By: Spencer Durrant
Lever-action rifles have always fascinated me. I don’t know if it’s their iconic status in the American West or the rugged simplicity that’s so alluring, but I do know I’ve never met a lever gun I didn’t like.
While most every other action – bolt, semi-auto, and full-auto – have seen huge improvements over the past 100 years, the lever-action hasn’t changed much. It’s worked so well for so long, and as the old saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Now, I’m one of those guys who loves the history behind guns almost as much as I love my guns themselves. The people involved, the circumstances that led to certain cartridges and rifles – it’s all fascinating. So today, we’ll take a look at the history of the lever-action rifle and how it ended up a staple of the Old Wild West.
Where It Started
Lever guns were likely circulating for a while before 1848 (Colt made some lever-action pistols, but they were never really viable weapons), but that’s the year the U.S. Government first issued a patent on the action.
If you think it was the Winchester Repeating Arms Company who filed for the patent, you might be surprised to learn that’s not the case. While Winchester certainly made the most popular lever gun in history, someone else built the first ones.
Walter Hunt is the man history credits with coming up with the original idea for a lever-action rifle. Hunt was a prolific inventor, as he also produced the lockstitch sewing machine, safety pin, ice plough, knife sharpeners, and the hard-coal-burning stove.
While his other inventions were produced, Hunt’s original design patent for the lever-action rifle wasn’t ever built. In 1849, Lewis Jennings patented an improved version of Hunt’s system. Then a fellow by the name of Benjamin Tyler Henry (yes, that Henry), at the time a plant foreman at the Robbins and Lawrence Company, oversaw the production of the first-ever lever rifles in America.
With a Little Help from Our Friends
Early designs for the lever-action weren’t quite perfect. Hunt’s design was patented in 1848, a new design came into play in 1849, and in 1855, a group of men formed the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company. Its sole purpose was to improve on Hunt’s original designs.
The company included Courtlandt Palmer – who bought the rights to Jennings’ designs after financial troubles forced production to stop at the Robbins and Lawrence Company – Horace Smith, Daniel B. Wesson, and Oliver Winchester. And remember, since Palmer bought the rights to the Jennings’ designs, Henry was in this group as well.
Unfortunately, the Volcanic Rifle wasn’t a success. By 1856, Smith and Wesson went off to start making revolvers, while Oliver Winchester moved Volcanic Repeating Arms to New Haven, Connecticut, rebranding it as the New Haven Arms Company.
That’s not all Winchester took with him to New Haven. He pried Henry away, who’d been tinkering with a design for a lever-action gun centered around rimfire ammunition during his time producing the Volcanic rifles.
The combination of so many pioneers of modern firearms is what allowed the lever-action to become a viable weapon. Without it, who knows if we’d have seen such a widespread adoption of the gun?
Military Use and Continued Development
Christopher Spencer’s lever-action design was created independently of the Smith-Wesson-Henry-Winchester cadre, and it was so popular that more than 20,000 were produced. This gun came out in 1860 and saw use by the North in the Civil War.
Then Henry finished his rifle designs, which were also adopted by the Union troops. Confederate soldiers hated the Henry so much that they referred to it as, “That damn Yankee rifle you load on Sunday and shoot all week!”
It was the Civil War that really showed the viability of the lever-action. After the war, Winchester rebranded the New Haven Arms Company as the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. By the 1890s, Winchester had released the 1886, and John Marlin came out with the legendary Marlin 1881. Winchester countered it with the Model 94.
After a short-lived arms race of sorts, Winchester settled on its Model 94 (designed by one John Moses Browning), and Marlin ended up with its 336 and 1894 models, both of which are still in production today.
The U.S. Military and the Soviets used the Model 1886 from Winchester through 1935. The Model 94 gained more popularity, though, as it was designed to fire a smokeless powder cartridge. These cartridges, under the development of Browning, turned into the .30-30, the most popular hunting cartridge of all time.
While Winchester temporarily stopped production of the Model 94, Marlin has produced its Model 1984 since the 1890s. Both were incredibly popular hunting guns, though after the introduction of semi-automatic rifles to civilians, lever guns fell by the wayside.
I’m not sure if there’s a lever renaissance in the modern gun world, but the fact that Hornady and other cartridge manufacturers are building rounds designed specifically for use in tubular lever magazines, I think it’s safe to say the popularity of these guns isn’t in question.
Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer and outdoors columnist from Utah. He’s the Owner/CEO of Cutthroat Creative Media, Managing Editor of The Modern Trout Bum, and a nationally-recognized author. Follow him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant.