Winchester Lever Guns
Oliver Winchester (1810-80) was a prosperous shirt-maker who had some capital invested in the Volcanic Arms Company in 1855. This company made a lever-action rifle which used an odd self-contained cartridge which was simply an elongated bullet with the propelling charge in the hollowed- out base. Due to the poor ballistic shape and small charge it was neither powerful nor accurate and the rifle failed to sell; in 1857 the company collapsed. Winchester, however, was convinced of the utility of a repeating rifle, and for just over $39000 he purchased the assets and stock, and set up as the New Haven Arms company. Having no mechanical ability, he then hired Tyler Henry, a brilliant gunsmith and engineer, to redesign the rifle. Henry first developed a 0.44-in (11.2-mm) rimfire cartridge and then rebuilt the rifle. Every rimfire cartridge made since then by Winchester has been marked ‘H’ on its base. The rifle used basically the same lever beneath the stock to actuate a toggle lock and withdraw the bolt as had the earlier Volcanic, and it also used the same tubular magazine beneath the barrel, feeding a fresh round to the breech with every stroke of the lever. Henry’s contribution was to make it more robust and reliable.
The start of the American Civil War would appear to have given Winchester and the Henry rifle a golden opportunity, but in fact the Union Army were not disposed to such complicated devices as repeating rifles and bought very few. On the other hand, sales to State Militia units and to homesteaders in isolated areas were sufficient to carry the company through the war. In the years after the Civil War, many companies who had prospered from the conflict were unable to make the transition to peacetime and collapsed. Winchester, however, was astute enough to promote his rifle overseas to such countries as Peru, France and, particularly. Turkey. The latter bought rifles and ammunition to the tune of $1.46 million and used them to good effect against the Russians at Plevna, a useful publicity boost.
In 1866 the company had been reformed as the Winchester Repeating Arms company and the product became the Winchester rifle. It was Henry’s design still, but with the addition of ‘King’s Improvement’ whereby the magazine was loaded through a port in the receiver instead of from the front end of the magazine tube. Essentially, the Winchester design had arrived at its definitive form, and although the company has made innumerable lever-action models since then, and continues to produce them, they are only superficially changed from the 1866 pattern. The most significant change came with the Model 1873, which introduced center- fire ammunition to the Winchester range.
Although Oliver Winchester had always sought to promote his rifle as a military weapon he had little success in that direction and it became primarily a commercial success. Lever-action rifles are, to say the least, inconvenient when fired from a prone position, and once the military bolt-action had been perfected in magazine form, military use of lever-action rifles almost entirely ceased. The only major adoption of lever-actions after the 1870s was when Winchester sold 293 818 of their Model 1895 rifles to Russia in 1915-17, together with 174 million cartridges, but this can be largely ascribed to the general shortage of rifles at the time. Had supplies of the Mosin-Nagant been readily available, it is doubtful whether these sales would have been made.
In an attempt to enter the bolt-action military field, the Winchester-Hotchkiss was developed in 1883. This had been designed by Benjamin B Hotchkiss (of Hotchkiss machine-gun fame) and Winchester bought the manufacturing rights. It was a bolt-action repeater with tubular magazine in the butt, chambered for the .45-70-405 US government cartridge. The US Army bought 750 of these for extended trial but eventually decided that the time was not yet ripe for adoption of a magazine rifle. With that. Winchester more or less gave up hope for the army and concentrated on commercial work.
The next military venture came with the making, for the US Navy, of the Lee straight-pull bolt-action rifle. The US Navy had agreed to adopt the rifle, but Lee had no facilities for manufacturing in quantity. Winchester therefore bought rights to manufacture, and, as a bonus, tried to push it on the commercial market. The navy’s order amounted to 15000, and once that was completed the rifle was advertised as a sporting weapon. But its small caliber and unusual bolt told against it in the hunting market of the time, and no more than about 1700 were sold commercially.
The First World War saw a vast increase in military orders, among the first of which was a British contract to produce the Enfield P’14 rifle. After some 253 000 had been made, and the US had entered the war, production was turned over to the P’17 model in .30-06 caliber for the US Army and another 550000 were made. In addition, the Browning automatic rifle was made, and some 100 million rounds of .303 ammunition supplied to Britain. The company’s commercial shotguns were also provided with bayonets and supplied as trench-warfare weapons, and 525 million .30-06 cartridges were turned out for the US forces.
In the Second World War production concentrated on the M1 rifle (513 582 made) and the Winchester-designed M1 and M2 carbines, almost a million of both these types being made. In the early years of the war the company developed their Model 30 rifle, a semiautomatic intended to compete with the M1 Garand. This used an action similar to that of the carbine and had a detachable box magazine. The US Army were, understandably, against the idea of having two rifles in service and, being satisfied with the Garand, rejected the Model 30. It was tested by a British representative in September 1940, who reported that “with slight modifications this rifle is suitable for adoption in the British service”. At that time, though, the British were no more keen on changing horses in mid-stream than were the US and the suggestion came to nothing.