The Other Guys
Every story has some of the Other Guys – the folks who came up with a concept that, while novel and useful, just didn’t quite hang in there. And there are other Other Guys as well, the ones who keep plugging and manage to carve themselves out a share of the market. In this part of our history of lever guns, we’ll see some of each.
The same year Benjamin Tyler Henry came up with the Henry rifle, a Connecticut man named Christopher Spencer came up with another practical repeater, but the Spencer rifle, while operating with a lever under the action, was quite different than the Henry. Spencer completed the design of his signature rifle in 1859, technically beating Henry by a year, but the first commercial release was called the 1860 Spencer.
The Spencer rifle, while technically a lever-action, was very different from the Volcanic, Henry, and Winchester designs. Instead of a tubular magazine under the barrel, the Spencer protected its 7-round tubular magazine by placing it inside the stock, loading through the butt. The action was unusual, being in effect a modification to the falling-block breechloaders that were coming into the market at that time. While the offerings of Christian Sharps were single-shots, the Spencer’s magazine fed fresh cartridges into the action while the block was lowered; the process when a shot was fired was to lower the lever, ejecting the empty cartridge; raise the lever, elevating a new cartridge and placing it in the chamber; cocking the big external side-hammer and letting fly.
That was one more action than the Henry required of a shooter, as its bolt cocked the piece’s hammer on its rearward travel. But with various parts of the country fixing to square off at one another, Spencer wasted no time presenting his rifle to the War Department.
There was a problem. The one constant in government is the shortsightedness of bureaucrats, and the War Department in the 1860s was no exception. The Ordnance Department was at that time overseen by Brigadier James Ripley, an old wreck from the War of 1812 with an imagination rather shorter than his nose. He rejected not only the Spencer but any repeater out of hand, insisting that the soldiery would simply waste ammo. At President Lincoln’s insistence, he unbent enough to buy some Sharps breechloaders for the cavalry, but that was as far as he seemed willing to go.
Spencer had other plans. (Imagine the consequences if the following events took place today.) On a summer day in 1863, not long after the Federal victory at Gettysburg, Spencer picked up one of his rifles, a hefty supply of ammo, took them to Washington and proceeded to march with them into the White House, past the inattentive sentries and into the President’s office to face a startled Abraham Lincoln.
No details remain of the conversation that ensued, but if must have been something along these lines:
Christopher Spencer: “Mr. President, I have a repeating rifle I’d like to show you.”
President Lincoln: “I’d like to see it.”
The following day President Lincoln, Spencer and Secretary of War Stanton took Spencer’s rifle shooting on the Great Mall(!), following which Lincoln ordered the fossil Ripley to approve the purchase of Spencer repeaters. Ripley largely ignored the order, but a fair number of Spencer rifles found their way into the hands of General Grant’s Army of the West. No less a figure than George Custer became a quick convert to the Spencer rifle, and after the war, many surplus Spencer repeaters were in use all over the country.
The Spencer fared poorly in commercial competition after the war. While the Winchester rifles’ magazines could be topped up with single rounds while the gun was in use, the Spencer required withdrawing the tubular magazine. Also, the Spencer was limited to that company’s own rimfire ammo, while Winchester, only eight years after the war, was hitting home runs in its partnership with Colt on the .44 WCF cartridge.
By this time Spencer’s rifle works were already gone, having closed their doors in 1869 and sold the remainder of their patents and machinery to their competitor, Winchester. In 1882 Spencer tried his hand at gun making again when he started a new company to build what would be the first commercially produced pump-action shotgun. He continued building that gun until 1889, when the new Spencer Arms Company was sold to Francis Bannerman and Sons of New York, who continued manufacturing Spencer’s shotgun until 1907. But in 1869, his involvement with lever-action repeaters was over.
A year after Spencer struck his tents and bowed out of the lever gun business, a new kid on the block was about to make a big splash. A tool and die man from Connecticut who had worked in the Colt plant through the war opened his own company, manufacturing a few single-shot brass derringers, the Ballard-pattern single shot rifles and, eventually, some lever guns. That fellow’s name was John Mahlon Marlin.
Enter John Marlin
While he opened his Marlin Firearms Company in New Haven, Connecticut in 1870, Marlin didn’t jump into the lever-gun or, indeed, even the rifle business right away. Instead, he began by manufacturing inexpensive brass-frame single shot derringers, initially in .22 caliber and later in .32 and .38 caliber versions. In 1875 he began manufacture of the Ballard single-shot falling-block rifle, eventually building more of that rifle than any of its several other manufacturers.
1881 saw the first Marlin lever gun. The Model 1881 Marlin was intended to compete directly with Winchester’s 1876 Centennial, and in fact the Marlin offering did Winchester one better in offering the 1881 in the popular .45-70 and .38-55 chamberings.
Marlin’s first lever gun had that advantage over the Winchester, but this happy situation wouldn’t last; in 1886 Winchester would offer the first in a new generation of lever guns that would also be chambered in popular, easy to obtain calibers. Also, the 1881 Marlin was not appreciably different than the Winchester designs; like them, it loaded through a gate in the receiver, had a sealed tubular magazine, an external hammer and ejected spent cartridges straight out of the top of the action. But the Marlin sold for a few dollars less than comparable Winchester offerings, and this was enough to keep the New Haven plant open until the next innovation.
That next innovation was the Marlin Model 1889, a pistol-caliber lever carbine offered in .44-40, .38-40, .32-20 and .25-20. The carbine in and of itself wasn’t remarkably different than the Winchester 1866 and 1873 guns in its function or capabilities, but it did have one key difference: Its receiver top was solid, and empties were ejected instead out of the right side of the action.
In 1889 not many shooters were mounting telescopic sights at all, let alone in pistol-caliber lever action carbines. But the side ejection, dubbed by the New Haven gunmakers as the “Marlin Safety” action, would become widely known as a Marlin feature, favored by many shooters who disliked the feeling of hot brass landing inside an open shirt collar. In 1894 the pistol-caliber Marlin was reworked somewhat and re-introduced as the Model 1894, which is still in production today.
Two more historic offerings from Marlin saw their origins in the last years of the 19th century. First, in 1891, Marlin brought out the Model 1891, which adopted the side-ejecting lever action to the .22 rimfires, handling the Short, Long and Long Rifle cartridges. A few reworks of this original rifle resulted in the “Golden” Model 39, a light, handy small-game rifle beloved by shooters and, like the 1894, is still in production.
A nice New-Haven manufactured 39 Marlin has been on my “want” list for quite a while, although the right juxtaposition of “rifle for sale” and “available cash” hasn’t yet materialized. The 39 and the 39A as made by the New Haven works is a great piece; light, handy and quick. Because of Marlin’s signature side-ejection, it is easily scoped, a nice advantage when you’re after small game that present small targets. To be fair, the .22 offerings from Winchester and Browning in lever guns are also side-ejecting, but the Marlin did it first. Back in the Allamakee County woods of my youth, I used to occasionally bump into an older member of the big Duffy clan who hunted gray squirrels in the tall timber with an ancient Marlin 39 stuffed with .22 Shorts; he was a deadly shot, quick and precise, going only for headshots. The Shorts in the long-barreled 39 made little more noise than a dry walnut falling on a rock. He killed a lot of squirrels with that old gun.
But I digress.
In 1893 Marlin came out with their final lever gun of the 19th century. The Model 1893, like the 1889, featured the “Marlin Safety” side-eject action. Offered in cartridges including the .25-36, .30-30, .32 Special, .32-40, and .38-55, the 1893, like the 1889, was a handy, solid rifle that sold for a tad less than Winchester’s offerings but worked just as well. This rifle would, like the 1894, go through several iterations in coming years, becoming in time the famous Model 336 that is still in production, as well as being the basis for the Marlin 444 and 1895 rifles.
In Marlin, Winchester was finally seeing some steady and determined competition in the lever gun market. Marlin, however, wasn’t the only other player.
The Colt-Burgess Rifle
In 1882, the folks at Colt cast some envious gazes on Winchester’s success in rifles and sought to get a piece of that action. To that end they went to gun designer Anthony Burgess, who had a patent for a lever-action rifle with a toggle-joint action; Colt bought that patent and, in 1883, began production of the Colt-Burgess lever gun in .44-40. Two versions were offered; a carbine with a 20” barrel, and a rifle with a 25” barrel.
The Colt-Burgess rifle didn’t really catch on. About 6400 examples were made, mostly in the rifle version. About this time, as we noted in the recent series on sixguns, Winchester had an engineer building a few prototype revolvers; long-standing gun industry rumor has it that the two companies entered into a gentlemen’s agreement wherein Winchester would drop revolver development in return for Colt eschewing the continued manufacture of lever guns. Whether this is true or not, Colt dropped manufacture of the Colt-Burgess rifle after only two years.
Someone else, though, was a more serious contender.
A Savage Competitor
In 1893, a couple of New Yorkers patented something new: A lever-action rifle with no external hammer, that used a unique rotary-style magazine allowing it to fire spitzer-type bullets. Further, their patented rifle was specifically designed to handle high-pressure, smokeless powder cartridges.
The two designers were Arthur William Savage and his son, Arthur John Savage, and their design would eventually enter production in Utica, New York, as the Savage Model 1895 and later altered slightly into the Model 1899.
The hammerless Savage was offered in a plethora of high-performance calibers in its time, including the proprietary .303 Savage, .32-40 Winchester, .300 Savage, .30-30 Winchester, .25-35 Winchester, .250 Savage, .22 Savage Hi-Power, .22-250 Remington, .243 Winchester, .308 Winchester, .358 Winchester, 7mm-08 Remington, .284 Winchester, .38-55 Winchester, .375 Winchester and .410 shotgun shell.
The 99 was and is a versatile rifle. In its original rotary magazine version, it had a handy cartridge counter that appeared through a small aperture on the left side of the receiver, allowing the shooter to instantly check how many remaining cartridges he had on hand.
Savage wasn’t done yet, though. In 1897 Arthur Savage filed another patent for a variation on the original Model 1895 rifle, which replaced the rotary magazine with a detachable box magazine, the first time a detachable box magazine was offered in a repeating rifle.
It was the Savage 95/99 that finally brought lever guns fully into the smokeless powder era.
Winchester, however, wasn’t exactly sitting idle while all these other gun makers were innovating and inventing all over.
And Then This Happened
Remember in the previous chapter, when we mentioned a certain Ogden, Utah-based gun designer?
In 1883, negotiations concluded that brought John Moses Browning on board as a primary gun designer for the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. That association was to prove long and fruitful for both parties, not only in the area of lever guns but in shotguns as well. While Browning wasn’t a Winchester employee and, indeed, designed guns for several different companies, his association with Winchester was to produce some of the most iconic American firearms ever made. More on that in Part 4.
As the world moved into the Twentieth century, some significant changes were coming to the shooting world: the advent of smokeless powder, the gradual adoption of telescopic sights, and the increasing performance of rifle cartridges. While it’s common even now to consider the lever gun as a short-range brush gun, the manufacturers of lever guns had other ideas; in the mid-late Twentieth century, the lever gun would be modernized in a big way. But that’s a story for Part 5.