So you wanna build a space cowboy rifle, huh? Seems to be all the rage these days. Before building and sharing ridiculous revolvers, I too jumped on the tactical lever action bandwagon and thought I'd put together a short guide on how to get started on your own build.
For some inspiration as you embark on your tacticool lever action adventure, here's a build I recently completed that turned a Henry X into something.... well, different. You can see the full build process, components, etc. HERE.
The place to start: the handguard
It may seem odd to start with a a handguard instead of a rifle, but there are only a few manufacturers making lever action handguards and they only work for a couple of models of rifles. Since the handguard is what unlocks the ability to add most of the tactical features, it's best to see what handguards are available then which leveractions they work on. Also, most model of lever guns are available in a variety of calibers, so you'll still have a variety of options in terms of ammo.
Below are some of the more popular lever action handguards grouped by the rifles they work on.
RPP has a detailed list of all the rifles this fits on its website but the summary is that it fits Marlin 1894s, 1895s 336s, 338s, 308s, 444s and 450Ms.
RPP also has a version specifically for the marlin 30-30 Win Compact. You can see it here.
This handguard fits on nearly all Marlin lever guns that have cap on the front of their wood handguard not a band. Examples include Marlin 1894s and 1895's and the 336.
Check out the video below to see Garand Thumb's Marlin lever setup with the MI handguard.
As with the Marlin version, RPP has a detailed list of all the rifles this fits on its website. Generally it fits most Henry's except the 22 LR ones or those with octagonal barrels.
If you have a 22 LR Henry and "need" a handguard, RPP makes a separate one for you. Here's the link.
Ranger Point Precision also has what they call a "Handguard + Modular Rail System" for Henry lever actions. This handguard system gives you all the attachment points that you'd have on an AR-15 rail. You can also swap out the top pieces to have a shot optic mounting section or a full length picatinny rail that goes pretty much from hammer to muzzle. Below is a video that shows a couple different step ups of the rail and an overview (sales talk) of the features.
And here's a glamour shot...
As the name suggests, these work on Henry lever guns chambered in .38/357, 44 Mag, and 45 Long Colt.
Handguards that Work for Marlin & Henry Lever Guns
Hoptic USA has recently release what they call their LASAI handguard which has mounting options for both Henry and Marlin lever actions. The handguard has some cool features unavailable in other rails, like the ability to service the ammo tube without having to remove the handgaurd.
Another relatively new comer to the lever gun handguard option set, is Chisel Machining. Chisel has an option for both Henry and Marlin lever actions. Below is a glamor shot of their Henry offering. The Chisel handguard has change-able insert panels which provides some more options for customizing.
In mid-2023 Midwest Industries added a version of their M-LOK handguard for Rossi 92 lever actions.
Ranger Point Precision's also released a version of their handguard for the Rossi 92. It's shown below and you can read all about at their website here.
Next up: the gun
Since the handguards above fit on a variety of Henry and Marlin rifles, you have a bunch of options for the gun part of your tactical lever action. Turns out, the gun part is important.
As the space cowboy lever action trend has become more popular, some manufactures have released tactical-ready levers. These are typically colored black (like the Marlin shown above), have threaded barrels and some have picatinny attachment points built into the fore end and/or atop the barrel.
If you stick with a classic model, rather than a "tactical" one, your options basically come down to 1. the round it's chambered in, everything from 22 LR to 30-30 to 45-70, 2. the barrel length, and 3. the aesthetics (finish type). Pretty much everything else is modifiable after purchase. In truth, so is the finish type, but that's getting into either more custom work or a DIY rattle can job, which rarely turns out as envisioned.
Below are some of the more popular lever guns for tactical-izing...
This lever gat is stainless steel, has improved sights, a rail on top ready for optics, and a threaded barrel for your preferred muzzle device.
Similar to the SBL, but in black.
Marlin's added a new model to their Dark Series that ships with an M-LOK handguard, QD swing attachments, muzzle device, a stock that has an adjsutable cheek riser, and some other goodies. This is a great option if you're looking for a large caliber (45-70) lever gat that is ready for attachements right out of the box.
There are dozens of Henry's that are ready for a tactical tune up - just add one of the handguards above. Two that I'll mention here are the X series (first image) and the All Weather series (second image). The X series has threaded barrels and a bit of rail at the front of the handguard.
My 3-Gun Tactical Lever Action Build used a Henry X as the foundation. Below is a shot of the "Shorty" version of the build for some inspiration. For that build, I extended the mag tube to hold 3 more rounds, made a carbon fiber handguard, did some work on the stock and added some metal flourishes for style points.
If you're looking for a pistol-style tactical lever gat, then start with the Henry Axe or Mare's Leg. These stock-less lever actions can result in some serious space cowboy abominations like the one below from Ranger Point Precision.
This one is the lease common of the rifles mentioned here, but for those that want to really really AR-up a lever gun Mossberg's 464 SPX is for you. You can even use your black rifle's stock.
The R92 by Rossi has a growing number of handguard options and comes in an all black tactical version with a top rail ready for optics and a threaded barrel.
I'll be honest, I've only recently heard of this company. But, if you care more about tacticool-ness than legacy, they might be worth a look. They've got a .410 shotgun lever action available pre-fitted with an MLOK rail and skeletonize stock.... Plus they come in lots of cool colors, like the camo job below.
A Note a Caliber Selection
As mentioned at the start of this guide, most of the lever guns and the accessories mentioned here are available for all the major lever action calibers. So, I haven't dedicated much space to discuss which is "best" for a tactical build. However, if you've got no idea what caliber you're interested in, below are a couple ideas to get you thinking:
For the lightest recoil and most economical, take a look at .357 Mag. Any of the pistol caliber lever actions will have very manageable recoils, so that shouldn't be too much of a concern across the board. The rifles are heavy enough that the relatively light loads don't rock them too hard. However, .357 Mag rounds can be as little as half the cost as .44 Rem Mag or some of the other similar calibers.
If you're thinking about a long-ish range build consider .30-30 Win. At $1 or more per round, these puppies ain't cheap but they're much more effective at 200 yards+ than the pistol calibers. They've also been around since the 19th century, so you can have some OG lever action fuel in your tacticool build.
If you've got a grizzly bear, buffalo or T-Rex to take down, go with a .45-70 Gov. The .45-70 is a big, slow moving round that packs a massive punch. The bullets weighs roughly twice as much as a .30-30 bullet and even though it's slower, can leave the muzzle with as much as 50% or more energy than a .30-30 does.
Finally: go crazy
Once you have a lever action + handguard combo picked out (or one of the tactical-ready lever guns), you're ready to go hog wild in terms of attachments. A lever action with a picatinny rail on top and some MLOK slots on the side is ready for just about any black rifle attachment you can imagine.
Before we get into some specific suggestions, here are a few builds from around the interwebs as inspiration.
An NFA setup from Redditor Bill_tetley
A tricked out Marlin Dark by OffGridWeb
The "Black Thunder" from Big Horn Armory
Just a couple years ago the only aftermarket options for lever action stocks were ever-fancier wood ones. These days, Form Rifle Stocks and Ranger Point Precision have some adjustable / tactical stocks and I suspect more will be on the market soon. Below is glamor shot of RPP's stock, with some bear rounds on standby.
Another recently popular lever action attachment is a quiver. Quivers typically hold a 2 to 8 rounds and mount to any MLOK part of your lever gun. Two of the more popular brands for quivers are Hoptic USA and Ranger Point Precision (shown below in that order).
The Tactical-lite Approach
Another approach to your very own space lever gun is what I'll call "tactical-lite." This is for those of us who already have a lever gun that doesn't have a handguard available for it, or just don't want to go full "black gun" on a lever gat.
Tactical-lite builds can be done through a combination of a scope mount, like the Midwest Industries' Marlin mount show below, and various picatinny rail pieces. There are scope mounts like this available for pretty much any lever action you can imagine. A quick search on Amazon or Google will reveal many options of style, length, etc.
Below is an example of a simple stacking of red dot and laser on my John Wick Revolver Build to inspire your creativity. This style of one attachment stacked with another will work in a variety of combinations on a lever action.
Happy tactical-lever building! If you're looking for more inspiration, check out some of my other revolver builds. Building "tactical" or "space" revolvers has similar limitations in and craziness as tactical lever actions so they may give you some bad ideas.... like this .357 mag revolver build that includes a Sig MCX handguard fiber optic-lit grips and a jade bead for a front sight.