April 25: Winchester Takes Aim At The Rifle Industry.


Oliver Fisher Winchester (1810 – 1880)

In early 1857, businessman Oliver Winchester bought a controlling interest in a struggling Connecticut firearms company from two inventors by the name of Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson (who would soon move to Massachusetts to found a second and successful eponymous firearms venture of their own).  With access to machine tools, raw materials, and a number of valuable patents — including rights to Henry repeating rifle, the world’s first practical repeating rifle — Winchester reorganized his assets to form the New Haven Arms Company on April 25, 1857.

Repeating rifles marked a huge advance in 19th century firearms technology.  The Henry repeating rifle could fire several rounds following a single ammunition reload — a huge improvement over single-shot muzzle-loading and breech-loading rifles which required reloading after every shot taken.  Winchester restructured the New Haven Arms Company’s manufacturing and marketing strategies to revolve around the Henry rifle, which quickly became the company’s best seller and helped propel it to new heights of profitability.

Even though it was far from the most popular firearm used in the Civil War, the Henry rifle found plenty of use among troops in the Union Army.  Confederates allegedly described the Model 1860 Henry Repeating Rifle “that damned Yankee rifle that they load on Sunday and shoot all week.”

Winchester Repeating Rifles, especially the Model 1973, became a staple of American popular culture, thanks in part to the company’s use of imagery depicting Western frontiersmen, cowboys, and rugged sportsmen to sell its products. The “Winchester ’73” even inspired a famous Western film starring James Stewart in 1950.

After the Civil War, Winchester renamed his increasingly successful firearms company yet one more time, to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company.  Winchester’s lever-action repeating rifles became internationally famous for their speed, ease of use, accuracy, and affordability, the latter of which was aided by the company’s proprietary use of mass-manufactured, interchangeable parts.  Sales were also propelled by Winchester’s widespread use of romanticized images of the American west in its marketing.  Between the paintings of rugged cowboys, frontiersmen, and sportsmen and enthusiastic endorsements by larger-than-life celebrities like “Buffalo Bill” Cody and Teddy Roosevelt, the Winchester repeating rifle earned an international reputation as “The Gun that Won the West.”

For over a hundred years, the Winchester Repeating Arms Company operated factories in both New Haven and Bridgeport, Connecticut.  By the early 20th century, the company had expanded to include a prominent ammunition-manufacturing division as well, and its light military carbine — the M1 — became the staple firearm for Allied forces during World War II.  While Winchester Repeating Arms has since moved its manufacturing operations out-of-state, its headquarters still remain in New Haven.  The company that made the internationally-famous “Gun that won the West” got its start on this day in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Pamela Haag, “How Connecticut-Made Guns Won the West,Connecticut Explored

The Complete History of Winchester Repeating Arms,” Winchester Repeating Arms company website