The Lever Action as a Self Defense Gun
This old-school, but reliable, gun design can make for a solid defensive firearm, especially for those in 'restricted' states
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 chambered for 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 guerrillas 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 guerrillas 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.
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 (sometimes called .45 Long Colt or .45 LC) 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. A 20-inch barreled Henry in .44 Magnum can hold 10+1 rounds. Longer rifle cartridges, such as the .30-30, will limit a rifle with a 20-inch barrel to 5+1 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. You will run into the same issues with the .45-70 Govt, another popular lever-gun chambering these days.
Several manufacturers offer ammo in pistol cartridges with bullets that are designed for self-defense and minimize over-penetration and Federal even makes an ammo line called HammerDown in pistol calibers with loads and brass optimized for carbine-length barrels and lever actions.
Additionally, with .357 Mag and .44 Mag chamberings, you can practice inexpensively with .38 Spl and .44 Spl ammunition, respectively. And if the recoil of the magnum cartridges is an issue, there are abundant self-defense ammunition options in .38 Spl on the market, and there are some for .44 Spl as well.
Plus, both cartridges are more than substantial enough to take deer-sized game at 50-yards and beyond, so engaging targets at range with accuracy, even with iron sights, is doable if necessary. It’s good to have options.
The Down Side – Reload Speed
These carbines can be reloaded relatively quickly, but not nearly as quickly as a rifle with a detachable box magazine, and it takes a little bit of practice and muscle memory development.
All Henry rifles are side-ejectors, so optics can be easily mounted, but most do not have a loading gate. Instead, a magazine tube insert housing the magazine spring and follower is removed from the muzzle end, and the cartridges are dropped in from there. Once the tube is loaded, the insert is replaced and the gun is ready to fire. The disadvantage is the process can be a little clumsy and it’s difficult to top off the mag tube safely (without flagging your own hand with a round in the chamber.
However, Henry now makes several models, including its X Model series, with loading gates in addition to the magazine tube insert.
Other rifles from companies like Marlin, Winchester, and those making Winchester clones have side gates only. Some of these can be quite stiff out of the box and they need some breaking in for reloading to be smooth. With narrower cartridges, like the .357, pushing that last round in and clearing the loading gate can be a little tough.
While there have been successful versions of lever guns with detachable box mags, like the iconic Browning BLR, and there are some on the market now, like the Henry Long Ranger, they are designed for hunters and come chambered for powerful rifle cartridges with magazines that hold only three or four rounds.
As far as shooting, with practice, a shooter can hit multiple targets surprisingly fast with a well-made lever gun. Check out any Cowboy Action match and you will be amazed at how fast those shooters can work a lever gun.