Some of us who have a little—or a lot—of grey hair are saddled with an anachronistic affinity toward the lever-action rifle. Whether it’s because we spent too much time watching “The Rifleman” on television or too many John Wayne movies and are all wrapped up in nostalgia, or, perhaps we just cannot go with the flow in semi-automatics, a lever gun just seems to make us feel better.
Most of us with this affliction started our shooting careers with a lever-action rifle. Witness the popularity even today of the Daisy Red Ryder BB gun. I had a Daisy Model 1894 “Spittin’ Image” when I was a kid. Later on when I became a rifle sophisticate, I followed the crowd and bought bolt actions. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I finally bought—actually traded for—a real lever-action rifle. I traded an H&K Model 91 straight across for an 1895-vintage Model 1886 Winchester in .45-90 WCF. I still have it and occasionally shoot it. Shame on me, I have yet to take it hunting.
The lever action was the first successful repeating firearm made. It is also the first so-called “assault rifle” for the latter part of the 19th century, at least in terms of function. As manually operated repeaters go, the lever-action rifle has a lot going for it. For one thing, it takes a series of somewhat complex engineering tasks and combines them into relatively simple overall movements by the shooter in order to fire the rifle. Lever guns are remarkably compact and easy to handle. Since they were originally intended to be carried on horseback, they are lightweight and have no protrusions like bolt knobs and such to hang up in the scabbard or dig into the horse’s hide. Although there are some modern bolt actions that fire intensely over-bore cartridges, the lever action can safely handle some pretty powerful stuff like the .30-06, .450 Marlin and even the .500 Smith & Wesson Magnum.
Cowboy action shooters fueled the latest renaissance in lever-action rifles. As my generation—the “Baby Boomers”— matured and became more affluent, we enjoyed playing the same games we did as children from such TV shows as “The Rifleman,” “Gunsmoke,” “Bonanza” and “Wanted Dead or Alive.” All of those shows featured lever-action rifles, and some had rifles altered for theatrical drama. The mare’s leg that Steve McQueen used in “Wanted Dead or Alive” would be classified as a short-barreled rifle if one tried to make it from an existing rifle. As a side note, I was once privileged to handle the gun from that TV show. They got around the short-barreled rifle problem by having the barrel made from aluminum. It would safely fire blanks, but real cartridges are a no-no. Anyway, there are a couple of manufacturers making replicas of that mare’s leg today, and they get around the idiotic SBR law by claiming it is manufactured as a handgun.
We “Baby Boomers” are facing the end of our trail now. Cowboy action shooting has had its peak, in terms of attendance, and so the popularity of lever guns may also have hit its pinnacle. Those of us who are lever-action aficionados remain a strongly dedicated bunch, though. There also remain some younger fellas who appreciate the lever gun, so it is unlikely that lever actions will be completely dropped from the rifle market for quite some time.
As a hunting tool, lever actions are still well suited for the task at hand. Mention “deer rifle” to almost anyone, and it will conjure up an image of the Winchester ’94 and the .30-30 cartridge. I’ve probably killed at least a dozen whitetail deer with a ’94 in both .30-30 and .25-35, and I have never lost a deer hit with either cartridge. Want to go bigger? The .45-70 is a genuine big-game thumper of a cartridge, and I killed my largest black bear with one from an 1895 Marlin Guide Gun.
For a self-defense rifle the lever gun is just as good as it was more than a century ago. If your locale is subjected to hoplophobic law makers and you can’t possess an AR-style rifle, a lever-action rifle chambered for .357 or .44 Magnum will fill the bill for virtually any home-invasion scenario you can imagine.
Now I would not trade in my ARs or any other rifles just to have a larger gaggle of lever guns. But whenever I have one with me, I am not concerned one whit that I might be considered to be under armed.