The following information on lever action rifles comes from Rifles and Rifle Shooting by Charles Askins. Rifles & Rifle Shooting is also available to purchase in print.
The lever action rifle is so familiar to every American who shoots a rifle that a description of its mechanism is uncalled for. It has been in use in this country without radical change of design for over forty years, and for over three decades has been the favorite big game rifle of the American continent. Many have been exported to all parts of the world except Europe. It has speed of fire, strength, endurance, reliability, and power.
This model of rifle, like the single-shot, is an American invention and is now the only type of rifle built exclusively in the United States. Doubtless a majority of our people would have preferred seeing it adopted by the army. That it was not selected for this purpose was not due to any inherent fault of the arm, especially for sporting purposes, but because a first class hunting rifle may have but moderate utility as a soldier’s weapon.
The under lever is well adapted to sure and rapid functioning in any position a hunter a likely to assume, but is inconvenient to manipulate from the favorite military prone position. Further, lever action rifles cannot be clip loaded, the tubular magazine of the old models was not adapted to pointed bullets, and the mechanism cannot be dismounted and cleaned without the use of tools. All of which considerations are of moment in military service.
Speed of fire must be considered of a great deal more importance to a big game hunter than the ability to manipulate the arm readily from the prone position, while clips are practically useless to the hunter who will either down his quarry with the supply of cartridges in his magazine or shoot until it has escaped, in either case having plenty of time to reload. Speed of fire is absolutely essential in a modern sporting rifle where the arm is frequently used in the woods or at running game which may be in sight but two or three seconds. The American hunter is particularly fond of an arm which repeats rapidly with a good reserve in his magazine, since, being “shotgun trained” for the most part, he is apt to be quick on the trigger rather than sure of his aim. If every man could be a graduate in still hunting, doubtless a single shot would do, but the average big game shot must take his chances, running, standing, or flying, making amends for lack of stalking skill by accurate and rapid fire.
A word here as to the rapidity of fire of the different types of sporting rifles mentioned in this volume: I should estimate that the automatic is twice as fast as the pump-action, the pump will fire three shots to two with the under lever, and since the latter can be functioned without removal from the shoulder, it is doubly as quick (in the hands of the average hunter) as the military bolt. The single shot is not to be considered as a big game rifle because it is too slow. The double barrel is, of course, as fast as any for the two shots it carries, but the man who uses this arm should follow the usual custom of having a gunbearer with a spare weapon within easy reach.
Naturally the above is not taking into consideration the effect of recoil upon the gunner which might be so severe as to make him practically as fast with one gun as another. Where the weapon has a free recoil of near a hundred pounds no man is going to fire it twice in a second. Familiarity with one action and not with another would make a difference also, as would the man behind the gun, but these are unknown factors which cannot be considered.
Reliability of functioning is an absolute requirement in a rifle intended for such game as might become dangerous. If there is a possibility of a shell sticking, or the arm balking once in a hundred shots it should be rejected, for a man’s life might depend upon that hundredth shot. A grizzly or a moose, not to mention African game, needs only one uninterrupted charge and his work is done—and so is the hunter’s. The lever action rifle is one of the most reliable rifles ever constructed. If the rifle is kept in any sort of condition with ammunition that has never been reloaded, there is no possibility of a shell sticking. It is yanked out with a long lever that can pry like a handspike and the same power replaces a spent cartridge with a loaded one. Speed of fire, reliability, accuracy, and power sufficiently account for the prestige of this type of arm among American hunters.
Some of the criticisms of the lever action rifle are rather of the hair-splitting order, but in fairness I must give them. The Briton finds fault with it as being noisy. His evident conclusion is that a man must go about through the woods working the lever and alarming game. However, as to this I can see no reason for the marksman to manipulate his lever except when actually firing, and then the explosion of the cartridges would surely make noise enough to drown the clicking of the lever.
Probably the fairest criticism of the action is that it cannot be dismounted or cleaned without the use of tools, and that sand and foul weather are more liable to disable it than the single-shot, double rifle, or the military bolt-action. Whatever truth there may be in this, it is certain that this rifle has gone through various campaigns in India, Africa, and the Arctic regions without occasioning its users a particle of trouble. Indeed it must be admitted by anyone who has given rifled fire arms sufficient study that there is more real gun value, at the cost, in a standard lever action rifle than in any other rifled arm in the world.
As a rule, lever action rifles have a tubular magazine, either full or half length, lying under the barrel, but one model of this arm is made with a box magazine, and another has one that revolves like the cylinder of a revolver. Which should be selected is much a matter of individual preference, governed, too, by the cartridge to be fired. The box or the revolving magazine should be chosen where cartridges are to be used having sharp-pointed bullets, since in a tubular magazine, the sharp point might cause an accident through coming in contact with the preceding shell.
Theoretically the box magazine should further balance and handiness, because the weight of ammunition is carried midway between the two hands which support the piece. However, this is merely theoretical, for in practice, I, at least, much prefer a rifle that does not balance like a shotgun, but hangs rather heavily at the muzzle. A rifle having a comparatively heavy barrel, which means muzzle heavy, can not only be held steadier in the off-hand position, but the direction of the bullet is also less affected by the jump and flip of the barrel. Extremely light weight and shotgun balance in a rifle are snares for the unwary, unless the piece is of the very smallest caliber or is used exclusively for snap and running shots.
The lever action rifle can be had either with rigid barrel or take-down, the hunter usually preferring the latter and the scientific rifleman the former. The take-down is said to shoot loose with excessive use, but not one sportsman in a hundred will ever give it that much service, and it is certainly more convenient to clean and to pack away for transportation.
When smokeless powder military cartridges were first designed, it was supposed that only the single-shot or the bolt-action rifles had sufficient strength to withstand the tremendous pressures, but experience has proved this conclusion wrong, for the lever action rifles are now chambered for the most powerful cartridges manufactured in America.
While these rifles have been cut for a large variety of cartridges, ranging from .22 to .50 caliber, yet since the model and mechanism of the arm is such that it is difficult to manufacture it in light weights, we now find the piece practically limited to big game cartridges. Few would select a lever action rifle for any cartridge smaller than the .25-35-117, preferring the pump-action for anything lighter. However, high-power hunting cartridges are adapted to it in such variety that it seems the most exacting demands ought to be satisfied. No matter what game is intended to be pursued, from woodchuck to grizzly bear, a rifle and cartridge can be obtained perfectly designed for the work in hand.
The lever action rifle should now be considered as a high-power rifle only. All the numbers of black powder cartridges for which it was once chambered might now be regarded as quite obsolete, and the low pressure smokeless ammunition which replaced them should be viewed in the same light.