Lever Guns in the Smokeless Powder Age
The introduction of the new smokeless powders changed everything.
These fancy new propellants developed some hot new performance, but there were some requirements that gunmakers had to adapt to. Chamber pressures were much higher, and while performance was much higher than the old black-powder loads, realizing the most out of that performance required bottlenecked cartridges and spitzer bullets.
Most of the lever guns on the market were physically capable of carrying and chambering the new rifle rounds, at least the shorter ones like the .250 and .300 Savage. But steels adequate for black-powder loads weren’t up to the new levels of pressure, and the idea of having jacketed spitzer bullets lying point-to-primer in tubular magazines gave many shooters a bad case of the williwaws. Some changes in metallurgy and magazines were in order. The 20th century was a very interesting time in lever guns.
Winchester’s Dominance Continues – For a While.
1935 saw the introduction of what may be the best of the traditionally-designed big-bore lever guns. In that year Winchester released the Model 71, a re-engineered Model 1886 lever gun chambered in the new and powerful .348 Winchester. Intended as a Western game rifle, the 71 was a big, powerful gun capable of taking any American big game at extended ranges, but in this
introduction Winchester’s timing was off. This was a niche that even in 1935 was increasingly dominated by bolt guns, and after World War 2 the scoped bolt gun became the overwhelming choice of outdoorsmen who wanted to reach out and touch something. The original 71 was discontinued in 1958.
In 1955 Winchester broke with tradition in offering the lever-action Model 88. This was a different kind of lever gun, as the short-stroke lever operated a rotating bolt with locking lugs at the front, making for a tighter lockup. The ’88 ejected spent cartridges to the side, allowing a solid low scope mount on its solid-top receiver. The new lever gun was striker-fired with no external hammer, making for a faster lock time than older designs. It had a full-length stock and a box magazine and was chambered for two powerful rounds, the .284 Winchester and the .308 Winchester. Here was a truly modern lever gun, referred to by some gun writers as a “bolt gun operated by a lever.” That lever also had something else new; in cycling the action the trigger moved along with the lever, eliminating a common cause of pinched fingers in more traditional lever guns.
The ’88 was joined in 1961 by a semi-auto counterpart, the Model 100. The ’88 didn’t last, only being made until 1973, but one can usually find them for sale on auction sites and the short, handy puncher is still a great hunting rifle.
In the early to mid-20th century the famed and wildly successful Model 94 spawned a few variants. While the 94 was offered in a variety of barrel lengths and in a takedown version, one variant of note even carried a new model number, that being the Model 55 with its 24” barrel and shotgun-style butt. The 55 wasn’t a commercial success and was only made from 1924 to 1932. There was also the Model 64, produced from 1933 through 1957 in 20, 24, and 26 versions, often with a half-length magazine.
Later in the century the post-1964 Winchester made still more changes to the Model 94. The first of these was the introduction of the “Angle-Eject” in 1982, where a cut in the upper right of the receiver allowed ejection of spent cases somewhat more to the side, allowing a scope to be mounted closer to the bore line. The Angel Eject guns were made until 1997. To the somewhat aged and jaded eyes of this shooter, the Angel Eject system screwed up the lines of a beautiful old classic, as did the later addition of a butt-ugly cross-bolt safety. “Big Bore” versions were later offered in the .307 and .356 Winchester rounds (basically rimmed versions of the .308 and .358 Winchester cartridges) and the .375 Winchester, which was sort of a modernized version of the old black-powder .38-55.
In 1972 Winchester capped things off by introducing the 9422, a slick little short-throw lever gun chambered for the .22 Long Rifle. While its overall appearance mimicked the 1894 rifle it was ostensibly named after, there were two key differences: Like most .22 rifles of its day with tube mags, the 9422 loaded from the front through a cutout on the tube. Unlike other Winchester lever guns (except the Model 88) it also ejected spent rounds through the side of the receiver, allowing easy scope mounting on the built-in tip-off grooves. This new gun was also available as the 9422M in the .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire round.
But while all this was going on, Winchester’s good name was suffering a few setbacks. The biggest change in what is arguably the single most famous American gun company happened in 1964. In that year, rising labor costs forced Winchester to re-engineer their production. This included such steps as eliminating expensive machined forgings for cast and stamped parts; shooters saw a marked decline in fit and finish not only in the company’s flagship lever gun but also in Winchester’s other prominent products, including the Model 70 bolt gun
and the Model 12 pump shotgun. Having owned and handled many examples from both sides of that line, these days I personally won’t own a Winchester rifle or shotgun made after 1964, but I will qualify that by conceding that I am a stubborn, obstreperous, opinionated old coot with a healthy distrust of all things newfangled.
The company continued to bleed sales after that. In 1984 the old New Haven plant which was the genesis of so many iconic American rifles and shotguns was sold by parent corporation Olin to the plant’s employees, who re-organized as the U.S. Repeating Arms Company and continued (under license by Olin) to manufacture Winchester-brand guns, but the writing was on the wall. In 1989 the famous old plant finally closed. That was the end of the New Haven plant, but the Winchester name would manage to hang on through a couple of iterations; we’ll discuss those in Part 6.
But while Winchester was undergoing trials and tribulations, their primary competitor was circling overhead like a giant predatory bird.
Marlin Hits Their Stride
Perhaps a key to Marlin’s success was that they didn’t play around with their designs as much as Winchester. Marlin’s rimfire offering, the Model 39, remains pretty much unchanged since its introduction, save for some differences in fit, finish and sighting equipment. The excellent little pistol-caliber Marlin 94 has remained likewise unchanged since its genesis save the addition of a misguided cross-bolt safety; a key addition was the introduction of a .44 Magnum chambering in 1963, followed later by a short run (less than 5,000) guns in the .41 Magnum, examples of which sell for big bucks nowadays. The Model 93 Marlin morphed into the Model 36 in (of course) 1936 and in 1948 into the 336, which still is in production, albeit again with that stupid cross-bolt safety.
Here’s a hint on these safeties, by the way. I have two Marlin lever guns; one is a fine old 1979 336 in .30-30 which I have had since I was nineteen, a great rifle that I have plunked a fair number of farm country whitetails with and which is a Marlin of the original pattern. My other, though, is the Bullwhacker, an 1895G in .45-70, which I have fitted with better sights, a Burris IER scope and a big lever loop. I love this gun, as it is nearly the ideal thing for handling big, tough critters at close to medium ranges, but the 1895G has that idiot safety; fortunately, I discovered a company that makes a kit to replace these pieces of pettifoggery with a simple straight flush bolt with a flat screw head, greatly improving the gun’s appearance while eliminating the possibility of having the redundant safety in the wrong position when commencing operations.
I won’t counsel anyone to alter a factory-installed safety, of course. I merely mention the availability of such things in the event any of you, like me, see little sense in a manual safety on a gun with an external hammer.
Still, safety or no, the 336 action spawned some neat new stuff.
In 1963 Marlin brought out the .444 Marlin cartridge and introduced the Marlin 444 to shoot it. This ramped up the power level available in Marlin rifles but not without some growing pains; the .444 case was based loosely on the brass .410 shotgun cartridge and was an interesting design, but in 1963 suitable bullets were not much in evidence. Bullets made for pistol cartridges were prone to breaking up when fired at rifle velocities; later better projectiles for the .444 were introduced but the rifle and its eponymous cartridge languished.
In 1972 Marlin addressed this problem in part by bringing out the 1985, again on the 336 action, this time in the popular .45-70 and, as the 1895M, the .450 Marlin, sort of a sawed-off .458 Winchester Magnum. This was a hit; the 1895 gave rise to the 1895G “Guide Gun,” a shorter-barreled, muzzle-braked thumper aimed at the close-quarters, dangerous game market. As mentioned previously, I have one of these, and while it’s great fun, twenty rounds or so off the bench will make you think of maybe picking up a .22 for a while.
While both the 444 and the 1895, like the 336, allow for a scope mounted low on the receiver in the traditional position, the two big-bore versions call for judicious measurement of the eye relief, to prevent possible cases of Kaibab Eye.
The 336 is best known for the .30-30 and .35 Remington chamberings, but other calibers included the .219 Zipper, .307 Winchester, .32-40 WCF, .32 Special, .356 Winchester, .375 Winchester, .38-55 Winchester, .44 Magnum and even the .410 shotgun shell. The gun was sold in the discount Glenfield version, with a stained hardwood stock instead of American walnut, as well as in a couple of store brands. In the final year of the 20th century, Marlin even brought out the 336M in stainless steel.
A big part of Marlin’s success in the 20th century had to do with the increasing use of telescopic sights throughout that century. Marlin capitalized on this, advertising heavily with images of Marlin lever guns bearing optics; by the end of the century, Marlin would surpass Winchester as the nation’s leading manufacturer of lever guns, although that was as much to do with Winchester’s issues as Marlin’s solid-top receivers and steady production.
Marlin had one departure from the traditional lever gun model. In 1955 Marlin brought out the .22 caliber Levermatic, a short-throw, box-magazine fed .22 caliber lever gun. It wasn’t a particularly attractive piece but performed fine and managed to sell reasonably well in the nine years it was produced. In all, not quite 32,000 guns were made.
But while Marlin was beginning to achieve some real dominance in the lever gun market, another old builder was also plugging along, this one with one solid, reliable design.
Savage’s New Power Levels
It is ironic that the only moderately-successful Winchester 88 copied the broad pattern of an older and much more successful rifle: The Savage 99. During the 20th century Savage greatly expanded the 99’s range of chamberings, eventually offering not only the original .303 Savage but also the .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 the .410 shotgun hull.
For a woods rifle, the tough Savage 99 chambered for the .358 Winchester, maybe the best brush-gun cartridge ever made, is hard to beat. In fact, now I’m trying to think of a reason why I don’t already have one in the rack.
The striker-fired Savage had the solid receiver top that, like the Marlin offerings, allowed the proper mounting of a scope low and centered on the receiver. Unlike the Marlins it was striker-fired, making for a faster lock time and less chance of a wobble between trigger break and primer fire.
Sadly, the great 99 didn’t survive the 20th century, as production ceased in 1998. Savage still makes their 110 bolt gun in a bewildering variety of options, as well as shotguns and (like seemingly everyone else) an AR-15 pattern rifle. But while the fine old 99 is no longer produced, many were made, and the online auction houses always have a good selection. It’s a rifle worth looking into.
Winchester and Savage spent much of the 20th century pushing the more modern line in lever guns, but in the Sixties, a new rifle under an old name was about to take things to the next level.
Browning Enters the Fray
Way back in 1878, the Browning Arms Company was founded by the man Himself to market his non-military arms not built by other manufacturers. In 1969, this Browning Arms Company, manufacturing in the FN works in Belgium, introduced the ultimate lever-action rifle: The Browning Lever Rifle, or BLR.
The BLR, like the Winchester 88 before it, used the lever to operate a bolt-gun-like rotating bolt. Also like the Model 88, the BLR fed from a box magazine and had the pinch-free trigger that moved with the lever. Unlike the Model 88, it used a very smooth geared system that allowed for a short bolt throw, and also came in both short- and long-action versions to enable it to digest a bewildering variety of calibers, including the big belted magnums; in all the BLR was sold chambered for the .22-250 Remington, .223 Remington, .243 Winchester, .257 Roberts, .25-06 Remington, .270 Winchester, .270 Winchester Short Magnum, .284 Winchester, .30-06 Springfield, .300 Winchester Magnum, .300 Winchester Short Magnum, .308 Winchester, .325 Winchester Short Magnum, .358 Winchester, .450 Marlin, 7mm Remington Magnum, 7mm Winchester Short Magnum and the 7mm-08 Remington.
Here at last was a fully modern lever gun, capable of long-range accuracy and cartridge power levels rivalling the current bolt guns. Originally built in Belgium, in the mid-Seventies the BLR’s production, along with a bunch of other Browning designs, switched to manufacture at Mikoru in Japan; ironically, fine guns with a famous name were now built in a nation whose nation makes it nearly impossible for the workers in that plant to own the very items they produce. The BLR was revamped some in 1995, including the change from a forged steel receiver to a cast aluminum version. The gun continues in production to this day.
Also in 1969, Browning doubled down by introducing the BL-22, also made in Belgium, a finely crafted, short-throw .22 lever gun. The BL-22, like its big brother, featured side-ejection and a trigger that moved with the neat little short-throw lever. Like most .22 rimfires, the Bl-22 loads through a port in the tube magazine.
Unlike a lot of manufacturers, Browning didn’t treat its rimfire lever gun as the second-tier. The BL-22 was made available in all the various grades of wood and finish as its larger brothers, and in the higher grades commanded a significant price for the time; now, shooters could take some fancy hardware into the woods in squirrel season.
The interesting thing about Browning’s introductions here is the timing. Only five years after shooters were roundly disappointed by the apparent decline in quality of post-1964 Winchester, Browning brings to the table two fully modern lever guns, one firing a wide range of powerful big-game cartridges, the other a finely made graceful rimfire. Browning was clearly going after Winchester’s market share, and that is something that would make the 21st century movements of gun company ownership rather interesting.
Modern is as modern does, but late in the 20th century shooters began to feel the stirrings of nostalgia. That led to some opportunities for new guys.
A detailed discussion of replica lever gun manufacturers would require an article unto themselves, so we’ll have to settle for hitting the high points here.
The popularity of Western movies and the rise of Cowboy Action shooting led to the lever-gun and single-action revolver market’s exploding in the last few decades of the 20th century. It didn’t take long for replica manufacturers to start turning out lever guns.
In the late Seventies, an outfit called Navy Arms started importing guns from a variety of sources. One of those was the Rossi/Braztech clone of the 1892 Winchester, then a neat, affordable little gun. The initial version was pretty much an exact copy of the original Browning design; later, import/export rules required the addition of an external safety, to which Rossi responded by sticking the world’s ugliest firing pin block safety awkwardly on the top of the bolt.
But while Rossi held the lower end of that market, outfits like Uberti, Pedersoli and Cimarron were cranking up to produce some great, high-end replicas. Almost every model from the original Henry to the 1866, 1873, 1876, 1886, 1892 and 1894 Winchesters were eventually represented, along with the 1860 Spencer and the 1883 Colt-Burgess.
And Then This Happened
The modern era kicked in, with its sudden focus on all things Tacticool. The 21st Century saw the genesis of odd things like monster revolver rounds, legitimized wildcat rifle rounds for every conceivable special purpose, and the odd habit of hanging Picatinny rails on every available bit of a gun’s real estate. The 21st also saw an increased hue and cry from the political Left to do something about a few highly-publicized and highly-politicized shootings carried out with semi-auto rifles, and a few localities started restricting those rifles; this suddenly opened some fertile new ground for lever gun manufacturers.
But the 21st century also saw the sale and reorganization of some fine old gun companies, and that wasn’t necessarily to the benefit of shooters.
We’ll talk about all this in Part 6, the final installment of this History of Lever Guns.