The original Winchester rifle was famous for its rugged construction and lever-action breech mechanism that allowed the rifleman to fire a number of shots before having to reload, hence the term "repeating rifle".
The first model, the Model 1866, was nicknamed Yellow Boy because of its brass receiver. This model is sometimes referred to as The Gun That Won The West, but the Model 1873 is sometimes referred to this as well. The guns were available in many calibers, most of which were also available in Colt, Remington and other revolvers. This allowed the owner to carry two firearms, both using the same ammunition.
The idea of a repeating rifle had been the subject of many inventions since the use of firearms began, but few of these had proven to be practical, mainly because the modern cartridge, which made repeating arms practical, had not yet been developed.
Repeating revolvers had been popular in the mid 19th century. One of these revolving pistols, the Colt was very successful, and a rifle version was produced but it was not widely popular. The more successful Spencer rifles and carbines of the American Civil War were a notable step forward, but were not completely satisfactory in various respects.
The ancestor of the Winchester rifles was the Volcanic lever action rifle of Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson. It was originally manufactured by the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company, which was later reorganized into the New Haven Arms Company, its largest stockholder being Oliver Winchester.
The Volcanic rifle used a form of "caseless" ammunition and had only limited success. Wesson had also designed an early form of rimfire cartridge which was subsequently perfected by B. Tyler Henry. Henry also supervised the redesign of the rifle to use the new ammunition, retaining only the general form of the breech mechanism and the tubular magazine. This became the Henry rifle of 1860, which was manufactured by the New Haven Arms Company and was used in considerable numbers by certain Union army units in the civil war.
After the war Oliver Winchester continued to exercise control of the company, renaming it the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, and had the basic design of the Henry rifle completely modified and improved to become the first Winchester rifle, the Model 1866, which fired centerfire cartridges and had an improved magazine and, for the first time, a wooden forearm. The company later bought and manufactured several of John Browning's highly superior rifle and shotgun designs and was a major producer of M1917 Enfield military rifles during World War I. Working at the Winchester plant during that war, Browning developed the final design of the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), of which it produced some 27,000. Browning and the Winchester engineers also developed the Browning .50 caliber (12.7 mm) machine gun during the war. The caliber .50 (12.7 mm) ammunition for it was designed by the Winchester ballistic engineers.
The commercial rights to these new Browning guns were owned by Colt's. In 1931 the Winchester firm was purchased by the Olin Corporation and continued its production of civilian rifles and shotguns. At Winchester the U.S.
M1 carbine was designed by engineers Clifford Warner and Ralph Clarkson (contrary to a widely published myth, not by D.M. Williams) and was then manufactured in large numbers by Winchester and other firms. During World War II Winchester was the sole civilian producer of the M1 rifle and later was the first civilian manufacturer of the M14 rifle.
In the mid 1950's S. K. Janson formed a new Winchester design group to advance the use of modern engineering design methods and manufacturing principles in gun design. The result was a new line of guns which replaced most of the older products. Olin later sold off Winchester's firearms manufacturing business, retaining the ammunition business. Winchester guns are today made by the U.S. Repeating Arms Company.
- Official website (http://www.usracmfg.com/)