Scopes and Leverguns

© 2016 Ashley Emerson

I have said many times that "there is a special place in hell for anyone who puts a scope on a levergun,” and I stand by that statement (even though I've seen ME do it). However, these days more and more people are installing optics on leverguns for good and bad reasons, and it is long past time to discuss the problems with the typical installation and provide the means for a best-compromise mounting solution. I reckon that if you're gonna get on the Highway to Hell, you might as well do it with purpose (i.e., don't sell your soul cheap).

A primary characteristic of modern leverguns is their compactness, usually being flat, relatively short barreled, and lightweight for the firepower they possess. The Marlin® Model 1895 “Guide Gun” in .45-70 is an excellent example, and it’s a pretty handy powerhouse. This class of rifle is probably used more often with the factory “open sights” than any other sporting-type rifle. Additionally, many come with or are changed over to some type of “aperture sights,” which work well for the common uses of leverguns.

A scope mounted on a levergun begs to be relatively low powered, low mounted, and lightweight. Unfortunately, in these days of stand hunting and long-range sniping at game, ridiculously large, heavy, and often overpowered scopes are being mounted ever higher on hunting rifles. If all shooting is done from a bench over sandbags, these negatives are somewhat cancelled out by a great view of the target.

The reason most folks choose a levergun for a hunting weapon is, at least, a perception that it will be handy and quick handling: fast on the first shot and quick on the next shot or next few shots. If the chosen scope is a bulky, heavy, and/or overpowered version that’s so popular today, then expect it to be mounted too high and too far back to allow for fast handling. Combined with a diminished field of view, it will also be slower to get on target for each shot than a low-magnification scope mounted in a more ideal position.

To understand this, imagine using a levergun (or any long gun) with a gunstock and sights that work in concert so well that if you shoulder it and point it at something, and then look at the sights, they are aligned with that something – just like what happens with a well-fitting shotgun. Any combination that deviates from this shotgun-like handling will be slower to put on target.

The comb on the typical levergun is low, and this is because it’s designed for use with iron sights. So low, in fact, that the comb is actually a little on the low side when compared to an ideal relationship between the stock and the sighting system. This is true even when using the factory sights, and it is especially so for folks with narrow faces (like me and most women/children). If you do not want to modify the stock, it is best for fast sight acquisition to keep the sighting system, whether iron sights or scope, as low as possible.

Using a Guide Gun as an example, the first limiting factor is the scope itself. On a levergun, the ideal scope will allow a desirable mounting position and give a larger field of view for fast and precise shooting. The scope should be a compact ~2x to 2.5x with a 1in tube and a smallish ocular (eyepiece) end. A perfect example of a useful scope is the Leupold® FX-II Ultralight 2.5x20mm, which has dimensions allowing for the lowest mounting and causing the least negative issues (weight, bulk, etc.). If I want to use a variable scope, then I choose the Leupold VX-3i 1.75-6x32mm (discontinued) or VX-3i 2.5-8x36mm, both of which require slightly higher mounting because of the larger diameter of the eyepiece (1.6in vs 1.4in). While I like the low magnification on the low end of the 1.75-6x, the 2.5-8x offers the option of the Boone and Crockett® reticle (discontinued), which has additional aiming points and added utility if understood and utilized. Because of the larger eyepiece, these variable scopes must be mounted with their centerline .100in higher than the 2.5x Ultralight. For optical reasons, this does not matter much because of a more generous “eye box,” but they will make the gun slightly heavier and bulkier than does the properly mounted 2.5x Ultralight.

A scope also needs to be mounted in the right place fore and aft. It is my opinion that a scope having reasonably normal eye relief should be mounted with the rear end of the scope between a point slightly forward of the rear end of the flat top of the receiver and approximately 1/2in further back.

Mounting the scope as low as possible and as far forward as you can easily get a full view provides several advantages:

1)  The scope will be in a location that minimizes the bulk of the whole package, making the rifle easier to handle in the field. The lower you mount the scope, the easier it is to carry in the conventional manner of wrapping your hand around the front of the receiver. The ideal combination allows your thumb to go over the top with comfort, as this adds greatly to the control of the weapon as you cover rough country while “on the ready, gun in hand.”
2)  You can get your thumb on the hammer, eliminating any need for the ridiculously dangerous side hammer extension (“spur extension”), the use of which dramatically increases the possibility of the gun being accidentally cocked. Also, the scope tends to “run interference” for the hammer, helping to prevent inadvertently cocking the hammer while carrying the rifle in the field.
3)  If your scope is mounted low enough, it will allow you to have your face on the stock while sighting, which greatly increases steadiness to the entire rig. This also promotes looking through the scope nearly the same way each time, reducing the effects of parallax. With your face in contact with the stock, it’s nearly impossible to get hit by the scope in recoil.
4)  Having the scope in the position I recommend places you in the best position to shoot aggressively and run the action from the shoulder, which is the only way to cycle the action at speed. If the scope seems too far forward in this position by .5in, 1in, or even 1.5in, shorten the stock that much with inclusion of a 1in Pachmayr® Decelerator® recoil pad (trust me on this). You will be amazed at how much easier and faster it is to run a lever action at the shoulder at speed using a stock the right length for your body type. Ideally you want to be just close enough to see the full view in the scope.

This last advantage is the most important gain from combining a scope in the low/forward position and a stock having a proper length. If you are a shooter that, at first look, thinks this scope location is too far forward for you, then I will bet you are a shooter that normally takes the gun from your shoulder to operate it. Here’s a news flash: a shooter that properly runs a bolt-action rifle from the shoulder is considerably faster on repeat shots than a shooter with a levergun that drops it from his shoulder to cycle it. Both bolt actions and leverguns are awkward to operate from the shoulder if the stock is too long for the shooter.

If you need to shorten your stock, it does not mean you are less of a man. If you need to shorten your stock for proper operation and don't, then it may mean you have less of a brain. Be honest with yourself about how close you should be to the scope.

How do you mount a scope in the recommended position? It takes a little planning, and you must choose an appropriate scope. The fast-handling scoped Marlin will be wearing a scope with a 1in tube, a reasonably sized eyepiece (probably no bigger than 1.6in), and an objective end probably no larger than 36mm.

The ultimate way to mount a scope low on the Marlin is a custom arrangement that places the bottom of the eyepiece below the top of the receiver. This is accomplished by making a clearance cut for the eyepiece to the maximum depth that the builder feels is prudent, and then custom modified rings are mounted, with one on the receiver and one on the barrel. To my knowledge, the first Marlin so modified was an 1894 in .44 Mag, shown below, that I built for my wife over 20 years ago (this was my on-ramp for the Highway to Hell).

1894 .44 Mag

Grizzly Custom Guns™ in Montana is now doing this conversion and has recently built another one for me: a Marlin Model 1894 with a 16-1/4in barrel and the Leupold 2.5x Ultralight with their Alumina Flip-Back Lens Covers (front #59030, rear #59060). The rifle is chambered in .45 Colt and is additionally modified to feed and function with the Garrett Cartridges of Texas™ 45 RHO +P – a 405gr HH @ 1400fps (from a 16in barrel with 1:16 twist).

Marlin 1894 .45 Colt by Grizzly Custom Guns + Leupold FX-II 2.5x20mm

For those not wanting to extensively modify their receiver or spend hundreds of dollars (and usually months without your gun) to lower the scope another 3/16in, we now have available best-compromise scope mounts from Ashley Performance® LLC for the Marlin and similar 1895/336 and 1894 rifles.

The AP mount is machined from heat-treated 4140 steel and is attached to the receiver with four 8-40 oval-head screws in the factory-provided scope-mount holes. Standard rotary-dovetail rings are utilized, and these tend to have a smoother shape and to be easier on your hands while carrying the rifle than are Picatinny/Weaver style rings. Using recommended scopes and rings, the eyepiece will clear the mount by only .010in. Added to the .100in thickness at the rear two mounting holes, this positions the bottom of the eyepiece just .110in above the receiver. The front ring is cantilevered out over the barrel, and a brass-tipped stop screw is adjusted to approximately .003in barrel clearance to prevent deformation.

The following images show an 1895 customized by David Clay at DRC Guns. The rifle has an AP mount and is shown with both the 2.5x Ultralight and the 2.5-8x VX-3i.

Marlin 1895 by DRC Guns + Leupold FX-II 2.5x20mm

Marlin 1895 by DRC Guns + Leupold VX-3i 2.5-8x36mm

To illustrate the minimized additional scope height when using the AP mount, the following image shows my new 1894 with the custom scope installation next to the 1895 with the same compact scope on the bolt-on AP mount.

Custom installation vs. AP mount

The AP scope mount is a fully engineered part of a system designed to accomplish the goals discussed above – not as just another way to hang a scope on a levergun. It was designed by me and long-time friend/mechanical engineer/patent attorney Mike Alford, the owner of Ashley Performance.