There are a couple of possible answers: If the opponent is within striking range, you have a 5+ lbs impact weapon in your hand. Practice striking your opponent with the muzzle of the rifle and include follow-up strikes. The latter part is important: again, you fight like you practice and if your dry-runs stop after the first strike, you will find yourself in a real fight, having smashed the bad guys teeth and hesitating with what to do next.
Transition to Pistol
Second option: the rifle runs dry and you have a couple of seconds until the bad guy closes the distance. In this case sling the rifle and go to pistol. 3.5 seconds and you're back in business with at least another 5 rounds, hopefully more, depending on what kind of handgun you carry.
A simple two-point sling allows getting the rifle out of the way and bringing the pistol into action FAST
I'd like to touch briefly on the sling. A simple 2-point sling with decent length works best for me. The left hand dives in underneath the fore-end (fore-end on left forearm) the right hand remains in position and rotates the butt of the rifle up and counter-clockwise. Once the hand is behind your head you let go and let the sling catch the rifle. While the rifle settles, go for the pistol. I've seen students guide their rifles to a soft, gentle stop. Folks, this is not the time for pleasantries but for aggressive and decisive action. The .5 seconds that make the settling of the rifle more comfortable will not do you any good if these are the .5 seconds that give the bad guy the opportunity to tackle you and foul up your draw. Again, on the risk of sounding like a broken record: you fight like you train.
If the rifle is shot dry and you have quite a bit of distance on your side, throw the lever down and load a single shell into the open ejection port. This will sound very familiar for people who shoot shotguns a lot and have the habit of loading the first round into the chamber through the open breach. This is exactly the same principle
I mentioned earlier the advantage of the open-top receiver design of the Winchester 94 and similar rifles. This layout provides plenty of access area to dump a round into the open breech. This is true regardless whether you fire your rifle left-handed or right handed.
A side-eject gun will be considerably slower to reload in this way, since the ejection port is smaller. It also means that a side-eject gun can be loaded most effectively with the right hand, limiting ambidextrous options.
We timed this reloading method and found that even with a 30-30 a firing rate of 3.5 seconds from shot to shot can be accomplished. This requires some additional support gear. Bear with me, I'll get to it in a bit.
No Magazines: Weakness and Strength
So, the lever-action rifle uses on on-board tubular magazine to store the ammunition, unlike a modern autoloader with a detachable magazine. Is that truly a disadvantage? In terms of capacity, the answer is clearly yes. However, lets look at it from a different aspect: With an autoloader, one has to log magazines around and store them in a dump pouch during mag changes. Sure it's fast, but it also means extra gear and dedicated bags.
When I ran the Lever Action Gunfighting rifle course for the first time I used a very basic shoulder bag that held loose ammunition – done! I did not have to worry about keeping magazines. It was the lightest and most compact bag setup I ever used while teaching a rifle class. In terms of simplicity less gear means less weight and less bulk. Even when I upgraded the interior of the bag with loops to hold the rounds more readily available, it remained very compact.
Simplicity of Operation
Feed rounds through the loading gate until no more rounds fit. Swing the lever forward and back get on the sights and press the trigger. Repeat that sequence until the gun goes “Click”.
This concept seems to be easier for most novice shooters than having to deal with an external magazine of an autoloader.
Now add low weapon weight to this equation. I run classes for autoloading rifles as well as for lever actions. The drills are similar. One thing I noticed this fall after working primarily on lever action material during the summer is that the lever action students never complained about the weight of their weapon when we went through dry runs over and over. Credit to my students, none really complained, but it was visible after keeping their rifles up a good stretch of time, that they welcomed the relief when I told them to go to “safe and sling”. The weight issue also reflects in a way earlier experience, when several years ago I’ve got a couple of people started on rifles with a Winchester 94 in .357 Magnum. All tried the AR or AK/Saiga during the same session, but many preferred the lever gun.
Their reason was primarily the low weight, but also the ease of operation and (here is where the comparison is not on equal ground) the low recoil of the .357 compared to 7.62 x 39 and .223.
The students were also more at ease with a rifle that they could reload with single rounds from a dump pouch or directly from the box – without having to deal with a removable magazine.
This does obviously not apply to the more trained shooters but there is certainly an advantage to a completely self-contained system that does not rely on external components (magazines).
Lever guns are ambidextrous in the shooting operation. It does not matter which hand you operate the lever with – no re-thinking or re-training required.
Most autoloaders in comparison have the bolt handle on the right side (such as the AK, SKS, M-1A and SU-16 to name a few. One can train to manipulate it equally well with either hand, but it is a different motion when used with the right hand compared to operation with the left.
Again, this is not an issue for people with a higher level of training. However, For others who use a weapon only occasionally, it is a lot more important.
Where is ambidextrous operation important? When working corners and while shooting on the move.
When I approach a doorway with a long gun, I want to expose as little of myself as possible, regardless which side I approach from. If the door opening is to my left, even being a mainly right-handed shooter, I need to have the ability to use the rifle from my left shoulder, so that only a small portion of me is visible as I progress forward. I also need the ability to cycle the rifle fast and decisively, regardless of the shoulder I'm running it in.
In our Gunfighting series of classes we introduce our students to movement to avoid incoming fire. We are sure not the only ones who have figured out that fast lateral movement works to our advantage. In case I have a moving target and the first round misses, I need the ability to get another follow-up round downrange fast and accurately! The lever action gun handles very naturally and allows for smooth, swift operation from either shoulder.
Shooting the rifle on the move could fill an article in in itself. I want to keep it brief: a shooter should always have the rifle seated in the shoulder of the direction that he is moving to. In other words, if I move to the right, I use the rifle in my right shoulder, if I move to the left, I use it in my left shoulder. This way, I can maintain my aim towards the target without winding my body up. A natural posture will result in less resistance from the body and in more accurate shots.
The dreaded Political Correctness
Last Point: We live –unfortunately- in a world where many people have swapped common sense for political correctness. A modern-day fighting rifle is not politically correct. In the contrary: some people inadvertently associate the AR-15 with our military and a no-no for civilians. They will also associate the AK-47 with terrorism. They do not see the benefit of a robust and reliable weapon that has long since served as a civilian defense rifle, around the world as well as here in the US. They see the image of Osama bin Laden and his thugs training with the AK-47 to take their Jihad to the US.
The lever gun on the other hand has been an icon in many western movies, enabling the good guys to prevail. Score one for political correctness. This may not be a huge issue in many areas of the US, but living in CA, believe me, it is an argument that bears quite a bit of weight.
First and foremost, it is a good choice for overly restrictive states such as California and for others where a “black rifle” is problematic. As many restrictions as we have on firearms, lever action guns are not affected by them, unless someone wanted a version chambered in .50 BMG – but that is rather unlikely.
For those of us shooting revolvers, the lever gun can be a nice extension of the handgun. As Gabe discussed in his article about pistol caliber carbines: they have a niche in the close range area and for smaller statured / recoil sensitive shooters.
In larger chamberings they have a place as a very basic, low-profile CDR (Civilian Defense Rifle). All it takes is the rifle itself, a dump pouch for the ammunition and a carrier that holds rounds alongside the barrel such as the Minuteman ammo cuffs for fast single-round top-off’s. A lever-action requires less support gear than an autoloading fighting rifle since it does not require exchangeable magazines.
A small and lightweight red dot sight enhances the capabilities of the Lever Action
The only other enhancement I would suggest is a red-dot such as an Aimpoint H-1 to improve quick target acquisition.
To close things – I bought a Winchester 94 chambered in .357 about twelve years ago to complement our revolvers. It has accompanied me on a couple of road trips as backup, way before I got my first Saiga and also way before I started working with the close range gunfighting material.
I always enjoyed shooting it, mainly as a larger plinker, but I did not fully appreciate its potential until I started looking into the lever gun as a bug-out, get off the X rifle. Now that I have worked with it quite a bit, I am sure that this weapon stays in the family arsenal!