Airguns of the American West Part 9
The Walther Lever Action Rifle
A blending of designs that embodies “The Gun that Won the West”
By Dennis Adler
The lever action rifle has its origins in the Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson-designed Volcanic rifle, and the short-lived Volcanic Repeating Arms Company, which they sold to Oliver Winchester in April of 1857. They used the money to start S&W in Springfield, Massachusetts, and by the end of the year had introduced America’s first cartridge-loading revolver, the S&W No.1. They had also patented America’s first self-contained metallic cartridge, the .22 short rimfire in 1856, and a year prior, secured the patent rights to the bored through cylinder from inventor Rollin White. Winchester, along with Benjamin Tyler Henry, took Smith and Wesson’s Volcanic rifle design and used it as the foundation for the 1860 Henry rifle. Their new Henry lever action .44 rimfire rifle gained national fame during the Civil War and was carried by former Union and Confederate soldiers, frontiersmen, and lawmen throughout America’s post Civil War Western Expansion.
Benjamin Tyler Henry and Oliver Winchester went their separate ways after the Civil War and Winchester hired Nelson King to redesign the Henry into the improved King’s patent Model 1866 lever action rifle. The 1866, introduced 150 years ago, was the first product of the newly organized Winchester Repeating Arms Co. of New Haven, Connecticut. The rest of that story is woven into the very fabric of the American West.
Putting on airs
The Daisy lever action BB rifles have always been “Winchester” inspired including famous models like the Red Ryder, and the Model No. 107 Buck Jones, which really did have “a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time.” That’s the “made up” model that became the Red Ryder BB rifle described in author Jean Sheppard’s book and the classic 1983 film “A Christmas Story.”
A little more than a decade later, Daisy actually made an authentic looking Winchester Model 1894 lever action BB rifle using a spring action cocking mechanism incorporated with the lever. It was sold from 1996 to 1997 as the “Buffalo Bill 50th Anniversary Model” and it actually had the Winchester name on it. A very accurate looking copy of the Winchester Model 1894, it was essentially the predecessor to the first Umarex CO2-powered Walther lever action model, introduced in 2008. This first version looked almost identical to the latest model shown, with the exception of having a smaller buttplate, (which actually looks like a rubber recoil pad).
The buttplate is actually a removable rear cover used to access the CO2 loading chamber. On the first version, a separate CO2 mechanism was housed in the removable buttplate and loaded two 12 gram CO2 cartridges. Running on dual CO2 provided good velocities (average 540 fps with 8.2 grain rifle pellets and 570 fps with 7.0 grain pistol pellets) but the lever gun went through CO2 cartridges like a Texas Ranger levering a Model 1894 Winchester in a shootout with cattle rustlers. In 2011 Umarex came up with a solution by upgrading the Walther Lever Action Rifle’s power system to a single 88 gram CO2 cartridge loaded horizontally and screwed into the CO2 chamber. To accommodate the 88 gram air cartridge the buttplate had to be twice the depth of the older version. While it looks like a modern recoil pad for a large caliber rifle or shotgun, the lever action Winchesters never had them.
While not a Winchester licensed rifle, (thus no Winchester branding on the gun), the design is purely 1890’s lever action style right down to the saddle ring on the left side of the receiver. In overall appearance the lever action air rifle has the look and feel of a real .30-30 Winchester Model 1894 Carbine. It has an elevation adjustable buckhorn rear sight, and windage adjustable dovetailed front sight, with a removable hood. The stock and forend are walnut, the rifled steel barrel and magazine tube are polished and handsomely finished in a deep blue black, which is contrasted by a matte black finished receiver and tang, hammer, trigger and lever. It would be nice if these were polished as well and had the same shine as the barrel and magazine, but the flat look is pretty darn good. The quick visual tells are some minor design variations from the Model 1894, the slightly greater space between the barrel and magazine tube, and the positioning of the barrel band too far forward at the end of the forearm, rather than about 1-1/2 inches further back. And of course, the black buttplate is a bad visual, too. But there’s a quick fix for that, by making a leather cover that wraps over the butt of the rifle stock and laces tight underneath. There are a few available on the market but the Walther lever action has a pretty tall comb, so those made for a Winchester might not fit. You can also use a wrap of sheepswool tied with leather thongs, like the character Shorty Austin (played by George Eads) did with his Winchester lever action shotgun in the 2002 remake of “Monte Walsh.”
The top of the Walther’s receiver has a look very similar to the 1894, which used the same vertical locking bars designed by John M. Browning for the Winchester Model 1886. The top of the air rifle’s receiver also comes back like the bolt mechanism on the 1894 to re-cock the hammer when the lever is operated.
Internally, the airgun’s lever action is used to rotate the 8-shot rotary magazine inserted into the right front of the receiver and cock the action. This 8-round magazine is cleverly inserted by pushing in on the loading gate as though you were loading a cartridge into the magazine. Instead, the loading port for the cast alloy rotary magazine pops open. Insert the loaded magazine and push it closed flush with the receiver. You need to work the lever action to cock the rifle and ready the first 4.5mm pellet to fire.
From that point on, the air rifle operates just like a .30-30 Winchester Model 1894 Carbine. You have to work the action smartly but that becomes second nature, just like handling a cartridge-loading lever action Winchester. It also has a frame-mounted crossbolt safety, which was used on later 1894 Models. As for the sights, they are easy to use, and the Walther delivers airgun accuracy equivalent to a lever action Winchester rifle.
In comparison, a .30-30 Winchester Model 1894 Carbine (based on the current production model) with a 20-inch barrel, measures 38 inches with a 13-1/2 inch length of pull and overall weight of 6 pounds, 8 ounces. The Walther lever action has a shorter 18.9 inch barrel, slightly greater overall length of 39.2 inches with a 14-1/2 inch length of pull and weighs 6 pounds 3 ounces. The .30-30 Carbine has a capacity of 7 rounds, so the air rifle is actually one round better at 8. (Of course, with a chambered .30-30 round and another loaded into the magazine, all things would be equal). Overall, in detail and handling, it’s very close to shouldering a Winchester lever action.
Putting lead on target
Trigger pull on the test gun averaged 4 pounds, 2 ounces with 0.438 inches of take up, light stacking and a crisp break, making the rifle easy to hold on target. To test the Walther lever action I selected 4.5mm RWS Meisterkugeln Professional Line 8.2 gr. lead rifle pellets. These are 1.2 gr. heavier than the Professional Line pistol pellets. With the 88 gr. CO2 cartridge, the Carbine’s average velocity is factory rated at 630 fps with 7.0 gr. pellets. The heavier 8.2 gr. Meisterkugeln rifle pellets chronographed at an average of 556 fps to 564 fps with an ambient outside temperature of 82 degrees.
The tests were shot from a measured distance of 10 meters (33 feet) and again at 15 meters (49.5 feet) from the target. The best accuracy for 8 rounds measured 0.75 inches at 10 meters, and 1.22 inches from 15 meters. Average 8 shot groups were 1.95 inches from 15 meters and 1.1 inches at 10 meters, and overall it was easy to keep groups clustered under 2 inches at POA from either distance. Every shot was fired from an un-rested standing rifleman’s position.
While the Umarex Walther lever action is not a 100 percent accurate CO2 version of the Winchester Model 1894, it is extremely close in design and operation. With a little sheepswool, and losing the hood over the front sight, it gets even closer if you’re a stickler for Old West authenticity. Since it’s the only game in town, if you’re looking for a 19th century lever action to round out your air cowboy gear, best deal yourself in.
Coming up in next week’s final Airguns of the American West article, “The Guns of John Wayne.”
A word about safety
Blowback action airguns provide the look, feel and operation of their cartridge-firing counterparts and this is one reason why they have become so popular. Airguns in general all look like guns, blowback action models more so, and it is important to remember that the vast majority of people can’t tell an airgun from a cartridge gun. Never brandish an airgun in public. Always, and I can never stress this enough, always treat an airgun as you would a cartridge gun. The same manual of operation and safety should always apply.