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The Life and Times of America’s Rifle: History of the Lever-Action

The Life and Times of America’s Rifle: History of the Lever-Action

A vintage lever action rifle rests on a downed tree.

The lever-action rifle is the only firearm format to be fully conceived and developed in America, seeing use from Civil War battlefields to the deer woods

The modern lever-action is iconically American, the only rifle format that has been conceived and developed in America. They are the embodiment of America’s gun nostalgia, eliciting visions of cowboys, outlaws, bison hunts, and grandpa in the deer woods.

The lever-action has been with us since 1860 when Benjamin Tyler Henry patented the first practical lever-action repeating rifle. The first company to produce the Henry Rifle was the New Haven Arms Company, which, at the end of the Civil War, was renamed the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Following the rebranding came a new model of the Henry, the 1866 Winchester, and after that lever guns dominated the civilian market until the bolt action went public following World War 1.

Still, the lever-action never went away, albeit its popularity has waxed and waned. But why is that? There are plenty of reasons this action has stood the test of time; mostly, they are dependable, fast, and beautiful.

The iconic design of the lever-action

Lever actions have a timeless sleekness: the simple lines of the tubular magazine, the lever centered below the receiver, usually topped with deadly and straightforward iron or peep sights. Further, the first Henrys were beautiful examples of gunsmithing, made with wood stocks and brass receivers. And, the design of the original Henry rifle perfectly blends function and form, while the modern interpretations only have improved both the function and form departments of the original design. 

The original Henry, chambered in .44 rimfire, was leaps and bounds beyond the muzzleloaders and the volcanic rifles that used a self-contained powder, ball, and primer. The Henry also utilized a 15-round magazine, allowing a soldier to fire anywhere from 15 to 30 shots per minute at a time when a soldier carrying a muzzle-loading musket could fire only two to three shots in the same time. On the battlefields of the Civil War, the Union soldiers armed with Henry Rifles—purchased mainly at their own expense—easily kept Confederate soldiers at bay. After a deadly encounter with the 7th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, which happened to be armed with Henrys, one Confederate officer was famously quoted as saying, “It’s a rifle that you could load on Sunday and shoot all week long.” 

Despite its output, it was rarely used to shoot past 200 yards and was rather a tactical weapon to drive back Confederates. Although there were claims that the Henry rifle and subsequent 1866 Winchester were “certain death at 800 yards,” this was an exaggeration for everyone but the best marksmen of the time. Still, as the design has been improved upon and with modern machining practices, the accuracy of the lever-action has gotten better. Modern interpretations, like in the Browning BLR or the Henry Long Ranger, offer match-grade rifles capable of living up to that claim of “certain death at 800 yards.”

As for downsides, one that has plagued the lever-action rifle is its tubular magazine. As a result, it limits itself to flat nose ammunition. Yet, the Browning BLR and the Henry Long Ranger both utilize box magazines which breaks the format free of the less accurate flat nose bullets and opens up the possibility of rounds such as .30-06, 6.5 Creedmoor, or .270 while still maintaining the ability to have quick follow-up shots.

Still, even in the classic format with the tubular magazine, modern ammunition producers like Winchester and Hornady have made significant improvements to classic cartridges like the .30-30 and .45-70. Hornady’s LEVERevolution ammunition utilizes an elastomer Flex Tip, which the manufacturer claims delivers “up to 40 percent more energy than traditional flat point bullets.” Hornady also claims that the bullets feature higher ballistic coefficients of the flex tipped bullets produce consistently flatter trajectories than conventional bullets and provide overwhelming downrange terminal performance. 

Lever-action manufacturers over the years

Since the first World War, there have been a few prominent players in the lever-gun market.

Savage tried its best and put out a few rifles; Marlin soldiered through the years and has just started production again this year; Browning makes some excellent modern interpretations; Winchester stopped all domestic production and moved its lever-gun production to Japan, and Italian makers exported thousands of Winchester lever-action replicas to the United States; Ruger tried and eventually gave up on the lever gun, though the company just bought Marlin; Sears and Roebuck even had a line of lever-action rifles produced by Winchester in the 1940s and 50s.

Maven's logo over a hunter with the sky behind him and a pair of binoculars to the right.

One of the most prolific lever-action manufacturers, however, is Henry Repeating Arms Co.—no relation to the original Benjamin Tyler Henry—with over 200 rifles in their catalog.

The lever-action for hunting and the nostalgia it holds

Since its inception, the lever-action rifle has been a constant presence on the American landscape. And although the applications vary as much as the caliber, the legendary .30-30 Winchester that dominated the deer woods is as iconic as red plaid among the autumn leaves.

I can almost guarantee if you grew up in a hunting family, there is a hand-me-down lever-action rifle in the gun safe. But beyond the classic .30-30 Winchester, there is a whole world of lever-action rifles made to hunt every size game from garden pests to African game. One of my personal favorites and the gun that gets to leave the safe the most is my Henry .410 shotgun. It has been after all sorts of small game, doves, and even ducks.

It is no lie that the lever-action has withstood the test of time. It is the action that grew up alongside America, that “won the West,” and has taken countless deer and almost all of the big game animals around the globe. You still might not win an 800-yard match, but if you are looking to put meat in the freezer, then a lever-action rifle will do just fine.

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