Friday, January 2, 2015

Did the US Army Ever Use Lever-action Rifles? by Gordon Rottman

Cheryl mentioned that there was a blog spot open and so as to not let it go to waste, I popped in n article from my e-book, The Big Book of Gun Trivia: Everything you want to know, don't want to know, and don't know you need to know.

One often sees Western movies depicting “Yellow Legs” armed with some model of Winchester lever-action rifle, either Model of 1873 rifles or Model of 1892 carbines, which appeared after most of the Indian fighting had taken place. From 1873 to the turn of the century the Army used .45-70 single-shot, trapdoor Springfields and prior to that from 1866 the .50-70 in trapdoor Springfields. The Old West frontier army was not armed with lever-action rifles.
There actually was a lever-action rifle seeing extremely limited use by the Army though, but well after Indian fighting was past. This was the Winchester Model of 1895 rifle in .30-40 Krag. While popular hunting rifle, the Army version was fitted with a near full-length military-style stock, bayonet lug, and a box magazine rather than the usual tubular magazine found on most bolt-actions. Earlier Winchester lever-action rifles could not handle high-powered smokeless powder loads. John Browning developed the Model 1895’s stronger action for calibers up to .405 Winchester (quite able to bring down any North American big game, for which it was designed). The Army ordered 10,000 chambered for the standard .30-40 Krag cartridge in 1898 as bolt-action Krag production could not meet Spanish-American War demands. Only 100 were issued to the 33d Volunteer Infantry Regiment in the Philippines in 1899 for field-testing. With sufficient Krags available for the post-war Army the Winchesters were returned to the States in 1900 and sold off to the civilian market. The main complaint of the military Model of 1895 was that the magazine had to be loaded one round at a time with the cartridge inserted vertically in the chamber centered on the magazine follower, rotated rearward, and slid into the magazine. This was far too slow. The remaining 9,900 were sold to the new Cuban Army in 1906. Civilian Model 1895 rifles and carbines were quite popular with the Texas and Arizona Rangers, Border Patrol, Pinkerton National Detective Agency, and many law officers from the turn of the century. It was a favorite rifle of Teddy Roosevelt and many other big game hunters. The Model ‘95 was available in .30-40 Krag, .30-03, .30-06, .303 British, .35 Winchester, .38-72 Winchester, .40-72 Winchester, and .405 Winchester.
Russia purchased 300,000 Winchester military Model 1895 rifles in 7.62x54mmR in 1915 and by 1917 almost 200,000 had been delivered before a ban was placed on arms deliveries after the Russian Revolution broke out. The Russian model had charging clip guides allowing the magazine to be loaded using the standard Mosin-Nagant five-round charging clip, a feature the earlier US Army-acquired Model 1895s lacked. Some of these ended up being used by Finland during the 1918-19 Finnish Civil War and the 1939-40 Winter War, and the USSR provided many to Republican forces during the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War.
One other lever-action rifle did see limited US Army service. Owing to the severe shortage of rifles in 1917 the Ordnance Department ordered 1,800 Winchester Model 1894 carbines chambered for .30 Winchester Center Fire (aka .30-30 Winchester). These were purchased for use by the Signal Corps to arm guards in the Pacific Northwest (Washington and Oregon). They were to ensure there were no labor disruptions to spruce lumbering, a material essential to aircraft construction. The Aviation Section of the Signal Corps was then responsible for all aviation-related procurement. The Winchesters were delivered in early 1918. They were sold as surplus soon after the war and are considered collector’s pieces being known as “spruce guns,” although there’s no spruce in their woodwork. It is not uncommon for civilian rifles to be stamped with Army markings and sold at fakes, but the serial numbers can be checked to verify if a weapon was actually Government Issue.
The US Army did earlier make some use of a lever-action rifle. The Federal Government purchased only 1,500 .44-caliber Henry Model 1860 rifles early in the Civil War. The Chief of Ordnance was unimpressed by what was the most advanced rifle seeing wartime service. It was heavy when fully loaded with 15 rounds in its tubular magazine, the .44 Flat Henry cartridge could not be used in any other weapon, the rifle and ammunition were expensive, and he saw no advantage over single-shot, breech-loading weapons such as the widely used Sharps carbine. Regardless, some 10,000 Henry “Yellow Boy” rifles were produced during the war and thousands were purchased by state-equipped units and individual soldiers for $40 (privates were paid $13 a month). Soldier impressed with its high magazine capacity said of it, “The rifle that can be loaded on Sunday and fired all week.” A few cavalry units used Henry’s and nine infantry regiments from Illinois and Indiana were armed with them being purchased by those states. See ‘What was the gun that won the West?’
Lever-action rifles are said to offer a slightly faster rate of fire when compared to military bolt-actions. The main drawback is that lever-action rifles are more difficult to operate when firing from the prone position, a common firing position of the era, and when firing over trench parapets. It noticeably reduced the rate of fire from such a position. The under-barrel tubular magazine used on most lever-action rifles was not conducive to pointed military bullets and had to be loaded one-round-at-a-time; no rapid-loading charger clips. Lever-action rifles are more susceptible to dirt and fouling and most could not deal with the increased chamber pressures generated by modern smokeless powder military cartridges. They were not as accurate at long ranges as bolt-action rifles and the available cartridges, being lower powered than most of the era’s military cartridges, did not have the necessary long range then desired. Because most lever-actions ejected spent cartridges from the top of the receiver they could not mount telescopes, which was also a drawback for hunting rifles, although this was not much of a military consideration at the time. The Model of 1895 had the reputation of generating a hard kick owing to its high-powered cartridges and the design of its shoulder stock.
Lever-action rifles did play a pivotal role in warfare, however, namely the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish War. In 1877 the Ottoman Empire purchased 30,000 Winchester .44-40 Model 1873 lever-action rifles—“the gun that won the West.” Intended to be issued to the cavalry, that branch had been largely disbanded and they were issued to the infantry defending Plevna (known today as Pleven in north-central Bulgaria) against the Russians. Each soldier was also armed with an American Peabody-Martini 11.43mm Model 1874 single-shot, breech-loading rifle, the standard Turkish infantry arm. When the Russians attacked on 30 July the Turks opened fire with their Peabody-Martinis at up to 2,000 yards range cutting down the massed Russian formations as they ponderously marched toward the Turkish entrenchments. As the staggering, densely packed Russians pressed forward, on command the Turks set aside the single-shot rifles and picked up their Winchester repeaters, for which each man had been supplied 600 rounds. At 200 yards the Metmetçiks opened up a deadly rapid and accurate fire; they had been drilled well. The Russians were mowed down in droves and the attack was utterly defeated. After reinforcement in September, the Russians made another attempt using the same headlong tactics and met the same fate. The Russians lost over 20,000 troops in the two attacks. While the bolt-action rifle would become the standard for military repeating rifles, the day of the single-shot rifle was over, but its demise was heralded by a lever-action rifle.
As a side note, repeating rifles were initially rejected by armies content with conventional single-shot rifles. During the American Civil War, one of the first successful repeating rifles, the seven-shot, tubular magazine-fed, breech-loading .52-56 Spencer Model of 1860 rifle, was first turned down at the beginning of the war with the reasoning that soldiers would fire too fast and waste ammunition. There were legitimate concerns of the logistic system’s ability to keep mass armies supplied with ammunition if armed with such weapons. The development of metallic cartridges was still in its infancy were slow and expensive to produce. Some 95,000 Spencer rifles and carbines were eventually issued to Union forces in late 1863 and proved very successful with a sustained rate of 20 rounds per minute (a muzzle-loader’s rate was two or three rounds per minute). Owing to the inaccuracy of the era’s muzzle-loaders and poor aiming techniques, the Union Army estimated that 900 pounds (408 kilograms) of lead and 240 pounds (109 kilograms) of powder were required to kill one Confederate soldier—12,600 shots. Not calculated in the equation was the number of wounded, but there was generally three or four wounded per fatality, many of whom would never return to the battlefield. (A Union Springfield .58-caliber Model of 1861 rifle fired a 500-grain minie ball propelled by an 85-grain black powder charge.) The Federal Government purchased 1,022,176,474 small arms cartridges and 1,220,555,435 percussion caps during the war. That does not count cartridges and caps purchased by state militias.


  1. Was looking for the Henry's and the Spencer's used in the Civil War. It was there. This is an utterly thorough and comprehensive look at lever action rifles used by the military

  2. Thanks for filling in a blank spot, Gordo! I always enjoy your posts and this is no exception. Very interesting and informative!

  3. Great info and very appreciated. Many of my western romance writer cohorts like to write about ranchers, but I love Civil War and Indian wars at the frontier forts topics. My husband knows about guns used from the Vietnam War forward, but not as many details of historical guns. He told me to get the book you referenced. I told him, sorry! I'm getting it as a business write-off for me to use for reference. However, I assured him I would let him read it. :-)

    Robyn Echols writing as Zina Abbott

  4. Thank you for the research you do on this subject. You have given writers a much needed resource to allow them to get somethings right. Doris/Angela Raines

  5. I'm glad that you folks found it useful. I'll pop in articles once in awhile when Cheryl has a hole plugged. The articles are from "The Big Book of Gun Trivia," which has about 220 such articles.

  6. Spot on, Gordon. Now if someone in Hollywood would just read this....

    1. Absolutely, I lay awake at night thinking about who the actors should be...

  7. this is entirely army decision as to which rifle is to be used at which time.

  8. Hi, I believe the Winchesters were model 1866.

  9. Cheryl mentioned that there was a blog spot open and so as to not let it go ... While popular hunting rifle, the Army version was fitted with a near ...good reflex sight

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  11. During World War I, England purchased a small number of Winchester Model 1886's chambered in .45-90 for use against German Zeppelins that would occasionally try to bomb targets on British soil.

  12. My Grandfather bought a Marlin 45-70 lever action manufactured, according to antique Marlin serial number site around 1865,from a sale at Fort Huachuca, AZ back in the late 40's early 50's. He was told they were issued to the Buffalo Soldiers.