April 25: Oliver Winchester Aims for Success in The Rifle Industry.


In early 1857, businessman Oliver Winchester bought controlling interest in a struggling Connecticut firearms company from two inventors named Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson. With access to machine tools, raw materials, and a number of valuable patents — especially rights to the Henry Repeating Rifle, the world’s first multiple-round-firing longarm — Winchester formed the New Haven Arms Company on April 25, 1857.

Repeating rifles represented a huge advance in 19th-century-firearms technology. The Henry Repeating Rifle could fire several rounds after a single ammunition reload. Before the repeating rifle, muzzle-loading and breech-loading rifles required reloading after every shot. Winchester’s New Haven Arms Company’s manufacturing and marketing strategies revolved around the Henry, which quickly became the company’s best seller and propelled the firm to unprecedented profitability.

During 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 as “that damned Yankee rifle that they load on Sunday and shoot all week.”

Winchester Repeating Rifles, especially the Model 1873, became a staple of American popular culture, thanks in no small part to the company’s use of advertising imagery depicting Western frontiersmen, cowboys, and rugged sportsmen using its products. The “Winchester ’73” even inspired a famous Western film starring James Stewart in 1950.

After the Civil War, Winchester renamed his phenomenally successful firearms company after himself. The New Haven Arms Company became the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Winchester’s lever-action rifles became internationally famous for their speed, ease of use, accuracy, and affordability, the last of which was aided by the company’s use of proprietary, 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 100 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 moved its manufacturing operations out of state in 2006, the company that made the “Gun that won the West” got its start, today 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