Author’s note: This article was written originally in 2013. Several of my opinions on the topic have matured with experience. I also learned that one thing I stated is not technically correct. I will add notes throughout the article based on an April of 2022 perspective.
Recently, I sent out a flier for a Lever Action Patrol Rifle course that I am teaching in March of 2013. I received a response from an officer who was appalled that I would teach such a course. In fact, he stated that in doing so, officers might actually take it as an endorsement from me that the lever-action platform was worthy of use as a patrol rifle.
My response: I am endorsing the lever-action platform as being worthy of use as a patrol rifle.
The lever-action platform has been a viable personal defense platform since it came onto the scene in 1860 in the form of the Henry Rifle, and the Henry was itself a reworking of the Volcanic Repeating Rifle. Confederate soldiers facing the Henry Rifle in battle called it “that damned Yankee rifle that you load on Sunday and shoot all week”. The above is not a slight to the Spencer Rifle and others of the same era, rather it is in homage to the direct lineage of the platform as we know it today.
The trend toward the use of patrol rifles was jump-started by the North Hollywood Bank Robbery in which two gunmen clad in body armor engaged officers from the Los Angeles Police Department in a gunfight lasting for over 40 minutes. The LAPD officers were armed with pistols and shotguns, and their rounds could not penetrate the body armor worn by the bandits. Eventually, officers went to a nearby gun shop where the owner provided AR 15 rifles, and LAPD SWAT officers arrived on the scene and ended the battle. I doubt that any of those officers on scene that day would have turned away a Marlin 336 as being unworthy.
***While the LAPD officers did go to the local gun store to obtain rifles during the gunfight, none of those rifles arrived back at the scene in time to be involved in the ultimate outcome.
I have also come to believe that the true reason that patrol rifles have supplanted shotguns as the primary long gun in law enforcement circles is that they are much more simple to operate than shotguns. Somebody is going to argue that point and prove themself to be an idiot. The loading and unloading procedures of a magazine-fed carbine are similar to those of a semiautomatic pistol and are much more simple than all of the steps to properly load and unload a shotgun, unless, of course, one is a jacklegged-idiot who unloads their shotgun by racking the rounds through the action. 4/14/22
Several years ago, a friend of mine was on patrol as a deputy sheriff in a rural, northeast Georgia county. He ended up in a protracted gunfight in which the bad guy had a rifle while my friend had his duty pistol and a shotgun. I doubt that he would have turned away a Winchester 94 as unworthy had someone happened upon him and offered it to him. (Since I originally published this piece, I have spoken with the above deputy, and he assures me that he would have very much welcomed a levergun had one been available to him.)
I am not making an argument that more modern options such as the AR platform be completely abandoned in favor of the levergun. I am simply making an argument that the lever-action rifle remains an effective option for use as a patrol or personal protection rifle. In fact, there are some areas in which I believe the levergun offers some advantages.
The biggest advantage that a lever-action rifle offers in the firearms market at the time of the writing of this article is availability. The talk of gun control legislation has resulted in a shortage of AR platform and other similar rifles. In the past few weeks I have ventured out to as many shops as I could get to, and the only AR platform rifles I could find still in stock were all class III rifles requiring extensive paperwork and an approval process that is measured in months. However, in several shops, I have been able to find leverguns readily available for prices as low as $250.
To go along with this from both an individual peace officer and agency administrator standpoint, the price point makes a fine old levergun an attractive option to perform this function. That trusty deer rifle can do double duty, and an agency that might not be able to afford to outfit all of its personnel with AR platform rifles could more readily purchase leverguns.
***The above two paragraphs are not representative of the current market. The prices of leverguns have soared. Furthermore, quality and availability have become issues as well. For example, I acquired a late production Marlin 336 that would be fine for taking a shot at a deer or hog every now and then, but the metallurgy is so bad that the rifle is too hot to touch upon shooting five successive rounds. I have no experience with the Marlins being produced under Ruger’s ownership, and I have very limited experience with the Henry’s due to requiring rifles with a side loading gate in my classes. The one Henry that has come through class seemed to be made well, but the trigger was horrendous. 4/14/22
Another advantage of the traditional levergun is that it fires heavier bullets than most of the modern semi-auto platforms commonly used as patrol rifles. So as not to overly bore those readers who for some reason don’t spend their free time studying ballistic performance, what this translates to is that the rounds typically pack more punch and more readily penetrate barriers. This factor comes into play in such instances when a peace officer might have to shoot through a vehicle’s body or windshield to end a violent confrontation. I have personally witnessed standard .223 ammo (standard AR platform ammo) disintegrate when going through such barriers, but considering a standard .30-30 rifle will be hurling a projectile three times the weight of a standard .223 round this issue is substantially alleviated.
***The above paragraph was written based purely on conjecture and what I “thought” would be the case. While it is likely accurate to a degree, I have come to believe that the only round that I have any real faith in to penetrate an automobile is a 12 gauge slug. 4/14/22
While on the subject of ammunition, I would be remiss if I did not point out that leverguns are also available in several popular pistol calibers such as .357 Magnum and .44 Magnum. While such rounds do not have the range of a rifle round, common loads in each can achieve notable penetration and considering the elements and range predominant in the proverbial “average gunfight” the effective range of such firearms is up to the task.
***In my experience, the pistol caliber leverguns are much, much more finicky when it comes to the overall length of the ammo as well as the shape of the projectile. A round that shoots well in your revolver may not function in your levergun. Additionally, you may not get direct interchangeability of round as in a revolver such as .38 Special in a .357 Magnum. 4/14/22
One should also not discount the inherent reliability of the lever-action platform. One need not worry about gas systems or magazines. Simply work the lever and keep going whilst shoving rounds into the tube or action as needed.
***Note: There are issues with the levegun that just won’t show up in a lifetime of deer hunting. You absolutely must do preventative maintenance and make sure all of the screws are tight, and with the Marlin design, you will eventually run into a problem with the carrier under heavy use. 4/14/22
Nothing in the above should be taken as an argument for the wholesale adoption of leverguns in place of other platforms. Also, I most certainly am not making an argument concerning what one needs other than that I steadfastly believe that each and every peace officer should go on duty with a rifle at hand. This is about expanding capability, and a rifle is more efficient at ending a violent encounter than is a pistol.
The above was written with a law enforcement audience in mind. I also wholeheartedly endorse and advocate the use of the lever-action platform as a personal defense rifle. This endorsement is not to be construed as an argument that citizens should be unconstitutionally restricted from owning self-loading rifles or unconstitutionally restricted in the ammunition capacity of their rifles.
I still am an advocate for the levergun provided one understands and mitigates the failings of the platform. I primarily endorse them due to the lack of mechanical offset with the sights/optics. My own preference in rifles/carbines still runs heavily in the direction of the Marlin 336 I acquired in high school and modified over the years. 4/14/22