The History of the Lever-Action Rifle

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This is an abbreviated history of how the lever-action rifle came to be without the details of the intrigue that accompanied its development. If you are not already acquainted with the story, I sincerely hope you enjoy my rendition of it. For those of you not familiar with it, I will start this narrative with the Volition Rifle.

The innovative Volition was the first lever-action rifle and used a metallic cartridge. However, its inventor, Walter Hunt, did not know how to market it. His patent was modified and improved by Lewis Jennings who was also not successful but led to the establishment of two legendary American firearm manufacturers.

Origins

Through the transfers of the patents, an order of 5,000 Jennings Rifles was contracted to the Robbins & Lawrence Firearms Company in Vermont. Fortuitously the shop foreman at the time was Benjamin Tyler Henry. To help with production issues, the company hired Horace Smith.

Horace Smith and Benjamin Tyler Henry worked together to improve the design and manufacturing to fill those orders. Coincidentally, Daniel Wesson was hired as the superintendent of the Leonard Pistol Works which was a division of Robbins & Lawrence. That is how Horace Smith, Daniel Wesson, and Benjamin Tyler Henry came to meet.

During that time frame, Samuel Colt invented his revolvers and Colt’s products were lighter, faster, more powerful, and more accurate than anything available at that time. Because of Sam Colt’s marketing acumen, they were also more popular than anything else on the market. Meanwhile in 1851, Horace Smith was sent to Europe to attend the London Great Exhibition. At the exhibition he met the French inventor, Louis Flobert and learned about his development of the self-contained brass cartridge and rimfire ignition.

Upon his return from Europe, Smith, along with Daniel Wesson, began working on the new cartridge and a new pistol. In 1853, they filed patent applications for a new cartridge and pistol. The patents were granted in 1854. Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson formed a new company to manufacture these products and named their company, “Smith and Wesson.” They soon hired Benjamin Tyler Henry to be their shop superintendent.

Unfortunately, this first attempt to establish the Smith and Wesson company only lasted about 17 months before the funding was exhausted and failed. Their major investor, Courtlandt Palmer, began looking for ways to recover his investment. He reorganized the company as the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company.

Winchester

In 1855, he persuaded a group of investors to pool their funds in this new company. One of the investors was a wealthy shirt manufacturer named Oliver F. Winchester. In 1856, Winchester moved the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company to New Haven, Connecticut, since he already had his men’s clothing business there. By April 1857, he reorganized and renamed the company as the New Haven Arms company but kept the rights for the patents himself.

Winchester put Henry in full control of developing a new cartridge for the New Haven Arms company. Henry was familiar with the cartridge experiments being done by Smith and Wesson and had knowledge of the production of the early rifles. He began working to improve the .22 caliber rimfire cartridge, that Daniel Wesson had originally produced for a pistol, by making it larger and more appropriate for a rifle.

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In the beginning, the company was kept afloat by the personal funding of Oliver Winchester and his partner in the shirt manufacturing business, John M. Davies. In 1860, Henry designed a .44 caliber rimfire cartridge, along with a rifle to fire it. The company started to deliver the new Henry rifles in 1862. Although sales were initially slow, the Civil War started and demand for the Henry rifle increased.

It is of note that the U.S. Government only purchased about 3,140 Henry rifles before the war and 1,731 Henry rifles during the war. Interestingly, more of them were purchased by the soldiers privately, using their own money. Some of its advantages included a large magazine capacity of 16 rounds, a fast rate of fire. Operating the lever on the Henry ejected the old cartridge, loaded the new cartridge, and cocked the rifle — all in one motion. Confederate soldiers called the Henry “That damned Yankee rifle they load on Sunday and shoot all week!”

In 1865, because of company infighting and the dissatisfaction of Henry, Winchester formed his new company, the Winchester Firearms Company. The company set about producing an improved version of the Henry rifle. The new rifle was the Winchester Model 1866. It featured an improved magazine design that prevented the jamming issues by way of a new closed magazine that could be loaded through a hinged gate at the bottom of the receiver. The design was modified enough to prevent Benjamin Henry and the Henry Arms company from suing Winchester. This resulted in the birth of one of America’s premier firearms companies.

Cartridge Revolvers

During this intrigue, Daniel Wesson had started working on the design of a revolver that would use metallic cartridges and speeding up the loading process. For this to become reality, he needed to develop a revolver design with the cylinder bored through so that could be loaded from the breech. He discovered that concept had already been developed by a former Colt employee named Rollin White, who held the patent for the design.

Daniel Wesson went to Springfield, Massachusetts and contacted his old friend, Horace Smith. Together, they formed a new Smith and Wesson company to manufacture revolvers and approached Rollin White for his patent. They offered him a royalty of $0.25 for every revolver they manufactured. This enabled them to manufacture revolvers, while the job of defending the patent fell to White. This arrangement cost Rollin White a lot of money battling court cases, while Smith and Wesson prospered.

The new revolvers were a success and sold so well that by 1860, Smith and Wesson expanded into a new factory. The U.S. Civil war increased the demand, and Smith and Wesson revolvers were purchased privately by many soldiers on both sides of the conflict. By the end of the Civil War, Smith and Wesson began manufacturing revolvers for the U.S. Army, Russia, and Australia.

Lever Actions

Let’s get back to the lever action now. A lever-action firearm uses a lever that is located near the trigger, to cycle new cartridges into the weapon. Often, the lever is formed in a shape that allows it to be a trigger guard as well. In photos of the lever action, note the large loop next to the trigger guard. The user puts his or her hand in the loop and rotates the lever. This action cocks the hammer and opens the chamber to extract and eject the previous cartridge.

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A new cartridge is then placed in position to be loaded into the chamber via spring pressure. The user then pulls the lever back to its initial position and this closes the chamber. The weapon is ready to fire again. Typically, most rifles of this type would hold 6 or 7 cartridges in the magazine located under the barrel.

Some notable advantages of the lever action design are they can be fired equally well by a right or a left-handed shooter, as the lever is accessible from either side. They also have a higher rate of fire than a bolt-action since all that is required to fire is to pull and push the lever back. They are typically shorter than bolt-action rifles, which made them easier to manipulate — especially by people on horseback. That is one reason why Winchester lever-action rifles were so popular with frontiersmen in the Wild West.

That said, lever actions also have some notable disadvantages. Those with tubular magazines inside the stock alter the balance of the weapon as it is fired and the weight shifts. Pointed bullets can detonate inside a tubular magazine, as the sharp pointed tip of each bullet rests on the primer cap of the next cartridge. It is also harder to operate the lever when one is lying on the ground. Since lever-action firearms don’t have detachable magazines, it is not possible for a user to pre-load magazines in advance. Those are the main reasons military forces around the world did not favor them.

Lever actions, by their very nature, are not as strong as bolt-action weapons. This is why the cartridges used by lever-action rifles are not as powerful as those used by bolt-action rifles. That means they are not a good choice as a platform for a long-range rifle. They are, however, popular with hunters who hunt in heavy timber at shorter ranges, since the shorter overall length makes them livelier. The higher rate of fire also makes them popular.

I bought my first lever action in 1966 when I saw the beautiful — at least to my uneducated eye — Winchester 66 Centennial Rifle. It was in fact the first Centennial Winchester released as a marketing gimmick. It was manufactured in Japan, like most Winchesters produced after ’64, but it sure looked nice, and the salesman said it could be mine for $124.00 plus tax. That was a lot of moolah at the time, but doable, so I took it home.

In the Field

For many years it was a safe queen, but one day I had a hankering to shoot something with it and decided a bear would be appropriate. At the time, I had a friend that had a pack of hounds he ran bear with on weekends to supplement his income. I asked him to let me know if he had a weekend that was open, because I wanted to try my hand with my Safe Queen.

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He called two weeks later saying he had a last minute cancellation, and could I be at his place in a couple of hours. I grabbed my gear and off I went. The area he hunted was on the southwest side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, North and East of Bakersfield. For those familiar with the area, it was East of Porterville near Johnsondale.

On the drive up, my friend explained that we would meet a number of guides who would be up there, even if they did not have clients, so they could run their dogs and keep them in shape. As it turned out, there was another guide with a client and about 10 other guides with their packs.

The first morning out, the other outfitter jumped two bears. He asked if we could help, because the bears had split his pack, and he did not want to lose any dogs. We drove to the area where the other bear had gone to find other guides with their dogs setting up a picket line to prevent the bear from crossing the road and going over the ridge. We pulled into the line on the road to Last Chance. I got out and got my rifle loaded and ready.

As I was standing between the pickup and the slope to the canyon, I realized the dogs were getting closer. Suddenly, the bear came out of the brush and turned to his left going away from me up the canyon at about 70 yards. I threw the gun up, put the post behind his shoulder, and fired as he went to his left into the brush farther down the slope. We quickly ran down the slope, to where the bear disappeared, as I worked the lever.

We entered the brush. Because of the slope, we still had some momentum propelling us, when the bear appeared in front of us going right to left. I literally extended the rifle and put the muzzle on the base of the bears skull and fired, as our momentum carried us over the bear and onto the ground. The bear was dead. My first shot was a little behind and missed his heart but hit the lungs and clipped and artery. He was going to die but the head shot hastened it.

Since that time, I’ve acquired a few more fine examples of some other models of Winchester’s legendary rifles. Most notably an 1886 rifle in .45-90 and a very nice 1892 in .32-20. I would like to shoot a moose or a grizzly with the .45-90. The .32-20 has accounted for numerous small game and is still very accurate. Another gun I like to shoot quite a bit is a Texas Ranger Commemorative Model 94 Carbine in the classic .30-30 Winchester caliber. It is fun to shoot and fast handling. I almost feel like Chuck Connors when I am shooting it.

Are you a lever action fan? Which models are your favorite? What game have you taken with a lever-action rifle? Share your answers in the comment section.