Lever Action Vs. Bolt Action In The Context Of The Armed Citizen

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Lever-action and bolt-action rifles are legal in 50 states, and with some states banning most semi-auto rifles (and a few others looking to do it, as well as elements of the federal government), it begs the question as of which is best as a surreptitious or ban-state legal defensive arm. 

Both have some very strong points, and there’s some mythology surrounding both that should be dispelled. Both have been used as fighting rifles by militaries, and both have been used successfully by armed citizens. 

However, there are some practical aspects worth considering. 

Usual Bolt-Action vs. Lever-Action Talking Points That Don’t Matter

First, what doesn’t matter. 

The prone position issue is a training issue, and defensive shootings with the shooter in the prone position are rare anyway. 

Bolt-action rifles are easier to make mechanically accurate – even the budget bolt guns have a free-floating barrel and proper bedding – but it doesn’t matter in a defensive context. Hunting is a different story, but the people who hunt in places where it does matter stopped using lever guns a long time ago. 

If, say, a lever gun is 2 MOA rifle, it prints 2 inches at 100 yards, but A.) not that many shooters are capable of a 2 MOA group under stress (time or otherwise) offhand at 100 yards anyway, and B.) there aren’t too many justifiable civilian-involved shootings that involve a 100-yard shot, to begin with.

Any sort of longer distance considerations are likewise a moot point. Yes, a .300 Win Mag or a .30-06 has longer legs than a .30-30. More than 90 percent of the US population lives in the urban or suburban environment, ergo 300-yard-plus trajectory is irrelevant.  

Lever-Action Rifles Can Be Faster To Cycle…Depending

If you’re relying on a manually-operated firearm in a defensive context, faster cycling is an advantage. Lever-action rifles can be faster to operate, but not all of them necessarily are. 

Some bolt-actions are faster than others, but the most practiced Lee-Enfield shooter is going to be a bit behind a practiced shooter with a Henry. 

A major factor is the throw of the bolt, i.e., how far it has to travel to extract and eject a spent case. 

The mechanical design of the lever mechanism also makes a difference up to a point. The less mechanical work that has to be done (i.e., the fewer moving parts that have to be moved), the faster the action tends to be. 

Look at SASS/CAS shooters. The go-to has long been the toggle-link action designs (and those based on them) in pistol calibers such as Henry, Winchester 1866 and 1873, and Marlin rifles, and for a reason. 

However, it’s worth mentioning that trigger and action tuning in SASS/CAS have been part of the game for a long time, along with a boatload of practice. The top tier of shooting sports put in a lot of work, no matter what shooting game it is. 

So lever guns can be faster than bolt-action rifles, but not in all cases, and may require modification. 

Ammunition Capacity And Reloads

Bolt Action RiflePistol-caliber and medium-bore lever-action rifles have an edge when it comes to ammunition capacity, but bolt-actions can be modified – or are manufactured, in some cases – to accept higher-capacity magazines. 

Trigger guard adapters can convert most common bolt-actions to AICS-pattern magazines, such as Magpul’s 10-round AICS-pattern PMAGs for mini (5.56) and short (.308) action rifles. There are AICS-pattern magazines for long-action (.30-06) rifles, but they are rare and expensive. 

A Magpul AICS 10-round PMAG for a .308 costs $40. An MDT AICS magazine for a .30-06 costs $100.  

Then you have scout-style rifles (most scout rifles use AICS-pattern or proprietary magazines) and a few bolt-action rifles made to accept AR-10 and AR-15 pattern magazines, such as the Ruger American Ranch series and the Mossberg MVP Patrol series. 

Pistol Caliber Bolt-Actions And Intermediate Lever Actions Are Rare

Ruger M77
Ruger M77

If a person is thinking about a manual rifle as a fighting rifle hiding in plain sight, what you’re going to feed it matters. The most commercially available calibers like 9mm, .223/5.56, and so on aren’t terrifically well represented in bolt- or lever-action rifles. 

Outside of rimfires, the only pistol-caliber bolt-action rifle made by a major manufacturer is the Ruger Model 77 in .357 and .44 Magnum. Intermediate rifle cartridges like .223/5.56mm, .300 Blackout, 7.62x39mm, and so on are more common, especially for predator hunting. 

The classic lever-action rifle is not compatible with spitzer bullets and rimless cartridges. 

Some emerging lever-action rifles are changing the equation, however, such as the POF Tombstone – a lever-action PCC that accepts Glock magazines – and the Fightlite and Bond Arms lever-action lowers that accept AR-15 uppers and magazines. 

Ergo, you may have to accept a higher ammunition cost and potentially compromised availability, especially during ammunition panic cycles. 

A Lot Of Good Work Got Done With These Old Platforms

An awful lot of bad people got laid low with lever-action rifles, pump-action shotguns, and revolvers over the years, so it’s not like you can’t be capably armed with them. 

On balance, lever guns have some edge for most people, as they are a bit better suited to the urban and suburban environment. They’re a little faster to run and tend to have better ammunition capacity. 

Obviously, manually-operated firearms will always be behind the curve of an intermediate or pistol-caliber like modern carbines. Why would a person even consider having a bolt- or lever-action rifle for social purposes? 

First is that our gun rights are constantly under attack. A certain portion of the population wants semi-autos prohibited if not all firearms. While the Supreme Court appears to be in our corner, for now, we’re only a few Senate hearings away from that changing. 

Justices Ailito and Thomas – the strongest Second Amendment advocates on the court – are in their 70s, and have engaged in some legally/ethically questionable behavior in terms of accepting gifts and favors. How much longer they remain on the bench is a good question. 

What previous bans and ban states have made obvious is that lever- and bolt-action rifles aren’t as much of a legislative priority. They are “safer” in that respect, and there may come a time when that’s all the armed citizen has to choose from. 

Secondly, guns that look like grandpa’s hunting rifle don’t look like a scary, offensive “weapon of war.” Ergo, how the gun looks isn’t likely to factor into, say, a shooting investigation should you ever have to use one. 

There may come a time when it’s all we have, and they work…if you can run one. 

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