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, they
resurface to plague and confuse mankind. Just last week, for instance,
I overheard a self-appointed expert giving a muzzle-loading tyro the
benefit 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 about
charcoal-burners,” he continued, “they’re the safest
things in the world to shoot. You can’t blow one up!”

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Although that bunch of nonsense has been disproven time and time
again, it’ll still be echoing around long after Yosemite’s
been converted to a parking lot for the Sierra Club’s headquarters.



Then there’s the one about cast bullets. I heard it again
down at a local gunshop not too long ago. “Cast bullets,”
some know-it-all proclaimed loftily, “are only good for potting tin
cans and pop bottles–if they’re close enough!” He laughed
scornfully. “Shooting ’em in a rifle’s a waste of time
and money!”



Luckily, there was a well-known hunter present who’s taken
more big game with cast bullets than most of us have seen. He
straightened that character out in a hurry.



A couple of days later, I was browsing at another gunshop when
another joker began expounding about lever actions in loud tones:
“Lever actions,” he intoned, “are okay if ranges are
under 100 yards and your target’s big. If you’re really
serious about hitting something, though–buy a bolt action!”


It’s amazing how many otherwise well-informed hunters are
still taken in by that kind of hogwash. A hundred years ago–even 50,
perhaps–there may have been some truth to that charge. Steels were
softer then and technology didn’t permit the close tolerances
considered normal now. Lever rifles made back then weren’t always
capable of grouping dependably. But that was a long time ago and a lot
of lead has zipped downrange in the ensuing decades.



Modern lever rifles are stronger, better made and much more
accurate than was once the case. Nevertheless, it’s still
fashionable in some quarters to regard them as period pieces, hold-overs
from 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 a
diet of factory loads, the average, untuned, lever-action big-game rifle
will shoot right alongside its out-of-the-box, bolt-action counterpart.



That may raise a few eyebrows but it’s true, nonetheless. A
bolt action’s accuracy potential may be slightly better than a
lever’s, but where big-game rifles are concerned, the difference
isn’t a whole lot–half a minute of angle or less, as a rule.



A modern lever, equipped with a 4X scope and firing
carefully-tailored handloads, should be able to put five rounds into
1-1/2 inches, extreme spread, at 100 yards from a rest. Anyone who
settles for less is selling himself–and his rifle–short.



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



My records indicate that a good, brand-new, untuned, light-barreled
bolt 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 three
quarters of an inch, but it’s a rare hunting arm of any kind which
can come close to a minute of angle unless it’s been re-stocked or
at least, re-bedded by expert hands. Even then, it’s asking a lot
to expect a light, mass-produced barrel to hold that well after it heats
up.



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 spring
actions and sluggish lock times work against them. A Browning BLR will
usually outshoot one of the Marlins. The best of them all was the
now-obsolete Winchester 88. Basically a leverl-actuated bolt action,
most 88s shot close to an inch–or would with a little coaxing. While
that’s too much to expect from a Winchester or Marlin carbine, both
can be made to shoot under two minutes of angle. That may not win any
matches, but it can sure help put meat in the freezer.


Improving most levers’ performance won’t demand custom
stocks, glass bedding or secret tuning techniques. In fact, all most of
them need is a better trigger, some good sights and quality ammunition.



There’s always an exception or two. Every now and then a
rifle comes along which marches to its own tune. I ran into one of
those a couple of years ago: a Savage 99 in .358 caliber. No matter I
tried, its groups ranged from 2 to 2-1/2 inches. On the other hand, it
was one of the most consistent rifles I’ve ever encountered.
Whether that barrel was cold and clean or red hot and fouled, groups
never expanded. Neither did the point of impact shift so much as 1/4
inch. It may not have been quite as accurate as I wished it to be, but
its dependability couldn’t be faulted.



Rifles like that are rare. However, most of the levers turned out
today will respond to a few simple and inexpensive modifications. The
potential’s there: you just have to find out where it’s
hiding.



The obvious place to start is with the sights. Those installed at
the 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 more
effective than those which graced the flintlocks and their more
primitive ancestors centuries ago. Certainly, they’re the most
difficult to use–and the slowest, too.



When using an open rear, the eye has to bounce back and forth from
target to front blade to rear notch before the rifle’s lined up
properly. With an aperture or peep sight, that same eye has only two
different planes to contend with: target and front blade. If a
scope’s involved, there’s only one focal point–the glass
itself. Obviously, it takes longer for the eye to line up three planes
than it does two or only one. No matter what anyone tells you, open
sights 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 average
shooter can expect from a rifle adorned with open sights is 3-1/2 to
4-1/2 inches at a hundred yards. Replace that open rear with a decent
peep, and the same rifle, eyes and ammo can shrink those groups to 2-1/2
inches or less.



A scope, naturally, offers the most precise alignment potential.
Its magnification and light-gathering qualities also let a man see well
enough to shoot earlier in the morning and later in the afternoon, too.
Unfortunately, those advantages are not without cost. Scope and mount
add a pound to a rifle’s heft. Not infrequently, that extra weight
also destroys an arm’s balance and responsiveness as well. Because
of that, hunters who normally seek their quarry where cover is dense and
snap shots are the rule generally stick to metallic sights.



The next item of concern is the trigger. Those on mass-produced
rifges aren’t as smooth or crisp as they could be. Even so, few
hunters 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 compensate
for it. In the field, however, a balky trigger encourages jerking–and
most hunting situations provide enough challenges without that.



My old Winchester .30-30, for instance, was graced with a
first-class trigger job years ago. At the time, I could ill afford the
few dollars the gunsmith charged. Nonetheless, that turned out to be
one of the best moves I ever made. The little carbine is fitted out
with a tang peep and a Redfield Sourdough up front. With that 26-inch
sighting radius and good handloads, I can expect 2-inch groups at 100
yards as long as I do my part. Obviously, those sights and the
ammunition deserve much of the credit for such small groups, but were it
not for the trigger’s crisp let-off, it’s doubtful if those
holes would snuggle together as companionably as they do.



It’s an exceptional firearm which won’t perk up when its
magazine is filled with carefully-tailored handloads. I’ve been
told there are some which do their best with factory fodder, but
I’ve never encountered one. Every big-game sporter I’ve ever
loaded for showed an immediate and marked improvement in accuracy once
the right combination of components was discovered. As a rule, the
majority of those rifles’ groups were reduced at least 25 percent
with handloads. Rolling your own is the simplest and least expensive
method of improving a lever-action’s performance.



Tough steels and incredibly close tolerances make today’s
lever rifles much stouter than their predecessors. Nevertheless,
loading manuals continue to recommend conservative powder charges, even
for 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 by
the strength of its case as that of the action it’s fired in. When
a round is overloaded, it’s the brass or sometimes the primer which
lets go first. Although today’s Marlin and Winchester carbines can
probably put up with more abuse than those made a few decades back,
brass formed for the .35 Remington, the .30-30 and other mild-mannered
calibers haven’t really changed much over the years. They’re
still manufactured with 40,000 copper units of pressure (c.u.p) or so in
mind and won’t tolerate much more.



While .308 and .284 hulls are thicker and stronger, their primers
are still relatively thin. They depend on the bolt face as well as the
head of the firing pin for much of their support when the powder charge
explodes. A bolt-action’s firing pin is long, heavy and usually
backed up by a powerful spring. A lever action’s has to be more
compact. It’s also quite a bit lighter and can’t exert the
same amount of push against a primer. Pressures which won’t budge
a bolt-action’s firing pin can force a lever’s back and allow
primer metal to extrude into the orifice in the face of the breechblock.
That’s one of the reasons lever operating pressures are lower than
a bolt action’s.



With decent sights, a smooth trigger and better ammunition, most
levers begin punching out more creditable groups. However, if yours
sitll refuses to send its bullets where it’s pointed, if its zero
shifts unexpectedly or its shots begin walking as the rifle’s
barrel starts to warm up, your labors have just begun.



Nine times out of ten, persnickety reactions like that can be
blamed on a binding fore-end, a too-tight magazine, an over-zealous
barrel band–or all of the above. In the tenth instance, it’s the
shooting position, not the firearm, that’s at fault.



First, examine your shooting position with a critical eye. To
begin with, you need the most stable platform you can find. If a
shooting bench is available, great. If not, there are other routes to
take. A prone position with the rifle resting on a rolled-up blanket or
sleeping bag is excellent. Whatever you do, don’t use the bed of a
pickup or the hood or roof of a car. A vehicle’s suspension will
bounce during the rifle’s recoil. The movement may be small-but
who needs it? Nope, when rest-testing, vehicles of any kind are bad
news.



Whichever position or rest you employ, be sure to keep everything
as uniform as possible from shot to shot. Initial groups should be
fired with the rifle’s supports under the buttstock and front of
the receiver. Next, shift the location of the forward support to see
what, if anything, happens out there on target. The object is to
determine which hold and what kind of support delivers the most
consistent results. Even if a rifle’s groups are underwhelming,
don’t be discouraged. What you’re after at this point is
predictability.



If you’re testing a potent number like a .444 or .308, which
tries to jump away from the rest whenever the hammer drops, forget the
“hands off” benchrest approach. Hard-kickers have to be
anchored. 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 the
same from one shot to the next.



During this phase, it’s best to take plenty of time between
shots. If the barrel walks its shots or if its zero displaces as it
warms to its task, you’ll go nuts trying to distinguish between
cause and effect. Keep that tube as cool as possible until you’ve
figured out how to hold and support the rifle for the most dependable
results.



After that problem’s out of the way, see how the rifle shoots
when unencumbered by the fore-end or tubular magazine, if it has one.
Occasionally, the troublemaking part announces its presence during
disassembly. If a fore-end’s under an obvious strain or should it
prove necessary to free a tube from the clutches of a barrel band by
force, chances are you’ve just pin-pointed the source of your
rifle’s less-than-acceptable performance.



If something is binding somewhere, there’ll be an immediate
improvement in accuracy as soon as the offending add-ons are removed.
Even if five-shot strings are rapped out in a normal cadence, say, one
shot every 30 seconds or so, there should be not tendency for the barrel
to change its mind about where it wants to send its slugs. Naturally,
most sporter-weight barrels group tighter when cool than they do when
hot, but there shouldn’t be any uncalled flyers. Neither should
there be any hint of a shift in the zero. If there is, the culprit has
to 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 at
the crucial junction of buttstock and receiver will be reflected
immediately on the target. Any time a lever action begins acting up
without warning, the stock bolt is usually to blame.



Curing a stock bolt’s relaxed grip is simple–if your
screwdriver fits and is long enough. If the old toolbox can’t
supply one, take the rifle down to your friendly gunsmith. Trying to
tighten anything with the wrong-sized screwdriver is false economy.
Once the head of that stockbolt is butchered up, it’ll be nothing
more than a constant source of aggravation.



If buttstock and receiver are mated like glue and the rifle
continues to shoot patterns instead of groups, then, my friend, you have
one of those barrels! There are two options: live with it or replace
it!



On the traditional designs like Winchester’s 94 or one of the
Marlins, tubular magazines and barrel bands should fit one another like
gloves: snug but without binding. You should be able to slide a tube in
and out of the band by hand. If it has to be tapped or forced in some
way, the band’s too tight. When the barrel gets hot, the heat will
radiate through the band to the magazine. Since all those metal pieces
are of different thicknesses, they expand and contract at different
rates. Unless there’s a little wagon room between them,
they’ll begin so pull and tug at one another. Any pressure against
the barrel probably won’t be much–but it doesn’t have to be.
Most carbine barrels are fairly thin and very sensitive to outside
pressure, no matter how slight.



To correct that situation, remove a little metal from inside the
barrel band. The tube shouldn’t be so loose it rattles around
inside the band, but there should be no rasp of metal against metal when
the tube is pushed in or out.



The old-fashioned carbines also seem happier when the fore-end
doesn’t contact any part of the barrel. Clearance between wood an
steel doesn’t have to be great, but make sure nothing’s
touching, especially when the metal is hot.



The same thing applies to fore-end and tubular magazine. It’s
not uncommon to find that the very tip of the fore-end is jammed against
the magazine. Most barrels will notice that pressure and try to escape
from it every time a round goes off. Relieve the wood wherever it
touches the magazine.



Grouping normally benefits if the fore-end maintains a slight
upward pressure against the barrel’s underside. Some
do-it-yourselfers sand the wood away wherever it isn’t needed,
leaving the area immediately in front of the fore-end screw bearing
against the steel. Others find it’s much simpler and quicker to
put a small patch of glass bedding compound, even plastic wood, in the
same spot. When the screw is tightened, the compound or plastic remains
the only point of contact between fore-end and barrel.



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



A Savage 99, with a 4X scope, should have no trouble printing 1-1/2
inches at the hundred mark. So should one of the BLRs. A Winchester 88
should be able to register 1-1/4 inch, extreme spread.



If your rifle doesn’t shoot that well–don’t just stand
there, go ahead and do something about it!

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