The Iconic Lever-Action

The Iconic Lever-Action

America’s Unique Contribution To International Firearms Design

When the Chinese invented gunpowder in the 9th Century, it was a big deal. Much flash, big bangs, and a super-cool new way of celebrating the New Year. Those were good enough for the next three hundred years or so, but eventually somebody got to wondering what else the stuff could be used for, and by the 12th Century the first crude “guns” were emerging, in the form of hollow tubes of various sizes closed at one end, open at the other for cramming in a basic mix of sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter behind stones, iron balls, scrap metal, and/or anything else the experimenter felt like throwing out the muzzle, and using a touchhole to introduce a spark, flame, or fuse.

Just as likely to explode and destroy the user as the target, the science of gunpowder and projectiles slowly progressed till it was a regular fixture for field artillery and naval applications by the 1600s, and in that time frame more sophisticated methods of igniting gunpowder, combined with the growth of industrial capability and more portable and dependable personal-carry long guns and pistols, all began to accelerate.

Skilled craftsmen produced smaller tubes a man could actually shoulder or carry on a belt, and the ignition process ran through a technological evolution from matchlock to wheellock to snaplock to flintlock to caplock to self-contained metallic cartridges, all in relatively quick succession (as the turtle travels, anyway). Barrels incorporated rifling, sights were developed and refined, gunpowder itself was improved and diversified for specific uses, and the world of personal combat on the battlefield and success in the hunting camp was transformed forever.

German matchlock musket with serpentine lock. The Museum's Schloss Glatt

German matchlock musket with serpentine lock. The Museum’s Schloss Glatt

Along the way, as with anything that works well enough to become a centuries-old institution, there were milestone standouts. The European matchlock of the 15th Century was arguably the great-great-grandpappy of today’s modern rifle, with the first practical (mostly) on-board ignition system. It allowed the gunner to keep both hands on his weapon, both eyes on his target, his muzzle from wobbling all over while touching a loose “match” (actually a smoldering piece of rope) to the flash hole, and (once lit) that match was attached to the simple lockwork and didn’t have to be carried separately or dropped and lost during the heat of battle.

Flintlock pistol detail Palace Armoury Valletta

Flintlock pistol detail Palace Armoury Valletta

The flintlock, attributed to the French in the 17th Century, is probably one of the most famous early designs known widely to gunnies today. It was simple, reliable, easily serviced, long-lived, flints were widely available and quickly replaced by the user in the field, and later versions incorporating those new-fangled lands and grooves were quite effective in the hands of colonial soldiers delivering a very clear “Thanks For Visiting, But It’s Time To Go Home Now” message to the Redcoats at Lexington and Concord in 1775.

Skipping forward, other nations have produced stand-out classics that live on in history books, private collections, museums, and still in actual use today, decades after they were introduced. In comparatively modern times, Germany gave us Peter Paul Mauser’s enduring bolt-action 1898 rifle, Georg Luger’s pioneering 1902 semi-auto pistol, and Walther’s ground-breaking double-action P38 pistol; Italy’s 400-year-old Beretta firm generated the current U.S. military M9 pistol; Great Britain produced the much-respected and long-running Enfield .303 bolt-action battle rifles, along with their distinctive Webley break-top double-action military revolvers; Russia built millions of the brick-solid Mosin Nagant bolt-action military rifles and Nagant double-action revolvers; and Austria originated the Glock pistols in 60% of our law enforcement leather. There are other historically important designs like the Swiss straight-pull Schmidt-Rubin rifle, the French Lebel’s tube-magazine bolt-action, and the Japanese Nambu pistol, all of which have their place in the Gun Designer’s Hall Of Fame, but certain models are just inherently more recognizable than others, and whether that’s due to a good design or a great press rep, the result is the same. Hold up a Luger or a Webley in front of a dozen even halfway gun-savvy people, and you’ll get a dozen nods of recognition.

And, the U.S. has earned our own place on the worldwide stage.