“Where’s Winchester?” she asked. The woman is an expat American living here in Costa Rica. She was referring to the word embroidered on my baseball cap, trying to make small talk.
“It’s not a place,” I said, “It’s a rifle.” She could scarcely hide her horror. From her expression you would think I had offered her some beads for a peek at her tah tahs. She dove for cover at the buffet. PC angst at any favorable mention of firearms lives as large among expats as it does among liberals in the States.
Winchester, as anyone with a passing familiarity with guns knows, is synonymous with the rugged, lightweight, powerful rifle that won the American West, the Cowboy Rifle.
I thought of that question today when I learned that the U.S. Repeating Arms Company, after 140 years of continuous production, will shut down its factory in New Haven, Connecticut on April 1. The uniquely American weapon and icon of the American west, will be made no more.
It’s hardly hot news these days to hear of another American factory closing. I’ve become keenly aware since moving to Costa Rica and seeing factories again, of how rare they have become in the States. There are still factories here. This is one of the many places American companies are moving to.
Winchester, like many other American manufacturers, has been fading away steadily for many years. What remains of the company is already overseas. Fewer than 200 will lose their jobs when the New Haven plant closes. Oliver Winchester himself would have shut it down if it wasn’t making money. I wouldn’t suggest anything else. But I will mourn its passing nonetheless.
What saddens me is not the death of a failing business, but the passing of a unique symbol of American enterprise, innovation, industry, and individualism. The rifle, the simplest of internal combustion engines, was the machine that led America’s entry into the industrial age. It was the machine that allowed Americans to explore and tame the vast wilderness of the continent. The Winchester Repeating Arms Company perfected the technology of that machine and put modern firepower into a compact, reliable and affordable package.
When the Civil War began rifles were still practically hand made. To load one you had to shove black powder and a lead ball down the barrel with a stick. The reliable repeating rifle was the cold fusion of 19th century weapons technology. A literal pot of gold awaited whoever could produce a good repeating long gun. The brightest minds in American engineering, manufacturing and marketing came to New England like modern computer engineers flock to the West Coast, and more recently New Delhi.
Among them were men whose names have become synonymous with excellence in firearms design and manufacture. Colt, Sharps, Smith, Wesson, Marlin, and Winchester ─ all manufactured guns in and around New Haven, Connecticut.
Winchester built on the success of a few excellent but flawed patents for a lever action repeating rifle. The rifle featured a tubular magazine mounted beneath the barrel and a loop of steel behind the trigger that worked the action. It is a design that is immediately recognizable the world over as the American Cowboy Rifle.
After the Civil War the 1866 model found friends among pioneers heading west. The improved 1873 model was chambered for cartridges identical to those used in most pistols of the day, giving it a competitive advantage over rifles that needed their own special ammo. The 1873 was among the first complex machines to be mass-produced in America. Over 750,000 were made.
The Winchester was friend to defender as well as conqueror. Historians are fairly certain that the fate of General Custer’s troops at the Little Big Horn was sealed by a few dozen Sioux braves equipped with early versions of the Winchester. Custer’s doomed men fought with single shot Springfield carbines. The U.S. Cavalry’s frugal commanders in D.C. were concerned that equipping them with repeaters would be ruinously expensive in ammo.
Subsequent Winchester models were improved by collaboration with gun-design genius John Moses Browning. His designs for the models 1886, ‘92, ’94 and ‘95 were the guns that dominated the market for 50 years. Browning’s improvements allowed the light, handy rifle to fire full sized cartridges, giving it the power for large game and military use. Over 6,000,000 of the 1894 model would be manufactured.
Winchesters filled the hands of good and bad guys alike. The only known picture of “Billy the Kid,” shows him holding a Winchester. Theodore Roosevelt thought there was no better weapon for hunting big game on any continent. He nicknamed his 405 caliber Winchester “Big Medicine.” Winchesters earned their keep across the west and fame and fortune for more than a few. Buffalo Bill always carried a Winchester in his Wild West Shows. Sharpshooter Annie Oakley used the Winchester ’94 exclusively.
The rifle and the Old West were immortalized together by Hollywood. The early model co-stared with James Stewart in the 1950 movie classic “Winchester 1873.” John Wayne carried and fought with Winchesters in John Ford westerns throughout the 50’s and 60’s. With a Winchester in one hand, a Colt six-shooter in the other and the reins in his teeth the one-eyed fat man, Rooster Cogburn, took on and defeated Robert Duvall and his three bad buddies in True Grit.
Undistinguished as a pro ballplayer, Chuck Connors was unforgettable as Lucas McCain in The Rifleman. He blasted his way into my living room every week for a few years in the early 60’s. He used an 1892 Winchester, specially modified for rapid fire, to keep the peace and whup-up on the bad guys in the popular TV series. The trailer for every episode showed Chuck cutting loose with 12 unbelievably fast shots. I can replay it in my head at will.
In the hit series Wanted: Dead or Alive Steve McQueen squinted his way to fame as bounty hunter Josh Randall. The modifications he made to his ’92 Winchester would get any BATF agent’s drawers in a wad today. He shortened his rifle at both ends, turning it into what he called a Mair’s Laig, a weapon which if possessed without proper documentation today would put the owner at risk of 10 years in prison. I recall at age 9 or so owning a replica in plastic that was the coolest gun on my block for at least one TV season.
More recently Tom Cruise did some fancy shooting with his Winchester before giving it up for a sword in The Last Samuri.
A while back I rescued a pal’s 30-30 Winchester from a flood he had in his house while he was away. I didn’t know at the time I was preserving a historic artifact. I hope he’s keeping it oiled up.
The answer now to the question “Where’s Winchester” is “No where, they don’t make those cowboy guns any more.” Adios, Amigo. It was a heck of a run.