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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I love lever guns, I’ve got Winchesters, Marlins and a few Savage 99s. My favorite are saddle ring carbines. I hunt mostly with my 94 Winchester 32ws, my Marlins 336 35rem my Browning BLR 308winand 444 Marlin. I’ve taken lots of boar and whitetail deer with all 4 of them. The 32ws& the 308 win will reach out further than the 35rem and the 444Marlin is big bore shoots 325 gr bullets.
I own a 1966 Winchester model ‘94 and have taken several Whitetails with it over the years! Love the old lever action!
Great article I really enjoyed it. So my story is about my Dad’s first gun it was a 32 Winchester special pre 1964. It was the first gun I fired and we both took our first deer with this gun. Sadly we lost this rifle in a wildfire that took my parents home and many fine firearms including the 32 Winchester special. I sure had a lot of great memories of that sweet lever action rifle.
Great article. Great to read the comments on how so many have enjoyed lever action rifles. In our family it was mostly about the Savage Model 99s. Most were.308s but my dad’s was a .300. Excellent rifles that killed a lot of deer. But one uncle had a Winchester in a .32 Special and when I got 12 my dad bought me a Marlin 336C in a .35 Rem. Killed a buck at much less than 20 yards at first light on opening day with it. Over the years killed many more. Never missed. Pull that baby up and it is already right on target. Crazy how that works but only that rifle does so. Just a natural fit probably because I grew up with it. Then everyone went to the bolt actions and semi autos but about 20 years ago one uncle got a Marlin .45-70. Whomever shot it then went out to get their own. Soon everyone had one. Brother also has a Henry .45-70. He liked that Henry so much he went out and bought a few more but in different calibers. Lever actions are not as sexy as some rifles but they are undeniably part of our hunting and shooting tradition.
Got one of the last model 94 from Woolworths for $69.95. Hunt elk in the deep timber with hornidy leverlution
I have always had a love for leveractions. I have a Winchester carbine in 357 mag, a Savage 99F in 300 Savage, A Marlin in 30-30, A hammerless 22 lever action that came from Sears but I think it was made by Winchester, I have a Henry in 22LR. I used to have a lever action 44 mag. I sold it. That is the only gun that I shot that brused me. I am a BIG very broad shouldered guy and I think that it just didn’t fit me right. A 7mm mag doesn’t bother me a bit.
I live in East Texas and other than pipelines most of the hunting here is in the thick forests. I just don’t need anything more powerful. No bears, Our deer are on the small side and easily dropped with a 357. LOL, our hogs are bigger than our deer and a LOT meaner.
I own. Browning BL-22 and have had it since 1972. I’ve shot thousands of rounds through it. Love that it will take all sizes in any combination. I will never sell this Gun.
Great Story.I also bought My first gun a lever action Marlin 3030 at age 12 in 1966.I also have a Winchester model 308 lever action that I inherited from My Dad,along with all the memories of the hunts from all over the west including Alaska.Thanks Rory
I have every model and caliber that Winchester made in their Model 88 line as well as several duplicates and some unfired. Then throw in some Marlin 336’s in .30-.30 and .35 Remington, top it off with a couple of Marlin 39A’s.
I always loved the 88’s and their smooth lines, they have accounted for a truck load of whitetails as well as a couple of bears, they are not heavy, come in a variety of great calibers and they have never failed to function. None of the rifles I have are super accurate but most will shoot a 1 1/2 group at 100 yards which will get the job done.
I have a couple of Henry .22 lever actions, which are fun to shoot and good for training the grandkids to shoot safely. I also have a Rossi clone of the Winchester 1892 – but in .357 magnum, as I have .357 revolvers as well.
I’ve had tem all, but really the one for me is the 92. My personal heirloom is a Winchester 92 38-40 saddle ring carbine purchased by my Great grandfather in 1904. I Inherited this at 17 when my grandfather passed. And at age 40 won my states(Maine) first cowboy action championship. And no dought this rifle helped immensely. Using .40 cal. Bullets to reload the brass. No .308 but plenty of power for anything except long distance
I love lever guns. I have 2 marlin 1895 Guide Guns. A 450 marlin, 45-70, An 1894 in 44 mag. 2 Rossi 92’s in 357 and 45 colt. 3 Winchester 94’s. 2 30-30’s and a 25-35. an 1892 in 25-20. 3 Savage 99’s 2 in 308 and a 300 Savage. A Browning pre 1981 in 308. A couple of Winchesters in .22 Mag. A Marlin model 62 in 256 Winchester Mag.
I have my grandfather’s 1902 30-30 that I shot my first deer with 40 years ago. I also have a Belgian Browning BLR in .308. It is magazine fed, shoots pointed bullets just fine, is well balanced, accurate, and the action is reportedly a very strong design.
As a cowboy action shooter I have a love of lever actions. My main competition rifle is a Marlin 1894 Cowboy .45lc. My other Marlins are a 39A .22lr and a 336 30-30. My original Winchesters are an 1887 lever action 12ga, an 1895 in 30-40 Krag, and a ’94 in .45lc. I also have a few Winchester clones, a ’66 .45lc, a ’73 .357, and a ’92 .357. Just love those lever actions!!!
I have a Henry 45/70 very good rifle and easy to get ammunition for
Enjoyed the article. Gave me some history I didn’t know. My favorite lever action in the Winchester Model 71 in 348. Originally, you could get 150, 200, and 250 grain ammunition, which gave you a wide choice depending on the game.
This was good but left out a lever action that was very special to many. 99 Savage
Yeah there’s nothing like a labor action rifle , unless of course you have a 35 rim and you can’t find ammo for it anymore let’s you wanna pay someone godly price for it
My favorite rifle is the model 71 in 348 wcf. I’ve only shot deer with it, In 1986 I bought my first copy of Ken Water’s pet loads, he talked about 348 bullets and brass being in short supply. I now have enough supplies that my sons will be able to shoot it long after I’m gone.
I see no mention of the .38-40, date looks like 1892 or ’82 was my grandfathers then my dads ,now mine. last time I fired it I could see the bullet in flight. That was 56yrs ago, needs some TLC now.
First firearm I ever bought when I turned 18 was a model 94 in 30-30. Still have it and have hunted pronghorn and elk with it. Great rifle and I have never put a scope on it. I am 65 now and have been shooting it with iron sites my whole adult life. I have newer, more accurate rifles with scopes, semi-autos, bolt actions but always grab the 94 when I am heading out and packing light. I did purchase another 94 in .45 colt to match my Ruger side arm ammo, but the 30-30 is hard to beat for an all around rifle. It will be my go to unless I need to rip off a couple dozen 30 round mags.
First rifle was a MARLIN 30/30. Now almost 60years latter, have both a .357 and a .44 HENRY. While the AR style rifles are so popular, almost everyone underestimates what a good lever action rifle can do. Think how hard it will be for some Liberal DA to claim you are some type of radical that was looking to shoot an innocent person that entered your home by mistake with your deadly semi auto assault rifle when you use your lever action rifle instead. These are the same DAs that don’t understand that at close range, the 30/30 is more potent than the 223/5.56.
Marlin 336 got it as a confirmation gift in 1963. Still use for an occasional stroll down memory lane. Numerous white tails, a black bear and a caribou when I lived in AK.
I have a model 64 Winchester 32 Winchester special that was given to me by my grandfather for Christmas in 1954. I. Used it 3 times and harvested three deer with it in Pennsylvania. It is immaculate – I still have the original box of shells that came with it- there are still 13 in the original box, my reason for liking the model 64 is that it has a pistil grip making it handle more like a conventional rifle. If you have more information on this model I would appreciate receiving it. The article was enjoyable and informative
Actually, that Rifleman levergun is the one that made Chuck Conners feel like the Duke, as it was the same levergun Wayne’s Ringo Kid character used in the 1939 ‘Stagecoach’ epic.
The History of the Lever Action Rifle was a great article. It really caught my attention when I saw the picture of the Winchester 1892 .32-20. I, too, have that model and caliber rifle given to me as my first gun by my grandfather approximately 60 years ago. Even then it had already been in my family for many years, maybe even a few decades prior. I don’t know when it was originally acquired in the family. My gun still shoots just fine and looks very much like the one pictured in the article; however, mine does not have the Lyman sight.
Enjoyed the article
My favorite lever action was the Marlin 1893 in 30-30, which holds ten rounds, Also the Marlin in 45 Colt, The Marlin 30-30 has been retired and replaced with the Winchester 94 carbine in 30-30. all great lever actions.
I love lever guns and have a few. my favorites are .45-70’s .
but for the first time in many years ,,,, took a 30-30 to the
deer woods and shot a buck with it this past season. the
first deer I shot was 55 years ago with Winchester 30-30.
this years was with a Marlin with open sights and at 75
years old, felt as good as that first one?
Years ago I explained to my brother the reason that Cowboys bought carbines is because they could use the same ammo with both. And awhile back I was considering a short Henry like Steve McQueen carried on wanted dead or alive since it looks like it could be fun at close range
I have a old marlin 336 in 44 magnum it’s very accurate and a pleasure to hunt with only taken deer so far.my son borrows it and he likes it so much sometimes it’s hard to get back
You left out one of the first lever action rifles. I have my gggrandfathers rifle from the civil war. It’s a Spencer in 56-56.
I believe that if you want to feel like the Winchester rifle you had made you feel like Chuck Conners, you would not be shooting a 30-30 caliber, but a 44-40 caliber in the show rifleman.
I have never owned a lever gun,but have always wanted one. Have fired and borrowed many in the past. So 6 months ago I broke down and bought a Henry Long ranger in 308 caliber. What a nice rifle. If the cowboys in the past had this caliber, they could clean house from a greater distance. This rifle is very accurate and has a smooth action. I will be having a lot of fun in the woods and the range with this gun. Also will pass this down to family when I go.
Some people might wrongly conclude that my gun safes are overloaded. I dislike some people and do not rely on their opinions.
I own and enjoy multiple lever rifles and carbines and I reload for all but the 22 rimfires. The prettiest are the Savage 99’s in .243, .308, .358, Winchesters include a model 88 in .308, a model 94 AE in 44 magnum, Marlins are in .357, 30-30 and 32 Special and a 45-70 Guide Gun…I have some Rossis in 357 and 45 Casul..Henry’s in 44 Magnum and 22 LR…do we count my Pedersoli Sharps in 45-70? That employs a lever. These are all hard-earned treasures collected over a long lifetime. Lever action rifles….like a good dog…I will never be without one.
I heard a story that Abraham Lincoln was given a demonstration of the Henry Rifle and was permitted to shoot it. The generals later counselled the president not to outfit his Army with the rifle, because the soldiers would waste too much ammunition. Not very forward thinking.
Great article. Savage Model 99 is a great lever action that allowed pointed bullets in several calibers, most in .300 savage. I still hunt with mine today.
Absolutely love the lever action rifles! I have and use several: Henry 45-70 hogs, Henry 22mag Rio Grande turkey (fall season), Henry 6.5 Creedmoor, my go to whitetail gun!
I have only two lever action rifles both 45/70. A guide carbine by Marlin and a 1886 Winchester, made around 1997/98. The Winchester has never been fired but i plan to take it to the Ranch and try it out. The biggest problem is finding ammunition in 45/70. Really great rifles.
I Have a Model 88 Winchester Lever Action Carbine in .284 caliber. The last year manufactured in this caliber was 1964. It did com in .308 as well. Only American rifle cartridge manufactured with a rebated rim! Its and interesting rifle to say the least as it has no hammer. Have shot a few deer with it. Only issue is the soft point bullets get nicked as they are loaded which affects accuracy. MOA is still 1.5″ @ 100 yards. I had some ammo custom loaded with Hornady ballistic tip projectiles and they performed a little better. All in all In love the gun and will never sell it.
Good thing hunters have their front teeth. They always smile after killing. You just took a life of one of God’s creatures–even though not human. Show just a tiny bit of reverence.
Very interesting article. I purchased a brownie BLR 308 in 1977 works great for lefties. Awesome bear.
I had 3 extra Whitetail tags when living in Montana. I had my Winchester Big Bore ’94 in .375 Winchester. While crossing a hip deep grassy field saw the heads of a herd of Whitetails poking up above the grass at about 50 yards. Standing and Offhand I shot one, cycled another and then another … 3 shots 3 dead Whitetails. The Rifle handled beautifully, and totally impressed my Wife To Be. I was lucky, all shots were head shots.
One mistake on the Winchester 30-30 feeling like Chuck Connors shooting it,he was shooting what l believe was a 44-40 caliber on the Rifleman.
My favorite rifle was the Winchesster 1886 in .33 WCT, It was a 45-70 case necked down to .338. It was the rifle I carried in Alaska when fishing, in addition to a Western Marshal .44 Win Mag wheel-gun.
Sadly, my son, unbeknownst to me, sold my rifles, including the 1886, and put up my extensive coin collection up for a loan with an unscrupulous pawn shop owner due to his wife have pre-cancerous cervical condition and having let his health insurance lapse. The pawn shop owner lost his shop and skipped the set with my coins.
But how I miss the Winchester 1886 .33WCF. 😭
Very educational article about history of gun manufacturers with famous names and patents, well-researched, as well as hunting story.
Way cool history lesson on firearms, all those famous gunsmiths in the development of those early companies. Very interesting to learn all the associations of these famous people.
Another outstanding article written by Mr. LaPorta very educational, while the history of lever action along with an outstanding short hunting story .
I can back up the love of lever actions with Ed I have a second John Wayne commemorative 32/40 which is a safe queen as it is in it’s original box in unfired condition . Previously I had another (stolen) and it was accurate and fast to about 200 Meters Great gun also had an 1895 Winchester Russian contract also stolen yet another fine example too .
Loved that bit of history and was captivated by the brief narration of the hunt.
Thanks for another well-researched and well-written short.
I’m with the other comments – “Keep ’em comin’ “
Interesting history and great hunting story
I’d love to read more of these adventures
Keep em coming!
Loved this one.
Will probably love the next one as well!