The Resurgence of the "Signature" Lever Rifle

by Nick Rukavina

December 23rd, 2022

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Family photos: Stella, Spartacus and offspring Valkyrie. Taken at Shootists Holiday, 2021.



Valkyrie: Tyler Gun Works modified 357.



Valkyrie detail shots: Skinner Sights rear peep sight and "Bear Buster" brass front sight.



Travis at 13 with a big Ohio doe taken with Shorty, Marcia’s 357.



The lever action rifle IS America's rifle, no doubt! I understand that there's some new-fangled, black, plastic rifle out there that takes magazines and is chambered in 5.56mm (yes, I'm kidding!) or something like that. In my opinion, it will never catch on, trust me! Also, consider this: in 2020, Remington Outdoor Company divested itself of its holdings and Remington Arms, creator of such legendary firearms as the Models 700 and 870, sold for $18 million. Marlin Firearms, with its much older and well-worn machinery, was bought by Ruger for $30 million. A savvy company like Ruger recognized America's love of the lever rifle and wisely chose to capitalize on it. 

First brought out in 1860, lever rifles were a big success here in America and while they were available in Europe, they were never accepted there on a large scale. Almost anyone in our country knows what a lever gun is. My buddy, Matt Peake, is a very successful firearms photographer who has adorable, identical, five-year-old, twin daughters who first started watching John Wayne movies with him every Sunday when they were three. A year ago, one girl told a proud papa that "Sunday is for Jesus and John Wayne!" Think the twins couldn't pick out a lever gun? I wouldn't bet on it. 

Most gun owners have always taken pride in their firearms, some more than others. Personalization has taken many forms, from brass tacks hammered into the stock, engraving, leather doodads for decoration, stock covers to protect the wood and even feathers for decoration or to act as a tell tale to gauge wind. Many who carried their rifle daily even went so far as to name them. Davy Crockett called his rifle "Betsy" and Daniel Boone named his "Old Tick Licker" because he said that it was accurate enough to shoot a tick off a deer. Buffalo Bill Cody called his rifle "Lucrezia Borgia" after a sixteenth century, Spanish Italian woman who came from a family of very dubious character. Interesting reading if you're interested, but don't share it with the kids. 

I always thought that naming guns was silly, but I guess that I felt that way mostly because my childhood friends in rural Ohio kind of took it to extremes. My friend, Jimmy, had a 36" barreled, single shot, 12 gauge Winchester that he had named "Bubba" and whenever he cut loose with that monster, he would declare, "Bubba has spoken!" Sheesh... And then there was Bennie Flem (I changed the first name, but not the last) who would name and rename his rattly, old High Standard pump after his most recent girlfriend. We just called his 20 gauge "his last girlfriend," which he didn't like, at all. Bennie was kinda clueless and lost one girlfriend when he confided in her that he loved her so much, that he named his shotgun after her! She was gone in a flash. I'm firmly convinced that Bennie's on his seventh wife and has a kid named Keltec somewhere. What did I call my shotgun? When pressed to do so, I said that my 20 gauge pump was named Ithaca. Okay, so I was pretty literal as a kid. 

What I'm calling a Signature Lever Rifle is simply the personalizing of a favorite lever rifle. A number of close gun industry friends picked up on this trend and I've followed their lead. Changes typically include shortening a barrel, adding better sights or a different sighting system, maybe deleting modern cross bolt safeties, color-casing the receiver and small parts, adding lightweight, common sense accessories and typically engraved names. A note about common sense modifications because we all use our guns for hunting: none of us have slings that have loops for a couple boxes of ammo, a skinning knife and a fire starting kit. Adding that weight is adding a pendulum and when it gets swinging, it's darn near impossible to make an accurate offhand shot. Also, the advantage of a light, trim lever rifle is negated by adding all that weight. We all use the standard lever loop as it comes from the factory. Even those of us with large hands find that we can easily run the lever when wearing heavy gloves. Overly large loops that can double as basketball hoops don't appeal to us. If you like something larger than a standard lever loop, have at it, it's your rifle. 

Finally, all of my lever guns have butt cuffs for carrying ammo. For storing guns in a secure environment where they might be needed quickly, I prefer to keep them in condition three: tube magazine loaded and hammer down on an empty chamber. A quick throw of the lever and I'm in action. If you're not comfortable with that, a loaded butt cuff keeps ammo aboard the rifle and goes with it when you grab it. Note: check local regulations about the transportation of a rifle with ammo attached. All of my rifles have a good, simple sling attached with QD swivels. I prefer butt cuffs and and simple slings from either Simply Rugged Holsters or Barranti Leather. You can't go wrong with either company. Full disclosure, both owners are good friends and, yes, I pay full price for my gear from them. 

Speaking of calibers, it is interesting to note that we all have rifles chambered for pistol calibers, primary 357 and 44 magnum. The versatility of these two is unquestionable and at times their capabilities are even surprising. Jan Leahy, wife of Simply Rugged Holsters founder Rob Leahy, definitely knows leather and is an excellent shooter in her own right. Jan was on the Military Crest at Gunsite Academy with the late Ed Head and a number of other accomplished shooter friends, while carrying Lucrezia, a Marlin 1894, 16 inch barreled 357 that was loaded with her husband's 148 grain hollow base wadcutter handloads that had been tailored for Jan's rifle. Using Skinner Sights, Jan was consistently hitting steel from the top of the Crest out to 200 yards. Sure, there was plenty of holdover involved and almost time for a sip of coffee before the projectile dinged the target, but it can be done with our abbreviated rifles and some concentration. I would suggest that more often than not, modern shooters are too caught up in technology, relying on it instead of the basics. These simple firearms are taking us back to what shooting should be all about: sights, trigger press and a good follow-through. 

The 357 and 44 magnums have proven to be highly effective on deer size game if used accurately and within a reasonable range. Many have forgotten that when the 30/30, 357 and 44 magnum first were introduced, each had a huge following and even large game animals were taken with them. With the passage of time and the development of more powerful cartridges, many tend to look down on these less powerful offerings, but their ability to take game cleanly has not changed. About three years ago at our deer camp here in Ohio, three, big, corn-fed deer were taken with a 45/70, 357 and 44 magnum. My wife is a retired, highly-respected, veterinary internist who is still in demand to speak at veterinary conferences. She examined the three deer thoroughly and came to the conclusion that each was equally dead! So there, that ends the argument! 

I first encountered a Signature Lever Rifle in 2018, when I was invited to attend a media event called The Art of the Lever Gun at Gunsite Academy. That's where I first met Stella, an 1894, octagon-barreled, Marlin in 44 magnum owned by Andy and Sheila Larsson of Skinner Sights. Andy and his wife Sheila live in an area of Montana where it is not unusual to have a black bear in the backyard and a grizzly in the front yard, at the same time! When Sheila mows their lawn, there's a can of bear spray in the mower`s cup holder. It seems that Sheila wanted a light and handy, but potent lever action rifle for their jaunts into the mountains. Andy, an excellent gunsmith in his own right, worked some magic on the 44 Marlin and added his excellent aperture rear sight and a fiber optic front sight. Sheila loved the finished product and dubbed it "Stella". This rifle was used for a number of the drills over the three day event and I fired her more than a few times, most notably on a moving target, reveling in its accuracy and how the extra weight of the octagon barrel made it easy to swing without overswinging the target, like a lighter barrel would. The Skinner sight was set up as a ghost ring and worked perfectly on the moving target. Over 600 rounds were run flawlessly through the rifle in three days. 

Not only did I become a fan of Stella, so did the late Ed Head, retired Border Patrol agent, Gunsite Range Master and good friend of mine, who was in charge of the event. After it was all over, Ed was so impressed with Stella that he asked Andy to watch out for a similar Marlin because he wanted a rifle just like Stella. Months later, Andy called Ed to inform him that his rifle was completed! Not only did Andy find the Marlin, but he cut the 44 mag octagon barrel to 16", slicked up the action and installed a set of his Skinner Sights. Surprised and grateful, Ed asked Sheila what its name was, to which she replied, "Spartacus!" There was a lever rifle class coming up, so both Stella and Spartacus were shipped off to Bobby Tyler at Tyler Gun Works, where they were color-case hardened and engraved with their respective names. Stella received extra engraving. 

Shortly after that, I received a call from Andy, asking that I send him my Marlin 357 that I had used in class because he wanted to improve it. My 1894 had a 20" barrel and was set up as a Scout, sporting a Leupold 2.5 Scout scope on an XS Sights rail. Trusting my new friend, off it went. About six months later, I got it back on the first day of Ohio's deer gun season. Andy had cut the barrel back to 16", slicked up the action and installed his Skinner Sights: a great brass and blued ghost ring on the receiver and an all brass Bear Buster on the front. I was a bit leery at first of the brass sight, but soon discovered that it really stands out at dusk and dawn and deeply cut serrations in the face of the blade keep it from reflecting light in bright sun. 

I went to our range with barely enough light to check the zero and sighted it two inches high at fifty yards with Double Tap 158 grain, controlled expansion, hollow points. Everyone in deer camp had to handle it and marveled at its balance and quickness. Two different guys each took a deer with it the next day! I had planned on using it, but when I went to the ready rack to head into the woods, it was gone! Thanks guys! 

Following my friends' lead, I decided to name my rifle, too. My wife and I always had Airedale terriers and one particular favorite was my little girl Valkyrie, who was a great hunting dog, accompanying me on hunts for upland birds, squirrels, rabbits and waterfowl. It just made sense to call her "Valkyrie". Off she went to Bobby Tyler for color-casing and the engraving of "Valkyrie" on the left side of the receiver. My friends and I joked that Valkyrie was the spawn of Stella and Sheila. It seems that many more have joined the family as the trend has spread to others. 

However, for some reason, all of the signature rifles to this point were Marlins, but that was about to change. On a trip to Gunsite, I happened upon a Winchester 1894 AE , 100th Anniversary, 44 magnum Trapper at a local gun shop and it went home with me. It shot well with open sights and was handy enough with its 16" barrel, but I really disliked the cross bolt safety, which Col Cooper probably would have called, "An ingenious solution to a nonexistent problem." If the safety wasn't bad enough, some designer decided that they needed to mill a divot around it reminiscent of meteor crater. It was hideous. 

Something had to be done, so I sent it to Dave Fink of Fink's Custom Guns, located at Gunsite Academy and an associate of Tyler Gun Works. Dave made the huge divot in the receiver go away by welding it up, color-cased the receiver, lever and barrel bands, gave it an action job and installed a color-cased Skinner rear sight and a brass front sight. Andy actually sent me three prototype, brass Patridge front sights to try out. We sighted it 2" high at fifty yards. Stopping at Tyler Gun Works in west Texas on the way home, Bobby Tyler easily hit steel at fifty and one hundred and fifty yards with it. Oh yeah, since this was another signature lever rifle, "Boomer" was engraved on the recover, named after yet another long-gone Airedale hunting buddy. Boomer proved its ability by taking a 165 pound, corn-fed, Ohio doe last month. This rifle is very handy and often goes along with me in our UTV when I check our rural property every day. 

Finally, there is a third Marlin lever that has seen a great deal of use in the last seven years, maybe more than Valkyrie and Boomer combined. My wife, Marcia, is an excellent shooter who has trained widely, including many trips to Gunsite with me, but most long guns are too long for her, so I had a Marlin 1894 357 tailored to fit her perfectly. I bought this rifle used and it came with an XS sighted rail and white stripe front sight. Those stayed on the rifle. I had the stock shortened to a 11.5" LOP and the barrel cut down to the legal minimum of 16". A soft recoil pad was added, not for the reduction of recoil, but to provide a nonskid surface to prevent the butt from sliding around when mounting the rifle. For quick sighting, I mounted a Sig Romeo 5 red dot sight far forward on the rail. Interestingly, while I have deactivated all of the cross bolt safeties on my lever rifles that came with them, I decided to leave it in this shortened rifle. Marcia has arthritis in her hands and lowering the hammer can be problematic. Also, this 357 has been used by youth hunters at our camp and the extra safety factor when unloading seems like a good idea. 

The completed package is very unique and amazingly handy. Last month, friend and gun writer, Tank Hoover, handled this rifle while joining us for deer season. He loved it and noted that it would make a great truck gun, being so compact while still being powerful. I'm a big guy with a 36" sleeve length and I can easily shoot it, despite the short stock. Our informal target is often a 12" white rock on the dam of our lake, located 154 yards from our deck. I can easily and quickly hit it firing offhand at that distance. In fact, this rifle, nameless at this time, often goes with us when we take our truck camper and Jeep deep into Wyoming's Bighorn Mountains. 

Also, Travis, son of my good friend, Matt, has taken three deer in the last two years with Marcia's rifle, including his first, a bruiser of an eight point buck, when he was twelve. The short stock fit him perfectly, the red dot is simplicity itself and the cross bolt safety adds another layer of safety for those exciting moments which are further hampered when wearing gloves. This is one of those times when the finished product seems to be more the sum of its parts. No, no name, yet, but it sure won't be Bubba or the name of an ex-girlfriend. 

Final thoughts: are these changes absolutely necessary or original? No, they are not, but for those of us who appreciate the personal connection with a gun that has been used in the field to take game or been there for an added sense of security while at home or camping, understand that it's more than a collection of wood and steel, but part of American heritage, a link to our past. Improving them for enjoyment and their aesthetic beauty seems to deepen that connection. It makes sense to me and obviously many others.

Nick Rukavina

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Click pictures for a larger version.



Tools as practical today as they were 100 years ago.



Yes, a 357 will drop big bucks.



Boomer and Valkyrie: 44 and 357.



Boomer: Winchester 1894 AE, 44 Trapper. Cross bolt safety hole was welded and color cased.



Boomer and a Randall 27 Mini.



Yet another offspring of Stella and Spartacus, and sibling of Valkyrie and Boomer: Lucrezia, a JM Marlin Model 1894 357 Magnum with 16" round barrel and Skinner sights. Named after Bill Cody's "Lucrezia Borgia".