... the simple precision of a peep sight, the blue of barrel steel, the name Winchester when you were in America...

The Bushwhacked Piano by Thomas McGuane

The name Winchester is known not only in America, but throughout the world, as one of the largest and oldest firearms and ammunition manufacturers to date. The company was originally made famous by their Model 1873 lever action rifle, the gun that won the west, up to their finest in bolt action rifles and shotguns. It is a company that has, as of this writing, 140 years of existence in one form or another. Winchester can refer to either ammunition, a business that was to develop later and through at least one major merger; or, it can refer to the actual firearms produced, rifles and shotguns. While the two different facets of this company are intertwined, we are only concerning ourselves with the actual firearms side of this juggernaut of the firearms industry.

To begin, the company started not as Winchester, but as the Henry Repeating Arms Company.

The Early Years (1850's)

Oliver Fisher Winchester was not an engineer like John Moses Browning. Browning, a devout Mormon, was born and raised in what was basically a machine shop of the time. Winchester was not raised in such a fashion and had no machining or gunsmithing background of any kind. It is unusual, then, that a man such as he would have eventually been the man responsible for making Winchester the company it is today.

Winchester himself was a manufacturer of men's clothing in Boston when he first invested in what was called the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company. This initial investment was in a company that had on its board Horace Smith and D. B. Wesson, and the pistols of that company were manufactured under their joint names as Smith & Wesson. This company was not profitable and was eventually reorganized as the Henry Repeating Arms Company.

The Henry rifle was ahead of its time; it was a repeating rifle. In other words, the rifle was able to shoot as quickly as the operator could work the action. This was not the first example of the lever action rifle, made famous in Western movies of the 1950's and 1960's, but it was the best of its era. The idea of a repeating rifle was not new; it was also seen in the Spencer rifle. However, the Spencer rifle was not nearly as quick in its operation as the Henry. The Henry Repeating Arms Company was eventually moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut (eventually ending up in New Haven, Connecticut) and was renamed the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. This was due to Oliver's large loan to the company, said company was eventually sold to him to cover the cost of his original loan.

It Comes into Its Own (1860 to 1900)

With one solid leader at the helm, the lever action rifle was refined after the end of the American Civil War. The first rifle introduced by the company was the Model 1866. Widespread acceptance of this rifle in addition to its quick operation made for a revolutionary change in rifle design. Gone were the days of single shot rifles and shotguns. While not an automatic weapon by any means, the idea of getting more shots into the air and towards the enemy was not lost upon governments of either that time or the time we are in today.

Oliver Winchester died in 1880, having financed a non profitable company into one that was world renowned, and, at the time, approached $1 million dollars (US) in annual sales. Needless to say, that is a strong figure for the time.

During this period, Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill Cody were in part responsible for the advertising of the company (indirectly, at least), as both used Winchester repeating rifles for their respective shooting matches and exhibitions.

Eventually the rifle was refined into the finest in lever action rifles, the Model 1894, so named for the year it was designed. This was the first lever action rifle that would fire a smokeless cartridge, the famous .30-30 Winchester. It is commonly said that this cartridge and rifle are responsible for harvesting the largest amount of whitetail deer in the continental United States.

This period of the company saw the development of lever action rifles and shotguns, though it is unheard of today to imagine a lever action shotgun, except for perhaps a more novelty than practical firearm, like the .410 bore lever action shotgun which was introduced a couple of years ago.

It was also during this period that Winchester purchased the rights and patents from the ingenious mind of John Browning. Eventually, Winchester would produce the following firearms based on Browning designs:

  • Model 1885 Single Shot "High Wall"
  • Model 1886 Lever Action Repeating Rifle
  • Model 1887 Lever Action Repeating Shotgun
  • Model 1894 Lever Action Repeating Rifle
  • Model 1895 Lever Action Repeating Rifle
  • Model 1897 Pump Action Shotgun

It is ironic that Winchester at this time did own a large interest in Remington Arms Company, only to sell it off close to the beginning of the new century. Firearms history in America may have turned in quite another way had Winchester maintained their interest or eventually bought out Remington.

Marketing killed the Radio Star (1900-1964)

At the turn of the century, Winchester was going full bore making different models of rimfire and centerfire rifles, in addition to shotguns. The company never produced a single pistol, though it would eventually import air rifles and pistols.

Smokeless powder was the order of the day in the 1900's, and the firearms produced reflected this change. The most famous firearms designed and marketed in recent memory were from this period. The 1800's saw the famous 1866, 1873 and 1894 rifles introduced. This period in history only saw one famous rifle design introduced, the Model 70, which was a bolt action rifle. This was the period of the Winchester shotguns, as follows:

  • The Model 1912, or more simply, the Model 12. This was a pump action shotgun that was not unique in design, but unique in the quality and production of the arm.
  • The Model 101, Winchester's famous over and under, break action design designed shotgun. It is perhaps known most for its sleek lines and brutal kick, due to its weight.
  • The Super-X 1, Winchester's response (in part) to the Remington Model 1100, was Winchester's best made semi automatic shotgun. Made using the same principals for the Model 12 — quality was both the reason for this shotgun to be widely known and coveted by collectors, and at the same time, was the reason for its demise (due to cost).

During this period of history, Winchester was a recipient of the large government contracts for both World Wars and other conflicts the United States has been engaged in. Not only was production ramped up, Winchester (along with Remington) built the government arsenals, responsible for producing nothing but ammunition for the armed forces. The most famous of these is the Lake City Arsenal, which in addition to its regular ammunition production responsibilities also manufactures match grade ammunition for the various armed services shooting teams.

There were many mergers of Winchester with other companies during this period; eventually Winchester was purchased by the Western Cartridge Company. This explains the W(Winchester}-W{Western} headstamp on Winchester branded ammunition. Eventually, through mergers, Olin Corporation, a chemical company located in Illinois, was the final owner. The firearms and ammunition companies were split into two divisions. The ammunition company is still under Olin's control today.

Marketing concerns, along with the growing resentment towards firearms, was really the end of this classic era of firearms manufacturing in the United States. Winchester was not the first American firearms company to outsource production, but it was the second major company to abandon these shores. After 1964, most firearms produced under the Winchester label were made in Belgium and then to Japan. The rights to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company were eventually spun off into its own company, U.S. Repeating Arms (owned by Herstal) during the 1990's. Production ceased in America in March 2006 due to high labor costs, though some models are still available from overseas producers. Many have felt that Winchester firearms are no longer the same and that WRF turned into more of a marketing company. It is the position of the author that this assertion is true, but was not unexpected, given the ways and means of business and its conduct today.

One of the most famous companies in the world, Winchester continues on with its tradition of high level marketing in publications for hunters and target shooters alike, all the while delivering the goods. It is not unusual to find a fellow who will shoot nothing but Winchester ammunition in his Winchester rifle or shotgun. As Winchester likes to say — "It is what America shoots".

Sources:
Watrous et al. The History of Winchester Firearms 1866-1975. 4th ed. Winchester Press, New York. 1975.

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