Easy enhancements for an iconic rifle.
With all the new bolt-action and AR-style rifles on the market, you might think hunters have forgotten about lever guns. The lever-action rifle is an iconic American firearm. Thousands of hunters still use them. In some situations, the lever gun can be the best option. Following are some enhancements that can make them even more efficient.
A lever-action is intended to be used at close range, where fast follow-up shots are likely. They’re not beanfield rifles. Nor are they meant for shooting pronghorns halfway across Wyoming.
Sensible modifications for a lever gun enhance its inherent attributes rather than make it something it’s not. Sure, you can put a high-magnification scope on a lever gun, but that makes about as much sense as putting a class III trailer hitch on a Yugo.
Smooth the Action
Operating some lever actions feels like working a rusty pump handle. This is not difficult to fix. Disassemble the action and coat all moving parts with JB Bore Paste or Montana X-treme Bore Polish, both available from Brownells and Midway USA. Assemble and work the lever for about two hours. Disassemble, remove all the pasty grit, coat the moving parts with WD-40, assemble and work the action some more. Disassemble again, clean, generously lube, and I guarantee your lever gun will run smoother.
If the gun is a Marlin, install one of Brownells’ spring kits while you have the rifle apart. The kit comes with two springs. The big spring reduces trigger pull weight, and the small spring makes the action easier to open. I just replaced the mainspring on a Marlin 1895, reducing the trigger pull from 4.75 to 2.25 pounds. The lever latch spring — the small one — is best suited to guns used in cowboy action competition. Because it makes the lever so easy to open, I don’t swap that spring on hunting rifles.
The big loop lever is a another viable modification. The larger loop is easier to use when wearing thick gloves and makes the rifle more comfortable to carry at your side with one hand. This keeps your rifle ready and frees up your other hand to scan the timber with a binocular. Big-loop levers look cool, too. Brownells sells aftermarket big-loop levers from DRC Custom and Wild West Guns. You can install one during a TV commercial.
Scopes and Sights
Just about any riflescope greatly diminishes the slick handling characteristics of a lever-action rifle. However, they do enhance low-light shooting ability, and we all know big bucks are more apt to move early and late.
The type of hunting you do will dictate your choice of optics, but the smart approach is to not commit to a riflescope or open sights, especially since you can have it both ways.
There are a few options that make this possible. The most popular is XS Sight Systems’ Lever Rail. This easy-to-install Picatinny rail comes with an XS Ghost Ring rear, and post front sight. The Lever Rail mounts in the existing scope mount holes and the dovetail groove for the rear sight. The rail lets you mount any type optic you want and, if you use quick-detach rings, you can switch between open sights and a riflescope in seconds.
Other options include the modified Talley scope base from Jim Brockman and XS Sights’ Weaver Backup. Brockman’s modified base incorporates a pop-up peep sight that’s compressed when the riflescope is attached. The Weaver Backup Sight mounts directly to a Weaver scope base. With quick-detach rings, you can remove the scope and slide the pre-zeroed Weaver Backup Sight on the rear Weaver scope base.
The Custom Route
If you’re not comfortable doing the work yourself, or if you’re looking for more advanced modifications, you can ship the gun to one of several builders that specialize in lever-action rifles. I recently sent my Marlin 1894 Cowboy chambered for the .32 H&R Magnum to Jim Brockman at Brockman’s Rifles for maximization.
Jim opened the chamber up so the rifle would also fire .327 Federal Magnum ammo. He also cut the barrel back to 16 inches to improve balance. Brockman smoothed the action, worked the trigger and installed his big loop lever and tritium front sight.
I mounted an XS Ghost Ring rear sight and installed a single Weaver base in front of that so I could alternatively use an Aimpoint Micro T1 red dot sight. The rifle handles like a dream and shoots great.
A similar rechambering modification is to open up a .30-30 Winchester for the .30-30 Ackley Improved wildcat cartridge. On paper, this gives you about 200 additional fps, but in reality, expect less. You should still be able to shoot standard .30-30 Win ammunition in the Ackley Improved chamber. But if the work is not done perfectly, you’ll end up with excessive headspace and failures to fire when using factory ammo.
A better approach is to have a gunsmith rebarrel your lever gun for the 7-30 Waters cartridge, which is a .30-30 Win necked down to 7mm. The Waters offers a substantial ballistic advantage over the .30-30 Win, and factory ammunition is available from Federal, so you won’t have to reload.
Marlin’s new 1895 SBL incorporates many of the modifications hunters like in a lever gun: short barrel, large loop lever, full-length magazine and a Lever Rail with an XS Ghost Ring and post front sight.
I took the SBL on an Alberta black bear hunt last spring. I had an extended eye relief scope in quick-detach Leupold QRW mounts, but it just so happened my bear showed up in full daylight. He grabbed the bait and took off on a run. I whacked him with the .45-70 before he traveled 30 feet. The riflescope never left my backpack.
Marlin’s 1895 SBL is chambered only in .45-70, but any other Marlin lever action, even the new .338 Marlin Express, could be modified similarly. The SBL might be the perfect lever-action hunting rifle or at least a blueprint to use when building one.
After hunting on four continents with a wide array of firearms, I must admit that a lever gun would have worked just fine for about 80 percent of the shots I’ve taken. Some have been with lever-action rifles, but in every case it was one that had been maximized to some extent. No other rifle epitomizes the American hunter like the lever action, and with a little cash and a little work, you can make it even better.
Read More Articles by Richard Mann:
• Don’t Skimp on Scope Mounts: “Just any old rings and bases” can be the wrong choice and the weak link that fails at the most inopportune time.
• Safe Sense: Are your guns safe from boogeymen, fire and kiddies?
This article was published in the November 2009 edition of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.