The Winchester Repeating Arms Company was a prominent American maker of repeating firearms during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
The ancestor of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company was the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company, which manufactured the Volcanic lever-action rifle of Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson. It was later reorganized into the New Haven Arms Company, its largest stockholder being Oliver Winchester. The Volcanic rifle used a form of "caseless" ammunition and had only limited success. Wesson had also designed an early form of rimfire cartridge which was subsequently perfected by Benjamin Tyler Henry. Henry also supervised the redesign of the rifle to use the new ammunition, retaining only the general form of the breech mechanism and the tubular magazine. This became the Henry rifle of 1860, which was manufactured by the New Haven Arms Company, and used in considerable numbers by certain Union army units in the American Civil War.
After the war, Oliver Winchester continued to exercise control of the company, renaming it the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, and had the basic design of the Henry rifle completely modified and improved to become the first Winchester rifle, the Model 1866, which fired the same .44 caliber rimfire cartridges as the Henry but had an improved magazine (with the addition of a loading gate on the right side of the receiver, invented by Winchester employee Nelson King) and, for the first time, a wooden forearm. The Henry and the 1866 Winchester shared a unique double firing pin which struck the head of the rimfire cartridge in two places when the weapon was fired, increasing the chances that the fulminate in the hollow rim would ignite the 28 or so grains of black powder inside the case.
Another extremely popular model was rolled out in 1873. The Model 1873 introduced the first Winchester center fire cartridge, the .44-40 WCF (Winchester Center Fire). These rifle families are commonly known as the "Gun That Won the West."
The Model 1873 was followed by the Model 1876 (or "Centennial Model"), a larger version of the '73, which utilized the same toggle-link action and brass cartridge elevator dating from the Henry. It was chambered for longer, more powerful cartridges such as .45-60 WCF, .45-75 WCF, and .50-95 WCF. The action was not strong enough to allow Winchester to achieve their goal of producing a repeating rifle capable of handling the .45-70 Government cartridge; this would not happen until they began manufacture of the Browning-designed Model 1886.
Oliver Winchester died in December 1880; his son and successor, young William Wirt Winchester, died of tuberculosis four months later.
From 1883, John Browning worked in partnership with the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, and designed a series of repeating 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 Model 1886, Model 1892, Model 1894 and Model 1895 (with a box magazine) rifles. Several of these are still in production today through Winchester special order, though companies such as Browning, Rossi, Navy Arms, and others have revived several of the discontinued models.
The early years of the twentieth century found the Winchester Repeating Arms Company competing with new John Browning designs, manufactured under license by other firearm companies. The race to produce the first commercial self-loading rifle brought forth the .22 rimfire Winchester Model 1903 and later centerfire Model 1905, Model 1907, and Model 1910 rifles. Winchester engineers, after ten years of work, designed the Model 1911 to circumvent Browning's self-loading shotgun patents, prepared by the company's very own patent lawyers. One of Winchester's premier engineers, T.C. Johnson, was instrumental in the development of these self-loading firearms and indeed went on to superintend the design of the Winchester Model 1912, Model 52 and Model 54.
The company was a major producer of the .303 Pattern 1914 Enfield rifle for the British Government and the similar .30-06 M1917 rifle for the United States during World War I. Working at the Winchester plant during that war, Browning developed the final design of the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), of which it produced some 27,000. Browning and the Winchester engineers also developed the Browning .50 caliber machine gun during the war. The caliber .50 BMG (12.7 x 99 mm) ammunition for it was designed by the Winchester ballistic engineers. The commercial rights to these new Browning guns were owned by Colt.
During the War Winchester had borrowed heavily to finance its massive expansion. With the return of peace the company attempted to use its surplus production capacity, and pay down its debt, by trying to become a general manufacturer of consumer goods: everything from kitchen knives to roller skates to refrigerators, all to be marketed through "Winchester Stores." The strategy was a failure, and the Great Depression put the final nail in the company's coffin. Winchester Repeating Arms Company went into receivership in 1931, and was bought at bankruptcy auction by the Olin family's Western Cartridge Company on December 22 of that year. Oliver Winchester's firm would maintain a nominal existence until 1935, when Western Cartridge merged with its subsidiary to form Winchester-Western Company; in 1944 the firearms and ammunition operations would be reorganized as the Winchester-Western Division of Olin Industries.
Fortunately for Winchester, president John M. Olin was a sportsman and gun enthusiast, and he started at once to restore the brand to its former lustre by concentrating on its classic models and updated versions thereof, with particular attention to quality and prestige. Olin personally pushed the deluxe Model 52 Sporter and the semi-custom Model 21 double-barreled shotgun. Winchester flourished, even during the later Depression; and if the Browning 1880's and 90's had been Winchester's Golden Age, the John Olin era of the 30's and 40's was the Silver.
The U.S. M1 carbine (although not a carbine in the truest sense) was designed by Winchester engineers Clifford Warner and Ralph Clarkson (contrary to a widely published myth, not by convict D.M. "Carbine" Williams ) and was then manufactured in large numbers by Winchester and other firms. During World War II, Winchester was the sole civilian producer of the M1 Garand rifle and later was the first civilian manufacturer of the M14 rifle.
By the mid 1950's the cost of skilled labor was making it increasingly difficult profitably to produce Winchester's classic designs, incorporating as they did considerable hand-work. In particular, Winchester's Model 12 pump shotgun and Model 70 bolt-action rifle with their machined forgings could no longer compete in price with Remington's cast-and-stamped 870 and 721. Accordingly S. K. Janson formed a new Winchester design group to advance the use of "modern" engineering design methods and manufacturing principles in gun design. The result was a new line of guns which replaced most of the older products in 1963-64. Unfortunately the reaction of the shooting press and public was overwhelmingly negative: the popular verdict was that Winchester had sacrificed quality to the "cheapness experts," and market share continued to decline as Winchester was no longer considered to be a prestige brand. Gun collectors consider "post-63" Winchesters to be both less desirable and less valuable than their predecessors.
Labor costs continued to rise, and a prolonged and bitter strike in 1979-80 convinced Olin that firearms could no longer be produced profitably in New Haven. Therefore in December 1980 the plant was sold to its employees, incorporated as the U.S. Repeating Arms Company, together with a licence to make Winchester arms. Olin retained the Winchester ammunition business.
From 1981 until 2006, Winchester guns were made by the U.S. Repeating Arms Company. When U.S. Repeating Arms went bankrupt it was acquired by a French holding company, then sold to an arms making cartel sponsored by the Belgian province of Herstal, which also owns famous gun makers Fabrique National (FN) and Browning.
On January 16, 2006 U.S. Repeating Arms announced it was closing the New Haven, Connecticut plant where Winchester rifles and shotguns were produced for 140 years. Along with the closing of the plant, the Model 94 rifle (the descendant of the original Winchester rifle), Model 70 rifle and Model 1300 shotgun would be discontinued.
On August 15, 2006, Olin Corporation, owner of the Winchester trademarks, announced that it had entered into a new license agreement with Browning to make Winchester brand rifles and shotguns, though not at the closed Winchester plant in New Haven. Browning, based in Morgan, Utah, and the former licensee, U.S. Repeating Arms Company, are both subsidiaries of FN Herstal. In 2008 FN Herstal announced that it would produce Model 70 rifles at its plant in Columbia, SC.