Rifles > Lever-Action

The Lever-Action Rifle: An American Classic

The lever-action rifle is as American as baseball, hot dogs and apple pie.

5/9/2011

The well-known phrase “baseball, hot dogs and apple pie” supposedly came from a World War II survey that asked servicemen what things from home they missed the most. While it can be argued that those things really had their origins in England or Western Europe, no one can deny that they have come to symbolize the American way of life.

Thanks to our Second Amendment, owning a gun is also a symbol of what it means to be an American. We possess numerous handguns and shotguns, but we’ve really always been a nation of riflemen. Throughout history, the rifle has helped settle the country, fight our wars, provide home security and food for the table. So, it would not be a stretch to say something is “as American as baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and rifles.”

Of all rifle designs, none is more American than the lever-action. It came upon the scene in the middle of the 19th century, served during the Civil War and various Indian wars and has taken more deer than any other rifle. Many historical paintings and photographs show cowboys, Indians, soldiers and mountain men proudly posing with a lever-operated rifle. In the world of fiction, lever guns are as present as the single-action revolver in every western novel, movie or television show. Just try to picture John Wayne tying his horse to a hitching post without a Winchester protruding from the saddle scabbard. (Trivia question: What was the only motion picture to be named after a firearm? Answer below.)

For much of the last century, the term “deer rifle” meant a lever-action Winchester or Marlin. Their handling qualities are ideal for the stalking woods hunter or one on horseback. The flat-sided receiver hangs comfortably in the hand and slides easily in and out of a saddle scabbard. While today’s long-range advocates hunting from tree stands love their bolt-action magnums, the lever-action is the real deal for the traditionalist who likes to stalk his game and shoot from his hind legs. I killed my first deer with a Winchester .30-30 when I was a teenager, and to this day, I don’t feel right walking through the woods in deer season with any other rifle in my hand.

The lever-action rifle was not, as some believe, invented by Winchester. In 1848, the Volition Repeating Rifle was the first lever-gun to receive a patent, but it was a complicated design and never made it to production. The Robbins & Lawrence Company bought the patent and produced a few rifles, but the venture was not successful and the doors closed in 1852. Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson — yes, that Smith and Wesson — bought the patent and, with several investors formed the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company in 1855. One of those investors was Oliver Winchester.

The Volcanic Rifle also was not much of a success. Smith and Wesson left to start their revolver dynasty and Oliver Winchester bought out the other stockholders. He changed the name to New Haven Arms Company and hired Benjamin Tyler Henry to improve the Volcanic design. The result was the famous Henry rifle. It was introduced in 1860 and was used by a few U.S. Army units during the Civil War. Confederate soldiers called the Henry “that damn Yankee rifle you load on Sunday and shoot all week!”

Another lever-operated rifle, the Spencer, was also introduced in 1860. It was very different from the Volcanic and Henry in that its tubular magazine was in the buttstock instead of under the barrel, and the shooter had to manually cock the hammer after ejecting a spent cartridge and loading a new one with the lever. The Spencer also saw limited use during the Civil War.

After the war, New Haven Arms became the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, and an improved version of the Henry became the first Winchester repeating rifle, the Model 1866. The famous “Gun That Won the West,” the Winchester Model 1873, came along during that year, followed three years later by the larger Model 1876. (The answer to the trivia question is “Winchester 73,” starring James Stewart, 1950.)

Then in 1883, the great gunsmith and inventor John M. Browning began a working relationship with Winchester that lasted 20 years. During this period, he designed and developed many rifles and shotguns for Winchester. By the beginning of the 20th century, the term lever-action had become synonymous with Winchester, thanks in large part to John Browning.

By far, the most successful Browning-designed Winchester was the Model 1894, the best-selling rifle in American history. The first two chamberings were the .32-40 and .38-55, both black powder cartridges. Then, in 1895, Winchester added its new .30 WCF (Winchester Center Fire), the first American smokeless-powder hunting cartridge, to the Model 1894 line. Later known as the .30-30, it soon became the standard to which all deer cartridges were judged and to this day remains a favorite with many hunters.

With more than 7 million rifles mad, there are more Model 94s on the market than any other hunting rifle in the world. Production stopped in 2006 when Winchester closed its New Haven plant, but for those who haven’t heard, the Model 94 is back for 2011.

America’s second most popular lever-action gunmaker has been Marlin. Founder John Marlin had worked for Colt during the Civil War and, in 1870, began making his own derringers and revolvers. In the early 1890s, he developed two lever-operated rifles, the Model 1891 and Model 1893. These later evolved into the Model 39 and 36, respectively. The Model 39 was a .22 rimfire and has the distinction of being the rifle with the most longevity in the world. Known as the 39A since 1937, it has been in continuous production for 120 years.

The Model 36 was given a few improvements and became the 336 in the 1950s. Over the years, the rivalry between the Winchester 94 and Marlin 336 became somewhat like that of Ford vs. Chevy. Many hunters picked one or the other based on what Dad or Granddad used.

One major difference between Marlin and Winchester lever guns was Marlin’s side-ejection. Winchesters ejected the spent casings straight up, which was a problem for those who wanted to use a scope. It took a while, but Winchester came up with its Angle-Eject answer in the early 1980s, which ejected the spent case to the right and at a slightly upward angle, allowing a scope to be mounted on top of the receiver like the Marlin. Many users of lever-action carbines, however, prefer open iron sights.

Another lever-operated rifle that was uniquely American was the Savage Model 1899. An improved version of the Savage 1895, it was very different from the Winchesters and Marlins. With its futuristic streamlined receiver, hammerless action and rotary magazine, it was a rifle for a new century. It was considered to be more accurate than the older lever-action rifles, in part due to its hammerless design, which made for a faster lock time. The spool-type rotary magazine also allowed the use of ballistically superior pointed bullets, which are unsafe in tubular magazines.

In addition to cartridges like the .22 High-Power, .303 Savage and .30-30 Win., the Savage rifle was capable of handling higher-pressure rounds. In 1915, Savage made big news when it chambered the Model 1899 for its new .250-3000 — the first commercial cartridge with a 3,000 fps muzzle velocity — and a few years later, for the .300 Savage. Both cartridges became very popular and have their fans to this day. Eventually the Model 99, as it later became known, was made for modern rounds like .243 and .308 Winchester.

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25 Responses to The Lever-Action Rifle: An American Classic

Jack Debrot wrote:
August 12, 2013

I have a winchester 94, marlin 1893, and two savage 1899s. Love them all but the savage in 300sav is truly a work of art and dead accurate.

Mack Missiletoe wrote:
August 21, 2012

Hey Carl, the rifle at the top is a Marlin 336 I believe.

MG wrote:
November 07, 2011

Does the Marlin 336 have a left handed model? Or does it only come configured for a right side cartridge ejection?

Machgawe wrote:
October 17, 2011

Owned 94,336,and savage 99 liked them all. My favorite is the 99 Savage side eject don't have to fully close action to empty and 308 cal. Still have 2 Win. 94's and a Marlin 336 all in 30-30. Next 45-70 Marlin ss guide model.

TW Lewis wrote:
October 17, 2011

A good lever action rifle is always my choice for all around survival have to have handy rifle. No magazines, multiple calibre choice and dependability keep it at the top. A lever action rifle like a good revolver might not be sexy but will always be in style.

Dan Gilmore wrote:
August 23, 2011

I own Both Marlin & winchester lever action 30/30 rifles but I recently bought and fired a new Henry Big Boy in 44 Caliber and I can tell you this is one of the most comfortable and accurate rifles I have ever had the pleasure of shooting without question,open sights at 100-150 yards kept tight groups in center mass of the target that with other rifles i would have used a scope for this was unbelievable,I will now be slowly collecting more henry rifles in other calibers as I can afford to buy them reasonably.I own over 100 firearms and this has just become one of my favorites of them all.Keep up the good work at the henry factory.sincerly Dan Gilmore-Portsmouth New Hampshire

Keith wrote:
August 01, 2011

I was given a Marlin 336sc in .35 and its the best shooting rifle and calibre made. its worked on Bears Moose,Caribou and God only knows how many Dear this rifle has killed..Don't blow this calibre aside it works,

Stan Weinstein wrote:
July 19, 2011

I own a Marlin 39A-Golden tiger, .22 Cal Leve action. It was given to me as a gift in 1955. It has a very low serial No. 5 digits.I use it for target and varmit shooting. Is this rifle worth some bucks, If so how much?

Peter wrote:
June 30, 2011

I own a Henry Big Boy 357 with a large loop. AWESOME gun PERIOD!!!

Richard Reggio wrote:
June 07, 2011

I have a Model 94 XTR 30-30 that i have owned since 1985. It is in excellent condition. I wonder what it is worth today. I was at a gun show about 2 years ago and there was a man there that had the exact gun but he had the original box - i don't and he was asking 1,200.00. He said that without the original box mine would be worth about $700.00 - If there is anyone ther that can give me an idear of the value of my gun I would appreciate it. I don't think that one box of 20 shells were ever shot from it. it is like brand new. thanks

Marc wrote:
May 24, 2011

You just can't beat a Marlin 30/30! Great for Deer or personal protection.

Snake River Clay wrote:
May 20, 2011

The first year for the Marlin 336 was 1948. I have one in 30/30.

Jim Meerpohl wrote:
May 16, 2011

John Browning's first lever, the 1886 Winchester was a lever tyhat could handle the 45-70 and even more powerful rounds. Winchester perfected the 86 when they designed nad produced the Model 71 in the 30's. They hired a German ballistician to develop the 348 Winchester cartridge. The smoothest, and one of the best designed lever actions of all time.

Rick Drennan wrote:
May 14, 2011

@carl ecklund. I believe the grip and side discharge would make it a marlin. 30something years ago I purchased a model 336 Marlin because of the ability to mount a scope. Never put one on it and laughed at the naysayers about its deer taking abilities.

David wrote:
May 13, 2011

I have a Marlin 336. I have owned it since I was sixteen. It has been a great rifle and I love the 30-30 cartridge. Althought I have a scope it is mounted over-under to allow use of iron sights. I love it for hunting the thick woods where I live. I chose it over the Winchester do to the way the cartridges where ejected. I preferred the Marlin's side ejection.

T.J. Oehmen wrote:
May 13, 2011

Lever actions have always been my favorites. I have a Henry Golden Boy in .22WMR and a Stevens Favorite 1915 .22LR. I shoot these just about every day. I couldn't imagine my gun collection without them.

nicky5251 wrote:
May 13, 2011

the movie was winchester 73 with james stwart

Life Member wrote:
May 13, 2011

I have a Henry Golden Boy in .22 caliber and it's a fun gun to plink with. Another movie named after a firearm is Colt .45 (1950) starring Randolph Scott.

L.A.Brouillard wrote:
May 13, 2011

My first gun was a Marlin 39 .22 caliber. It had a tang peep sight and an octagon barrel. I inherited it from my Dad and I treasured it. Someone stole it over 60 years ago. I still carry its serial number hoping I might run across it. Of course I never will.

Fast Fred wrote:
May 13, 2011

re: Movie named after a firearm... "Springfield Rifle" (1952). One of my childhood recollections.

Dan T wrote:
May 12, 2011

My Dad gave me his post WWII Model 99 Savage in 30-30 many years before he passed in 1991. It is a dream to carry and shoot in thick country, and very accurate with iron sights. I cherish it and would never consider selling it.

Agostino wrote:
May 12, 2011

Marlin's first lever actions were the Models 1881 and 1884. Many Spencers were purchased by the Union and used in the Civil War. The CW made Spencer rich, and the large number of Spencer rifles available as surplus after the CW broke him. And finally, a number of Union militia units were self-equipped with the Henry. Supposedly any Henry made with sling swivels was used in the CW.

Peter Caroine wrote:
May 12, 2011

The Bullard lever action rifle was made in Springfield, MA, in the 1880s. It featured a rack-and-pinion lever action that made Winchester, Marlin and Savage seem primitive by comparison.

carl ecklund wrote:
May 12, 2011

What is the rifle at the top of the picture the one with the pistol grip?

Jesse Price wrote:
May 12, 2011

I am surprised that the Winchester model 1895 was not included in this article. It was the rifle Teddy Roosevelt (sp)hunted elephants in Africa.I have one my Dad gave me. It was a 30/40 cal., but I rebarrelled to .444. Jesse