The lever-action rifle is so indelibly ingrained in American history that the mere sight of one brings the mind to the American West and the post-Civil War era.
The lever action rifle mirrored the development of the metallic cartridge; the first Winchester ‘Yellow Boy” rifles were chambered for the .44 rimfire, a crude, copper-cased affair, but as the cartridges became stronger, so did the lever action rifles.
Nearly up until the end of the 19th century, the level action rifle could handle the most powerful cartridges available at the time.
However, as the 20th century ushered its wonderful selection of cartridges – each a significant ballistic improvement over the previous offerings – the pressure levels exceeded that of the lever actions of the day.
The lever gun then took on a different role, one that represented both firepower – most deer hunters relied upon the lever’s qualities as a repeating rifle up until the 1960s – and a good source of power for most hunting scenarios in North America. Certainly, the Winchester Model 1894 is still thriving – this rifle, chambered in .30/30 remains an American icon – but the first half of the 20th century saw the demise of the Model 1886, replaced (briefly) by the Model 71, that most stylish of lever guns, chambered for the .348 Winchester.
Yet, the lever gun remained married to relatively low-pressure, rimmed rifle cartridges and, with the exception of the Winchester Model 88 and Savage Model 99, was pretty much destined to stay that way. Tubular magazines required flat or round nosed bullets to prevent magazine detonation, so the lever gun is essentially equated with a short- to medium-range cartridge.
- Chambering: .30-’06 Springfield (tested)
- Barrel: 22 inches
- OA Length: 43.0 inches
- Weight: 7 lbs, 4 oz.
- Stock: Gray laminate wood, cut checkering, 18 LPI
- Sights: Marbles/TruGlo red front sight, adjustable rear sight
- Action: Lever action
- Finish: Stainless steel
- Capacity: 4
- MSRP: $1,279.99
The Browning firearms company, like its namesake, has always been forward thinking, and their lever action BLR is no exception. Released in the early 1960s, when the bolt-action rifle had firmly established its grip on the hunting world – even the staunchest deer hunting camps were seeing more bolts and fewer levers – the BLR represented a blend of desirable features that made, and still makes, perfect sense to the hunter. Firstly, the BLR uses a detachable box magazine, which most definitely allows the use of spitzer bullets, offering much flatter trajectories. Secondly, it uses a geared bolt and a lever that houses the trigger assembly, so there’s no risk of the all-too-familiar index finger pinch. With a receiver stout enough to handle even belted magnum cartridges, the Browning BLR brought the lever gun into the modern era, retaining enough of the classic lines to be visually appealing, but with improvements that changed the game.
The slab-sided design is still there, as is the exposed hammer, yet upon holding a BLR immediate differences from a traditional lever action are noted. The lever throw of a BLR is much shorter than that of a conventional lever gun, due to the rack and pinion bolt system. This design, with a rotating bolt head featuring a six-lug design and a plunger ejector, allows for the use of cartridges with a higher pressure than the conventional lever action designs. The receiver is fully closed, except the ejection port on the right side, allowing a scope to be mounted directly over the bore and as low as you’d like. The original BLRs were in a blued steel/walnut stock design, but things have changed over the years. The model I received for testing – the BLR Lightweight ’81 Stainless Takedown – was neither blued nor walnut; it featured a stainless steel barrel, aluminum alloy receiver, laminate wood stock combination, in a lightweight takedown configuration. This is one slick piece of design work! And to top it all off, it was chambered in the do-all .30-’06 Springfield.
The BLR breaks down easily enough; a lever—located in a well on the underside of the forend, just ahead of the receiver—pulls down to allow the shooter to pull the barrel out of the receiver. For reassembly, simply insert the barrel into the receiver, making sure the lugs line up with the cut recesses in the barrel, close the lever and Voila!
I immediately thought of the mountain treks I take annually into the Catskill and Adirondack mountains, for both whitetails and black bear, and how this would make an excellent choice for both moose and elk hunts, where less weight can always be appreciated. A quick second shot is always desirable when hunting whitetails in the thick forests of the Northeast, and the BLR certainly delivers that. Being drilled and tapped for a scope – interestingly enough, this particular model was drilled and tapped on both receiver and barrel, for use with a conventional scope or a scout-style scope – the BLR will offer shots out to sane hunting distances. If you prefer the iron-sight setup common to so many lever guns, my Browning came equipped with a fully adjustable rear sight and a Marble’s/TRUGLO red fiber optic front sight, which aligned very naturally and offered high contrast, even on dark targets. The gray laminate stock came checkered on both the rear stock and forend, and is covered in a nice satin finish, to avoid any unnecessary glare. Metal work was dulled as well, so if you’re seen by your quarry, the rifle isn’t at fault. The exposed hammer has a nice, wide spur – perfect for cold hands or for use with gloves – and offers a fully-cocked position, as well as a half-cock. As an additional safety feature, the striking area of the hammer can be folded forward, under the firing pin, when in the half-cock position, to prevent any monkey business from going on.
For optics, I wanted something as rugged and durable as the rifle itself, yet lightweight enough to fit the lines of the rifle. I have come to rely on the Leupold 1.5-5x20mm scopes for many different jobs over the years, from woods rifles to dangerous game guns to rimfires, and I’ve never been disappointed. The new Leupold VX-3i is a wonderful riflescope, offering a crystal-clear image and reliable tracking, in addition to a slim profile that can be mounted close to the bore. At the lowest magnification, you can take animals nearly as well as with iron sights, yet the 5x top end allows a shooter to make accurate shots much farther than you’d expect in this era of high magnification. I thought that to best match the takedown capabilities of this gun – and I’m totally thinking backpack rifle – I wanted that Leupold set in a pair of detachable rings. It’s no secret that I’m a Talley fan; I’ve used their detachable rings on many of my rifles for years now, and they’ve never let me down. To keep with the stainless theme, I ordered a set of low, stainless Talley rings and appropriate bases, and easily mounted the Leupold scope. As is the case with Talley rings, it took very little correction with the boresighter to get things set up properly.
At the Bench
I grabbed a selection of good hunting ammunition for the BLR, as I doubt any would disagree that this type of rifle is no benchrest affair; this rifle is destined for the field. Nosler’s Ballistic Tip ammunition, loaded with the 180-grain Ballistic Tip, would make a great choice for any thin-skinned game. The Federal Power-Shok cartridges, topped-off with the 150-grain copper hollowpoint bullet, will make a perfect choice for deer, antelope and similar sized game animals. Hornady’s Precision Hunter line is built around the fantastic ELD-X bullet; it’s perfect for shots both up-close and distant. At 178 grains, the .30-’06 load will handle windy conditions very well, especially for that cross-canyon elk, or a moose across a Canadian lake. Lastly, the Fusion 165-grain load offers a bonded core bullet, which will cleanly take bears over bait – usually a short shot with high impact velocities – or a whitetail across a hay lot. While there are so many different choices to fuel a .30-’06, I feel this quartet represents a good cross section of bullet designs.
It turns out that even though I’d mounted a relatively low-powered scope to the BLR, it shot very, very well. The Nosler Ballistic Tip – with a well-earned reputation for accuracy – printed ¾-inch groups at 100 yards. The Fusion ammo did almost as well, with groups sizes hanging right around an even inch. The Hornady Precision Hunter – much to my chagrin, as it did very in many other rifles I’ve tested – averaged a group size of 1 ¾ inches; certainly good enough for shots out to 300 yards, but certainly not representative of what this ammo has done in other guns. The Federal Power-Shok Copper printed wonderfully, averaging 5/8 to ¾ inch groups, with very uniform velocities. The overall velocity measurements were a bit lower than advertised, and I can attribute at least some of that to the shorter 22-inch barrel, but that’s a willing tradeoff when you realize this rifle can easily be broken down for transport in a backpack.
Now, please keep in mind that this is a lever action rifle – with the two-piece stock that is so often blamed for a lack of accuracy – and compound that with the fact that this is a takedown rifle, giving it another opportunity for an accuracy excuse. If all the Browning BLR takedown rifles are as accurate as my test gun, they’ve definitely got a winner. Also, I was curious about the repeatability of the accuracy when taking the down the rifle so I shot some groups before and after breaking it down. I experienced less than a one-inch shift in point of impact when the rifle was taken down and reassembled, which is perfectly fine with me.
I set up a 50-yard target, to get a feel for the capability of the rifle with iron sights, and was equally happy with the results. All ammunition provided kill shots, and I immediately thought of a situation where something tragic has happened to the riflescope, which could be quickly and easily removed to allow use of the iron sights. Does this make the rifle as capable as when it’s scoped? Certainly not, but an iron sighted rifle is most definitely better than no rifle at all.
Let me say again, the BLR has the advantage of the quick second shot that lever guns possess, with the additional benefit of using the spitzer bullet loads that generally provide the best accuracy and downrange characteristics. The detachable magazine – made of steel, which I greatly appreciate in this era of polymer hell – loaded easily and snapped into the rifle without issue, each and every time. Were this my rifle, I’d grab an extra magazine – I tend to lose things easily for some reason – to ward off any potential disaster on a remote hunt.
Opinions, Observations and Other Thoughts
The Browning BLR – particularly in this configuration – is a functional rifle, in that the appointments of the gun are designed to deliver in the field, and not necessarily as eye candy. Yes, it’s an attractive design, but this dog was bred to hunt. If I had to pick some nits, I’d say there have been better wood-to-metal fits, and perhaps the forend – which is cut square to the bore – may not be the most fashionable design I’ve ever seen, but neither affects the performance of the rifle. The lever doesn’t appear to be parallel to the stock line, but that appears to be part of the design; perhaps my OCD kicked in on this aspect.
The lever throw feels solid; the rack and pinion system is good and tight, with none of the wobble or chatter associated with some other lever action designs. The stock design and pliable recoil pad made shooting the BLR – even off the bench – a pleasure, and as it’s chambered .30-’06, it will do just about anything you’d ask of it. The takedown capability makes for a rifle destined for adventure; whether you choose to mount a scope at all – conventional or scout-style – the rifle breaks down enough for easy transport. With that lightweight Leupold VX-3i 1.5-5×20, the package has a nice balance to it, making for a quick-handling rifle that carries well in the hand and comes to the shoulder very nicely. I might have added a set of sling swivel studs, to make the longer treks a bit easier, but that’s just me.
If you’re after a rifle that pays homage to the American lever guns, yet takes full advantage of modern construction materials and methods, the BLR Lightweight ’81 Stainless Takedown makes all sorts of sense, from Alaska to Arizona.