Lever-Action Rifles: A History

The lever-action rifle might seem outdated to some, but nothing could be further from the truth. Not only does the lever-action system maintain its usefulness today, but it’s a platform that’s proven itself through generations of gun owners. We’re going to take a look at the history and related use of these guns and how they’re still relevant today.

volition rifle
A look at Walter Hunt’s Volition repeater. (Photo: Smithsonian)

What was the first lever-action rifle?

There’s always some debate regarding the first lever-action rifle, and it usually involves arguing the nuances of which guns were truly marketable or sold well. However, the first lever-action to receive a patent was the Volition repeater. The Volition was designed in 1848 by Walter Hunt and involved many small parts and a complex system. It also had a tubular magazine, but it wasn’t the first rifle to have that—it was the second. Unfortunately, the way Hunt created the Volition made it darn near impossible to produce, and the gun never reached the production or sale stage. So yes, the Volition repeater was the first-ever lever-action to be patented, but it wasn’t the first to sell.

When the Volition failed, the patent passed through a few hands and ended up with Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson. They took their own shot at creating a lever-action with the Volcanic Rifle, and that ultimately failed as well. It wasn’t until the first Henry rifle came around in 1860 that the gun world got a well-made lever-action rifle. The 1860 Henry was chambered in .44 Henry Rimfire and had a 16-shot capacity. It saw some use in the Civil War and was known for drastically improving soldiers’ rates of fire.

henry rifle
Henry manufactures a modern version of the original 1860 Henry. (Photo: Henry Repeating Arms)

Who made the first lever-action rifle?

The question of who made the first lever-action rifle is much like debating what was the first rifle ever made. For this purpose, let’s consider who designed the first marketable rifle that actually saw extensive use. That would be Benjamin Tyler Henry. Oliver Winchester hired Henry to fine-tune the failed Volcanic Rifle design into something that could be used. If you’re ever fortunate enough to find an original 1860 Henry, you might discover a price tag attached to it, around a quarter of a million dollars, but don’t worry. Henry Repeating Arms brought the design back with some modern touches, so you can get a replica for a far more reasonable price.

marlin rifle
The .45-70 Government is a popular chambering for lever-action rifles. (Photo: Marlin)

Lever-Action Calibers

The first lever gun was chambered in .44-40 Winchester, but it didn’t take long for the chambering options to expand. Today, they’re made in rimfire and centerfire rounds, handgun and magnum calibers, and more. Some classic chamberings, such as the .45-70 Government and .444 Marlin, are popular due to their fantastic performance on target and well-proven histories backing them. Here’s a partial list of available lever-action calibers:

  • .22 LR
  • .223 Remington
  • .30-30 Winchester
  • .357 Magnum
  • .44 Magnum
  • .45-70 Government
  • .444 Marlin
  • .50-110 Winchester
  • .44-40 Winchester
  • .308 Winchester
  • .17 HMR
  • .38-55 Winchester

When it comes time to choose a lever-action rifle for yourself, just stop and consider what it needs to do. That helps you narrow down the caliber and decide whether you want a classic model or a modern, tactical design.

winchester model 1873
The Winchester Model 1873 is known as the Gun That Won the West. (Photo: Winchester)

What’s the Gun That Won the West?

The Winchester Model 1873, or the “Gun That Won the West,” is one lever gun that’s gained a fair amount of fame. Initially chambered in .44-40, the Model 1873 was the first rifle to use a metallic centerfire cartridge, and while it didn’t offer what we might consider impressive ballistics by today’s standards, it did just fine at that time.

More importantly, the Model 1873 was a reliable gun that could be maintained in the field. In one famous instance, Texas Ranger George Lloyd was in a firefight with Comanche Indians and accidentally loaded the wrong cartridge into his lever-action. That effectively took him out of the fight and could have been disastrous, but he was able to use his knife to quickly remove the rifle’s side plate, take out the stuck cartridge, and keep going. A gun that kept you in the fight was essential, and the Model 1873 did just that.

The Winchester Model 1873 was used by historically noteworthy people such as Buffalo Bill Cody and Frank James, Jesse James’ brother. The rifle was used by lawmen and outlaws alike and also gained quite a reputation among cowboys and gold miners. Thanks to its repeatability, capacity, and caliber, it saw wide and varied use. It’s no surprise it’s often referred to as the Gun That Won the West.

What are lever-action rifles used for?

Lever-actions got their start as the do-it-all rifles for everything from self-defense to hunting to use as duty guns for law enforcement. Today, lever guns are no longer used as duty guns but continue to be used regularly by hunters. As for self-defense, the lever-action is a great gun for defensive purposes as long as you’re capable of running the gun smoothly and accurately. There’s no reason you can’t use your favorite lever for home defense or as a truck gun. And regarding concerns about over-penetration with calibers like .45-70 Government, any caliber is capable of over-penetration. It’s up to you to be familiar with the performance of the round and what is beyond your target.

Who makes modern lever-action rifles?

There’s a vast array of lever-actions available on the market. Even Smith & Wesson is now manufacturing lever-action rifles (that’s new as of 2024). You can find lever-actions chambered in everything from .22 LR to .45-70 Government produced by renowned companies, such as Winchester, Henry Repeating Arms, Marlin, and more. There are even tactical lever guns that come with Picatinny rail for optics or blacked-out stocks rather than the traditional blonde wood.

Should you get a lever-action rifle?

Lever-actions are fantastic rifles and don’t get near the attention they deserve. They might’ve gained their early reputation during the latter part of the 19th century, but they remain useful in modern times. There’s something to be said for respecting and paying homage to the earlier firearm platforms, but it’s true that the modern lever gun is excellent in its own right. Whether you’re looking to add a piece of gun history to your collection and want a modern lever for hunting, there’s a lever-action rifle made to suit your needs.

What’s your favorite lever-action rifle? Tell us about it in the comments.

Kat Ainsworth Stevens is a long-time outdoor writer, official OGC (Original Gun Cognoscenti), and author of Handgun Hunting: a Comprehensive Guide to Choosing and Using the Right Firearms for Big and Small Game. Der Teufel Katze has written for a number of industry publications (print and online) and edited some of the others, so chances are you've seen or read her work before, somewhere. A woman of eclectic background and habits, Kat has been carrying concealed for over two decades, used to be a farrier, and worked for a long time in emergency veterinary medicine. She prefers big bores, enjoys K9 Search & Rescue, and has a Master's Degree in Pitiless Snarkastic Delivery.

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