Umarex Legends Lever Action Rifle Part 1
The Classic Winchester Model 1894 on air
By Dennis Adler
The rules were simple. They hadn’t changed in over two centuries. You had one shot with a rifle. By the mid 18th century two shots if you had a superposed swivel barrel or a double barreled fowler. Men like Benjamin Tyler Henry, Oliver Winchester, Nelson King, and John Moses Browning, among others, would change that rule beginning in the 1860s and set into motion the wheels of industry that would lead to the manufacture of the Old West’s greatest lever action rifles, the most famous of which would bear the Winchester name.
The long anticipated Umarex Legends Lever Action Rifle is the first “authentic” CO2 model based on an original design by John Moses Browning and loads the BB cartridges from the Umarex Colt Peacemakers like an actual centerfire lever action model. Furthermore, this is the same kind of cartridge interchangeability that helped make Winchester famous from the 1870s to the turn of the century with everyone from lawmen to cattlemen; one cartridge for pistol and rifle. Of course, Winchesters were offered in a variety of calibers but for the Umarex Legends the interchangeability with the Peacemaker BB (and pellet) loading rounds makes this a perfect pairing.
While Umarex has not branded this new lever gun as a Winchester, the design is very closely based on J.M. Browning’s Model 1894, which was something of an evolutionary design that had its beginning with Browning’s Model 1886. The Umarex is really a benchmark design in its own right by at last giving airgun enthusiasts a lever action rifle that loads, fires and extracts shells the same way a centerfire model would. To really understand and appreciate this new CO2 model and what it entails, a look back at the actual guns that led to this design is worthwhile. Due to the length of the story, this will be a two-part opening today and Thursday, leading into a lengthy evaluation and range tests through Saturday and into next week. Enjoy the ride.
Winchester’s evolution – From King to Browning
The most significant early designs for Oliver Winchester and the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. were the work of Nelson King (in the early1860s) and later (after 1886) J.M. Browning and Browning Bros., whose lever action designs were among the most successful ever sold by the WRA Co. Winchester’s lever action rifles played a greater role in the tales of the American West than almost any other weapon, save for the Colt Peacemaker. But even the best pistoleros knew when to pick up a rifle. Frontier lawmen more often than not chose the long gun over a face to face confrontation with pistols. Accuracy and capacity were a winning combination no matter who manufactured the rifle, but when it was a Winchester, there was a certainty that it was the best gun a man could carry.
In 1857, Oliver F. Winchester established the New Haven Arms Co. of New Haven, Connecticut, which owned patents for the Volcanic repeating rifle designs of Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson (yes, that Smith and Wesson). They had developed the Volcanic repeating rifles from an earlier but unsuccessful design known as the Jennings rifle. While working at Robbins and Lawrence (an independent gun manufacturer in Vermont) the Volcanic was developed by Smith and Wesson who then set out on their own, first as Smith & Wesson, and then with additional backing from Oliver Winchester in 1855 as the Volcanic Repeating Arms Co. The Volcanic would become the foundation for the Henry rifle and later Winchester’s Model 1866. Smith and Wesson sold out to Oliver Winchester in 1857 and used the money to establish Smith & Wesson in Springfield, Massachusetts, and pursue manufacturing America’s first cartridge loading handguns. Meanwhile, Winchester saw promise in the Volcanic design but wanted to make it more than the novelty Smith and Wesson had designed (they had initially built the Volcanic as a small caliber gallery gun for target shooting, what you could call the first BB guns using a small self-contained bullet with a light charge of powder and a percussion primer inside the base), and while it had evolved into something much more by the time Winchester bought them out with chamberings up to .41 caliber, the Volcanic was not ready for the American West.
Benjamin Tyler Henry (who had also worked with Smith and Wesson on the Volcanic) was hired by Winchester to be superintendent of the armory and take charge of redesigning Smith and Wesson’s Volcanic rifles. In October 1860, Henry succeeded, patenting the first magazine-fed, breech-loading, lever-action rifle. Vastly improved from the Volcanic’s design, the Henry gained fame during the Civil War, but was still not quite as hardy a gun as Winchester believed it could be. The Henry had flaws; an open magazine tube that exposed the cartridges and loading mechanism to the elements, a very laborious loading method, and it lacked a wooden forend to protect the shooter’s hand from the heat of the barrel generated by rapid firing, the one thing the Henry could do exceptionally well, dispensing 16 rounds before needing to reload.
It took Winchester until 1866 to build a better and more reliable model and designer Nelson King, who joined Winchester as superintendent of the armory after Winchester split from Henry in 1865. The two had battled for control of the New Haven Arms Co. after the Civil War. Henry got control; Winchester got Nelson King, withdrew his financial backing and established the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. The Model 1866, which bore the stamping King’s Patent, became the first of the legendary Winchester lever action repeating rifles. You should actually thank Smith & Wesson for creating the Volcanic Gallery Guns, without which none of this would likely have happened!
Nelson King’s improvements to the Henry included designing a loading chamber in the right side of the receiver and totally enclosing the cartridge magazine running under the barrel, thus eliminating the Henry’s greatest drawback. He even managed to increase the rifle’s cartridge capacity to 17 rounds. The 1866 was a grand success. More than 100,000 were sold over the next 32 years, but even while the brass framed 1866, popularly known as the “Yellow Boy” was still selling, Winchester unveiled the now legendary Model 1873, the most famous rifles of the American West. The variations in calibers for the 1873 eventually expanded from .22 rimfire to .32-20, .38-40 and the most popular .44-40, all of which were pistol calibers. Barrels were round or octagonal, and lengths of 20-inch, 24-inch, and 30-inch. The Model 1873 was produced until 1919 with more than 720,000 sold. Was it the gun that won the West? If sales are any indication, it won something!
In Part 2 we continue the evolution of Winchester’s lever action models with a look at John Moses Browning’s contributions leading to the Winchester Model 1894, and today’s Umarex Legends Lever Action model.