History of Winchester

Teddy Roosevelt, San Juan Hill, history of Winchester, Guy Sagi, Fear & Loading, Raeford NC

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

When Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders scaled the heights of San Juan Hill in 1898 the feat captured the entire nation’s imagination. Diplomatic relations were a “mite” strained during his trip, and his officers armed themselves with the best guns available at the time—Winchester Model 1895s. Teddy would have been holding his rifle for that famous summit picture, were it not for the fact he loaned it to another soldier for the assault, and the “endorsement” helped launch a 150-year history of Winchester.

Three years later Roosevelt was in the White House, safely under the newly formed Secret Service presidential security blanket, but still proudly telling the world, “The Winchester…is by all odds the best weapon I ever had, and now I use it almost exclusively…” The statement leaves little doubt as to what would have happened to home invaders who managed to get into his Pennsylvania Avenue address in D.C.

History of Winchester

For 150 years, Winchester Repeating Arms has been an integral part of America’s history. The name oozes frontier spirit and wears a hard-earned reputation for reliability, a legacy that began long before Roosevelt’s.

On May 22, 1866, barely 12 months after the Civil War ended, Oliver F. Winchester established Winchester Repeating Arms in New Haven, CT. The first firearm to wear the company name—the lever-action Model 1866 “Yellow Boy”—rolled out of the factory the same year.

Then came the lever-action Winchester Model 1873 that “Won the West” with fast follow-up shots, flawless action and .44-40 WCF (Winchester Centerfire) chambering. The company’s first bolt-action rifle was produced the same year John Moses Browning began work at the company, 1883, and it wasn’t long until the firm’s cumulative engineering genius was churning out classics like models 1887, 1890, 1894 and 1895. Unfortunately, Winchester died three years before Browning’s arrival and never witnessed his company’s prolific production.

Post World War I Trouble

When World War I began, Winchester Repeating Arms geared up and manufactured a half million U.S. Model 1917 Enfields chambered in .30 ’06 Sprg., 47,000 BARs (which Browning was working on while at the company) and 870 million cartridges. After the war, though, paying back the loans required for expansion proved to be an unsurmountable hurdle, despite efforts to press machinery into service by making knives, refrigerators and roller skates, among other items.

Then the Great Depression hit, the company wound up in receivership and was purchased by Western Cartridge Company—owned by the Olin family—in 1931. In 1935, the firms merged to form Winchester-Western and later became a division of Olin Industries. The introduction of the first Model 70 and its legendary controlled-round feeding in 1936 highlights the fact that the new management didn’t hamper innovation.

World War II stuck shortly after, and again production had to answer the call. During hostilities, the company cranked out more than 15 billion cartridges, 800,000 M1 Carbines, and 1/2 million M1 Garands, a firearm Gen. George S. Patton would claim is “…the greatest battle implement ever devised.”

Employee Ownership and Beyond

A bitter strike at the New Haven, CT, plant began in 1979. In the early 1980s the company became employee owned—for the first time in the history of Winchester—under the U.S. Repeating Arms to continue manufacturing firearms under a license with Olin. Ultimately, financial difficulties resulted in FNH taking over the helm in 1989.

Despite the changes, the more than 150-year history of Winchester still lives and thrives. The .300 Win. Mag. cartridge Winchester Ammunition designed in 1963 continues to make long-distance connections in the Sandbox. To date, the company has manufactured more than two billion rounds of ammunition for our nation’s warfighters to combat terrorism and big-game hunters still rely on the company’s older products, including the flat-shooting .270 Win. (introduced in 1925) and the lobbier .30-30 Win. (1895).

“Winchester is a brand at the very core of the shooting sports and hunting heritage and it’s humbling to know we have helped write history,” said Brett Flaugher, Winchester Ammunition vice president of marketing, sales and strategy. “Our brand is built on integrity, hard work and a deep focus on its most loyal customers. With a deep emphasis on innovative products, the Winchester brand remains one of the most recognized and respected brands around the world.”

*Here’s a close look at another legend, Remington, a familiar name with enthusiasts for more than 200 years.