Lever Actions for the Tactical Market

Tactical refinements have ushered in a new era for the reliable lever action.

Lever Actions for the Tactical Market

Tactical lever actions have emerged as a trend in the gun world and have even found a place in modern movie sets. A prominent scene in the murder mystery “Bullet Train” with Brad Pitt included a well accessorized Marlin 336 lever action donning a Midwest Industries tactical handguard. 

The popularity of lever actions has resurged with new generations just now experiencing these fun, light, accurate and easy-to-shoot guns. 

If we look back to the origins and use of lever guns, it should not be surprising we are now adapting them for tactical use. Lever actions were the modern sporting rifle of the 1800s, functioning as fast-shooting defense, sporting and utility rifles with a large ammo capacity. The Henry lever action was a game-changing 16-shot .44-caliber rimfire rifle with around 560 ft./lbs. of muzzle energy delivering unparalleled firepower for any owner. Most lever-action rifles became conveniently chambered in the same cartridges as common revolvers, which made it easy to swap ammo back and forth between firearms. 

The lever actions greatly extended accuracy and range with the same handgun rounds and delivered fast-cycling firepower usually with higher capacity than revolvers. Larger models were offered in more powerful rifle rounds. Though lever guns were high-capacity by the standard of the day, modern sporting rifles of today offer far greater capacity and adaptability with MLOK compatible handguards and wide flexibility for optics mounting plus adjustable furniture for better fit. 

Now, thanks to a number of factory lever guns and aftermarket companies, today’s lever actions can have the adaptability and utility of modern sporting rifles.

Tactical Levers Though the AR and other modern semi-auto rifles are more advanced defensive platforms, the adaptable, lightweight, tactical lever action has its place and, in some ways, outperforms other platforms. Lever guns are an amazing amount of nostalgic fun and still have great hunting appeal with fast cycling, bulletproof reliability, great capacity to weight ratio, and typically higher capacity than standard bolt-action rifles. 

Lever guns are also chambered for rounds not typically found in semi-autos. The same rifle can shoot light gallery rodent rounds up to supersonic rounds — notably Hornady subsonic .45-70 rounds are a boatload of fun. If you want to shoot handgun rounds like .357 Magnum/.38 Special, .45 Colt, .44 Magnum/.44 Special, or rifle rounds like .45-70 and .30-30 faster than a bolt action, lever actions are still the only option. Ammo manufacturers like Hornady have done a wonderful job offering new ballistically improved .45-70 and .30-30 rounds including newer subsonic options that are quieter and deliver lighter recoil from the same gun. 

The challenge comes when you want to attach something simple like a light, laser or bipod to a traditional lever action. Early on, companies like Midwest Industries began offering aftermarket MLOK handguards for Marlin and Henry rifles, which opened up the tactical lever action concept to owners. Chisel, Hoptic and Ranger Point Precision also started offering a variety of adaptable stocks, handguards and ammo carriers specifically designed for lever guns. The result is that an off-the-rack Henry or Marlin can quickly transform from a standard wood-stocked lever gun to something with the adaptability of an AR platform. Though not for the purest, these accessories can make a trusty old gun more fun and adaptable even if you just need to attach a few modern accessories.


Custom Levers

The availability of many aftermarket accessories provides options for highly customized lever guns such as the featured .357 brass-receiver Henry Big Boy I created. This custom Big Boy receiver’s top bump was milled slightly to accommodate the Midwest Industries handguard designed for a flat-top Henry with a steel receiver. The MWI Henry X Model top rail, handguard and sight kit were also milled to marry to the reduced brass receiver bump. The 16.1-inch octagonal barrel was threaded ½-28 for suppressor mounting. Notably, threading an octagonal barrel is a challenging process. 

Since the magazine tube interferes with a suppressor, a quick detach tri-lug mount was installed to allow quick removal of the suppressor for unobstructed fast tube reloads with an 8-round polytube speed-loader. The tube loader is far faster than a side load gate. With .38 Special rounds I can stuff 9-rounds +1 in the chamber for a 10-round rifle. Single rounds can still be fed into the ejection port when the gun is empty. The MWI front sight required a custom dovetail adapter since the original front sight was a screw-in mount. The barrel, accessories, handguard and lever were all custom-Cerakoted with a midnight black, bronze and gold camo by Midwest Firearms Coatings. The stock was finished with a lace-up Andy’s leather cheek pad with .357 magnum ammo loops, and a rear sling mount was added as a mount and also to secure the cheek pad. 

This build allows nearly any optic or accessory configuration, including a forward-mounted scout optic to gain more precision beyond what the fast-shooting MWI ghost ring sights can offer. It’s an incredibly fun gun to shoot and is amazingly quiet when used with a 9mm suppressor.

Though the custom Henry offers a lot of wow factor, there are several much easier paths to a custom lever action.

Semi-Custom Levers

The new Ruger-owned 1895 Marlins now include scope rail mounts and threaded barrels, which makes them a great starting point as a tactical lever action. Currently the Marlin 1895 models are limited to just .45-70, but owners can add an MWI handguard, an adjustable Chisel stock and Hoptic ammo quivers in just a few minutes. 

Similar to the MWI handguard used for the previously mentioned Henry build, MWI also offers a simpler handguard option. The 1895 Marlin included a Skinner ghost ring sight system already, so only an MWI handguard was needed to extend the accessory mounting flexibility. These MLOK compatible mounting options allow a lot more flexibility for some very useful accessories for a .45-70, including a barricade stop, which can be useful for locking against trees in the field. The ability to attach a light and laser is helpful for hog hunters and for homeowners using the gun for both hunting and defense. 

The Chisel billet stock is very rugged but is about 1.5 pounds heavier than the Marlin stock. What the Chisel stock offers for that weight tradeoff is an adjustable cheek riser, QD sling mounts and mounting points for the Hoptic Ammo Quiver systems. The Hoptic quivers offer a quick onboard ammo holder so the shooter has a few extra rounds handy for either port-fed or loading-port reloads. The quivers can be positioned at any angle and locked down via the MLOK mounts. Chisel and Hoptic have a mutual design relationship where Hoptic quivers can mount direct to Chisel stocks. 

The Chisel Henry stock will fit all Henry rifles and the same with the Chisel Marlin model respectively. Hoptic’s MLOK ammo quivers are available in a variety of typical handgun and big-bore calibers and capacities. MWI offers several handguard and rail models for most lever actions.

Factory Tactical Levers

The steel-receiver Big Boy X Model offers customers a tactical lever-action option right out of the box, including upgraded sights, threaded barrel, side loading gate, and handguard with a picatinny rail and MLOK mounts. The steel Big Boy Models offer a round barrel, polymer forend and stock, and steel receiver tapped and ready for an optional picatinny rail for standard optics or electro-optics. 

Though the factory X Model includes a picatinny rail and 3 and 9-oclock MLOK mounts, the MWI handguard kit used on the brass Big Boy would have been a direct fit for this rifle for those extra MLOK slots or upgraded sights. Henry Big Boy X models are offered in .45 Colt, .357/.38 Special, and .44 Magnum/.44 Special calibers. Handgun rounds can be very quiet, especially sub-sonic rounds, but when paired with a suppressor they are almost magically quiet with the absence of cycling noise. Henry also offers the X Models in .410-bore, .30-30 and .45-70 to cover nearly any need. 

The Henry Big Boy X Model is similar to the original series with the brass receiver and octagonal barrel, but it features a steel receiver and round barrel plus other more modern appointments like fiber optic sights, factory threaded muzzle, polymer stock and forend, integrated MLOK, picatinny rail and sling swivel attachments, and a flat-top rail-ready receiver.  The X Model also features a customer-requested side load feature plus continued support of Henry’s tube load capability that delivers near instant reloads.


Final Thoughts

The fun part of these options is that the classic lever-action firearm design is still very relevant and delivers on current accessories and configuration needs. Whether you want an off-the-shelf tactical lever-action option, want to take a few minutes for simple bolt-on upgrades, or create your own custom lever gun, the fun of tactical lever actions is here to stay.



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