The Winchester Repeating Arms Company

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The Winchester Repeating Arms Company

After years of working with Oliver Winchester, Benjamin Henry became angered over what he believed was inadequate compensation for his contributions. Henry was trying to convince the Connecticut Legislature to award him ownership of New Haven Arms when Oliver raced back from Europe. Oliver quickly reorganized the company under the name “Winchester Repeating Arms” and reworked and improved the basic design of the Henry Rifle, creating the Winchester Model 1866.

Winchester introduced the Model 1873 with their first centerfire cartridge, the .44-40 WCF. Carried by many cowboys and ranchers a-like, this series of rifle became known as the “Gun That Won The West.”

The Death of Oliver Winchester

In December 1880, Oliver Winchester died, leaving his estate to his son, who died four months later from tuberculosis. His sons’ widow, Sarah Winchester, used most of her inheritance to build a gigantic mansion in Los Altos, California, known as the “Winchester Mystery House.” She maintained a 50% stake in the company and received a salary of $1,000 a day, equivalent to $26,000 in today’s money.

Around 1883, John Browning worked in partnership with the company to design a series of rifles and shotguns. Most notably, the Winchester Model 1885 Single Shot, Winchester Model 1887 lever-action shotgun, Model 1897 pump-action shotgun, and the lever-action rifles Model 86, 92, 94, and 95.

John Browning Competition

At the turn of the 20th century, Winchester found themselves competing against Browning’s new designs manufactured under license by multiple firearm companies. While racing to produce the first commercial self-loading rifle, they created the .22 rimfire Model 1903 and soon after, the centerfire Model 1905, 1907, and 1910 rifles.

After a decade of work, the engineers at Winchester designed the Model 1911, explicitly designed to circumvent Browning’s self-loading shotgun patents. Afterwhich, the company developed its most popular shotguns, the Model 1912, and Models 52 and 54.

WWI & The Ma-Deuce (M2) Browning .50 Caliber Machine Gun

During the first World War, the company was a significant producer of Pattern 1914 Enfield rifles manufactured for the British Government. At the same time, they also produced a similar 30-06 M1917 Enfield Rifle for the United States.

While working at the Winchester plant during the war, Browning perfected his design of the famous Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) — going on to produce 27,000 of these rifles before the close of the war.

Browning and the Winchester engineers also developed the Browning .50 caliber machine gun during the Great War. Winchester ballistic engineers created the .50 BMG (12.7x99mm) ammunition that went along with this gun. And today, the .50 BMG is still used in combat and is considered one of the best all-around performing cartridges in history.

Expansions & Acquisitions

After World War I, the company had way too much manufacturing capability. Trying to mend this problem, Winchester decided to merge with “Simmons Hardware Company” and began producing general consumer goods, from kitchen knives to roller skates and dishwashers. This strategy proved to be a failure for the company, and by 1929 the Great Depression put the company into receivership.

The Olin Family’s Western Cartridge Company purchased Winchester in December of 1931, and would eventually go on to form the Winchester-Western Company by 1935. During the depression, John Olin looked to restore the prestige of the company and began to push for deluxe quality over quantity. His moves made the company flourish, even when many other companies did not.

WWII & Modern Manufacturing

By the time of the Second World War, Winchester-Western was in an excellent position to design and develop one of the most famous weapons of WWII, the M1 Carbine. This rifle was the United States’ most produced small arm of the war, with over 6 million manufactured. Winchester also helped build the M1 Garand and post-war the civilian version of the M14 rifle.

While Winchester had its ups and downs, nothing prepared it for the eventual competition from cast-and-stamped parts in the 1960s. Winchester reluctantly moved to a cheaper build process in 1964 and lost a substantial chunk of its market share as a result. This move, along with a prolonged employee strike, caused Olin to sell the New Haven, Connecticut plant to its employees in 1980.

Winchester Today

The new company incorporated as “U.S. Repeating Arms” and manufactured Winchester firearms under license. Soon after, the company went bankrupt in 1989 and got acquired by the French holding company Herstal Group, who also owns Fabrique Nationale (FN) and Browning Arms Company.

On January 16th, 2006, U.S. Repeating Arms announced it was going to close its New Haven plant where it had produced Winchester rifles and shotguns for over 140 years. The closing of this plant caused production to cease on the Model 70 rifle and Model 1300 shotgun.

As of 2013, Fabrique Nationale produces Model 70 and Model 94 rifles as well as the Model 1300 shotgun at its manufacturing plant in Portugal.

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