My first hunting rifle was a lever action 30/30. I actually shot more small game with it then deer. I played with it a lot at the range and in the woods. I did get to test it thoroughly.
Lever action rifles are a complicated system. They have a lot of moving parts. However, the system is also incredibly reliable. The design is very hardy and very rarely jams. Most lever actions are over built for a lifetime of dependability. They are a proven design for use in the field
I would consider a lever action to be dependable. However, there are a few nuances to operating them proficiently. Let’s go over them.
How Reliable are Lever Action Rifles?
The lever action rifle has a reputation of rugged reliability and dependability across America. That is a title rightfully won. The lever action rifle has served more families in defensive and hunting needs than probably any other style of rifle in its nearly 150 years. It’s fair to say it’s been put to the test.
On average, lever action rifles are just as reliable as a good semi-auto rifle today. That’s about as good as it gets. I personally have never seen a lever gun malfunction. As far as mechanics, it’s easier to make a reliable lever gun than to have a reliable AR-15.
Lever actions have a lot of moving parts, but are mechanically simple compared to an AR. They don’t require as many pieces to line up just right. They don’t require any technical manufacturing process like the bolt face on an AR does. Remember, it was made 150 years ago in a blacksmith shop with hand tools. With modern manufacturing, lever guns are a cinch to produce well.
One of the things that comes with a gun that’s been around a long time, is that we’ve had time to work out the bugs. In a free market environment, competition drives constant improvement to old designs. the first lever action rifle was quite unreliable, but we’ve had 150 years to fix it.
Boy did they fix it! by the 1890’s the lever action design was considered reliable enough for any slew of dangerous scenarios from hunting northern grizzlies, to defending your homestead against raiders and cattle rustlers. Those with the money to afford a lever action trusted them whole heartedly.
At the turn of the 20th century, the old messy Black Powder was replaced by a much cleaner burning smokeless powder. This switch of gunpowder fixed most of the remaining reliability issues. With black powder, the gun gets very dirty very quickly. With the new stuff, the mechanisms. By the 1920’s, semi-auto rifles were made by all major gun manufacturers, but the lever action was still king of the hill.
Why a Lever Action is more Reliable than a Semi-Auto
Basically, all firearm malfunctions are either failure to feed or failure to eject. Doesn’t matter what the gun is, that’s almost all that can happen. They happen from time to time with a semi-auto rifle. but they happen much less with a lever action rifle.
With the semi-auto, a failure to feed usually comes from two things. Either the gun is dirty, or there is an issue with the detachable magazine. sometimes the magazine has come loose and needs to be pushed back in. Sometimes the feed lips on the magazine get bent or are out of spec and it just won’t work.
The issue is often only an issue because it’s a semi-auto. A semi-auto has a set amount of force to eject an old cartridge and load a new one. If more force is needed because the gun is dirty, which makes things tighter fit, it often won’t cycle the bullet.
Lever actions, much liked pump action shotguns, will use as much force as you give it. If a cartridge is tight in the chamber, you can give it the force it needs to eject and load a new cartridge. When a semi-auto won’t cycle it, a lever action usually will.
Another point of reliability of the lever gun over the semi-auto is the magazine. For reasons of safety due to old time designs, and for tradition’s sake, all lever guns, except one to my knowledge, have a permanent tube magazine under the barrel.
Tube magazines can’t jostle loose like a detachable one can. Neither can it have feed lip issues, because it doesn’t have feed lips. As long as it works when you first get it, there’s not much that can go wrong with a well-functioning tube magazine. With a lot of use and over a long period of time, you may need to replace the spring in it, that’s all
I recently heard from Marlin gun manufacturing, a popular maker of lever action rifles, about the reliability and life of their rifles. Now, of course they want to tell good news, but what they said falls in line with my own observations.
They said that their guns will not have feeding or cycling issues until around 7,000 rounds fired. I have heard from several gunsmiths that they don’t see a lever action in for tuning or repairs until it is obviously worn out, which would be a minimum several thousand rounds fired.
What can make a Lever Action Jam?
The main issue with a lever action rifle jamming is usually a form of user error. Still, it’s a problem that we’ll talk about, since it doesn’t happen with most other rifle designs. with a lever gun, we can short stroke, and we can slow stroke. Here’s what that means.
Short stroking is simply not bringing the lever back far enough before pushing it forward again. It can create a failure to eject by not bringing the lever far enough to toss out the spent brass. You can also bring the lever back just far enough to eject the brass, but not enough to load a new one.
At the same time, I suppose it’s possible to not fully return the lever to the closed position, keeping it from firing. Although, I’ve not seen that one happen. Thankfully, proper operation of the lever I very simple and natural. It quickly becomes quite instinctive.
Slow stroking is just cycling the lever back and forward too slowly. Again, I’ve not seen it happen. I used to cycle my Winchester 94 very slowly to get a second shot at a group of squirrels. It can be more of a problem with larger, more blunt bullets.
sometimes you need some momentum in order to guide the bullet into the chamber. However, every lever action I’ve aver handled would operate smooth as silk at the slowest speeds. I’m not convinced it can really be an issue. If you experience this, a good gunsmith should be able to give it a quick fix.
It can take just a little practice, but it’s best to cycle the lever fully back and forward in a quick, brisk motion. Practice it with some dummy rounds at home and you’ll have it down very quickly. It’s a very natural way to operate the gun and everyone picks up on it really quickly.
How Accurate are Lever Actions?
Now on to accuracy. Henry makes probably the most accurate lever gun on the market. Their Lone Ranger model comes with a detachable magazine and is chambered in calibers like 6.4 Creedmoor, .308, and 270. It’s intended to be a longer range, more accurate option specifically for hunting. It works well for paper too, but it’s an amazing hunting rifle in its price range.
The least accurate lever guns made today should shoot a 3-moa group at 100-yards with factory loaded hunting ammunition. I’ve seen several of them shoot an easy 1-moa at 100 yards with Remington Core Locked and Federal Fusion hunting ammo. That’s just dreamy!
Again, the Henry Lone Ranger claims most of the 1-moa and under groups I’ve seen from a lever gun.
Are Lever Actions More Accurate than Bolt Actions?
Neither option has a higher potential of accuracy than the other. The bolt action, having few individual pieces, is easier to exercise quality control over. Whereas a lever action takes a bit more scrutiny to ensure that every part is up to perfect specifications.
In essence, it’s easier to make a ¼ moa bolt action rifle than to make a ¼ moa lever action. But, with modern metallurgy and CNC machining practices, it’s not at all unattainable. I will say that most hunting ammunition on the market doesn’t shoot sub-moa. But some tend to shoot darn near that every time.