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Whitney Kennedy Large Frame Lever Action Rifle

It's been a long time since we've had a Whitney Lever Action Rifle on the site but this one was worth the wait. It's a Whitney Kennedy with a large frame action chambered for 45-60. Standard 28" round barrel with full magazine, crescent rifle buttplate w/ trapdoor, loop lever, and blued finish. In terms of condition, this one is probably one of the best overall examples we've ever had. It came from an advanced collector who has a great eye for guns (one of the best in my opinion). He's now reached retirement and is downsizing his collection.

The Whitney Armory: The name Winchester has become synonymous with the term "lever action" rifle. As a Winchester collector, it's easy to think of Whitney as a fallen competitor to the Winchester. That is factually correct. After all, Winchester gobbled up its neighbor, Whitney Arms, in 1888 and never looked back. Like the Spencer, the Whitney was simply one fewer competitor for Winchester. They were bought out, assets liquidated, and their designs discontinued. I tend to think of Whitney however. There is so much more to Whitney than the lever action...which was a pretty solid design by anyone's standards. In reality, the fact that Whitney was going toe to toe with Winchester in the 1880's is pretty remarkable. That last chapter is just the tip of the tail of a very large fire-breathing dragon. Whether we like it or not, all things in this world have a beginning and an end. For Winchester, the 1880's was still the beginning and a time of unprecedented growth. It was a young company that had just made the discovery of a lifetime. Way out on the edge of the frontier, a Winchester salesman had stumbled onto the path of a remarkable young inventor named John Browning. In the span of just two years, Browning sold Winchester designs to the best single shot rifle in the world and the insurmountable lever action rifle we know as the Model 1886 Winchester. It was game over for everyone in the lever action business. Whitney folded, Colt quit making them, and Marlin went back to the drawing board. Even scarier was that Browning, who was not yet thirty years old was just getting warmed up. He would go on to give Winchester two decades worth of designs so formidable that they are still being produced in the 21st century. In contrast, Whitney was coming to an end and its owner, Eli Whitney Jr., then well into his 60s had vast holdings in water, power, and real estate around New Haven, CT. For Whitney, it was truly bad timing for Browning to be unleashed upon the world but he was sitting upon a mountain of achievements that went decades longer than his original competitors, and had many other avenues to pursue.

For some perspective, in1888, the Whitneyville Armory was ninety years old...its lineage traceable all the way back to 1798 when a young Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin, was given a contract for 10,000 muskets by the US gov't. The result was the formation of the Whitneyville Armory, one of six privately owned national armories that supplied arms to the United States government. This concept of additional private national armories was spurned by President George Washington. Whitney was delivering muskets to the US gov't during the Thomas Jefferson administration. It's my understanding that New Haven, Connecticut basically formed around Whitney's armory with mill pond formed by their dam, known as Lake Whitney. The other private armories were owned by Henry Deringer, Lemuel Pomeroy, Nathan Starr, Simeon North, and Asa Waters. These armories were to supplement the two government-run arsenals at Springfield and Harpers Ferry. When the concept was abandoned in 1845 and the gov't turned away from private armories, give or take a few years, down they all went. All of them except for Whitney.

By this time, circa early 1840's, Whitney Arms was run by Whitney's son, Eli Whitney, Jr. Whitney Jr. worked hard to compete with the two remaining national armories at Harpers Ferry and Springfield. Only in his early 20s, Whitney was awarded a contract for the US Model 1841 "Mississippi" rifle. However, unlike the federal arsenals which were publicly funded and could bury their overhead, Whitney had little room to succeed in building guns to the high standards of the US gov't at a fixed cost and still be able to turn a profit. In ten years of effort, the best he could do was to break even. In order to survive, Whitney had to pursue other directions. For example, under contract, Whitney built a large frame revolver for Samuel Colt known as the "Walker" as well as some of first Colt Dragoon revolvers. He sold weapons to state governments, built machinery for British arsenals, etc. With the water power resources he possessed, he even rented some of his manufacturing space at his armory. During the 1850's, one of those renters was a young Oliver Winchester who needed manufacturing space for a small lever action pistol known as the "Volcanic". Small world, isn't it? By the 1860's, Whitney manufactured a Navy-sized revolver that saw both private and gov't purchases during the Civil War. By the 1870's, Whitney pursed a number of different avenues with breech-loading weapons including several models of lever action rifles and even pocket revolvers.

For a company formed in the late 1700's, the Whitneyville Armory had emerged during an era of blacksmith-level gun manufacturing to introduce factory assembly-line concepts that came very close to interchangeability of parts, which is remarkable. That it survived well past its contemporaries by embracing change to keep up with the times is even more amazing. This feat was accomplished by two remarkable men, a famous father and son who lived concurrently only briefly. From that expanded point of reference, with that incredible history behind what at that time would have been America's oldest gun m'fr, I don't think of Whitney ending in failure but more as a job well done. The Whitney Kennedy was a great rifle. If you've ever taken one apart, it's not unlike a piece of industrial machinery with each part individually and meticulously numbered. The lever alone must have cost a fortune to manufacture (see photo of lever extended).

If you ever want to learn an alternative history of early non-Winchester lever action magazine rifles, one of the best sources is a book titled Lever Action Magazine Rifles by Samuel Maxwell. It's out of print but older copies occasionally turn up. There is a great deal of research and information regarding the Whitney Kennedy. According to Maxwell's research, The Whitney Arms Company produced the Kennedy Lever Action rifles from approx. 1880 to 1886 with a total of 23,500 units. Its primary competitors were the Winchester Model 1876 lever action rifle and the Marlin Model 1881 lever action rifle. This particular example is probably late production as it has a fully enclosed loop lever instead of the early "S" pattern which was introduced around 1883. The caliber 45-60 was also introduced in 1883 to mirror the offering in the Model 1876 Winchester. The serial number is in the M block which Maxwell dates to March-April of 1884. Upper tang has 1873 and numerous 1879 patents. Barrel is marked "45-60" at the breech and simply "Whitneyville Armory CT, USA" forward of the rear sight.

Overall Condition grades easily to NRA Antique Fine Plus with 65% original receiver blue with loss most the result of hand-carry wear along the lower portions of the action. Bolt retains 85% original blue with the balance toned to brown. The loading port has 85% bright fire blue remaining. Barrel and magazine tube show 75-80% original blue with minor wear and patina beginning to form. Original rear sight still shows generous amounts of bright tempered blue as well as the base of the original front sight. Buttplate and forend cap appear to have been case hardened and now turned to a smooth light brown patina. The magazine tube plug was covered in dried grease which shows 90% bright case colors. Very Good screws throughout. The wood is in Fine+ Condition retaining 90% original varnish with only light handling marks. Zero chips, cracks, or repairs. The bore is Excellent...bright and shiny. The action is Excellent as well. This is a nice solid rifle that did not see much in the way of usage. A great example of a large frame Whitney Kennedy which can be had for about half the price of a comparable Model 1876 Winchester.

Item# 1703




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