Lever-Action Rifles: Are They Still Relevant?

    Writing for ShootingIllustrated.com, NRA editor and author Jim Wilson raises the topic of the lever-action rifle’s role in civilian and law enforcement shooting. On Facebook, author, instructor, and gunsmith Grant Cunningham concurs with Wilson’s assessment, broaching the discussion to the public:

    Wilson’s article sparked an exchange in the comments between myself and Grant:


    No problem with leverguns, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say they have meaningful advantages vs. a modern semiauto. Certainly they’re generally more than enough tool for the job, but given the choice and the fact that decent lever guns at good prices are becoming increasingly uncommon, I can’t really recommend them unless it’s just what someone fancies.


    How much actual experience do you have with shooting lever guns?

    They have more than a few advantages: they’ll operate with a wider variety of ammunition, from ultra light squirrel loads to (depending on the cartridge) large game; they’re significantly faster to access from storage, due to their short height and lack of significant protrusions; they’re easier to maneuver around obstacles, for the same reasons; they can be topped off after every shot; they have a much lower social profile; they’re legally acceptable in jurisdictions where AR or AK patterns aren’t; those that use straightwalled cartridges are easier to handload for. There’s more, but I’m tired of typing tonight.

    I’ll let Jim Wilson chime in on their practicalities for law enforcement, since he’s used them in that role and I haven’t.

    The AR is a wonderful gun; I’ve shot many tens of thousands of rounds through them and taught lots of people how to use them. I wouldn’t be without one. For the real-world (outside of the military) use that rifles are put to, though, the levergun is still quite viable because even it is more than enough for any plausible job.


    Hi Grant,

    There’re always going to be folks who have more experience than I do, and mine’s limited to casual range time mostly, however I have also worked on them some.

    I think we agree, fundamentally. Nothing you mentioned was anything I hadn’t considered, but those advantages are not uncontested by the evil black rifle market. For example, one can equip an AR with a .22 LR kit, while the lever gun is certainly easier to pull from a scabbard, an AR typically isn’t used that way anyway (living either on a rack or on a sling), an AR can be used with low-capacity magazines to reduce protrusions (and I actually do this, having a larger magazine for backup), and handloading is fine, but the huge variety of inexpensive AR ammunition that is reliable in most quality firearms dulls this advantage considerably. The social profile/legal aspect is the biggest advantage I see – though I think the unblinged pump-action shotgun has an even lower social profile, and I’d be more willing to recommend it first, though, true, it isn’t a rifle. Even so, with the number of offerings of ban-legal ARs that retain most of the advantages… It’s a thin margin, by my measure.

    Now, disadvantages the lever-action has also are worth mentioning. The durability of parts in my experience is far less consistent than that of a modern semi-automatic, they are far less accurate (and unlike a Ruger 10/22, you typically can’t just remove the barrel band to shrink your groups), they often don’t accommodate modern sighting systems as well as an AR, though the 336 in particular is not so bad about this, felt recoil is often higher for rifle-caliber lever-guns, they are typically longer, they do not generally come with very durable finishes or stocks, the cost advantage they used to enjoy is shrinking steadily as the AR and AK markets move into the lower brackets, and as the decent older leverguns become more desirable, they are manually operated, and they are much harder to make “safe” than a modern semiautomatic.

    All this aside, yes, of course the lever-action is still viable. If you have one that works well, by all means don’t feel rushed to go out and buy an AR-15. Use what works and is close. However, I wouldn’t generally speaking recommend anyone run out and purchase a lever-action versus a more modern weapon, unless the circumstances were special as previously mentioned.

    Some of the potential drawbacks and pitfalls of lever-action rifles in general are highlighted further in this video by the popular YouTube gun vlogger Hickok45:

    Despite the obvious roughness of the new Rossi, it is still a gun that retails for north of $500. This is a reasonable price for the lever-action enthusiast, but in an era of complete AR-15s from major manufacturer’s with sticker prices below $570, even the basic lever-action rifle is a hard sell for most shooters looking for a basic utility rifle.

    The lever-action rifle remains a handy, desirable weapon, but unfortunately rising prices of the type – and falling prices of competing semi-automatic rifles – have shaken the levergun from its long-held place as “America’s rifle”. Though, my comments may sound overly negative; while I would not recommend the lever-action rifle for duty purposes on the merits of utility alone, that does not mean I think those who like the type should avoid it, nor do I think that those who already own and get good use out of leverguns should all throw their rifles on the pyre to be burned. In fact, as Sheriff Wilson says, the lever-action’s day is not yet done, and it is still an effective, capable weapon, despite its age.


    What do our reader’s think? Am I wrong about the lever-action’s disadvantages, or are there advantages I’ve overlooked? Do you think the lever-action is no longer relevant, or maybe it’s set for a big comeback? Let us know in the comments!

    Nathaniel F

    Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. He can be reached via email at [email protected]