SI Vault
Paul R. Walker
May 30, 1955
New developments in the lever action are bringing America's favorite rifle, often criticized as old-fashioned, to the front rank as a big-game weapon
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May 30, 1955

The Gun That Wouldn't Die

New developments in the lever action are bringing America's favorite rifle, often criticized as old-fashioned, to the front rank as a big-game weapon

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The American lever-action repeating rifle is 100 years old. If it had listened to criticisms of its shortcomings by serious shooters it would have died of shame half a century ago. The fact that it didn't and that today it is still the most popular deer rifle in the country is due mostly to its handiness. A stroke of the lever ejects and reloads the rifle with astonishing speed. Lever actions are slim and lightweight; they carry nicely. But no real improvement in their basic designs had been made in nearly 60 years, until last week when Winchester introduced its radically new Model 88, revealed for the first time in full color on the following centerfold pages.

To appreciate the innovations of this new rifle, one must examine the two main defects of most lever actions. They are less accurate than a bolt action because their stocks and fore ends are separate parts and their actions do not have the support of the bolt action's one-piece stock. The tubular magazine below the barrel of some lever actions is no help to accuracy either. Whereas a good bolt action will group five shots in an area not exceeding two inches at 100 yards, a lever action in .30-30 caliber (by far the most popular) will do well to keep five shots within 3� inches. Because of this, and since most big-game lever-action cartridges are of relatively low velocity (Savage's .250-3000 and .300 are notable exceptions), the lever action has been considered by many sportsmen as only a 150-yard rifle, useful chiefly for shooting in thick cover where ranges are short.

The Winchester Model 88 has a one-piece stock and is chambered for the comparatively new .308 cartridge, which is a slightly shortened version of the high-powered .30-06 sporting and service cartridge. (Savage will soon introduce the .308 in its lever actions too.) Winchester's new rifle therefore possesses two long-sought improvements: accuracy and power. It also has a shortened lever throw, a unique trigger (see cut), a box magazine at the rifle's balance point, side ejection of cartridges (Marlin and Savage have long had this) so that a telescope sight can be mounted centrally on the receiver, and an unusually strong bolt-locking system. Marlin will also introduce a .22 lever action later this year (see centerfold) with several excellent features that are somewhat similar.

Bolt-action rifles have been challenging the lever action since 1879 when Winchester produced a bolt action invented by B. B. Hotchkiss, an American living in France. In 1880 Remington made the Remington-Keene bolt action and in 1899 the Remington-Lee, ancestor of the Lee-Enfield, Britain's service rifle for many years. But Americans, monogamous at heart, remained faithful to the lever action.

The true reason is probably romance. Early American gun designers developed the lever-action repeating rifle before they developed anything else. The lever action went with the men who poured across the Mississippi after the Civil War. They shot buffaloes, Indians and outlaws with it. Thus, the opening of the West came to mean romance to boys and men. The Western movie and the Western magazine serial are as standard today as the Western dime novel of the 1880s. A clich� of the day was, "Crack-crack-crack went the Winchester, and 15 Indians bit the dust." (The Model 1873 Winchester held 15 cartridges.)

What boy could resist that sort of thing even after he grew up? Besides, there were Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley. Buffalo Bill was a good deal less than his press agents claimed, but the spectators didn't know that. He spelled romance as he loped around the circus ring on an easygoing horse, with a lever action bored smooth (like a shotgun) for shot cartridges, breaking glass balls thrown to a convenient height in front of him. And Annie Oakley, looking like a little girl in her short skirts, could do anything with a lever action (her pet Model 1892 is shown on the opposite page) that Buffalo Bill could and a lot of things he couldn't. And so, the lever action lives on. Thanks to the newest developments it will probably see the turn of another century, still out front in popularity.