Guns and Gear

Traditional Lever Actions

By John Barsness, GUNS Magazine

A few years ago my wife Eileen and I were visiting the used rifle rack at Capital Sports in Helena, Mont. On the rack was a Henry lever-action .22 Long Rifle, with what Henry calls the “large loop lever,” like the one on Chuck Connors’ Winchester in The Rifleman. She picked it up and discovered the little rifle was quite light, and since the price was right it followed her home.

This startled me a little but not totally. Unlike many women, Eileen hates shopping for clothes, partly because when she looks for the same practical jeans she bought last time, they’ve disappeared into the fashion pit. But she doesn’t mind shopping for firearms, which is the reason she owns a dozen light shotguns from Remington pumps to British side-by-sides. The Henry called in the same way, and would be useful for ground squirrels.

Eileen learned to shoot “gophers” on two country places where we lived for 9 years. In both, her office overlooked our garden, and in summer I’d often be working in my own office and hear the crack of a rimfire, signaling the demise of another lettuce raider. She soon discovered the virtues of a tube-magazine .22, since when filled with 15 or more Long Rifles, a rifle could be shot at gophers for days without reloading—exactly like the original Henry, “that damned Yankee rifle they load on Sunday and shoot all week.”

Her first gopher rifle was a scoped Marlin bolt action I’d purchased with paper-route money in the 1960’s, but until the Henry she’d never found exactly the right tube-magazine .22 for herself. She discovered she could shoot the open sights on the Henry very well—and if a gopher evaded the first hollowpoint, another could be levered into the chamber quickly, without losing sight of the gopher through a scope.

Today most new American rifles are designed for scopes, along with other gadgets. I recently spent three days at Gunsite, the shooting school in Arizona, taking a “practical hunting” course using bolt-action rifles. As our group of a dozen students attached several “necessary” stuff such as adjustable cheek-pads and bipods to Ruger American .308’s already equipped with 3-9X Redfields, Gunsite’s Ed Head commented, “Yep, let’s take a nice light hunting rifle and turn it into a 9-pounder.”

The traditional outside-hammer, tube-magazine, iron-sighted American lever action is the antithesis of the add-on rifle. It appeared during the last half of the 19th century, when self-contained cartridges became almost universal, smokeless powder replaced black and rifle design went in several directions.

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The Model 71 Winchester was a modernized version of the 1886, but by the time it
appeared in the 1930’s most of the continent didn’t hold many elk or grizzlies.
Hunters accustomed to scopes often won’t believe it, but 2-inch groups at 100 yards
(below) are plenty accurate for just about any hunting with iron sights.
This one shot better after John relieved fore-end stresses.

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Our Rifle

The lever action turned out to be an essentially American branch. They never became popular outside of North and South America, and in the United States lever-action Winchesters became “The gun that won the West.” The virtues of the first Henry and the 1866 and 1873 Winchesters were particularly useful on the Western frontier. Their cartridges were compact, yet powerful enough to kill deer and aggressive humans to the limits of open sights, and the magazines of the Winchesters could be reloaded while the chamber was still full and the hammer still cocked.

A bunch of rounds fit in a barrel-length tube magazine, and plenty of extra ammo (for both the rifle and a revolver using the same shells) could be carried on a cartridge belt or saddlebag, simplifying supply problems out where stores were rare. Such handy rifles became part of the daily outfit of many people.

Eventually these lever-action-packin’ people included “Native Americans” who already inhabited the West, but during the 1870’s and early 1880’s single-shot rifles firing larger cartridges eliminated the millions of bison plains Indians depended on for food and shelter. The big Winchester 1886 lever-action, capable of firing similar rounds, didn’t appear until the bison were gone. The only justifications for big, black-powder lever-actions were elk and grizzly bears, and both animals soon followed the bison to near extinction.

The 1886 Winchester also appeared in the same year as the French Lebel rifle, chambered for the first smokeless rifle cartridge. Between a lack of large animals and new technology, Winchester’s largest lever-action was almost obsolete when born, and chambering the smokeless .33 Winchester in 1903 didn’t really help. Marlin’s Model 1895 ended up in the same boat.

Next, more on Winchester’s and big bore levers