Starting in the mid-1800’s metal cartridges made repeating rifles possible. The most famous of these was the model ’94 (1894) Lever Action Winchester. This was most common in .30-30, which is still available today.
This is the type of gun seen in westerns set anytime after 1870, and well beyond. The style was the basis for the sidearm carried by the character Zoe in the science fiction TV show, “Firefly.”
To load it, a single round is pushed through a small gate on the right side (right as it’s held in a firing position). The round slides forward and into a tube magazine located under the barrel. The second round stacks up behind the first so the bullet of the second rests on the primer of the first. It was very important that only flat nosed bullets be used. The pointy ones could set of the primer of the round in front of it, and that would be bad. Not quite crossing the streams bad, but “Hey I need to count past five, can anyone loan me some fingers?” bad. If one round went, odds are the rest of the magazine would go with it.
Once the magazine is loaded, a lever under the stock and behind the trigger is pushed down with the back of the fingers on the firing hand. This causes a block to slide straight back from the chamber, opening the chamber and ejecting the spent shell, if any. This action also cocks the hammer.
When the lever is returned, the slide comes forward, scoops a loaded round out of the magazine and inserts in the chamber. The total time to reload can be well under a second.
Sights were kept simple, using a rear notch mounted on the back of the barrel, though some may have had a tang sight as with the bigger, single shot rifles of the time.
Because the operation is so similar, I also want to mention that the same tubular magazine was used in pump action rifles (see the shotgun entry) and a specific semi-automatic here.
The pump substitutes a hand cranked slide in place of the lever operated one, but is otherwise the same.
The semi-automatic is loaded the same way, through a gate in the side or bottom, and into a tube magazine that runs under the barrel. Chambering a round is done with a small handle on the right side, but after the first round is loaded, each shot works the slide in the exact same way described in the semi-automatic pistol section, or the lever section above. The only other difference is the hammer is inside the action and not visible on the outside. The one we had was chambered in .44 Mag., but I’ve seen others in larger rifle calibers, like .444 Marlin.
In either action, this would be the type of gun a guide or hiker might carry for protection against bears or cougars in a remote area of the western US. They are light and have few things sticking out that might get caught on something. They would be less useful in a modern firefight simply because of the time it takes to reload the magazine. Still, the lever action rifle was the assault rifle of the late 19th century.