The Evans Rifle was made in several versions in the late 19th Century. It had a patent date of 1868, but production of several versions lasted from 1873 to 1879, when the company went paws up. It doesn’t look like the classical lever-action rifle — after all, this was the high-tech of the day, and they were inventing the classical lever-action as they went — but to our eyes it’s beautiful.
But what sold nearly 15,000 Evanses into a market saturated with war surplus guns wasn’t the eye appeal, but the firepower. It was the assault rifle of its age, toothsome enough even today to make, say, Mike Bloomberg wet his bed: a .44 caliber, black-powder repeater with a 34–round magazine. It resembles a hammerless Spencer, but is larger (and it has a hammer, just an internal one. Like the Henry/Winchester and unlike the Spencer, operating the lever charges the rifle and cocks the hammer. The guns were available as rifles and carbines in several levels of finish. The weapon does not appear to be as robust as its contemporary Winchester lever-actions (which had their own issues).
It was designed by a dentist, Warren R. Evans, with the help of his brother, and until the rise of Bushmaster, it was the only rifle mass produced in the state of Maine, at Mechanics Falls, to be precise. (Bushmaster is gone, decamped to Ilion, NY when a five-year stay-put guarantee to the former owner ran out; its former plant is now home to Windham Weaponry, which reminds us, we have something to say about them, soon).
The magazine forms the load-bearing structure of the butt, with wood trim above and, in the later models, below, to make it resemble a traditional rifle. The magazine is the most unusual feature of the Evans, and is often described as a rotary magazine. It isn’t, really; you see rotary magazines in the Savage 99, the Johnson 1941, and the Ruger 10-22, and you can see they’re nothing like the Evans. The Evans mag is more properly called a helical mag; it moves the cartridges towards the breech with an Archimedean screw. In this, it resembles the Calico, the Russian Bizon,or various Chinese and Nork AK mags.
The Evans was not, then, an evolutionary dead end, although it was dormant for a century. There is some proof those later inventors were aware of it (two Calico patents cite Warren Evans’s patent). There’s never been a reproduction, even though at the time the gun was well-received and was endorsed by none other than Indian fighter Kit Carson. Fortunately for collectors, Evans Rifles are well-represented on the market. With about nine to twelve main variations, a complete collection of Evanses is not an unattainable goal, for someone that wants to have a really unique collection.
Several antique dealers have Evanses in stock; as pre-1898 antiques they can ship without legal formalities to most states and even some foreign nations. One such dealer is antique-arms specialist Jimmy Amburn, whose Evanses can be seen here; he also informs us he has an extensive supply of spare parts.
The Evans fired one of two proprietary .44 caliber cartridges, and this article (whence we lifted the magazine photo) has some vintage case-making and loading rules of thumb. We’d be very surprised if anyone has fired one of these in a long time. Then again, if we had one, or Ian at Forgotten Weapons did, you bet your life we’d shoot it. With a string, first time.
An Evans is reportedly a challenge to the gunsmith’s art. One of its little peculiarities is that it has quite a few screws and almost no two are the same length — but they are all the same diameter and thread. This kind of design is just asking for bad assembly, given the sheer quantity of Bubba The Gunsmiths who have had the chance to handle these in the last 1.2 centuries or so. This may be why Evans rifles in pieces, or pieces of Evans rifles, are less rare than intact examples. The springs are also prone to fatigue and overload failure, and the mechanism in general is intolerant of Bubba’s gorilla-grip approach.