February 18, 2020
Long-range shooting is all the rage these days and it is driving much of the firearms, optics and ammunition market. For many hunters and shooters though, the concept of shooting a target, much less a deer, at more than 100 yards is a totally foreign concept, either by choice or dictated by terrain.
For those hunters who pursue game at close range, the lever-action rifle reigns supreme. Lever-action rifles have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in recent years, and the latest models are equipped with features – such as a red dot sight – that your grandfather wouldn’t recognize.
When a design stays relevant after more than 150 years, one must take notice. The lever gun, chambered in venerable classics such as the 30-30 Winchester or more modern straight-wall cartridges such as the .450 Marlin, just may be the perfect rifle for deer, black bears, feral hogs and even elk at close range. These rifles are compact, powerful, plenty accurate and easy to carry and handle. No, the virtues of the lever gun are not nostalgic alone – these are real guns with real jobs to do.
One of the factors that held lever-action rifles back during the latter half of the 20th Century was the rise of scopes for big game hunting. Mounting a scope on the Winchester Model ’94 was challenging, at best, and drove many hunters toward bolt guns. Marlin’s side-eject mechanism makes scope mounting a simple task and the company’s 336 Dark Series makes it even easier with a factory-mounted XS Lever Rail. This rail screams for a red dot sight.
One of the things making lever guns relevant again has been the widespread adoption of the red dot sight. Lever-action rifles have a natural compatibility with red dot sights, allowing hunters to take advantage of the fast-handling characteristics of a lever-action with unbelievable speed. Red dots first came into the U.S. shooting world in tactical and competition circles, but hunters soon came to appreciate their utility as well. Sweden’s Aimpoint released their first red dot optic way back in 1975. Since then, they have led the market in quality and innovation and made fast, accurate shooting a reality for hundreds of thousands of shooters, both military and civilian.
With a red dot optic, there is no blurring of the sights or target, both appear on the same visual plane. The shooter simply puts the dot where they want the shot to go. There’s also no parallax to worry about – if you can see the dot and you’re within range, you can hit the target. Unlike many bargain brands, Aimpoint’s red dots are crisp and perfectly round with no “starring” effect. Besides their excellent performance, the durability and battery life of Aimpoint’s optics cannot be beaten. I would argue that there is no faster way to make hits than using an Aimpoint sight.
My personal favorite red dot is the Aimpoint Micro H-2. The Micro H-2 is a miniaturized version of Aimpoint’s traditional red dot optics and provides all the same benefits in a smaller and lighter package. The optic weighs just over three ounces and is roughly the size of a C-Cell battery. The Micro H-2 is equipped with a 2 MOA red dot.
The Micro H-2 uses fully multicoated lenses to ensure maximum light transmission and, since there is no magnification, there is no parallax to worry about. The Micro H-2 is equipped with a low standard mount for use with rails such as the XS model included with the Marlin 336 Dark Series. With it or any other gun equipped with a Picatinny rail, there are no rings or mounts to purchase, the sight is attached to the rail using an included hex wrench. And here’s where both the sight and mount shine: Since eye relief is unlimited, the Aimpoint sight can be mounted anywhere on the long mounting surface. Hunters used to more traditional optics may choose to mount the sight directly over the receiver, while others (myself included) will want it placed further from the eye in a position reminiscent of the “scout scope” concept. The battery life on the Micro H-2 is an amazing 50,000 hours, which translates to over five years if left on! These sights must be used to fully appreciate.
One might assume that because red dot sights are so fast, they are incapable of making hits at longer ranges. Such an assumption would be incorrect. There’s a steel “pepper popper” target at our farm that sits 350 yards from the firing line. From a seated position, I can hit that 10-inch plate five out of five times with a 2 MOA Aimpoint Micro H-2 mounted on a bolt-action .308. In practical terms, the Micro H-2 is capable of hits at greater distances than most lever-action rifles are even capable of shooting.
One final piece that has modernized lever-action rifles has been changes in ammunition designed for specifically for them. Hornady breathed a whole new life into cartridges such as the 30-30 Winchester with the introduction of their LEVERevolution line of ammunition, specifically designed to optimize the performance of lever-action cartridges. These modern, aerodynamic bullets used polymer tips that eliminated the detonation risk of other similarly-shaped bullets in tubular magazines. While they were at it, Hornady engineers added modern propellants capable of pushing bullets to faster velocities. LEVERevolution ammunition loaded with 140-grain Monoflex bullets achieve 2465 feet per second out of a 24-inch barrel while the tougher 160-grain FTX at 2400. Not only is that a significant velocity boost over traditional 30-30 loads, the bullets ensure a flatter trajectory.
When hunting in thick stuff, whether we are talking about the Maine woods, Florida palmettos, or Alaskan bush, a compact, fast-handling rifle is a must. With the Aimpoint Micro H-2 red dot mounted, the Marlin 336 Dark Series weighs a bit over 7 ½ pounds and measures only 34 ½ inches overall. These rifles balance well and can be carried in the hands, where they are most useful, all day long. With a rifle that points as well as the 336, with an optic as fast and precise as the Micro H-2 red dot, the hunter is equipped with one of the best possible tools for close- to medium-range encounters. This might just be the perfect rig for black bear, hogs, elk in the timber and woods whitetails.