Tuesday, February 5, 2013

How do you tune up a lever-action rifle?

Following my post last week about my new-to-me gun, a Marlin Model 336 lever-action rifle chambered in .30-30 Winchester, I had several e-mails from readers wanting to know where they could find similar rifles.  Some wanted them chambered for pistol cartridges like .357 Magnum or .44 Magnum, others were looking for .30-30's too.  Some have already found them, others are still looking.  (If you're new to the field, here's a good summary of lever action rifles in general.)

Several asked me what they should do to 'tune up' such rifles;  to make them smoother, more reliable, etc.  I obviously can't give a generic solution for every rifle - it'll depend on the make and model, how hard it's been used and/or abused in the past, etc.  However, there are a few steps I take for most lever-action rifles in my possession.  I'll describe them briefly, and link to the parts in question at various manufacturers and suppliers.  This isn't to imply you should shop solely at the places I identify:  I use them as examples only.  There are other distributors and retailers that can also supply what you need.  Do an Internet search for the parts you want, and select the seller with whom you're most comfortable.

First, I want a decent trigger on my rifles, and lever-action weapons typically don't have good triggers straight out of the box.  If parts have become worn over the years, there can be a lot of 'sloppiness' in the trigger pull, too.  I usually replace standard Marlin triggers with the Wild West Guns trigger kit, which gives a lighter, crisper pull.  Other makes of levergun will get an action and trigger job from a reputable gunsmith.

WARNING:  Too much modification may render your rifle unsuitable for general use, and possibly even dangerous to yourself or others!  If you don't know what you're doing, don't fiddle with it!  Find out the names of reliable gunsmiths who've got experience with your type of rifle, and spend the money to have them work on it.

Wild West Guns (an Alaskan firm that's accustomed to equipping hunters to take on big and dangerous game) also offers a replacement ejector for Marlin lever-action rifles.  It's claimed to be stronger (it's a one-piece part rather than the factory-original two-piece ejector), and more reliable when confronting dangerous game.  Since I've never broken an original Marlin ejector yet, I can't say whether it's more reliable or not;  but I keep one on hand in my gun tool box in case I should need it.  So far, I haven't.  However, if I were facing dangerous game with my Marlins, and wanted them to be as tough and reliable as possible, I'd probably fit this part to all of them.

I spoke last week about disabling the so-called 'lawyer button', the cross-bolt safety device that's found on many modern lever-action rifles.  I dislike such devices intensely, as they add little to safety if one's already careful, and may be found to be applied at precisely the wrong moment.  However, in today's litigious society, one has to be aware that if one permanently disables or removes this safety device, and an accidental or negligent discharge occurs and causes injury or death, one may be sued for everything one owns - and then some!  My solution is to apply a small O-ring to the cross-bolt safety.  It fits into a groove in the shaft, preventing the safety from being applied;  but by simply removing it (which takes only a few seconds), the safety is instantly restored to operation.  If I need to let someone else use my rifle, and I'm not sure whether he or she is safe to handle it without the added security of the cross-bolt safety, I'll take off the O-ring.  For my own future use, I'll replace it.  (A packet of 100 of the O-rings costs less than $11.  I still have 97 left in my packet, so I don't think I'll run short of them for the foreseeable future!)

My eyes aren't what they used to be, so I don't rely on the standard sights that come with the rifle.  They aren't the best anyway;  if you want to use iron sights, there are much better options available from Marble Arms, XS Sight Systems, Millett SightsWilliams Gun Sight Co. and other firms.  As for telescopic or red-dot sights, there's a huge selection out there, with a very large variety of mounts and rings available.  The majority of lever-action rifles I've seen (including several of my own rifles of that type) use see-through mounts such as these products from Weaver (equivalents are made by several other companies), but you can also mount Weaver or Picatinny rails to the receivers of Marlin rifles, use forward mounts from XS Sight Systems, or choose other options.  Pick the mounting method and hardware that suits you best.  If you're not sure, read more about the subject in firearms forums, or ask friends with lever-action rifles to show you what they use, and try them out for yourself.

As for scopes, for the past couple of years I've bought only the Nikon Prostaff range.  There are many good scopes out there, some better than the Prostaffs, but my budget is limited, so I look for maximum quality in a given (lower) price range.  In my opinion, in terms of value for money, there's simply no comparison between the Prostaff scopes and their competition in their price bracket.  I've bought a couple of the 3x9x40 scopes with bullet-drop-compensating reticles, and five or six of the 2x7x32 scopes with Nikoplex reticles.  The latter are ideal for lighter, smaller, short- to medium-range weapons like lever-action rifles in almost any caliber.  I find them perfect for .30-30's, and I'm standardizing on them in that category.  (They do very well on .223/5.56x45mm. rifles too, such as the ubiquitous AR15.  Even better, they're much cheaper than others advertised for that type of rifle, including Nikon's own, more specialized offerings.

As far as the mechanical workings of the rifle are concerned, the older and/or more worn it is, the more likely it is to need replacement parts.  On an older or much-used weapon, I swap out the internal springs as a matter of course.  They're available from the manufacturer, and also from specialist producers such as Wolff (whom I highly recommend).  I also replace the tubular magazine follower, using a Wild West Guns part manufactured from aluminum if one is available, otherwise using the factory part. 

If you need parts for your lever-action rifle (or any other firearm, for that matter) and can't find new ones, it's worth keeping Numrich Gun Parts Corp. in mind.  This company frequently buys up old, discontinued parts and warehouses them, or locates older guns that are past their prime and strips them for serviceable parts.  (They also sell new inventory, of course.)  You can look up your firearm on their Web site by make and model, then scroll through the list of parts to see whether they have what you need.  I've bought several hundred dollars worth of bits and pieces from them over the years, everything from fiddly little screws to complete stocks and fore-ends.  Recommended.

I hope this helps those of you looking for, or who've recently bought, a lever-action rifle.  Check out Leverguns.com and Chuck Hawks' shooting pages for lots of information about them.

(A final note:  I've not been compensated for recommending any products or vendors mentioned above, either in cash or in kind.  They're all products I've bought with my own money, and find worthwhile.  The manufacturers and suppliers I've mentioned, or to whom I've linked, are companies from whom I've purchased goods, and found their products and service worthwhile.)



JohninMd.(help!) said...

I'm glad you included Leverguns.com, Peter. Paco Kelly has several archived articles on wringing an amazing amount of accuracy out of lever- actions.

dave said...

My personal favourite is reposted at http://barefootclown.net/content/skeet/ (disclaimer: I stole it from a friend on Facebook).

Anonymous said...

You'll also find some interesting levergun articles on http://www.castbullet.com in the HowTo and Shooting categories.

Anonymous said...

If you have a pistol caliber lever gun,
and it does not shoot well, try other ammo-
My Marlin 1894c 38./.357 will pattern like a shotgun with 125 gn .38 loads, and put a single ragged hole in the paper with full house 158 gn .357.
At 25 yards the .38's made a 10" x10" group., .357's a quarter sized group.

Also - even the .357 loads from different manufacturers shoot very differently .
.357 158 gn SJHP- at 100 yards, one brand was shooting 12" higher than the other- each brand shot a nice 3" group, but to wildly different points.
This particular carbine is very ammo sensitive-- it is not a problem, it is a really useful little gun, just be sure to use the same ammo you sight it in with.
And for the gun-techies, it has Ballard rifling, not microgroove. I don't know if this has anything to do with the ammo sensitivity.

Mark said...

Another parts company to bookmark is SARCO, they also like Numrich purchase old lotss odd lots of firearms parts and accessories. They also sell some firearms as well. Some of them very historical.

Their URL is http://www.sarcoinc.com/

Andrew S. said...

I'd like to toss my two cents in, in favor of the XS sights Lever Rail. I have that and their ghost ring sights for my own 336w, and I'm extremely happy with them. When cash allows, I intend to mount a scout-style scope on the rail that co-witnesses with the sights.

Tim said...

Just a thought, if you're interested in augmenting your rifles with a little appropriate 'bling' you might check out Levergun's site. I have had him make several products for me and the results were very pleasing.



And thanks for your blog, I just came upon it and am looking forward to exploring more of your posts.


Anonymous said...

Many years ago my Old Man told me: "If you can't kill it with a .357, step up to a rifle, rather than a larger handgun caliber."
I had just acquired a 4" 686 and was considering my next purchase.
I found a Winchester M 94 Ranger .30-30 AE at the LGS and took it home for $220.00. It came with a Bushnell 4X scope and rather cheap-looking blond wood stocks.
A few years later I got a Win M94 Trapper in .357 as a companion piece. Nice wood on this one, but it came with the awful looking crossbolt safety and the enormous dish at side of the receiver Light, handy and accurate, 10 rd capacity, 16" barrel. I replaced the front sight with a Lyman gold bead, sighted in and placed it in the safe while I worked on other hardware.
Recent legislation in my state has renewed my interest in platforms other than semiautos. Lever action carbines such as older Marlins, late Winchesters, current Rossis, Henrys and maybe Mossbergs are worth a look. My favorite might be the Miroku/Browning M92 but they are pretty scarce. If your budget will allow, there are some real nice custom Marlins available.
I will be satisfied with refining my current carbines. Some tinkering to slick up the action, and perhaps some Skinner Sights:


AO offers several sight options as well as rails to accommodate optics, scout scopes or red dots. These products may appeal to some owners.
I am also considering sling mount options. Some period pieces were equipped with sling mounts on the left side of the barrel ring, and inletted in the left side of the buttstock. These would allow carry similar to an M1 Carbine. The saddle ring can also be used to mount a one-point QD sling.
I really like the little Trapper, except for that godawful safety.
It seems to prefer 158 gr bullets, either .38 or .357 over .125 gr pills; .180 gr somewhere in between, with a noticeable thump.
I think it will respond well to some minor tweaking.


Anonymous said...

Here's another:


Anonymous said...

Peter- I posted a link for RPP recently that may have got lost in the shuffle.


These guys seem to have the Marlin lever rifles well sorted out. Their replacement sights look like a good option to aperture sights.

And those who want to spruce up a Ruger Mini might look for some ideas here: