Lever Action Rifles & Cartridges

Competitors who try lever action silhouette for the first time usually make the same remark – “This lever action silhouette game is really fun to shoot!” Maybe it’s the nostalgic feeling of firing iconic firearms used in the Wild West. Certainly Cowboy Action Shooters feel this way. Maybe it is using iron sights and not watching that damn cross-hair/dot reticle in your scope bouncing around the animal!

Whatever the reason, lever action silhouette competition has rocketed to the top as the most popular silhouette rifle discipline. So drag dad’s old lever action rifle out of the closet and come on out to a range offering lever action silhouette matches near you!

While the concept of a lever action mechanism might have been conceived in Europe, the lever action rifle remains a true American icon. Many of the lever action rifles in use today for silhouette are largely the same design as those used in the Wild West. Therefore, for the shooter who wishes to give lever action silhouette a try, it is useful to briefly outline the history of lever action rifle development as it relates to selecting lever action rifles, sights and cartridges for silhouette competition.

For more information on Lever Action Rifles and Cartridges, please visit our “Rifle & Sights” and “Ammo & Ballistics” Blogs within the Technical Library!

Evolution of Lever Action Rifles

The first real commercially successful lever action rifle was the 1860 Henry Repeating Rifle chambered in the .44 Henry Rimfire Cartridge with a magazine tube holding 16 rounds. While not as popular as the Spencer Reating Rifle, the Henry even saw limited service in the Civil War, being privately purchased by Union soldier such as the 7th Illinois Volunteers as pictured above. The 1860 Henry Repeating Rifle certainly make an impression with the CSA.

“Its a rifle that you could load on Sunday and shoot all week long!”

Attributed to a Confederate Officer

Oliver Winchester’s Model 1866 was the successor to the 1860 Henry Repeating Rifle, refining Benjamin Henry’s toggle-based design by adding a loading gate in the receiver for quick reloading and adding a wooden hand guard. The Model 1866 iwas nicknamed the “Yellowboy” due to its brass receiver.

Seven years later, Winchester unveiled Model 1873 that used the same basic toggle-link action as the Henry but was chambered in new center-fire ammunition. It proved to be a huge commercial success. Winchester continued manufacturing it until 1919.

Winchester 1873 – “The Gun That won the West” manufactured from 1873 to 1923

on the 1866 Winchester

As vital as the plowshare or branding iron, the Winchester Model 1873 saw sodbuster and rancher through good and bad times alike. By today’s standards, many would turn up their noses at the thought of a pistol-caliber rifle as the primary long gun; but, at the time, it was a sound system. When a single washed-out bridge was enough to incite a supply chain disruption, it was wise to feed your rifle and pistol from the same trough. Anyhow, the ’73’s black powder .44-40 (later, .38-40 and .32-20) cartridge was more than enough to handle almost everyday Old West tasks–be it taking a deer or defending the homestead.

Essentially, the Model 73 is a Henry rifle, but improved to excel in rugged environments. Chief among its upgrades were a closed tubular magazine, a wooden forearm, a steel receiver and, most importantly, a loading gate. That last point was a doozy, because it erased the need to fiddle with the butt or muzzle end of the gun to reload and introduced a new concept to long guns: topping off the magazine.

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If Winchester was “king” of the American frontier, Marlin was the “queen,” especially during the frontier’s waning days. While it always played second fiddle to the New Haven concern, the gunmaker made some important modifications to its lever-action in the final two decades of the 19th century that were actually more conducive to the way the winds were blowing.

Starting with the Model 1889, the “Marlin Safety” system became standard and perhaps created a better lever-action rifle. Certainly, the improved two-piece firing pin was nice, ensuring you didn’t pop off a round before the action was closed. But the more-weighty design points were the inclusion of a locking lug and, of course, Marlin’s trademark solid top. More metal in the receiver and a tighter lockup made for a stronger gun than did preceding lever-actions.

Plus, the side ejection of the ’89 and the Marlins that followed had some distinctive advantages. Canadian and Alaskan “sourdoughs,” for instance, found it was less apt to freeze up than a top ejector–a plus in brown bear country. And, they played nice with telescopic scopes (it’s unlikely that John Marlin aimed for the latter–at the time, they were curiosities–but it certainly set his company up for the next great lever-action era).

It was mainly an ammunition issue. Smokeless powder and spitzer bullets were the breakthroughs of the day. Neither played nice with toggle-links and tubular magazines. It required some genius to modernize the lever-action for the 20th century. It was found in two of the greatest–John Browning and Arthur Savage.

Browning’s magnificent Winchester Model 1894 set the standard for smokeless powder-safe lever-actions. Replacing the toggle link with a moving breech block that covered the entire rear of the breech bolt when closed, the rifle was more than up to the job, safely firing higher-pressure propellent from rifle-sized cartridges. Of course, the Model 94 chambered in .30-30 continues to stands as perhaps the greatest lever-action of all time.

Lever Action Silhouette Rifle Regulations

The following summarizes the three types of Lever Action Silhouette Rifles used in competition. If you have any further questions, please refer to this link to the Official NRA Rifle Silhouette Rulebook

Cowboy Lever Action Rifle Class:

The Cowboy Lever Action Silhouette Rifle is defined as any lever action center fire rifle .25 caliber or larger with a tubular magazine of original manufacturer or replica thereof. A rimmed case loaded with a round or flat nosed bullet must be used. Exception: .30 Remington and .35 Remington are allowed.

Pistol Cartridge Lever Action Rifle Class:

The Pistol Cartridge Cowboy Lever Action Rifle is defined as any lever action rifle with a tubular magazine. A rimmed pistol cartridge loaded with a round or flat nosed bullet must be used, i.e. 25-20, 32-20, 38’s, 357 Magnum, 38-40, 44’s, 44-40, 45 Colt, 45 Long Colt, .22 Magnum and .22 long rifle.

Smallbore Lever Action Rifle Class:

The Smallbore Cowboy Rifle is defined as any lever action, pump, or semi-auto rimfire rifle with a tubular magazine. Only .22 long rifle ammunition is allowed. Hyper velocity ammunition is prohibited.

Further Lever Action Rifle Restrictions:

  • Barrels must be original or may be relined. Original Barrels re-bored to a larger caliber are allowed.
  • Any safe trigger is allowed
  • Stocks must be of original configuration. Recoil pads, replacement buttplates, and removable cheek pieces are allowed.

Lever Action Rifles Used in Silhouette Competition:

We are not making any specific recommendations on what rifles or what calibers to use for lever action silhouette competition. What we can do is to present information on what competitors are using, such as equipment surveys, so that new and less experienced shooters can be more informed.

We recommend you ask your local Master shooters for recommendations if you are interested in buying new rifles and equipment or simply upgrading what you already have. Your other option is to visit our Blogs categories of “Rifles & Sights” and “Ammo & Ballistics” or ask for some advice on our Forum.

Summarize the Survey Results

2021 NRA Lever Action Silhouette National Championship Survey – Rifle Manufacturers

Lever Action Sights Used in Silhouette Competition:

Rear Sights:

The NRA Silhouette Rifle Rulebook states that the rear sights may be open, receiver or tang sights, mounted as originally intended. No extended mounts are permitted.

Picture of rear sights

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Results of Survey

Front Sights:

The NRA Silhouette Rifle Rulebook states that the front sights must be a post or bead or if changeable inserts, may use a post or bead insert only. A front sight anti-glare tube, which may be no longer than 1 1/8″ to include any attachments and no larger than a 3/4′ outside diameter, may be used. Fiber optic material may be used in or on the post or bead and may not be longer that its support blade and not to exceed 1 1/8″ in length. In an anti-glare tube, the fiber optic material may not be any longer than the tube or extend outside the tube. The fiber optic sights do not need to be commercially manufactured.

Picture of front sights/fiber optics

Results of Survey

2021 NRA Lever Action Silhouette National Championship Survey – Front Sight Types

2021 NRA Lever Action Silhouette National Championship Survey – Front Sight Aperatures

2021 NRA Lever Action Silhouette National Championship Survey – Fiber Optics Use

2021 NRA Lever Action Silhouette National Championship Survey – Rear Sight Type

Cartridges Used in Lever Action Silhouette Competition

From NRA Rulebook –

Ammunition may be loaded with smokeless or black powder, using jacketed or cast bullets, with or without gas checks. All bullets must be round or flat nosed suitable for tubular magazine use. Any cartridge causing target damage or deemed unsafe may be banned.