Speed Reloads
If you’re in it hot and heavy and you hear a “click” when the hammer falls after firing several rounds, it’s time to speed-feed your lever gun single-shot style. Sure, if you have time, if there’s a lull in the action, fill that magazine tube. But if not, one shot right now could save your bacon.
This technique relies on a ready supply of ammo, such as a cartridge belt, stock ammo sleeve, or an adaptable-to-either cartridge holder like VersaCarry’s new quick-detachable Ammo Caddy.
When you hear that click, if a hostile attacker is inside spitting distance, it may be time to convert that lever gun into a club. They’ve served honorably as such off and on for over a century. However, if you have just a fraction of time, thrust the lever forward to open the action, quick-draw a cartridge, and dunk it into the open action. Flick the lever back and fire.
This process takes practice. Start slowly, building the movements into your muscle memory smoothly and without fumbling. As your skill improves, your speed increases.
It’s worth noting that Marlin rifles—which have the ejection port on the side of the action—must be held at least somewhat upright while closing the lever. If you turn one on its side and slap a fresh cartridge in, then attempt to close the lever before righting the rifle, it will often jam.
It’s amazing how fast some folks can shoulder a lever gun and pop a nearby target. It’s even more amazing how slow others are. If you anticipate ever using your lever action for personal protection, it behooves you seek membership in the former group.
Begin with dry-fire practice. Starting in the field-carry position of your choice, smoothly bring the rifle to your shoulder and thumb the hammer back, catch a fast but distinct sight picture, and trip the trigger as the front sight settles on your target.
No, this isn’t the time for a slow, controlled trigger squeeze. But you don’t want to tense up in anticipation of the recoil and throw your sights off target. Acute focus on the target and then—as it arrives—the front sight will help you avoid flinching. Follow-through also helps: keep the front sight glued to the target for a moment before working the lever like there’s no tomorrow.
Once you’re fast and fluid in dry-fire practice, start again with live ammo at the range. Again, slowly work up speed until you can mount and fire an accurate close-range shot under two seconds—including reaction time.
Check for Loose Parts
To build the skills I’ve outlined, you’ll need to do a lot of shooting and a lot of dry-fire practice. Lever guns are robust and love to be worked hard, but all that recoil and manipulating will loosen anything that can come loose and some things that you would think can’t possibly come loose. Examine your rifle frequently, checking for loose screws and other parts, cracks in the stock around the action tangs, and so forth.
Trouble spots are small screws of all types, particularly those securing iron sights, scope sight bases, scopes, and slings. I degrease all such and apply Loctite when setting up a new lever action. The small screw-type fasteners on many leather slings are especially problematic.
While cutting-edge tacticool shooters espouse single-point slings as the latest and greatest method of carrying your favorite shooting tool, it’s a method older than any of them. Long ago, carbines meant for horseback use were fitted with a “saddle ring” on the left side of the action and were often slung with a long loop around the neck and one arm. In the thick of a mêlée, the carbine could simply be dropped when empty, enabling the horse soldier to transition quickly to saber or revolver.
Carrying your lever gun with a single-point sling requires a saddle ring, and most new models don’t have one. So I’ll focus on traditional carrying straps here.
Muzzle-up carry on the shooting-side shoulder is an acceptable method, but there’s a faster, handier way. It’s on the support-side shoulder, muzzle down, butt behind the armpit.
To get your lever gun there, simply lower the muzzle till it’s pointing straight down, controlling the rifle with the shooting hand. Grasp the sling next to the rear swivel with the support hand and swing the rifle around and onto your shoulder. Let your support-side arm hang naturally while packing the rifle, the hand falling next to the forearm. If necessary, you can grasp the forearm and control the rifle while navigating around obstacles.
Getting the rifle into action is fast and easy. Grasp the forearm with the support hand, palm facing rearward, with the same grip you’ll use when firing. Simply rotate and lift the rifle into firing position, allowing the sling to fall off the shoulder, grasp the wrist with the firing hand, and settle the stock into the shoulder as your cheek finds the comb and your eye the sights. With a bit of practice, this can be done with surprising speed.
With reasonable eyesight, simple semi-buckhorn rear and bead front sights—the kind found on the vast majority of lever-action rifles—are adequate for most defensive shooting. However, there are better choices.
Large-aperture ghost-ring rear sights provide substantially greater speed, paired with increased precision. Both are bona fide advantages. Add a clean-profiled, square-top post front sight and you’ll gain even more precision.
I’ve used XS Sights with fantastic success for years. My Mossberg 464 that I took to the Gunsite course wears XS sights as well as XS’s lightweight aluminum scout-type rail to which I typically attach an Aimpoint H2 red dot in a QD mount.
While at Gunsite, I met Andy Skinner of Skinner Sights. Made in Montana, the company’s irons are on a par with those by XS and offer some nice features.
If you have young eyes and would rather spend the money on practice ammo, have at it. But if you can afford to put a set of XS or Skinner ghost-ring sights on your lever gun, you’ll never regret it.
Some lever actions, such as all Marlins and Winchester’s angle-eject Model 94, will comfortably wear a traditional, receiver-mounted scope. However, such scopes preclude the use of backup iron sights, and with the Winchester, it will interfere with fast single reloads.
Two types of optics have gained traction as top options for lever guns. Both are mounted on a scout rail forward of the receiver. The first is a quality red dot. As I said earlier, I use an Aimpoint H2 in a low QD base. For use on practical targets out to 150 yards, it’s fantastic, and with care, shots can be placed with adequate precision to 200 yards, assuming you’re shooting the .30-30 or a similar cartridge with a relatively flat trajectory.
If you anticipate needing to place shots precisely past 100 yards—for example, when threading a bullet through the brush and into a deer’s vitals—the second type of optic is superior. You guessed it: It’s a scout scope, particularly a clear, high-quality variable-power scout scope.
I use a Burris 2-7X 32mm Scout model with a Ballistic Plex reticle with great success. Whatever your chosen cartridge and projectile, with a little trial and error you can figure out your bullet drops out to 250 or 300 yards, adding additional capability to your lever-action rifle. Set on 2X, it’s fast enough for in-the-library self-defense. Cranked up to 7X, it provides adequate precision for head shots on cottontails hunkered in a thicket 60 yards distant.
All optics on lever guns require shooting with a head-up chin-weld sort of position on the stock. You get used to it.
Gunsite’s instructors emphasized that these techniques can be adapted for use with any and all lever-action firearms, including unique designs like Savage’s Model 99 and Winchester’s Model 95. As the old saying goes, the best type of gun is the one you have with you when things get western. That said, a future discussion of lever-gun types and cartridges ideal for self-defense might be fun.
For now, if a lever action stands corner-guard in your kitchen or bedroom, blow the dust off and try these techniques. You’ll become better prepared to defend home and country, and the skills you learn will stay with you in all situations, making you a better hunter, too.