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Seen in the hands of countless cowboys and Indians in various western films, the Winchester’ rifle is referred to as the weapon that conquered the West...
Seen in the hands of countless cowboys and Indians in various western films, the Winchester’ rifle is referred to as the weapon that conquered the West. However, there is more than it seems behind the development of repeating rifles, the Winchester rifle had a long and difficult development, involving a large number of rich men and inventors. The weapon and its famous lever action took part in a number of battles before it became a popular weapon of people such as Buffalo Bill, sniper Annie Oakley or President Teddy Roosevelt.
The technology behind the successful Winchester rifle dates back to 1849 when inventor Walter Hunt had his rifle patented which had the essential characteristics of most of the later Winchester rifles, a tubular magazine under the rifle-barrel and lever action in the chamber. This rifle was innovative, but heavy and awkward. For this reason, the design was sold to the gunmaker Lewis Jennings who was to adapt the weapon for massive production. Jennings achieved this goal, and several thousand rifles were sold in 1851.
At that time, both rifles, Jennings’s, and Hunts’, used the hollow-based bullets filled with a black powder at that time. The cartridge case cavity was closed with a lid with a hole through which the flame passed from the detonator attached to the lock. In this regard, the Jennings rifle which had a detonator cartridge integrated in the weapon, so charging, directing, and shooting took place during a single action, which was revolutionary compared to the older concepts.
Despite these advantages, the weapon did not sell well, mainly because of the high manufacturing cost and low efficiency of the shots. However, two inventors, Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson saw potential in the rifle, and in 1854, they founded the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company, dealing with repeating arms. This time, the appearance of the rifle was the one we know from films. Volcanic offered both rifles and guns which were sold with less success. Ultimately, Smith & Wesson sold Volcanic to Oliver Winchester and founded a legendary revolver company that is still working today.
Blue and grey
In 1857, Winchester renamed the company New Haven Arms Company and hired Benjamin Tyler Henry as shop foreman. Henry converted the weapon concept into a reliable and strong ammunition of 0,44 calibre and had this improvement patented in 1860. War started and the weapon built its reputation...
During the American civil war, the Henry rifle was valued on both sides of the conflict. Although these rifles were initially used exclusively by Union soldiers, the Confederation President, Jefferson Davis, equipped the unit of his bodyguards with rifles collected in the battlefield. The Henry rifle was a very expensive weapon, at that time it cost about USD 52.50, but they still sold approximately 9,000 rifles to private clients. The Union army officially bought 1,730 Winchester rifles for USD 36.95 at that time. Although this was a low quantity, compared to 94,496 Spencer repeaters purchased, the Henry rifle gained reputation thanks to greater firing force. The Confederation soldiers said at that time: “that damned Yankee rifle that they load on Sunday and shoot all week.”
After the war, the Henry rifle moved over to the western front. The famous Indian alliance led by the Indian chief Crazy Horse massacred the 7th Cavalry of Lieutenant Colonel Custer in the Battle of Little Bighorn. Excavations by archaeologists show that the Indians were equipped with at least 150 repeating rifles which had much bigger gun power than the single shot breechloaders Custer’s men had.
The 1873 model came at a time when Olivier Winchester renamed his company, this time after himself. The new rifle model underwent several improvements, such as the protection of the user from the blasting temperature, the charging flap on the right side of the breech casing, and a new type of ammunition. This improved rifle proved to be a great commercial success and was produced until 1919.
At the end of the 19th century, ammunition was more and more powerful, and the Winchester Model 1873 failed to keep up. At that time, the largest American weapon inventor John Moses Browning joined the game and offered to design a new loading system that would be able to use the large-gauge bullets. The first rifle with this system was Model 1886, followed by Model 1892 which was only a reduced version. There were over 8 million rifles sold with this stronger ammunition.
Winchester rifles all around
Although the American Army never officially accepted the rifle for its arms, a lot of other countries did. For example, the Ottoman Army used the repeaters during the Russo-Turkey War in 1877. In 1915, the Winchester experienced its’ last very big job order when 300,000 pieces were sold to Russia where it was used on the Eastern front against Germany. Compared to its predecessors, this rifle had a more practical, boxed container.
Along with the Colt gun, the Winchester rifle is one of the most iconic weapons of America in the 19th century. It represents a huge expansion of the industrial power of a young country and a rise among the powers of the West. Its gun power remained unsurpassed at the time. Like a lot of western weapons, it inspired the production of films, such as: Winchester ´73, Assault and True Grit. To date, the Winchester rifle is a synonym for all repeating rifles and is used for sports and hunting purposes.
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