Modernizing the Defensive Lever Action Rifle [2024]

Lever action home defense

Recently we took a look at lever action rifles in a defensive context in >>THIS<< article. Being put on the clock helps to show where things can be improved. Despite these guns getting a little long in the tooth, we have plenty of options to help modernize them. While I don't want a lever gun to be overly tacticool, it can be more user friendly. Here are a few things you can do to improve your home defense lever action.

Shortened Stock

Most lever action rifles have excessively long stocks. This isn't much of a problem if you're in a bladed stance shooting once or twice at a deer. When round counts begin increasing, that can turn into an issue. Another consideration is fitment for a multitude of shooters. Maybe you're teaching someone, or there are multiple people in the home who may need to use the gun in an emergency.

Lever action home defense
During NRAAM24, Magpul revealed their ELG line of lever action furniture.

Luckily, the typical lever-action has nothing in the stock that prevents you from cutting it down a few inches. You can try this at home, or get a professional to do the job, which is my recommendation. Taking a cue from the shotgun, around 12-12.5 inches for your length of pull will be an improvement for many shooters. That said, this can vary from shooter to shooter, so take that with a grain of salt.

For a more modern take, you can also pick up aftermarket stocks which don't require permanent modification of your rifle. Ranger Point Precision, Chisel Machining, and Form Rifle Stocks offer modern, adjustable stocks. More recently, Magpul has announced support with a new line for lever action rifles.

Ammunition Carrier

As Tom Givens says, you're going to fight with what's in and on your gun. There likely won't be time to strap on your plate carrier or battle belt. These guns are fairly limited in capacity, and lack the raw power of something like a 12 gauge. Lever action rifles in pistol calibers are even less capable, ballistically speaking, so round counts may be higher before stopping a threat. The ability to top the gun off could be useful, especially if you find yourself facing multiple threats.

Lever action home defense
A simple buttcuff is an easy addition. Use the sling stud to help prevent movement under recoil.

Butt cuffs will be the easy answer here. You can pick up a cheap one from Walmart or online for a few bucks, though they certainly won't be high quality. Galco and Diamond D Leather make higher quality offerings with some custom options for caliber and capacity.

Brown Coat Tactical makes velcro side saddles like you'd find on shotguns, but offers them in other chamberings. Additionally, Ranger Point Precision, and Chisel Machining offer rigid "quivers", along with a velcro saddle from Chisel. If you're willing to slap one of these on the side of your receiver, they could be a decent option as well. While a side gate will change things up a bit, some shotgun loading techniques can be modified to suit a lever gun.

White Light

While we are fully capable of controlling the lighting within our home, a weapon mounted light can be useful here. However, adding a light to these guns can be challenging. Zip ties and electrical tape can work in a pinch, but verify your zero and function after putting tension on your barrel. Some guns like the Henry X or Marlin Dark series offer modern mounting options, significantly easing this process.

While less ideal, learning some handheld light techniques can also be useful. I've done that in class, as did our ancestors before us. Suboptimal, but still an option for those who can't bolt lights to their rifle.

Lever Action Loop Wrap

Most people will not run their lever action rifle hard. Rarely do you find someone who's worked the action aggressively enough or with the number of repetitions it requires to start injuring the shooting hand. Even in a home defense context, we probably will not be shooting that many rounds. That said, training days or competition are a different story entirely.

To build up skill we must use our guns. Whether that's live or dry practice, building in the muscle memory to work the action after each shot is critical. Not all lever loops are created equal, and some will start to hurt afer a while. Wrapping the loop in paracord or leather is a great way to protect your hands against damage for lengthy range days. Those shooting outdoors also get protection from cold or hot loops depending on the weather.

High Visibility Sights

Many of these rifles arrive with bare bones sights. A narrow rear notch and plain front blade don't help your shooting much. Luckily there are some ways that we can improve our sights to improve our hits.

Paint

One of the easiest and cheapest solutions is to simply paint your front sight. I use glossy nail polish for durability, visibility, and ease of application, plus it's cheap and easy to find. Put a few coats of white polish down as your base layer. Then choose a bright color that works for your eyes, I like neon orange. A few coats of that on top of your base layer help the color to pop, and is lightyears better than a bare blade.

Lever action home defense
A few coats of nail polish make a big difference in front sight visibility.

To help with elevation concerns, I only use color paint on what I can see through my rear sight. If I see white, I know my front post is high. This is a tip I got from Claude Werner, and I use it on all of my guns.

Ghost rings

Many lever action rifles don't come with sights that are fast to acquire or friendly in low light. Rifle sights are some of the worst here, with buckhorn sights being slightly better. Some brands allow you to swap your rear sight for a ghost ring, which I find to point more naturally and are easier to use in low light. XS, Ranger Point Precision, and Skinner Sights all make good options here. Ease of mounting will vary depending on your gun, but there should be something for everyone.

Optics

Optics aren't much of an option on the Winchester 94 or Uberti 1873 due to their top ejection. Sure, you can offset a scope on the 94, or pick up a scout rail, but there's quite a bit of work involved, and those aren't without shortcomings. In my opinion, sticking with iron sights on those models is the way to go.

However, not all lever action rifles have these restrictions. Guns with closed top receivers, such as those from Marlin, Rossi, and Henry, make for much easier mounting of optics. Most of these rifles are tapped for mounts from the factory, allowing the end user to upgrade their sighting system. In cases like these, I would suggest some sort of red dot. The Aimpoint Micro and ACRO series are a great start, or their budget friendly Duty RDS. An alternative could be the Trijicon RMR, with the open emitter being less of a problem for a home defense gun. I suggest something durable like these, especially if you're using an intermediate caliber like .30-30.

Additionally, you'll want an optic with long battery life. Keep the optic on, you don't want to fiddle with buttons or knobs in an emergency. This will knock out options like the Steiner MPS, which can only stay on for a few weeks at high brightness levels.

Lever Action Training

The best gun in the world won't mean much if you don't know how to use it. Luckily we have resources to help us gain proficiency.

Off the top of my head, two instructors offer dedicated lever action rifle courses for personal protection. They are Lee Weems of First Person Safety, and Chris Costa at Costa Ludus. While I haven't taken these courses, the reviews are good. Lee was the assistant instructor for my Rangemaster Advanced course, and I've interacted with Chris a few times and always walked away impressed. On top of this, Gunsite Academy offers a 5-day Defensive Lever Gun course. While not specifically for lever-actions, Thunder Ranch's Old Rifle course caters to lever and bolt guns with tailored curriculum.

Lever action rifles for defense
The author cradling an Uberti 1873 in .357 Magnum

While not good for tactics, cowboy action shooting is a great place to learn effective manipulation of these guns. Some of the best shooters in the world wear spurs and chaps, and they're always happy to help people learn. Check out the Single Action Shooting Society to find a match near you.

Wrapping Up Modernizing the Defensive Lever Action Rifle

There are a ton of ways that we can help bring our old rifles into the 21st century. From white light, to upgraded sights, ammunition carriage and more, the sky is the limit. The past few years have seen a revitalization of the lever action market, which offers a variety of modern options to choose from. What will you put on your rifle? Let us know in the comments!

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If you made it this far, thanks for reading! Writing isn't my full-time profession, and nearly everything I do comes out of my own pocket. Between ammunition, tuition, range fees and more, expenses add up fast. If you like what I have to offer, consider making a donation to my Patreon.

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About Daniel Reedy 394 Articles
Daniel holds instructor certifications from Rangemaster, Agile Training & Consulting, and the NRA. He has received training from Craig Douglas, Tom Givens, and Steve Fisher among others. He also has experience competing in USPSA, CAS, 3 Gun, and Steel Challenge. In his free time Daniel enjoys petting puppies and reading the Constitution. His work is also published by AmmoLand, Recoil Concealment, and Air Force Times. Daniel has also written and edited for The Kommando Blog.

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