Here's An Inside Look At 150 Years Of History At Winchester

From “Old West” repeaters to British Enfield long guns, Winchester has played a key role in the history of democracy in America and the world.
Here's An Inside Look At 150 Years Of History At Winchester

Like all good stories, the 150-year tale of Winchester began with the doubt and uncertainty of a new world.

In 1856, 46-year-old Oliver Winchester, a former dry goods businessman and clothing manufacturer, was the majority stockholder of the failing Volcanic Repeating Arms Company in Norwich, Connecticut. Volcanic had been founded by two men named Smith and Wesson, but by the time the company ran out of steam, the pair had gone on to start over with a new joint venture to build revolvers.

When Volcanic’s line of firearms using a revolutionary but imperfect self-contained cartridge struggled to keep the company solvent, Winchester bought out the assets of the company, moved everything down to the coast in New Haven and began operating as the New Haven Arms Company in 1857.

Employed at Volcanic at the time of the move was Benjamin Tyler Henry. Henry was hired as the plant superintendent at New Haven Arms and continued working on a design using a new self-contained cartridge that would, in 1860, become known as the Henry repeating rifle. The ground-breaking, breech-loading, .44-caliber rimfire, lever-action Henry rifle served in the hands of Union troops during the American Civil War and is perhaps most infamous for its use by the Sioux and Cheyenne, who wiped out the 7th Cavalry troopers of Gen. George Armstrong Custer in 1876.

After a dispute over compensation, which led to Henry attempting to take control of New Haven Arms, Winchester reorganized the company yet again in 1866, naming the new company Winchester Repeating Arms.

One of the new company’s first moves was to introduce a totally redesigned lever-action rifle — this one with a side-loading gate and wooden forearm. Chambered in .44 Henry rimfire, the new rifle was called the Model 1866, and it quickly became popular with both private and military shooters. The Model 1866, also known as the “Yellow Boy” due to the color of its bronze-brass alloy gunmetal receiver, was a landmark in not only gun design, but also in the history of the firearms industry.

By the dawn of the 1870s, Winchester Repeating Arms and its predecessors had already employed some of the biggest names in the 19th-century gun trade, and those names had developed some of the most revolutionary firearms of the age, helping usher an end to the era of single-shot and muzzleloading guns. What must have seemed like an amazing new world in 1870 was only the prologue.

One Of One Thousand

In 1873, Winchester unveiled a new lever-action rifle dubbed the Model 1873. To say the Model 1873 was successful is an understatement. To call it “legendary” or “iconic” hardly does it justice.

Long referred to as “The Gun that Won the West,” the Winchester Model 1873 will forever be regarded as one of the most recognizable and influential firearms ever produced.

While the Model 1866 had used the rimfire .44 Henry cartridge, the Model 1873 used centerfire cartridges. It was first offered in the .44 Winchester Center Fire cartridge, a new design that would eventually be called the .44-40. The .44 Winchester caught on quickly with both rifle and pistol designers, and in 1877, Colt’s Manufacturing offered a model of its popular Single Action Army revolver chambered for it and called the pistol the “Frontier Six Shooter.”

The ability to use the same ammunition with both rifle and pistol, combined with the round’s effectiveness out of both long and short barrels — and its availability in many of the common guns of the day — made the .44 WCF ubiquitous in the Old West, and the Model 1873’s popularity snowballed. Winchester also made Model 1873s chambered in .38-40 and .32-20, both also popular pistol cartridges.

Winchester began a premium-grade program for the Model 1873, which took barrels found to produce particularly close groupings during test-firing and fitted them to top-shelf rifles featuring premium triggers and an extra fine finish. These “One of One Thousand” rifles were sold well over list price and became a bit of a legend in their own right; only 136 “One of One Thousand” rifles were produced.

In 1950, more than 70 years after the Model 1873’s introduction, Universal Studios produced a Western film called “Winchester ’73” directed by Anthony Mann and staring Jimmy Stewart and Shelley Winters detailing the adventure, treachery and tragedy that follows one of the treasured “One of One Thousand” rifles. This film renewed interest in the gun and helped expand the idea of collecting sought-after firearms in the general consciousness.

Production of the Model 1873 stopped in 1919, but so many guns were in the hands of shooters around the world and so many photographs of both famous and infamous individuals had been taken posing with the gun, it was destined to enter immortality. Other companies have offered various types of Model 1873 reproductions over the years, and recently Winchester began offering official Winchester-stamped Model 1873s (with a few modern safety improvements) manufactured by Miroku.

Full Power

Though Winchester had hit a home run with the Model 1873, the repeating rifle was still in its infancy. As lessons were learned, designs were improved, better materials were developed and production methods became better controlled, enabling the evolution to continue. Despite the wild popularity of the Model 1873, the fact remained that it was chambered for pistol cartridges. Though this compatibility was a definite advantage for many pioneers, settlers and lawmen on the frontier, it kept the rifle from being a truly effective hunting gun.

For the first American Centennial in 1876, Winchester introduced a rifle called, unsurprisingly, the Model 1876. It was similar in many ways to the Model 1873, but incorporated improvements that had been developed for an even earlier prototype rifle that was never produced. The Model 1876 was called the “Centennial Model” and was originally chambered for the new .45-75 Winchester cartridge, but it was eventually offered in other full-power calibers as well.

Ten years later, a designer by the name of John Moses Browning was working for Winchester and his latest creation was the Model 1886, a strengthened improvement on the Model 1876. Browning, of course, is one of the most renowned firearms designers in history, and his effect on Winchester and the industry in general is undeniable.

The Model 1886 was capable of handling heavier cartridges of the day, including the .45-70 Government and the .50-110 Winchester high-power rounds. It was strong enough to survive the introduction of smokeless powder and was produced until 1935. At that time, the Model 71, a modified Model 1886, entered the line and remained in production until 1958. The Model 1886/Model 71 has gained a reputation as one of the finest large-bore rifles ever designed.

The Model 1894, yet another Browning design, was a compact, full-power rifle built from the ground up for smokeless powder and was originally chambered for the .32-40 Win and .38-55 Win cartridges. In 1895, however, the .30 Winchester Center Fire was introduced and paired with the rifle. In time, the .30 WCF would come to be known as the .30-30. Likewise, the Model 1894 chambered in .30-30 would come to be known as the finest, most popular deer rifle ever built. Production ran until 2006, and over 7 million Model 1894s were built. It’s the best-selling rifle in American history. Reproductions continue to be produced and the Model 94 is still used every day.

Winchester Shotguns

Though it seems “Winchester” was practically synonymous with “rifle,” the company did more than just build lever-action rifles. Another Browning design was, in fact, one of the earliest repeating shotguns. The Model 1887 was a lever-action gun available in 10- and 12-gauge models. As smokeless powder ammunition became available and popular, the design was updated to handle the stronger loads with the Model 1901. Though lever-action shotguns were never a force in the market, the Model 1887 and Model 1901 remain popular with collectors and lever-action aficionados.

The Model 1893, another Browning design, was one of the first pump shotgun designs and, after being updated for smokeless powder as the Model 1897, it remained in production until 1957. It was available in 12- and 16-gauge models and was immensely popular.

A modified version of the Model 1897, including a heat shield and bayonet lug, was adopted by the U.S. military for use on the battlefields of World War I. It proved particularly effective in the deadly trenches of that conflict, and the fact that it did not have a trigger disconnect meant that the whole magazine could be fired quickly with devastating effect. The Model 1897 was so deadly that it earned the nickname “trench sweeper” and the German government filed a diplomatic protest claiming the use of shotguns was a violation of the rules of war. The protest was quickly rejected.

By the dawn of the 20th century, Winchester had earned a place on the map of firearms history that cannot be overemphasized or overlooked. A number of the greatest names in the industry had contributed to the company’s success, and the legacy of those early decades can still be felt as Winchester turns the page on its 150th year.

Modern Winchester

Today, Winchester remains one of the most highly-regarded names in the firearms industry and the brand has long since grown to include much more than lever-action firearms.

Ammunition has always been a strong suit for the company, with Winchester cartridges and shotshells being part of history throughout the Old West, the World Wars and hunting ranges for a century and a half. Nearly 15 billion rounds of Winchester-built ammunition were used by U.S. troops in World War II, and over 10 billion more since 1985, when Winchester took over operations of the Lake City Ammunition Plant in Independence, Missouri.

Currently, Winchester Ammunition produces hunting, competition and defense ammunition for rifles, shotguns and handguns. AA TrAAcker shotshells use a properly weighted wad which flies the same as the pellets to allow the shooter to track shots and adjust. Train and Defend ammunition includes both Defend personal protection rounds and standard training rounds that perform similarly so shooters can practice how they’ll shoot if it ever comes to a life-or-death situation.

The Long Beard XR uses Winchester’s Shot-Lok technology to keep pellets tightly grouped for lethal performance against turkeys. Additional lines like Super X, Deer Season XP and Dual Bond are also extremely popular with shooters. In 2005, Winchester Ammunition opened a new state-of-the-art production facility in Oxford, Mississippi.

Winchester Ammunition’s online Ballistics Calculator is a user-friendly tool to calculate and compare various Winchester bullets and loads. An app version of the calculator for use on the iPhone is also available.

Winchester TV produces quality programming for outlets such as the Outdoor Channel, Sportsman Channel, Canada’s Wild Television Network and for streaming directly from Winchester Legends on the Outdoor Channel is hosted by Bob Foulkrod, Steve Farris and Melissa Bachman and delivers an exciting hunting adventure each week. Other shows include Winchester World of Whitetail, a hard-core, reality-type hunting series, Winchester Deadly Passion, a weekly, globe-travelling hunting series hosted by Melissa Bachman, and Whitetail Frenzy, set in the Appalachians and hosted by bowhunters Kenny and Aharon Davis.

Winchester Gear offers a wide range of the latest shirts, hats and outerwear for both at home and out on the hunt as well as gear, accessories and collectibles for shooters and enthusiasts.

While Winchester has grown far beyond what could have ever been imagined in 1866, the guns are still the heart of what makes Winchester, Winchester. While reproductions of the many famous guns of yesteryear remain popular, newer rifles such as the bolt-action Model 70 are in the spotlight. One must remember, however, that “newer,” in this case, means the gun wasn’t introduced until 1936. This is what happens when your company is 150 years old — your 80-year-old rifles are considered “newer.” The Model 70 has been offered in too many calibers to list and it was named the “Bolt-Action Rifle of the Century” in 1999 by Shooting Times magazine.

For a truly “newer” rifle, one should look at the XPR bolt-action rifle. It’s a 21st century rifle, having been introduced in late 2014. It features the new M.O.A. Trigger System, fashioned of hardened steel components to virtually eliminate take-up, creep and overtravel for high-end accuracy and reliability.

Winchester markets the SXP shotgun as the “world’s fastest pump action” and its inertia-assisted slide-action can deliver three shots in a half second. It’s available in a wide range of models, including turkey, waterfowl, deer and defender versions and multiple finishes.

It’s been a wild 150 years for Winchester, and there is no sign that things are going to slow down any time soon. From a failing company relocated and rebranded to a legendary name in the history of the industry, Winchester has seen it all, done it all and been through it all. Mark your calendars because the 200th anniversary celebration in 2066 will be here before you know it.


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