Today we pay tribute to one of the greatest fathers of the firearms industry, Oliver Fisher Winchester. Though it is a misnomer that Oliver F. Winchester invented the Henry Rifle, he was an inventive businessman embracing new ideas, processes and research to create one of the most legendry firearm manufacturers in United States history.
In what is a classic Americana rags-to-riches story, Mr. Winchester was born to an impoverished family in Boston MA on November 30, 1810. His father died a year after Oliver was born and his mother struggled to provide for her family. Winchester started working at the young age of seven, doing farm work to help his small family. In his early 20s, after apprenticing, he became a master carpenter.
In 1848, Winchester moved to New Haven, CT and opened the first shirt factory in the United States. The factory made Winchester a very rich man, enabling him to invest in other companies. In 1855, Winchester, along with several other stockholders, purchased the failing Volcanic Repeating Arms division of
. The division was developing the unsuccessful “rocket ball ammunition” and corresponding lever-action repeating Volcano Rifle. When Winchester took over, he retained the rights to the rifle and the ammunition.
Oliver Winchester believed the repeating rifle would be more successful than Smith & Wesson’s revolvers, but knew the Volcano would need improvement. Winchester hired gunsmith Benjamin Tyler Henry to work on improving the repeating rifle and develop a new cartridge—the .44 caliber. Production on the rifle started two years later. By 1865, the company became Henry Repeating Arms. It was not until a year later the name
Winchester Repeating Arms Company would be its final brand.
The Henry repeating rifle is one of the most important firearm developments in history as it was the first successful magazine-fed, breech-loading gun. Winchester strongly believed in his company’s repeating lever-action rifle and attempted to sell it to the United States military. He said about the rifle, “Probably it will modify the art of war; possibly it may revolutionize the whole science of war.” However, the Henry rifle did not pass the military’s stringent tests, and the U.S. passed on accepting it. Despite this, Civil War soldiers saw the value in the rifle that could shoot 28 rounds per minute, and many purchased the rifle with their own money. Confederate soldiers called the Henry “that damned Yankee rifle that they load on Sunday and shoot all week.” After the war, Winchester hired Nelson King to make improvements and modifications again to the repeating rifle. This developed into the Winchester Model 1866—one of the most famous firearms in history. King was able to move the loading gate on the Henry to the side its receiver, enclosing the magazine and adding a wood forearm. It was the first rifle to bear the Winchester Repeating Arms name. Though the U.S. military did not adopt the rifle, introduction of the Model 1866 came at the right time when settlers were moving west. This is how the Winchester Model 1866 got the reputation as the “gun that won the west.”
Oliver F. Winchester built his empire from virtually nothing. His eye for innovation, research, new manufacturing processes and marketing ideas, made his company, family, and business incredibly successful. From one wise man’s vision and opportunity from a failing firearms company, Winchester built one of the greatest and best-known firearms companies in the world. With over one million guns produced, Winchester Repeating Arms has been building quality firearms and ammunition for over 150 years.
Oliver F. Winchester passed away on December 11, 1880. Here’s to you, Mr. Winchester. We anticipate many more years of purchasing “Winchester White Box” for our most-trusted firearms.