...if you want a rim-fire or a race gun, the ‘66 and the ’73 would be great choices. If you want a plinker, a hunting gun or a home defense gun the later models with the locking blocks should be stronger and more reliable. The only real definites are if you want a scoped rifle, buy a Marlin and if you want a light rifle buy a Winchester 1892 Carbine clone.Ron also says he would almost sell his AR for a Cimarron Texas Brush Popper 1873 clone!
You know we've covered the subject at length on SHOOTING GALLERY, the late, lamented COWBOYS, DRTV, the podcast, heck, even the blog. The reason is that lever action rifles are incredibly efficient as self-defense tools:
• The carbines are fast-handling
• They are super easy to operate (monkey run lever good)
• They tend to be very reliable
• They (at least some models) are easy to reload not he fly
• They come in a variety of excellent self-defense cartridges
• Rightly or wrongly, they tend to be seen as less-threatening firearms
• They are inexpensive, especially in a world of $2K ARs
I have argued on the air (this season, in fact) that lever guns were state-of-the-art military weapons in their time (just ask General Custer about the Indians' Civil War surplus Henry rifles). Lever guns have always been well thought of in the self-defense community. Ed Head talked about seeing lever guns in the GUNSITE rifles classes, and without exception the guns were impressive workhorses. Gabe Suarez has written extensively on lever action rifles as self-defense tools...here's a long and interesting piece from one of his instructors.
As a veteran cowboy action shooter, I have a deep and abiding love of lever guns...and, yes Ron, I shoot a .357 Texas Brush Popper short-stroked by Ken Griner in competition! It is chain-saw fast. More than that, I am a huge fan of the lever action and have far too many of them and have shot many more.
Marlin 1894 Cowboy .44 Magnum
My personal self-defense rifle is an old Marlin 1894 in .44 Magnum. I'm planning on having some mods to the gun (from Steve Young at Steve's Gunz, who has done a lot of lever gun work for me...Steve is the great master of the Winchester 1892 and clones). My reasons for the Marlin are that it is totally reliable, accurate and a breeze to shoot with 240-gr JHP Black Hills. I'm planning on modding the gun just a little...XS Sights, single piece firing pin, Wild West Guns Marlin trigger and ejector...mostly what I would think of as clean-up work. My experience has been that most Marlins, Winchesters and 1892 Winchester clones will need some cleaning up.
I have also used a Winchester Trapper 16-inch '94 in .44 Magnum as the house rifle. Lemme give you a quick caveat here....the '94 action was designed for longer rifle cartridges and is generally temperamental with pistol-length cartridges. Mine feeds both .44 Magnum and .44 Specials so well that I used it as a training gun for newbies with super-soft Specials.
I think the standard that all lever guns are judged against is the pre-1964 Winchester '94 in 30-30...mine dates from about 1960...you've seen it on GUN STORIES. The 30-30 is a world class self-defense cartridge...hey, it's killed more whitetails than Godzilla. We've shot the Hornady 160-grain Lever Revolution rounds into jello, and they are very impressive! If I was left with only one lever gun and it was that pre-'64 30-30, I'd be okay with that.
Choosing a lever gun for self-defense, my own choices would be older Marlin 1894 in pistol calibers (the .357 1894 Marlin is a simply wonderful little gun) or Marlin 336s in 30-30, pre-'64 or current production Model 94 Winchester in 30-30, Browning '92 (made by Miroku in Japan) in .44 or .357, current production Winchester '92s in pistol caliber (also Miroku, I believe), Winchester '92 clones in pistol caliber (the Rossis are better rifles than they're ever given credit for...I have 2, a .44 Magnum and a .357, and they have been super rifles), then the 1873s. For self-defense purposes you need ammo that loads through a gate in the frame, as opposed to through the front of the tube (the Henry Big Boys, Marlin .32 H&R, the .22s).
I love the 1873s, but having put tens of thousands of rounds through them in competition I know all their weaknesses. I wouldn't want to put a lot of full-power self-defense loads through a '73 because of the fundamental weakness of the locking system...each iteration of the lever action got stronger and stronger. A Brush Popper will work great as a self-defense gun, but keep the +P to a minimum (or not at all). BTW, I have one of the new Winchester 1873s on order, but it'll be a few months before I can get my hands on it to test...it's in .357/.38.
My same advice on ammo would apply to, say, the Rossi '92 clone in .454 Casull...I wouldn't want to feed to feed it a steady diet of Corbon or Buffalo Bore hunting loads! Lever guns can be very picky about cartridge length...my Marlin .357 would only run with .38s until I had Steve Young tinker with it, and it still prefers shorter .357s. When you see ".357/.38" or ".44 Magnum/.44 Special," keep in mind that individual guns might not run with both the shorter and the longer cartridges. If your gun runs with both, cherish it! And remember, FLAT TOP BULLETS only! I've seen a lever gun mag tube explode because it was loaded with factory round-nose FMJs and the recoil jammed the bullet nose into the primer of the cartridge ahead of it. Nobody suffered any major injuries (the shooter's support hand was cut when the forearm split), but a fine custom Winchester ended up in lots of pieces.
XS Sight options for Marlins
Marlins with their closed top actions and angle-eject Winchesters can take optics, if that's important to you. Marlins can be fitted with a forward mount scout scope configuration, and some Rossis are available with a Scout mount from the factory. Most lever guns come with the traditional semi-buckhorn rear and bead front, which works just fine. For a self-defense gun, I might suggest taking a page from the cowboy shooters and "flat top" the rear sight, cut off the buckhorns, or go to a Marble flat top or sporting rear sight. You'll end up with more of a pistol-style sight picture and a clearer view for target-to-target transitions.
Marble Flat Top rear sights
LEARN TO OPERATE THE GUNS AT FULL SPEED! This means that if you decide to use a lever action rifles as a self-defense gun you'd be crazy not to take up Cowboy Action Shooting...get a straw hat, wear jeans, a chambray work shirt and some inexpensive Ariat boots, then learn how to really run a lever action rifle! We found this to be really important when running self-defense drills...cowboy shooters were already used to keeping the rifle shouldered when levering, not wrapping your strong hand thumb around the rifle stock before firing, just like with your AR keeping your support hand pretty far forward on the forearm to drive the rifle from target to target and figuring out where to keep spare ammo for quick reloading...a lever action requiring you to think in terms of "topping off" rather than reloading when the gun is empty...any break in the action gives you the opportunity to shove rounds into the gun.
One of the thing you will learn about lever action shooting if you go to competition is to NEVER BE GENTLE! It is easy to "short stroke" a lever gun and jam it up. The solution is to make sure you fully run the lever...run it like you mean it.
If you can. watch the "Duel in the Sun" episode of SHOOTING GALLERY, with cowboy shooters running against 3-Gunners...you can really get a feel for how lever guns should be run!
Good grief, I guess that's enough for one post! I haven't even gotten to the more exotic lever caliber...the 45-70, especially on a platform like the Marlin Guide Gun, is...emphatic. Easily controllable, but you do have to pay attention. Then there's the Henrys, the Yellow Boys (I have a totally cool new one made for .44 Russian), the 1876, 1886 and Colt Burgess clones, the .348 Model 71, the Big Horn .500 S&W rifles, Doug Turbull's magnificent lever conversions. There's a whole other conversation on Italian clones...Uberti vs. Pedersoli vs. Chiappa...sigh...
Rossi .357 10+1
If you want to wade in, the pool is deep. Let me throw out one quick suggestion...MSRP on a Rossi '92 clone (from Brazil) is less than $600, and you can find used ones for much less. If you need it slicked up, take it to Steve Young. Get a leather wrap for the lever — easier on your hand when you're trying to go fast — and shoot the heck out it.
Oh wait! I never even got to using .22 lever guns for training! Short story...get a Henry Golden Boy. That's what I use!
Henry Golden Boy .22