Reader Philip Reboli writes:
Long before I knew how a direct gas impingement system works, I admired the lever action rifle. It straddles the manual of arms between the muzzle loader and modern, magazine-fed rifle. The deliberate motions necessary to eject and load a round feel rugged. The unmistakable sound of the metal-on-metal friction while operating the action has no peer. And goes a long way toward explaining why I found The History of Winchester Firearms 1866-1980 by Barnes, Watrous, Rikhoff, Hall, and Kuhlhoff as enjoyable as I did.
This is a cross between a pictorial history of the Winchester company, a reference book, and a well written recounting of Winchester’s early years. But unlike so many books in the genre, one of the first things you will notice about this one is how readable it is, even for the novice. Names, dates, model numbers, and — most important — high resolution pictures of scores of Winchester rifles will guide you through the history of one of America’s favorite shooters.
The first quarter of the book focuses on the history and development of the Winchester company and the rest takes detailed dives into every model manufactured until 1980. As many other books on firearms, this book mixes some history, with sketches and pictures, and a heavy dose of details of various Winchester models.
And while Winchester began in 1866, no history of the company would be complete without some background on the collection of brilliant minds that lead to that point.
The Original Dream Team
According to Barnes et. al, it all really started with inventor Walter Hunt’s patent on August 21, 1849 for a lever action, breech loading, repeating rifle, which he described as a Volition Repeater. His patents weren’t only, “in themselves original in the extreme, but were also the beginning of a train of ideas that eventually led to the development of a series of breech loading firearms.” Hunt’s design was later improved upon by a man named Lewis Jennings.
That’s where the story gets interesting.
The Hunt and Jennings patents were purchased by a company that employed Benjamin Tyler Henry as its shop foreman. Yes, that Benjamin Tyler Henry.
Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson began working for the same company that employed Henry and also made improvements to the Hunt-Jennings repeater.
Unfortunately, difficulties with the design kept the lever action from being commercially successful and production was abandoned in 1852, but according to the Barnes book, Smith, Wesson, Henry, and their employer, Courtlandt Palmer, continued to make improvements to the firearm.
The four went on to form a new company, Smith & Wesson, with Henry as an employee. You may have hear of it.
When the original Smith & Wesson changed its name to Volcanic Repeating Arms Company, Oliver F. Winchester purchased some stock.
So, here we had Henry, Smith, Wesson, and Winchester all involved in the same company. When the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company faced financial difficulties it received loans from stockholders, including Winchester who was later sold a large part of the property to cover his loans. Smith and Wesson left to found their own revolver manufacturer and Winchester took over the company. After more permutations, moving it to New Haven and a few years as the New Haven Arms Company, Winchester Repeating Arms was founded in 1866.
Use the Best of What You’ve Got
The Civil War, as the authors conclude, “emphasized the need to replace the old muzzle loaders with a more modern type” of firearm. They cite a Navy Department report cataloguing the difficulties in operating the muzzle loader and mistakes soldiers made reloading muzzle loaders while in a fight.
Oliver Winchester appealed to the U.S. Government to have the vision to change its standards and adopt a (i.e. his) repeating rifle.
What would be the value of one hundred thousand infantry and cavalry, thus mounted and armed with a due proportion of artillery, each artilleryman with a repeating carbine slung to his back?… probably it will modify the art of war; possibly it may revolutionize the whole science of war. Where is the military genius that is to grasp this whole subject, and so modify the science of war as to best develop the capacities of his terrible engine – the exclusive control of which would enable any government … to rule the world.
A modern State may not be able to rule the world with a repeater, but Oliver Winchester’s dictum for constantly modernizing firearms to fight future wars wasn’t lost on anyone.
The second half of the book has a few interesting stories of how Winchester approached its business.
The year 1966 was approaching and the company wanted to celebrate its centennial and commemorate the Model 1866, the “first Winchester.” But according to Barnes. et. al., domestic production wasn’t possible and the company did not want to build an important issue like the centennial commemorative overseas to sell in the United States.
Winchester decided to use its more famous Model 94 action – which could be easily manufactured in the US – and “refine” it into a Centennial ’66 model.
Orders flowed into the company after the January 1966 announcement. A testament to the company’s integrity, the Winchester, “management made a crucial decision to limit the Model ’66 production to only those guns that could be made during the centennial year and not yield to the temptation to keep the factory machinery running into 1967… until all the orders were filled.”
It isn’t always easy to keep an iconic business’s integrity while turning a profit. But this anecdote shows that the company still chaffed at the idea of misrepresenting itself, even after one-hundred years.
Though this book is well written enough for the novice with interest in the subject, it may be too focused on the details of the firearms for the casual reader. Specifications like barrel length, type of magazine, stock, sights, and weight are listed throughout the book. While this is informative and even interesting, at times, it can feel a little like reading a reference book.
I’d recommend this book to seasoned enthusiasts and novices who want to know more, but will recommend something more “general” to someone just getting into the subject.