June 01, 2022
By Brad Fitzpatrick
If I told you that my go-to hunting rifle was impervious to foul weather, was light and compact, comes chambered for modern high-ballistic-coefficient hunting cartridges and could be broken down for ease of transportation, you’d probably think I was describing a modern bolt gun or an AR. In truth, the gun I’ve just described is Browning’s BLR Lightweight ’81 Stainless Takedown, a lever-action rifle. While you might not immediately assume a lever gun could qualify as one of the modern era’s most versatile hunting rifles, the BLR could change your mind.
Sure, the BLR will appeal to lever-action fans. What’s not to like about a modernized version of your favorite action? The unique attraction of the BLR rifle is that it also appeals to die-hard bolt-action and semiauto shooters.
Unlike older lever actions, the BLR’s detachable box magazine doesn’t limit you to flat-nosed bullets. Is it designed for the long-range hunter who only likes to shoot at game from a half-mile away? No. But for big game hunters who take their shots at 400 yards or less—and that’s still the majority—the BLR gives up very little to today’s bolt-action and semiauto rifles.
John Moses Browning was the godfather of lever-action rifle design, but virtually all of Browning’s legendary lever guns—the models 1886, 1892, 1894 and 1895—were sold by Winchester. In fact, Browning’s namesake company has produced one only centerfire lever action, and that gun—the Browning Lever-Action Rifle or BLR—was engineered by a man named Karl R. Lewis. Lewis was a brilliant gun designer, and he effectively modernized the lever-action rifle with the BLR.
The issue with most lever-action rifles throughout history—including all John Browning’s major designs except the Model 1895—was that those guns were equipped with tubular magazines under the barrel. The tubular magazine was a sensible feature in the days before pointed bullets, but in the early 20th century, as bullet profiles became sleeker, the traditional lever gun was left behind.
If lever actions were to compete with semiautos and bolt-action rifles, they would have to be able to handle modern bullets and ammunition. Lewis accomplished this by giving the BLR a detachable box magazine. This eliminated the need for a loading gate, and because the ejection port was located on the right side of the gun, the receiver readily accepted scope mounts.
The BLR’s bolt featured a rack-and-pinion design with eight (six in modern guns) locking lugs. On early guns the lugs locked into the receiver, but on modern guns they lock into a barrel extension.
Browning Firearms finalized the design of the BLR in 1970, and production began in 1971. The guns were built by FN Herstal in Belgium during their first year of production, but in 1972 production moved to the Miroku plant in Japan.
In 1996, Browning began offering Lightning models of the BLR. These had aluminum alloy receivers and were considerably lighter than previous BLRs, which had steel receivers. The BLR Lightweight ’81 Stainless Takedown 6.5 Creedmoor I tested came with that same aluminum receiver and weighed just 6.5 pounds, which is on par with today’s bolt-action hunting rifles and lighter than most AR-10s.
With its 20-inch pencil-thin barrel, the test BLR’s overall length was just 40 inches, 1.4 inches longer than the company’s X-Bolt rifle in the same caliber with the same barrel length. Because it has such a thin, short barrel, the BLR’s center of balance is directly between the hands.
That maneuverability, coupled with this gun’s short overall length, makes it an ideal Eastern whitetail rifle. Most deer hunters spend their time in a blind or a tree stand, and in those tight confines every inch of extra length makes a rifle more cumbersome. The BLR is a perfect option.
As the name implies, the BLR Takedown can be disassembled for transport. I very much like the idea of takedown rifles, but I’ve encountered two problems with takedown rifles in the past. First, not all takedown guns maintain point of impact following reassembly, and what good is a gun that you have to rezero each time you arrive in hunt camp? Second, some takedown guns are needlessly difficult to take apart and put back together.
The BLR doesn’t suffer from either of these problems. At the range I found that following reassembly the Browning’s point of impact was within two inches of the previous zero. Speaking of reassembly, the BLR breaks down and goes back together as quickly and effortlessly as any gun I’ve carried.
Simply pull down on the lever recessed in the stock and pull the barrel and fore-end assembly forward to remove it. The barrel assembly is secured by a lug that elevates into a cutout in the barrel extension when the breakdown lever is locked. Dropping the lever releases the lug from the extension, which allows the gun to be broken down.
With the BLR in tow, I don’t have to carry a long gun case through the airport when traveling to hunt. Instead, I can carry a small case that doesn’t immediately out me as someone who has a firearm with them. By global standards the United States is still pretty gun-friendly, but you may travel to parts of the world where having a firearm can get you harassed. Worse yet, carrying a firearm is a sign of wealth in many areas, which means you may inadvertently make yourself a target.
The matte nickel finish on the BLR Takedown’s aluminum receiver looks good with the satin gray laminate stock. The Takedown features a straight-grip stock that comes with a generous recoil pad, and the interior of the chamber is polished. Its stainless barrel has a matte finish, and a black barrel band secures the barrel and fore-end. Sling studs come standard.
The BLR Takedown offers plenty of sight options. Low-profile iron sights come standard, and they’re far more useful than the irons found on most lever guns. Unlike traditional buckhorn sights, the BLR’s minimalist irons don’t offer much to distract the shooter while obtaining sight picture.
The rear notch sight is fully adjustable using a flathead screwdriver, and because elevation adjustments are made by tightening or loosening the rear sight screw (tighten to lower point of impact, loosen to elevate it), you can make adjustments that are more precise than are possible with most sights. The front ramp has a red fiber-optic bar for low-light shooting.
The aluminum receiver is also drilled and tapped for mounting a rail or bases, and there are even holes in the top of the barrel above the fore-end for mounting a scout scope. Like I said, plenty of options.
There’s no readily visible safety on the BLR like you’ll find on the Winchester 94 or Marlin 336. But there is a safety, and it’s built into the hammer. The BLR has three hammer positions: fired, half-cock and full-cock. At half-cock the hinged top portion of the hammer can be tilted forward so the hammer’s face is resting on the receiver below the firing pin—which extends through the rear of the bolt—with the curve of the firing pin spur.
This effectively creates a guard to prevent anything from striking the hammer. It’s simple and ingenious. You can instantly inspect the hammer, and if the face is lowered, the firing pin is protected. When a bear comes to the bait or a buck chases a doe by your stand, you never have to search for the safety.
The folding hammer is one of just two primary controls found on the BLR. There’s also a magazine release recessed into the front of the magazine well. The metal four-round detachable box magazine is well constructed, easy to load and doesn’t require extra fiddling to seat properly in the gun. The BLR is simple to operate, and the rack-and-pinion lever design ensures smooth cycling every time.
Today’s shooters have gotten used to light, crisp triggers on bolt-action rifles. The BLR’s trigger isn’t particularly bad, but this is a hammer-fired gun, so you can’t expect the same crisp, clean break you’ll get from, say, the X-Bolt’s Feather trigger.
There’s take-up and a bit of creep, and break weight is just under five pounds, which might seem outlandish to some precision bolt-gun fans, but it’s not bad for a lever gun. The trigger features a wide face and a deep curve that makes it easy to control when firing.
An overall length of 40 inches means the two halves of the BLR Takedown measure about 20 inches long. My Badlands Superday pack holds both with inches to spare, and because the BLR adds less than seven pounds without a scope, it’s an easy gun to carry into the backcountry, especially on short hunts where you aren’t loaded down with several days’ worth of gear.
The BLR’s stock dimensions are very different from Browning’s bolt guns. The Composite X-Bolt rifle has a drop at comb of 11/16 inch and a drop at heel of 1/2 inch, so the stock slopes slightly downward from front to back. The BLR’s stock, which drops 4/5 inch at the comb and 15/16 inch at the heel, is more similar in design to the Browning Citori than the X-Bolt.
The extra drop makes it easier to find the iron sights, and in some instances—especially when tall scope rings are used—the face loses its weld with the stock when firing from a scope. I once saw a BLR in .308 with a pair of those ridiculous shoot-through rings that were briefly popular decades ago, and it was the most unbalanced, unattractive firearm I’ve ever encountered. Iron sights, red dot sights and low scopes (which may or may not require removing the rear sight) make the most sense on the BLR.
The Browning BLR Lightweight ’81 Takedown’s suggested retail price is $1,300. That isn’t cheap, but the craftsmanship is good and these guns hold value. The Miroku plant in Japan that produces today’s BLRs also builds Browning’s competition shotguns, so there’s no question about their quality.
The BLR is a smooth-cycling gun thanks to the rack-and-pinion lever, but recoil seems a bit more pronounced from the test gun in 6.5 Creedmoor than from bolt guns in the same caliber. The rifle shot pretty well, producing three-shot groups ranging from 1.1 inches to 1.7 inches with an average group size around 1.3 inches for three shots for all three loads tested.
This accuracy is on par with a lot of bolt guns, which is even more impressive when you consider that the BLR has a heavier trigger than most bolt guns and a lighter barrel with a barrel band.
The accuracy results are comparable with what I’ve seen from other BLRs. I haven’t shot one that consistently grouped at an inch with factory ammunition, but I haven’t shot any that averaged over 1.5 inches at 100 yards, either. For practical hunting purposes, that’s sufficient for game within a quarter-mile, which is the practical limit for most shooters under field conditions whether they like to admit it or not. The BLR isn’t as accurate as an X-Bolt, but it’s still a suitable hunting rifle for the majority of shooters in this country.
When it comes to accuracy, it’s important to take into account how sensitive the Browning’s pencil-thin barrel is to heat. After a half-dozen quick shots at the range, you’ll find that your groups are widening. I waited five minutes for the barrel to cool between shots in a group and 20 minutes between three shot groups.
Are such breaks necessary when shooting the BLR? No, but I wanted to be certain the barrel had cooled completely. Under field conditions your first shot from a cold bore should dispatch an animal. If it doesn’t and you need to fire a follow-up shot at a running animal, a quarter-minute shift in point of impact is irrelevant. The Browning’s balance and rapid cycling will prove valuable in those circumstances.
The BLR is a lever gun for those who don’t want to compromise accuracy or range and a versatile hunting rifle that’s at once contemporary and classic. John Moses Browning may not have invented this gun, but he’d be proud to see his name on it.
Browning BLR Lightweight ’81 Stainless Takedown Specifications
- Action type: lever-action centerfire
- Caliber: .243 Win., 6.5 Creedmoor (tested), 7mm-08 Rem., .308 Win., .300 WSM, .30-06, .300 Win. Mag.
- Capacity: 4
- Barrel: 20 in., lightweight sporter contour
- Overall Length: 40 in.
- Weight: 6 lb., 8 oz
- Stock: Satin finish gray laminate
- Finish: Matte nickel receiver, matte stainless barrel
- Trigger: 4.9 lb. pull (measured)
- Sights: Screw-adjustable iron sights; receiver and barrel drilled and tapped
- Price: $1,300
- Manufacturer: Browning, browning.com