It’s been said that old cars drive like old cars. This is true. The same could be said, with as much veracity, about old motorcycles, which are more my speed. Much as I appreciate the stylish lines and throaty sounds of the classics, by any objective measure, even the best of the post war era can’t hold a candle to a mid-priced modern vehicle, be it a sedan or sport bike.
It fascinates me that the same cannot be said of firearms, at least not collectively. Sure, there have been advances in self loading rifles and pistols over the last half century—though one is forced to point out that two favorites, the AR-15 rifle and 1911 pistol have been around 50 and 100 years, respectively. But if you were of age and inclination to hunt in the 1950's, chances are the rifle you used was awfully similar to the one you used on your most recent hunt. Heck, maybe it was the same one.
I’m no card carrying traditionalist. Fact is, when tradition gets in the way of smart and practical advances then I say, tradition be damned. I make predictable crooning noises when I see a nicely kept (or restored) old pickup, but I love my late model crew cab. How else can you dump half a ton of flag stone and a whole family—Great Dane included—into a luxury sedan? When, after a decade of flogging ‘70s era superbikes, I rather scornfully threw a leg over a plastic wrapped mid ‘90s sport bike. I realized immediately that progress could indeed be a good thing. Even if progress meant plastic.
I did not have a similar epiphany when I shot my first AR-15 (awkward), which actually happened before I handled my first lever action (delightful). I appreciate the AR platform. It is accurate and well sorted, and if I ever have to defend my family against zombie hordes or tyranny, I hope every able-bodied shooter in my community has one. And they have their place in the hunter’s hands too. But when I purchased and shot my first lever action rifle less than a decade ago, it sparked an obsession that would turn my whole later-is-greater worldview on its ear.
Some things are just tough to improve upon. The lever action rifle is one of those things. My first lever gun was a nicely age darkened Marlin Rifle 336 that I picked up at a local pawn shop. Which is to say, I picked it up and couldn’t put it down, not there on that counter. I had long shunned the .30-30 Winchester cartridge as past its time. And I needed another set of loading dies like a 53rd card, but I just didn’t care. This gun, a sweet ‘60s era straight-stocked model, beckoned to me for rescue. Slightly careworn, it had the kind of beauty that comes from character, strength, perseverance, and love. Like a professional woman, mother, and wife, who looks all the more radiant for her years, she is with me still, as are quite a few of her kin.
The venerable Marlin rifle 336 has since become one of my all time favorite rifles, with other Marlin rifle models dangerously close. Even the old “dirty thirty” cartridge has won my respect and approval. How can it be? How is it that I, a man who admires the shiny new machinery of progress so much, can be so smitten with a rifle design born more than a century ago, and which has so stubbornly resisted evolution? The answer is simple, mostly.
1. They look right. Which is to say, they embody American history and tradition wherever they are entwined with firearms. It’s easy enough to appreciate that if you’re an American over the age of 30.
2. They feel right. Their slender forms were designed to be carried in one hand. They just balance nicely there at your side, quickly brought to the shoulder.
3. They shoot right. They were made to be swung quickly into action and fired from the shoulder. That may not be the preferred method of long range shooters, but for the hunter (or soldier) it is often necessary. I don’t know of any other rifle that lends itself to a more natural and precise shoulder firing than the lever gun. It’s a gratifying way to shoot, and levers are uncanny this way.
We love the things we love because of the way they fit into our lives. I’m not talking about lust here. I’m talking about the kind of affection that can last a lifetime, that endures passing affairs with picatinny rails and tactical bacon. No, we love things when it becomes difficult to remember our past or imagine our futures without them. We love them when they have become as familiar and comfortable as a good pair of leather boots that have shaped to our feet over thousands of miles. Marlin lever action rifles just seem to come with that familiarity, that soul, built in. That’s why I love them. Because somehow their history becomes mine, and then it’s difficult to imagine any future without them.