Winchester rifles face end of an era

March 26, 2006|By STEVENSON SWANSON | STEVENSON SWANSON,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- The Duke looks worried. He should be.

The fretful expression on the 8-foot-high statue of John Wayne matches the somber mood these days at the U.S. Repeating Arms Co., where Wayne's larger-than-life figure stands watch in the lobby, his left hand clutching the company's most famous firearm - a Winchester rifle, the "gun that won the West."

Unless frantic 11th-hour efforts to find a buyer for the factory bear fruit, the plant will shut down Friday. With that, an American legend with a history that stretches back more than 140 years will come to an end.

And 186 employees, a shadow of the 19,000 who once filled the now-decaying Winchester factory complex here, will be out of jobs.

The lever-action Winchester was a product of America's early Industrial Age that went on to a second career as the rifle of choice in countless Westerns starring Wayne and others. But the weapon that could spit out a blazing volley of fire with withering accuracy stands on the verge of being felled by declining sales and globalization.

Last year, the plant produced 80,000 guns, about a quarter of its capacity.

Since the plant closing was announced in January, a sense of loss has spread through the ranks of hunters, gun collectors and participants in the nostalgic Wild West sport called cowboy action shooting.

"We are very upset," said David Bichrest, executive secretary of the 2,000-member Winchester Arms Collectors Association. "The phone has been ringing off the hook."

The phones and fax machines have also been busy at the Cody Firearms Museum, part of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo. The museum, which has a trove of manufacturing records from the rifle plant, has been fielding a record volume of requests from gun owners who want to authenticate their Winchesters, either out of curiosity or to help establish the gun's value.

"It's kind of a bittersweet thing," said curator David Kennedy. "It's part of our firearms heritage. But I can understand it from a business perspective."

U.S. Repeating Arms, owned by the Belgium-based Herstal Group, makes three Winchester models at the New Haven factory - the pump-action Model 1300 shotgun and two highly regarded rifles, the Model 70 bolt-action and the Model 94 lever-action repeating rifle. The Model 94, first introduced in 1894 and modified slightly over the decades, is the descendant of the fast-firing rifle beloved of cowboys and outlaws alike.

Under current plans, the Winchester brand name would live on in models made in Belgium, Japan and Portugal, but the three U.S.-made models will be retired.

That would close a chapter of American industrial history that started with the founding of the Volcanic Repeating Arms Co. in 1855. The company produced the first lever-action rifle from a design by Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson, who became famous for their handguns.

During the Civil War, the company, then called the New Haven Arms Co., made its first notable firearm, the Henry repeating rifle. However, the company did not find a sure footing until 1866, when Oliver Winchester, a shirt manufacturer and investor with a flair for marketing, took control, renaming the firm after himself and introducing the Winchester '66.

A few years later, a redesign yielded the classic Winchester '73, with a better firing mechanism and greater accuracy.

"It weighed but 7 1/2 pounds and could be fired 12 times without reloading," firearms historian R. L. Wilson wrote of the '73.

Famous figures on both sides of the law popularized the Winchester. In the only known photograph of Billy the Kid, the murderous youth holds a Winchester and a Colt revolver - the other ubiquitous firearm of the Wild West.

Theodore Roosevelt was also a devotee, writing that "the Winchester is the best gun for any game to be found in the United States, for it is as deadly, accurate and handy as any, stands very rough usage, and is unapproachable for the rapidity of its fire."

Whether it deserved its later reputation as the tamer of the frontier is another matter. The company first used the slogan "the gun that won the West" in 1919, by which time the myth of the Wild West had been firmly established by Buffalo Bill's touring shows and the infant movie industry.

"It's very much an advertising campaign," said Kennedy, the firearms museum curator. "By far, the most common gun in the West was the shotgun."

Bichrest, of the collectors association, says that a high-powered Sharps rifle, used to shoot buffalo, did more to win the West than the Winchester because the near-annihilation of the shaggy beasts played an important role in forcing the Indians, who depended on them for food and clothing, to move to reservations.

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