For many of us “shooting enthusiasts” we are the go-to person in our respective social circles for advice about anything self-defense and gun related. One of the most common questions we’re likely to be asked will be about guns for home-defense. Even if the person asking is a long-time gun owner or hunter, if they haven’t put a lot of serious thought and research into the issue of home-defense in particular, it can be hard to know where to start. Ideally, with your help, they’ll buy a quality firearm whether it’s a pistol, rifle, or shotgun, they’ll seek out some quality training classes, and practice regularly.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t usually work out that way, and for many people, the main limiting factor is money. The person asking for your help might only have a couple hundred bucks to spend on beefing up their self-defense gear. So instead of pointing them toward something they can’t possibly afford, is it possible to help them work with what might already own? A lot of folks have old firearms that they’ve inherited or have been given to them as gifts; double barrel shotguns, vintage military sidearms, tube-fed .22 rifles.
We may not think of these as home-defense guns, but are they better than whatever alternative their owners can afford on a tight budget?
Lever Action Rifles for Self-Defense
Let’s take a look at centerfire lever action rifles in particular. The .30-30 lever gun was once the most common deer rifle in the country, and when hunters began to gravitate toward more modern rifles, these once-beloved “brush guns” were often forgotten. But these as well as aging lever guns in many other calibers are still around, and the vast majority of them are still in good working order. If that’s all that someone happens to have, maybe it’s not such a bad option for a home-defense rifle.
I’ve had plenty of trigger time with lever actions in the past, but I’ve never run one like my life depended on it. So I took a couple of lever guns to the range to see what issues I might run into if I treated them like serious self-defense tools. The first gun was my own Marlin Model 1894 in .357 magnum — one of my favorites. It’s been customized by a gunsmith and topped off with a Burris Fastfire II reflex sight to make it the perfect tool for blowing up cans.
This isn’t exactly indicative of the typical lever gun someone is likely to have sitting in their closet, so I also borrowed my friend’s Sears Model 54. Winchester made these guns for Sears based on their own classic Model 94. The two are almost identical, with the wooden stock, finish, and some of the parts being of slightly lesser quality on the Sears version. This particular Model 54 was given to its current owner by another friend in exchange for helping him move. That should give you some idea of how much its previous owner valued it, which can be confirmed by the sorry state of the finish. But the old Sears rifle is in mechanically sound shape, there’s no rust or pitting to be seen, and the bore is clean.
Compared to today’s magazine-fed semi-automatic rifles, lever actions are completely outclassed as home defense tools. But if you’ve ever seen a cowboy action shooter at work, then you know lever actions can still be pretty fast. As far as capacity, most magazine tubes will hold at least as many rounds, if not more, than a revolver or shotgun. The Model 54, as well as most other 20-inch barreled .30-30 riles has a 6+1 capacity. With its original 18.5-inch barrel, the Marlin 1894 could fit 9 rounds of .357 or .38 special in its tube, but my modified rifle with a cut-down barrel and mag tube has an 8-shot capacity.
Similar capacity can be found in .44 magnum and .45 Colt carbines, two of the other most common calibers for lever actions. Marlin and Winchester are possibly the most well-known lever action brands, but rifles from Rossi, Henry, Mossberg, Ruger and others are plentiful in the same calibers with similar designs and features.
Hand-me-downs seem to most often come in the revolver calibers and the classic .30-30, but there are a plethora of other calibers out there, including some “big bores” like .444 Marlin and .45-70, as well as some obscure cartridges that may have limited ammo availability today. The stiff recoil and high ammo prices for some of these larger calibers might be a deal-breaker in terms of getting in good practice time with some of these — a must for any home-defense rifle. If those factors are too much of a deterrent, they can certainly get the job done for personal protection in the home (just don’t count on hearing anything for a long, long time after setting one off indoors).
On the Range
Starting with the .357, I ran a few drills at “home defense distances” of 3-10 yards. With the Marlin, I immediately started having issues with the action binding when I tried to work the lever as rapidly as possible. I tried it with both .38 special and .357 magnum ammo, and the issue was much more pronounced with the .38s. This was the result of short-stroking the action — failure to push the lever completely forward before bringing it back. After slightly tweaking my technique, I was able to operate the gun quickly without feeding problems, and the negligible recoil of the pistol caliber rounds in the carbine made it easy to keep the reflex sight on target. At the distances I was working, I think the stock open sights would have been equally as fast, but the illuminated red dot would be missed in low light.
I think even a very green shooter could get used to shooting one of these light recoiling carbines very quickly, but it will take some dry fire repetitions with snap caps to figure out a good technique for reliably operating the lever. Extra care should also be taken to experiment with the snap caps and learn how to recover from short-stroking the action, or other feeding problems.
The heavier recoil of the .30-30 meant that it wasn’t as fast as the .357, but I didn’t have any problems with the action binding. I’m not sure if this is due to how the Winchester action works, or if it has more to do with how I was operating it. In either case, I would still recommend snap caps and lots of dry fire practice for familiarity with the gun’s operation.
For a .30 caliber centerfire rifle, the .30-30 cartridge has relatively mild recoil, but inexperienced shooters may take some time getting used to it, especially if they make the painful rookie mistake of incorrect stock placement on the shoulder. If you have the opportunity to coach someone in learning to rapid fire the .30-30, be sure to help them with stock placement first thing so they don’t develop a flinch early on.
Overall, I found both rifles easy to shoot and manipulate on targets at close range, aided by their light weight and slim profiles. Even the homely, neglected little Sears rifle ran like a champ — the well-used action worked very smoothly, and it didn’t take long to work up speed and cut down time between shots.
Lever Action Mods and Accessories on a Budget
I may have tricked out my own 1894 with all kind of anachronistic modifications that will make the purists cringe, but most lever actions don’t really need much done to them in order to make them suitable for home-defense. However, there’s room for improvement even if money is tight. In order of priority, here are a few things I would suggest for the budget-minded lever-action owner.
Snap Caps: The big potential downfall of using the lever action under stress is fumbling with the action. With snap cap dummy rounds, you can practice loading the mag tube, working the action, and ejecting rounds. Simply operating the gun dry isn’t good enough in this case because any mistakes you make that could cause feeding problems won’t show up until it’s run with ammo or dummy rounds.
Flashlight and Mount: Look through the archives of the Lounge and you’ll find that I’m a strong believer in white lights on self-defense guns. Lights are not only a critical for helping your aim, but they’re also necessary in order to identify your target at night to avoid unnecessary tragedies.
With handguns, you can always hold a flashlight in your off-hand, but unfortunately that’s not possible for rifles, so the lights have to be mounted directly to the guns. Options for mounting a light on lever actions are rather limited. If you happen to have a Marlin, Wild West Guns has a light mount that attaches to the magazine tube. There are other aftermarket mounting options like the Stick N Shoot magnet light, but unfortunately many of these accessories won’t be attractive to the budget-minded. It may not be elegant, but one possible solution might be to screw a small length of picatinny rail into the wooden forestock and attach a normal flashlight rail mount to that. Others have had success with home brew solutions involving zip ties, or even duct tape. Whatever mounting option is chosen, it should be tested with live fire to make sure recoil won’t send the flashlight flying toward the target.
Sling and Sling Mount: While not as vital as a white light, a sling on a home defense rifle allows the user to keep the gun handy while performing other tasks. This can be especially vital for those with small children or anyone else who might be physically dependent on your help. Many lever actions don’t come equipped with sling mounts, but inexpensive solutions are available. Rear studs screw directly into the buttstock and a front stud can either be attached to the foreend or to the magazine tube.
Ammo Carrier: As I’ve mentioned, lever actions usually have fairly low ammo capacity. It’s not a bad idea to invest in an inexpensive nylon buttstock sleeve with ammo loops to keep a few extra rounds on hand. Be warned that reloading the magazine tube is not easy to do quickly, especially under pressure — one more reason to practice with snap caps!
Improved Sights: The open sights that come on most lever actions might be quick in broad daylight, but aren’t good for much in the dark. For someone on a tight budget, I’d suggest they spent their money on practice ammo before sinking a lot of cash into sights, but if there’s any money left over, night sights can go a long way. Even a non-illuminated ghost ring rear sight might be easier to use in low light, especially if used with a fiber optic front sight. If nothing else, a little white paint on the front sight blade is an improvement over a black sight that disappears as soon as the lights go out.
Paracord Wrap: It doesn’t take many repetitions of rapidly working the lever before the back of the fingers on your firing hand will start to feel a little raw. One final cheap improvement that can be made to any lever action is a paracord wrap to pad your fingers when pushing against the lever. Leather, or even an old shoestring can also work and there are plenty of tutorials online to show you how to wrap the lever without interfering with its operation.
An Imperfect Solution
A lever action wouldn’t be my first choice for home defense, but if that’s what someone has, and they can’t afford or aren’t inclined to upgrade, then it certainly works. Practice is vital to develop the right muscle memory for operating the action correctly. Ammunition for most centerfire lever action calibers is pricey, making regular practice difficult on a budget. Fortunately, much of the repetition required for familiarization with the rifle can be done at home with dummy rounds.
For many people, I think a lever action rifle might even be a better choice than a pump action shotgun, except for those who have extensive experience with the latter. Although they’re frequently recommended for home-defense, the 12 gauge pump action shotgun has the same potential problem of short stroking the action, and also has more punishing recoil, which means slower follow-up shots.
On the other end of the spectrum, if given the choice, I would personally take almost any centerfire lever action for home defense over a .380 pocket pistol or snub nose revolver. They are far from ideal compared to the other options we have available today, but the humble lever-action has been defending homes for well over a century and a half, and it shouldn’t be overlooked.