Oliver Winchester: Man, Myth, Legend

Winchester Repeating Arms was once a giant in American gun manufacturing. The New Haven, Connecticut-based company produced legendary rifles like the Model 1873, 1892, 1894, and “the Rifleman’s Rifle,” the Model 70. Many people know that Winchester was named for its founder, Oliver Fisher Winchester. What many don’t know, however, is that Winchester himself never designed a firearm and was not even an engineer. Winchester was a talented businessman who knew a good opportunity when he saw it. He seized that opportunity, hired the right people, and created an icon.

Oliver Winchester
Oliver Winchester was not a gun maker. But he was a talented businessman. (Public Domain)

Oliver Winchester: The Man

Oliver Winchester was born in Boston, Massachusetts on November 30, 1810. His family were poor farmers, and Oliver had little formal education. His father passed away soon after his birth, and young Oliver earned badly needed money doing farm work from the age of six.

Oliver’s teen years saw him apprenticed as a church builder, but he soon displayed a keen mind for business and innovation. The teenaged Oliver designed and patented a new gentlemen’s shirt collar, from which he earned good money in New Haven, Connecticut, and New York City. He also sold men’s furnishings in Baltimore.

Looking for new opportunities, Winchester happened upon a fledgling firearms company run by two gentlemen named Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson. Their top engineer was a fellow named Benjamin Tyler Henry. By 1855, Winchester was the largest stockholder in what was by then the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company. The company manufactured the Volcanic rifle, an early lever action design. That rifle’s history will be further examined in an upcoming article on the Winchester Model 1873’s 150th Anniversary.

The Volcanic rifle was unsuccessful, primarily due to its inadequate cartridges, especially as compared to rival gunmakers’ products. Smith and Wesson wanted out, and Winchester took control, renaming the company the New Haven Arms Company.

Critically, Winchester retained Henry’s services. By 1860, Henry had developed an improved Volcanic rifle built around his new brass cased .44 rimfire cartridge. Henry was promptly awarded the patent for the new Henry Rifle, with New Haven Arms holding the manufacturing rights. Winchester hoped to sell his new product to the US Army as the Civil War ramped up. But the Army was skeptical of repeating rifles, especially since the logistics to support the new weapon and cartridge were nonexistent, though some individuals and units eventually carried the 1860 Henry.

Benjamin Tyler Henry
Benjamin Tyler Henry was critical to Winchester’s early success. (Public Domain)

The Army passed, but civilian sales were strong. New Haven produced over 12,000 Henry Rifles over the next six years. The Henry Rifle’s success, however, led to friction within the company. Benjamin Henry felt he wasn’t receiving a fair share of the profits his invention generated. So, in 1864, he asked the Connecticut legislature to award him ownership of New Haven Arms.

Winchester managed to hold Henry off and reorganized the company as Winchester Repeating Arms. Henry was gone, but Winchester held on to Nelson King, who improved Henry’s design by adding a side loading gate, a better magazine, and a wood handguard. The resulting Winchester Model 1866 “Yellowboy” (because of its brass-colored receiver), chambered for the same .44 Henry rimfire cartridge, revolutionized repeating firearms and established Winchester as an industry leader.

Winchester successfully marketed the Model 1866 to foreign militaries. The French purchased 6,000 rifles and 4.5 million rounds of .44 Henry cartridges during the 1870-1871 Franco-Prussian War. The French lost, but it wasn’t because of their rifles. The Turkish Army also made good use of the Model 1866 during the 1877 Russo-Turkish War. Though significantly outnumbered, the Turks trounced their single-shot rifle-equipped Russian foes at the Siege of Plevna.

Oliver Winchester was a successful businessman, but he was also active in politics. He served as a New Haven City Commissioner and an 1864 Republican Presidential Elector. He was Lt. Governor of Connecticut from 1866 to 1867.

Oliver Winchester: The Myth

It’s natural to think of major gun company founders as also being gun designers. Horace Smith, Dan Wesson, John Marlin, Eliphalet Remington, Bill Ruger, and others fit that assumption. But Oliver Winchester does not. Rather, Winchester understood how businesses operate. He also understood that he needed competent experts to make his business profitable.

Winchester Model 1866 "Yellowboy" rifle
The Model 1866 “Yellowboy” improved on the 1860 Henry Rifle and established Winchester as a major firearms company. (Wikipedia)

He initially backed Smith and Wesson at Volcanic, talented designers and craftsmen to be sure, but their product wasn’t quite right. But Winchester was smart enough to recognize Henry as the force behind the Volcanic rifle’s potential. Allowing Henry to file the patent was also good business, though the two men obviously clashed on compensation.

But Winchester had Henry’s design after the latter left the company. Moving to improve that solid base was another good move. The Henry Rifle was a brilliant design for the time, but the rifle’s flaws are well-known. Winchester once again relied on an expert, Nelson King, to advance its development.

That development continued with the Model 1873, which featured a sturdier steel frame instead of the brass alloy “gun metal” of the Model 1866. The 1873’s receiver also had removable side plates, enabling easier cleaning and maintenance. But perhaps the most significant upgrade was the cartridge. The .44 Henry was a rimfire cartridge. Rimfires are inherently less powerful and reliable than the centerfire cartridges we take for granted today. That’s why rimfires are relegated to small calibers like .22 and .17.

The Model 1873 was initially chambered for the new .44-40 Winchester Center Fire cartridge, or .44-40 WCF. Winchester’s sales exploded as the country expanded West. Wherever new settlers went, the 1873 Winchester went with them. The rifle was later offered in multiple calibers and three basic configurations. Today, we refer to the rifle as one of the two guns that “won the West,” along with the Colt Model 1873 Single Action Army Revolver.

Winchester Model 1873 Rifle
The Winchester Model 1873 Rifle: The gun that “Won the West.” (bradfordsauction.com)

The Model 1873 was a winning design, but it was Oliver Winchester’s business acumen that put his company in the position to build such a rifle. Once his engineers designed and built the product, Winchester’s marketing acumen ensured its widespread success.

That Winchester established a firm base on which to operate is demonstrated by the fact that Oliver Winchester himself died before the company reached its full potential. Winchester passed away on December 11, 1880. He had groomed his son, William Wirt Winchester, to take the company’s reins, but he, unfortunately, died from tuberculosis only three months later. His wife took her inheritance, moved to California, and eventually built the famously eclectic Winchester Mansion.

Oliver Winchester: The Legend

Despite having little actual firearms knowledge, Oliver Winchester built one of the world’s most iconic firearms companies. Winchester Repeating Arms still produces modern firearms, as well as quality modern replicas of its classic Old West guns. The company has had perhaps more than its share of ups and downs since its founder’s death. But the name “Winchester” is synonymous with classic rifles and shotguns in a sense that few companies ever achieve. It’s hard to imagine anyone not picturing a lever action rifle when they hear that name.

I’m saddened by the sometimes-precipitous fall of classic American firearms companies like Remington, Marlin, and Winchester. It’s difficult to understand how that could have happened, though most of us are likely aware of why it happened. I find myself rooting for a Remington comeback and I’m cautiously optimistic about Ruger’s revival of the Marlin brand.

Winchester Model 1873 Rifle internals
The Winchester Model 1873 featured removable side plates for easy access to the action. (Wikipedia)

Winchester is a different story. That they produce quality firearms is inarguable. But the classic Winchester lines are not made in the United States anymore. The lever guns come from Japan and the admittedly excellent Model 70 is built by FN in Belgium. Given Winchester’s former status, I find that sad. It also limits availability as demand for those classic guns far outstrips those companies’ ability, or willingness, to meet.

Few gun stores have a large stock of classic Winchesters, and the wait time is getting a bit ridiculous. I recently spoke to a Winchester representative about a Model 70 I ordered 14 months ago. He said I should plan on waiting another year. For a rifle chambered in .270 Winchester, hardly an uncommon caliber. He told me the wait time for lever guns is three years, which I find unacceptable. Winchester shrugs, though I appreciated the representative’s frankness. He didn’t like it any more than I did but there was nothing he could do. It sounds to me like Winchester needs its legendary namesake, and his business skills, more than ever.

William "Bucky" Lawson is a self-described "typical Appalachian-American gun enthusiast". He is a military historian specializing in World War II and has written a few things, as he says, "here and there". A featured contributor for Strategy & Tactics, he likes dogs, range time, and a good cigar - preferably with an Old Fashioned that has an extra orange slice.

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