The Lever-Action Rifle Alternative: Self-Defense Guns

These lever-action rifles are Marlin 1894s. The one in the back is chambered in .44 Magnum and has a Williams Peep Sight. The one in front is chambered in .357 Magnum.

There is no question that an MSR in .223 Rem. is the best defensive long gun to protect your home, family, and life. But what if you are one of those poor unfortunate souls who live where the government doesn’t trust you enough to allow you to buy a detachable-magazine-fed semiautomatic rifle?

Well, one obvious answer is to move, but moving is not always feasible. Sometimes we get “stuck” for job or family reasons, or we simply don’t want to live elsewhere. But that doesn’t mean you have to break the law to protect yourself.

One alternative to consider is a lever-action carbine in a pistol cartridge. These guns are a surprisingly effective alternative. Because levers are an old design and were seen in every cowboy movie ever made, many people don’t pay much attention to them. Anti-gunners tend go after scary looking guns, but nobody thinks that Gene Autry’s gun is all that scary looking. So for the most part the lever-actions are legal and socially acceptable.


The history of the lever-action is distinctly American. It started with Walter Hunt in 1848 when he developed the “Rocket Ball and Volition Repeater.” This was a lever-action, breech-loading, repeating rifle with an under-the-barrel tube magazine. Sound familiar? It should, that is the basic premise for all the lever-actions to follow. That rifle used a cartridge of sorts that featured a conical bullet with a powder charge contained in the hollow base. A separate primer ignited it, so it wasn’t exactly a self-contained cartridge, but the bullet and propellant was one single unit—an underpowered, wimpy single unit, which is why sales were dismal.

Hunt later teamed up with George Arrowsmith and Lewis Jennings, who were granted a patent for the Jennings improvement in 1849. Jennings had simplified the repeating mechanism. With the change the gun became known as the “Jennings Repeater.”

Five thousand of the Jennings Repeaters were contracted to be manufactured in Vermont (though only about 1,000 were produced.) The foreman in that factory was Benjamin Tyler Henry, a man who would later prove very important in the development of the lever-action rifle.

Later, in 1854, Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson developed a lever-action pistol with an under-the-barrel tube magazine. Their shop foreman? Benjamin Tyler Henry.

After the production of about 1,000 of these guns, the name of the company was changed to Volcanic Repeating Arms Company. (If you are lucky enough to have one of the original pistols hiding in your attic, it might be worth as much as a new car. Find a Volcanic Model Pistol with a detachable stock and you may be able to pay off the mortgage.) Joining this company as an investor was a men’s garment maker named Oliver F. Winchester.

Henry later developed a successful rimfire .44 cartridge and a brass-frame lever-action called the Henry Rifle. The first 15-shot Henry rifles were shipped in 1862 and soon gained a reputation as a formidable fighting tool. One Confederate officer called it “that damn Yankee gun they load on Sunday and shoot all week.”

One widely publicized incident helped to sell this rifle. Captain James M. Wilson of the 12th Kentucky Cavalry was accosted by seven mounted guerillas while dining with his family in his home. He convinced them to kill him outside so his family wouldn’t have to watch. On the way out the door he grabbed his Henry rifle and killed the seven guerillas with eight shots. In an era of single-shot rifles, this proved beyond all doubt that the Henry was the gun to have when your life depended on shooting fast and well.

The Henry rifle was the gun that spawned all of the Winchester rifles that followed and it is the gun that launched a lever-action revolution.

Current Models

Several lever actions on the market now are chambered for pistol cartridges: the Marlin 1894 in .357 Magnum, .44 Special, and .44 Magnum; the Winchester 1892 in .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum, .45 Colt and .44-40 Winchester; and the Henry Big Boy in .44 Mag, .45 Colt and .357 Mag. There are also some imported copies of the old Winchester guns like the 1892, 1873, and others. Some are okay, but others can be pretty spotty on quality and function, so check out the gun thoroughly before you buy it.

The best lever-action carbines for defense are chambered for .357 Magnum or .44 Magnum. That’s because those cartridges have the most options for ammo designed for self-defense.

The .45 Colt is a third option. While never traditionally chambered in a lever-action rifle, modern gun makers put the .45 Colt in lever-actions to appeal to Cowboy Action Shooters. Most factory ammo is underpowered, but at least one major ammo company, Hornady, is making defensive ammo for the .45 Colt.

Why a pistol cartridge? One reason is magazine capacity. These little carbines will hold ten rounds in the magazine. Longer rifle cartridges such as the .30-30 will limit a carbine to seven cartridges. Plus, the .30-30 recoils more, so recovery time is slower between shots. Also, a powerful cartridge like the .30-30 has a higher risk of over-penetration, which occurs when the bullet exits the target and can cause unwanted damage to whatever is beyond. Several manufacturers offer ammo in pistol cartridges with bullets that are designed for self-defense and minimize over-penetration.

These carbines can be reloaded relatively quickly. With practice, a shooter can hit multiple targets surprisingly fast with these guns. Check out any Cowboy Action match and you will be amazed at how fast those shooters can work a lever gun.