19th Century Winchester Firearms

By Jan Trussler

 HBSA Welsh Branch, Chapel Bay Fort
Oliver Fisher Winchester was  the son of Samuel Winchester and Hannah Batesand  was born in Boston on 30 November 30 1810. He  married Jane Ellen Hope on 20 February 1834 and died on 11 December 1880. They had three children, Ann Rebecca Winchester (1835–1864), William Wirt Winchester (1837–1881) and Hannah Jane Winchester who married Thomas Gray Bennett. O.F. Winchester was first apprenticed as a carpenter, and was then successful as a house builder before selling and making “Gentlemens furniture”, and lastly before becoming a firearms manufacturer he had a business making shirts.

The genesis of the Winchester rifle starts with the concept of a repeating firearm as developed by Walter Hunt, who designed and manufactured the “Rocket Ball” self contained cartridge and the “Volitional Repeater" rifle to shoot them. He assigned these patents to George Arrowsmith who employed a machinist named Lewis Jennings to improve the original design. Many people were involved at the time, all of whom improved on the original design. Most notable was Benjamin Tyler Henry, the foreman of then investor Courtland Palmer, Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson of handgun fame also had a go at the development, and in 1855 Smith, Wesson and Henry formed the "Volcanic Arms Company" to produce and market the final design. An investor at that time was Oliver F. Winchester, a man with no knowledge of firearms, but he was a shrewd investor and by 1857 he owned the majority of stock in Volcanic Arms.

O.F. Winchester then took direct control of the marketing of the company and its products, most notably through the use of “unsolicited” letters to newspapers, and at the same time moved the business to New Haven Connecticut, and employed B. Tyler Henry to develop both arms and ammunition. The result of this was the development of the ·44 rim-fire cartridge and the re-design of the volcanic rifle to take this ammunition – the Henry Rifle. The Henry Rifle was not as well received as its competitor, the Spencer, and in an attempt to generate trade, the company undertook a contract to produce Walch Superimposed Revolvers for Cyrus Manville. However the expected income did not materialise, and only 10 prototypes were made and there were no commercial sales. This was the only revolver ever made by Winchester.

After a falling out with B. Tyler Henry, O.F. Winchester re-organised the company again and changed the name to the “Winchester Repeating Arms Company” in 1866, and produced the first true Winchester rifle, the Model 1866 in ·44 rim-fire. This was marketed and sold as the “Improved Henry” rifle having been re-designed by Nelson King, and patented by him. Significant improvements incorporated in this model were the use of a fully enclosed tube magazine which reduced the entry of dirt into the mechanism and greatly increased reliability and the introduction of the loading gate. As a result manufacturing costs were also reduced. The Model 1866 was produced between 1866 and 1873, and then manufacture recommenced in 1875, due to demand, and continued until 1898, much of the later production being under military contract. In total some 170,100 Model 1866 rifles were produced.

The next model produced was the Model 1873. This was an updated version of the Model 1866 modified for centre fire ammunition, most commonly ·44-40, although it was also available in ·38-40 (1880), ·32-20 (1882) and ·22 (1884). There were also a multitude of options available to the purchaser, including choices of finish, wood, barrel length, sights etc. Production of this model finished in 1923, by which time a total of 720,609 rifles had been made. 1891 was the year in which production of this model peaked with more than 40,000 being made.
The Model 1876 was a development of the Model 1873 designed for larger centre fire calibres, however the action was too long, slim and consequently too weak for the ·45-70 for which it was originally designed, and a compromise was achieved with the ·45-75 cartridge. This was first issued to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Again a myriad of finishes could be ordered. Main production finished in 1888 although a few were made up from spares until 1898, with a total of 63,871 rifles being produced.

Between 1877 and 1884, O.F. Winchester, interested in securing military contracts, purchased a Hotchkiss designed bolt-action rifle in ·45-70, and submitted it for US Army trials. The rifle won the technical and accuracy trials, but failed the field trial. The rifle was then sold commercially as the Model 1883. In this period the company was also retailing shotguns supplied by the Birmingham trade. It was in this period that O.F. Winchester died (1880), and soon thereafter his son, William Wirt Winchester also died (1881). The management of the company was taken on by W.W. Converse ( O.F.W’s brother-in-law) with Thomas Grey Bennett (O.F.W’s son-in-law) as sales manager, and in 1890 T.G. Bennett takes over the day to day running of the business. T.G. Bennett made both the best and the worst decisions for the company, the best being the purchase of the Highwall action from John Moses Browning and the right of first refusal on all his future designs. Indeed, over their 20 year relationship, the company purchased many of Browning’s designs which were never put into production.
The Model 1885 was the first Browning design produced by the company. It was a single shot, falling block, self-cocking rifle, produced in a wide range of calibres with both high and low wall receivers. It was manufactured from 1885 to 1901, and was available in a variety of finishes, barrel lengths and butt styles, with set triggers being common.

The second of Browning’s designs manufactured by the company was the Model 1886, which no longer has the toggle of the Model 1885, and incorporates a bigger bolt. As was standard for Winchester, this was also available with a wide variety of finishes, sights, butt styles, calibres etc. However the most common specification is ·45-70, full length magazine, straight grip, single trigger with a 26” octagonal barrel.

This was followed by the Model 1887, the first Winchester produced shotgun. Browning was of the opinion that a repeating shotgun should be a pump action, however T.G. Bennett insisted on a lever action design as being consistent with the Winchester brand, and so this rolling-block model was produced. This model was produced in both 10 and 12 bore, with early barrels being bought in from Europe. A variety of barrel lengths were available to the purchaser, and Damascus barrels were an optional “extra”. This was succeeded by the Model 1901 for smokeless powder.

In 1887, John Browning married, and as a Mormon, took a missionary post for two years in Georgia. On his return he designed a ·22” pump action rifle utilising the sliding tube magazine patented by O.F. Winchester, and a breech which was locked by the firing pin. This rifle was retailed as the Model 1890, and was available in ·22 short, ·22 long, ·22WRF and after 1919 - ·22 long rifle
The Model 1892 represents John Browning’s re-design of his Model 1886 as a replacement for the Model 1873 which was by now looking very outdated.

This was soon followed by Browning’s first pump action shotgun which was retailed as the Winchester Model 1893. Manufactured for 2¾", black powder 12 bore cartridges, on the introduction of smokeless cartridges into the US the Model 1893 regularly blew up, and eventually the company offered a free exchange of this model for the later Model 1897 which had an improved breech lock and was designed for smokeless loads.

The Model 1894 rifle, termed an “intermediate” gun, was initially introduced in ·32-40 and ·32-55, and then in 1895 was offered in a variety of smokeless calibres. It had a two-part reciprocating bolt with a rear falling block. This rifle was manufactured from 1894 until 1983, and is still made for commemorative purposes.

With the Model 1895, Browning moved to a box magazine for this rifle designed for use with the new smallbore military smokeless cartridges. This was available in a wide variety of military calibres and was produced between 1895 and 1940.

Having previously worked for Winchester and Remington, James Paris Lee set himself up in business as a firearms manufacturer. His design of bolt action rifle was adopted by the US Navy in 1895, and J.P. Lee subcontracted Winchester to produce the 6mm Lee Navy Rifle. It was a straight-pull, rear locking, bolt action rifle designed for speed of use. Winchester produced approximately 20,000 of these rifles, with a 10% rejection level. The rejected rifles were “sporterized” and sold commercially.

The final Browning designed model made by Winchester was the Model 1897 pump action shotgun which was offered in both 12 and 16 bore. This was a stronger action than the Model 1893 with re-designed enclosed receiver and improved breech lock.

Following production of the Model 1897, T.G. Bennett and J.M. Browning quarrelled over the payment Browning was receiving. Browning wanted to receive a royalty per firearm manufactured rather than the existing one-off patent purchase fee. T.G.Bennett then made the worst decision of his tenure and the agreement with J.M.B. was terminated, and as a result the Winchester Repeating Arms Company lost the right of first refusal on arguably the most significant firearms of the 20th century.