The Other Old West Repeaters
Winchester May Have Enjoyed The Most Success
In The Market, But The “Red W” Had Many Competitors.
Elsewhere in this issue is my article on Winchester’s 19th century lever guns and the vast array of black powder cartridges developed to go with them. As synonymous as the name Winchester has become with Old West rifles and carbines, there were many other repeaters around then too. Companies with names like Burgess, Bullard, Colt, Evans, Whitney Kennedy, Marlin and others produced repeating rifles and carbines in an effort to compete with Winchester.
Some such as Marlin were reasonably successful to the point that their basic designs are still being produced today albeit in somewhat altered forms. Others such as the Burgess “wrist-pump” rifles (and shotguns) are mere footnotes to repeating arms history.
Winchester’s basic concept was simple. Six Winchester models from 1866 to 1894 had tubular magazines hung beneath the barrel, were loaded via a port on the action’s right side, and contained exposed hammers. Burgess, Colt, Kennedy and Marlin repeaters all were knock-offs of Winchesters in one way or another. All had tubular magazines beneath their barrels and exposed hammers. At least the Colt Lightning was a pump action, whereas Marlins and Kennedys were also lever actuated.
One other factor shared by all Winchester’s competitors was a particular cartridge. It was the .44 WCF, although the other companies chose to label their repeaters otherwise. Marlin was the outfit that came up with the .44-40 moniker that we all use nowadays. They weren’t about to label their guns “Winchester Centerfire.” Colt just put a big “.44 CAL” on their Lightnings. Kennedy stamped theirs “.44 CAL C.F.” meaning centerfire.
The first competitor with Winchester in regards to a repeating lever gun was a collaboration between Andrew Burgess, a firearms designer, and Eli Whitney, a manufacturer. The latter man viewed a prototype developed by the former and together they decided to buck Winchester’s premier position. As they developed their new lever gun Mr. Burgess and Mr. Whitney incorporated a patent for a cartridge lifter belonging to Samuel V. Kennedy. Thusly the name “Kennedy” was stamped on the new rifles and carbines along with “Whitneyville Armory” but for some unknown reason Burgess has been left out.
Hence these guns are known to collectors today as Whitney-Kennedys. They were made both as sporting rifles and as saddle ring carbines with 24- and 20-inch barrels respectively. Both octagon and round barrels were options for rifles but only round for carbines. Two shapes of levers are found on Whitney-Kennedys. One was a traditional type finger loop and the other is an odd S-shaped lever. A friend owns a Whitney-Kennedy with the S-lever, which I have fired some. It is very awkward to someone used to finger loop levers.
The company that came closest to rivaling Winchester was Marlin and, since Winchester Repeating Arms is a dead duck now and the Marlin Company still exists, perhaps they won out in the long run. There isn’t a nickel’s worth of difference in the function of lever guns from the two outfits except that starting with their Model 1889, Marlin lever guns throw their fired cases to the side instead of straight up. It’s a small point but significant in that a fired case will sometimes drop right back into a Winchester’s action after being tossed straight upwards.
The fact that Marlin lever guns (starting with the Model 1889) flung empty
cases to the right instead of straight up was considered a selling point.
Duke has fired a friend’s Whitney-Kennedy with its odd S-shaped lever and found it awkward.
This is a Burgess “wrist-pump-action” .44-40 belonging to one of Duke’s friends.
It is functioned by pulling backwards on the handle on the stock’s wrist.
It has often been written that Colt was scared off of getting into the lever gun market by Winchester’s threat to get into the sixgun market. If so the Colt officials weren’t too frightened because they developed a pump action rifle and carbine that not only used Winchester’s cartridges but could be fired faster than a lever gun. It was suitably named the Lightning.
I’ve owned several Colt Lightning rifles and carbines in both .38 and .44 calibers and in truth they are faster firing. In fact you can hold the trigger back and pump the thing and spray bullets all over the countryside. It’s just that you’re not going to hit much that way. Colt’s Lightning did give Winchester a good run but with its relatively fragile mechanism it wasn’t ever going to supplant lever guns.
The oddest Winchester competitor I’ve ever fired was the before-mentioned Burgess “wrist-pump” action. Talk about an odd duck. Instead of having a sliding handle under the barrel that the operator pulls rearward to function the gun, this Burgess designed repeater has its pump handle over the stock’s wrist. It is pulled back to open the action and then pushed forward to close the bolt on a loaded round. It was awkward in the extreme the first few times I tried a friend’s because my left hand instinctively tried pulling back on the forearm. By consciously willing my hands to operate in conjunction to one another I finally was able to make the Burgess rifle function. It never caught on and such rifles were probably only made as prototypes. However Burgess wrist-pump-action shotguns were made and sold in at least minor quantities.
Some Winchester competitors were little more than ideas such as the Burgess wrist-pump while some such as Marlin’s many variations were true competitors. Perhaps that competition was what kept Winchester busy during that era in coming up with new designs chambering entire new lines of cartridges.
By Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos By Yvonne Venturino