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. One of the most famous lever-action firearm is undoubtedly the Winchester rifle, but many manufacturers- notably Marlin and Savage- also produce lever-action rifles. While the term lever-action generally implies a repeating firearm, it is also sometimes 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, produced 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 buttstock, a trend followed by most tubular magazines since.
Lever action rifles were used extensively by irregular forces during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. Typically, these were Winchester or Winchester copies of Spanish manufacture.
John Marlin, founder of Marlin Firearms Company, New Haven, Connecticut, introduced Marlin's first lever-action repeating rifle as the Model 1881. Its successor was 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 Savage Model 99 lever action sporting rifle, also of .30 caliber. The former two models, and various copies of them, make up the bulk of the lever-action rifles made by the company, while the somewhat odd .303 Savage cartridge (not interchangeable with the military .303 British cartridge in any way) gradually eroded the Model 99's popularity and production was eventually abandoned.
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.
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 pump-action design would be much better for a shotgun. Initially chambered for black powder shotgun shells (as was standard at the time), the Winchester Model 1901 was a later model chambered for 10ga smokeless powder shotgun shells. Their popularity waned after the introduction of pump-action shotguns such as the Winchester Model 1897, and production was discontinued in 1920. Modern reproductions are (or have been), however, manufactured by Norinco in China and ADI Ltd. in Australia, while Winchester continued to manufacture the .410 gauge Model 9410, effectively a Winchester Model 94 chambered for .410 gauge shotgun shells, until 2006.
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 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 centerfire 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 (soft-tipped Hornady ammunition made for tube-fed rifles avoids 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 may be undesirable to some shooters. Nevertheless, many of the newer lever action rifles by Marlin are capable of shooting groups smaller than 1 minute of angle, comparable to most modern bolt-action rifles.
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 are also 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. 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, .45-70, .45 Colt, .32-20 Winchester, and .22 caliber rimfire. Lever-action designs using stronger, rotary locking bolts (such as the Browning BLR) are usually fed from box 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.