When firearms buffs hear the names Samuel Colt, Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson, they think of both the gun designer and the manufacturers that bear their name . Ditto Oliver Winchester. Little known fact: the man behind the Winchester rifle didn’t begin his career in the firearms business. He was a shirt manufacturer. Furthermore, the lineage of the”Gun that Won the West” — the Winchester lever action rifle — predates Winchester’s involvement by almost a decade.
The .54 caliber Hunt Volitional Rifle is the earliest direct ancestor of the Winchester lever action rifle. Walter Hunt of New York designed the long gun, applying for a patent on September 17, 1847. Almost two years later the U.S. Patent Office issued the paperwork. The Hunt Volitional Rifle’s most notable feature: its 12-round under-barrel magazine (a characteristic any lover of all things West knows well).
The Hunt Volitional Rifle was the second firearm to be patented with a tubular magazine; the Patent Office issued the first just six months prior. Because of its unusual design, the Hunt Volitional Rifle was difficult to manufacture. It never went into production. This is the only known example; a prototype.
Gun designer Lewis Jennings took Hunt’s magazine and improved on it with his Jennings Repeating Rifle, manufactured by Robbins & Lawrence. Horace Smith was hired to improve the Jennings Rifle; Smith worked with Daniel Wesson to patent the Smith & Wesson Magazine Pistol in 1854. In 1855, they sold their patent to Oliver Winchester. The rest, as they say, is history.