Lever-action is a type of firearm action which uses a lever located around the trigger guard area (often including the trigger guard itself) to load fresh cartridges into the chamber of the barrel when the lever is worked. This contrasts to bolt action, semi-automatic, or selective fire weapons. Most lever-action firearms are rifles, but lever-action shotguns and a few pistols have also been made. One of the most famous lever-action firearms is undoubtedly the Winchester Model 1873 rifle, but many manufacturers–notably Marlin and Savage–also produce lever-action rifles. Mossberg produces the 464 in center fire .30-30 and rim fire .22. While the term lever-action generally implies a repeating firearm, it is also sometimes (and incorrectly) applied to a variety of single-shot, or falling-block actions that use a lever for cycling, such as the Martini-Henry or the Ruger No. 1.
The first significant lever-action design was the Spencer repeating rifle, a magazine-fed lever-operated breech-loading rifle designed by Christopher Spencer in 1860. It was fed from a removable seven-round tube magazine, enabling the rounds to be fired one after another, and which, when emptied, could be exchanged for another. Over 20,000 were made, and it was adopted by the United States and used during the American Civil War, marking the first adoption of a removable-magazine-fed infantry-and-cavalry rifle by any country.
Unlike later designs, the early Spencer's lever only served to unlock the falling-block action and load a new cartridge from the magazine; it did not cock the hammer, and thus the hammer had to be cocked after the lever was operated to prepare the rifle to fire. The Henry rifle, invented by Benjamin Tyler Henry, a gunsmith employed by Oliver Winchester in 1860, used a centrally located hammer rather than the offset hammer typical of muzzleloading rifles, and this hammer was cocked by the rearward movement of the Henry's bolt. The Henry also placed the magazine under the barrel, rather than in the butt-stock, a trend followed by most tubular magazines since.
The Martini-Henry rifle was the main rifle of British and Empire forces from the early 1870s to the turn of the 20th century and remained in use to the end of the First World War. It was used in some areas, either by civilians or by the local military, much longer. Variants copying the Martini-Henry mechanism but using more modern cartridges were also produced; as late as the 1970s a version taking the common Enfield .303 ammunition was common in Afghanistan.
John Marlin, founder of Marlin Firearms Company, New Haven, Connecticut, introduced Marlin's first lever-action repeating rifle as the Model 1881. This was chambered in rounds such as the 45/70 and 38/55. Its successor was the 1895 solid top design which we know as the model 336 today. It also gave rise to the Marlin Model 1894, which is still in production today.
By the 1890s, lever-actions had evolved into a form that would last for over a century. Both Marlin and Winchester released new model lever-action rifles in 1894. The Marlin rifle is still in production, whereas production of the Winchester 94 ceased in 2006. While externally similar, the Marlin and Winchester rifles are quite different internally; the Marlin has a single-stage lever action, while the Winchester has a double-stage lever. The double-stage action is easily seen when the Winchester's lever is operated, as first the entire trigger group drops down, unlocking the bolt, and then the bolt is moved rearward to eject the fired cartridge.
The fledgling Savage Arms Company became well known after the development of its popular hammerless Models 1895 and 1899 (which became named the Model 99) lever action sporting rifles. The Models 1899/99 were produced from introduction in 1899 until the expense of producing the rifle, and declining interest in lever action rifles from the 1950s on, resulted in dropping the Model 99 from production in 2000. Unlike most Winchester and the Marlin lever action rifles, which used a tubular magazine requiring round nose or flat nose bullets, Arthur Savage designed his rifle using a rotary magazine. This allowed the 99 to use cartridges with spitzer pointed bullets for increased ballistic performance. The 99 was produced in many different cartridges and several different model variations. The final models eliminated the very expensive to produce rotary magazine, using a detachable box magazine instead. But the 99 was still very expensive to produce when compared to the other lever action rifles, and the Savage bolt action rifles, and economics determined the fate of the rifle.
More recently, Sturm Ruger and Company introduced a number of new lever-action designs in the 1990s, unusual because most lever action designs date from before World War II, in the period before reliable semi-automatic rifles became widely available.
Usage in warfare
Lever action rifles were used extensively by irregular forces during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. Typically, these were Winchesters or Winchester copies of Spanish manufacture.
Early attempts at repeating shotguns invariably centered around either bolt-action or lever-action designs, drawing obvious inspiration from the repeating rifles of the time. The earliest successful repeating shotgun was the lever-action Winchester M1887, designed by John Browning in 1885 at the behest of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, who wanted to market a repeating shotgun. The lever-action design was chosen for reasons of brand recognition, Winchester being best known for manufacturing lever-action firearms at the time, despite the protestations of Browning, who pointed out that a slide-action design would be much better for a shotgun. Initially chambered for black powder shotgun shells (as was standard at the time), the Model 1887 gave rise to the Winchester Model 1901, a strengthened version chambered for 10ga smokeless powder shells. Their popularity waned after the introduction of slide-action shotguns such as the Winchester Model 1897, and production was discontinued in 1920. Modern reproductions are (or have been), however, manufactured by Armi Chiappa in Italy, Norinco in China and ADI Ltd. in Australia, while Winchester continued to manufacture the .410-bore Model 9410, effectively a Winchester Model 94 chambered for .410-bore shotgun shells, until 2006.
On other applications
A one off example of lever action reloading on automatic firearms is the M1895 Colt-Browning machine gun. This weapon had a swinging lever beneath its barrel that was actuated by a gas bleed in the barrel, unlocking the breech to reload. This unique operation gave the nickname "potato digger" as the lever swung each time the weapon fired and would dig into the ground if the weapon was not situated high enough on its mount.
The Knötgen automatic rifle is another example.
Advantages and disadvantages
While lever-action rifles were (and are) popular with hunters and sporting shooters, they were not widely accepted by the military. One significant reason for this was that it is harder to fire a lever-action from the prone position (compared to a straight-pull or rotating-bolt bolt-action rifle), and while nominally possessing a greater rate of fire (contemporary Winchester advertisements claimed their rifles could fire 2 shots a second) than bolt-action rifles, lever-action firearms are also generally fed from a tubular magazine, which limits the ammunition that can be used in them. Pointed center fire Spitzer bullets, for example, can cause explosions in a tubular magazine, as the point of each cartridge's projectile rests on the primer of the next cartridge in the magazine (elastomer-tipped Hornady LEVERevolution ammunition overcomes this problem). The tubular magazine may also have a negative impact on the harmonics of the barrel, which limits the theoretical accuracy of the rifle. A tubular magazine under the barrel also pushes the center of gravity forward, which alters the balance of the rifle in ways that are undesirable to some shooters. However there are some lever rifles, such as the Winchester Model 1895 which saw service with the Russian Army in World War I, that use a box magazine. Furthermore, many of the newer lever action rifles are capable of shooting groups smaller than 1 minute of angle, making them closer to the accuracy of most modern bolt-action rifles than in the past.
Due to the higher rate of fire and shorter overall length than most bolt-action rifles, lever actions have remained popular to this day for sporting use, especially short- and medium-range hunting in forests, scrub, or bushland. Lever-action firearms have also been used in some quantity by prison guards in the United States, as well as by wildlife authorities/game wardens in many parts of the world.
Most lever-action designs are not as strong as bolt-action or semi-automatic designs, and as a result lever-action rifles tend to be generally found in low- and medium-pressure cartridges such as .30-30 Winchester or .44 Magnum, although the Marlin Model 1894 is available in three high-pressure magnum calibers; and the Winchester Model 1895, which used a box magazine, was chambered for .30-06 and other powerful military cartridges. The most common caliber is by far the .30-30, which was introduced by Winchester with the Model 1894. Other common calibers for lever-action firearms include: .38 Special/.357 Magnum, .44 Special/.44 Magnum, .41 Magnum, .444 Marlin, .45-70, .45 Colt, .32-20 Winchester, .35 Remington, 308 Marlin Express, .22 caliber rimfire and .300 Savage. Lever-action designs using stronger, rotary locking bolts (such as the Browning BLR) or tilting block designs such as the Savage Model 99 are usually fed from either box or rotary magazines and are not limited to round nose bullet designs, as well as being able to handle a greater range of calibers than a traditional lever-action design.
Lever-action shotguns such as the Winchester Model 1887 were chambered in 10 or 12-gauge black powder shotgun shells, whereas the Model 1901 was chambered for 10 gauge smokeless shotshells. Modern reproductions are chambered for 12 gauge smokeless shells, while the Winchester Model 9410 shotgun is available in .410 bore.
Other long gun actions
- Antique guns
- Henry Rifle
- Colt-Burgess rifle
- Marlin 336
- Mossberg model 464
- Spencer repeating rifle
- Volcanic Repeating Arms
- Winchester rifle
- Winchester M1887
- John Taffin (February 2007), "Seven revolution: it's not your grandpa's .30-.30", Guns Magazine
- The All-American Lever Gun - Rifle Shooter (dead link)
- Hunting with lever action rifle (dead link)