Winchester Lever-Action Rifles, by Martin Pegler, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, United Kingdom, 2015, $18.95
Whether you recall its distinctive shick-shack-boom from childhood Western matinees or have had the pleasure of cranking your own lever-action rifle, there’s just something unforgettable about the sound of a Winchester. It’s either wholly reassuring or downright chilling, depending on whose hands are working the lever. From its origins in the rimfire .44 Henry and debut as the Model 1866 “Yellow Boy” the Winchester has held a romantic reputation in American lore as “The Gun That Won the West.” In his new treatise for Osprey, Martin Pegler argues convincingly the rifle has earned its legendary status.
“They were the first examples of their genre,” he writes, “they changed the perception of what a firearm could do, they sold in the hundreds of thousands and continue to be made to this day, and they spawned imitators, creating a huge collector network. Moreover, they became the industry standard for film and television, resulting in the exposure (some might say overexposure) to the public at large on a scale far beyond that of any other firearm.” Judging from the iconic cover image of a youthful John Wayne cradling his trademark Model 1894 carbine with large loop lever, Osprey agrees with the latter assessment.
Pegler opens with the development of the lever-action mechanism, honed through such crude predecessors as the Volition, Jennings and Volcanic and realized in the Henry, the brainchild of Winchester gunsmith Benjamin Tyler Henry. The author then steps readers through the successive improvements in the Model 1866 (hinged loading gate), 1873 (steel receiver), 1876 (lengthened, case-hardened receiver), 1885 (John Browning’s falling-block action), 1886 and 1892 (with Browning’s successive refinements for high-pressure loads), 1894 (strong, compact and still considered by many the perfect game rifle) and, last but not least, the 1895 (which swapped the tubular magazine for the modern box magazine). Oliver Winchester himself missed most of the iterations, having died in 1880, but his company survives today, if in trademark only.
In the second half of this compact book Pegler traces the use of Winchesters from the Civil War through the Indian wars, by “both sides of the law,” as a perennial favorite of American hunters and in the arsenals of foreign armies. He closes with a look at the practical, commercial and cultural impact of the Winchester lever-action rifle, which while arguably “overexposed” on film, was truly a “milestone in firearms development.” Those who love to lever these rifles, or watch Wayne or Jimmy Stewart wield one on-screen, will enjoy this colorfully illustrated pocket history of the Winchester.