By: Ashley Kath-Bilsky
Since there was such interest in my post last month about Samuel Colt and his single-action revolvers, I decided to continue with some historical information I have compiled about another type of firearm also considered one of the ‘Guns That Won The West’ . And I can think of no better introduction to this report than the following clip from one of the most popular western television series ever made.
Granted Chuck Connors was the star of The Rifleman televsion series which ran from 1958 to 1963, but any gun enthusiast will tell you his Winchester rifle was a key character in and of itself. At a time when other westerns featured quick-on-the-draw six shooters, the character Lucas McCain came out of the Old West as a highly skilled rifleman who could fire out 13 consecutive shots in the blink of an eye then twirl and spin his rifle like a drum majorette’s baton. But what many people do not realize is that the lever-action Winchester 1892 wielded so effortlessly by character Lucas McCain had been modified especially for actor Chuck Connors.
Without question, Winchester lever-action repeating rifles were fast, but there was another reason why TV’s Rifleman could fire off his first round in 3/10th of a second, and keep going. The alterations to his rifle featured a large ring which actually cocked the rifle as Lucas drew the firearm. In the early episodes of the series, a backwards round ‘D’ shaped loop was featured. In other episodes, the rifle had a saddle ring.
Eventually the large circle loop became a flattened lever that had no saddle ring. A screw had been set through the trigger guard to ensure unprecedented rapid fire. Sometimes the screw’s head was turned inward, close to the trigger. Sometimes, the screw was on the outside of the trigger guard. And in some episodes, when rapid fire action was not necessary, the screw was taken out.
(The ‘Rifleman’s” modified Winchester 1892 with screw outside trigger guard.)
To put it in modern terms, Lucas McCain’s rifle operated like a semiautomatic. When the lever was cocked, if that screw was turned inward, the trigger fired. Anyone who watched The Rifleman is sure to remember that he could also spin or swing the rifle to cock it using only one hand. Needless to say, the show (and Chuck Connors) made the rifle they used legendary, but it was also a very dangerous, unsafe firearm that was not historically accurate to the Winchester 1892 rifle.
Unlike Samuel Colt who actually invented and designed the single action revolver, Winchester rifles were inspired by several predecessors, from the 1848 Volition Repeating Rifle to the famous Henry rifle…and an 1866 rifle known as the “Yellow Boy”. In fact, if we were to look back at the genealogy of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, its legacy must begin with American mechanic Walter Hunt who -- between inventing the sewing machine in 1833 and the safety pin in 1849, managed to squeeze in an 1848 visionary design for a lever-action firearm called the Volition Repeating Rifle. Hunt’s design introduced an early, but very complicated version of the lever action repeating mechanism, as well as a tubular magazine (the storage and feeding device for ammunition) that is still used today. Only one of the few prototypes of his gun exists today and can be found in the Firearms Museum in Cody, Wyoming.
However, Hunt’s 1848 prototype was considered unworkable, largely due to its case-less ammunition called the Rocket Ball, in which the powder charge was contained in the bullet’s hollow base.
Enter a man named Lewis Jennings who purchased Hunt’s patent and revised it in 1849. Although still somewhat complicated, the rifle worked better. For a limited time it was produced by Vermont based Robbins & Lawrence under the direction of that company’s shop foreman, Benjamin Tyler Henry.
In 1850, New York businessman, Courtlandt Palmer purchased the Hunt and Jennings patents then contracted with Robbins & Lawrence to continue manufacturing the firearms. He also hired Horace Smith to improve the Jennings rifle; a Smith-Jennings rifle was subsequently patented in 1851. Still, sales of the guns were not successful, and Palmer stopped production in 1852.
In 1854, Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson formed Smith & Wesson with Courtlandt Palmer. At this time, numerous improvements were made to the lever-action design. In 1855, Smith & Wesson, along with some other investors, established the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company. Their mission: to manufacture the Volcanic lever-action pistols and rifles, basically Horace Smith’s version of the Hunt-Jennings design. As fate would have it, one of the largest stockholders of this new venture was a man named Oliver Winchester.
(Volcanic lever-action pistol – 1855)
(Jennings and Volcanic Rifles)
Unfortunately, the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company also ran into challenges and difficulties from the start. Management also faced some problems when both Horace Smith and David Wesson left the company not long after it was formed, opting to focus on Smith & Wesson Revolvers.
Consequently, Volcanic Repeating Arms Company floundered and Oliver Winchester stepped forward to buy the bankrupt company from the other stockholders. And so it was that in 1857, Volcanic became the New Haven Arms Company located in New Haven, Connecticut. A year later, Winchester hired Benjamin Tyler Henry as plant superintendent. Henry had been experimenting with rim fire cartridges and how he might adapt the ammunition for the lever-action design. By doing so, he created a rifle that would make history.
In 1862, the Henry rifle was born, manufactured by Winchester’s New Haven Arms Company.
During the Civil War, the most popular weapon to have was a Henry rifle, and most soldiers in the Union Army had them. Designed by Benjamin Tyler Henry, the Henry rifle was a .44 caliber rim fire, breech loading, lever action rifle that fired sixteen shots. Its ability to rapid fire at close range gave its owner a definite advantage in the Civil War. Pictured (left) is an authentic Civil War 1860 Henry Rifle. The Henry rifle could be fired, the empty cartridge ejected, and a fresh round chambered without taking the rifle from the shoulder. But its major competitor, the Spencer rifle, offered a more powerful cartridge. So, Winchester decided it was time to modify and enhance the Henry rifle.
In 1866, Winchester changed the name of his company from the New Haven Arms Company to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. And the first rifle produced under the Winchester brand was the 1866 Winchester or “Yellow Boy” (pictured below). This lever-action rifle was a marked improvement over the Henry rifle and it was also the first true cowboy lever-action rifle, carried in a cowboy-style saddle scabbard.
The Yellow Boy also had a side loading gate, which contributed to its improvement over the Henry rifle. Aesthetically, this design change allowed the rifle to have a satin walnut fore-end with a brass fore-end nose cap. As you can see from the photograph, it was a beautiful rifle. Mechanically, this rifle could be fired from any position (while lying, crouching, kneeling or on horseback). The shooter could easily recharge ammunition with the side loading gate. In addition, unlike the Henry, the new design prevented dust and debris from getting into the magazine. This rifle was so successful and popular it remained relatively unaltered until Winchester came out with a more powerful lever-action model in 1873.
Winchester 1873 -- The Winchester 1873 was one of the most famous rifles produced by the company. Originally available in .44-40 cartridges, it would later offer .38-40 and .32.20 cartridges. Basically, three versions of the Winchester 1873 were offered – the rifle, the carbine, and the musket. The barrel on a rifle was 24”, and the carbine had a 20” barrel. Few muskets were made, and the carbine was the best seller because it allowed the shooter more portability and they could use the same ammunition for their rifle as they did for their handgun. This model is also the Winchester popularized on the frontier. In fact, over 720,000 Winchester 1873 carbines were produced at that time in history. So, where Colt’s SAA .45 Peacemaker may have been the handgun that won the West, the same could be said about the Winchester 1873 carbine.
Winchester 1876 -- Introduced to commemorate the American Centennial, the 1876 model Winchester had a heavier frame, making it an excellent rifle for hunting. It was also the first to chamber full-powered centerfire rifle cartridges rather than the rimfire cartridges or handgun-sized centerfire ammunition. Despite the fact it looked like the Model 1873, it was based on the prototype for an 1868 lever-action rifle that had never been produced by the company. Popularized by buffalo hunters, the Winchester 1876 was also used by none other than Theodore Roosevelt, an avid hunter.
(Theodore Roosevelt and his engraved Winchester 1876.)
Winchester 1886 -- The Model 1886 was designed by John Moses Browning, and offered heavier rounds of ammunition and a stronger ‘locking-block action’ than the 1876’s toggle-link.
Winchester 1892 -- Like their first lever-action rifles, the Model 1892 used shorter, low pressure handgun rounds of ammunition, but featured a stronger Browning-type locking block action. Over a million of these rifles were produced by Winchester, but the model was phased out in the 1930s.
Winchester 1894 -- Another John Browning design, the Model 1894 is the best known of Winchester’s repeating rifles. It chambered new smokeless .30-30 Winchester cartridges and would eventually offer other calibers. It should be noted that Winchester was the first company to produce a rifle for civilians using the smokeless cartridges. Though very expensive, the Model 1894 was destined to be one of the best-selling hunting rifles ever manufactured.
Winchester 1895 -- The last rifle manufactured by Winchester in the 19th century was the Model 1895. This particular rifle was the first Winchester lever-action repeating rifle to load from a ‘box magazine’. This capability enabled the rifle to chamber military cartridges featuring pointed projectiles. In fact, the rifle was used by military in the United States, Great Britain, and Imperial Russia. Those rifles used by Russia also featured the ability to load charger clips, something not available on other lever-action rifles. Among the various calibers offered for this rifle was the .405 Winchester. Teddy Roosevelt added to his Winchester collection by purchasing the Winchester 1895 with the .405 caliber that he used on safari in Africa.
Winchester continued to manufacture rifles into the next century and beyond, but I think this is a necessary stopping point. I wanted to focus on the origin and history of lever-action repeating rifles manufactured during the 19th century. But since we are talking about Winchesters, I would like to add that at the beginning of John Browning’s 20-year relationship with Winchester, he also designed a single shot rifle in 1878. Although it wasn’t manufactured until 1885, and then promoted for use in sport shooting matches, the Winchester Model 1885 Single Shot rifle has been called ‘the most reliable, strongest, and altogether best single shot rifle ever produced'.
Phew! This concludes my lengthy post about Winchester and the lever-action repeating rifle. Thank you soooo much for taking the time to read it, and I hope you found it interesting. ~ AKB