The Winchester Story

posted on June 30, 2016

To understand the Winchester story, you first must understand the Smith & Wesson story. To paraphrase Buck Henry’s Oscar-nominated screenplay for “The Graduate” (1967), with a variation on Mr. McGuire’s “plastics” advice: “There is a great future in Rocket-Balls. Think about it. Will you think about it?”

Rocket-Balls? In all seriousness, in 1848 Walter Hunt designed and patented a hollow-based bullet packed with propellant. He envisioned a rifle that could hold a number of these Rocket-Ball cartridges in a tubular magazine and that could be fired by simply working a lever to bring a new round into battery.

He enlisted gunsmith Lewis Jennings to help design a rifle that would handle this new cartridge. Jennings and Hunt then conveyed the patents to Courtlandt C. Palmer to handle the manufacture and sale of what was thought to be a magnificent new advancement in firearm technology.

Palmer took the design to Robbins & Lawrence of Windsor, Vt., to do the manufacturing. He hired Horace Smith (1808-1893) to assist with the manufacturing details at the factory. It was there that Smith may have first met Daniel B. Wesson (1825-1906), who was supervising the manufacture of pepperbox revolvers.

After the abject failure of the Hunt-Jennings-Palmer Rocket-Ball rifle, Smith and Wesson found themselves at Ethan Allen’s firm of Allen, Brown & Luther in Worcester, Mass., where they worked at the rifle-barrel manufacturer. The idea of a repeating firearm that fired self-contained cartridges was not lost on the New Englanders. By 1851 Wesson had begun to develop a pistol that would use a rimfire cartridge similar to that used in Frenchman Louis Flobert’s “parlor guns,” and by 1852, he had formed a partnership with Smith to improve the Jennings design incorporating the new cartridge. In 1854 they took out a patent on the cartridge design and produced about 250 handguns using the self-contained cartridge.

For capital to manufacture this pistol, Smith and Wesson turned to Smith’s former employer, Courtlandt C. Palmer, to seek financing. It was a wise move as Palmer held the patents on work by Hunt and Jennings in the same area, and this helped circumvent any possible patent infringements the two might have encountered down the road. The Volcanic Arms Co. was formed, and J.W. Post obtained stockholders to keep the Norwich, Conn., factory running. Among those who bought into the company was a shirt maker named Oliver Winchester (1810-1880) of New Haven, Conn.

Problems with the Wesson-designed Flobert cartridge system forced the inventors to make improvements to Hunt’s Rocket-Ball design. This, the Volcanic cartridge, had its own hurdles to clear before it became evident it would never work well within the mechanism Jennings designed—even with improvements made by Smith and Wesson.

Less than 2,000 small- and large-frame repeating pistols and rifles were completed by Volcanic before poor sales and crippling mechanical failures forced Smith and Wesson to abandon the enterprise to their majority stockholder, Winchester. (Within the next year, Smith and Wesson, still wanting to make a go of a repeating pistol, wrote to enquire about Rollin White’s bored-through cylinder patent and the rest is, as they say, history).

Oliver Winchester was left owning the control of the fledgling Volcanic Arms Co. for which he was a majority shareholder and corporate vice president. In a shrewd move of corporate gamesmanship and financing, he then forced the company into bankruptcy. He was able to purchase all the company’s assets at the bankruptcy auction for about $40,000 and, with William Story and J.W. King, formed the New Haven Arms Co. in 1857.

The old Volcanic Arms Co. had enough parts and nearly finished arms to make about 2,000 functioning guns, which were marketed and sold. The next year, 1858, Winchester hired a talented gunsmith named Benjamin Tyler Henry (1821-1898) to become the factory supervisor to oversee completion of the new-old stock of Volcanics.

Henry was perplexed at the idea of a projectile with a propellant base and looked to the self-contained cartridge design of Smith and Wesson, whose patents Winchester had picked up for a song at the auction earlier. A new set of eyes on the problem yielded historic results when, in 1860, Henry patented the .44 rimfire cartridge and made improvements to the feed and extraction elements of the Volcanic rifle design. Winchester smartly knew that to successfully sell the rifle, he needed to manufacture the ammunition to feed it. He immediately started an ammunition factory to match demand the 16-shot Henry repeating rifle would command.

Many historians have cited Union Gen. James Wolfe Ripley’s reluctance to order mass quantities of breechloading rifles and carbines as a nearsighted effort to keep expenses down on firearms and ammunition. But his tenure as chief of ordnance ended in September 1863. A month after he left office, the U.S. Army purchased 1,700 Henry rifles. They cost $42 each, and an additional 1,000 rounds of .44-100 rimfire ammunition cost an extra $17.50.

A total of 13,000 Henrys were manufactured before production ceased in 1866. The factory was running at full capacity, and the New Haven Arms Co. was selling them as fast as it could make them. The real problems that limited military purchases were the rifle cost four times as much as a Springfield rifle-musket and the .44 rimfire round was more suited for pistols than a full-power rifle then thought needed in infantry combat.

Benjamin Tyler Henry’s contract with Oliver Winchester and the New Haven Arms Co. came to an end in 1866, and he left the firm. Winchester reorganized and renamed the company the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. and rolled out an improved version of the lever-action repeating rifle, the Model 1866 chambered in the same .44-100 rimfire round as the Henry.

Scholars who wish to know everything about the 150-year-old Winchester Repeating Arms Co. should read Herbert G. Houze’s Winchester Repeating Arms Company: Its History & Development from 1865-1981 (1994, Krause Publications). Here, we will hit only some highlights of this venerable manufacturer that has contributed to the evolution of firearm design and production, and to the industrial and military might of this nation.

The Era of the Lever-Action
With the introduction of the 1866 rifle and carbine, Winchester, with the talents of J.W. King, improved upon the drawbacks soldiers encountered with the Henry rifle. Primarily, the new design featured a side loading gate that replaced the muzzle-feed tube of the Henry to eliminate feed interruptions, and made it practical to put a wooden fore-end on the gun to prevent the burning of one’s hands while firing the gun. Twin firing pins eliminated most of the misfire problems that plagued the single-striker Henry. More than 170,000 Model 1866 rifles were produced between 1866 and 1898.

The Model 1873 has often been called “the gun that won the West.” “Winchester ’73” (1950), starring Jimmy Stewart, and countless other motion pictures and TV shows have helped solidify that image in the American psyche. And the numbers are there to support the claims: More than 720,000 Model ’73s were produced between 1873-1919. Today it is back in production and remains a staple of cowboy action shooting matches.

Winchester next introduced the beefed-up 1876 “Centennial” Rifle, which was chambered in cartridges considered more suitable for big-game hunting; more than 60,000 of these big guns were made between 1876-1897.

Things changed a decade later when, six years after the death of Oliver Winchester, John M. Browning entered the Winchester scene. He designed a single-shot rifle Winchester produced in 1885, and he returned a year later with his first large-frame, lever-action repeater, which would be known as the Model 1886. This big-game gun enjoyed a production run that lasted until 1935 with some 160,000 produced. Theodore Roosevelt was so enamored with his 1886, and used it so often, that he sent it back to Winchester for refurbishing at least five times.

Browning followed with a streamlined modernization of the 1873, which became the Model 1892 (about 1 million made between 1892-1941). With the advent of smokeless powder, his Model 1894 became the first high-powered, small-bore lever-action and is still going strong with more than 7 million produced.

Advancements in smokeless powder led to the development of the spitzer, or pointed-nose, cartridge. As the French learned with their 8mm Lebel Model 1886 bolt-action, a tubular magazine was not the most practical conveyance where the sharp-pointed nose of one round was resting on the primer of the next round in the magazine. Riding to the rescue once again, John Browning developed the lever-action Model 1895 that incorporated a box magazine in which the cartidges were stacked vertically. Theodore Roosevelt deemed this rifle in .405 Win. “The Medicine Gun for lions,” and it quickly replaced the Winchester Model 1886 as TR’s favorite hunting rifle. He even had a carbine version with him during the Cuban campaign of 1898.

The Browning Influence
Browning provided Winchester with most of its successful arms designs. In addition to the 1885 High Wall and Low Wall single-shots, Browning also licensed the Model 71 lever-action, the 1887 lever-action shotgun, the Model 1893 and 1897 pump-action shotguns, the Model 1890 pump-action .22 rifle and the 1900 bolt-action .22 rifle. Thomas C. Johnson of Winchester used Browning’s designs of the 1893 and 1897 shotgun to develop the wildly successful Winchester Model 12 (more than 2 million were made).

Browning’s work in the field of full-automatic firearms resulted in the development of the Model 1917 water-cooled, belt-fed machine gun, as well as the Model 1918 Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), the latter of which was also manufactured by Winchester.

A Product For Every Need
Winchester was the unrivaled powerhouse of rifle and carbine manufacture in the 20th century. Literally millions of Winchesters were manufactured for nearly every possible need up to America’s entry into World War II.

For hunters desiring a .22 rimfire for small game or plinking, the pump Model 1890, semi-automatic Model 1903 and Model 63 all came to be considered classics. For target shooting, the bolt-action Model 52 is considered one of the best in its class. The bolt action of the Model 54 was the basis for the legendary Model 70, called the “rifleman’s rifle,” which became a staple of hunters across the globe as well as the preferred rifle of U.S. military sharpshooters well into the 1960s. The Model 1907 in .351 WSL became one of the first semi-auto rifles favored by law enforcement personnel, establishing the semi-auto as a practical rifle for civilians.

Winchester answered the country’s need for arms in both world wars by producing hundreds of thousands of Pattern 1914 .303 British “Enfields,” then U.S. Model 1917s in .30-06 Sprg. and the first non-Springfield-Armory-made U.S. M1 Garands. Using Marshall Williams’ short-stroke piston, Winchester developed and manufactured the M1 carbine. Browning M2 .50 BMG machine guns as well as a wide assortment of other full-automatic light and heavy machine guns rolled off the Winchester factory floors to arm not only our fighting forces but those of our allies as well. After World War II, Winchester further contributed to the national defense as one of the makers of the “U.S. Rifle, M14, 7.62,” some of which are still in service today.

Post-War Depression
Following the 24/7 output of products during the Great War (1914-1918), Winchester saw a depression in sales as well as severe financial strains as bonds and notes taken to expand production during the war came due. Sales fell to an average of 150,000 firearms of all types during the inter-war (think Great Depression) period. Winchester diversified, expanding into manufacturing basketball hoops, flashlights, safety razors and saws, among other items. Such items now draw premiums from collectors who wish to add the company’s other products to their Winchester arms collections.

In 1931, John Olin (1892-1982) of the Western Cartridge Co. purchased Winchester and in 1935 merged the two into Winchester-Western. He championed the Model 52 bolt-action .22 as well as the Model 21 side-by-side shotgun, considered to be one of the finest American double-barrel shotguns ever made. Combining the ammunition and firearm manufacturer doubled sales during the latter part of the 1930s.

Pre-’64 vs. Post-’64
Olin managed the helm of Winchester-Western for 30 years and then retired, at which point he assumed the role of honorary chairman of the executive committee in 1963. Faced by mounting competition from Remington and entering a new era of manufacturing techniques, the new management of Winchester revamped factory production methods in 1964. Thus began production with cast and stamped parts where forged steel had been used before. Hand checkering was out, pressed checkering was in. This resulted in a noticeable change in quality and gave rise to collectors seeking out guns, such as the Model 70 and Model 94, made prior to the 1964 change in production methods. It was a decision that seriously wounded the Winchester brand—one some say from which the company never fully recovered.

In 1980, Olin Corp. (which makes billions of cartridges every year bearing the Winchester name) sold the New Haven manufacturing plant to the employees. Manufacture of Winchester firearms continued there under license with the name of U.S. Repeating Arms Co. (USRAC). Six years later, USRAC was bought by Herstal Group of Belgium (owners of Fabrique Nationale and Browning Arms Co.), and in 2006 the New Haven, Conn., factory—the geographic birthplace of the Henry, Model ’73 , Model 1894 and countless American classic arms—closed, ending 140 years of legendary arms production.

Current firearms bearing the Winchester name are manufactured for Browning under license from Olin by FN in Belgium and Portugal, and by Miroku Corp. (established in 1893) in Japan, which has made classic John Browning-designed Winchesters for decades under both the Browning and now Winchester names. The Model 1866, the “Yellow Boy,” re-introduced to commemorate 150 years of Winchester guns, is made there.

While Winchester rifles and shotguns no longer are made in Connecticut (although some Winchester barrels are made by FN America in its South Carolina plant), pump-action, over/under and semi-automatic shotguns, single-shot, bolt-action and, of course, lever-action rifles are part of a worldwide brand that is today’s Winchester Repeating Arms Co. And to think it all started with Rocket-Balls.


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