Lever Actions for Self-Defense
These days, modern sporting rifles, like the AR15, are everybody’s darlings, and why not? They are light, ergonomic, fast shooting, and they generally fire a round that Uncle Sam has deemed effective…though, admittedly, government decisions on that subject aren’t something I accept without a grain of salt.
Personally, I like the modern sporting rifle genre, and I own examples in calibers from 9mm up through 7.62 NATO. I like shooting them, but, when I’m travelling, whether it is in the mountains of my home state of Pennsylvania, or even a cross-country trip, the gun that goes behind my front seat is not an AR15. I still travel with the same .44 Magnum chambered, Winchester Model 1894 carbine that I started packing in 1991.
I’ll admit that wasn’t always the case. For a brief period in the late 2000-ought’s I decided to join the twenty-first century, and I replaced my trusty lever gun with a Just Right, or JR, carbine chambered in 9mm Parabellum. The JR is a pistol-caliber carbine with AR15 styling, and a number of AR15 interchangeable parts. In its 9mm chambering it uses Glock magazines. With two, 30-round Glock mags, each loaded up with modern hollow point ammunition, this little gun puts a lot of firepower into a compact package. I was happy with it as a truck gun.
However, the time came when I needed to make a trip to Rhode Island to visit family. Rhode Island, while not perfect, is by far the most gun-friendly state in southern New England, so having my JR carbine there would not be a problem. Unfortunately, to get there, I would have to run the gauntlet of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, three of the most rabid anti-gun states in the country.
The Federal Firearms Owner Protection Act, known as the FOPA, allows you to legally transport a rifle through a state where it is not otherwise legal, as long as it’s unloaded and locked up, and you go directly though without stopping. By the way, the word “directly” is critical. That is generally interpreted as no stops.
So, you might think that if you could make a six hour drive without needing to stop to get gas or go to the bathroom, you’d be safe…if only that were true. First of all, it is hard enough to make a drive like that without stopping for anything along the way, but that is exactly what you have to do. And you have to do it in a way that gives the respective state police no reason to pull you over. And, whatever you do, don’t run out of gas or break down along the road. Any stops, and all bets are off.
That’s because some states here in the east, particularly New York and Maryland, act as if the federal Firearms Owner Protection Act doesn’t exist. In both of those states my little JR carbine meets the criteria of their so-called assault rifle ban. Make no mistake, the New York State police will arrest you, and make you fight it out in court. In Maryland, the state police particularly targets out of state drivers. If you have bumper or window stickers that identify you as gun owner, like an NRA sticker, your odds of being stopped and searched go up exponentially.
New Jersey adds another risk to the trip. In New Jersey carrying hollow point ammunition is severely restricted. Basically you can only have hollow point ammunition at your home or at a target range, and you can only transport hollow point ammunition directly between those locations. Hollow points are even forbidden to New Jersey concealed carry permit holders. Possession of hollow point ammunition in New Jersey, outside of the narrowly defined exemptions, is considered a fourth degree crime, punishable by a sentence of 18 months in a New Jersey State Prison…per bullet!
In theory, the FOPA should protect you, if you are just travelling through the state. But in practice, enough Pennsylvanians have been convicted of hollow point possession in New Jersey, that smart gun owners leave their hollow points at home.
With that on my mind, I pulled the JR carbine, and replaced it with my ’94 Winchester, and I never changed it back. That’s because I feel perfectly comfortable with a lever-action rifle as my utility self-defense and survival rifle.
I live in Pennsylvania, an eastern state that is very gun friendly, but I’m surrounded by states with very draconian gun laws. In fact, seven states and the District of Columbia, have major restrictions on semi-automatic rifles that make it virtually impossible to own an AR15, a Mini-14, or even the venerable M1 carbine. Some manufacturers have jumped through some ridiculous design hoops in an attempt to make compliant versions of guns like the AR15, but, in most of the banning states, that still doesn’t cut the mustard.
So, if you live in one of the banning states, or you regularly travel through one, or, if you just aren’t a big fan of semi-automatic rifles, you might want to follow my lead. And, if you choose to use a lever action rifle, rather than a semi-auto long gun, to defend yourself, you won’t be giving up much in terms of performance. What worked 150 years ago, will work just as well today.
In 1884 Jeff Milton, one of the great lawmen whose career spanned the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was working as a deputy sheriff in Socorro, New Mexico. As he rode beside the Gila River, three bandits started firing on him from the cover of some near by boulders. One bullet hit his horse, killing it, just as another bullet hit Milton’s leg, above the knee, and exited through the back of his calf.
Milton managed to jump clear of his dying horse with his .44-40, 1873 Winchester carbine in his hands. After that, as Milton reported, “There was a lot of shooting.” When the smoke cleared, Milton’s lever-action carbine had permanently ended the careers of all three bandits.
Some of you may be thinking, OK, but if Milton’s enemies had been armed with semi-autos, it would have been a different story. Well, not necessarily.
In 1957, Charlie Askins, one of the great gunfighters of the twentieth century was a U.S. military advisor in Vietnam. While he was leopard hunting in the deep jungle near the Se San River, Askins ran across a five-man patrol of Viet Minh soldiers, each one armed with an AK-47 rifle. Askins was carrying a lever-action rifle.
Askins tried to reach to his jeep before being seen by the patrol, but, as they started crossing the river, he knew he wouldn’t make it in time. So he decided to fight.
“I shot the leader at a distance of not more than 40 yards,” Askins said. “I had a Savage Model 99 in .358 caliber, and, while it wasn’t designed for war, it was a fast repeater. Just as quick as I could work the lever, I ground another round in the chamber and shot the second man.” The other three turned tale and ran for the far bank.
Both Milton and Askins prevailed against heavy odds with their lever action rifles because they could shoot. If you can shoot you can do the same thing, but, if you can’t shoot, it doesn’t matter what gun you’re carrying.
The fact is, for practical purposes, you can shoot a lever action rifle just as fast as you can acquire a target in your sights. Cowboy Action Shooting competitors usually fire 10 aimed shots in six seconds or less. Unless your name is Jerry Miculek, you probably can’t shoot a semi-auto any faster than that…not effectively anyway.
The main concern people have with using a lever gun is how long it takes to reload. But, to be honest, that only matters if your gun is empty when the fighting starts. Even if you haven’t been training for End of Trail, with very little practice, you should be able to get off 10 aimed shots in less than 10 seconds. If you need more firepower than that, you really wandered into the wrong neighborhood.
If you use IDPA matches as your training drills, you might be surprised to learn that most civilian gunfights are over in three rounds. So, unless you happen to take a job guarding El Presidente, or you’re running a mercenary squad through a Mozambique airport, it is highly unlikely that you will need to expend 30 rounds of ammunition to terminate a civilian gunfight. If you know how to shoot, by round four you are going to be looking around for targets. Reloading rarely becomes a factor. In a civilian context, a lever-action rifle will do anything you need it to do.
If you decide to arm yourself with a lever gun, you’ll find that there are plenty of lever action rifles, both used and new, on the market to choose from. Venerable nineteenth century names like Winchester and Marlin are still in production, and they are joined by the American manufactured lever actions from the Henry Rifle company, and the Italian produced replicas of nineteenth century Winchester toggle link rifles made by Uberti and Armi Sport.
Irrespective of manufacturer, the most important decision for a lever action gun is caliber. You have a wide range of choices, but they boil down to two camps, rifle cartridges or handgun cartridges. The choice hinges on what your primary use will be for the rifle. If you want one gun that will serve primarily as a hunting weapon that can be pressed into self-defense when needed, then you’ll want a rifle cartridge.
Like Charlie Askins, I favor the Savage Model 99 for most of my hunting. Mine is chambered in .300 Savage. The Model 99 is a deadly accurate gun, but, it is also long and heavy. And, while it is a wonderful hunting tool, it wouldn’t be my first choice as a combination hunting and self-defense gun. Rather, I’d recommend a shorter, lighter lever-action with a 20-inch barrel, chambered in a .30-30 class cartridge. The Winchester model 1894, the Marlin Model 336, and the rifles in the Henry Large Caliber line, all fit the bill.
My personal rifle in that category is a 1960 vintage Marlin 336C, chambered in .30-30. I took my first deer with that rifle, and I’ve never felt under gunned when carrying it. But a rifle caliber lever action rifle is necessarily going to have a reduced magazine capacity. My Marlin holds six .30-30 rounds in the magazine.
But, if you’re primarily interested in a rifle for self-defense and general backcountry survival, I think pistol caliber carbines are a better choice. Magazine capacity is generally 10-plus rounds, depending on caliber and barrel length. And, thanks to Cowboy Action Shooting, there is no lack of pistol caliber lever action rifles to choose from. Every current lever action manufacturer offers pistol caliber models, and you can get a modern-made rifle, chambered in just about every caliber available in the old west. But classic old west calibers really aren’t the best choice today.
When I say that, I realize that a round that could shoot you dead in 1880, can shoot you just as dead today. So, if you already have access to a rifle chambered in .44-40 or .45 Colt, by all means use it. But, if you are going to buy a rifle, you’d be better off getting one chambered for either .357 Magnum or .44 Magnum. Factory loadings for old west calibers are limited, and are generally on the mild side. In contrast rifles chambered for the two magnum cartridges have a wide range of factory ammunition available from very mild .38 and .44 Special rounds up to very heavily loaded hunting and self-defense ammunition.
Current production versions of the venerable Winchester Model 1873 rifle, whether made by Miroku for Winchester, or by Uberti for various importers, are available in .357 Magnum, but not in .44 Magnum because their toggle-link action isn’t strong enough to handle full-power .44 Magnum loads. These rifles are the hands-down favorite of Cowboy Action Shooters because they can be shot very quickly. The design of their cartridge elevator makes it just about impossible to stove-pipe a round while shooting quickly, which can be a problem with rifles with angled cartridge elevators.
If you choose a Model 1873 for self-defense, you’ll be better served by the carbine or short-rifle models. These guns have barrels in the 20-inch neighborhood, which makes them fast handling, but still gives you plenty of sight radius for accurate shooting. Loaded with full-power .357 Magnums, they will end any fight you find yourself in, and with well-placed shots, they can take out coyote-sized predators, and even put a deer on the pole.
If you aren’t fixated on an 1873 rifle, you have a lot to choose from, and all these models are available in both .357 Magnum and .44 Magnum. Marlin’s Model 1894 is a solid performer that was the darling of Cowboy Action Shooters in the early days of the game, before competitors realized that the Model 1873 could be shot faster. Likewise, the Henry Repeating Arms Company’s Big Boy rifle is chambered in both of these calibers. Henry rifles are solidly built guns that are designed for rough usage and they are made in the USA.
My personal favorite lever actions for self-defense are the Winchester Models 1892 and 1894. The legendary John Moses Browning designed both of these guns for Winchester. The Model 1892 was made to be a stronger, cheaper replacement for the Model 1873. In it’s modern incarnation it is made for Winchester by Miroku in Japan, by and the Italian firm of Armi Sport for Taylor’s & Company.
Vintage Winchester model 1892 rifles from the early decades of the twentieth century are the smoothest lever action rifles I’ve ever shot, but my favorite ’92 for personal defense is Taylor’s Alaskan model, made by Armi Sport. I’ve shot this rifle extensively in its .44 Magnum chambering. It is available with either a 16-inch or a 20-inch barrel, and, because it is a take-down gun, it can be stored just about anywhere. The stocks are rubber coated for a sure grip in any weather, and the Skinner express aperture rear sight makes target acquisition quick and easy. If you’re trying to decide on a lever-action for self-defense, this gun should be on your short-list.
And then we come to my personal favorite lever gun, Winchester’s model 1894 rifle. This gun is currently produced for Winchester by Miroku, but millions of New Haven produced guns are available on the used market. Over the years I’ve had a number of ‘94s in .30-30 and .32 Special, but they never stacked up well enough to replace my father’s Marlin 336C in my affections, and, when I inherited the Marlin, all my ‘94 Winchesters fell by the wayside, except the .44 Magnum.
I bought the Winchester .44 Magnum, Model ’94 Angle Eject around 1990, and it quickly became one of my favorite rifles. This rifle has logged more miles in my trucks over the years than any other gun I’ve owned. When I started Cowboy Action Shooting in the mid-1990s, this is the rifle I used for the first couple of years. It has shot everything from black powder handloads to full-power hunting loads, and I’ve felt perfectly comfortable with this gun, whether I was travelling through a dicey urban neighborhood or camping in bear country. I couldn’t ask anymore from any rifle than that.
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