The AR rifle platforms have received a huge amount of attention the last several years in the shooting sports industry and mainstream media. They’ve gotten so much attention that some retailers might be surprised to discover that many fellow FFL dealers are selling a fair number of lever-action rifles.
Call it the “Lever Revolution.” That mainstay of the American Western culture and lore is frequently outselling fancy new bolt actions and , yes, those black rifles, too.
“We’ve been moving a good number of lever actions for the last few years now,” said Jeff Poet, owner of Jay’s Sporting Goods, with two stores in the Claire, Michigan area. “Several years ago, hunting regulations changed here in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, so hunters could use straight-walled cartridges for deer hunting. It had been shotgun or muzzleloader only.”
With the regulation change, Jay’s Sporting Goods saw a flurry of sales for lever actions chambered in the straight-walled 45-70 caliber. That large-sized purchase of lever actions by deer hunters, Poet notes, has since slowed. However, the initial purchasing spree kicked off a general increase in demand for levers — one that remains quite high today.
“They’re buying levers in all calibers,” Poet said of his customer base. “The 45-70s still, but 30-30s, too. A good number of older guys come in and want a .22LR lever for their grandchildren.”
In Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Miles Hall at H&H Shooting Sports saw interest and demand for levers go up steadily the last few years. His gun department went from displaying several models of levers on the gun racks to two whole glass display cases full of levers.
At Bull’s-Eye Sports in Marshfield, Wisconsin, owner Scott Schoenherr hadn’t seen much in the way of AR or bolt action sales, even though it was the end of the summer — a time when his customers were usually buying rifles in anticipation of fall hunting season.
“But I sold five lever actions last week,” Schoenherr said. “Four Henry’s and a Marlin. It seems like the demand is always pretty steady for levers here.”
As with most consumer trends, there’s no one factor that explains why lever actions are selling so well with some many retailers around the country. But for Anthony Imperato, owner and President of Henry Repeating Arms, it all starts with the American West of the 19th Century.
“The lever action is America’s rifle and deep down I think everyone wants to be a cowboy,” says Imperato. “The lever action is America’s unique contribution to international firearms design. It’s the one firearm that was born in America and is uniquely American.”
The American West and the cowboy just won’t leave American popular consciousness. John Wayne and his big-loop lever actions can be seen most days of the week in re-runs across the cable television spectrum. Western movies keep being made. And the sport of cowboy action shooting helps keep the idea of the cowboy alive, too.
Poet’s main consumer base for lever actions are males in their mid-50s and older. They literally grew up with the popular Western “Bonanza” on the television. They may well have owned a spring-fired, level-action Daisy Red Rider as a child, too.
But the consumer demographic for levers is actually quite varied.
“I find the audience for lever actions to be pretty much across the board,” said Hall. “But if I had to pick the leaders? It would be the 30- to 35-year-old folks. I just happened to ask several of this group why they were buying lever actions. ‘It was cool looking,’ and ‘It reminds me of my grandfather,’ were the top answers.”
Other people in this demographic told Hall that no gun collection was quite complete without a lever or two. Some cited the lever as the perfect long gun for teaching young people how to shoot. They felt the lever’s manual action made it somewhat safer than a semi-automatic, in the hands of a novice shooter.
All of which fits with what Marlin has discovered, too.
“The company conducted a number of research projects and focus groups a couple years ago to measure the brand perception and popularity of levers,” said Eric Lundgren, Marlin’s product manager. “Our concern was that they were associated with an older crowd and that the lever might be a dying platform. However, what we found was that they are still very popular with young people. They are seen as being fun and easy to shoot.”
Historically, Winchester was the name in lever actions. For serious rifle collectors, Winchester is still a top seller, with iconic lever actions like the Winchester 1866 rifles pulling down huge bids at auction, up to hundreds of thousands of dollars in some cases.
But when it comes to demand for current production lever actions? All the retailers Shooting Sports Retailer talked to came to the same conclusion: levers made by Henry Repeating Arms lead the way.
“I think the fact that their rifles are all made in America is part of the attraction,” says Poet. “My customers like that. Of course, the quality is there, too.”
“It seems like nearly every conceivable group has a Henry lever designed and engraved just for them,” Hall said. “Boy Scouts, firefighters, you name it — there’s a lever made specifically for them, and that sells a lot of units.”
Henry’s marketing efforts are a large factor, too. Poet notes that many of his lever action customers arrive at his store in search of a specific model of Henry — by name.
“They come in asking for a Henry Golden Boy or another Henry lever,” Poet noted. “That tells me Henry does a really good job of getting the word out on their specific models. I’m not sure the other lever action manufacturers do it quite as well.”
Not to say that lever actions being made by Browning, Marlin, Winchester and others don’t sell. They do. Marlin’s 336, for example, is a strong seller at most of the shops SSR contacted. Winchesters have a loyal following, too, though usually at a somewhat higher price point.
There’s also a large and growing market in customized lever actions. A quick Internet search reveals dozens of companies and individual gunsmiths offering all sorts of custom made and upgraded levers.
The custom lever market is one FFL retailers can be a part of too, in the form of the new Marlin Custom Shop. A segment of the Remington Outdoor Company, the Marlin Custom Shop opened its door in early 2016 in Sturgis, South Dakota. The Shop can take any current production model Marlin and upgrade it in a variety of ways. For levers, that includes triggers jobs and smoothing out lever actions. It also includes various wood options for stocks and many engraving possibilities.
One surprise in the Marlin Custom line: The Modern Hunter. This Marlin incarnation started life as a standard Marlin 1895 GSBL chambered in 45-70. Custom Shop employees then upgraded it with a Cerakote finish, a rail mounted atop the receiver and a para-cord wrapped lever. The trigger and lever were smoothed out and high visibility sights were added.
When the Marlin Custom Shop starting, it built several Modern Hunters and other levers to display at industry trade shows. Carlos Martinez, who heads Marlin Custom Shop, was on hand at these shows to talk up the Shop.
“I dubbed that rifle the Modern Hunter for lack of a better name, and really, it represents only one set of custom upgrades we can do to the Marlin rifles,” said Martinez. “But so many people were taken by the rifle, just loved the way it looked, that I took all sorts of orders for more Modern Hunters at those shows. Truthfully, it kind of caught us off guard.”
The Marlin Custom Shop also sells through retailers. Martinez noted that he was looking for FFL shops to carry.
Help For Retailers
Thinking about adding lever actions to your firearms mix? There’s a good deal of marketing help available.
Henry, for example, provides Henry dealers with an “Authorized Henry Dealer” in-store banner, and regularly stocks them with print catalogues. “Dealers who stock our guns and have a full-time retail store also get a free listing on our website for customer referrals,” said Imperato. “We also assist dealers in not losing a sale if they can’t find the Henry rifle they need in the distribution system. We will track down what they need and get it to them as soon as we can.”
Browning, Marlin, Winchester and others offer similar help to their FFL dealers. Marlin is also developing marketing plans for 2017 to compliment the rebate and other special offers it normally runs. The hunting publications are getting the message too, with more lever-action stores and reviews appearing in the last year.
So, what do you say, Pilgrim? Are you ready for some lever action sales and hopefully a boost in profits?