The Winchester: The Gun That Built an American Dynasty
by Laura Trevelyan
The maker of the iconic Winchester ’73 – “The Gun That Won The West” – was a New England-based shirt maker with little firearms experience descended from modest immigrants from England. Oliver Fisher Winchester began his business career going from haberdasher to manufacturing shirts based on his own patented design still used on men’s garments today. While he knew almost nothing about guns at the time, fate coupled with his business and manufacturing sense put him in dealings with the almost-bankrupt Volcanic Arms Company. As odd as it seems today, the Industrial Revolution hadn’t quite caught on and the idea of a mass-produced repeating firearm had yet to appeal to the military and others in need of arms. Benjamin Tyler Henry of Henry Repeating Rifles fame was initially hired by Winchester to repair and maintain sewing machines at the company’s New Haven-based shirt factory. The Winchester name so entrenched in the firearms world began life as a shirt maker and would go on to make things like electric irons, lunch kits, lawn mowers, roller skates, and ice skates.
The Winchester: The Gun That Built an American Dynasty by Laura Trevelyan is a detailed account of the history of the families and businesses behind and surrounding the Winchester name. The book details the extraordinary life of Oliver Winchester, the company, and its rapid rise and slow fall as told by a distant family descendant and noted BBC anchor and correspondent. From Little Bighorn to the Winchester Mystery House, the entire history of an American icon is told in great detail. The rise and fortunes of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company spans three generations, from Oliver Winchester’s involvement with the Volcanic Arms Company in 1855 through the following turbulent decades of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This family business rose through the Civil War era, continued to grow through World War I, and began to slowly decline thereafter.
With six very detailed chapters, the book opens with the Winchester family tree and “The Damn Yankee Rifle” chronicling Winchester’s rise and the company’s firearms as used through the Civil War era and follows with “The Spirit Gun” as Winchester expanded and their rifles became popular through the Western expansion. Business and family details and dramas continue in “The Wrestler” and “Lady of Mystery” with the family behind the company the built The Gun That Won The West, setting the stage for “Decline and Fall” through World War II and the current state of the company in “Aftermath.”
Winchester arms mirrored American expansion and rugged individualism at the opening up of the Western frontier. These paradigm-changing firearms became a part of American culture celebrated in fiction and praised by the real shooters using them.
Read more in the January 2017 issue.