Prepper Guns: Firearms, Ammo, Tools, and Techniques You Will Need to Survive the Coming Collapse (2016)


The Lever-Action Alternative

If you are politically oppressed and can’t own the gun you want, this might be the gun you need.


Marlin 1894 carbines: front is .357 Mag., back is .44 Mag.

There is no question that a magazine-fed, semiauto rifle is the best tool a prepper can have for survival. But what if you are one of those poor unfortunate souls who live where the government doesn’t trust you enough to own one? Well, the obvious answer is to move. Those places almost always have high population densities and that means trouble after TSHTF. Even if you live in a more rural part of your state, you are close to huge populations of people and when the cities empty, they will find you.

Easy enough to say, but believe me, I am the first to understand that moving is not always as easy as it sounds. Sometimes we get “stuck” for reasons out of our control, like jobs or family. I also recognize that for some people it’s home and they don’t want to move. But that doesn’t mean you have to break the law to protect yourself or to prepare.

One alternative to consider is a lever-action carbine in a revolver cartridge. These guns provide an interesting and surprisingly effective alternative for those politically repressed poor souls who can’t legally own an AR-15, AK-47, or similar rifle. A lever-action may be the best alternative where it’s the only alternative.

Because these guns are an old design and were seen in every cowboy movie ever made, they fly below the radar. The anti-gunners are motivated by emotion and they tend to go after scary-looking guns. Nobody except those deeply afflicted with hoplophobia (fear of firearms) thinks that Gene Autry’s gun is scary looking. It’s much easier politically for the gun-banners to go after a black gun than the one John Wayne used to keep the West safe. So, for the most part, lever-actions are legal and socially acceptable even in locations that do not embrace the concept of the Second Amendment.

The history of the lever-action is uniquely American. It started with Walter Hunt in 1848 when he developed the “Rocket Ball and Volition Repeater.” This was a lever-action, breech-loading repeating rifle with an under-the-barrel tube magazine. Sound familiar? It should; that’s the basic premise for the lever-actions we use today. That rifle used a cartridge of sorts that featured a hollow base, conical bullet with the powder charge contained in the base. A separate primer ignited it, so it wasn’t exactly a self-contained cartridge, but the bullet and propellant was one single unit—an underpowered, wimpy single unit, which is why sales were dismal.

Hunt later teamed up with George Arrowsmith (no relation to the “Dude Looks Like a Lady” guys) and Lewis Jennings. They were granted a patent for the Jennings improvement in 1849 and they changed the name of the gun. They also got a contract to make five thousand Jennings Repeaters in Vermont, but the rifle was too complicated and underpowered for commercial success. Only a handful were made in repeaters and the rest were produced as single-shots. The foreman in that factory was Benjamin Tyler Henry, a man who became very important in the development of the lever-action rifle.

In 1854 Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson developed a lever-action pistol with an under-the-barrel-tube magazine. Their shop foreman? None other than B. Tyler Henry. After the production of about one thousand of these guns, the name of the company was changed to Volcanic Repeating Arms Company. (If you are lucky enough to have one of the original pistols hiding in your attic it might be worth as much as a small, new car—maybe even more. Find a Volcanic Model Pistol with a detachable stock and you may be able to pay off your mortgage.) Joining this company as an investor was a men’s garment maker named Oliver F. Winchester.

Henry later developed a successful rimfire .44 cartridge and a brass frame lever-action called the Henry Rifle. The first fifteen-shot Henry rifles were shipped in 1862 and soon gained a reputation as formidable fighting tools. One Confederate officer called it “that damn Yankee gun they load on Sunday and shoot all week.”

One widely publicized incident helped to sell this rifle. Captain James M. Wilson of the 12th Kentucky Cavalry was accosted by seven guerillas while dining with his family in his home. He convinced them to kill him outside so his family wouldn’t have to watch. On the way out the door he grabbed his Henry rifle and killed the seven bad guys with eight shots. In an era of single-shot rifles, this proved beyond all doubt that the Henry was the gun to have when your life depended on shooting fast and well.

I suspect that, like me, Wilson got grumpy when he was hungry. Clearly, they should not have interrupted his dinner. Telemarketers, take note.

The Henry rifle was the launch pad for all modern lever-action rifles. What followed was a revolution in rifles. The single-shot cartridge rifle was now passé and the repeating lever-action would dominate American gun culture at least until World War II. Even today, the lever-action rifle is alive and well. When we explore the current new lever-actions on the market chambered for revolver cartridges, it pretty much means the Marlin 1894, Winchester 1892, or Henry Big Boy. However, production on the first two guns is a bit uncertain at this writing and they may be difficult to find.

There are also some imported copies of the old Winchester guns like the 1892, 1873, and others. Some are okay, but many others can be pretty spotty on quality and function, so check the gun out thoroughly before you buy it.

You may also find some used guns on the market. Winchester made the 1894 in .44 Magnum for years. I have a couple of them and they are fine guns. Also, the Marlin 1894 was pretty popular and you can find used guns, usually in .44 Magnum, for a reasonable price. A lot of the Marlin .357 guns were snatched up by the Cowboy Action Shooters. Be very wary of any of those on the used gun market as CAS shooters often modify the guns to the point of stupidity and those changes can be detrimental to use as a defensive rifle. Have a gunsmith check it out before you buy.

These lever-action carbines are usually chambered for .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum, or .45 Colt. The .357 and .44 Magnums are the best choices as they will offer the most options for functional ammo designed for self-defense.


With modern ammo the .45 Colt can be effective in a handgun or a lever-action carbine.

While never traditionally chambered in a lever-action rifle, modern gun makers put the .45 Colt in lever-actions to appeal to CAS shooters. Most factory ammo is underpowered, but at least one major ammo company, Hornady, is making defensive ammo for the .45 Colt. I checked with Hornady and their spokesman said the company’s Critical Defense ammo is well suited for use in lever-action rifles. In fact, another .45 Colt load from them, LEVERevolution, is designed for lever-action rifles. Hornady ammo is some of the best on the market and in this situation it can make a .45 Colt lever-action into a viable defensive carbine. There are not as many defensive ammo options as for the .357 or .44, but that .45 Colt punches a big hole.


The .357 Magnum is a versatile cartridge and is handy in a lever-action rifle for defense.

Some of the imported guns will be chambered for old cartridges like the .38–40 or .44–40. Avoid those guns, as there is no good defensive ammo available. They are marketed to the Cowboy Action Shooters and their ammo is very underpowered. These two are also a bit tricky to reload so they are not the best choices for a prepper.

Why use a revolver cartridge? Primarily because of magazine capacity. These little carbines will hold ten rounds in the magazine. The longer cartridges like the .30–30 will limit a carbine to seven cartridges. Plus the .30–30 kicks more, so recovery time is slower between shots. Also, a powerful rifle cartridge like the .30–30 will run a higher risk of over-penetration. That is when the bullet exits the target and can cause unwanted damage to whatever is beyond. This is a bad thing when you have friends, family, or neighbors lurking about whom you would prefer not to shoot.


The .44 Magnum is effective for defense in a handgun or a carbine.

Several manufacturers offer .357 Magnum and .44 Magnum cartridges with bullets designed for self-defense. Part of that design is to help minimize over-penetration.

While not even in the same class as a magazine-fed, semiauto rifle, these carbines can be reloaded relatively quickly and a partially empty magazine can be topped off. With practice a shooter can hit multiple targets surprisingly fast with these guns. Check out any Cowboy Action match and you will be amazed how fast those shooters can work a lever gun.

The lever-action, revolver-cartridge carbine can also be used for hunting as these cartridges can take deer-size game, although the .44 Magnum is more powerful and better suited for that. I can attest to that with personal experience: I have shot several deer, hogs, and black bears with the .44 Magnum and my uncle Butch Towsley used a Marlin in .44 Magnum exclusively for years, shooting a lot of deer. It’s an amazingly effective cartridge.

The lever-action also gives you a long-gun option for those revolver cartridges. You never know what will show up in the ammo supply stream during a survival situation. These are very popular revolver cartridges and the odds favor that you may find ammo available even when things are bad. These carbines give you an option beyond the revolvers. They also respond very well to cast bullets so if you are making your own bullets and reloading ammo, these guns are a very good option. Some of the older Marlins had micro-groove rifling that was not the best for cast bullets, although they will work if you cast them with a hard alloy. The more recent Marlin guns have deep cut Ballard rifling designed for cast bullets. Because lever-actions are not gas operated like semiautos and don’t have a gas port to plug up, they won’t have the problems associated with most semiauto rifles and cast bullets.

I prefer a peep sight over the traditional open sights that come with the gun. One of my Winchester 94 .44 Magnum carbines and my Marlin 1894 in .44 Magnum both have Williams rear peep sights. Lyman also makes peep-style sights for these rifles. My Winchester has a brass-bead front sight while the Marlin has a fiber-optic front sight. I like the high visibility of the fiber optic and find it’s very fast when doing drills on the range or hunting. If you go that route, make sure you store some replacement filaments for the fiber-optic sight as they break now and then. It’s probably a good idea to stock up on a few extra sights, including a few brass-bead front sights, as front sights tend to break with hard use. You may want to install a red-dot or even a low-power scope. The modern Marlins are drilled and tapped for optics. With their side-ejection design they work very well with any top-mounted optic. The later production Winchester Model 94 carbines in .44 Magnum made before the New Haven plant closed were drilled and tapped as well. They have the angle-eject feature for mounting a scope. The current reproduction Winchester Model 92 rifles do not allow easy scope mounting. Most of the imported guns follow the original Winchester design and will be difficult to fit with an optic.

These lever-action carbines are a lot of fun to shoot, which means you will be inclined to train with them more often.

The lever-action first gained recognition as a self-defense gun during the Civil War. Even today, a century and a half later, this historically all-American design works fine for defense of hearth and home.

Make no mistake; the lever-action is old technology, and these guns are not even close to being as effective as a magazine-fed, semiauto like the AR-15. But if you live where American freedom is no longer recognized and realize that you must have something to protect yourself and your family, consider the lever-action alternative.

Even if you live in a free state, any serious prepper should consider one or more of these guns because of possible ammo availability and because they are one of the best long-gun alternatives to use with cast bullets.