There is nothing more quintessentially American then the lever action rifle. The first truly successful lever guns were introduced in 1860 by Christopher Spenser and Oliver Winchester. Winchester’s gun was known as the “Henry” rifle; it was named after Oliver’s famed gunsmith, Benjamin Tyler Henry. Spencer rifles were purchased by the US Army and used in the American Civil War, especially by cavalry units. In late 1863 and early 1864, the army bought a little over 3000 Henrys, most of which were assigned to Sherman’s cavalry units. Many Union soldiers purchased their own Henrys which became a source of pride for their owners. Confederate soldiers were awed by the firepower these guns were able to produce and the story goes that they referred to the repeaters as “…that damned Yankee rifle that they load on Sunday and shoot all week!”
In 1866, Oliver Winchester added his moniker to his lever action rifles. The Model 1866 had several improvements over the Henry. Often referred to as the “Yellow Boy,” the 1866’s two best improvements were the addition of a wooden forearm and a loading gate on right side of the receiver. In 1873 Winchester introduced the rifle that would become known as “the gun that won the West.” The Model 1873 repeating rifle was one of the most profitable and famous of all of Winchester’s products.
Throughout the late 1800s, Winchester went on to introduce improved lever guns, including the very famous, strong, and highly popular John M. Browning designed Models 1894 and 1896. Like so many youngsters, my first deer rifle was a Model 94 chambered in the venerable .30-.30 Winchester cartridge.
Other great American lever rifle manufacturers included John Marlin and Arthur Savage. Savage’s Model 99 lever gun was quite revolutionary in that pointed bullets could be loaded in its rotary magazine. Savage developed several proprietary cartridges for this very unique gun including first the .303 Savage, then the very good .300 Savage. Over the years, many other calibers were offer in the Model 99; sadly the gun has gone out of production, a victim of the labor intensive costs required to produce it.
My very first gun was a Marlin Model 39 “Mountie” chambered in .22 rimfire. I still have this gun and while I don’t shoot it very often, every time I handle it I am reminded of the excitement a nine-year old felt at finally having a gun of his own. Marlin still produces the Model 39 today. Production, like the Savage 99, is quite labor intensive and thus expensive to produce, but it is one of America’s great guns. My 50 plus year old gun is in near perfect condition, and I love shooting it. Marlin still produces fine center-fire lever guns including the “guide gun” chambered in the powerful and fairly new .450 Marlin, a big favorite of many Alaskan guides.
In 1973, Louis Imperato bought the Iver Johnson firearms company and changed the name to Henry Repeating Arms Co. Today, under Imperato’s son Anthony’s leadership, Henry Repeating Arms produces some of the loveliest lever rifles one can find. Chambered in both rimfire and centerfire cartridges, these lever guns are solid, strong, and extremely well finished rifles.
Americans love lever action rifles; in fact I believe that in gun Heaven there are two neighborhoods. One for these with lever rifles and the other for everyone else.
Be safe and good shooting.