In a perfect world, form would follow function. Or maybe it’s that function would follow form? In other words, items should be designed with the design being an integral part of what the item was designed to do. For example, a knife with a rounded tip would be a better butter knife than a clip point hunter. A Bowie knife is, by the very nature of its design, a poor choice for a steak knife as it is meant for rough work, like chopping camp wood, digging cat trenches or even mortal combat. A small folding knife is designed for more benign domestic chores, like opening envelopes.
Firearms are no different. A Boys anti-tank rifle is not a thing of grace and beauty unless you need to stop an armored column, then its harsh mechanical appearance is lovely. Conversely, as much as low end, single-shot rifles demonstrate the concept of practical utility, more expensive, high end, single-shot rifles epitomize the evolved grace of firearms, most of them embodying many artistic concepts in the mating of wood to metal. Likewise do lever action rifles.
Ironically, those examples of lever-action firearms that cover the design spectrum from basic crude utility to refined beauty mostly predate the 20th century and yet, many models are still present today basically in their original forms or close to it. The Winchester Model 94 or the Marlin Model 39, in one form or another, come to mind. However, to my mind, one lever-action rifle stands head and shoulders above the rest, design, beauty and function-wise. That rifle is the Savage 99 lever-action sporting rifle.
In place of the exposed hammer, common to most every other lever action firearm, the Savage design uses a concealed, spring loaded, firing pin. The gently curving receiver completely encloses the action, adding strength where it is needed to the receiver and designed to prevent escaping hot gases from a ruptured cartridge (a common occurrence in early cartridge firearms), from striking the shooter’s face. Conceived, designed and manufactured initially in the early 1890s by Arthur Savage, a Jamaican-born Scotsman, expressly in response to the anticipated demand for high pressure smokeless loads soon to come to the firearms industry, this subtle sculpture of curves allowed even the first Model 99s (first called the Model 1895) to digest with ease higher pressure cartridges than any of the competition, (excepting the clumsy and clubby Winchester Model 95 with its protruding magazine) was able to handle.
Then there is the magazine, that portion of the firearm designed to hold several cartridges in reserve and, upon demand, feed those cartridges into the chamber for firing. Most lever action rifles of the period used tubular magazines located beneath the barrel to hold cartridges in reserve. The Savage did not. Nor did that ugly duckling the Winchester M95.
Unlike the clumsy Winchester 95s, the Savage 99s subtly enfolded their magazine into the interior of that gracefully sculpted action. The revolutionary, rotary-spool magazine was a significant departure from the barrel mounted loading tubes of the rest of the lever action firearms. Granted, the rotary magazine idea was likely borrowed from the famous Austrian Mannlicher bolt action rifle’s magazine design, first used in 1879.
However, the marriage was a good one, enabling the Savage Model 99s to use both round-nose and pointed-nose bullets safely, unlike the tube fed Winchesters, Marlins, Kennedys and other lever action firearms. For safety, the rest of the lever-action rifles, minus the Winchester Model 95s, were restricted to ballistically challenged, flat-nosed bullets.
The Savage Model 95 rifle, designed by William Arthur Savage and patented in 1893, was initially designed with the American Navy in mind. Ultimately rejected by the military, it was redesigned and renamed as the Model 99 in 1899 and was a success with hunters, trappers and explorers. In the hands of men like the renowned adventurer, Roy Chapman Andrews and the internationally known Christian missionary Rev. Harry Caldwell, it killed more than its share of Mongolian and Chinese bandits and big game, including Indian elephants and man-eating tigers.
The Savage 99 introduced the iconic .22 Savage high power, the .250-3,000 Savage and the .300 Savage, a round designed by Savage to compete with the ubiquitous .30-06 in a package three-quarters its size. Half a century later, the rifle was chambered for the newly introduced .308 and .243 cartridges. Doing so only required lengthening the action a few hundredths of an inch, nothing further. Before the decade was over, the rifle also hosted the .358 Winchester, the 7mm-08, and, if memory serves, the ill-fated .284.
Unfortunately, at roughly that same time, the current heads of production at the Savage factory decreed an end to that famous rotary spool magazine that was a Savage standard for over three-quarters of a century. Newer Savage lever action Model 99 rifles were redesigned to be fed cartridges by a detachable sheet metal magazine inserted from the bottom of the action.
Eventually, due to high production costs, manufacture of these fine rifles ceased during the mid-1990s. Still, the older Model 99s in .300 Savage or a .243 or .308 Winchester in decent shape for around $600-$1,200 can still be found on local gun show tables.
I’ve been a fan of the design for over 50 years and although I’ve never owned a Model 99 in .22 high power or one in .358 Winchester or .38-55, 7mm-08 or .284, I have tagged a lot of game with models in .30-30, .303 Savage, 32-40 (those were the original chambering back before 1900), .250-3000, .300 Savage, .243 Winchester and .308 Winchester. All of those rifles were accurate, easy to carry and a joy to own. Where they went, and why, is a mystery only a physic could explain.
Maybe we can just chalk it up to brain farts. I seem to have a lot of those these days.