By 1857, the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company was bankrupt. Most of its investors pulled out, including Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson, who formed the company two years before. However, shirt manufacturer-turned-firearms investor Oliver F. Winchester saw an opportunity. He embarked on a mission to salvage the remnants of the foundering company. His decision would revolutionize the firearms world forever.

An Unlikely Investor

Born in Boston in 1810, Oliver Winchester’s father died a year after he and his twin brother Samuel were born. His widowed mother was left with five children to support. As a result, Oliver went to work on the family farm at the age of 6.

At 14 years old, Oliver pursued a career in carpentry. He excelled in the trade, and by 20 became a building contractor. During the 1830s, he switched occupations and moved to Baltimore to open a men’s clothing and accessories store. In 1848, Winchester patented a successful men’s dress shirt. He partnered with John M. Davies and established a factory in New Haven, Connecticut.

Portrait of Oliver F. Winchester

Portrait of Oliver F. Winchester. (Ivan Romanò and Silvia Vago, VetrarteRomano.it)

Winchester and Davies mass-produced quality shirts quickly and cheaply — a skill Winchester carried over to firearms manufacturing. In the first year, the New Haven Shirt Manufacturing Company’s profit was less than $20,000. In roughly a decade, the company grossed $300,000 annually. Much of the success was due to Winchester’s patent and his ingenuity.

“The busy mind of Mr. Winchester was never at rest,” one newspaper recorded. “He was always planning, and no obstacle seemed too great for his indomitable will and enterprise.”

A wealthy businessman by 1855, Oliver Winchester invested in the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company. When the president of the company, Nelson H. Gaston died a year later, Winchester succeeded him. A number of factors, notably the firearm’s performance and its cartridge’s lack of power, led to financial trouble. Winchester bought the bankrupt company’s inventory and stock. He also convinced wealthy businessmen to invest in his new company, named the New Haven Arms Company. Winchester then focused his energy on correcting the flaws of the failed Volcanic rifle.

Winchester: From Ruins to Riches

While a shrewd businessman and salesman, Winchester was no firearms expert. He searched for the right man to improve the Volcanic rifle’s deficiencies. He settled on Benjamin Tyler Henry as his factory’s superintendent. Henry had been working with and designing guns since the age of 16. Winchester kept the company financially afloat while Henry worked around the clock to perfect his design. After three years, Henry patented a repeating rifle in 1860.

Winchester ad from Library of Congress

Original testimonial. (Library of Congress)

Winchester sold more than 10,000 Henry rifles during the American Civil War. The lever-action rifle included a front-loading magazine, which could empty a 15-round magazine in a matter of seconds. A Civil War soldier armed with a muzzleloader usually discharged only two or three shots per minute. One of Winchester’s ads claimed a shooter could discharge 60 shots per minute with a Henry. While the Henry rifle saw limited use on Civil War battlefields, it impressed soldiers on both sides with its effectiveness and rate of fire.

But internal conflict threatened the company’s future. Henry felt underpaid and undervalued, and Winchester and Henry became bitter enemies. While Winchester was visiting Europe, Henry tried to wrestle control of the company from him. He petitioned the Connecticut State Legislature to change the name of the company to the Henry Repeating Rifle Company and turn control over to him. Winchester responded by returning to New Haven and opening a new factory in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1865, naming it the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Henry drifted into obscurity, while Winchester would go on to oversee the production of his company’s most famous rifle.

“The Gun That Won the West”

As he did with Volcanic rifle, Winchester searched for ways to improve the deficiencies of the Henry rifle. He hired a new superintendent named Nelson King to replace Henry. King patented an improved version of Henry’s design called the Winchester Model 1866. Nicknamed the “Yellow Boy” due to the color of its brass receiver, the rifle included many important modifications. King added a loading gate to the side of the receiver, moved the loading from the front to the rear, enclosed the tubular magazine and added a wooden forearm under the barrel. The Model 1866 more than doubled the Henry’s capacity.

“It became a favorite with military and civilian riflemen alike,” True West Magazine’s firearms editor Phil Spangenberger wrote. “Those who used it recognized its ease of handling, accuracy and rapid-fire capabilities.”

"Buffalo Bill" Cody from Library of Congress

“Buffalo Bill” Cody. (Library of Congress)

From this design came Winchester’s most famous rifle: the Winchester Model 1873. The rifle had a stronger and lighter steel frame than the Model 1866 and used a more powerful centerfire cartridge. King also added a sliding dust cover to keep dirt and debris out of the receiver. Known as the “Gun That Won the West,” the rifle became popular among lawmen, cowboys, outlaws and others roaming the American frontier. Legends such as Theodore Roosevelt, “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Annie Oakley and Henry M. Stanley favored and endorsed the rifle.

“I have been using and have thoroughly tested your latest improved rifle,” Cody wrote in 1875. “Allow me to say that I have tried and used nearly every kind of gun made in the United States, and for general hunting, or Indian fighting, I pronounce your improved Winchester the boss.”

The Winchester Model 1873 is the most famous of Winchester’s guns and has become synonymous with the history of the American West.

The End of Winchester’s Era

Oliver Winchester turned the remnants of a shattered company into the leading manufacturer of lever-action repeating rifles within 20 years. He sold his rifles not only in the U.S. but overseas as well. A number of his firearms and cartridges were used during both the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 and the Franco-Prussian War.

In December 1880, Oliver Winchester died of a stroke at the age of 70. Winchester firearms are still available to purchase (the company is now a subsidiary of FN Herstal). Unlike the other successful firearms manufacturers of the 19th century, Oliver Winchester lacked any background in inventing or designing firearms. But he was a brilliant businessman and innovator. These traits made up for his lack of firearms knowledge. Instead, he employed brilliant minds to do the designing and handled the rest. As a result, the company has become one of the most iconic firearms brands in the world.

Feature image from Heritage Auctions, HA.com

 Further Reading

  • Boorman, Dean K. The History of Winchester Firearms. New York: The Lyons Press, 2001.
  • Freedley, Edwin T., ed. U.S. Mercantile Guide: Leading Pursuits and Leading Men. A Treatise on the Principal Trades and Manufactures of the United States. Philadelphia: Edward Young, 1856.
  • Henshaw, Thomas, ed. The History of Winchester Firearms 1866-1992, 6th ed. Clinton, NJ: Winchester Press, 1993.
  • Kirkland, K. D. America’s Premier Gunmakers: Winchester. East Bridgewater, MA: World Publications Group, 2007.
  • Pegler, Martin. Winchester Lever-Action Rifles. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2015.
  • Rose, Alexander. American Rifle: A Biography. New York: Delacorte Press, 2008.
  • Trevelyan, Laura. The Winchester: The Gun That Built an American Dynasty. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016.