The lever-action repeating rifle is an American icon, and Winchester has long enjoyed the reputation of being its premier manufacturer. However, though Winchester made fine lever-action rifles, the company did not make the finest. Many would argue that the late 19th century Marlin designs were better, and their side ejection of spent cases made more practical sense than Winchester’s manner of throwing them back into the shooter’s face. I would argue that Marlin cannot lay claim to the accolade “best lever-action repeater” any more than Winchester. It is true that Winchester and Marlin captured the majority of the lever-action rifle market in the 1800s, but neither firm ever offered a gun as fast shooting or as superbly crafted as the Bullard.
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In the 21th century, the Bullard repeating rifle is largely forgotten. Like the Betamax videocassette recorder and the 1948 Tucker automobile, the story of the Bullard Repeating Arms Company is one of those ironic business sagas where a product’s clear superiority simply isn’t enough to make it a success in the marketplace.
The Bullard story begins with the inventor, James H. Bullard, who was born in Vermont in 1842 and made Springfield, Massachusetts, his home. The industrial revolution was transforming that city into a thriving center of manufacturing, and James Bullard possessed an inventive genius that made him a man in great demand. From 1877 to 1880, he worked as an engineer for Smith & Wesson with Daniel B. Wesson himself. They developed four patents together. During this time period, he also submitted patents for his own ideas for lever-action and single-shot rifles, ammunition cases and improvements of the Winchester toggle-link design. The later patent was probably to obstruct improvement of the Winchester 1866, 1873 and 1876 rifles that he viewed as the main competitors to his repeating rifle design.
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James Bullard’s patents for firearms and ammunition were only a small part of his overall achievements. He patented many inventions, from sewing machine needles to a steam-powered car, in a career that was a crazy hopscotch of work for various manufacturing firms and self-employment. Rarely did he spend more than a few years at any job. The pattern of his work history suggests a man of immense imagination and curiosity who was more interested in creation than the hum-drum discipline of business management. When James Bullard formed what would later become the Bullard Repeating Arms Company, in Springfield, Massachusetts, in1883, the position he chose for himself wasn’t president or treasurer, but plant manager. He had never run a large business but had experience in factory manufacturing. To what degree his lack of experience or interest in upper management affected the company’s success is hard to judge. In mid-1885, James Bullard left the company he created to pursue other interests. By January of 1891, the Bullard Repeating Arms Company closed and sold off its assets, leaving behind a legacy of greatness that might have been in the estimated 2,500 repeating and single-shot rifles it produced.
Unique Lever Actions
Compared to its Winchester and Marlin competition, the Bullard lever action was exceptionally well made but somewhat complicated. The rifle’s action was without peer for speed and smoothness because of its inventor’s patented rack-and-pinion design. It also provided great leverage for extraction. The action is so smooth that the lever can be worked and the rifle cocked with just the pinky finger. The round bolt is locked into the receiver before firing in a manner similar to a Remington rolling block, and I see a superficial resemblance to that weapon.
The Bullard had the typical tubular magazine of the day, but it was loaded from underneath the action, much like a modern pump shotgun. It was also easily loaded from the chamber if the shooter wished to fire single shots and hold the full magazine in reserve. Naturally, magazine capacity varied depending on barrel length and caliber.
There were two frame sizes for the repeaters. The small frame handled cartridges below .40 caliber, and the large frame was built for .40 caliber and up. James Bullard developed seven cartridges of his own design for his rifles. They were the 150-grain .32-40, 190-grain .38-45, 232-grain .40-70, 258-grain .40-75, 300-grain .40-90, 290-grain .45-85 and the 300-grain .50-115. The cartridges had their merits, but they probably didn’t really help rifle sales. I’ll bet finding a box of .40-90 Bullard on the shelf at the general store in 1886 was only slightly more likely than it would be for you to find it in your local gun shop today. In fact, the company chambered the rifles in just about any caliber the customer requested.
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It seems the Bullard repeaters were never really mass-produced but rather made to order upon customer request. Collectors have observed that no two seem to be alike, and repairs to the rifles require replacement parts to be hand fitted. The company was essentially building customized rifles of the highest quality, and that is a costly proposition. Winchesters and Marlins were great guns for practical people. By comparison, Bullards seem too beautiful and well made to be practical. It is a case of the perfect being the enemy of the good enough. Bullards even used decorative scalloped end caps on their forends. Where Winchester simply screwed an access plate to the side of their receiver, Bullard designed his to be inlet into the receiver and fit flush with its surface, giving the rifle a graceful and clean appearance. It is so finely fitted that you could easily fail to notice it.
The question that arises is, “Was the Bullard just too good for the marketplace?” It probably was. In 1885, a Bullard rifle’s starting price was around $38. A Winchester Model 1876 rifle cost closer to $25. With that difference in price, you could buy a new Colt 1873 pistol. How effectively potential consumers were made aware of the existence and virtues of the Bullard rifles is subject to debate. The company’s advertising included printed catalogs, distributors and traveling salesmen who demonstrated the rifles around country. Ultimately, less than 2,500 guns were sold, so either the company failed to attract the upper end of market from its competitors or that market wasn’t really there. The general state of the American economy may have played a role, too.
Bill’s Own Bullard
The rifle I examined for this article is in the collection of the Frazier History Museum in Louisville, Kentucky. Given to William “Buffalo Bill” Cody in 1885, it was actually part of the Bullard Repeating Arms Company’s promotional efforts. While handling it, I couldn’t help but feel a connection with the larger-than-life hero, scout, hunter, Indian fighter and showman. The exact circumstances of its presentation are unknown, but Cody visited James Bullard at his home in 1885, when his Wild West show was touring the area. Cody had been in show business for about 10 years by then, getting his start in 1869 when Ned Buntline made his exploits the subject of a serial story in New York Weekly titled “Buffalo Bill, the King of the Border Men.” The story led to a stage show, and by 1883, the same year James Bullard founded his rifle company, Cody founded Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.
By 1885, the potential value of a celebrity endorsement of the magnitude of Buffalo Bill was immense. Cody would soon become the most recognizable American celebrity in the world thanks to his nearly ceaseless tours in the United States and Europe. What, if anything, Cody did to promote the Bullard is lost to history. He was presented hundreds of guns during his career, and I have to question the extent to which he could realistically promote the interests of so many diverse manufacturers.
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The large-frame Bullard rifle given to Cody is magnificent, both in manufacture and preservation, and it is currently on exhibit at the Frazier Museum for you to see. With serial number 282, the rifle has a 28-inch, octagonal barrel and a 49½-inch overall length. Typically massive, it weighs a robust 9.5 pounds. The weight helped absorb the recoil of the powerful .40-90 Bullard cartridge it is chambered for. That cartridge was more than sufficient to handle buffalo or any other game animal in North America. The magazine held 12 rounds. The hard rubber buttplate depicting a bull elk was used on all large-frame Bullards. It has a thin, Rocky-Mountain-style front sight and a Winchester-style buckhorn rear sight for precision aiming. The receiver, barrel and magazine are blued while the lever, hammer and trigger are color casehardened. The cartridge carrier, concealed inside the action, is bronze. The smoothness of the action lived up to my expectation in every respect, and the trigger was crisp. Bullard rifles had a reputation for accuracy as well as speed and should have held great appeal to professional hunters.
The artistic enhancements on this rifle are many, including elaborately checkered, fancy striped grain stocks, engraved border decorations and punch-dot edging, engraved foliate arabesque patterns on both sides of the receiver and a spectacularly detailed silver inlay buffalo head on the receiver tang.
A Strong Case
Because of their rarity, few will ever see a Bullard repeater up close, much less hold or fire one. Still, all of us enjoy a small part of the Bullard repeater’s legacy in the form of the solid-head brass cartridge cases we fire in our weapons today. Blackpowder-era balloon-head cartridge cases have always been somewhat weak around the head. James Bullard invented and patented the first solid-head cartridge case, which also happened to be rimless, in the form of the powerful .50-115 Bullard for his rifles. The Bullard lever action didn’t survive long enough to become known as America’s premier big-game rifle, but a little bit of it lives on to this day.
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This article originally published in the Winter 2016 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.