If I Could Only Have One Rifle…

You could ask any shooter to finish the title of this write up and they’d give you any number of different answers. Their opinions will obviously be biased by their experiences, and there’s nothing really wrong with that.

I get asked pretty often about my recommendations on what gun and/or optic a person should buy. I don’t mind being asked that at all as I happen to be an expert on my opinion, and my friends know that I’ve invested a pretty good chunk of time and money into learning things like this from professionals, so they generally trust that opinion. I usually follow these questions with some version of “What are you doing with it?” That matters quite a bit, and it’s less about the answer than it is kick-starting the questioner’s own thought processes. Usually, it’s the standard stuff like hunting, plinking, or home defense. Each of those categories have subcategories that have to be taken into consideration.

Because we like shiny new things, I’ve never had a person say that they only ever wanted to own one rifle, and that it had to do most anything they could ask it to within reason. If a person were to ask for that rifle, I could probably draw some other inferences as to what they’re looking to get in this do-all package.

The first is probably a relatively low price of entry. Most “one gun” people aren’t looking to spend $1000 on a gun, and understandably so. They’re not collectors and they’re not in it to wow their buddies. I don’t need a $50 hammer when the $20 hammer does 90% of the work that the more expensive hammer does.

The second, which probably should really be the first, is reliability. If it doesn’t work when you ask it to – what’s the point, right? I’ve seen some very nice pieces of equipment not do what their owners asked them to do. This is usually followed by looks of confusion and disbelief. That can happen when you buy a “pretty” and ask it to be a tool.

The third thing that I would look for would be ammo availability.  If you have to search all over creation for a box of bullets, that kind of kills the fun of shooting.  Sure, that’s a little easier now with the ability to order whatever ammo you want in whatever flavor you want online, but that requires a degree of prior planning.  What you can run into is a difficult trip to the range for zeroing purposes, and burn through a stash of ammo pretty quickly. Another one is family or friends wanting to take your rifle for a test drive.  These folks seem to believe that all of us shooters have an ammo tree in the back yard that keeps our ammo cans full. Being able to drop by pretty much any sporting goods store and grab a box of ammo has a value all it’s own.

Also of consideration should be the weight of the rifle.  Overly heavy guns are fun to shoot…on a bench. A lightweight rifle in a powerful caliber isn’t fun to shoot anywhere (though, this can be tuned with hand loads).  For me, the sweet spot is an intermediate caliber (short action), and a rifle weighing in the 6-8 pound range. Just enough weight that it’s not laborious to carry, while not feeling like a 2×4 that hates you when you press the trigger.

The “handiness” of the rifle should also be one of the units of measure.  A 26+” barrel and a 13+” length of pull can make for a long-ish rifle. That doesn’t sound that bad on the bench, but it can be a pain moving around in a deer blind, through brush, in a vehicle, or inside of the house.  Typically, higher external measurements also add to the weight, and we just talked about that. The most handy rifles I’ve handled have all been around 40” and under. A caveat to a rifle that’s too short, is increased flash and muzzle blast.  Powders in factory ammo are selected to work best under a certain criteria, one of those being barrel length. Most test barrels used by ammo manufacturers are 24-26”. What that can translate into is that your .300WinMag with the 18” barrel not only now has the ballistics of a smaller cartridge, but now it kicks like a mule and throws a three foot fireball every time you fire it, all for no practical gain over the smaller caliber.  Also part of that handiness is the profile of the rifle. Tactical bolt knobs and over-sized scope turrets all act like hooks that seem to grab onto everything that comes within 6 inches of them. I go out to enjoy myself. Cussing at the rifle for constantly snagging on things isn’t my idea of a good time.

Townsend Whelen said “Only accurate rifles are interesting.”  Man, was he right. Nothing makes me want to send a rifle to Firearms Heaven like one that I can’t get to hit what I’m aiming at with regularity.  In our search for the One Rifle To Rule Them All, we need a degree of practical accuracy. Being as there are trade-offs to everything, we can’t ask our near-perfect long gun for target rifle accuracy.  Everybody will have their own standards, but if I can put all of my rounds into a 3” circle at 100 yards, that’s plenty accurate for everything BUT shooting for groups. Everybody thinks they need a sub-moa rifle.  Can you hold sub-moa? Can you shoot a 5-shot group into a 1” circle standing, unsupported at a distance of 100 yards? Seated and unsupported? I know I can’t. I’ll put $20 down that you can’t either. Point is, unless you take your shooting bench with you everywhere you go, benchrest accuracy doesn’t really translate into practicality.

The capabilities for safety are always a consideration that has to be made.  Now, I’m no Safety Nazi, but I do believe that if we can add an extra dash of safety, we should.  When it comes to rifles, one if the biggest areas that I’ve noticed for things to go bad is the combination of a light trigger and a safety that’s either easily disengaged or so hard to engage that the shooter doesn’t use it.  Triggers whose weight can only be measured in ounces can be very dangerous, if an ounce of carelessness is introduced to your gun handling. Especially when we start moving them around. Guns set up like that shouldn’t have a round chambered until you’ve mounted the gun and are on target. The only problem with not having a round chambered is, in a hunting or self defense scenario, you may not have the time or opportunity to chamber a round before either the crackhead is on top of you or the chance for your shot on the game animal has come and gone.  Neither of those two are going to wait for you to turn your stick into the rifle that it wants to be, so the option to keep a round chambered in our purpose-driven rifle matters.

Finally, is a simplistic manual of arms, or “how we make the gun work”.  There are several different configurations of function in the firearms world, and I’m not sure that one is head-and-shoulders better than the rest.  For the most part, rifles are pretty hard to break and relatively easy to operate. What we can look for though is how that manual of arms helps to check the boxes of our prerequisites listed above.  

So, does the rifle exist that checks all of these boxes?  Yep. It does in my opinion anyway, and being as I’m the one writing this, I get to decide who’s opinion gets published.  

For me, the do-all rifle is the lever action rifle.  The options for configuration in the lever gun category are many, but if I had to get particular, I’d have to go with a Winchester Model 94 in .30-30 Winchester, which I happen to own.  The Winchester 94 and the Marlin 336 are the gold standards for lever action rifles chambered in .30-30. Both have been around for a really long time and for a good reason. They do their job and they do it well.  

Let’s address our points of consideration that were listed above, since we’ve given this rifle a name.

Price.  Either the Winchester or Marlin can be had for well under $500.  I regularly see used examples listed for $350. I wouldn’t hesitate for one second, outside of obvious signs of abuse, to purchase a used Winchester 94 or Marlin 336.  Nobody is wearing these things out, that I’m aware of. (I’m sure, somewhere, somebody has worn out a lever gun. I don’t concern myself with chances measured in hundredths of a percent.)  Also, most bolt action rifles need some type of optic, as they aren’t offered with iron sights. Iron sights are standard equipment on lever guns.

Reliability. I’ve never had or seen a stoppage in a lever action .30-30.  Is it possible? Obviously. It has moving parts and that means they can decide to not play well together. The .30-30 cartridge has a rimmed case, so extraction is a virtual certainty, adding greatly to the reliability of the rifle.  More than once, I’ve had a standard rifle case do something weird in the chamber, and the rifles extractor no be able to free the stuck case. What that leads to is finding a cleaning rod and some type of hammer to beat the case out of the chamber.  The timing of the cartridge lifter is such that, if you short-stoke the action, nothing happens. Unlike a semi-auto or bolt action that is trying to feed the next round before the last one is all the way out of the rifle. Again, not good when what we *really* need is a working rifle.

Ammo availability. The .30-30 cartridge is one of the easiest to find that you could ask for.  It’s everywhere. If you go into a hardware store that sells ammo, there’s a really good chance that .30-30 is one of the selections.

Weight.  I’ve never lifted what I’d call a “heavy” lever gun, but I’ve definitely picked up other types of rifles that were unwieldy. The Winchester is the lighter of the two rifles, 6.8 vs 7 pounds.  That doesn’t seem like much, but ounces make pounds. If you don’t concern yourself with the weight, without realizing it, you’re rifle could end up a full 3lbs heavier than mine. That’s real weight when it comes to carrying the gun and swinging it around. You know, using the thing.

Handiness.  At lengths of under 40 inches, the lever gun is about as handy as you could ask for in a rifle caliber. The profile of the lever action rifle is nearly slick.  It’s only when we start adding optics (totally optional), that the rifle gets much wider than an inch. It’s tubular magazine means that we can carry 7 or so rounds with no added width, which is not the case with box-type magazines.  The operation of the lever action helps keep our eyes on the target. All you do is swing your hand sharply down and away from you, simultaneously extracting the spent shell and cocking the hammer, and then bring your hand back up to the grip area chambering a fresh round – all the while never needing to take your eyes off of the sights.  The Winchester ejects spent casings through the top of the receiver where the Marlin does so from the side. In that, the Winchester’s receiver isn’t as tall is the Marlin’s, making carrying the rifle with your hand around the receiver easier. The receiver is the balance point of the rifle, and not fighting the balance of the gun makes life a little easier.  That’s not a big deal with a slung rifle, but some situations dictate one-handed carry in the field. A traditionally mounted scope removes the receiver carry option from either rifle. That might or might not matter depending on your preferred setup.

Accuracy.  I don’t think anyone is going to confuse a lever gun with a high-end target rifle.  There’s a difference between precision and “minute of deer”. Most lever guns I’ve been around have been capable of 4ish” groups at 100 yards, and that’s been plenty.  I’m pretty sure the .30-30 cartridge has put more meat in freezers than any other cartridge, so it obviously is good enough. Recently with the introduction of bullets with improved ballistics, so far only offered from Hornady, the accuracy of the .30-30 cartridge has been greatly improved.  Four inch groups at 100 yards used to be the norm for these rifles. Part of the reason for this is the tubular magazine. Tipped bullets have better ballistics, and therefore have a higher level of accuracy. The sharp tip of these bullets being in direct contact with the primer of the next round in the magazine and what might happen under the rifle’s recoil could very likely poo-poo on your day, so lever gun fans have been stuck with flat-nosed bullets to try and curb and explosion.  Flat-nosed bullets smack really hard and expand readily when met with meat, but having the aerodynamic equivalent of a cinder block doesn’t do us any favors on the range. Hornady addressed this with a bullet that has a softer, flexible pointed tip. With Hornady’s bullet and some hand loads, I’ve printed some two inch groups. Halving your group size is never a bad thing.

Safety.  Lever guns are single-action only hammer-fired actions.  What that means, is that the rifle cannot fire without the hammer being cocked, so we can carry the rifle hammer down with a round in the chamber and not be worried about the gun going off if it gets dropped or bumped.  Bolt guns have a safety, but you have to engage it. I’d be willing to bet that the ratio of holes in pickup truck floor boards made by bolt guns is something like 10:1 versus lever guns. With the ultra-light target triggers found in target guns, you can very often smack the side of the rifle and trip the sear.  That’s not happening with a lever gun.

The manual of arms was covered in the handiness section a couple paragraphs up, so I won’t take you through that again, but most rifles are pretty simple.  Some, not so much. The only thing not covered was loading the rifle, which is done via a gated port on the side of the receiver. It’s not fast, but it works.  By simple I mean, how much time does it take to teach a person to use it. Getting a lever gun into action can be explained as simply as saying “Shove the bullets in here, move this thing back and forth.”

Is the lever action rifle sexy? Not really.  Are your friends going to be impressed? Probably not.  Is it that one weird trick that the Internet keeps telling me to check out? I’ll never know. What it does is makes things not alive anymore with boring regularity, holds enough rounds to get most any immediately necessary job done, and is cheap enough that you can shoot it without breaking the bank.

So, I’m certain that someone reading this has said “What about the AR-15?”  For me, it comes in second place to the lever gun. There are more steps to get it to function (and get it back to functioning after a stoppage), it’s less reliable, and is far more expensive.  The AR-15 wins in just about every other category, but those are three pretty big ones that give the lever gun the win for your average dude who only wants one rifle.

Pictured here is my personal Winchester Model 94 in .30-30win.  It was my first rifle. I bought it when I was 13 years old after saving up money from my first summer job working on a farm.  I rode an ATV all day long spraying herbicide on peanut fields, 5 rows at a time, and was paid $25 per day.  It’s been through a couple of configurations over the years. Currently, it wears a Leupold scout scope that I’ve really been a fan of.  You can take all of my other long guns, but leave me this one and I’ll be fine.  The scout rifle concept may be a future article. This one’s been long enough.  

Take care of yourselves.

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