The History of Lever Action Shotguns


Shotguns are one of the oldest firearms in existence and likely the most versatile weapon, used by civilian and military personnel since the 1600s. Its first iterations were based on firearms at the time: short muskets loaded through the muzzle- the blunderbuss, fowling piece, scattergun, and arquebus. Lever action pieces came much later.

Early History

Early gunsmiths and sportsman didn’t differentiate between rifles and shotguns until after 1776. The British Army used a muzzle-loading smoothbore firearm called the Brown Bess musket from 1722 to 1838. Colonial armies used firearms that had shorter barrels than the typical musket. They also started loading several buckshot with the musket balls into their smoothbores. The term “shotgun” was first used by American novelist James Fenimore Cooper in one of his novels to describe this distinct way the colonists loaded their weapons.

Eventually, manufacturers produced weapons specifically designed for buckshot.

The 1800s

Shotgun development progressed quickly in the United States after independence. By 1875 several options existed for the shotgun. It could be breech-loaded and have a double-barrel. Types of ammunition included shells or cartridges containing pellets or shot.

In 1887 Winchester Repeating Arms made another significant development in the history of the shotgun by equipping it with a lever action.

The Winchester

Winchester had long been known for their lever action rifles but wanted to expand their product line to include shotguns. At the time, Winchester was a very popular brand and manufactured some of the best lever action rifles on the market, so it made sense that his new product would be as similar to his existing line as possible. The company employed John Moses Browning for the task of engineering his creation, despite Browning’s insistence that pump action would be better.

The final design was marketed in 1887 and named for that year, the Winchester 1887. It weighed 8 pounds and came with either 20-inch or 30-inch barrel. The Winchester 1887 was available in 10-gauge or 12-gauge calibers. It included rudimentary sights by our standards- a single bead on the front of the barrel. This 1887 line stayed in production for 14 years and produced nearly 65,000 units.

Winchester’s subsequent lever action shotgun model, named Model 1901, capitalized on recent technological changes at the time. The 1901 had a fortified barrel so it could handle new smokeless powder shells instead of black-powder shells. It was also equipped with a trigger block to prevent accidental discharge.

It was offered only as a 10-gauge so as not to compete with the Winchester 12-gauge pump action shotgun.

Though both the Model 1887 and Model 1901 were well-made firearms, neither were exceptionally popular. Lever action shotguns simply couldn’t compete with the ease of pump action. Only 14,000 units of the Model 1901 were sold, and the design was shelved in 1920.

Cultural Popularity

Despite their apparent commercial failure, these shotguns are highly visible in pop culture. Classic western shows and movies are the most obvious, but they’re also found in more contemporary cinema such as The Professionals,  Sherlock Holmes, and Ghost Rider.

Most notably, the 1887 was used by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in the movie Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Video games have helped keep this firearm in our collective consciousness by mimicking the reload cycle seen in that movie.


The original patent and copyrights for Winchester’s shotgun ran out in the 1980s, and a few companies began manufacturing their own lever action shotguns.

Lever action shotguns are for sale online through IFA Tactical. We carry a wide selection from companies like Century Arms, Taylor & Co, and Chiappa Firearms.