Is the Low Key Lever Action Still Valid for Home Defense?

In this day and age of a plethora of semi-auto rifles and carbines to choose from, why in the world would someone in his right mind choose a lever action firearm with which to defend hearth and home? Everyone knows that lever guns are antiquated and useless, don’t they?

Let’s not be so fast to dismiss them. Perhaps…just maybe…they still have something to offer to the masses. To be certain, they do have their drawbacks (what firearm doesn’t). Conversely, maybe they have enough advantages for us to revisit them for defensive purposes. To be clear, I do love semi-autos of all sorts. AR-15s, the M-1 Garand and carbine, the M-1A, a good HK-91…all very sexy!!

I live in Pennsylvania, a state where deer hunting is practically a religion. I’ve often joked that lever action rifles are practically issued to each hunter in my state. The .30-30 Winchester is far and wide the most popular game-getter in these parts where many deer are taken in the woods where shots don’t typically stretch for hundreds of yards. Without going painstakingly into the ballistics, it will throw 150 and 170-grain factory projectiles out to around 200 yards (give or take) effectively enough to put a deer down. It will also take a black bear if necessary. The .35 Remington is a distant second to the .30-30 in popularity, as well as the .44 and .357 Magnum.

Popular defensive rifle rounds: 5.56mm, 7.62x39mm, and .30-30.
Popular defensive rifle rounds: 5.56mm, 7.62x39mm, and .30-30. Photo credit: Rebecca Davis.

All of the above cartridges will take game and will also put aggressive humanoids down, and that is the main focus of this article. Some will reach out farther than others, obviously.

First, Let’s Look at the Drawbacks

Limited Capacity

Primarily, magazine capacity is not high, especially in rifle calibers. My favorite rifle caliber lever gun in .30-30 is the Marlin Youth Model 336 with a 16 ¼ -inch barrel and overall length of 33 ¼ inches. Weight is 6 ½ pounds. This carbine holds five rounds in the magazine plus one in the chamber. Most standard sized model 336 carbines hold six rounds plus one in the chamber.

That is not a lot of rounds (as if you needed me to point that out to you). The question is, what are you going to be using the weapon for? Will it be to repel a robber in the night? Deal with civil unrest? Zombie Apocalypse Realistically, how many targets might I need to engage in a short time?

Rate of Fire

The lever gun lags behind the semi-auto again. Which begs the question, how fast might I need to fire?

The Marlin beside the M-1 Carbine.
The Marlin beside the M-1 Carbine. The M-1 is widely know for its hardiness, and the Marlin is even shorter! Photo by Rebecca Davis.

Now, How About the Advantages of a Lever Gun?

The Tubular Magazine Has Its Points

Some might see the tubular magazine as a drawback, but that might not necessarily be the case. Consider that the magazine will never be lost since it’s an integral part of the carbine. You don’t need to buy additional magazines, which can be costly. Detachable magazines can become damaged or lost, but the tubular magazine is not likely to suffer such maladies. The tubular magazine can be topped off one round at a time during a lull in the action, which is also an advantage that we don’t enjoy with detachable box magazines.

tubular magazine on a lever action carbine.
With a lever action, there are no detachable magazines to be lost. Photo credit: Rebecca Davis.
lever action carbine chamber
The tubular magazine can be topped off one round at a time. Try that with a detachable magazine! Photo by Rebecca Davis.

It’s Easy to Maneuver

The overall length of the Marlin Youth carbine is pretty close to that of an AR-15 carbine, which makes it pretty handy and easy to maneuver, especially indoors, where a defensive arm is likely to be used. The little rifle is fairly maneuverable in hallways and such.

lever-action short barrel - maneuverability
Slicing the pie around corners is easy, given the short length of the lever action. Photo credit: Rebecca Davis.

It’s Less “Scary” Looking

The old lever action is pretty socially acceptable. After all, it is the gun that the cowboys used, and is very unlikely to cause terror in the local populace if seen. These days, the sad truth is that people tend to get panicky if they see a black rifle, and that can work against us in certain situations. Unfortunately, perception is a huge factor in these modern times, and any opportunity we can take advantage of to not have people freak out is to our credit.

A Lever Action Probably Won’t Break Your Wallet

Cost is also a factor with many folks, considering we’re not all rich. On the secondary market, a lever action might set us back a couple hundred bucks, if that. Maybe you already have one, or maybe a relative has one that he’s not really using. In my area, they are in every gunshop at very reasonable prices. Even new ones aren’t very expensive, so availability is not an issue. As an aside, ammunition for lever actions is typically very available too.

Make no mistake, if you want, you can spend several months’ wages on a lever gun. There are models out there that are sufficiently fancy to drain your account faster than Bernie Sanders would love to. Accessories abound, including lights, optics, suppressors, rail systems, etc. Personally, I take a minimalist approach for a few reasons, primarily because I can’t afford all that stuff! Beyond that, when you begin adding accessories galore, that streamlined handiness of the carbine quickly is lost. Weight increases, and again, the handling characteristics go to hell fast.

This Might Be Your Best Accessory Choice

An accessory that might help a lot of people would be an optic. My aging eyes do not appreciate the buckhorn style sights on most lever guns. An optic sure does help me out a lot.

Courtroom Advantages

The legal factor cannot be ignored, either. Certain states or locales make it very difficult to own semi-autos and other exotic firearms. But I’m not aware of any (yet) that prohibit hunting type rifles. And after a shooting, when you go to court and a lawyer holds up that firearm to a potential jury, your lever action rifle is going to appear a lot more reserved and reasonable than an AR-15 that has three optics, two flashlights, and a partridge in a pear tree attached to it. The lever gun says, “Hey, I’m just a reasonable guy trying to defend my family.”

The cost and legal factors alone might dictate that we have to use what is at hand as opposed to what is on our “wish list.”

Maybe Think Again Before Disregarding the Lever Action Carbine

Would I feel confident taking on a home invader (or a few) with a lever action carbine? I think so. I’d feel okay about repelling attackers in my house with one.

pull back the lever action carbine to turn tight corners.
For extra tight spaces, the carbine can be pulled back as you slice the pie. Notice that the muzzle does not extend past the distance that a pistol normally would. This cannot be done as easily on rifles equipped with a pistol grip. Photo by Rebecca Davis.

I’d say it would be quite premature to write off the lever action carbine just yet. It’s been effective since the 1800’s and it’s soldiering on well into the next millennium. Not only is it effective, but it also offers a nice bit of nostalgia for those who enjoy that sort of thing.

Read More — Weapon Crush Wednesday: Slick Guns from History.

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Jim Davis

Jim Davis served in the PA Dept. of Corrections for 16 ½ years as a corrections officer in the State Correctional Institute at Graterford and later at SCI Phoenix. He served on the Corrections Emergency Response Team (CERT), several of those years as a sniper, and also the Fire Emergency Response Team (FERT). For 25 years, he was a professional instructor, teaching topics including Defensive Tactics, Riot Control and Tactical Operations, Immediate Responder, and cognitive programs as an adjunct instructor at the DOC Training Academy. He was then promoted to the title of corrections counselor, where he ran a caseload and facilitated cognitive therapy classes to inmates. His total service time was close to 29 years. He was involved in many violent encounters on duty, including incidents of fatalities.


Jim Davis has 4 posts and counting. See all posts by Jim Davis

16 thoughts on “Is the Low Key Lever Action Still Valid for Home Defense?

  • June 30, 2020 at 11:22 am
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    Just like the author, I am a strong supporter of using lever guns for self-defense. Tracing their lineage all the way back to the post-Civil War western frontier, they have done a splendid job of defending homesteads and travelers for 150 years. There is no reason to suspect that they cannot do the job in modern times. Lawmen continued to use these late into the 20th Century. Do you, the reader, face a greater threat level than attacking “Indians” or wild animals, or criminals in remote areas? I doubt it. The lever gun will do adequately for 99.99% of the populations needs. One area where I will deviate from the author is in recommending .30-30 as the cartridge of choice. I have been following the availability of ammunition during the pandemic…and subsequent buying sprees and shortages. The .30-30 was one of the first to disappear from both brick and mortar stores and online retailers. In fact, three months later and availability is both limited and sporadic. It seems that the millions of 1894 and 336 leverguns made over the last 100 years are still out there and their owners still need to “feed” them. In short, I would recommend less common calibers like .35 Remington, .38-55 as well as the pistol calibers .357 & .44 magnums and .45 Colt. The .44-40 can still be found thanks to its resurrection by Cowboy Action Shooters. In a rifle length barrel, the .44-40 possesses adequate power for home defense scenarios.

    Reply
  • June 20, 2020 at 10:18 pm
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    As I mentioned, the lever gun is not perfect. It has some faults.

    The spirit of the article was to point out that, for some folks, it might be one of their only available options.

    As someone pointed out, having a 30 round magazine-fed semi auto on hand would be more effective for self defense. Well…yeah, of course it would. But life isn’t perfect.

    During my career, I made enemies with some high-ranking gang members. My personal security requirements that I set for myself are as follows: If a van load of 8 to 12 gang members rolls up in front of my house, and they’re all armed and intent on harming me, can I dominate and prevail in that situation?

    The answer is yes because of my training and tools. For that job, I’d not be reaching for my lever action.

    Again, not everyone is in the same boat that I am.

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  • June 20, 2020 at 9:40 pm
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    Chain reactions in tubular magazines do not happen with the correct ammunition. Millions of rounds are fired each year without issue.

    Re. Semi-autos being exotic…compare a SCAR or Steyr AUG to a lever gun, and many people would agree that the semi looks comparatively exotic.

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  • June 20, 2020 at 3:50 pm
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    Regarding the question, in the Comments section, about the sight picture while working the lever, well, no, it is not different with a lever rifle, than any other type of action. The lever is best worked while keeping the stock firmly shouldered, so, there is no reason to lose the sight picture.

    A tremendous advantage of the lever rifle is that it is so narrow, and not very tall, so Is able to fit into amazingly small, low-profile spaces.

    In jurisdictions that require long guns to be unloaded while being transported, the Browning BLR can be quickly loaded, with box magazines.

    I enjoyed the article. Lever rifles are indeed relevant, in today’s world.

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  • June 10, 2020 at 10:52 pm
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    I own revolvers and lever carbines in .357 mag and .44 mag among others. I find the carbines easy to use and maneuver with. My Win 92 style in .357 is lighter than my AR’s and considerably less expensive to buy and feed.

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  • June 10, 2020 at 4:33 pm
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    I totally agree with CombatMissonary and Gary Griffiths on the lever guns! How ever i purchase a cannon for targets and plinking for fun and the occasional repelling of a bear! LOL So i purchased one in .45/70 but as Garry said if it was just for home defense and plinking i would get one in .357Mag as you can practice or even use regularly 38Spcl or .38Spcl +P.Which is a bit cheaper.The lever gun i purchased was the 1895Classic which only holds 4+1 or 4 so it is just for hunting or plinking and if i had too ,home defense if i had too at the time.You never know where u r going to be in your home when someone invades?So if your not near your handgun for home defense but standing in front of your gun cabinet or near where the rifle is hanging on the wall then its what you use.All while praying for little “over” penetration!Of course i keep a 38 in my night stand and a glock,Ruger Sec9 compact and a 1911 in different places in my home,just in case…..you never know ,where,when,or why someone may come into your home uninvited!???If someone is kicking in your door while the lights are on and dont care what reaction you have then as Gary said your in a war zone not America! I dont consider Shitcago as part of America and if i lived in a free state i wouldnt consider my state as part of the U.S.! I live in the bluest state of the Union in New Jersey and I pray to GOD that Murphy is removed this year! He has shredded our Constitution in this state when it comes to the 1st,2nd and other Amendments/Rights!!! Its time he was removed from office and investigated!!!! Either way the lever gun has a place in my heart! Side gate loaded always! My next lever gun for be a Henry with a Side gate loader! But to be honest I think Marlins look nicer!?!hehe

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  • June 10, 2020 at 4:12 pm
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    My Marlin 1892 holds 10 rounds of 45-70 (Lehigh Defense Hunter).
    With it’s simple action, it can easily be operated by anyone in the family.
    With it, we can even defend home-base against a small herd of Cape Buffalo if needed.
    IMO; Levers are for everybody, but especially good for the novice or inexperienced shooter.

    Reply
  • June 10, 2020 at 3:37 pm
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    One topic I didn’t see addressed was sight picture while working the lever. Is it likely that the shooter will take focus off the target? I think that’s not a factor when using semis.

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  • June 10, 2020 at 2:47 pm
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    Pump or semi-automatic are much better for close quarter combat because you do not have to move your firing or trigger hand from the firing position.

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  • June 9, 2020 at 4:23 pm
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    As always, whenever someone is asked which gun is best, a good reply would be, “for what?”

    With a little bit of practice, a lever gun can be a reliable home defense weapon for a less experienced shooter that just needs a decent all-around weapon that doesn’t take the knowledge level of an AR or other semi-auto. Really, the lever gun is to rifles as the revolver is to pistols: a weapon that’s easy to clean and simple to use and is reliable under virtually all conditions without being a tack driver, costing an arm and a leg, or requiring a massive investment of time for training and/or maintenance (although OF COURSE you should be doing as much training and maintenance as you can).

    If you have the time and money to budget for buying, training and extremely regular maintenance on your semi-auto, that’s great. But a lever gun has a rate of fire that’s good ENOUGH and a magazine capacity (depending on model) that’s good ENOUGH. A home defense situation shouldn’t be confused with Fallujah. Most times, simply working the lever or firing a couple of rounds will cause bad guys in the US to break contact. If the bad guys in your area require more than that to break contact, I’d have to ask where the Hell you’re living and question whether having the right gun is REALLY the biggest question you should be considering right now, rather than whether you’ve got enough gun, because the easiest way to avoid a zombie horde is to simply move out of Chi-town, Ferguson or Detroit. Hell, the decrease in your stress levels will probably extend your life over a decade.

    At any rate, go with the semi-auto if it works for you, but don’t sneer at the lever gun; there’s a reason it’s still around almost 150 years after it was invented, and it’s not just John Wayne and Chuck Connors made them look cool.

    Reply
  • June 9, 2020 at 12:38 pm
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    Some additional points: If you’re buying a lever-action rifle for home defense, it makes a lot more sense to buy one in .44 Mag or .357 Mag. Less chance of over-penetration, and far greater magazine capacity than one in .30-30 or .35 Remington. I have to throw in with Just A Dude about chain-fires in the magazine. Those occurred way back in the day when the military was experimenting with tubular magazines on rifles at the same time they were switching to FMJ Spitzer bullets for greater range. If chain-firing was an issue, with millions of Winchester 94s and Marlin 336s out there, we’d have heard about it.

    The notion of “losing your magazine” is ridiculous. If the rifle is to be used for home defense, it should be kept loaded, either fully, or with an empty chamber. If there are safety concerns (kids in the house), a detachable box magazine is a LOT faster to load than shoving rounds one at a time in the loading gate as the bad guys are approaching your bedroom (or your kids’). OK, it can be topped off in a lull in the action, but what if there is no lull? With a 15-30 round box magazine you can stay in the fight at least half again as long as with a .44 Mag lever gun, and can switch mags in about a second if that proves inadequate.

    Yes, a lever-action rifle is a “Cowboy Gun” and more, er, socially acceptable than an Evil Black Rifle. It will appear less “aggressive” to a hoplophobic jury than an AR-15 or even an M-1 Carbine. But it’s still a hunting rifle. The little old lady that is revulsed by “Bambi-Killers” is still likely to decide that you love to kill things and probably killed that poor man that just stumbled into your house with a knife by mistake just because you love to kill. My advice for an innocuous home-defense gun is a 12-ga semi-auto skeet gun. Shorter than average barrel (~26″) but not an 18-20″ Riot gun. Perfectly politically correct, as you use it to break clay targets, not to kill anything. Having a box of #4 or #2 “goose loads” would not be seen as out of the ordinary, like having buckshot or slugs would, and even a skeet load would be devastating at across-the-room distances. They have the same disadvantage of limited capacity in a tubular magazine as most lever rifles, but are easier to load quickly and top off if necessary.

    Finally, there’s the issue of the lever action itself. Fairly fast, but nowhere near as fast as an autoloader. Or as reliable. How many deer hunters fumble the action and miss a shot because of “Buck Fever?” How adept will YOU be at functioning the action during a life-threatening emergency!??! Although millions are sold as home defense guns, a pump shotgun is subject to malfunctioning by being short-shucked in an emergency. Still, a pump skeet gun would be my choice for an innocuous home defense firearm in jurisdictions where semi-automatic weapons of any kind are prohibited.

    Reply
  • June 9, 2020 at 11:28 am
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    in over 50 years i have never had a chain detonation, why? because i pay attention to what i’m doing and use ammo withe the proper bullet design. this is an important factor and should not be overlooked with any firearm.

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  • June 9, 2020 at 11:18 am
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    i enjoy semi autos, have quite a few, excellent for self defense and general shooting. one drawback with them is that a large percentage of people still believe in the spray and pray technique. these are the same people that think you don’t have to aim a shotgun. lever actions are great and very versatile. you didn’t mention the availability of various calibers. i have levers from 32-20 to 45/70, and of course the marlin model 39. when it comes to a day of shooting it’s hard to beat the enjoyment of levers. i’m also very fond of bolt actions, but that’s for another day.
    i live in bear country and my dogs like to tree them at times. as a precaution when retrieving my dogs my go to gun is my marlin guide gun in 45/70, that’s a whole lot of power in what some think is an antiquated firearm. don’t underestimate the lever rifle, could be a fatal mistake.

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  • June 9, 2020 at 8:32 am
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    Standard 30/30 rounds come in softpoint round and flat nose

    Chain det is a fairy tale with these type of rounds.

    Literally thousands of rounds personally shot through 30/30 over the years here and zero issues.

    I appreciate mag loaded semi autos too, but to dismiss the lever action because of your points is laughable.

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  • June 8, 2020 at 5:26 pm
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    Great Article, Very educational, especially for a guy who’s deciding on what kind of long gun to purchase next! Hope to see more from this author soon!!

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  • June 3, 2020 at 5:36 pm
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    To contradict a few points made in the article:

    First, tube magazines introduce the very real possibility of chain detonation, the very reason militaries quickly moved away from tube magazines.

    Second, not all levergats have tubes. My BLR still relies on a box magazine, giving me a total of 4 rounds to defend myself and my family with.

    And third, the thought that semi-automatic rifles are “exotic,” is just laughable. Semi automatic firearms have been the standard for self defense for the last century. Calling them anything other than absolutely normal is a clear indication of FUDD status.

    Reply

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