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Cover Story February 2, 2006

  by lyle e davis


by lyle e davis


It looks like High Noon has finally arrived for an American institution.


After more than 140 years the classic Winchester rifle -- the "Gun that Won the West" -- is set to ride off into the sunset.


The Olin Corporation, who owns the Winchester name, had sold off the plant in New Haven, Connecticut, to a Belgian company.  This month, that European company confirmed in a January 21, 2006, article in the Washington Post that Winchester was discontinuing the manufacture of lever-action rifles in the United States, effective March 31st of this year.


The legendary weapon simply isn’t selling enough to remain profitable . . . at least not being manufactured here.


The news gave pause to even those who are not particularly interested in guns.


This was part of our heritage that was disappearing almost overnight.  Like the Colt 45, the Winchester rifle was symbolic of all that we, as a nation, had fought for, all that we had attained.  Light, quick, strong and decidedly American, why America’s greatest heroes wouldn’t be caught dead without their Winchesters!  Even John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart used Winchesters!


Winchesters were the stuff of myth and legend . . . they were so popular that both the good guys in white hats used them, as well as the bad guys in black hats.  Technically, the slogan, “The Gun that won the West,” is not quite accurate . . . but, boy!  was it ever a great marketing phrase.


The classic models of Winchester will be discontinued.  Some other models will continue to be produced, but overseas.


The popular view of the Winchester rifle is best associated with most observers as the weapon of choice for our western heroes.  Think John Wayne.  Think “Hondo,” and “Rio Bravo,” among others. 


Wayne was first filmed using a Winchester rifle in 1939 in Monument Valley, near the Utah-Arizona border.  From that point forward, Wayne seemed to be always packing a Winchester, usually a short barreled carbine Model 92.  Wayne, something of a gun expert himself, knew that a handgun's only purpose was to fight your way to the rifle you were going to win your fight with.


A few years later, a cowboy from Pennsylvania helped rekindle a stumbling career by picking up a Winchester. His name was Jimmy Stewart, and the movie was called no less than "Winchester '73," in the year 1950.


Another guy, former first baseman for the Chicago Cubs in the 50’s decided to leave baseball and try television as a career.  In 1962 Chuck Connors became "The Rifleman" and had a few years of TV stardom.  Him and his Winchester, that is.  


Yet another fella made a pretty good name for himself with a sawed off Winchester 92.  He carried it and handled it as though it were a handgun.   He became a star on "Wanted: Dead or Alive." His name was Steve McQueen.


Yet, old time Western historians will remind you that there was another well known man that used the Winchester.  For good, or for evil.  He used several names.  If the gun was a star almost from the beginning, it had a unique ability to make stars as well. I can think of a batch of men who were helped enormously by their association with Winchester. One was a fellow named Henry McCarty, or possibly William H. Bonney. Whatever he was named, he became known as Billy the Kid.


The only photo of him shows him with a Winchester Model 73.  True, he does have his Colt Peacemaker right handy, but it was the Winchester that kept his opponents away. Whether he killed 21 as legend says or only four as many historians believe, he's a deadly fella and you just know he knew how to handle that Winchester.


But possibly the biggest and boldest publicity was given to the Winchester rifles by a Montana rancher.


His name was Theodore Roosevelt.  You may remember him.  He eventually got into politics, or so they say.


"The Winchester is by all odds the best weapon I ever had and I now use it almost exclusively," wrote Theodore Roosevelt in 1885. "The Winchester is the best gun for any game to be found in the United States, for it is as deadly, accurate and handy as any, stands very rough usage, and is unapproachable for the rapidity of its fire and the facility with which it is loaded."


Yes, the Winchester lever-action rifle was very good not only to these fellas, but to thousands and thousands of ranchers,  and hunters, and more than a few lawmen. But now it's going away for good. The tough old capitalists who invented it wouldn't shed a tear for it: If you can't sell it, dump it, was their motto.


Of course, the early Winchester repeater rifles were out of price ranges for most pioneers.  They were a very good weapon for defense, fired 16 times with one loading versus single shot musket.  Later, they became one of most popular hunting rifles on the market.


But now, the Winchester plant is to become a thing of the past . . . at least stateside.  Where once there was a plant with 19,000 employees, there are now fewer than 200. 


In 1980, the Olin Corporation  sold the plant to a Belgian company.  Local observers say it’s partially the change in American culture to blame.  Note enough dads are taking their sons out and teaching them to shoot . . . to use and respect the feel, the heft, the accuracy of a fine firearm like the Winchester.


It just ain’t like ‘the old days.’


But, even the most sentimental gun-lover admits that while they would love to see Winchester stay in New Haven, a company just can’t continue losing money.


Oh, the local mayor is trying to find someone to come in and take over the plant, but it’s pretty much an uphill battle.  For some reason, it’s hard to persuade hard-headed businessmen to buy a romantic company.  If it is losing money.


The Olin Corporation, which held onto the Winchester name when the company sold may license the name to another company that will carry on the Winchester tradition.


You can bet your boots, however, that the $800 you pay for a Winchester rifle today, will double in value overnight as soon as the plant closes.  It’s the same as when a painting doubles in price whenever a great artist dies.


Before Winchester fades all too quickly off into the sunset, let’s look at how it all came to be.


Oliver Winchester established himself in the firearms business in 1857 when he purchased the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company. He employed Benjamin Tyler Henry as his main gun mechanic. The following year Henry devised a new rifle with a 15 cartridge magazine. The gun was operated by moving the trigger lever down and back to its original position. This extracted the spent cartridge, carried a fresh shell from the spring-activated tubular magazine into the chamber, and cocked the hammer ready for firing.


The rifle sold well and in 1866 the Winchester Repeating Arms Company was established at New Haven, Connecticut. Soon afterwards an improved version of Benjamin Tyler Henry's rifle was produced. It was however the 1873 model that was the most successful Winchester. Over the next 40 years the company sold 720,610 of these rifles.


The original Winchester rifle was famous for its rugged construction and lever-action breech mechanism that allowed the rifleman to fire a number of shots before having to reload: hence the term, "repeating rifle".


The first model, the Model 1866, was nicknamed Yellow Boy because of its brass receiver. The Model 1873 was Winchester's next design. The Model 73 was much more popular than the 66 because of the steel frame which allowed it to take the newly designed and more potent center-fire .44 WCF (.44-40) cartridge. The 1873 is often referred to as The Gun That Won The West. (WCF simply denotes "Winchester Center Fire", to distinguish a cartridge from the earlier rimfire cartridge.


Having a common center fire cartridge used in both revolvers and rifles allowed the owner to carry two firearms, both using the same ammunition.


Repeating revolvers were popular in the mid 19th century. One of these revolving pistols, the Colt, was very successful.  The ancestor of the Winchester rifles was the Volcanic lever action rifle of Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson (of later fame with the Smith and Wesson revolver). It was originally manufactured by the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company, which was later reorganized into the New Haven Arms Company, its largest stockholder being Oliver Winchester.


After the civil war Oliver Winchester continued to exercise control of the company, renaming it the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, and had the basic design of the old Henry rifle completely modified and improved to become the first Winchester rifle, the Model 1866, which fired centerfire cartridges and had an improved magazine and, for the first time, a wooden forearm.


From 1883, John Browning worked in partnership with the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, and designed a series of repeating rifles and shotguns, most notably the Winchester Model 1887 and Model 1897 shotguns and the lever-action Model 1886, Model 1892, Model 1894 and Model 1895 rifles, all of which are still in production today.  (Browning would go on to great success as a weapons manufacturer, most notable for the BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) a potent weapon during WWII.)


Oliver Fisher Winchester (November 30, 1810 - December 11, 1880) was a famous American businessman and politician. His main claim to fame was his manufacture and marketing of the Winchester repeating rifle, which was a much re-designed descendant of the Volcanic rifle of some years earlier. Winchester was a clothing manufacturer in New York, New York, and New Haven, Connecticut, before investing his money in the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company when it was founded in 1850.


Repeating rifles were not widely used until after the Civil War, but after the war they were increasingly popular with civilians, while the military authorities concentrated primarily on perfecting breech-loading single shot rifles for some years. With thousands of rifles in the hands of the average pioneer, the Winchester repeating rifles gained a reputation as "The Gun That Won the West".


When Winchester died his ownership in the company passed to his son, William Winchester, who died of tuberculosis in March of the next year. William's wife Sarah believed the family was cursed by the spirits killed by the Winchester rifle, and moved to California and began building a chaotic mansion with her inheritance, to confuse the spirts seeking revenge.  Today, “The Winchester House’ is a must see for tourists visiting the San Jose area.  (The story behind the Winchester House and its eccentric owner, who continued building and building stairs to nowhere, is a story unto itself).


Many other weapons systems were developed by the Winchester company.  These systems were well known to the military community, less known to the general public and the hunter/sportsman rifle owner.  Among the weapons systems developed by Winchester were the M1917 Enfield military rifles used during World War I. Working at the Winchester plant during that war, Browning developed the final design of the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), of which it produced some 27,000. Browning and the Winchester engineers also developed the Browning .50 BMG caliber machine gun during the war. The caliber .50 ammunition for it was designed by the Winchester ballistic engineers.


The commercial rights to these new Browning guns were owned by Colt. In 1931 the Winchester firm was purchased by the Olin Corporation and continued its production of civilian rifles and shotguns. The U.S. M1 carbine (although not a carbine in the truest sense) was designed by Winchester engineers Clifford Warner and Ralph Clarkson (contrary to a widely published myth, not by D.M. Williams) and was then manufactured in large numbers by Winchester and other firms. During World War II Winchester was the sole civilian producer of the M1 rifle and later was the first civilian manufacturer of the M14 rifle.


Along with the closing of the plant, the Model 94 (the decendent of the original Winchester rifle) along with many of Winchester's traditional rifles and shotguns such as the Winchester Model 70 would be discontinued.


A famous ad that most boy baby boomers will recall from Boys' Life, the old scouting magazine of the '50s, showed a happy lad, carrot-topped and freckly like any number of Peck's Bad Boys, his teeth haphazardly arrayed within his wide, gleeful mouth under eyes wide as pie platters as he exclaimed on Christmas morn, "Gee, Dad . . . A Winchester!"


And so we must ask, is the  sense of tradition, respect, self-discipline and bright confidence that Winchester and the American kinship group enjoyed a thing of the past?


The traditional company whose symbol was a fringed rider flying across the plains on a pinto, gripping his trusty Model '73, is finally biting the dust.


The most abundant variant, the Model 94, has been built more than 6 million times since 1895 with only minor changes. This was the same rifle, after all, that the Indians used to wipe out our troopers at the Little Bighorn battle.  (Our troopers only had muskets.  The Indians had Winchesters!)


The memories of a Winchester evoke fond memories: how light it is, how quick to the shoulder, how pointable! It begs to come to the eye. It swiftly finds what's called the natural point of aim.


Some Yankee genius, long ago, found the ideal form for a weapon.  And it lasted all this time.


The funniest thing about the Winchester lever-action rifle is how American it looks.


How do you package chemical energy of roughly 3,000 foot-pounds safely in metal that is at the same time light enough to be carried, strong enough to be operated and simple enough to be manufactured?


New Haven is where all the young Bill Gateses -- their names were Winchester, Colt, Henry, Smith, Wesson, Marlin and a few others -- went to make their fortunes as their nation grew, sometimes violently, westward.


The key to the lever-action Winchester's genius, present from the first was its simplicity, it’s ease of operation.  Two cranks of the lever, one forward a few inches, one backward the same few inches, and you didn't even have to take the gun off your shoulder. You were ready to shoot again. "It is placed beyond all competition by the rapidity of its execution. Thirty shots can be fired in less than one minute," wrote Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly in 1858.


John Wayne in ‘Stagecoach’ - marked the beginning of Winchester’s prominence in Westerns





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