by lyle e davis
It looks like High Noon has finally arrived for an American
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
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
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
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,”
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
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
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
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
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
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
The rifle sold well and in 1866 the
Winchester Repeating Arms Company was established at
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
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
Fire", to distinguish a cartridge from the earlier rimfire
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, 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
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
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