Running The Defensive Lever-Action Rifle

The right training can turn a lever-action rifle into a formidable defensive firearm.

posted on June 29, 2024
Sheriff Jim Wilson

Any firearm has its own manual of arms, and the lever-action rifle is no exception. The armed citizen who chooses to use a lever gun for personal defense should know safe carry techniques and efficient and safe loading and unloading methods. And, just as with any other defensive firearm, we need to practice safe, efficient techniques when firing at the range and during dry practice.

When not carrying the lever gun I prefer that the magazine be loaded and the chamber empty. When encountering a threat or potential threat I have the option of levering a round into the chamber when I pick up the rifle and then lowering the hammer to the safety notch or, in the case of later model guns, engaging the external safety. The other option is to run the lever, chambering a round as I bring the gun to my shoulder and address the threat.

Whether the gun has a safety or not, I don’t like the idea of walking around with the hammer cocked. It is just an added safety measure to lower the hammer unless one is actually about to fire the gun. And no time is lost when the shooter cocks the hammer as he brings the gun to his shoulder and the sights onto the target.

In practice sessions it is important to get into the habit of firing and cycling the action without taking the gun down from the shoulder. The gun stays in the shoulder pocket while we fire our shot, cycle the action with a live round, and get back on target. With practice, one can also top off the magazine (tactical reload) without removing the gun from the shoulder.

Since the majority of lever-action rifles load from the right side of the receiver, the shooter will have to use their right hand to reload, regardless of whether they are right or left-handed. And one will just have to practice a little with a belt-mounted ammo slide or butt cuff on the gun to see what works best for the individual. Obviously, loose cartridges in a pocket should be avoided if at all possible. Just as with our defensive handguns, dry practice with the lever action is important. Dummy rounds can be purchased and used to practice various loading and unloading methods.

With most lever-action rifles the only way to unload them is to cycle the live rounds through the action and eject them. The only safe way to do this is to keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction and make doubly sure that the trigger finger is nowhere near the trigger. It is critical to pay close attention to the unloading operation, go slowly, and focus on safety.

When firing and cycling a lever action it is important to do it with some force; my friend Richard Mann says, “Do it like you’re killing snakes.”  Running the lever gently can lead to what we call a short stroke, that is when the bolt fails to chamber a round. You run the action with the same forcefulness that you run a pump shotgun.

In short, the lever-action rifle can be an excellent choice for personal defense, but it is critical that the armed citizen learn how to run it safely and efficiently. Those who haven’t grown up hunting with lever guns would be well advised to sign up for one of the several defensive classes that are offered. In fact, professional classes are always a good idea regardless of a person’s experience level.


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