Lever-action rifles went from America's favorite to "also-ran"
about mid-20th century. Why? Accuracy and efficiency.
The core difference between a lever-action and bolt-action is merely the
mechanical device that cycles the action and ignites the cartridge. But that
does contribute to some performance differences.
A traditional lever-action uses the downward pressure on a lever to open the
action (pull back the bolt.) Various mechanical linkages then extract and eject
the empty, raise a fresh round and lock it into the chamber for the next shot,
simultaneously cocking the hammer/trigger. Extra rounds are usually stored in a
tubular magazine hanging under the barrel.
The downsides to this are as follows: because bullets ride behind the
primers of the next round in front of them, they must be blunt to prevent
detonating those primers. A sharp bullet tip during recoil could act like a
firing pin, creating a dangerous chain reaction. So what? Blunt bullets are
aerodynamically inefficient. Like riding erect on a bicycle, they catch and
push a lot of air. This slows them down. A slow bullet drops and loses energy.
Smaller concerns involve accuracy. The tube magazine attached to the barrel
influences how it vibrates or oscillates during each shot. With fewer and fewer
rounds in the magazine, the changing weight changes vibration patterns, which
in turn changes where the muzzle is when bullets exit. Accuracy suffers.
The fore-end stock also touches the barrel, so hand pressure influences
oscillations, too. Locking lugs on the bolt are usually well behind the
chamber, permitting a bit of flex. This can also impact accuracy. Finally,
lever-action triggers are a bit more difficult to adjust for optimum release/accuracy.
Stacked or "clip" style magazines in modern lever-actions such as the Browning
BLR eliminate the blunt bullet problem, but the other issues remain.
With a bolt-action (also called turn-bolt action) mounted in a one-piece
stock, the barrel can be isolated or free floated. This means it's supported
only where it attaches to the receiver. The stock, regardless how you hold it, doesn't alter oscillations of the barrel, so bullets
should exit consistently. Locking lugs on bolt guns are usually right behind
the cartridge for the strongest, straightest alignment possible. Triggers can
usually be easily fine-tuned to minimize creep and pull weight. Stacked or
rotary magazines under the receiver permit use of long, pointy bullets. Actions
can be glass, pillar or aluminum block bedded to the stock for additional
stiffness and shot-to-shot consistency.
Most shooters find lever-actions easier and faster to cycle than
bolt-actions, but in today's hunting world fast repeat shots aren't usually
needed. We've become a nation of stalkers and ambushers with plenty of time to
line up a precise first shot. Few of us blaze away at running game or need to
shoot multiple animals. We also shoot a lot from benches where a lever gets in
the way, striking the benchtop. We must raise the
rifle to cycle the next round. Same thing happens when we shoot prone in the
field. Turn-bolts can be cycled without disturbing their horizontal position.
Despite all this, traditional lever-actions have some benefits and a strong
appeal. They are relatively thin and flat sided, so they carry more easily in cases
and scabbards. They feel good in the hands and are truly quick and fun to
operate. And when hunting in woods or wherever shots rarely stretch beyond 200
yards, they are more than accurate and flat shooting enough for deer, bears,
bore, and any other big game.
If your style of shooting/hunting calls for precision bullet placement on
small targets or at extreme ranges (300 yards and beyond,) get a bolt-action.
But if you hunt big game where shots fall inside 200 yards, a lever-action can
be just as deadly -- and maybe a bit more fun!
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Ron Spomer has been photographing and writing
about the outdoors for nearly four decades. He's written seven books, hunted on
six continents and been published in more than 120 magazines. He's currently rifles'
editor at "Sporting Classics," Travel columnist at "Sports Afield," Field
Editor at "American Hunter" and "Guns & Ammo" -- Optics Columnist at "North American
Hunter," Contributing Editor at "Successful Hunter," Senior Writer at "Gun
Hunter," and TV host of "Winchester World of Whitetail." He will write on Shooting Tips weekly for sportsmansguide.com. You can read his
blogs and catch some of his YouTube videos at www.Ronspomeroutdoors.com.