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Lever-action accuracy.

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!"

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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Title Annotation:rifles
Author:Miller, Al
Publication:Guns & Ammo
Date:Apr 1, 1985
Words:3045
Previous Article:Colt's .45 auto goes stainless; it's finally here - a Government Model built to stand up to the most brutal service conditions.
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