Rock Island Auction Company

January 7, 2020

5 Iconic Early Lever Action Rifles

By Danielle Hollembaek

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In writing an article about the most notable or "best of" anything, there is always room for argument and debate about what should and should not have made the list. While writing this blog, the focus was pinpointing lever action rifles with a deep history and those that have affected the guns that came after them. A collection of different Winchester, Browning, Marlin, and Ruger lever action rifles could have made this list since they are highly popular and well-respected guns, but for the sake of brevity, repetition, and providing an overview of innovation, a short list of five firearms was the aim.

Without further ado, let’s get on to the list.

1. Henry Rifle

Henry Rifle Extraordinary Historic Early Production Henry Rifle from the Samuel Colt Collection

It would have been borderline criminal to not include New Haven Arms Company’s Henry rifle at the top of this list. The .44 caliber trailblazer is often thought of as “the first” lever action rifle. While not entirely true, it was the first commercially successful lever action. As any Winchester fan knows, the lever action patent used to make the Henry was purchased by Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson in the 1850s to accompany their self-contained ammunition.

Oliver Winchester didn’t enter the equation until Smith & Wesson began seeking investors to continue making headway on the new rifle as the newly-reformed Volcanic Arms Company. As many firearms enthusiasts know, Winchester was a wealthy textile and clothing maker more than willing to put his money into a promising investment. He became a major financier for the company. Making the new lever action rifle proved to be a larger feat than Smith & Wesson or Volcanic Arms could endure and the company went bankrupt 1856.

Finest Known Martial Henry RifleThe Finest Reported Known U.S. Martial Henry Rifle. Issued to D.C. Cavalry. Sold for $195,500 in Spril 2018

Winchester aggressively took over the company at the end of that year and seized full ownership, including the all-important patents. He hired gunsmith B. Tyler Henry to be plant supervisor and to continue improving the lever action rifle while also overseeing production of other Volcanic guns. Utilizing the up-and-coming rim fire ammunition, Henry was able to experiment with his designs. The result from years of trial and error came in 1860 with the final iteration, the Henry rifle.

The Henry lever action rifle came to be at a time when firepower was needed - the beginning of the Civil War. At almost $50/each retail, the rifle cost quite a bit more than the popular muzzle loading Springfield 1861 with its $14.93 cost to manufacture. The Union was reluctant to purchase and so they negotiated a deal to pay a little over $35 per rifle. The government settled for buying about 1700 of them for service. Any man who received a Henry was highly impressed. General Sherman’s army was one of the lucky regiments to have them assigned and it proved beneficial to them in battle. During Sherman’s March to the Sea, the Henry rifle undoubtedly added to the devastation delivered to the southern states.

Soldiers who had the means to purchase the gun privately did so to get a significant advantage over enemy forces. The lever action rifle could effectively fire around 24 rounds a minute, a rate that blew muzzleloaders and single shot breechloaders of the time out of the water.

Finest Iron Frame Henry Extant The Finest Known Iron Frame Henry Extant brought $603,750 in September 2013.

The Henry lever action rifle was manufactured until 1866 when Winchester changed the name of Henry Repeating Arms to Winchester Repeating Arms. This was in the wake of a lawsuit filed by B. Tyler Henry for fair reimbursement for his design. Henry lost the suit and left Winchester to pursue other opportunities. Winchester went on to use almost the exact same design and parts in his Winchester Model 1866 that looked shockingly similar to the Henry rifle. He added a wooden hand guard and the now-iconic Winchester loading gate (King's patent) to the right-side of the receiver in order to avoid legal issues with the design.

Altogether, approximately 12,000 to 13,000 Henry Rifles were manufactured in their almost 6 year production run.

2. Spencer Repeating Rifle

Spencer RifleExceptional and Scarce Semi-Deluxe Commercial Spencer Repeating Sporting Rifle with Three Digit Serial Number 222

The Civil War came at a time when rifle innovations and transitional ammunition systems were in rapid production. The only problem with anything cutting edge when it comes to wartime weaponry is governments like old standards and depend on proven reliability for their armies. Due to the mindset of the Union, despite the fact that the Spencer Rifle had the ability to set their forces apart with rapidity and speed compared to the Confederates, they initially said no to the lever action rifle. The refusal was based not only on its innovative nature, but also based on the logistics of how much more ammunition would be needed for a gun that could fire about 20 rounds a minute. That was about nine times more rounds than a muzzle loader could hope to get off in a minute.

The Spencer got its day when President Abraham Lincoln agreed to test the rifle with its inventor Christopher Miner Spencer at the White House. On August 18, 1863 President Lincoln trialed the gun and was impressed by the lever action’s speed and accuracy. Its .56-56 Spencer rimfire cartridges enjoyed similar ballistics to the Springfield rifle, plus its tubular magazine was easy to lead, and the speed of firing could not be beat.

Spencer Rifle Exceptional Civil War Spencer Model 1860 Army Rifle

President Lincoln issued the rifle to Union forces immediately afterwards and the rifle was the game changer the Union was looking for in 1863. The Union immediately had positive reviews of the rifle with over a dozen officers reporting that the rifles provided vast improvements for their forces. Brevet Major General James Wilson expressed that the Spencer lever action rifle, “excels all others in use in durability, rapidity of fire, and general effectiveness.”

Another upside to the Spencer, and Henry rifles for that matter, was their rimfire cartridges. If the Confederate forces captured the lever action rifles, they would be essentially useless as rimfire cartridges were not available in the South.

After the conclusion of the Civil War, the Spencer lever action rifle continued production until 1868 when the company went bankrupt. Oliver Winchester swooped in yet again to purchase Spencer and all its assets. One of the most popular firearms of the Civil War, over 200,000 Spencer rifles were manufactured in their less than a decade run.

3. Winchester Model 1876

winchester-model-1876 Fresh to the Market, Well-Documented and Extraordinary Factory Engraved Special Order Winchester Model 1876 Deluxe Rifle with Factory Letter: The Finest of Its Type Known

Discussing the Model 1876 opens up the conversation to talk about a few different Winchester lever actions of the time. As stated earlier in this blog, the first Winchester lever action rifle was the Model 1866, but since that was so similar to the Henry, let’s move on to the Model 1976. Yes, the Model 1873, the “Gun That Won the West” came in between the 1866 and 1876, but it was chambered in such a low powered caliber of .44-40, that it couldn't compete with the more powerful rifles of the time. It was perhaps this lacking of power that saw it upgraded only three years later with the Model 1876. The 1873 was still a highly popular and widely produced rifle despite its lack of velocity, but the 76 was the pinnacle of the toggle link design.

The Model 1876 was unveiled at the America’s Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, hence its alias as the, “Centennial rifle.” The rifle was a transitional lever action for Winchester, and was essentially a scaled up, heavier version of the Model 1873 with near identical mechanics. While It's downfall was its short receiver, which left if unable to fire the popular .45-70 cartridge of the day and other lengthier cartridges yet to be developed. Instead it used the powerful .45-75 Winchester Centennial cartridge, also capable of taking down buffalo and other large prey on the frontier. It would eventually be replaced by the Browning-designed Model 1886 the stronger action of which was able to handle much more powerful chamberings.

winchester model-1876 Exceptional Special Order Winchester Model 1876 Deluxe Lever Action Short Rifle with British Proofs and Factory Letter

The 1876 was available for order with deluxe and special features and had scarce variations like the “One of One Thousand” and “One of One Hundred” selections. The lever action was a heavy rifle weighing over nine pounds. Texas Rangers, cowboys, ranchers, and Canadian Northwest Mounted Police alike favored the gun and used it in high regard.

Famous expeditioner and future president Theodore Roosevelt ordered his first special Winchester that was “stocked and suited to fit him” at age 22 and it was a highly embellished Model 1876. He was extremely pleased and impressed by the gun and its sporting ability. He became a loyal Winchester customer after this purchase.

The impressive Winchester lever action rifle set a durability standard that Winchester used to create their next few decades of guns. It was produced into the 1890s but halted production due to the improved 1886 Model. Over 64,000 Winchester Model 1876 lever action rifles were sold in its decade of production.

4. Savage Model 99

Extraordinary and Rare Factory Victor Grade Engraved Savage Model 1899 Lever Action RifleExtraordinary and Rare Factory Victor Grade Engraved Savage Model 1899 Lever Action Rifle

If you are a loyal follower of Rock Island Auction Company and our weekly blogs, you know that in January of 2019 we published an in-depth blog about the Savage 99. If you are a fan of the gun, you should read through the article. The Model 99 made this list for a few reasons; this author has a soft spot for the gun and it is a highly successful lever action rifle that was produced for over 100 years.

The inventor of the Savage Model 99 lever action rifle was Arthur W. Savage, an entrepreneur and Renaissance man. He had worked for several firearms related companies before pursuing the development of his own design. In 1892, he trialed his first Savage Model 1892 design with the military. The gun had a hammerless rotary magazine and was a lever action. It lost out to the bolt action Krag–Jørgensen.

Over the next few years, Savage created multiple different variations of the gun, making subtle changes in the design. The rotary stacked magazine and use of a Spitzer cartridge were staples for all iterations of the gun. The Model 1899 improved the location of the chamber loaded indicator and the stock had an updated, more graceful look. The gun started to be referred to as the Model 99 for marketing purposes when it was still in heavy production during the 1920s.

1049-69-savageImportant, FRESH and Historic Factory Engraved, Gold Inlaid and "HED" Initialed Savage Model 1899 Lever Action Rifle with Deep Relief Carved Stock and Matching Monogrammed Case Presented to Detroit Automaker Horace Dodge, Co-Founder of the Dodge Brothers Motor Company

The rotary magazine of the lever action rifle helped it function smoothly and seamlessly. It was the first hammerless lever action gun and used a spring loaded firing pin that was quick to respond to a trigger pull. These improvements on the lever action design were beyond impressive and Savage chambered the innovative gun in the advanced ammunition choices of .303 Savage and .30-30 Winchester.

The gun has dozens of different models and version that were released during its long reign. The gun did not cease manufacturing until 1998.

5. Marlin 1895

Marlin 1895 Marlin Model 1895 Deluxe Takedown Lever Action Rifle

The Marlin 1895 is a lever action rifle that didn’t receive its respect as a reliable hunting rifle until many years after its inception. Only around 18,000 Marlin Model 1895 were manufacture from 1896 to 1917. There was nothing wrong with the lever action gun, it was an accurate and dependable rifle, it just came about at a transitional time. People wanted high velocity, smokeless rounds and the Marlin's range of large-caliber, blackpowder rounds just wouldn't cut it. Even the .45-90 and .33 WCF rounds introduced later could save it in a marketplace where other manufacturers had a head start and bolt actions were coming in vogue. This could have been the end for the Model 1895 had Marlin Arms simply scrapped it and gone back to the drawing board.

However, in the shadow of the Great Depression, Marlin took those same concepts of a strong, reliable, accurate rifle and developed the Model 36. This might not be worth much of a mention in the story of the Model 1895, except when Marlin chose to re-introduce the Model 1895 in 1972, it came in the guise of a Model 336 receiver.

The company believed that people still wanted to use a large bore rifle chambered in the classic .45-70 rather than the modern arms on the market at the time. The new Model 1895 provided the modern high-velocity needs for a hunter with the nostalgia and simplicity of a lever action rifle. It was by no means the most innovative or exceptionally fast rifle option for the 1970s, but it served a great purpose to everyday hunters.

Desirable Antique Marlin Model 1895 Lever Action .45-70 RifleDesirable Antique Marlin Model 1895 Lever Action .45-70 Rifle

The variations of the rifle continued to be produced throughout the next decade ending in 8 different styles. All are reliable guns for hunters and sport shooters alike, and they are still being made today.

Get Your Next Lever Action Gun at RIAC

From highly notable brands like Winchester to popular industry icons like Marlin, the lever actions on this list are a few of most sought after even to this day. Not all the popular lever action rifles that have ever existed could make the list, but there are plenty of others out there for you to start exploring. If you have an interest in any type of these timeless rifle, you should check out our catalogs. We offer thousands of lever action rifles all year long in our auctions. Keep your eyes on our catalogs for next lever action purchase.

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