August 17, 2023
By Kurt Allemeier
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The first lever action rifle came from the man who invented a safety pin to pay off a debt.
Before a shirt maker named Winchester put his name on a gun company, Walter Hunt invented a gun. Hunt had a mechanical mind and invented hundreds of things: a saw, a nail-making machine, a bicycle, and a ceiling walking circus device. He also made a revolver, bullets, and the Volition rifle, the root of the lever action rifle family tree.
Hunt’s long gun led the way, but there are other lever action rifle firsts in Rock Island Auction Company’s August 25-27 Premier Auction with a Second Model Smith-Jennings, a Spencer repeating sporting rifle, Henry Second Model rifle, and a Winchester 1866 on offer among others. All of the guns shown here are available this August.
There are plenty of titans of 19th century gun making, business partnerships, failures, and dealings before we get to Winchester’s first lever action rifle. This is streamlined a bit in order to talk about the guns.
Hunt developed a metallic cartridge called the Rocket Ball with its powder and bullet contained in a single package. He just needed to design a rifle to fire it. In 1847 he patented the Volition rifle, a complex weapon with small, delicate parts and a 12-round under-the-barrel magazine.
Despite his mechanical aptitude, Hunt was a terrible businessman and couldn’t get the gun off the ground, never making it past the prototype stage. Lewis Jennings, a machinist where Hunt was working on the Volition, was brought on to make improvements. Jennings’ gun was better but had issues when an order was placed to make 5,000 by the Robbins & Lawrence Arms Company of Vermont, where Horace Smith worked and was included in continuing to make the gun better.
Also at Robbins & Lawrence was Daniel Wesson, who worked inspecting parts and finished pepperbox pistols contracted to Robbins. Oh, and Benjamin Tyler Henry served as foreman. With all this talent under one roof, it's a wonder that Robbins & Lawrence didn't somehow grow into the United States' top arms manufacturer.
Back to our story, the Smith-Jennings rifle received a patent in 1851 and was made at Robbins & Lawrence from 1851 to 1852. The Second Model Smith-Jennings had a pronounced bulge on the underside of the frame, often leading to being called the “pregnant frame Jennings.” The pill primer and cartridge carrier were improved from the First Model, but only 400 were made.
Most of the Smith-Jennings rifles were converted to single shot with a ramrod replacing the magazine tube.
While a majority of Smith-Jenning rifles were converted to single shot, this Smith-Jennings remains in its original configuration as a repeating firearm, making it a rare and desirable piece for collectors. The rifle is pictured and identified in Lewis and Rutter’s “Volcanic Firearms: Predecessor to the Winchester Rifle.”
Smith and Wesson started the first Smith & Wesson company in 1854 before changing the name to Volcanic Repeating Arms Company. It produced the Volcanic pistol and one of the first lever action rifles, the Volcanic carbine. By 1855, when the company’s name changed it also brought in new investors including businessman Oliver Winchester.
Smith departed Volcanic when the name changed and investors, including Winchester were brought on board. Wesson departed the company after less than a year and joined Smith. The duo created the company that would be Smith & Wesson, obtaining the 1855 Rollin White patent for bored through revolver cylinder.
Faced with financial difficulty, Winchester dissolved Volcanic and created the New Haven Arms Company in 1857. Benjamin Tyler Henry had left Robbins & Lawrence when it too faced financial difficulty and joined Winchester’s new company, setting the stage for the first lever action rifle to achieve financial success.
Generally found with factory engraved frames, this New Haven Arms Company Volcanic lever action carbine is unadorned, with a 16 1/2-inch barrel and plain polished brass frame. About 1,000 of these were made with 16-, 21-, and 25-inch barrels. The lever action and integral spring-loaded magazine served as the basic design for the Henry rifle. Volcanic’s repeaters faced trouble due to their underpowered ammunition.
Somehow not part of the Winchester/Smith/Wesson/Henry cabal, Christopher Spencer actually started out in Samuel Colt’s orbit, working for the entrepreneur for a time. He designed his lever action in 1860 before starting the Spencer Repeating Rifle Company in 1862. Spencer’s patent predated Henry’s patent by only eight months.
Spencer’s repeating rifle was capable of firing off 14 shots per minute from seven-round magazines loaded into the stock, using metallic cartridges – the first lever action rifle to do so. A lever, moved back and forth, ejected a spent cartridge and loaded a new one. The hammer still had to be manually cocked.
When the Civil War started, demand for the Connecticut gun maker’s weapons rose. He traveled to Washington D.C., in June 1861 to show off his gun to Ordnance officials. Impressed and tested, the Ordnance Board contracted for 10,000 Spencer rifles. Despite the order, the Ordnance Department was concerned about supply issues considering the Spencer’s rate of fire meant more ammunition would be needed.
By the time the gun went out of production in 1869, 200,000 Spencer repeaters were made. Bringing this full circle, Spencer Repeating Rifle Company was eventually purchased by Winchester Repeating Arms and went out of business in 1869.
This Spencer Repeating Sporting rifle represents the first lever action rifle patented, for metallic cartridges. After the Civil War, the Spencer sporter went west for the Indian Wars. George Armstrong Custer went west with one. This rifle with its 26-inch barrel has 11 “kill notches” marked on the right side of the wrist.
Was it the cartridge or the gun that was the problem preventing the lever action rifle from achieving commercial success? Benjamin Tyler Henry took a stab at the issue and developed a .44 caliber cartridge in 1858 that had a muzzle velocity of 1,200 fps. To handle the cartridge, a gun needed a larger frame and a barrel adapted for the cartridge, firing pins independent from the bolt face, and an ejection system. By October 1860 he had a patent for the 16-shot Henry rifle.
Unfortunately, Winchester didn’t have the money to re-tool the plant for the gun until the company agreed to make 3,000 Walch pocket revolvers. With the money in hand, the factory was set up and the first Henry rifles were made in 1862. Despite not earning a significant government contract during the Civil War, the Henry was the first lever action rifle to achieve commercial success. Union soldiers often used reenlistment bonuses to buy a Henry rifle because of its rate of fire. Reportedly about 6,000 to 7,000 were used by Union soldiers during the war. Many of the Henry Rifles went west after the Civil War. About 14,000 had been produced by the time manufacturing ended in 1866.
This New Haven Arms Company Henry Second Model represents the first lever action rifle to be commercially successful. This late production model, formerly of the Mac McCroskie Collection, has a 24-inch octagon barrel and a square back nickel-silver blade sight.
Despite the success of the Henry rifle, Benjamin Tyler Henry didn’t think he was getting a fair cut as he saw Winchester reap the benefits of his work. When Winchester went overseas to try to drum up business for the lever action rifle, Henry tried to take over the company, only to lose the fight.
Winchester came out in a financially superior position to Henry and created the Winchester Repeating Arms Company and hired a new foreman, Nelson King. Nelson made improvements to the Henry rifle internally, added a loading gate, enclosed the magazine tube and added a wooden forearm. Enclosing the magazine prevented dirt and other gunk getting into the magazine. The Winchester board voted a $5,000 bonus to King.
In transition, the Winchester guns had both “King’s Patent” and "Henry’s Patent" stamped on their barrels, but that would soon disappear from the Winchester Model 1866. The Model 1866, released in 1867, was the original cowboy rifle as hundreds of thousands of settlers headed west. Winchester would make about 170,100 Model 1866s.
The Winchester 66 was nicknamed the “Yellowboy” because of its distinctive gunmetal frame, forend cap, sideplates, and buttplate. Gunmetal is a bronze alloy of copper, tin, zinc, and occasionally a small amount of lead giving it its glossy appearance. It was rust-resistant and easy to machine and proved more durable than iron framed guns in the harsh environs of the American West.
More than a “Yellowboy” Model 1866, this gilded rifle was manufactured in 1874 and features exhibition engraving from Conrad or John Ulrich and has a gilt frame, forend cap, and buttplate. It features circular buck scenes on the side plates and sand dollar designs on the front of the frame on each side. The gun also entwines scrollwork with punched backgrounds, shell accents, border designs, and an elongated oval panel atop the frame.
Winchester’s Model 1873 was dubbed “the gun that won the West,” with its strengthened action and adaption of parts to handle the heavier centerfire cartridge. A sliding lid, or dust cover, was added to cover the ejection port on top of the frame. Gunmetal was initially abandoned for forged iron which was replaced by steel in 1884.
A new cartridge was made for the Model 1873, the .44 Winchester Centerfire. The gun was later chambered in .38 WCF in 1889 and the .32 WCF starting in 1882.
A special order Deluxe Winchester Model 1873 lever action rifle is chambered in .38 WCF and its barrel, magazine, dust cover, bolt, and loading gate are blued, and the forearm cap, receiver, hammer, lever, and trigger are color casehardened. The stock and forearm have a high polish piano finish. Special order features include the 24-inch part-round, part-octagon barrel, single set trigger, tang mounted adjustable peep site, and fancy grain walnut forearm and pistol grip stock. The pistol grip has an ebony inlay.
The Winchester 1876 came about because of the light cartridge used with the 1873 in comparison to more powerful cartridges used with single shot rifles. The .45-75 WCF was developed for the 1876 and the rifle was first shipped in June 1877. The new cartridge had a striking energy of 1,400 foot pounds, doubling that of the .44-40 cartridge. Significant changes from the 1873 were mainly to handle the more powerful cartridge, including making the receiver and key internal parts larger.
The barrel of each Model 1873 and Model 1876 sporting rifle was shot at a target and that target numbered to correspond with the barrel. The most accurate were combined with set-triggers and extra finish and marked “one of a thousand” and sold at a higher price.
The program was short-lived since it suggested that the regular 1873 and 1876 weren’t accurate. These guns, designated in both the 1873 and 1876 models, have become highly collectable because less than 200 were made.
This documented “One of One Thousand” Winchester Model 1876 was restored by Turnbull Restorations in 1996. It is one of only 55 “One of One Thousand” Model 1876 rifles and one of just 22 chambered in .45-60. This gun, shipped in 1880 at the end of the “One of One Thousand” program, has inlaid silver bands at the muzzle and breech, a casehardened frame, hammer, and lever, and nitre blue loading base.
When Marlin Firearms Company was founded in 1870, it was making pistols, adding single shot rifles in 1875. John Marlin received a patent for a repeating rifle in 1881 that used the .45-70 cartridge then followed that with the 1888 that used pistol rounds. John Marlin anticipated the popularity of smokeless powder and designed the Model 1893 specifically for the more powerful propellant. The Model 1893 proved to be popular with more than one million made. It was a side ejecting rifle, a key selling point over Winchester since it better protected the internal workings from weather and debris.
This Marlin Deluxe Model 1893 takedown was shipped on Feb. 22, 1896, in takedown configuration, pistol grip stock, German silver blade front sight, an elevation adjustable rear sight, and a folding tang peep sight. The frame is casehardened along with the lever and hammer and has a blued loading gate.
The John Moses Browning designed Winchester Model 1894 was the first lever action rifle put on the market for smokeless powder cartridges, the .25-35 Winchester and the .30-30 Winchester. Often called the “Klondike Model,” because of its popularity in the Klondike gold rush of 1898, the Model 1894 was also the first Winchester offered with nickel steel barrels. The Model 1894 was the first sporting gun to pass the one million mark. The one millionth was presented in 1927 to President Calvin Coolidge.
This Winchester Model 1894 was manufactured in February 1895, the second month of the second year of production and features the early “first model” receiver featuring the “10 o’clock” screw by the loading gate. This rifle is chambered in .38-55 WCF.
Browning and Winchester’s relationship was coming to an end when his design became the Model 1895 rifle. Gone was the tubular magazine, and in its place a box magazine that held bottleneck cartridges. The gun was also strong enough to handle more powerful rounds. The Model 1895 was among the guns carried by Theodore Roosevelt on his African hunting trip.
This Winchester Deluxe Model 1895 is factory engraved, making it very rare. The scrollwork engraving on a punch dot background on the sides of the receiver that compliment an engraved bear in a lake scene on the right side of the receiver. The rifle has a German silver blade elevation adjustable rear sights. This Winchester rifle has a deluxe checkered forearm and straight grip stock with high gloss lacquer and a trapdoor crescent buttplate.
Rock Island Auction Company’s August Premier Auction offers an impressive array of lever action rifle firsts, from the earliest lever action like the Smith-Jennings rifle, or the Henry rifle, the first lever action rifle that was commercially successful, to a number of Winchester rifles that have amazing pedigrees, including the Model 1866, the Model 1873, and the Model 1895. These are an opportunity for a lever gun collector to obtain not just an example of these “firsts,” but terrific examples that would truly boost a collection to another level.
The History of Winchester Firearms 1866-1966, by George R. Watrous
Marlin Model 1893 Lever Action Rifle, NRA Museums
Marlin and Ballard Firearms and History, by Bill West
The Evolution of the Winchester Rifle, by Joel R. Kolander
The Yellowboy Rifle: The First Winchester, by Joe Engesser
Anyone thinking about dipping their toe into the world of firearms collecting should visit one of Rock Island Auction Company’s Sporting & Collector
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