Repeating Arms

30 August 2012   |   by Colin Smith   |   Library

Repeating Arms


Repeating arms is a term that describes what are most commonly known as repeating rifles. Repeating rifles represent a fascinating history in firearms all on their own, contributing significantly to the innovation of many of the weapons that would follow. Repeating rifles feature a single-barrel that is capable of continuous discharges with a single ammunition reload. This is facilitated by the inclusion of multiple cartridges stored in a single magazine, either attached or within the firearm, which is then directed into the chamber by the bolt mechanism, whether manual or automatic. The chambering action of the repeating rifle typically readies the firearm for the next discharge.

When you hear someone referring to a "repeating rifle," they are likely referring to a manual, as compared to a self-loading rifle. Self-loaders utilize the blowback and recoil from the prior discharge to load for the next round. It is the ability to fire continuously that made the repeating rifle the new standard bearer for proficiency and speed in firing for subsequent firearms of a similar utility.


The concept of repeating arms is prevalent in many of the most important and innovative firearms in history. For repeating arms with a manual mechanism, there are a variety of types of action: revolver action, lever action, bolt action, pump action and falling block action. Autoloading mechanisms for repeating rifles can be categorized into the following: blowback, gas operated or recoil operated.

Here is a list of some of the most historic and important repeaters:

  • - The Henry Rifle – The original 1860 model
  • - Marlin Model 1894C lever-action
  • - Winchester Model 1894
  • - The Jennings Magazine Rifle
  • - M1941 Johnson Rifle
  • - Spencer Repeating Rifle
  • - Colt Lightning pump action
  • - Thomson Rifle
  • - Savage 99
  • - Winchester Model 1895
  • - Cookson Repeater
  • - Colt Revolving Rifle
  • - Krag-Petersson
  • - Spencer Rifle

Before the advent of repeating rifles, you might say that things were a lot different in terms of what firearms were capable of accomplishing. Repeating rifles, in many ways, changed the entire game when it came to what would be expected of “modern” firearms. Repeaters represented a critical advance over the preceding, single-shot breechloaders, which were utilized for military combat at the time. Repeating arms made possible a far greater rate of discharge, lending to more efficiency in the arena of battle.

Early repeating rifles were used during the American Civil War, with the Windbuchse Rifle having the distinction of the first repeater to see official duty. The early and historically significant Henry rifle was initially manufactured by the New Haven Arms Company and served as the basis for the Winchester Model 1866 lever-action. It was the introduction of the Winchester Model 1866 that saw the New Haven Arms Company become the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The invention of the repeating rifle is arguably one of the most critical in the history of firearms design. It is one of those landmark innovations that gave birth to countless innovations as a result. The history of firearms design and manufacture would never be the same.

The invention of the repeating rifle marked a significant milestone in the history of firearms technology, revolutionizing warfare and hunting alike. This innovative firearm design allowed shooters to fire multiple rounds in quick succession without the need to manually reload after each shot, greatly increasing their firepower and efficiency. The development of repeating rifles had a profound impact on military tactics, hunting practices, and the course of history.

The concept of a repeating firearm had been explored for centuries, but it wasn't until the 19th century that practical and reliable repeating rifles began to emerge. One of the earliest attempts at creating a repeating rifle was the Kalthoff repeater, invented by German gunsmith Andreas Kalthoff in the late 17th century. However, these early designs were often complex, unreliable, and expensive to manufacture, limiting their widespread adoption.

2023 Standard Catalog of Firearms
2023 Standard Catalog of Firearms

The breakthrough in repeating rifle technology came with the development of the "Derringer" by American inventor Henry Deringer in the early 19th century. Deringer's design utilized a revolving cylinder mechanism to feed and fire multiple rounds. While it was a significant step forward, the Derringer was still not widely adopted due to limitations in its design and manufacturing.

The true turning point in the history of repeating rifles came with the inventions of Samuel Colt and Samuel Morse. Samuel Colt, an American inventor, patented the Colt Paterson revolver in 1836. This innovative firearm featured a revolving cylinder that allowed for multiple shots without reloading. Although initially designed as a handgun, the concept of a revolving cylinder would later be adapted to long guns, paving the way for repeating rifles.

Around the same time, Samuel Morse, famous for his development of the Morse code and telegraph, patented a repeating rifle design known as the "Morse Carbine." This early repeating rifle used a lever-action mechanism to cycle rounds and fire in quick succession. Although it had limited success, it demonstrated the potential of repeating firearms.

The true breakthrough in repeating rifle technology came with the invention of the Henry rifle in the mid-19th century. Benjamin Tyler Henry, an American gunsmith, designed the Henry rifle, which featured a lever-action mechanism and a tubular magazine that held multiple rounds. The Henry rifle was not only reliable but also had an impressive rate of fire, earning it a reputation as "the rifle you could load on Sunday and shoot all week."

The Henry rifle's success led to the development of other famous repeating rifles, such as the Winchester Model 1866, also known as the "Yellow Boy" due to its distinctive brass receiver. The Winchester Model 1866 became immensely popular in the American West and played a significant role in the expansion of the United States.

Repeating rifles found their way into military use during the American Civil War, where they offered a significant advantage on the battlefield. Union soldiers armed with Henry and Spencer repeating rifles often outgunned their Confederate counterparts, contributing to Union victories.

The widespread adoption of repeating rifles continued into the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with iconic designs like the Winchester Model 1873, Colt's famous Peacemaker, and John Browning's lever-action and pump-action rifles.

In conclusion, the invention of the repeating rifle transformed the world of firearms, enhancing firepower, accuracy, and efficiency for both military and civilian users. It played a crucial role in shaping the outcome of conflicts, expanding frontiers, and influencing the development of firearms technology. The legacy of these innovative firearms continues to be felt today, as modern rifles incorporate elements of these pioneering designs. The repeating rifle stands as a testament to human ingenuity and the constant quest for improvement in technology and weaponry.

signature Colin Smith GUNCC Guest Writer
winchester repeating arms