The Savage Model 99
By Danielle Hollembaek
Very few firearms can claim the rare feat of being manufactured for over 100 years. With the constant evolution and competition within the firearms market during the 19th and 20th century, it is hard to make a firearm that withstands the test of time. Some companies beat the odds like Winchester, Colt, and Smith & Wesson. Another lesser known, but highly innovative firearms manufacturer is Savage Arms and their timeless Model 99.
Over 1 million Model 99 Savage rifles have been produced in several different patterns-the 1895, 1899, and 99. All were based off the original design with slight innovations throughout the rifles over 100 years of production; a span that only ceased during World I and World War II. The Savage factory was producing Lewis machine guns for the United States during World War I and in addition to manufacturing large numbers of Thompson submachine guns for World War II, also simplified the M1928A1 design resulting in the M1 Thompson.
Every great firearm has a creative and innovative mind molding it, and Arthur W. Savage was that mind. He was a Renaissance man with many talents and strove towards innovation not only within firearms, but also in the automobile and railroad industries. Born in Jamaica, he had numerous ventures overseas with the most successful being his Australian cattle ranch and Jamaican coffee plantations. In 1877, he moved with his family to New York City to start yet another endeavor: firearms production. Savage was a prolific inventor and by 1887 he had patented a lever-action rifle design with a tubular magazine in the stock. This patent was assigned to Marcellus Hartley who, along with other partners, had acquired the Remington Arms Company.
In 1892, after realizing his passion for guns, he packed his bags and headed to Utica, New York. He got a job as a railroad engineer to support his family and found part-time work at the Utica Hammer Magazine Company, a firearms factory. This side job was his first true introduction into the firearms industry. In that same year, he developed the Savage Model 1892 rifle, the first hammerless rotary magazine rifle on the market, which Colt Manufacturing Company produced. The rifle was presented for US Army trials, but unfortunately was turned down for another innovative bolt action rifle, the Krag–Jørgensen. His efforts were not in vain however, because the basis for the Model 1895 came from this design.
In 1893, with his patent, improved in 1897, Savage created what was known as the Savage Model 1895 lever-action rifle. Knowing the idea was unlike any other of its time, Savage decided to follow his heart and dedicate his career to improving his design. To market his gun innovations, Savage started the Savage Arms Company in Utica in 1894.
The most unique feature of the Savage rifle was that it was hammerless. The lack of a hammer lead to its sleeker design and it looked different from typical long guns of the time. Another innovation was the round counter that indicated how many shots you had left to fire, which operated via the rotatory magazine spool. That was an innovation no other firearm had at the time. A loaded chamber indicator was applied as a safety feature on the bolt; “S” meant safe while a “C” meant cocked. Another addition to the Savage Model 1895 was its rotary stacked magazine that was able to use Spitzer cartridges, resulting in more accurate rounds – something the tube magazines could not safely boast. It was also Savage’s first smokeless powder rifle design.
About 5,000 Model 1895s were produced in a 4-year span. Due to the success of the Model 1895, Savage realized that he needed to open his own factory and start producing his innovative firearms, and so the Savage Arms factory was established in 1897.
Only a few changes were made from the Model 1895 rifle to the Model 1899. The improved loaded chamber indicator, previously located on the bolt, was changed to a small rectangular button at the top of the receiver. This made the display easier to see and lessened the chance of debris entering the rifle through the previous design’s circular cutout. Less important changes were in the firing pin, sear, exactor, and hammer. The look of the two rifles was very similar, but the Model 1899 had a slightly more pointed looking stock as opposed to the more ovular butt stock on its predecessor. The Model 99 was produced in multiple calibers, unlike the 1895 which only came in .303 Savage. A selection of sights were also available on the Model 1899. The next one hundred years of the Model 1899 production would follow basically the exact design Savage invented with a few minor alterations and customizations.
Savage offered in an advertisement in 1900, that anyone who wanted to convert their Model 1895 to a Model 1899 could do so for five dollars. All of the improvements internally in the rifle would be added to the firearm. It is not recorded how many people claimed this offer, but it is presumed that the takers were low since a new Savage Model 1899 cost around twenty dollars. The price to send it in and change the inner working just wasn’t worth it.
The Model 1899 was known for its reliability. It had little to no jamming due to its smooth rotary magazine. People loved the rifle which lead to the long manufacturing period of the Model 1899. In the 1920s, the name was shortened to the Model 99, mainly because calling a firearm the 1899 was outdated for advertising. The Model 99 was not the only firearm Savage Arms produced, but it was the company’s most famous.
The Model 99 was produced in over a dozen different cartridge sizes with the most popular being the .303 Savage, .300 Savage, .250-3000, .22 High Power. One downfall to the firearm is the rounds are not cheap, which turns some buyers away, even to this day.
Savage Arms decided the Model 99 needed a way to differentiate features one rifle production had from another, such as barrel lengths, weights or appearance details like finish and checkering. Small technical changes were implemented over the years, like detachable magazine and receiver changes. The Model 99 was produced in twenty-eight different versions from a saddle-ring carbine to a military musket. A lettering and numbering system was created to catalog the differences after World War I. It is very helpful to experts when trying to date the year of a specific Model 99. For non-Savage Model 99 experts, it is a highly complicated system that requires adequate research to understand. Good luck to the brave souls who try to dive into this endeavor!
Beautifully relief engraved and gold inlaid Savage rifles are not common, but there are a few in existence that are simply breathtaking. Famous owners of a detailed Savage Model 1899 include the Dodge Brothers. The motor company owners had a collection of guns which included a highly embellished Savage. We sold a Savage rifle belonging to Horace Dodge (shown above) in December of 2016 for $195,500. We also sold the stunning monarch grade Savage Model 1899 (shown below) in December of 2018 for $540,000.
The Model 1899 continued to grow in popularity over the years. Arthur Savage, a man who could never settle, decided to sell his firearms company in 1905 and moved to California. While out west, he owned orange groves for a few years, and then decided to enter the automotive industry. The radial tires that most vehicles still use to this day, were patented in 1911 by Savage, and then improved upon by his son, Arthur John Savage, when they owned an automotive business together. Another invention accredited to Savage was the magazine magnetic tack hammer.
William Arthur Savage passed away on September 23, 1938 at the age of 83. He was found with a pistol by his side and a bullet wound was determined the cause of death. It is rumored that he became terminally ill and that he took his own life, instead of waiting for the sickness to do so. He was a man who lived a full and industrious life.
The Savage Firearm Company had a few owners and underwent several partnerships during the World Wars, but the Model 99 was the company’s longest-lasting firearm. Even with all the changes in ownership, the Model 99 continued to be manufactured until 2003. There are various websites and blogs about the reliable and classic rifle, as befitting a staple in sporting rifle history. Vista Outdoors is now the parent company of Savage Arms.
For a rifle to be produced for over 100 years without major alterations is a true achievement. Arthur Savage proved to be a brilliant firearm designer, for the Model 99 withstood years of firearm innovations. Its high reliability and timeless design made it a rifle for the ages.
If you would like to own one of these historic treasures yourself, we have quite a few available in our upcoming February Regional Auction, February 14-17. Check out the catalog today and win yourself a Savage Model 99.