American Gun Manufacturers: Shooting Star Fallen

OF COURSE, I believe in capitalism, and the primacy and fundamental rightness of the unfettered free market. But she’s a cruel mistress at times, especially when among the carcasses of her spent and discarded lovers lay something not only close to my own heart, but close to the very essence of the American brand.

Long before Henry Ford’s Model T chugged to life, this brand was synonymous with a mass-manufactured, accessible-to-everyone product that embodied both an American way of life that would persevere for 100 years and the American industrial might that would shine until the dawn of the 21st century…

Just over a month ago, the U.S. Repeating Arms Company announced the March 31 closing of its New Haven, Conn., manufacturing plant, effectively ending the seven-score era of what is arguably the world’s most recognizably American product: The Winchester lever action rifle.

This repeating rifle, made over 10 million times in dozens of configurations in this same location over the last 140 years, is one of three remaining Winchester firearms produced in this country — all of them at the soon-to-be-shuttered New Haven facility. The gun’s discontinuation marks not only the end of an American icon, but the demise of a true monument to our country’s success at production, engineering, and marketing.

At one point, at the height of World War II, Winchester’s New Haven factory was home to more than 19,000 employees. Today, only 186 punch timecards there. Come dawn on April Fool’s day, none will remain.

American Gun Manufacturers:The Ubiquitous “Cowboy Gun”

Everyone knows a Winchester lever gun when they see one.

It’s the one with open sights and a hollow loop of steel underneath it for ejecting spent shells and cycling fresh rounds in. It’s the gun that has felled more deer, bears, coyotes, bobcats, cougars, raccoons, and other America critters than any other model — perhaps all others combined. It’s the firearm every young boy’s Daisy BB gun is modeled after. And it’s the rifle almost always aimed in movies and TV westerns by cowboys good and bad, generic and iconic…

John Wayne’s one-eyed Rooster Cogburn filled his hand with a Winchester carbine when he took the reins in his teeth for the cinematic classic four-on-one gun joust with Robert Duvall and his fellow baddies in 1969’s True Grit. Square-jawed Chuck Connors twirled a similar model every week on TV’s The Rifleman in the ’50s and ’60s. Kevin Costner used an early Winchester-patent rifle (the Henry) in the incredible buffalo hunt scene in the Oscar-winning Dances with Wolves. The list goes on and on. One movie was even made around the travels and travails of a certain rare Winchester lever gun itself. It was called Winchester ’73, and it starred Jimmy Stewart back in 1950.

But the reason Winchester lever-actions are so prevalent on TV and in film isn’t because they’re glamorous or trendy or because the Winchester Repeating Arms Company paid top-dollar for product placement — it’s because they were ubiquitous in real life. Just take a look at the works of Frederic Remington or read the stories of Brett Harte and you’ll get your proof. One could rightly argue that American history (not to mention a good chunk of its financial and industrial history) has in no small part been written by the Winchester lever action rifle.

American Gun Manufacturers:The Gun That Won (and Lost) the West

The first of the Winchester repeaters saw action on a limited basis in the Civil War. At that time, they were called Henry rifles and were produced by the New Haven Arms Company, whose president and principal shareholder (and therefore, de-facto owner) was Oliver Winchester, the soon-to-be namesake of his own firearms dynasty.

But the years following the Civil War are when the Winchester lever action repeating rifle really took off. After a few minor improvements to the Henry design, the first true Winchester was introduced in 1866 as a 15-shot repeater. Almost overnight, the new lever-action became the firearm of choice for mountain men, cowboys, lawmen, settlers, and civilian military scouts. Over 170,000 of the guns were sold before production ceased. And even this impressive figure was dwarfed by the next evolution of the gun, the steel-framed model 1873, popularly dubbed “the gun that won the West.” Nearly three-quarters of a million of that historic arm were sold before it was all said and done.

Ironically, the Army itself chose not to adopt the arms, instead continuing to rely on dated single-shot rifles. That decision may have cost the Army several key North American battles, including the one that most readily comes to mind for the period: The Battle of the Little Big Horn. Much evidence suggests that during this historic encounter, a hefty number of the Cheyenne and Sioux braves that cut Custer and his 7th Cavalry down in June of 1876 did so with Winchester repeaters — while the doomed U.S. soldiers struggled with their outdated and malfunctioning single-shots.

The Winchester lever action rifle was a weapon of choice for just about every major historical figure of the 1866-1915 “Wild West” period, as well. Legendary scout and celebrity Buffalo Bill Cody carried a Winchester. So did fellow scout Calamity Jane. Billy the Kid and Jesse James toted them, as well. Legendary mountain man John “Liver-Eating” Johnston (the inspiration for Sydney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson film of 1972) sports a Winchester in the only known photograph of him in existence, taken not long before his death in 1900.

And as the Winchester repeater was fighting for control of the West in the hands of Indians, outlaws, settlers, and lawmen, it was winning hearts, minds, and shooting contests the world over in the hands of renowned dead-eye Annie Oakley and scout-turned-showman Buffalo Bill in their famous touring Wild West show.


But enough of the rifle’s kudos. Yes, it was a quantum leap in firearms technology, but that’s only one part of what made the Winchester Repeating Arms Company what I consider the quintessential American brand. The rest was good old-fashioned Yankee business sense…


American Gun Manufacturers:Winchester… The 19th Century Microsoft

Much like the path some would say Microsoft has taken to pre-eminence in its industry, Winchester’s dominance over all other repeating arms of the 19th century (and there were many, like Sharps, Spencer, Marlin, and others) was equal parts of three things: First, luck — being in the right place at the right time. Second, the shrewd identification of market trends and the needs of end consumers. Third, recognizing and aggressively courting (or cornering) innovation.

Company founder Oliver Winchester was most certainly the Bill Gates of his age. Like the shrewd move a fledgling Microsoft executed to secure the rights to the revolutionary MS-DOS operating system for a mere $50,000 in 1980, Winchester, a New York clothing manufacturer, invested in 1850 in a financially challenged arms company (what later would become Smith and Wesson) that nevertheless had a decent, if flawed, patent for a repeating rifle — at that time, a concept considered the Holy Grail of the firearms world.

Over the next few years, Winchester shrewdly kept buying bigger and bigger chunks of the company, and by 1856, he was the principal stockholder. This gave him the leverage he needed to move the whole operation to Connecticut (where he already had a clothing manufacturing facility), rename it the New Haven Arms Company, and install himself as president. Shortly after, he hired a brilliant gunsmith and designer named Benjamin Tyler Henry to oversee the New Haven operation…

This was the company’s “MS-DOS” moment, the point at which the essence of the whole operation’s initial success was secured for a pittance, simply by the application of a few dollars at the precisely optimum moment. You see, Henry had repeating rifle patent ideas of his own — good ones — but lacked the cash, financial backing, facilities, or business sense to bring them to prominence. In fact, he had mortgaged his home to finance his own gun company, but was facing failure in the venture. Craftily, Winchester bought out the bank note on Henry’s house, and hired the man himself.

So with no more than the cost of a house mortgage and salary, Winchester managed to turn what surely would have ended up as a major future competitor (Henry’s designs may well have bested the old Smith and Wesson patents in the market) into the engine of his own company’s dominance. Immediately, Winchester challenged Henry to remedy the few remaining flaws in the company’s patents, using his own brilliant ideas…

And by late 1860, the Henry lever action repeating rifle was patented for production at New Haven Arms. It was accurate. It was reliable. It was fast. And it was a true repeater, called by the Confederates who would soon come up against it in battle “that damn Yankee gun you load on Sunday and shoot all week.” In short, it worked exactly as promised. And though ordered in only very limited supply by the Union Army (despite Winchester’s aggressive plying of military brass with finely engraved presentation Henrys), the gun nevertheless made a big impression wherever it showed up. There are even accounts of whole companies of Union troops buying the weapons with their own money for use in battle! Despite this, the company was coasting on fumes, relying on Winchester’s own deep pockets to keep afloat.

Now here’s where the “luck” part came in. Or maybe it was Oliver Winchester’s shrewd farsightedness. Whichever the case, the result was a meteoric rise to business dominance rivaling (or even exceeding) Microsoft’s in this day and age. As everyone knows, after the Civil War ended, a great westward expansion into the dangerous wilderness and Indian territories began almost immediately. And Winchester was waiting with his rifles, happily in the right place at the right time…

Also, responding to feedback from users in the field (like any good company would), New Haven Arms made several key improvements to the Henry and reintroduced it as the Winchester Rifle, at the same time renaming the firm the Winchester Repeating Arms Company — another good business move, working the USP into the name. The year was 1866. The rifle was a smash hit.

This is when the Winchester success story really gets rolling — and when it truly begins down the road to becoming an icon of American capitalism and culture.

American Gun Manufacturers:No. 1 With a Bullet

On the strength of his own business sense and B. Tyler Henry’s stroke of genius, Oliver Winchester was flush with cash — more than flush. He was rolling. But unlike most of the “Internet millionaires” of a few years ago, he didn’t rest on his laurels.

He aggressively advertised. He engaged in extensive PR, like presenting high-grade guns to influential people in the military (though he still didn’t get a big government contract for his repeaters — the Army Brass thought troops would bankrupt them by shooting up too much ammunition), giving his rifles as prizes in shooting contests, and publicizing the testimonials folks wrote in to tell him. One such story told of how a frontiersman defended his family from seven armed guerillas, dispatching them all with eight shots from his Winchester — barely half his rifle’s capacity!

Beyond this, Winchester continued to refine his product to more perfectly mesh with the needs of consumers. In 1873, he unveiled a new version of his rifle, chambered for all popular handgun rounds of the day — thereby eliminating the need for cowboys, lawmen, and the like to carry different kinds of ammunition for their pistols and rifles. Again, nothing more than good business, the American way…

This trend of responsiveness to customers’ needs did not stop with Winchester’s death in 1880, nor did it with his son and heir William’s death the following year. Whoever took control of the company after 1881 was definitely cut from Winchester cloth — whether by blood or by having learned how to stay atop the rifle business from the grand patriarch himself. By 1883, The Winchester Repeating Arms Company had formed a partnership with John Browning, inarguably the world’s greatest firearm designer.

From this union sprang 44 different firearm patents, among them:

· The Model 1885 single-shot — the first gun in America to be designed for use with smokeless gunpowder cartridges. As always, Winchester was the first to innovate

· The Winchester Model 1894 rifle, in which Browning used his considerable genius to strengthen the lever-repeater’s action enough to handle powerful rifle cartridges that used the new, higher-pressure smokeless gunpowder. The model 94 is still being produced today (at least until March 31) in nearly the identical configuration as it was 112 years ago. Over 6 million have been made and sold, making it by far the world’s best-selling non-military firearm

· The Winchester Model 1895 rifle, the first lever gun to use a box magazine instead of a tubular one, making it capable of firing pointed, high-power rounds, like the .30 Government (soon to be revised into the classic .30-06). Teddy Roosevelt swore by one of these for dangerous game in both America and Africa. He famously nicknamed his pet .405 Winchester big-bore 1895 “Big Medicine.” Nearly 300,000 1895s were purchased by Russia for use in World War I, and many saw action in the Russian Civil War as well

· The Winchester Model 1897 pump-action repeating shotgun. The first truly successful repeating shotgun and the first also to use smokeless powder. Over a million of these were produced and sold in the civilian markets. The U.S. military bought many thousands (as did law enforcement agencies of all types) more in a short-barreled, bayonet-capable configuration, using the quick-firing units as “trench brooms” in both World Wars. A popular anecdote is that sharp-eyed U.S. trench troops could literally wing-shoot incoming enemy grenades out of the air with the guns

· The Browning Auto-5 shotgun. The first semi-automatic shotgun, and the only one available anywhere until the 1950s! This amazing gun, though developed by Browning while in Winchester’s employ, was never produced by Winchester. The company’s refusal to grant the brilliant designer a royalty on the gun caused Browning to end his relationship with Winchester and promptly open his own arms company based in Belgium in 1902. Soon after, the Auto-5 was licensed for production by both Remington and Savage. The gun has sold well over 2 million copies, and remains in limited production to this day.

By the time their partnership ended, 75% of the repeating arms in America were John Browning designs — nearly all of which were produced by Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Its dominance of its market segment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries rivals or exceeds any de facto monopoly ever to exist in the American market. This is what I mean when I say that Winchester was the Microsoft of its day: It invested in excellence, sought innovation, responded to its customers, aggressively promoted its products, and reaped the whirlwind of profits because of it.

Of course, Winchester’s greatness didn’t end with the dissolution of the company’s partnership with Browning. The firm went on the produce many other successful — even classic — commercial and military arms, including the revered Model 70 bolt-action “rifleman’s rifle,” the military-only M-1 .30 carbine, the prized Super-X automatic shotgun series, and the workhorse model 1200 and 1300 pump shotguns…

But times change, designs fade from cutting edge into quaintness, and companies that fail to innovate fade with them. Sadly, Winchester has become one of these, slowly but inexorably, since radically changing its model line in 1964.

American Gun Manufacturers:Requiem for an (the) American Dream

After March 31, all that will remain of the American Winchester rifle is the name, pasted with a big, gaudy red “W” onto newer guns made principally by Miroku of Japan for the American-sounding U.S. Repeating Arms Company. Ironically, the USRAC has been owned since 1987 by Belgium-based Herstal Group — which also ironically owns the Browning name and brand, now made almost exclusively by Miroku as well.

That’s right: The two most recognizable names in the history of that most American of industries, firearms, have been owned for nearly two decades by a foreign company and produced almost exclusively on foreign shores, mostly Japan, Portugal, and Belgium.

It’s the free market at work, and I wouldn’t change it. But it’s still kind of sad, isn’t it?

What’s even sadder to think about is the notion that many of the great American brands exist today in name only — as a nameplate to be stuck on products slapped together by dollar-an-hour workers in other countries. Most classic American clothing brands (like Levis) aren’t made on these shores anymore. The once-dominant U.S. consumer electronics industry is almost nonexistent from a domestic production standpoint. Only the brand names linger. Even our cars are becoming more and more merely assembled here from foreign parts. The only reason they’re built in the United States at all is so that their makers can say they’re “proudly made in the U.S.A.” It’s PR spin. Damage control. And of course, it’s the free market at work…

It all begs the questions: What do we MAKE anymore? Where has the great engine of American industrial and mass-production might gone to hibernate — or is it dead altogether? How can we get back to a place where we’re once again innovators and leaders of production, instead of merely the leading consumers of others’ products?

These are troubling questions, ones to which I have no good answers. I know what the answers aren’t, though: They aren’t gross economic protectionism or large-scale government bailouts of failing brands simply because they’re American icons. To do these things, as so many suggest, would be to bastardize the very system we pioneered. There must be another way…

But I digress. I’m writing today not to ponder the answers to questions better and smarter thinkers have wrestled with for years (and will for years to come, I’m sure), but to lament the demise of just one American icon — one that symbolizes, for right or wrong, the rise of our nation to freedom, prosperity, and economic and military supremacy more appropriately than any other, in my opinion.

American Gun Manufacturers:Laying a Legend to Rest

Earlier in this article, I claimed that the all-but-defunct Winchester lever action rifle is arguably the product that embodied the American way of life more than any other. Here’s what I mean by that…

Like it or not, the America as we know it was forged at the ends of gun barrels, whether pointed outward at other nations or inward at Indians, Mexicans, wild animals, or each other. That’s the reality. Of course, firearms aren’t an American invention — Europeans have been toting them around in one form or another since the 1400s or so. However, gun ownership in Europe was largely the province of the wealthy or landed, not the middle and working classes.

Only in America were guns both the lawful right of all under the Constitution AND a very necessary tool of daily life — especially for the poor or lower middle class. These were the folks most likely to be aimed westward, braving all sorts of hardships and hostilities to try and become the landed gentry of a new nation. All they had to do was seize it, civilize it, and somehow survive to reap the rewards. For this, they needed guns, and Winchester made the best and the most of these…

More than any other nation on Earth, America democratized the ownership and use of firearms. For most, they were a necessary part of freedom and prosperity. And without Oliver Winchester’s repeaters, the American West doesn’t get “won” (for right or wrong) in nearly the same decisive fashion; the land doesn’t get settled and on the road to relative prosperity nearly as quickly or as absolutely; the country’s economy doesn’t become nearly so robust, so fast, and maybe — just maybe — the United States isn’t on solid enough fiscal or structural footing to withstand the challenges of the Spanish-American War and World War I.

That’s why I say that the Winchester lever action rifle — more than the cotton gin or the telegraph or the Model T or even the railroad — is the quintessential American product: It’s simultaneously a model of new-world industrial and marketing success, a sterling example of Yankee ingenuity, a technological marvel borne of a uniquely American necessity, and a tool of such purity and singularity of purpose that its very existence symbolizes perhaps the most iconic and defining half-century of our country’s history. If America itself were a brand, then the Winchester lever action rifle would be its marquis product.

Now, that icon lay dying, a casualty of the fickle winds of both cultural change and the very same economic system it played such a pivotal role in forging. And so, I offer my own unworthy eulogy for the Winchester lever gun…

May those that remain never rust, and may they forever be cherished by true-blue, red-blooded Americans who haven’t forgotten their legacy of riding hard, shooting straight, and telling the truth. And may they serve as a reminder to the rest of us of just where we came from, and how, for right or wrong, we got here.

Always shooting you straight,

Jim Amrhein
Contributing Editor,
Whiskey and Gunpowder
February 16, 2006

P.S. I used many sources for the facts about Winchester and his firearms in this article. Mostly, they were online specialty Web pages, but I did crack a book or two as well, including Harold L. Peterson’s Treasury of the Gun from 1962. I’d also like to credit one of my all-time favorite writers, Pulitzer Prize-winning movie critic and Clancy-spanking thriller author Stephen Hunter for general inspiration and for having the guts and passion to write his own piece about the demise of the Winchester lever gun in his Washington Post column from Jan. 20. I stumbled across it during some fact checking, and he makes several points similar to those I’ve made above (like a comparison between Oliver Winchester and Bill Gates and the Winchester-as-American icon theme), and probably far better than I have here. Give it a look — it’s a great piece of writing. I’d also like to give a nod to legendary gun guru Jeff Cooper. I shamelessly swiped my closing line from the title of his shooting anthology, To Ride, Shoot Straight, and Speak the Truth.