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How to Get the Most Out of Your Lever-Action Rifle

You may have been hunting with a lever-action your entire life, but do you know the best methods for handling one?

How to Get the Most Out of Your Lever-Action Rifle
When unloading, keep all four fingers in the lever loop to prevent the index finger from accidentally contacting the trigger. (Photo courtesy of Sebastian Mann)

The Henry rifle helped us begin our love affair with the lever-action rifle more than 150 years ago. It brought fast and repetitive fire to the American shooter and was often described as a rifle you could load on Sunday and shoot all week. It wasn’t long until Winchester and Marlin introduced lever-action rifles, and even with the introduction of more precise-shooting bolt actions and semi-automatics, the lever gun remains a favorite with American hunters. Surprisingly, given how long the lever gun has been around, some hunters still don’t know how to best manage one. To help with that, here’s the proper manual of arms for the traditional, tube-fed, lever-action rifle with an exposed hammer, along with some accessories to make it better.

LOADING AND UNLOADING

You load most traditional lever-action rifles by inserting one cartridge at a time through a loading gate on the side of the action until the magazine tube is full. (Some modern Henry lever actions can also be loaded directly into the magazine tube, as is commonly done with rimfire rifles.) To keep from getting your finger or thumb pinched by the loading gate, insert each cartridge only about two-thirds of the way into the opening. Then use the next cartridge to shove it the rest of the way through and into the magazine tube. Once the magazine tube is full or to the capacity you desire, carefully nudge the last cartridge forward with your thumb until it’s past the gate. Levering the action will cycle a round into the chamber. This, of course, also cocks the hammer.

hunter aiming rifle
After firing a lever gun, keep the rifle shouldered as you cycle the action for a faster follow-up shot. (Photo courtesy of Sebastian Mann)

The common way to unload a traditional lever-action rifle is to cycle the cartridges through the action. This has the potential for a negligent discharge if a finger finds its way inside the trigger guard during the process. When unloading, point the rifle in a safe direction and keep all your fingers inside the lever loop—none inside the trigger guard. Many despise the cross-bolt safety on some modern versions of lever-action rifles, but this is when it is best used. Before you cycle the action to unload, engage the safety.

With the Henry lever actions that can be loaded directly into the magazine tube, you can remove the plunger and dump the ammo, but you still must eject the cartridge that’s in the chamber. Unload the tube first and then eject the cartridge from the chamber, but during both processes, keep the rifle pointed in a safe direction and keep your finger away from the trigger.

CONDITIONS OF CARRY

There are four acceptable conditions of carry for the lever action. In condition one, the magazine tube is loaded, there is a round in the chamber, and the hammer is cocked. If the rifle is equipped with a safety, it is disengaged. This is the condition a lever-action rifle should be in immediately before being fired.

Condition four is how a lever gun should be transported or stored long term. The magazine tube is empty, the chamber is empty, the hammer is forward, and if the rifle is equipped with a safety, it is disengaged.

Condition two and three are the most common ways to carry a lever-action rifle in the field. In condition two, the magazine tube is loaded, there is a round in the chamber, and the hammer is either on half cock or fully forward with the safety—if equipped—disengaged, or the hammer is cocked with the safety engaged.

To fire the rifle, you either cock the hammer or disengage the safety. In condition three, the magazine tube is loaded, but the chamber is empty, and the hammer is at half cock or fully forward and the safety—if equipped—is disengaged. To shoot, cycle the action.

closeup of lever-action rifle
To load a lever gun quickly and smoothly, insert the first cartridge about two-thirds of the way (instead of entirely) into the loading gate. (Photo courtesy of Sebastian Mann)
loading a rifle
Then use the next cartridge to push the first one the rest of the way into the magazine tube. Do the same with subsequent cartridges. (Photo courtesy of Sebastian Mann)

SHOULDERING AND SHOOTING

By nature, and balance, traditional lever actions are quick-handling rifles that lend themselves to snap shooting and fast repetitive fire. The mistake that many shooters make when mounting a lever gun is to place the buttstock into their shoulder and then raise the muzzle in line with the target. A faster and more practical way to get a lever gun in action is to raise the rifle between your eyes and the target, but about an inch forward of your shoulder. As your eyes find the sights, pull the rifle straight back into your shoulder. At the same time you’re doing this, transition the rifle from condition two or three to condition one so you can shoot.

You fire a lever-action rifle in condition one by pressing the trigger, just as with any other rifle. The mistake most shooters make is in what they do after the shot. Many will lower the lever gun and cycle the action, ejecting the fired case and chambering a fresh round. Sometimes, they’ll even take their eyes off the target and lower their head to watch what must be a captivating process. For proper follow-through with a lever-action rifle, hold the trigger to the rear after the shot. Then, at the apex of the recoil, remove your finger from the trigger guard and cycle the action as the rifle settles back on target. The rifle stays shouldered during the entire process. If a second shot is needed, reacquire the sights, place your finger on the trigger, shoot and repeat.

LEVER-GUN ACCESSORIES

Most lever-action rifles come with traditional sights, but serious lever-gun shooters often replace them with an aperture rear and post front sight like those from XS Sights (xssights.com). This increases the sight radius and provides a faster-to-acquire sight picture. XS Sights also offers its Lever Rail that attaches to the receiver and barrel of a lever gun to permit mounting a red-dot sight, scout scope or conventional riflescope. Several of the new Marlin rifles come with a similar but proprietary rail, and talented gunsmiths, like Jerry Dove at Dove Guns (doveguns.com), can add a short section of rail to the barrel that will work with a red-dot or a scout scope.

Many lever-gun shooters like to add a buttstock cuff to a rifle to store ammunition. It’s also a good way to keep ammunition at the ready with an unloaded lever gun in case you need to grab it in a hurry. A practical alternative to the lace-on leather butt cuff is the Ammo Caddy from Versacarry (versacarry.com). This leather ammo carrier attaches to the buttstock via an industrial-strength, stick-on Velcro pad. It puts an initial load or extra ammo right at your fingertips and can easily be removed.

Recommended


Although it’s not advisable to deactivate or remove a gun’s safety, some shooters cannot stand the cross-bolt safety on traditional lever actions. In addition to large-loop levers and custom stainless magazine tube followers, Beartooth Mercantile (beartoothmercantile.com) manufactures what it calls a “safety delete” for Marlin lever-action rifles. It replaces the safety and can be had with or without a saddle ring. Though this neat gadget will probably void any warranty, some traditionalists are willing to accept that tradeoff.


  • This article was featured in the May 2024 issue of Game & Fish magazine. Click to subscribe.



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