April 02, 2021
Lever actions were the most popular repeating rifles of the 19th and early 20th centuries. From the Henry 1866 to the Winchester Model 1873, these rifles became emblematic of a pivotal era in American history. They represent expanding borders and wilderness exploration by western settlers and pioneering spirits.
By the 20th century, firearm technology quickly evolved. Blackpowder was replaced by smokeless propellants, iron sights were supplemented or replaced by scopes, and streamlined copper-jacketed projectiles displaced flat-nosed lead bullets. None of these advancements boded well for the future popularity of lever guns, but this category is enjoying a resurgence.
Lever rifles have their limitations. Most utilize tubular magazines that do not safely accept cartridges loaded with spitzer projectiles. The tip of a pointed bullet in a tubular magazine rides against the primer of the cartridge ahead of it, which could invite disaster. To add, many 19th-century lever actions were not strong enough to handle the higher-pressure smokeless cartridges. This motivated the development of several new cartridges to work within new and existing lever actions. Cartridges that are unpopular or forgotten have made their host rifles hard to feed or obsolete.
Another issue that some lever-action designs faced, including the Winchester Model 1894, was top ejection, which complicated scope installation. John Marlin’s side-eject design became a popular option with those wanting to pair their rifle with an optic.
Attempts to modernize the lever-action rifle continued with John Browning’s Winchester Model 1895, which accepted a box magazine instead of a tube. The arrangement of stacking rounds on top of each other allowed the rifle to safely function with pointed bullets. The Savage Model 95/99 followed, as did the Winchester Model 88, each advancing the lever-action concept. Both the Savage 99 and Winchester 88 were popular in their time, but each were discontinued before the 21st century began.
The Browning Lever Rifle (BLR) is one example of a lever action that continues to survive the test of time. Now, more than five decades after its initial release in 1971, the BLR continues to attract hunters who appreciate a modern interpretation of John Browning’s lever-action legacy. So let’s examine one of the brand’s most enduring designs.
In his book, “FN Browning: Armorer to the World” (Stoeger Pub., 320 pgs., 1999), author Gene Gangarosa offered a detailed account of the BLR’s design and production history. According to Gangarosa, the BLR was a collaborative effort between Valentine (Val) Browning and Browning company employee Karl Lewis. As a matter of record, Lewis was credited for designing the BLR’s action.
Still incorporated in current-production BLR rifles, the Lewis design utilizes a rotating bolt that locks into the barrel (or receiver, on early models) for robustness. Unlike most bolt guns, the BLR features eight locking lugs on the bolt head to increase its strength and longevity. The cycle of operation functions on a rack-and-pinion system. The linear motion of the bolt body causes the bolt head, or “pinion,” to rotate into a secure and locked position.
Lewis also made it so that the trigger mechanism traveled with the lever as an assembly when the gun was cycled, which eliminated the risk of pinching the shooter’s finger against the trigger while elevating the lever and closing the bolt.
Initial production of BLR rifles took place in 1966 at the Thompson Ramo Woolridge, Inc. (TRW) facility in Cleveland, Ohio. What is interesting about this fact is that TRW also produced automobile parts. However, they had invested in firearm manufacturing machines and tooling in an effort to supply M14 rifles to the U.S. military. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara stopped production of M14 rifles in 1964, which left TRW’s new machines idle. The company was only too happy to help Browning build the new lever action. From 1966 until 1968, TRW produced some 250 BLR rifles, but only 50 were sold to the public.
Some of those early prototypes were destroyed, while others were shipped to Fabrique National (FN) in Herstal, Belgium, where production of BLR rifles resumed in 1970 for a 1971 release. Browning wanted to be certain that there would be enough BLRs in-stock when the rifle was announced. And in 1972, BLR production moved from Belgium to Miroku’s facility in Japan. The BLR has been built there ever since.
Initially, the BLR was offered in either .243 Winchester or .308 Winchester. In 1981, the BLR underwent a revision that included flattening the sides of the receiver and changing the bolt design. The previously-cylindrical bolt was fluted, and lost two of its locking lugs, going from eight to six. The new design looked like a mechanical gear in cross-section. The magazine was also redesigned so it sat almost flush against the bottom of the receiver. In 1991, a long-action version of the BLR was added to the lineup, and in 1996 the Lightning version with an aluminum alloy receiver was introduced.
The Modern BLR
For 2021, there are four BLR rifle models offered by Browning. There’s the BLR Lightweight, which is available with either a pistol grip or ’81-style straight stock, aptly named the “BLR Lightweight ’81.” The walnut is glossy, and the blued barrel is polished. The aluminum receiver complements the blued barrel, and it is furnished with tapped screw holes that are threaded to secure scope mounts for magnified optics. Iron sights are also included and are affixed to the barrel, which, on BLR Takedown models, prevents loss of zero when the barrel and forend are separated from the receiver and buttstock.
Speaking of takedowns, the third model is one such, the BLR Lightweight ’81 Stainless Takedown. The Takedown features a straight grip profile and offers a quickly removable barrel, sight and forend assembly for compact storage and easier transportation. As the name implies, the model wears a stainless-steel barrel with a matte finish, and the aluminum-alloy receiver is paired aesthetically thanks to a satin-nickel finish. The stock is distinct, as the Takedown is the only model offered with grey laminate wood, which is weatherproof and complements the barrel and receiver.
The BLR Lightweight Stainless with Pistol Grip shares the stainless motif, wearing a stainless barrel and nickel-finished alloy receiver. However, the fourth BLR configuration is different in that there is a downturned checkered grip and lever, as well as a gloss-walnut stock and forend.
All four standard models feature Browning’s signature gold trigger and almost 20 chamberings ranging from .22-250 Remington to .300 Winchester Magnum.
Not counted among the four standard models is the BLR White Gold Medallion Maple. Introduced at the 2020 SHOT Show, news of this rifle’s limited-production was overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, this unique rifle has gone largely unnoticed. A favorite of some collectors, the highly figured maple stock has been graded “AAA,” and is accented by rosewood forend and grip caps. The stock and lever on this model is the pistol grip configuration, rather than a straight grip. The stainless barrel on this model is polished to a mirror finish, and the satin nickeled receiver is tastefully embellished with laser-engraved scrollwork. The rifle is offered in classic American chamberings including .243 Winchester, 7mm-08 Remington, .308 Winchester — all in 20-inch barrels — and .30-’06 Springfield with a 22-inch barrel.
In My Hands
Today, there are plenty of options available for rifles capable of minute-of-angle (MOA) accuracy, so it would seem that the BLR might be a redundant fossil. However, I’ve found that the current BLR is a still-capable rifle that stands up well to modern rivals thanks to smart engineering and loads of charm. To evaluate a sampling of Browning’s current-production BLRs, I ordered two representative rifles for range work. Don’t be surprised, but one was the limited-production White Gold Medallion Maple rifle that I requested in .243 Win. The other was the BLR Lightweight ’81 Stainless Takedown chambered in .300 Win. Mag.
When you pick up any BLR, the first thing you notice is how well-balanced these rifles are. Balance is important to hunters who may use the rifle while hunting in a stand or stalking big game in thick cover. The BLR’s handling offers a balance point at the front of the chamber, which gives the guns a so-called “between-the-hands” feel.
To take a step back, I ordered the BLR Lightweight ’81 Stainless Takedown for use on an Idaho bear hunt with hounds. Unfortunately, the hunt, like so many events in 2020, was cancelled. But I chose that specific BLR model based on previous experiences. On my last Idaho bear hunt, I carried a bolt gun in .270 Weatherby Magnum featuring a 26-inch barrel and 46½ inches in length. It was better suited for shooting bears across a canyon, which is ultimately what happened on that hunt. That gun proved unwieldy in the dense brush, and it was a poor choice for hunting behind fast-moving hounds. Given a 20-inch barrel, the BLR is shorter at 40 inches overall. At 6 pounds, 8 ounces, it is trimmer than the 8-pound bolt action, which meant that it handles better in the field. Plus, the takedown feature means that it is simple to remove the gun’s barrel and forend assembly and stow the entire rifle inside a pack. If that Idaho hunt gets rescheduled, I may choose similar BLR, in a different chambering. Following a survey of Browning’s current offerings, I’m excited to try the 6½-pound BLR Lightweight in .308 Win., which measures 40 inches and handles like a grouse gun.
For this article, I tested both the .243 Win. White Gold Medallion Maple and the Takedown in .300 Win. Mag. I found that the BLR capably rivals many bolt actions, and I’ll begin my justification by comparing weight and then size.
The White Gold Medallion Maple weighed just 6½ pounds, which makes it as light as the average bolt gun in this same caliber. The gun’s overall length is 40 inches, and up to 45 inches if chambered in a longer cartridge such as the 7mm Rem. Mag. or .300 Win. Mag. These specs make the BLR ideal for hunting from blinds and tree stands. Why? Long rifles can be a liability and spook game when maneuvering for a shot in confined spaces. Besides the BLR’s handling qualities, the stock design was engineered for quick shots. Browning borrowed a page from their shotgun playbook by giving the White Gold Medallion BLR a wider pistol grip and round forearm with a Schnabel forend. (If you’re looking for the antithesis of a low-cost, matte-finish, weatherproof-stocked bolt-action, then the White Gold Medallion model is what you’re after.)
Both BLRs I tested demonstrated smooth-to-operate actions. The rack-and-pinion design is fast and feels sophisticated. There’s little doubt that the BLR cycles more quickly than a bolt gun, but the disadvantage is that the action requires some space for that downward stroke of the lever. That’s not great when shooting from the prone, but when sitting, kneeling or standing, the BLR can be worked quickly for fast follow-on shots.
The BLR doesn’t come with a manual safety, per se, but it does have a thoughtful feature that allows the hammer to fill that role. Initially, the hammer appears to have three cocking positions: fired (or forward), half cock, and full cock. From the half-cock position, the top of the hammer can be rotated forward so that the front of the hammer cannot contact the rear of the firing pin. When the hammer is in this position, a tab extends up from the lowered hammer face and offers a visual and tactile indicator of the rifle’s status. The hammer spur itself measures more than a half-inch wide, which makes it easy to manipulate. I came to like the flip-forward hammer feature and found it easy to use.
At The Range
The BLR is a rifle that doesn’t need to be scoped. For close-range hunting, such as for whitetails and pigs, the standard iron sights work well. The rear sight sits low and has a screw-adjustable notch. Up front is either a gold or fiber-optic bead. The sights are basic but easy to see. At 50 yards, I had no problem hitting an 8-inch target from the sitting, kneeling or standing positions.
I didn’t like that the trigger was as heavy as it was, but when firing rapidly offhand with irons, its less of a factor than when you’re sitting on the bench and trying to shoot tight groups.
The .243 produced mild recoil, but the .300 Win. Mag. is stout to shoot. At 7¾ pounds, the BLR in .300 Win. Mag. wasn’t unbearable or unpleasant, but you know you’re shooting a powerful round. It was comfortable due to the thick recoil pad. A word of warning, though: If you’re in the habit of squeezing the rear bag with your non-shooting hand when firing off the bench, be cautious of hard-kicking calibers. I learned that lesson after receiving a rap across the back of the hand courtesy of the gun’s lever during recoil at the bench.
BLR rifles have a 1-inch drop at the comb and heel, which is more than most bolt guns and noticeable when you shoulder the rifle. My grandfather owned a BLR equipped with those dreadful shoot-through scope rings, and they required the shooter to lift his head completely off the stock to use the scope, which caused a sharp jab to the cheek. The modern BLR’s stock works great with irons sights, and OK when using a magnified optic. Just don’t mount a scope in a set of high or extra-tall rings.
I did mount Leupold scopes to both guns for this evaluation. Neither scope had large objective lenses, so they fit nicely. If I were buying a BLR to scope, I’d avoid scopes with an objective lens larger than 40mm. You want one with as low of a profile as possible — and expect to remove the iron sights.
BLRs don’t have a reputation for match accuracy, but I think it gets a bad rap for two reasons. First, they have heavy triggers. You can expect a BLR’s trigger to measure 5 or 6 pounds from the factory. Second, BLRs have thin, lightweight, sporter-profile barrels on them. This means that they heat up in a hurry. After more than three shots, be prepared to let the barrel cool or you’ll see groups begin to wander.
In an effort to determine how accurate the BLR could be, minus the effects of barrel heating, I let the barrel cool completely between shots. That effort resulted in 1- to 2-MOA accuracy using factory loads. Though these samples never broke an honest inch, certain loads averaged around 11/4 inches from 100 yards. The overall average was about 1½ inches. For the type of hunting that the BLR is designed, a handy 1½ MOA rifle is a much more versatile tool than a longer and heavier precision rifle.
By and large, my experience with the BLRs was educational, and I have become a fan of Browning’s clever lever. Every year, Browning introduces new configurations and discontinues others. There was a tactical BLR Black Label with a Monte Carlo stock with 16- or 18-inch Takedown barrels; and a BLR/BL-22 “Father & Son Combo” that we missed out on a couple of years ago. The BLR has been dressed with colorful laminate stocks, as well as Mossy Oak and Realtree camo. Perhaps all of the variations have helped us to think of the BLR as having a soul, one that we never want to see die. For all of the configurations, there’s a BLR that’s an extension of each of our personalities. As time continues, the BLR’s improvements on the aging lever-gun concept demonstrate its staying power.
Browning BLR White Gold Medallion Maple Specs
TYPE: Lever action, magazine fed
CARTRIDGE: 7mm-08 Rem., .243 Win. (tested), .308 Win, and .30-’06 Sprg.
CAPACITY: 4+1 rds.
BARREL: 20 in.
OVERALL LENGTH: 40 in.
WEIGHT: 6 lbs., 8 oz
LENGTH OF PULL: 13.75 in.
SIGHTS: Adj. notch (rear); gold bead (front)
STOCK: American maple, Grade AAA, pistol grip
FINISH: Satin nickel, engraved (aluminum); polished (stainless steel)
MSRP: $1,540 (tested)
IMPORTER: Browning, browning.com
Browning BLR Lightweight ’81 Stainless Takedown Specs
TYPE: Lever action, magazine fed
CARTRIDGE: 17 offerings; .300 WM (tested)
CAPACITY: 3+1 rds.
BARREL: 20 in. to 24 in.
OVERALL LENGTH: 40 in. to 45 in.
WEIGHT: 7 lbs., 13 oz.
LENGTH OF PULL: 13.75 in.
SIGHTS: Adj. notch (rear); red fiber optic (front)
STOCK: Grey laminate, straight grip
FINISH: Matte nickel (aluminum); matte (stainless steel)
MSRP: $1,310 (tested)
IMPORTER: Browning, browning.com
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