Winchester Repeating Arms is one of the oldest firearms manufacturers in the United States. The company was established by Oliver Fisher Winchester, born in 1810 in Boston. Interestingly, Winchester made men’s shirts before pursuing a rapidly growing firearms market.
After securing investors and capital, Winchester purchased controlling interest of Volcanic Repeating Arms Company from Horace Smith and Douglas B. Wesson (who would later found Smith & Wesson) in 1857. Winchester’s revolutionary plan was to build an industrial giant around the lever-action rifle. As he continued to fine-tune his firearm designs with Benjamin Tyler Henry and Nelson King, he eventually founded Winchester Repeating Arms on May 22, 1866.
War and the design or increased popularity of certain firearms or ammunition often go hand-in-hand. Opposing forces continually look for a better, more effective means of neutralizing the enemy and gaining an advantage.
One of the advantages the North had during the Civil War was the introduction of the lever-action repeating rifle (notably the Henry repeating rifle designed by Benjamin Tyler Henry).
A rifle that could fire five or more times in the time it took to fire once and reload the conventional rifles of the time quickly proved its worth on the battlefield.
Early History of the Winchester
Although the Winchester appeared just after the Civil War, it quickly became a favorite during the early days of the Wild West and the Indian Wars.
The first gun to bear the Winchester name was the lever-action Model 1866 Yellow Boy rifle, which featured an eye-catching polished brass receiver. In 1868, Winchester rifles began to feature engravings from the Ulrich Brothers and L.D. Nimschke, separating Winchester rifles from the rest of the pack and making them even more desirable.
After the American West opened up for settlement and the Transcontinental Railroad was finished, there was a surge in demands for Winchester firearms, with many men and women gearing up to explore a new world. In 1873, Winchester produced 700,000 Model 1873, lever-action rifles, chambered for 44-40 (.44 Winchester) cartridges and nicknamed the “Gun That Won The West”
By 1875, Winchester rifles became more than just a popular firearm by a reputable brand as many started to see them as collector’s items. Winchester, taking note, began marking premium Model 1873 rifles. That same year, a well-known colonel, hunter, and businessman by the name of William Cody, or Buffalo Bill, offered a testimonial to Winchester firearms, declaring them as “the boss” for hunting.
Theodore Roosevelt (who became President of the United States 25 years later) claimed the Centennial Model 1876 as his favorite firearm and said he used the Winchester model almost exclusively.
In 1877, Winchester Repeating Arms began marketing ammunition, starting with the Rival shotgun shells.
After the Founder’s Passing
Although Oliver Winchester passed away in 1880, the company continued to be a formidable player in the firearms market.
Winchester designed the Model 1883 Winchester Third Model Hotchkiss Magazine Gun in 1883. This gun was the company’s first bolt-action rifle. That same year, T.G. Bennett of Winchester purchased the rights to a design by John M. Browning for a single-shot rifle.
While Winchester Repeating Arms began experimenting with revolvers in 1883 as well, an agreement with Colt’s Manufacturing Company ensured that Winchester stuck to making rifles while Colt continued making revolvers.
The single-shot rifle purchased by Winchester was put on the market in 1885 and introduced as the Winchester Model 1885 Single Shot. This model is adapted to smaller rimfire cartridges and larger calibers as well and is being produced.
Over the next 100 years, Winchester Repeating Arms introduced a number of lever-action rifles, bolt-action rifles, pump-action rifles, single-shot rifles, automatic rifles, and pump-action shotguns to the market, along with various types of shotgun shells and rifle cartridges.
Because of Winchester’s long-standing reputation as the preferred battle rifle in both World War I and World War II, and its popularity during the post-Civil War era, Winchester became a household name.
Although the company eventually succumbed to the damaging economic effects of the Great Depression and the greater affordability of Remington rifles, a licensing agreement with Browning and the purchase of the company by the Olin Corporation — who also own Fabrique Nationale (FN) — has allowed rifles and shotguns to be produced with the Winchester namesake.
Winchester Repeating Arms is one of the most well-known and highly-respected firearms manufacturers in history, and rightly so. The company has often been groundbreaking with innovative designs. Their commercial success is a testament to their excellence.
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“Keep on shooting”