Lever-action accuracy Essay

Some misconceptions, like fairy stories and old wives’ tales,simply refuse to die. They may lie doggo for years but inevitably, theyresurface to plague and confuse mankind. Just last week, for instance,I overheard a self-appointed expert giving a muzzle-loading tyro thebenefit of his ignorance out at the range. “Don’t worry about an overcharge,” he advised.

“If you put too much powder down the barrel, it won’t burn.It’ll just blow out the muzzle. That’s the nice thing aboutcharcoal-burners,” he continued, “they’re the safestthings in the world to shoot. You can’t blow one up!” Although that bunch of nonsense has been disproven time and timeagain, it’ll still be echoing around long after Yosemite’sbeen converted to a parking lot for the Sierra Club’s headquarters. Then there’s the one about cast bullets.

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I heard it againdown at a local gunshop not too long ago. “Cast bullets,”some know-it-all proclaimed loftily, “are only good for potting tincans and pop bottles–if they’re close enough!” He laughedscornfully. “Shooting ’em in a rifle’s a waste of timeand money!” Luckily, there was a well-known hunter present who’s takenmore big game with cast bullets than most of us have seen. Hestraightened that character out in a hurry. A couple of days later, I was browsing at another gunshop whenanother joker began expounding about lever actions in loud tones:”Lever actions,” he intoned, “are okay if ranges areunder 100 yards and your target’s big. If you’re reallyserious about hitting something, though–buy a bolt action!” It’s amazing how many otherwise well-informed hunters arestill taken in by that kind of hogwash. A hundred years ago–even 50,perhaps–there may have been some truth to that charge.

Steels weresofter then and technology didn’t permit the close tolerancesconsidered normal now. Lever rifles made back then weren’t alwayscapable of grouping dependably. But that was a long time ago and a lotof lead has zipped downrange in the ensuing decades.

Modern lever rifles are stronger, better made and much moreaccurate than was once the case. Nevertheless, it’s stillfashionable in some quarters to regard them as period pieces, hold-oversfrom our Indian-fighting past, about as practical as a horse-drawn buggy on a crowded freeway. The truth is of course, that when both are fed adiet of factory loads, the average, untuned, lever-action big-game riflewill shoot right alongside its out-of-the-box, bolt-action counterpart. That may raise a few eyebrows but it’s true, nonetheless. Abolt action’s accuracy potential may be slightly better than alever’s, but where big-game rifles are concerned, the differenceisn’t a whole lot–half a minute of angle or less, as a rule. A modern lever, equipped with a 4X scope and firingcarefully-tailored handloads, should be able to put five rounds into1-1/2 inches, extreme spread, at 100 yards from a rest. Anyone whosettles for less is selling himself–and his rifle–short.

Of course, you’ll hear lots of bolt-action fans boasting thattheir favorite rifle can cut an inch all day long. Maybe so.Personally, I’ve found that 1-inch rifles aren’t nearly ascommon as minute-of-angle typewriters are.

My records indicate that a good, brand-new, untuned, light-barreledbolt sporter will print from 2-1/4 to 2-1/2 inches with factory ammo.Handloading can usually squeeze those groups down by a half to threequarters of an inch, but it’s a rare hunting arm of any kind whichcan come close to a minute of angle unless it’s been re-stocked orat least, re-bedded by expert hands. Even then, it’s asking a lotto expect a light, mass-produced barrel to hold that well after it heatsup. Some lever actions are inherently more accurate than others.Generally speaking, Savage 99s, with their strong, positive lock-up,group better than do Winchester 94s. The latter’s slightly springactions and sluggish lock times work against them. A Browning BLR willusually outshoot one of the Marlins.

The best of them all was thenow-obsolete Winchester 88. Basically a leverl-actuated bolt action,most 88s shot close to an inch–or would with a little coaxing. Whilethat’s too much to expect from a Winchester or Marlin carbine, bothcan be made to shoot under two minutes of angle. That may not win anymatches, but it can sure help put meat in the freezer. Improving most levers’ performance won’t demand customstocks, glass bedding or secret tuning techniques. In fact, all most ofthem need is a better trigger, some good sights and quality ammunition. There’s always an exception or two. Every now and then arifle comes along which marches to its own tune.

I ran into one ofthose a couple of years ago: a Savage 99 in .358 caliber. No matter Itried, its groups ranged from 2 to 2-1/2 inches. On the other hand, itwas one of the most consistent rifles I’ve ever encountered.Whether that barrel was cold and clean or red hot and fouled, groupsnever expanded.

Neither did the point of impact shift so much as 1/4inch. It may not have been quite as accurate as I wished it to be, butits dependability couldn’t be faulted. Rifles like that are rare. However, most of the levers turned outtoday will respond to a few simple and inexpensive modifications. Thepotential’s there: you just have to find out where it’shiding.

The obvious place to start is with the sights. Those installed atthe factory were designed for one purpose: to reduce production costs.They sure weren’t meant to help a guy hit what he aims at. An open rear sight may be better than none at all–but not by much!Although today’s versions are nicely blued and adjustable(slightly) for windage and elevation, they’re really not much moreeffective than those which graced the flintlocks and their moreprimitive ancestors centuries ago. Certainly, they’re the mostdifficult to use–and the slowest, too.

When using an open rear, the eye has to bounce back and forth fromtarget to front blade to rear notch before the rifle’s lined upproperly. With an aperture or peep sight, that same eye has only twodifferent planes to contend with: target and front blade. If ascope’s involved, there’s only one focal point–the glassitself.

Obviously, it takes longer for the eye to line up three planesthan it does two or only one. No matter what anyone tells you, opensights are the slowest of them all. Not only that but they’re the least accurate, to boot.Regardless of the quality of ammunition or eyesight, the best an averageshooter can expect from a rifle adorned with open sights is 3-1/2 to4-1/2 inches at a hundred yards. Replace that open rear with a decentpeep, and the same rifle, eyes and ammo can shrink those groups to 2-1/2inches or less. A scope, naturally, offers the most precise alignment potential.Its magnification and light-gathering qualities also let a man see wellenough to shoot earlier in the morning and later in the afternoon, too.

Unfortunately, those advantages are not without cost. Scope and mountadd a pound to a rifle’s heft. Not infrequently, that extra weightalso destroys an arm’s balance and responsiveness as well. Becauseof that, hunters who normally seek their quarry where cover is dense andsnap shots are the rule generally stick to metallic sights.

The next item of concern is the trigger. Those on mass-producedrifges aren’t as smooth or crisp as they could be. Even so, fewhunters bother to have them touched up.

That’s a serious mistake.A scratchy, heavy trigger pull may be nothing more than an aggravation when shooting from a rest. If a man takes his time, he can compensatefor it. In the field, however, a balky trigger encourages jerking–andmost hunting situations provide enough challenges without that. My old Winchester .30-30, for instance, was graced with afirst-class trigger job years ago.

At the time, I could ill afford thefew dollars the gunsmith charged. Nonetheless, that turned out to beone of the best moves I ever made. The little carbine is fitted outwith a tang peep and a Redfield Sourdough up front.

With that 26-inchsighting radius and good handloads, I can expect 2-inch groups at 100yards as long as I do my part. Obviously, those sights and theammunition deserve much of the credit for such small groups, but were itnot for the trigger’s crisp let-off, it’s doubtful if thoseholes would snuggle together as companionably as they do. It’s an exceptional firearm which won’t perk up when itsmagazine is filled with carefully-tailored handloads. I’ve beentold there are some which do their best with factory fodder, butI’ve never encountered one. Every big-game sporter I’ve everloaded for showed an immediate and marked improvement in accuracy oncethe right combination of components was discovered.

As a rule, themajority of those rifles’ groups were reduced at least 25 percentwith handloads. Rolling your own is the simplest and least expensivemethod of improving a lever-action’s performance. Tough steels and incredibly close tolerances make today’slever rifles much stouter than their predecessors.

Nevertheless,loading manuals continue to recommend conservative powder charges, evenfor high-intensity rounds like the. 308 and .284–and for good reasons,too. The safe pressure level of a given round is determined as much bythe strength of its case as that of the action it’s fired in. Whena round is overloaded, it’s the brass or sometimes the primer whichlets go first. Although today’s Marlin and Winchester carbines canprobably put up with more abuse than those made a few decades back,brass formed for the .35 Remington, the .30-30 and other mild-manneredcalibers haven’t really changed much over the years.

They’restill manufactured with 40,000 copper units of pressure (c.u.p) or so inmind and won’t tolerate much more. While .308 and .284 hulls are thicker and stronger, their primersare still relatively thin. They depend on the bolt face as well as thehead of the firing pin for much of their support when the powder chargeexplodes. A bolt-action’s firing pin is long, heavy and usuallybacked up by a powerful spring.

A lever action’s has to be morecompact. It’s also quite a bit lighter and can’t exert thesame amount of push against a primer. Pressures which won’t budgea bolt-action’s firing pin can force a lever’s back and allowprimer metal to extrude into the orifice in the face of the breechblock.That’s one of the reasons lever operating pressures are lower thana bolt action’s. With decent sights, a smooth trigger and better ammunition, mostlevers begin punching out more creditable groups. However, if yourssitll refuses to send its bullets where it’s pointed, if its zeroshifts unexpectedly or its shots begin walking as the rifle’sbarrel starts to warm up, your labors have just begun. Nine times out of ten, persnickety reactions like that can beblamed on a binding fore-end, a too-tight magazine, an over-zealousbarrel band–or all of the above. In the tenth instance, it’s theshooting position, not the firearm, that’s at fault.

First, examine your shooting position with a critical eye. Tobegin with, you need the most stable platform you can find. If ashooting bench is available, great.

If not, there are other routes totake. A prone position with the rifle resting on a rolled-up blanket orsleeping bag is excellent. Whatever you do, don’t use the bed of apickup or the hood or roof of a car. A vehicle’s suspension willbounce during the rifle’s recoil. The movement may be small-butwho needs it? Nope, when rest-testing, vehicles of any kind are badnews. Whichever position or rest you employ, be sure to keep everythingas uniform as possible from shot to shot. Initial groups should befired with the rifle’s supports under the buttstock and front ofthe receiver. Next, shift the location of the forward support to seewhat, if anything, happens out there on target.

The object is todetermine which hold and what kind of support delivers the mostconsistent results. Even if a rifle’s groups are underwhelming,don’t be discouraged. What you’re after at this point ispredictability. If you’re testing a potent number like a .444 or .

308, whichtries to jump away from the rest whenever the hammer drops, forget the”hands off” benchrest approach. Hard-kickers have to beanchored. If that requires a death-like grip on the fore-end, so be it.Again, the idea is to make that rifle’s reactions precisely thesame from one shot to the next. During this phase, it’s best to take plenty of time betweenshots. If the barrel walks its shots or if its zero displaces as itwarms to its task, you’ll go nuts trying to distinguish betweencause and effect. Keep that tube as cool as possible until you’vefigured out how to hold and support the rifle for the most dependableresults. After that problem’s out of the way, see how the rifle shootswhen unencumbered by the fore-end or tubular magazine, if it has one.

Occasionally, the troublemaking part announces its presence duringdisassembly. If a fore-end’s under an obvious strain or should itprove necessary to free a tube from the clutches of a barrel band byforce, chances are you’ve just pin-pointed the source of yourrifle’s less-than-acceptable performance. If something is binding somewhere, there’ll be an immediateimprovement in accuracy as soon as the offending add-ons are removed.

Even if five-shot strings are rapped out in a normal cadence, say, oneshot every 30 seconds or so, there should be not tendency for the barrelto change its mind about where it wants to send its slugs. Naturally,most sporter-weight barrels group tighter when cool than they do whenhot, but there shouldn’t be any uncalled flyers. Neither shouldthere be any hint of a shift in the zero.

If there is, the culprit hasto be either the stock bolt or the barrel itself. The stock bolt secures the buttstock to the rear of the receiver.The bolt has to be torqued down just as tight as possible. Any play atthe crucial junction of buttstock and receiver will be reflectedimmediately on the target. Any time a lever action begins acting upwithout warning, the stock bolt is usually to blame. Curing a stock bolt’s relaxed grip is simple–if yourscrewdriver fits and is long enough. If the old toolbox can’tsupply one, take the rifle down to your friendly gunsmith.

Trying totighten anything with the wrong-sized screwdriver is false economy.Once the head of that stockbolt is butchered up, it’ll be nothingmore than a constant source of aggravation. If buttstock and receiver are mated like glue and the riflecontinues to shoot patterns instead of groups, then, my friend, you haveone of those barrels! There are two options: live with it or replaceit! On the traditional designs like Winchester’s 94 or one of theMarlins, tubular magazines and barrel bands should fit one another likegloves: snug but without binding. You should be able to slide a tube inand out of the band by hand. If it has to be tapped or forced in someway, the band’s too tight. When the barrel gets hot, the heat willradiate through the band to the magazine. Since all those metal piecesare of different thicknesses, they expand and contract at differentrates. Unless there’s a little wagon room between them,they’ll begin so pull and tug at one another.

Any pressure againstthe barrel probably won’t be much–but it doesn’t have to be.Most carbine barrels are fairly thin and very sensitive to outsidepressure, no matter how slight. To correct that situation, remove a little metal from inside thebarrel band. The tube shouldn’t be so loose it rattles aroundinside the band, but there should be no rasp of metal against metal whenthe tube is pushed in or out. The old-fashioned carbines also seem happier when the fore-enddoesn’t contact any part of the barrel. Clearance between wood ansteel doesn’t have to be great, but make sure nothing’stouching, especially when the metal is hot. The same thing applies to fore-end and tubular magazine. It’snot uncommon to find that the very tip of the fore-end is jammed againstthe magazine.

Most barrels will notice that pressure and try to escapefrom it every time a round goes off. Relieve the wood wherever ittouches the magazine. Grouping normally benefits if the fore-end maintains a slightupward pressure against the barrel’s underside. Somedo-it-yourselfers sand the wood away wherever it isn’t needed,leaving the area immediately in front of the fore-end screw bearingagainst the steel. Others find it’s much simpler and quicker toput a small patch of glass bedding compound, even plastic wood, in thesame spot. When the screw is tightened, the compound or plastic remainsthe only point of contact between fore-end and barrel.

Old-timers also adopted the habit of relieving the wood where itbears against the receiver. If a Savage walks its shots as the barrelheats, shaving a slight bit of wood in that vicinity might not be a badidea. If groups are consistent, though, it’s a good idea to justleave it alone. A tubular-magazine carbine like a Winchester 94 or oneof the Marlins should be able to put five successive shots into 3 inchesor less at 100 yards when it’s equipped with a good receiver sightand fired from a rest. If a 4X scope is mounted, groups should shrinkto 2 inches or less.

A Savage 99, with a 4X scope, should have no trouble printing 1-1/2inches at the hundred mark. So should one of the BLRs. A Winchester 88should be able to register 1-1/4 inch, extreme spread. If your rifle doesn’t shoot that well–don’t just standthere, go ahead and do something about it!

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