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Bolt Action vs. Lever Action | What Is the Difference?

Bolt action and lever action rifles both have a place in history, as well as modern applications. Bolt-action rifles are well-known as sniper rifles, whereas lever-action rifles have achieved a kind of immortality as ‘cowboy hunting’ guns. But what exactly is the difference between a bolt-action rifle and a lever-action rifle?

The difference between lever-action and bolt-action is that lever-action guns have a lot of moving parts compared to bolt-action, making them less accurate and prone to failure. Although both have their place in history and modern use, bolt-action is preferred for its accuracy and reliability.

In this article, I’ll be covering the many differences between bolt-action and lever-action rifles, including which is faster, why bolt-action rifles largely replaced lever-action rifles, and much more relevant info about the two.

Bolt Action Rifle on Top and Lever Action Rifle on Bottom Graphic

Bolt Action vs. Lever Action Speed

Concerning raw handling and firing speed, lever actions slightly edge out bolt-action rifles – it’s simply too fast to short-stroke a lever-action rifle versus clearing, reloading, and chambering a new round in a bolt-action rifle.

It’s important to note that while technically lever-action rifles are faster because they can be short-stroked, doing so can make the action jam pretty easily. Conversely, bolt-action rounds are cleared from the chamber one by one by the bolt. This makes bolt-action less prone to jamming from rapid firing.

With practice, lever-action rifles can be fired much faster than bolt-action. By default, however, bolt-action is probably easier for a newcomer to fire in succession without causing time-consuming jams.

Bolt Action vs. Lever Action Durability

Bolt-action rifles are much more durable and reliable than lever-action rifles. This is because bolt-action rifles have far fewer moving mechanical parts that can cause them to fail, whereas lever-action rifles have lots of moving parts. Any part that messes up can cause the whole gun to choke up.

The unfortunate truth with guns, as with any mechanical device, is that more moving parts means more room for failure.

Think about it like this: Let’s say a lever-action requires ten moving parts of varying size and complexity to work exactly right every time the gun is fired and reloaded. Then take a bolt-action that uses, say, only seven moving parts. If just one part on either gun has a defect from manufacturing or gets damaged during the firing process, the gun won’t fire.

So, following that line of thought, ten moving parts have much more room for failure than only seven parts.

This is a gross oversimplification, but the point remains: Greater complexity in any mechanical system leaves more room for failure to occur. When applied to something used in combat situations like guns, this can be the literal difference between life and death.

Lever-action guns have a ton of screws in their designs, and screws tend to vibrate when the gun is fired – vibrations can make screws unscrew themselves over time and make the gun less reliable over time. The areas where bolt-actions have screws, by contrast, are typically where you would mount a sight or scope, and sometimes in the receiver. 

Fewer fasteners holding the solid parts of the weapon together reduce the chances of any given fastener coming loose and potentially affecting accuracy in a crucial situation.

Why Did Bolt Action Replace Lever Action?

Young Man Shooting Camo Bolt Action Rifle

The primary reasons bolt-action replaced lever-action, especially in combat situations, are that bolt-action rifles are easier to fire when prone, and they are more accurate. These two things together made bolt-action an immediate hit among snipers and marksmen at large.

In America, lever-action rifles became iconic for their use in the Civil War era, where they were used by infantry on horseback and by what we colloquially referred to as ‘cowboys,’ which were mainly livestock herders who became romanticized by Western movies.

During the years leading up to WWI, large-scale warfare demanded a more accurate and less finicky replacement for lever-action guns. Another big factor is that lever-action rifles aren’t compatible with the higher calibers of ammunition used by bolt-action – because of the way the action works, pointy spitzer bullets would rub against the primer and ignite.

Bolt-action rifles required only that the bolt be retracted and pushed back into place to chamber a new round, which allowed a single combatant to remain on target and fire in succession with greater accuracy.

Note: The tube magazine cannot inherently use spitzer bullets, but there are solutions to the problem, which are beyond the scope of this article. For further reading on the matter, go here to read about BLR, one of the solutions.

Are Lever Action Rifles Obsolete?

Lever-action rifles are not obsolete. They’ve fallen out of favor among snipers, but lever-action rifles are still used for hunting small and big game and are popular for home defense due to their small profile. Law enforcement officers in some areas still carry lever-action guns.

Lever-action rifles have been so heavily romanticized by companies such as Browning and Winchester that they’ll probably never die out. The Winchester 1886 is one of the most iconic American guns ever created for a reason! It helps that they have a relatively slim and compact design compared to long and bulky bolt-action rifles.

Lever-action rifles are still regularly used by hunters who enjoy the slim, lightweight profile combined with a high rate of fire, which is great for hunting deer and small game alike. They have high stopping power without the ammunition being so large that it destroys animal meat for later consumption.

Modern users of lever-action rifles aren’t riding around the West on horseback or wrangling varmints, but they get great usage out of this ‘outdated’ weapon to this day.

Law enforcement officers who are allowed to choose their own patrol guns sometimes opt for lever-action rifles instead of shotguns or AR-style semi-automatic rifles. The choice may be personal preference or a conscious decision to use a less publicly controversial weapon that’s still suitable for long-distance engagements.

Why Do Snipers Prefer Bolt Action?

Sniper Rifle Sitting in Grass

Snipers prefer bolt-action for its superior accuracy, low weight, reliability, and ability to control reload rate. Bolt-action rifles are also much easier to fire while prone, giving them a huge tactical advantage in combat situations. Lever-action rifles simply aren’t as accurate or reliable.

Any kind of motion in the action or bolt of the gun puts a sniper off-target for follow-up shots, but bolt-action requires only the bolt to be moved while they hold the gun trained on their target. Modern semi-automatic rifles, by contrast, have more complicated actions that make them less accurate than bolt-action guns.

Lever-action rifles were popular for the ability to fire rapidly and accurately from horseback, with little consideration for how easy they were to operate from a stealth perspective. Lever-action guns are very awkward to fire and reload while lying prone, which is the position from which many snipers behind enemy lines fire.

Is the Lever Action Rifle a Sniper?

Lever-action rifles are not sniper rifles. They’re inferior for use as sniper rifles because most lever-action rifles use rounds such as .30 caliber or smaller; this gives them a trajectory that arcs over long distances. Plus, lever-action is less accurate than bolt-action at long distances.

Two of the most popular rounds for snipers are the .308 and the 338 lapua magnum.

From a modern perspective, lever-action rifles are sometimes confused with bolt-action or ‘sniper’ rifles because they can be used with success at distances. For truly precise shots, however, lever-action rifles aren’t as reliable as bolt-action because of their internal complexity and a greater number of components.

It’s important to note that while lever-action guns as a whole aren’t as reliably accurate as bolt-action, that doesn’t make them inaccurate. Personal preference and familiarity with the weapon play a huge part in how effective any given gun is; a relative novice to bolt-action guns may be an expert marksman with a lever-action rifle.

Related What Makes a Rifle a DMR? (With 9 Examples).

Why Are Lever Actions So Expensive?

Lever-action rifles are relatively expensive because their designs require very specific gunsmithing knowledge. Lever-action gun manufacturing requires producing more parts than bolt-action guns, not to mention that lever-action guns are more mechanically complex.

As I mentioned above, lever-action rifles use a lot of fasteners and moving parts compared to bolt-actions, which use more solid parts. This means the guns are ultimately more complex, requiring extensive gunsmithing knowledge to reliably and quickly assemble them. Being more expensive to produce naturally means the end product will be more expensive, too.

Another reason lever-actions are so expensive is simple supply and demand: Not many manufacturers create lever-action rifles anymore, so the ones that do produce them can demand a higher price for the guns.

Finally, in addition to supply and demand is the historical significance of lever-actions. People who don’t know much about guns and hear ‘lever action’ probably instantly think of a ‘cowboy gun.’ This is because Hollywood and gun companies that produce them have bombarded the contemporary public with the correlation.

As such, lever-action rifles have become synonymous with rugged American individualism and the Wild West frontier. Few other guns save some revolvers are associated with this era, so they have a high price for their historical importance.

What Companies Make Lever-Action Rifles?

The most iconic companies that are synonymous with lever-action guns are easily Henry, Winchester, and Marlin. Winchester’s Model 94, since discontinued, ran for 6.5 million units – the best-selling lever-action rifles of all time! 

A few of the other most popular lever-action rifles are the Henry Rifle, and Marlin’s Model 1894. Another notable mention is the Winchester Model 1873, which is popularly called, “the gun that won the West” because that is how it was marketed.

All three of the aforementioned companies still manufacture and sell lever-action rifles, although some of the more historical models have been discontinued.

What Is the Most Powerful Lever Action Rifle?

Possibly the most powerful lever-action rifle is the Winchester 1886 when equipped with the .50-110 Winchester cartridges. These were designed to hunt big game like elk and black bears, but fell out of favor due to compatibility issues.

What Is the Most Expensive Lever Action Rifle?

The most expensive lever-action rifle ever sold was a Winchester 1886, sold at auction for $1.265 million. It was the most expensive gun ever sold largely because of its history; it was owned by Captain Henry Ware Lawton, who captured the Apache leader Geronimo in 1886.

Are Bolt Actions More Accurate?

Four Soldiers With Rifles and a Helicopter in Background

Because bolt-action rifles have fewer moving parts than lever-action rifles, they are more reliably accurate. Lever-action rifles can still be very accurate, especially if the person shooting is familiar with the gun; however, bolt-action rifles are easier to pick up and shoot accurately with.

With fewer moving parts, bolt-action rifles are far more accurate by default than lever-action rifles. This means less training is typically needed to effectively and accurately fire them, which is crucial when considering their effectiveness in armies. Lever-action rifles can be accurate, but they aren’t as reliable in wartime conditions.

Another vital factor for combat situations is that bolt-action rifles are compatible with larger calibers of ammunition, which have longer firing trajectories than lever-action ammunition that typically caps at .30 caliber. Lever-action ammo simply isn’t designed for the distances that bolt-action ammo is.

Most long-distance scopes and sights for modern rifles are created with bolt-action guns in mind, offering greater flexibility. Lever-action rifles are often portrayed without sights or scopes, but they’re compatible with their own range of accessories as well, even if that range isn’t as wide as bolt-action.

Do Police Use Lever Action Rifles?

Some police use lever-action rifles. In fact, they’re a popular alternative to rifles and shotguns for law enforcement in some areas. There are no mandates or quotas on the subject, but some officers may opt to use lever-action rifles in place of AR-style guns to avoid politically motivated outcry.

The simple truth is that AR-style guns, for good or bad, have received a lot of public backlash in recent years. Media perception often portrays AR-style guns in a less than flattering light for their role in mass shootings and politically charged legislation.

For these reasons, law enforcement officers looking for a more accurate gun in long-distance engagements may opt for a lever-action rifle. 

Lever-action rifles also have a good rate of fire, making prolonged engagements easier to end quickly without lengthy reloading where civilians may be hurt. 

Lever-action rifles can also be kept unloaded and loaded quickly if the need arises, making them an attractive option for some law enforcement officers. Shotguns that are kept preloaded, by contrast, are more dangerous in case of an accident or weapon theft.

Final Thoughts

Although bolt-action rifles are what most snipers use these days, lever-action rifles are still created and sold for gun enthusiasts and hunters to enjoy.

Thanks for reading!

For more, check out How To Choose the Best Rifle for Target Shooting.