For a small and quiet Maine town of the mid-1800s, Mechanic Falls had some fascinating connections with the Wild West and some other worldwide events.

It all came about with the invention of the Evans rifle, an early lever-action repeating firearm.

The story begins shortly after the Civil War, when George Evans, a Rhode Island native, was hunting on Streaked Mountain. He stopped to chat with a local blacksmith, who also was something of a gunsmith. The man showed Evans his attempt at making a repeating rifle, a highly desirable innovation, considering the cumbersome muzzle-loaded firearms of the Civil War and earlier.

The final steps of the new design had eluded the blacksmith. Evans went back to the machine shop he operated in nearby Norway and mulled over the problem. He came up with a design he was sure would work. That rifle wasn’t the first repeater, but it featured a method for rapid movement of cartridges to the chamber by a spiral mechanism — an adaptation of the ancient Archimedes’ screw concept, which stored 26 to 34 cartridges in the stock.

Evans showed this prototype to Adna T. Denison, his friend and employer. Denison was an industrialist who owned several paper mills, including a new one in Mechanic Falls.

In the annex to that mill, Evans and his brother, Warren (in some accounts, he was named Horace), began manufacturing the revolutionary design. The Evans and Denison partnership was described as a “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” proposition. Denison needed Evans’ help in new experiments for making paper from wood pulp.

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The first Evans rifle patent was issued in 1868, and the first production models, known as sporting rifles, were a hit. About 20 employees were turning out a couple dozen rifles each week in the early 1870s. It was a handsome rifle, admired for its accuracy. Gold and pearl inlaid guns were made for presentation to dignitaries and entertainers. For the sake of publicity, Old West heroes of the day were brought to Mechanic Falls for sharp-shooting exhibitions. They included William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Kit Carson Jr. and Texas Jack Vermillion. Both Cody and Carson, who was the son of the famed Indian scout, ran successful Wild West shows. Texas Jack Vermillion had gained some fame as a gunfighter.

In a history of the Evans rifles written by Charles E. Waterman for the May 3, 1937, Lewiston Evening Journal, Waterman said Texas Jack visited Denison one day in his private office, located in what was known as the store of Norton Woodsum. There was a clothesline stretched across a flat roof of a building along the riverside.

Texas Jack asked Denison if he would like to see him cut the line in half with a shot from his Evans rifle, and Denison agreed. Jack opened the window, took aim, fired and split the line in half.

That stunt stirred the imagination of the Mechanic Falls gun makers, so they set up 32 posts as targets along the stream next to the factory, and they tested guns and practiced their accuracy from the windows of the shop.

The initial popularity of the repeating rifle convinced the Maine gun makers that a fortune could be made from sales to the military. Unfortunately, U.S. Army tests found that the Evans rifle was susceptible to dust, dirt and moisture problems. It was a huge disappointment for Evans.

Undaunted, Evans and Denison toured Europe with demonstrations of the rifle. Some of the new American weapons had been sold to Turkey, and it was reported that the Russians had captured 10 Evans rifles from the Turks during the Russo-Turkish War.

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On expectations of a major sale, in 1877, the Evans plant geared up for an expansion that would double production. Before long, the venture was employing 400 to 500 men.

The government of Paraguay placed a large order, but instability of the South American country resulted in no payment being made.

Officers from a Russian ship, docked at Portland, came to Mechanic Falls and appeared to be very impressed by the rifle, but the Russo-Turkish War ended and the expected sales never came.

The over-expanded Evans Repeating Rifle Co. went out of business in 1879.

Sources of information on the Evans rifles came from a May 23, 1981, Lewiston Evening Journal Magazine Section story by Edith Labbie on inventors and from an article written by Charles Waterman of Mechanic Falls and Auburn which appeared in the May 3, 1937, edition of the Lewiston Evening Journal.

Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and a native of Auburn. He can be reached by sending an email to [email protected]


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