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The History of Winchester and His Firearms

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According to Lee A. Silva’s document, “John Browning’s 1887 Lever Action Shotgun was Another Winner for Winchester and a Hit with Wells Fargo Guards,” many of John Browning’s designs and ideas went into Oliver Winchester’s firearms (Silva). Winchester also had many other occupations other than gunsmithing. The three most important parts of Winchester are the life of Oliver Winchester, the creations of Oliver Winchester, and the guns that won the West.

Oliver Fisher Winchester (November 30, 1810 – December 11, 1880) was both a businessman and a politician. He is most famous for his manufacturing and marketing of the Winchester repeating rifle, which is the descendant of the Volcanic rifle made years earlier (“Biography of Oliver Winchester”). Due to the early death of his father, Winchester’s childhood was not the greatest. He spent his youth working on farms and being a clerk in retail stores. He was also a carpenter in the construction business in Baltimore, Maryland (“Oliver Winchester). His first business that he opened was a clothing store in New York, New York, and New Haven, Connecticut, before investing his money in stocks and shares in the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company in 1850, the year it was founded. By 1856, Winchester was a principle stock owner, and had the Volcanic Company move to New Haven, Connecticut, and had the name changed to New Haven Arms Company (“Biography of Oliver Winchester”).

While there, Oliver Winchester hired Benjamin Tyler Henry to work on the improvements of the Volcanic repeating rifle, resulting in a name change to the Henry rifle. Active in politics, Winchester served as the Commissioner of New Haven City and Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut from 1866-1867. When Winchester died in 1880, he willed the ownership of the Company to his only son, William Winchester, who later died in March of the next year of tuberculosis. The ownership then went to William’s wife, Sarah, who believed that the family was cursed by the many spirits that have been killed by the Winchester rifles. She later moved to California where she began to build a chaotic mansion (“Biography of Oliver Winchester”). All of the rooms consisted of the number thirteen. There were thirteen steps to every room, thirteen windows, and the rooms were 13′ by 13′.

Over the course of his life, Oliver Fisher Winchester accomplished patenting many different firearms and mechanisms. His main supplier of these parts was a man by the name of John Moses Browning. Born in Ogden, Utah, on January 23, 1855, Browning was not a formal business man. Although he was America’s premier gun inventor who, by himself, built the stronger mechanisms for the Model 1886, Model 1892, Model 1894, and Model 1895 lever-action rifles that allowed them to shoot stronger cartridges than the preceding firearms. These two pioneers of the firearms industry never met at any time. Winchester died in 1880, and his son died in 1881, so neither of them knew that Browning’s designs would soon take the Winchester Repeating Arms Company over the top in popularity and dependability than the original Winchester rifles had (Silva).

In 1883, a salesman for Winchester sent the vice-president, and general manager, Thomas Gray Bennett, Winchester’s son-in-law, a single-shot lever-action rifle that was of high quality and power being produced in diminutive quantities in Odgen, Utah, by a private company that called themselves the Browning Brothers. Bennett was so flabbergasted by the ingenuity of the rifle that he himself investigated John Browning. After Arriving in Utah, Bennett met Browning and promptly bought the rights to the rifle. This gun later became the Winchester Model 1885 High Wall and Low Wall single-shot. Over time it would be made in over 30 calibers from the .22 short to the .50-95 Winchester Express. Later, then came Winchester’s first single-shot shotgun, a 20-guage (Silva).

Bennett later decided to offer a deal to Browning, to have the first rights to every firearm mechanism that either he or his brothers thought up. Browning had been experimenting with other contraptions for the lever-action rifles. Due to the Winchester Company’s success on the lever-action style repeating rifle, Browning sold the patent rights to his 1884 repeater. This later became known as the Model 1886 Winchester repeating rifle. The 1886 became more popular than its predecessor because it was able to be chambered in larger, more powerful calibers from the .33 Winchester centerfire to the .50-110 Express; the standard caliber was the .45-70, which became most popular because of its governmental use (Silva).

A fancy “WRA Co.” (Winchester Repeating Arms Company) monogram was place on the left side of the Model 1887 and 1901 firearms. Although the popularity of these models was immense they did not last too long. They were later replaced with the Winchester Model 1897, the first pump-action shotgun which John Browning also invented (Silva).

According to Stephen Hunter’s “Out With a Bang”:Famous for its rugged construction, the original Winchester rifle allowed the rifleman to fire a number of shots before having to reload: hence the term, “repeating rifle.” Manufacturing of the Model 1866 started in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1867: the Winchester Repeating Arms Company moved to New Haven in 1871. The Company also manufactured and licensed to the U.S. Government the M1 Carbine, the standard .30 caliber weapon used by Allied forces in World War II.

In 1964, Curt Gentry wrote in his book, co-authored by Browning’s oldest son, John, “This was the beginning of a creative rampage unmatched in the history of firearms development. The Model 1887, not as popular with the hunters, gave the bad guys of the west an advantage. The 1887 had a magazine capacity of six shots, four more than the overly popular double barrel. The “six shooter” was available in a 10-gauge and 12-gauge black powder shotgun. Production ran for fourteen years and just under 65,000 shotguns were produced. This guns standard barrel lengths came in thirty inches, thirty-two inches, and a special “riot gun” was offered in a twenty inch barrel (Silva).

Winchester’s lever-action was extremely popular with the majority of the good and bad guys of the West. The 1887 was used by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad to be used to protect its messengers. Of all the guns of the Old West, the Model 1887 with the serial number 36549, was the most famous. It was a 10-guage with a saw-off or cut-down barrel. It was used by Wells Fargo guard Jeff Milton in February of 1900 to kill the infamous “Three-Fingered Jack”, leader of the five-member Stiles-Alvord gang (Silva).

In conclusion, Oliver Winchester achieved a lot in his life long struggle for acknowledgement as a renowned gun maker. He helped with the production of the early Winchester rifles and created a foundation for the company to set them into the twentieth century with many ideas and prompts to build a major corporate company named Winchester Repeating Arms Company. If it was not for John Browning, the Winchester name would not have as many different rifles and shotguns as they did one hundred years ago or even today, 151 years after the first Winchester rifle. His daughter-in-laws belief that the family name, Winchester, was cursed, caused her to go “insane” with her Californian mansion. I believe that the Winchester name will live for many generations to come; due to the fact that Winchester has become a trusted name since the first rifle that Oliver created. Any gun owner that knows anything cannot say that the classic Winchester Model 12 was not the best shotgun ever created.


“Oliver Winchester.” Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2008. 18November 2008. .

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