5 Iconic Early Lever Action Rifles

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In writing an article about the most notable or “best of” anything, there is always room for argument and debate about what should and should not have made the list. While writing this blog, the focus was pinpointing lever action rifles with a deep history and those that have affected the guns that came after them. A collection of different Winchester, Browning, Marlin, and Ruger lever action rifles could have made this list since they are highly popular and well-respected guns, but for the sake of brevity, repetition, and providing an overview of innovation, a short list of five firearms was the aim.

A rare L.D. Nimschke signed, engraged, gold finished Winchester Model 1866 lever action saddle ring carbine chambered in the .44 Henry centerfire cartridge sold for $51,750 in RIAC’s September 2021 Premier Auction.

First, let’s take a brief look at some of the first lever action rifle models and examine how the groundwork was laid for the legends that followed.

Early Lever Action Development

While names like Horace Smith, Daniel Wesson, and Benjamin Tyler Henry are well-known in the firearms world, the first lever action rifle designs that served as their direct ancestors started with Lewis Jennings and Walter Hunt. Based on Walter Hunt’s Rocket Ball cartridge patent (#5701, August 10, 1848) and Lewis Jenning’s movable ammunition carrier patent (#6973, Christmas Day, 1849), the Jennings was the first commercially produced stepping stone in the story of the Winchester family of lever action rifles.

The Jennings lever action repeating rifles like this example that sold at Rock Island Auction Company in December 2021 for $17,250 were produced by Robbins & Lawrence Co. in Windsor, VT from from 1848-1851.

Walther hunt may have been inspired by certain airgun systems and flintlock repeating rifle designs that experimented with tube magazines. Some even used lever action mechanisms, but the Hunt Volitional repeater and Jennings lever action rifles set the standard for the legendary lever guns of the 19th century.

The origin of the Volcanic pistol and carbine is often overshadowed by its Henry and Winchester successors, but it’s a tale no less engrossing.

The Jennings design took some inspiration from the ambitious but flawed Hunt Volitional repeater, which could arguably claim the title of the first lever action rifle. With a separate locking block at the rear of the breechblock and a solid arm that moved the breechblock in both directions, the Jennings action would resurface nearly four decades later with a similar concept that John Browning employed in his Winchester rifle designs from the Model 1886 and onward.

A New Haven Arms Company Volcanic carbine with a scarce 21-Inch barrel.

Horace Smith’s later revision of the design, the Smith-Jennings rifle, was also produced by the Robbins & Lawrence Company for a brief period around 1851. The firm’s foreman, Benjamin Tyler Henry, was in charge of making improvements to the mechanism, and Smith would soon partner with Daniel Wesson to manufacture what would become known as the Smith & Wesson lever action pistols.

1. Henry Rifle

It would have been borderline criminal to not include New Haven Arms Company’s Henry rifle at the top of this list. The .44 caliber trailblazer is often thought of as the first lever action rifle. While not entirely true, it was the first lever action rifle that achieved commercial success. As any Winchester fan knows, the lever action patent used to make the Henry was purchased by Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson in the 1850s to accompany their self-contained ammunition.

The Henry rifle, the first lever action rifle issued to the American Military.

Oliver Winchester didn’t enter the equation until Smith & Wesson began seeking investors to continue making headway on the new rifle as the newly-reformed Volcanic Arms Company. As many firearms enthusiasts know, Winchester was a wealthy textile and clothing maker more than willing to put his money into a promising investment. He became a major financier for the company. Making the new lever action rifle proved to be a larger feat than Smith & Wesson or Volcanic Arms could endure and the company went bankrupt 1856.

U.S. martially inspected second contract New Haven Arms Company Henry rifles are among the rarest and most desirable Civil War guns for sale.

Winchester aggressively took over the company at the end of that year and seized full ownership, including the all-important patents. He hired gunsmith B. Tyler Henry to be plant supervisor and to continue improving the lever action rifle while also overseeing production of other Volcanic guns. Utilizing the up-and-coming rim fire ammunition, Henry was able to experiment with his designs. The result from years of trial and error came in 1860 with the final iteration, the Henry rifle.

Two boxes of US Cartridge Co. .44 Henry Flat cartridges marked ‘Von Lengerke & Antonie’ (left) and a Henry repeating rifle (right).

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The Henry lever action rifle came to be at a time when firepower was needed – the beginning of the Civil War. At almost $50/each retail, the rifle cost quite a bit more than the popular muzzle loading Springfield 1861 with its $14.93 cost to manufacture. The Union was reluctant to purchase and so they negotiated a deal to pay a little over $35 per rifle. The government settled for buying about 1700 of them for service. Any man who received a Henry was highly impressed. General Sherman’s army was one of the lucky regiments to have them assigned and it proved beneficial to them in battle. During Sherman’s March to the Sea, the Henry rifle undoubtedly added to the devastation delivered to the southern states.

Soldiers who had the means to purchase the gun privately did so to get a significant advantage over enemy forces. The lever action rifle could effectively fire around 24 rounds a minute, a rate that blew muzzleloaders and single shot breechloaders of the time out of the water.

General Edward M.McCooks factory inscribed and engraved New Haven Arms Company Henry rifle, later owned by David-Kalakau, the last king of Hawaii.

The Henry lever action rifle was manufactured until 1866 when Winchester changed the name of Henry Repeating Arms to Winchester Repeating Arms. This was in the wake of a lawsuit filed by B. Tyler Henry for fair reimbursement for his design. Henry lost the suit and left Winchester to pursue other opportunities. Winchester went on to use almost the exact same design and parts in his Winchester Model 1866 that looked shockingly similar to the Henry rifle. He added a wooden hand guard and the now-iconic Winchester loading gate (King’s patent) to the right-side of the receiver in order to avoid legal issues with the design.

Altogether, approximately 12,000 to 13,000 Henry Rifles were manufactured in their almost 6 year production run.

2. Spencer Repeating Rifle

The Civil War came at a time when rifle innovations and transitional ammunition systems were in rapid production. The only problem with the repeating rifle designs of the Civil War was governments liked old standards and depended on proven reliability for their armies. Due to the mindset of the Union, despite the fact that the Spencer Rifle had the ability to set their forces apart with rapidity and speed compared to the Confederates, they initially said no to the lever action rifle. The refusal was based not only on its innovative nature, but also based on the logistics of how much more ammunition would be needed for a gun that could fire about 20 rounds a minute. That was about nine times more rounds than a muzzle loader could hope to get off in a minute.

This rare Spencer Model 1860 carbine is identified as a War Department pattern gun and the top of the breech end of the barrel is bearing a flaming bomb stamp above “W.D” (War Department) surrounded by an oval and “1864” in three lines.

The Spencer got its day when President Abraham Lincoln agreed to test the rifle with its gun inventor Christopher Miner Spencer at the White House. On August 18, 1863 President Lincoln trialed the gun and was impressed by the lever action’s speed and accuracy. Its .56-56 Spencer rimfire cartridges enjoyed similar ballistics to the Springfield rifle, plus its tubular magazine was easy to lead, and the speed of firing could not be beat.

The Spencer rifle, one of the first lever action rifle designs mass produced.

President Lincoln issued the rifle to Union forces immediately afterward and the first large shipments of lever action Spencer rifles were the game changer the Union was looking for in 1863. The Union immediately had positive reviews of the rifle with over a dozen officers reporting that the rifles provided vast improvements for their forces. Brevet Major General James Wilson expressed that the Spencer lever action rifle, “excels all others in use in durability, rapidity of fire, and general effectiveness.”

Outstanding Civil War U.S. Spencer Model 1860 Army repeating rifle with sling and bayonet.

Another upside to the Spencer, and Henry rifles for that matter, was their rimfire cartridges. If the Confederate forces captured the lever action rifles, they would be essentially useless as rimfire cartridges were not available in the South.

After the conclusion of the Civil War, the Spencer lever action rifle continued production until 1868 when the company went bankrupt. Oliver Winchester swooped in yet again to purchase Spencer and all its assets. One of the most popular firearms of the Civil War, over 200,000 Spencer rifles were manufactured in their less than a decade run.

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3. Winchester Model 1876

Discussing the Model 1876 opens up the conversation to talk about a few different Winchester lever actions of the time. As stated earlier in this blog, the first lever action rifle from Winchester was the Model 1866, but since that was so similar to the Henry, let’s move on to the Model 1976. Yes, the Model 1873, the “Gun That Won the West” came in between the 1866 and 1876, but it was chambered in such a low powered caliber of .44-40, that it couldn’t compete with the more powerful rifles of the time. It was perhaps this lacking of power that saw it upgraded only three years later with the Model 1876. The 1873 was still a highly popular and widely produced rifle despite its lack of velocity, but the 76 was the pinnacle of the toggle link design.

Exceptional Special Order Winchester Model 1876 Deluxe Lever Action Short Rifle with British Proofs and Factory Letter

The Model 1876 was unveiled at the America’s Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, hence its alias as the, “Centennial rifle.” The rifle was a transitional lever action for Winchester, and was essentially a scaled up, heavier version of the Model 1873 with near identical mechanics. While It’s downfall was its short receiver, which left if unable to fire the popular .45-70 cartridge of the day and other lengthier cartridges yet to be developed. Instead it used the powerful .45-75 Winchester Centennial cartridge, also capable of taking down buffalo and other large prey on the frontier. It would eventually be replaced by the Browning-designed Model 1886 the stronger action of which was able to handle much more powerful chamberings.

One of the most expensive guns in the Winchester Model of 1876. RIAC President Kevin Hogan talks about this supremely rare “One of One Thousand” rifle.

The 1876 was available for order with deluxe and special features and had scarce variations like the “One of One Thousand” and “One of One Hundred” selections. The lever action was a heavy rifle weighing over nine pounds. Texas Rangers, cowboys, ranchers, and Canadian Northwest Mounted Police alike favored the gun and used it in high regard.

This special order Winchester Deluxe Model 1876 lever action rifle was accompanied by a factory letter listing it as being 50-90 Express caliber with an octogon barrel and casehardened finish. It realized $88,125, more than $20,000 more than its estimated high value.

Famous expeditioner and future president Theodore Roosevelt ordered his first special Winchester that was “stocked and suited to fit him” at age 22 and it was a highly embellished Model 1876. He was extremely pleased and impressed by the gun and its sporting ability. He became a loyal Winchester customer after this purchase.

The impressive Winchester lever action rifle set a durability standard that Winchester used to create their next few decades of guns. It was produced into the 1890s but halted production due to the improved 1886 Model. Over 64,000 Winchester Model 1876 lever action rifles were sold in its decade of production.

4. Savage Model 99

The first lever action rifle from Savage deserves a place in the spotlight. If you are a loyal follower of Rock Island Auction Company and our weekly blogs, you know that in January of 2019 we published an in-depth blog about the Savage 99. If you are a fan of the gun, you should read through the article. The Model 99 made this list for a few reasons; this author has a soft spot for the gun and it is a highly successful lever action rifle that was produced for over 100 years.

On the lower left of the receiver of this engraved Savage Model 1899 rifle is a cartridge counter. After World War 1, the gun was redesignated the Savage Model 99. This rifle is available in the Feb. 14-17 Sporting & Collector Auction.

The gun inventor of the Savage Model 99 lever action rifle was Arthur W. Savage, an entrepreneur and Renaissance man. He had worked for several firearms related companies before pursuing the development of his own design. In 1892, he trialed his first Savage Model 1892 design with the military. The gun had a hammerless rotary magazine and was a lever action. It lost out to the bolt action Krag-Jørgensen.

Over the next few years, Savage created multiple different variations of the gun, making subtle changes in the design. The rotary stacked magazine and use of a Spitzer cartridge were staples for all iterations of the gun. The Model 1899 improved the location of the chamber loaded indicator and the stock had an updated, more graceful look. The gun started to be referred to as the Model 99 for marketing purposes when it was still in heavy production during the 1920s.

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Important, FRESH and Historic Factory Engraved, Gold Inlaid and “HED” Initialed Savage Model 1899 Lever Action Rifle with Deep Relief Carved Stock and Matching Monogrammed Case Presented to Detroit Automaker Horace Dodge, Co-Founder of the Dodge Brothers Motor Company

The rotary magazine of the lever action rifle helped it function smoothly and seamlessly. It was the first lever action gun that was hammerless and used a spring loaded firing pin that was quick to respond to a trigger pull. These improvements on the lever action design were beyond impressive and Savage chambered the innovative gun in the advanced ammunition choices of .303 Savage and .30-30 Winchester.

The gun has dozens of different models and version that were released during its long reign. The gun did not cease manufacturing until 1998.

5. Marlin 1895

The Marlin 1895 is a lever action rifle that didn’t receive its respect as a reliable hunting rifle until many years after its inception. Only around 18,000 Marlin Model 1895 were manufacture from 1896 to 1917. There was nothing wrong with the lever action gun, it was an accurate and dependable rifle, it just came about at a transitional time. People wanted high velocity, smokeless rounds and the Marlin’s range of large-caliber, blackpowder rounds just wouldn’t cut it. Even the .45-90 and .33 WCF rounds introduced later could save it in a marketplace where other manufacturers had a head start and bolt actions were coming in vogue. This could have been the end for the Model 1895 had Marlin Arms simply scrapped it and gone back to the drawing board.

Marlin Model 1895 Deluxe Takedown Lever Action Rifle

However, in the shadow of the Great Depression, Marlin took those same concepts of a strong, reliable, accurate rifle and developed the Model 36. This might not be worth much of a mention in the story of the Model 1895, except when Marlin chose to re-introduce the Model 1895 in 1972, it came in the guise of a Model 336 receiver.

From the first lever action rifle models to the tremendous Marlin Model 1895, lever rifles helped tame the frontier.

The company believed that people still wanted to use a large bore rifle chambered in the classic .45-70 rather than the modern arms on the market at the time. The new Model 1895 provided the modern high-velocity needs for a hunter with the nostalgia and simplicity of a lever action rifle. It was by no means the most innovative or exceptionally fast rifle option for the 1970s, but it served a great purpose to everyday hunters.

Desirable Antique Marlin Model 1895 Lever Action .45-70 Rifle

The variations of the rifle continued to be produced throughout the next decade ending in 8 different styles. All are reliable guns for hunters and sport shooters alike, and they are still being made today.

Get Your Next Lever Action Gun at RIAC

From highly notable brands like Winchester to popular industry icons like Marlin, the lever actions on this list are a few of most sought after even to this day. Not all the popular lever action rifles that have ever existed could make the list, but there are plenty of others out there for you to start exploring. If you have an interest in any type of these timeless rifle, you should check out our catalogs. We offer thousands of lever action rifles all year long in our auctions. Keep your eyes on our catalogs for next lever action purchase.

150 years of the Winchester Model 1873. This documented Winchester One of One Thousand marked Model 1873 smoothbore rifle is one of the rarest variations of the gun that won the West.

First Lever Action Rifle Models

The history of the modern world has been inextricably linked to the history of the gun, and you can subscribe to the weekly Rock Island Auction newsletter to receive new gun blogs and gun videos each week that dive deeper into this fascinating topic. From articles on the bow vs the gun, the revolver vs the pistol, and the types of repeating assault weapons available when the United States Constitution was written, we thoroughly explore the history of the gun and the men who pushed the boundaries of firearms technology and shaped our world today.

Factory gold inlaid and plated presentation Winchester Model 1894 carved and deluxe takedown lever action rifle signed by master engraver John Ulrich.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>