Lever-actions: The tactical rifles of the past

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Lever-action rifles are so iconic and were so instrumental in the shaping of the country that hunting with one in these modern times is almost an honor.

There has always been a correlation between combat and hunting. From tactical gear and clothing to mapping and even foodstuffs, our constant advancement in military technology has had a trickle-down effect into the sporting world, shaping the sport of hunting throughout its history. There is no better example of this than in our hunting weapons. The rise in popularity of the modern sporting rifle—the design of which is owed in large part to current military arms—has given hunters access to one of the most advanced tools of the modern age. This makes more traditional hunting rifles of the past seem obsolete. Yet despite this trend, there is a lot to be said for sticking to what works and for maintaining our hunting traditions by choosing a rifle that defies the popular idea of “newer is better.” If you’re looking for a rifle that is both a timeless classic and yet still efficient in a modern age where holographic sights and direct-impingement systems have become the norm, consider the original tactical rifle: the lever-action.

Lever actions or “repeaters” first saw use at the end of the Civil War. Up until their invention, most rifles were either muzzleloaders or breechloaders: weapons that fired a single ball or cartridge at a time and had to be reloaded between each shot. This was obviously a substantial tactical disadvantage, and so several firearm companies in the mid-1800s began working on inventing guns capable of firing multiple rounds in rapid succession without long reloads. This need created numerous groundbreaking innovations in the world of firearms such as guns with multiple barrels and revolving cylinders.

Then, in 1860, a man named Christopher Spencer came out with the first design for a lever-action rifle as we know them today. The Spencer repeating rifle was a lever-action, breechloading rifle with a removable seven-round magazine. It was quickly adopted by the United States military and brought into action as the first magazine-fed rifle used by any country’s military in history. While the Spencer was a game-changer as the first rifle to be able to deliver multiple rounds without being reloaded, the lever action of the rifle served only to load another round in the chamber—it didn’t cock the weapon.

A few months later, another gun designer by the name of Benjamin Tyler Henry, an employee of the Winchester Firearm Company, tinkered with the Spencer’s design and moved the hammer to the center of the rifle rather than on the side. This, combined with a rearward movement of the rifle bolt, enabled the rifle to be loaded and cocked simultaneously. And so the first true repeater was born.

After the Civil War, repeater rifles began to carve a niche for themselves in the sporting world as the weapon of choice for the majority of hunters. Wagon trains moved West and needed to be supplied, boom-towns sprung up around gold and silver strikes in lands where livestock had not yet arrived, and the hurried construction of the great railroads left many railway workers overextended and without supplies. Society needed meat to fuel their efforts to rebuild after the war, and in the battle-hardened hands of ex-soldiers, the repeater proved itself the best way to get it.

By the war’s end almost all the firearm companies had improved or modified Henry’s design and were coming out with their own version of the lever-action rifle. Winchester had the 1873, which became known as “The Rifle That Won The West.” Chambered in the proven .44 caliber, it was lighter than the Henry and with a faster action, perfect for peppering the fast-moving deer and pronghorn of the western plains from horseback.

Later, the Marlin firearm company threw their hat into the ring, coming out with a single-stage lever action rifle in 1881. The Marlin was the first long-range, big-bore repeating rifle, chambered in the same .45-60 and .45-70 of the Sharps buffalo rifles. These guns were instrumental and probably overly efficient in the hunting of bison, the removal of which made way for the coming cattle, which ultimately led to the settlement of the entire country! Most guns that did this much to shape America have faded into oblivion with the advancement of technology. Yet, unlike many others, the repeaters have refused to fade into obscurity and have withstood the passage of time, proving that they are still viable, excellent hunting weapons today.

No matter what or where you hunt in modern-day America, there is a repeater that will fit the bill. The wide variety of calibers, their simple and efficient action, and their consistent accuracy make them some of the most popular hunting rifles on the market today. What is utterly amazing about them is that, even with the technologies available to us, very little has been done to modify the basic design of these guns with the exception of the addition of scope mounts. With their short barrels, high rate of fire, and low-maintenance actions, they are the ideal weapon for short- to medium-range hunting situations in high-country timber, heavy brush, or thick forests.

Repeaters are also more than capable—when used with the right loads—of being excellent long-range weapons. If you traveled through the Northeast or Midwest and asked every whitetail hunter for their favorite rifle, chances are you’d end up with a slew of Marlin or Winchester .30-30s, which still remain among the most popular deer guns in the United States today. Elk, moose, and bear hunters were delighted with Henry’s recent release of the new H010 .45-70 lever gun; they sold out quickly at gun shops across the American West. Indeed, repeaters are still as popular as they have ever been, not only as a piece of nostalgia, but as a reliable and efficient hunting tool.

There is also a certain unique allure to hunting with a repeater. After all, they were the guns that perhaps the coolest guys in history—cowboys—preferred. Repeaters were the rifles of the Earps and Billy the Kid. They were the firearms of the sheriffs and the outlaws in the star-filled deserts, on the endless green prairies, and in dusty cattle towns in that black-and-white time in history when America was young and still feeling its oats. These were the guns held in the hands of the likes of Roy Rogers, John Wayne, Sam Elliott, and dozens of other iconic Hollywood cowboys. Just picking one up will fill you with a sudden desire to buy a 10-gallon Stetson, set you to squinting into the distant sun, and drive you to find the closest horse. Hunting with a lever-action forges a connection with countless other hunters from across time who took part in the hunting that shaped America into what it is today.

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