By Joe Kurtenbach, AmericanRifleman.org
The 1800s were a time of great innovation for firearms—and certainly a time of transition. Flintlocks gave way to percussion cap mechanisms, which in turn were made obsolete by self-contained metallic cartridges. Muzzleloaders were replaced by breechloading rifles built to fire the cartridge ammunition. The American Civil War in particular served as a proving ground for then-modern designs, bringing to the fore actions, arms and ammunition that would change the landscape for military and consumer firepower.
One design element that clearly made an impact was the incorporation of a lever mechanism into the trigger-guard assembly. Early incarnations took the form of single-shot, breechloading rifles, especially of the “falling block” design. A good example is the Sharps rifle. Used during the Civil War and popular among the buffalo hunters of the 19th century, the Sharps’ trigger guard had an integral lever that, on the down-stroke, would drop the steel breechblock and expose or extract a spent cartridge case. A fresh cartridge could be inserted into the breech and the return-stroke would raise the block, securing the chamber and forcing the cartridge into battery.
Falling-block single shots gained immense popularity because of their fast and easy reloading. It was those same characteristics, taken to the next level, which propelled the lever-action repeater to dominance near the end of the century. One example, “That damned Yankee rifle that they load on Sunday and shoot all week,” more commonly known as the Model 1860 Henry repeating rifle, changed the game for modern firearms. The rifle featured a tubular spring-loaded magazine that held more than a dozen rounds, and its action incorporated into the lever’s motion an elevator mechanism that picked up an unfired round from the magazine and, on the return stroke, raised the cartridge to the breech and chambered it. No longer were individual cartridges inserted one-at-a-time; rifles now held several rounds, and that same simple, speedy lever action not only ejected spent cases, it loaded an awaiting cartridge—all in one fluid motion.
Though the Henry certainly had its time in the spotlight, there were two guns—and their adaptations—that would carry the flag for traditional lever-action repeaters into the 20th century and even through today. They are the Winchester Model 1894 and the Marlin Model 1893 or more commonly the 336—though this discussion will focus on its “big-bore” cousin the Model 1895. Although they have their differences—both functional and cosmetic—the guns, and their operating methods, have stood the test of time. To date, millions of each have been sold, and they remain some of the most popular sporting guns in America.
The Winchester 1894 and Marlin Model 1895 are the culmination of several decades of lever gun development and improvement. Both utilized a tubular magazine mounted beneath the barrel and fed from a loading window on the right side of the receiver. Both took advantage of the then-new smokeless-propellant cartridges and classic chamberings, such as .30-30 Win. and .45-70 Gov’t. And both operated in the same basic manner: the lever’s down-stroke drops the locking block and moves the bolt rearward; a bolt-mounted extractor grasps the cartridge case and draws it from the chamber; once clear of the chamber, the case is ejected; the bolt’s travel pushes the hammer back into the cocked position; and the magazine spring pushes a new cartridge onto a carrier or lifter. On the return stroke: the carrier lifts the round to the chamber; the bolt returns forward, forcing the cartridge into battery; and the locking block is again raised, securing the breech bolt. Once the bolt is secure the trigger can be pulled to fire the gun.
One of the most apparent differences between the rifles, in appearance and function, involves extraction and ejection of a fired cartridge case. The Marlin has a solid-top steel receiver with a right-side ejection port and an internal ejector mounted on the left. The extractor hook is attached to the right side of the bolt. In this configuration the cartridge hits the ejector during its rearward travel and is spun around the extractor and out the port. Winchester’s bolt used a top-mounted extractor and an integral spring-tensioned ejector at the bottom. In operation, the extractor pulls the cartridge from the chamber and, once clear, the ejector plunges forward, spinning the case up and around the extractor and out the open top of the receiver. Both systems worked well, though it should be noted that the solid top of the Marlin eases the mounting of optics.
While similarities and differences could certainly be expounded upon, and advantages argued endlessly, the legacy of these two models is unquestionable. The rifles have served millions of American hunters and shooters in every corner of this country and around the world. The rifles are handy, weigh less than 8 lbs. and often have mid-length barrels, making them easy to carry and use. Their sleek exteriors, compared to bolt-actions or box-magazine-fed rifles, make them ideal for service in a saddle scabbard, and easy to transport. The lever-action design remains one of the most intuitive available, and allows for quick follow-on shots. Speaking of speed, many variations, such as the Marlin 1895 “Guide Gun,” utilize large open sights that make target acquisition fast, and thus ideal for dangerous game or moving targets. It is a testament to their makers that during the past century various iterations of these guns have plinked at tin cans, taken East Coast whitetail, stopped Alaskan brown bears, brought down African trophies and performed nearly every task in between. The guns, designed more than 100 years ago, remain as popular and practical today as at their inception.
And that is where the story could end. Certainly both guns discussed here, and the whole family of lever-actions, are poised to ride off into the sunset like the Western heroes, real and fictional, who helped make them famous.
Unfortunately, like the rugged and untamed American West, domestically produced lever guns have gone the way of the cowboy. U.S. Repeating Arms, Co., maker of Winchester rifles, closed the doors of its New Haven, Conn., plant in 2006 after more than 140 years of producing rifles and shotguns. A year later, after being purchased by Remington and the Freedom Group conglomerate, Marlin’s factory in North Haven, Conn. was also closed down. Though Model 94s can still be had today, new versions are produced by Miroku in Japan, under a licensing agreement. And while new-production Marlin’s are available, the turbulence of the past several years have distanced the modern company from its roots and rich heritage; most Marlins made today are bolt-actions. Rightly, many may lament the decline of these truly American firearms. But where some see the end of an era, Anthony Imperato and his company, Henry Repeating Arms, see opportunity.
Next, Henry Repeating Arms and the 45-70