D uring the summer of 1970 I was on active duty in the U.S. Navy. I was attached to Carrier Division 9 and stationed on Coronado Island in San Diego.
My roommate, Ensign Gilbert, and I were driving west in my MGB convertible on Orange Avenue, the main thoroughfare in Coronado. The traffic light turned, red and I braked to a stop in the far right lane. A black limousine pulled alongside.
An old man in the front passenger seat glanced over; he was dressed in a tuxedo but not riding in the rear, as you might expect. He had thinning hair, large ears and a weathered face. I had seen that image many times.
“Gilbert! Look over here! It’s LBJ!”
Gilbert turned and his eyes went wide. “Doggett, you moron, that’s not LBJ—it’s John Wayne!”
He was right. The passenger was not a president—he was the Duke. Wayne glanced over with a crinkly grin and squinty eyes. He was fresh from his triumph in “True Grit” and heading for a black-tie gala at the Hotel del Coronado.
I was stoked. I raised my arms and made the cocking motion of U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn working a lever-action carbine. Wayne nodded and the limo pulled away. Later that summer I purchased a Winchester Model 94 carbine from the exchange at the North Island Air Station.
With the military discount, the lever rifle cost approximately $60. Being saturated as a kid during the ‘50s and early ‘60s by TV and big screen westerns, I always wanted one, and the brief encounter on Orange Avenue pretty much closed the deal.
The little .30-30 Winchester had a straight walnut stock, a 20-inch barrel and weighed approximately 6 1/2 pounds. I kept it for about 25 years and must admit I was lousy with the “open sights.” The process of juggling and aligning the front bead, the rear notch and a distant target was an on-going challenge.
To hit offhand anywhere near a bull’s-eye at 100 yards was exceptional. I was better at about 50 or 60 yards. And that was back when I boasted 20/10 vision. The real carbines somehow didn’t perform as well as the Hollywood versions.
But I truly enjoyed the look and feel of the clean, mean lever gun. Toting it into the brush made me feel I was part of a special tradition. You make allowances for the shortcomings, same as with a bow or a muzzleloader or a handgun.
The first time I went hunting with the lever gun was about five years later on a scrabbly deer lease in the Texas Hill Country. The low-fenced property was plagued by feral goats, and the word was out to shoot any goat that stepped out.
That policy probably was initiated because the automated corn-dispensing machines are called “deer feeders” not “goat feeders.” The daily sprays of kernels were being dominated by the shaggy non-residents.
About an hour into my first afternoon session a large black goat with flowing mane and spiraling horns pushed into view. The unruly beast paced straight to the feeder and commenced munching. It stood broadside at about 80 yards.
With a nod to the rank and file of Western heroes, I raised the carbine and took a deep breath over a stable rest—and missed the entire animal. The goat looked up and trotted into the screening cedars.
I suspect I made the rookie mistake of failing to notch the front bead well down into the “V” of the rear sight. You might be justifiably suspect of heeding the counsel of a confessed goat-misser, but I do believe that failing to plant the bead is a major cause for iron-sight misses. —that, and maybe not being able to properly see the target.
At 100 yards, the typical whitetail virtually is blotted out by the notch and the bead post. The best shot I made with the lever gun was while “still hunting” several years later. I slipped through the scrub oaks and spied a young buck at 90 steps. I positioned a pair of shooting sticks and let fly through a corridor in the brush.
The eight pointer dropped in its tracks, neck-shot. Of course, I was aiming for what I hoped was the center of the shoulder.
The Model 94 accounted for several small deer, several hogs, and, of all things, a fine Rio Grande turkey. The big gobbler weighed 16 pounds—probably closer to 17 before the 170-grain Core-Lokt bullet hit it.
The serious shooter might consider an aftermarket peep sight with an open aperture (for quick field shooting, opposed to deliberate target shooting). The eye focuses on the bead and instinctively centers it in the peep circle. I just never got around to doing it.
A small scope is even more accurate beyond 100 yards but, to me, a scoped lever-action carbine or rifle just looks too tricked. Tradition counts for something. Again, this is only my opinion. No question, a proper scope can greatly improve accuracy, especially for the squinting shooter fumbling into the geezer division.
A pair of drugstore “readers” might help the old timer with an out-of-the-box lever gun by crisply focusing both front and rear sights. Of course, the critical third element—the target—remains a bit fuzzy but, as they say, two out of three ain’t bad.
As with all ethical hunting, you need to respect the game and accept the practical limits of your equipment and ability. For most of us this side of John Wayne, that probably means staying inside 100 honest yards with open sights.
But for the hunter who has known nothing but scope-sighted bolt rifles, the classic American lever gun is an entertaining and exciting option—at least when a career buck isn’t at stake.
Email Joe Doggett at [email protected]