Lever Action vs. Bolt Action Rifles

Lever Action vs. Bolt Action Rifles


While modern, semi-auto sporting rifles are making inroads into hunting camps and deer blinds, lever actions and bolt action rifles still rule the roost when it comes to hunting. Both of these action types have been around for long time, and both are well entrenched in the American hunting experience.

But which is better? What are the pros and cons of each, and which should you purchase to take into the field? Let’s take a look at that and examine the merits of each.

Lever Action Rifles — What are They?

Lever action rifles are a native product of the United States with many early models being designed and produced here. The lever action was boosted to fame when Benjamin Tyler Henry produced one of the first modern lever actions. He placed a tubular magazine under the barrel and made some other improvements. His gun became known as the rifle you could, “load on Sunday and shoot all week!”

By the late 1800s lever actions were being produced that are functionally identical to modern lever action rifles. Both Marlin and Winchester released models of 1894 that are are still widely in use today, and only recently went out of production. These rifles were the darling of law enforcement through the middle of the twentieth century, and remain extremely popular with hunters.

Lever actions are distinguishable by the big lever that is attached to the back of the trigger guard. Cartridges are typically loaded into a leverguns via a loading gate on the right side of the receiver, and make their way into a tubular magazine that sits under the barrel. Upon working the lever, a cartridge is released from the magazine, lifted on an elevator to align with the chamber, and chambered as the bolt goes home behind it.

This action also cocks a hammer. The gun can now be fired, or the hammer can be manually lowered if you need the gun to be ready, but aren’t going to be shooting imminently. Thumbing back the hammer renders the gun ready to fire. There is also a half cock feature that needs to be talked about.

Some of the most popular lever actions on the market today are those currently in production from Henry Repeating Arms, Winchester, and Marlin. The flagship Winchester 94 and Marlins 336 are out of production, but plenty of these guns exist on the secondary market. Some Marlin lever actions are being reprised and manufactured by Ruger. Let’s look at some of the reasons these guns have remained popular for over 150 years.


Advantages of Lever Action Rifles 

First of all, lever actions are fast-handing guns. There isn’t much bulk to their action, so these guns are well known to be very flat, skinny guns. They are lightweight, typically balance well, and can be carried all day. They can be snapped up to the shoulder quickly, and are typically fair short rifles. Lever actions have gained a following as “brush guns” for this reason.

Lever actions also typically hold plenty of ammunition. Capacity is directly related to how long the barrel is, since the tubular magazine can’t exceed the barrel length. Typical capacities are 5+1 or 6+1 for a rifle chambering like .30-30 Winchester, or 7+1 to 10+1 for revolver cartridges like .357 or .44 Magnum.

There is also a heavy dose of nostalgia in these wood-and-steel rifles, especially the ones that have been around for a while. These rifles have a tendency to stay in families for generations. Some of them have doubtlessly taught many generations of boys how to shoot, given them a rite of passage in killing their first deer, and something to pass down to their children. Though it’s hard to quantify that, it’s pretty powerful.


Disadvantages of Lever Action Rifles 

There are some disadvantages to leverguns, too. First, relative to other action types, they are fairly complicated. There are a lot of moving parts inside a lever action rifle. They can also be difficult to disassemble. This can make them hard to clean properly, especially after a day in the rain or snow.

The tubular magazine is another complaint about lever actions. It is slow to load relative to most action types. It also limits the type of ammunition you can shoot. Ammo has to have a fairly flat nose as the nose rests on the primer of the cartridge in front of it. Sharp, spitzer-type bullets can cause rounds to fire in the magazine, a pretty catastrophic occurrence.

The levergun is also a weaker design than the bolt action. Most designs are limited to low-and medium pressure rounds like .30-30 Winchester, .35 Remington, or revolver cartridges. This somewhat limits the game that can be cleanly taken with lever actions. It also limits their range, especially when coupled with their not-too-great accuracy. Don’t get us wrong, lever actions can be accurate, but their two-piece design will never be as accurate as a comparable bolt gun.


Bolt Action Rifles — What are They? 

The bolt action rifle came along in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Though we typically think of bolt actions as slow-to-fire hunting and target rifles, they were a marvel at the time. As one of the first practicable repeating, metallic-cartridge-firing guns on the market they become the world’s dominant military arms. The Marine Corps issued them through WWII in the form of the 1903A3 Springfield.

Bolt actions are very simple. They consist of a barrel and a receiver, which is just an extension of the barrel. The receiver houses a bolt. The bolt locks solidly in place the closed. That’s almost all of it – add a trigger group with a trigger and hammer, and you’ve got yourself a bolt gun. Modern bolt actions have magazines and sometimes detachable box magazines, and of course they all have a stock, but the bolt action rifle is a dead-simple design.

The most notable bolt action rifle on the market today is the Remington 700. In production since 1962, the Remington 700 is ubiquitous and known for its accuracy. Many high-end precision rifles are based on the Remington 700 receiver. There are plenty of other well-known bolt actions, including the Winchester Model 70 and the Ruger Model 77. Many military bolt-actions are in common use by sportsmen and gun owners including the British SMLE, the Russian Mosin-Nagant, the German Mauser, and of course, the American ’03 and ‘03A3.

Bolt actions are used when accuracy is the order of the day. Due to their simplicity and their inline design, bolt actions are the most accurate rifle action-type we have. Sniper rifles like the US Army’s M24 and the Marine Corps’ M40, are built on bolt actions. Bolt action rifles are used by long-range precision marksmen. They are used by hunters all over the planet and, and they have plenty of advantages where accuracy and hunting are concerned.

Advantages of Bolt Action Rifles 

The main advantage of the bolt action over any other action type is accuracy. There are no moving parts when the gun is fired, other than the movement of the trigger and hammer. The simplicity of the design also allows the bolt action’s barrel to be free-floated, preventing the stock from interfering with barrel harmonics. It is hard to overstated the potential for accuracy in a bolt action rifle.

Another advantage of bolt action is the ability to mount a scope. While you can mount a scope on a lever action, it is sometimes difficult due to the top-ejection of some models. The bolt action provides a stable, solid platform for mounting a scope. Of course, you can also mount iron sights, with the front and rear sights both being mounted to the barrel in most models.

Due to the strength of the action, bolt actions can handle just about any cartridge that manufacturers can fit into the action. From tiny .22 rimfires, up to the truly big-bores including .50 BMG, the bolt action design can handle it. Bolt guns are also reliable and dependable, with very little to go wrong. While our simple description above doesn’t every component of a bolt action, there just isn’t a whole lot of things that can fail.


Disadvantages of Bolt Action Rifles 

There are also a few disadvantages to bolt action rifles, though not many. First, they are slower to fire than lever guns. Lever guns can be cycled extremely quickly, allowing for very rapid follow-up shots on wounded game. Bolt actions are just slower – no question about it. Most bolt actions also have fairly limited ammunition capacity, usually on the order of 3+1 or 4+1. For hunting this isn’t a huge deal, but it may be a problem for some users.

All other things being equal there isn’t much else to complain about with bolt action rifles – they are just an elegant, simple design.


Bolt Action vs Lever Action: Which is Best?

So, which is better: lever actions or bolt actions? It really comes down to user preference and use case. If you need to reach out and touch something, a bolt action is probably your best choice. If you need a fast-handling brush gun or defensive rifle (that doesn’t have the stigma of “assault weapon”) a lever action is probably a better choice.

Regardless of which you choose, visit Grizzly Cartridge to stock up on premium ammunition for it. We manufacture a full line of rifle ammo (pistol ammo, too!) that meets the needs of hunters, target shooters, law enforcement, and civilian defenders alike.