RIA: Whitney-Kennedy Lever Action Rifles

Eli Whitney Jr., son of the inventor of the famous “cotton gin”, ran the Whitneyville Armory for many years, producing a wide variety of firearms until nearly the end of the 1800s. Among other gun produced was the Whitney-Kennedy lever action rifle, based on an action designed by Andrew Burgess. From 1880 until 1886, about 23,500 of these rifles and carbines were manufactured. Their most distinctive visual feature is the unique serpentine operating lever, although this was replaced with a more traditional looking lever towards the end of production.

28 Comments

    • Hello,
      I have an 1883 Whitney Kennedy Lever Action with double set triggers. It has an octagonal barrel. The stock is nice and the finish is quite rough. Just how much are these rifles going for. How much was that gun selling for for it’s parts?
      Thanks,
      Eric

  1. The most likely reason that Andrew Burgess’ name wasn’t attached to the Whitney-Kennedy was that by 1883, Burgess was at Colt’s designing the Colt-Burgess lever-action rifle;

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colt-Burgess_rifle

    The Colt-Burgess used a toggle-lock similar to the Winchester, which resulted in a patent lawsuit. In the end, Colt and Winchester agreed to stay out of each others’ patch, with Colt sticking to making handguns and Winchester sticking to making long arms.

    Hugo Borchardt designed a couple of prototype revolvers for Winchester, which may have helped persuade Colt to agree to stop trying to break Winchester’ lock on the rifle market.

  2. (Picking up where the &($!@?! page reloading cut me off…)

    In 1886 Whitney put out their last lever-action, the Whitney-Scharf. This was basically a Colt-Burgess copy with the toggle-type lock. It replaced the hinged, spring-loaded loading gate with one that was slid forward by a finger tab, and was thus an even bigger aggravation to operate than the original.

    Both versions were tactically inferior to the Winchester’s King loading gate, which could be used at any time to “top off” the magazine by just shoving a round into it, no matter whether the lever was open or shut.

    Less than 2000 Whitney-Scharf rifles were made before Winchester closed Whitney down in the 1888 buyout. Today, they are considered more desirable than the base Whitney-Kennedy due to their rarity.

    The Colt-Burgess and Whitney-Whoever rifles are interesting today, but in their own time they were considered less desirable than a Winchester or Marlin. They were definitely less practical “fighting” rifles.

    cheers

    eon

    • As no factory records exist, I and several other Whitney collectors have been recording serial numbers and configurations of Whitney lever action rifles for the past 30 + years. You can find this list by going to Eli Whitney Museum And Workshop web site. Click on Museum, go down to Permanent Installations. Click on The Gun Collection. Within this site you will find this information. Also, I have published a book detailing the manufacture of these guns, titled “The Burgess Long Range Repeating Rifle Model 1878”. You will find this list included within it.

      • “As no factory records exist, I and several other Whitney collectors have been recording serial numbers and configurations of Whitney lever action rifles for the past 30 + years.”
        Thanks. Data for Whitney-Scharf allow to estimate number build using GERMAN TANK PROBLEM, for mathematical explanation click here:
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_tank_problem
        What we need to use is formula:
        N ≈ m + (m/k) – 1 where N – total number, m – maximal serial number observed, k – numbers of observation, for our problem it is:
        m = 1964, k = 111
        so:
        N = 1964+(1964/111)-1 ≈ 1981
        This formula can be applied to other situation where we known random serial numbers and want to know overall number of things, as long as:
        -serial numbers starts from 1
        -numbers are subsequent (no gaps in numeration)
        -each number is assigned to EXACTLY one rifle
        I am not sure how apply this formula as serial numbers here can contain letters

    • The use of interchangeable parts actually began in Europe, specifically Britain, in the late 1700s.

      Before that there were “sheet-made” parts for various things ranging from guns to clocks. Such parts were made as nearly alike as possible using jigs, etc., but required final hand fitting.

      In 1798 Henry Maudsley and Marc Isambard Brunel were contracted by the Royal Navy to modernize the block works at Portsmouth, England. “Blocks” were the wooden things with metal pulleys used in the rigging of sailing ships, and there were a lot of them on a square-rigger; a 74-gun Third Rate needed about 1400.

      In the interest of keeping the fleet in operation, the Royal Navy wanted standardized blocks that could be produced less expensively than by hand. Brunel and Maudsley came up with machines that could be operated by 10 unskilled workers to cut, shape, and assemble wooden blocks and pulleys to the tune of about 100,000 or so a year. By comparison, it took 20 skilled blockmakers to hand-make 10,000 blocks in the same period of time.

      About fifty years earlier, a French gunsmith named Honore’ le Blanc had conceived a system of fully-interchangeable parts to make muskets for the French Army, but since at the time that was the job of skilled craftsmen who didn’t want to be displaced, he couldn’t get any backing in France even with Louis XV trying to keep up his father’s (Louis XIV) army.

      In 1797 he suggested it to Jefferson, then U.S. ambassador to France. Jefferson suggested it to Whitney Sr.,and a contract was let in 1798 for 12,000 muskets. (By this time news of the block-works at Portsmouth had reached the new U.S. Navy Department, and they were interested in the idea as well.)

      Whitney spent three years tooling up, and managed to fulfill the contract by 1807. At the same time, John Hall and Simeon North were producing muskets and rifles by the same method, having arrived at it on their own. How much they were influenced by le Blanc, Brunel, and Maudsley will probably never be known for certain.

      BTW, Brunel went on to become a well-known civil engineer in Britain, building the original Thames Tunnel among other things, and being knighted as a result. His son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, was also a noted civil engineer and designer of steamships, notably the “Great Britain”, “Great Western”, and the outsized and supposedly jinxed “Great Eastern”, that still managed to lay the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marc_Isambard_Brunel

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isambard_Kingdom_Brunel

      See also Connections by James Burke, chapter 5, “The Wheel of Fortune”.

      cheers

      eon

      • L. T. C. Rolt in his “Tools for the Job” wrote:

        “Like many another new development from this time forward, the idea of interchangeable manufacture originated in Europe but was first fully and successfully exploited in America.
        It was latent in the Brunel/Maudslay block machinery, but the ship’s block was a simple assembly of pulley and sheave and the object of the machines was simply to produce more of them; ia a degree of interchangeability was achieved in the process it was coincidental and was not turned to account.
        On the other hand, in the case of the military firearm all the conditions favouring interchangeability were present.
        It was a relatively complex assembly of precision components and it was required in large numbers of uniform design.
        [b]Three attempts to produce interchangeable firearms were made in France, [u]the first, about which nothing is known, in 1717,[/u] the second by the gunsmith Le Blanc in 1785 and third in 1806 by J. G. Bodamer at small factory at St. Blaise in the Black Forest.[/b]
        Thomas Jefferson, who was American minister to France in 1785, made it his business to visit Le Blanc’s workshop and reported to his government on what he saw there. Le Blanc handed him a box containing the parts of fifty musket locks arranged in compartments.

        [i]I put several of them together myself [wrote Jefferson] taking pieces at hazard, as they came to hand, and they fitted in the most perfect manner. The advantages of this, when arms need repair, are evident. He effects it by tools of his own contrivance, which at the same time abridge the work, so that he thinks he shall be able to furnish the musket two livres cheaper than the common price. But it will be two or three years before he will be able to furnish any quantity.[/i]

        Of Bodamer’s attempt at St. Blaise this was said:

        [i]Instead of confining himself to the ordinary process of gun-making by manual labor, Mr. Bodamer invented and successfully applied a series of special machines by which the various parts–more especially those of the loc–were shaped and prepared for immediate use, so as to insure perfect uniformity and to economise labour.[/i]”

        ps. same author states that:

        “in 1888 the historic plant was sold to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company [b]who used it for the production of their famous .22-calibre repeating rifle[/b].”

  3. Ian, you say always “…if you take a look at the description text below..”, but however,
    the description text is always above the video 🙂

    Congratulations for your excellent presentations and your deep knowledge on firearms
    and their history!

    Well, i have a good (i think..) and very old question, since i was a child and watching
    westerns.
    My question applies to this type of guns, where the magazine is a tube, beneath the
    barrel.
    In this type of magazine, the projectile of each cartridge touches the primer of the
    cartridge in front of it. Isn’t this dangerous at the moment of shooting??
    Probably it’s not, since this system is widely used, but why?
    Especially when the magazine is fully loaded, the inertia of all cartridges is considerable.
    All cartridges are forced to move backwards by the body of the gun at the moment of
    shooting and they react due their inertia. So, each projectile hits the primer it touches
    in front of it. The first cartridge accepts the bigger hit in its prime. due the whole
    inertia of all other cartridges behind it.
    So, how it’s avoided a “chain fire” of all cartridges within the magazine? (except
    the cartridge at the receiver side edge of magazine).

    An other example of guns with this type of magazine is the hunting carbines. In this
    case however, the plastic cartridges (crucified in front) do not have a projectile.
    So, in the level i can understand these things, there is no problem.

    Could you please provide a detailed explanation in my (old..) question?

    Thanks in advance

    • George, I’m not Ian (obviously), but I am an expert on firearms and have the degree to prove it.

      You are exactly correct about the danger of recoil-induced detonation in tubular magazines. When a bullet nose rests against a primer in front of it, recoil force can cause the bullet to indent the primer, acting exactly like a firing pin impact. Result- BANG.

      This is why virtually all centerfire cartridges intended for rifles with tubular magazines are never loaded with pointed-nose (spire-point, etc.) bullets. It is specifically to avoid this sort of accident.

      The classic .30-30 Winchester, for example, is loaded with bullets ranging from 140 to 175 grains. All of which have flat or rounded noses. (A flat nose on a bullet is properly called a “meplat”, BTW.)

      Older blackpowder rounds such as the various Winchester and Remington straight-cased cartridges in calibers from .40 to .50 also had flat-nosed bullets. Partly because that was just the way bullets were “supposed to look” back then, but also because many of them were to be used in tubular magazine rifles, such as the Winchester Model 1876 and Model 1886.

      Some rifles and cartridges were designed with built-in safety features to allow the used of pointed bullets in tubular magazines. The French M1886 “Lebel” military rifle was originally designed to use a rimmed cartridge (the 8 x 50R) wit a round-nosed or semi-flat-nosed, full-metal-jacketed bullet.

      When a spire-pointed bullet was introduced in 1894 to improve downrange performance (less aerodynamic drag, so greater retained velocity and energy), the cartridge case was redesigned with an annular recess or “dish” in the cartridge case head around the primer.

      The purpose of this ring-shaped recess was to “catch” the nose of the bullet in back of each cartridge in the tubular magazine, and keep it from resting against the primer of the round ahead of it.

      The old Remington Model 141 Gamemaster pump-action rifle was chambered for the .30, .32, and .35 Remington cartridges, all loaded with pointed bullets. Its magazine tube had an odd spiraled indentation near the front. This was to cause a slight “twist” in the position of the specially-shaped magazine follower that caused the cartridges to lay at a slight angle inside the magazine tube, just enough to keep the bullet points from contacting the primers.

      Rimfire rounds, of course, don’t have this problem. So round nosed bullets as in .22 rimfire, or even pointed bullets as in the old Remington 5mm Rimfire Magnum, are perfectly safe.

      That said, some older, largebore rimfire rounds, like the .44 Henry, were usually loaded with flat-nosed bullets, more to make sure the rimmed cases lay as straight as possible in the tube to reduce the chances of a feeding jam. (Yes, they do happen on occasion). This was why the Henry round was often referred to as the “.44 Henry Flat”.

      The only major safety problem with tubular magazine rifles is this; never leave a tubular magazine loaded for a long period of time. First of all, it weakens the magazine spring, just as with any other spring-driven magazine.

      Second, and more importantly, over time the spring pressure will tend to compress the cartridges lengthwise. Since the only part that really can be “compressed” is the bullet’s position in the case mouth, the bullets will be pushed back into the cartridge case.

      This reduces the space available inside the case over the powder charge. If that space is reduced enough, you can get very serious excessive pressure on firing.

      Excessive enough to cause a case-head separation, or in some of the higher-pressured rounds (like the Remingtons) you could potentially have a bolt blowout, or at the very least find out what those gas-relief holes in the bolt are there for.

      Properly used and cared for, a tubular-magazine rifle is one of the safest and most reliable repeating arms there is. especially lever actions and pump-actions.

      But just like any other firearm, they have to be treated with respect, and fed the type of cartridges- and bullets in those cartridges- they were designed for.

      I hope this answers your questions.

      cheers

      eon

      • Tubular magazine was used on wide variety of second half of 19th century European repeating rifles, as bullets were round-nosed there was no problem with explosions in magazines, just to name few:
        Swiss Vetterli rifles
        Norwegian Jarmann M1884 rifle
        German Gewehr 1871/84 rifle
        Austrian Kropatschek rifle
        French Kropatschek rifle
        Portuguese Kropatschek rifle
        Norwegian Krag–Petersson rifle
        French Fusil Modèle 1886

        “This is why virtually all centerfire cartridges intended for rifles with tubular magazines are never loaded with pointed-nose (spire-point, etc.) bullets. It is specifically to avoid this sort of accident.”
        Did anyone tried to just use spitzer bullet and case with very long neck, so whole bullet would be hidden (as in 7.62 Nagant)? In this case next cartridge would rest against neck, so it should prevent any unwanted explosions (and case-bullet disintegration). Additionally it is possible that existing fire-arms could be adopted to firing such cartridge with only modification to chamber.

        • For a rifle cartridge an inside bullet like 7.62x38R Nagant would make the cartridge case more expensive and also somewhat more difficult to reload, so it probably does not make much practical sense. Tube magazines went out of fashion for other than hunting rifles at the same time spitzer bullets became commonplace, so there has not been too much incentive to experiment. But when you think about it, a shotgun slug is basically what you suggest, and slugs have become, if anything, more popular in recent decades.

      • “Excessive enough to cause a case-head separation, or in some of the higher-pressured rounds (like the Remingtons) you could potentially have a bolt blowout”
        Wait, I found description here: https://gunsmagazine.com/remington-models-14-14-12/ about Remington Model 14 which states that:
        Pedersen’s solution to eliminating the possibility of detonations in a magazine tube caused by pointed bullets in contact with the primer of the cartridge ahead was ingenious. He shaped the Model 14 magazine tube with a spiraling flute. The effect was threefold. (…) Third, it prevented the setback of bullets in the neck of the case and the deformation of softpoints under the forces of recoil.
        My understanding is that cartridge are locked (stationary) to magazine, so there is no force acting between cartridges, and thereof ramming bullet inside case is not possible at all. I’m right or wrong?

        Anyway Remington Model 14 will stay as masterpiece of weapon designing in RIFLE/REPEATING/PUMP-ACTION category, for me looks that Pedersen does anything he could to make this rifle as safe as possible – it feature emergency gas vent (which double as caliber mark), wouldn’t fire if action is not fully closed. This rifle don’t only looks goods, but so far I know got positive feedback from users.

      • Eon, thanks for verifying what I presumed (and eventually found online). I bought a repro Henry .44 lever action, and the very first thing that I noticed was the little pointy ends resting against the primer of the round in front. I immediately thought, “this is a very bad idea”, and switched to flat-nosed bullets. I learned the very odd word “meplat” not long afterwards 😉

        Actually, in some cases a meplat can be of small enough diameter to still be a concern. I won’t load it with anything where it’s smaller than the diameter of the primer.

    • The Whitney-Kennedy gate was blocked by the locking lever and elevator when the bolt was in battery. This was different enough from the King patent to avoid trouble initially.

      Later, there was a dispute with not Winchester, but Colt, over the loading gate, because it was designed by Andrew Burgess and patented in his name, and he used it on the Colt-Burgess lever-action. This was the reason the Whitney-Scharf used a sliding, non-spring-loaded loading gate, different from both the King and Burgess designs.

      cheers

      eon

      • The loading gate on the Whitney-Shcarf is spring loaded exactly like the gate on the Colt Burgess. This gate was part of an 1873 patent by Burgess. They are so similar that disassebled and laid side by side they appear almost interchangeable.

  4. Between the Winchester’s toggle-locking lever system and the Whitney-Burgess/Kennedy’s “L-shaped block” locking system, which do you think is stronger mechanically? I’m sure both are perfectly sufficient for the calibers they’re chambered for, but I’m simply curious from a design perspective.

    • The Winchester system is probably stronger. It’s very similar to the toggle-locking system of the Maxim machine gun, Parabellum (Luger) pistol, etc.

      With the black powder rounds these rifles were designed for, either one is strong enough, as you say. But when smokeless powder began to be used (late 1880s), there was a need for stronger locking systems.

      If you look at the breech system of a Model 1894 Winchester (now made by Mossberg, BTW), you will see that the bolt is locked by a rising block that comes up behind it when it is in batter, wit two “bars” that slide in a pair of vertical mortises in the back end of the receiver.

      This locking system was designed by John Moses Browning, and first used on the Winchester Model 1886 lever-action, and then on the Model 1892. (Both of which are still made in replica form by Rossi/Taurus, Browning, and others.) A Model 1892 or Model 1894 is basically a “reduced-scale” Model 1886, in this respect.

      This lockup was specifically intended to deal with the higher pressures of smokeless-powder ammunition. It’s why the .30-30 WCF has been so popular for over century. It reached out far, and hit hard, just like its bigger-bore, black-powder forebears, because the breech could handle much higher operating pressures.

      BTW, the reason that most “old time” cartridges still loaded today, such as .44-40, etc., are loaded to relatively low velocities even with smokeless powder is to avoid trouble if they are used in a 100-year-old-plus gun originally built for black-powder ammunition.

      For that matter, even built with modern metallurgy, etc., some of the rifles, etc., built for “Cowboy Action Shooting” are best used with either black-powder loads or very low-pressured smokeless-powder ammunition.

      Their designs were intended for ammunition generating relatively low pressures by modern standards, and it’s really nor fair to feed, for instance, a Cimarron Colt 1851 Navy Richards Conversion in .38 Special modern-day “+P” rounds.

      It might stand up to it. Then again, it might not. Either way, better to be safe than sorry.

      Ruining a good gun- and maybe yourself- isn’t worth it.

      cheers

      eon

      • It must be noted, though, that pretty much all replica guns manufactured in a CIP country are designed to pass CIP proofing. This includes the Italian replicas and others. That means 25% or 30% (pistol and rimfire cartridges) pressure over the nominal average maximum for the cartridge listed in CIP specifications. For example the .38 Special that means no less than 1,950 bars or about 28,000 PSI (using CIP transducer method). Even factoring in the different measuring methods, that is a high end +P+ pressure by US nomenclature. The gun of course does not have to take a steady diet of such ammunition, but the testing requirements still provide a considerable safety headroom, although .38 Special is a pretty extreme example.

  5. Very interesting reading, I did find a couple things I think might be in error –
    _______

    [i]”The Colt-Burgess used a toggle-lock similar to the Winchester, which resulted in a patent lawsuit.” [/i]

    The Burgess design had a lot of differences from the Winchester and even if it didn’t the patent for the toggle link would have been long expired by this time – patents are in effect for 17 years and the toggle link goes way back to the Smith & Wesson pistols, the Volcanic’s anf the Henry. All other sources about this make no mention of any patent issues or legal issues, Winchester just didn’t want the competition in rifles and had to ‘persuade’ Colt to stop.
    _________

    [i]”In 1886 Whitney put out their last lever-action, the Whitney-Scharf. This was basically a Colt-Burgess copy with the [b]toggle-type lock[/b]. “[/i]

    The Whitney-Scharff did not use a toggle link, it had a locking bar in the bolt body that pivoted down to lock on the rear of the receiver just under the bolt. Similar type locking was later used in in the Burgess shotguns, the Marlin hammer pump shotguns and the Marlin Hammer pump 22’s.

    Link to Scharf Patent – https://patents.google.com/patent/US354757
    Link to Burgess patent – https://patents.google.com/patent/US524800
    Link to the Marlin shotgun – https://patents.google.com/patent/US561226
    Link to the Marlin 22’s – https://patents.google.com/patent/US882561

    Frank Teising did design a toggle link action for Whitney that copied the Winchesters very closely, there was at least one of these made that was still in the possession of Teising’s family as of a few years ago – https://patents.google.com/patent/US191196
    ________

    And an opinion –
    [i]”Ian Lutz
    February 18, 2016 at 2:19 am · Reply

    Between the Winchester’s toggle-locking lever system and the Whitney-Burgess/Kennedy’s “L-shaped block” locking system, which do you think is stronger mechanically? I’m sure both are perfectly sufficient for the calibers they’re chambered for, but I’m simply curious from a design perspective.” [/i]

    I have to go with the Whitney-Kennedy system, the Whiney-Burgess-Morse used the same locking and was only made in 45-70 Gov. Several sources say when Winchester brought out the 1876 it was originally designed with the idea of chambering it for 45-70 Gov with hope of getting some military contract but it was found not feasible to do so with a toggle link system so they chambered it in their 45-75, which may sound more powerful, but had a much lighter bullet then the 405 grain in the 45-70 and caused much less force on the action. The 1876 was also chambered in 50-95 but I do not know how that would compare in pressure with a 45-70.

    In the Whitney-Burgess-Morse and Whitney-Kennedy the bolt is hinged and is similar to a toggle link system when locked with the two jointed parts in line directly behind the chamber, you can see the joint in this patent – https://patents.google.com/patent/US224994

    The Whitney-Burgess-Morse (which had to be loaded with the action closed) had a weak lifter that was redesigned by Kennedy to make the Whitney-Kennedy (which had to be loaded with the action open). Here is the Kennedy patent, it also shows the different location of the hinge in the bolt used in guns for cartridges shorter than the 45-70 – https://patents.google.com/patent/US215227

    The short & long cartridge guns all had almost identical size receivers and just had the bolt hinged in a different location to create a different length stroke.

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