American Rifleman features Uncle Dan’s Guns

American Rifleman features Uncle Dan’s Guns

McIntosh, Michael

Lefever Arms shotguns are comparatively scarce today. Part of the reason is that Lefever made only about 63,000 guns, but more important is that those who own one are not inclined to part with the guns that “Uncle Dan” built. aniel Myron Lefever was one of two authentic geniuses in the American gun trade of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Though neither as prolific nor as versatile as John M. Browning, Lefever was a brilliant inventor whose contributions to the development of the American breechloading shotgun have scarcely been equalled. He invented actions, fastening systems, cocking systems, ejectors, single triggers and more. He even, to a certain extent, invented himself.

Dan Lefever was born August 27, 1835, in Ontario County, MY By his own account, quoted from the book Famous Men of Central NewYork and in his gun catalogs, he apprenticed to the famous riflesmith William Billinghurst of Rochester, N.Y., and “walked eleven miles through the snow in April of 1848 to learn to make guns.”

A romantic image, certainly, and one accepted by several generations of writers and historians, myself among them. It came from the great man himself, so why not?

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Research during the past few years has revealed several reasons why not-including the fact that not one shred of documentary evidence exists to show that Dan Lefever ever worked for, or with, William

Billinghurst. According to the best information available so far, he learned his craft during an informal apprenticeship to William Cutler of Canandaigua, N.Y He did, however, learn to make guns, and that much is beyond dispute.

In 1856, he went to work for Canandaigua riflesmith Robert Antis, and bought Antis’ business the following year. During the following 20 years in Canandaigua, Auburn and finally Syracuse, Lefever earned a widespread reputation as a riflemaker, both for rifles made from scratch and for his work in converting muzzleloaders to breechloaders. That period also was the beginning of a series of partnerships that marked his entire career. Virtually all of them came to be because Dan Lefever was in constant need of investors, and none of them lasted very long. Even his last partnership with his own sons ran anything but smoothly.

Dan Lefever saw the future with remarkable clarity. As early as 1867, when the break-action breechloading gun was still in its infancy, he began tinkering with a top-fastener system that used a rib extension and a bolt linked to a rocker-type thumbpiece on the top tang. He earned a patent for it in June 1878.

In its first incarnation, “The Celebrated Lefever Hammerless Gun,” as he called it, used both the top fastener and an underbolt that engaged a bite in the barrel lump. Borrowing a concept, but not the mechanics, from WW Greener, a lever on the side of the action cocked the locks. For all this, Lefever received a patent in June 1880.

It was an advanced design for its day, and it caught the eye of other makers. Austrian maker H.A. Lindner, at the time building guns for Schoverling, Daly and Gales of New York, made a number of side-cockers on Lefever’s patent and sent them to the United States under the Charles Daly marque. Lefever’s own output from 78 Water Street, Syracuse, amounted to about 3,000 side-cockers in 8, 10 or 12 gauges, and possibly, in 14,16 or 20 gauges as well. They came in six grades: E, D, C, B, A and AA.

By 1883, Lefever had revised and refined the design, enough to make mass production eminently viable. In June 1884, he signed papers of incorporation to create Lefever Arms Company, and the following year the new gun replaced the side-cocker entirely. It was called the Automatic Hammerless, and it was Dan Lefever’s masterpiece.

The new design did away with the side-lever in favor of a cocking system that uses leverage from the barrels-a concept patented in 1875 by Anson and Deeley that ultimately became the world standard. The self-cocking feature accounted for the “automatic” part of the Automatic Hammerless name. Although the revised version retained the thumbpiece latch, the underbolt was discarded, and the fastening system relied solely on the rib extension and top hook. Within a few years, the thumbpiece itself was gone, replaced by a more conventional top lever.

All told, the Automatic Hammerless is possibly the most innovative-and certainly the most adjustable-double gun ever.

Lefever called it the “compensated action,” a gun so cleverly designed that virtually every aspect of the action can be adjusted, and almost every type of wear corrected, with nothing more than a screwdriver.

Instead of a conventional crosspin-and-barrel-hook hinge, Lefever’s barrels pivot on a ball-and-socket joint. A heavy, tempered screw, rounded at one end, is fitted into the end of the action bar. The rounded end protrudes into the action slot and matches up with a socket milled into the front of the barrel lump. Should either ball or socket wear enough to loosen the joint, it can be tightened by setting the screw deeper. There’s also a patented feature in the fore-end iron that helps keep the action tight. And to compensate for wear on the sides of the barrel lump, the lump is split lengthwise and fitted with a tapered set screw. Seated deeper, it spreads the lump enough to refine the fit.

The cocking system is typical of Dan Lefever’s genius. The heart of it is a cocking hook in the action-bar slot; it engages a cross-pin on the barrel lump so that opening the action raises the hook, which actuates the cocking rods, which in turn rotate the tumblers into bent. Besides lending a high degree of mechanical advantage, it removes any stress on the action joint because the fore-end iron plays no part in cocking the locks.

The cocking hook serves two additional functions. The top is rounded, can-like, and acts as a primary extractor to nudge fired cases a quarter-inch or so out of the chambers; that puts less stress on the ejector system. The hook also serves as a check to dampen stress on the joint should the action be opened with unusual force.

The cocking levers can be synchronized; trigger pulls are adjustable to as light as 2 lbs.; and the safety can be converted from automatic to manual-all by the turn of one screw or another. Even the bite between the top bolt and rib extension is adjustable.

Although the Automatic Hammerless is fitted with sideplates, it is not a true sidelock gun. Early on, from serial numbers of about 2000 to 2500, some lockparts are mounted on the plates and the rest to the frame. After approximately No. 2500, all parts are fastened to the frame, in boxlock fashion. The sideplates remained, but only for appearance and as a ready means of access for cleaning and repair.

In 1889, the Automatic Hammerless was available in eight grades-from F, at $75, through E ($100), D ($125), C ($150), B ($200), A ($250), AA ($300) to the splendid Optimus, at the thenprincely sum of $400. By the standard of the day, Lefever’s guns were spendy indeed.

In the early years of Lefever Arms, the company continued converting muzzleloaders to breechloaders and built double rifles, side-by-side combination guns and drillings, all upon special request.

By 1890, Dan Lefever had more partners, particularly the Durston and Howlett families who were both prominent Syracuse businessmen. As with all the other partnerships, the arrangement was not destined to last-but it lasted longer than most.

The business itself did rather well in the 1890s. The Ideal or G Grade was introduced in 1892; at $75, it was intended as a utility gun, and in time it proved to be the best-selling grade of all. At the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893, an Optimus Grade was awarded

First Premium and Diploma.

Two more grades appeared in 1899. The I and DS (for Durston Special) grades were identical except for the grade stamps; the I Grade probably was made exclusively for Schoverling, Daly and Gales, the great New York sporting-goods emporium.

The partnership shoe finally dropped in 1901, when Dan Lefever, now known throughout the gun trade as Uncle Dan, left Lefever Arms for good. Ironically, he would spend the rest of his career building guns in direct competition with the Lefever Arms guns that bore his name. The new guns, and the catalogs that advertised them, all bore the claim “Not Connected With Lefever Arms”-a claim not entirely true because Uncle Dan kept his stock in Lefever Arms Co.

Nonetheless, he and three of his five sons were in business together by December 1901, under the style D.M. Lefever & Sons. Don’t look for any guns so marked, because the four of them engaged in so much wrangling over how the company should be organized that they never built a single gun under that name. Around March 1902 they brought in Samuel S. Hale as business manager, changed the style to D.M.

Lefever, Sons & Company, and finally got around to actually making guns.

It was called the New Lefever, and it’s as much a gem as the Automatic Hammerless. It’s a box-frame gun without sideplates, but shares many design features with Lefever Arms guns-the ball-and-socket hinge, multi-function cocking hook and numerous adjustments that could be made by the turn of a screw. The fastener is a Greenertype crossbolt and rib extension. The safety is a roller instead of the typical sliding thumbpiece.

I referred to a “box-frame gun” for good reason. Some New Lefevers are true boxlocks, with lockparts fastened to the frame itself, but others were made on the Blitz-action principle, in which all the lockparts are mounted on the trigger plate. The most famous example of this approach is the roundaction gun invented in the 1880s by John Dickson & Son of Edinburgh, and still built today by David McKay Brown. It has become the signature Scottish gun of modern times.

In any event, the 1902 catalogue shows the New Lefever available in seven grades, all ejector guns in 10, 12, 16 and 20 gauges, barreled in Damascus or Krupp steel, stocked with straight, half-hand, or full-pistol grip. Grades ranged from 8E at $75, TD ($100),6C ($120), 5B ($150), 4AA ($220), 3 Optimus ($300) to the lavish

Uncle Dan Grade, highly engraved and inlaid with gold, for $400.

Lured by offers of capital and manufacturing plants, the Lefevers moved west-to Defiance, Ohio, in 1904 and to Bowling Green, Ohio, in 1905. With the move to Bowling Green, the style changed to simply D.M. Lefever Company.

According to the 1905 catalog, grades 7D and 3 Optimus were discontinued, replaced by two bottomof-the-line grades-O Excelsior at $60 and 9F at $90. That catalog also lists an optional single trigger, although one-trigger guns probably were available earlier. Uncle Dan designed his first single trigger in 1898, and he and his sons patented about a half-dozen other designs throughout the following years.

The 1905 publication also shows an entirely new gun-the D.M. Lefever single trap gun. There is no description of the mechanics apart from noting the famous Lefever ball-and-socket joint; the terse copy simply says it was available in 12 ga. only, with barrels from 26″ to 32″.

At the time, trapshooting was in transition from live pigeons to clay targets-thus still evolving from a two-shot to a one-shot game. All of the important American makers eventually offered purpose-built single-barrel trap guns, but so far as I know, Lefever was the first. And it also is probably the rarest, as production amounted to perhaps two dozen, certainly no more than 50.

In April 1906, Uncle Dan, 70 years old and suffering stomach ulcers, sold the company to his erstwhile partners, Messrs. Chidester, Thurston and Hickox. He and his son George moved back to Syracuse, where Dan Lefever died on October 29, 1906. The Lefever Company struggled on until 1908 and then closed down for good. No one knows exactly how many D.M. Lefever guns were built, but the best estimates place the total at around 1,200.

Back in Syracuse, Lefever Arms Company was faring reasonably well. The gun was still Dan Lefever’s Automatic Hammerless, virtually unchanged. The 1913 catalog, the last issued, lists guns in 12 grades, five gauges, and at prices ranging from $37 to $1,000.

The latter figure referred to the Thousand Dollar Grade, introduced about 19 10. No illustration of it appeared in any Lefever Arms literature because, as the catalog says, “This grade is built to suit any special requirement of the shooter and is the finest gun that can be made at any price. ” Certainly, it was the most expensive American shotgun of the time, and would remain so until A.H. Fox announced its GE Grade, at $ 1, 100, in 1922.

Unlike Fox and the GE, Lefever Arms actually did build some Thousand Dollar Grades-at least two and possibly one or two more.

An economic recession in the early 1910s eroded the market for sporting guns, and the outbreak of World War I in 1914 did nothing to relieve the situation. The Durstons held on until 1915 and then sold Lefever Arms to Ithaca Gun Company.

Ithaca revived the Lefever name in 1921, but for a sturdy, Ithacadesigned boxlock, not the classic Automatic Hammerless.

It’s been gone for better than 80 years, but it may not be gone forever.

When Stephen Lamboy acquired rights to the old Ithaca doubles in the late 1990s, Lefever came as part of the deal. Now that Ithaca Classic Doubles is up and running, turning out lovely new Ithaca guns, a revival of the Lefever Automatic Hammerless may be just over the horizon.

That would be a boon to those who love the American classics, because the old Lefevers can be damnably hard to find. For one thing, Lefever Arms’ total production amounted to only about 63,000 guns-minuscule compared with Parker, Fox, Ithaca or L.C. Smith.

The real reason, though, is that those who own one or two aren’t inclined to part with them. There is some unique and endearing Americana in the guns that Uncle Dan built.

Copyright National Rifle Association of America May 2002

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