Those of us who live in free states have unfettered access to modern defensive rifles like AR-15s, with full capacity magazines. However, if you live in a ban state such as New York, unless you're willing to break the law, no more standard capacity magazines will be available. If you're just now looking to get a defensive rifle, modern semiautos and acessories may be limited in availability.
In my opinion, a lever action is a viable alternative, even though the basic design is a century and a half old. If we're looking at a rifle for defense against bad guys (as opposed to dangerous animals) the ones to look at are those which fire handgun cartridges. Although there are several other options, if buying a levergun for social purposes I suggest that you choose one in .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum, or .45 Colt. These are currently the most common such cartridges and are easy to reload for.
Of these three, my first pick is the .357 Magnum. Ammunition is widely available at less cost than .44 Magnum or .45 Colt, it provides effective terminal ballistics, and recoil is mild.
From rifle length barrels, magnum revolver cartridges get a big performance boost. For example, a .357 Magnum 158 grain bullet that leaves a 4" revolver barrel at about 1250 FPS will probably be doing at least 1700 - 1800 FPS from a 20" carbine. .357 loads with 125 grain bullets can exceed 2,000 FPS from a rifle! The muzzle energy of a .357 Magnum round fired from a rifle can be double that of the same load fired from a handgun.
Compared with a shotgun, lever action carbines have less recoil, smaller and lighter ammo, and greater magazine capacity (generally speaking).
Currently, the Rossi 92 is probably the most commonly available pistol caliber levergun. The Marlin 1894 is still around, but 1894s in .357 seem to scarce as hen's teeth. There are also Winchester 1894s in .357, .44, and .45 available on the used gun market, if you can find one.
Some features that I like about the Rossi 92 include:
- The 20" barreled models hold 10 cartridges in the under barrel magazine. The 16" models hold 8, while the 24" rifles hold 12 rounds.
- In the 20" barreled version, it weighs in at about 5 pounds. Even my 11 year old daughter is able to shoulder it.
- The .357 Magnum carbines have very mild recoil, even with full power loads. I've single loaded .38 wadcutters, which recoil like and sound like a .22 when fired from the 20" barreled carbine. This is great for familiarization firing for new shooters, and can also be used for small game.
- The design includes a built-in gunlock incorporated into the hammer. It is unobtrusive and is locked/unlocked with a key included with the rifle. If you want to secure a loaded rifle outside of a safe, it's one of the better solutions I've seen. IMO, it's safer than gun locks that go in the trigger guard.
- Rossi 92s are reasonably priced and readily available, although you might need to order one through a local FFL or from an online retailer.
- While my rifle is blued steel, Rossi also makes the 92 in stainless steel. If you need a rifle for a boat or other humid environment this is definitely a big plus.
Some things I don't care for:
- There are some rough edges inside the loading gate that I need to debur. They can chew on your fingers when loading the magazine.
- Several years ago Rossi added a manual safety on top of the bolt to John Browning's original design. It feels cheap and cheezy. I removed mine and replaced it with a plug from Steve's Gunz. The gun still has the original half cock on the hammer.
- The magazine follower is a cheap piece of plastic. I replaced mine with a steel follower from Steve's Gunz.
- The finish on the wood was not only bland, but it didn't seal the wood well, either. I gave it a couple coats of Watco Danish Oil to better protect the stocks. Boiled linseed oil, tung oil, or a sprayed on polyurethane would also work well.
- Browning's design does not lend itself to easy takedown. The good thing is that takedown is rarely required. Marlins are much better in this regard.
Steve's Gunz has a good DVD on slicking up the Rossi 92s.
As an aside, Rossi's quality control can sometimes be a little spotty. Years ago I had an 1892 Short Rifle in .357 made by Rossi for EMF. It had a 20" octagonal barrel, crescent buttplate, and no barrel band around the forearm. It was a beautiful rifle but when I first got it, it gave me extraction problems. Rossi had me send it in and they fixed it, but this was a hassle. At some point I traded it off but I do regret that.
The pistol caliber lever actions give you a light, fast handling rifle that fires an effective cartridge, can be operated quickly, and especially in .357 and .45 Colt, has mild recoil. It's worth a look for home or property defense if you can't have a modern rifle.