150 Legendary Years.

Happy 150th Anniversary to Winchester!

Join with Winchester fans around the world in celebrating the 150th birthday of the founding of the Winchester brand. A century and a half has passed since Oliver F. Winchester first began his journey to create the brand that bears his name. Winchester quickly became a manufacturing powerhouse that helped create and define the Industrial Revolution. It’s a brand whose products, quite literally, have helped change the course of world history. 

The 22nd of May is considered by many as the day of the actual founding of Winchester. 

Winchester 150th Anniversary Logo
Oliver Winchester

The Historical Backstory to a Legendary Brand.

To better understand the significance of this historic 150th anniversary, let’s take a look at the backstory - the unique circumstances that lead Oliver F. Winchester to create the brand and products known ‘round the world as “Winchester.” 

In the mid-1800s the world of firearms and ammunition design was quickly evolving. The days of single-shot firearms that were laboriously loaded from the muzzle were fast coming to a close and the race was on to develop a self-contained cartridge – one that incorporated the projectile, propellant and primer into a single package, and to create a reliable repeating firearm that could use such ammunition.

Walter Hunt’s “Rocket Ball” ammunition. Among the notable milestones in this development process was Walter Hunt’s “Volition Repeating Rifle.” (In addition to guns and ammunition, Mr. Hunt also invented the safety pin and the fountain pen.) Patented in 1848, Hunt’s “Rocket Ball” ammunition had a hollow-based lead bullet filled with black powder, which was kept in place by a cork base plug fitted with a small flash hole. “Rocket Balls” were fed from a tubular magazine under the barrel into the chamber where either a “pill primer” or a metallic percussion cap on an external nipple was used to ignite the propellant.

Walter Hunt inventor

The mechanic and inventor Walter Hunt (see photo) must be given significant credit for the early innovations that lead to the Henry and Winchester 1866 rifles. Read about him on the Rock Island Auction website. 

150th anniversary diagram of patent
150th Anniversary Volcanic

The repeating pistol. In short order several major improvements to the original Hunt design were made by Lewis Jennings and Horace Smith, particularly on the gun’s tubular magazine and feeding system. In turn, Horace Smith soon teamed up with Daniel Wesson and Benjamin Tyler Henry to create a repeating pistol that loaded a self-contained cartridge from the magazine tube by manually working a lever located in front of the trigger, under the receiver. Their ammunition design also improved on the original “Rocket Ball” by adding a priming compound and metal disk to the back of the cartridge. 

Giving Back to America and the World.

Aside from being one of the “captains of American industry” in the mid-1800s, Oliver Fisher Winchester was deeply involved in his community. Mr. Winchester served as Lt. Governor of Connecticut from 1866 to 1868, and was a presidential elector in the national election of 1868.

Oliver F. Winchester also made substantial contributions to worthy public causes, including Yale University, which is adjacent to the original Winchester factory located at Munson and Canal Streets in New Haven, Connecticut.

Today the Yale Divinity School is located on the site of Oliver F. Winchester’s personal mansion.

The Jane Ellen Hope Building at the Yale School of Medicine was donated by Mrs. T.G. Bennett, the wife of a later president of Winchester, in memory of her mother, Oliver F. Winchester’s wife.

Oliver Fisher Winchester.
Oliver Fisher Winchester.
An early drawing/engraving of the Winchester factory.
An early drawing/engraving of the Winchester factory.
John Olin
John Olin
Jane Winchester Hope Building
Jane Ellen Hope Building at Yale.

The Assets of Winchester Repeating Arms Company were acquired in 1931 by Western Cartridge Company, a predecessor of Olin Corporation. Olin’s founder, Franklin Olin, and his sons John and Spencer were also “captains of American industry” and have been some of the twentieth century's most influential philanthropists in the fields of higher education, public policy and history.

  • The Olin libraries at Cornell University, Washington University in St. Louis and Rollins College in Florida are products of their philanthropy.
  • The John Olin Foundation was founded in 1953 to defend America’s tradition of free enterprise and individual liberty, and support their extension to benefit as many Americans as possible.
  • The law schools at the University of Chicago, Harvard, Stanford, Virginia, and Yale have Olin-sponsored Law-and-Economics centers.
  • Programs supported by the Olin Foundation gave rise to the Federalist Society for conservative and libertarian law students, lawyers, judges, and professors and has helped transform legal education and shape the federal judiciary.
  • NILO Farms (Olin spelled backward) is a 640-acre hunting preserve in Illinois, and is used in part to research modern game management methods.

Oliver Fisher Winchester
An early investor was a maker of men’s shirts from New Haven, CT, named Oliver Fisher Winchester.

The trio of Smith, Wesson and Henry called their new company the “Volcanic Repeating Arms Company,” and one of their early investors was a maker of men’s shirts from New Haven, Connecticut, named Oliver Fisher Winchester. Mr. Winchester was elected to the board of directors in 1855. In time two of the firm’s designers, Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson, left to pursue the idea of combining their self-contained ammunition with another new development, the revolver. (If you’re a gun person, you know the results of those efforts – it’s called Smith & Wesson.)

As the man who bankrolled the Volcanic firm through difficult times, by 1857 Oliver F. Winchester held all the assets and the firm was renamed the “New Haven Arms Company.” Oliver Winchester soon tasked Mr. Henry with improving the Volcanic ammunition design and developing the Volcanic repeating handgun into a rifle. 

Henry Rifle

The legendary Henry rifle was born. By the late 1850s Mr. Henry had developed both a fully self-contained .44-caliber rimfire cartridge enclosed by a metallic case, and a better firing mechanism in the rifle that used twin firing pins for more reliable ignition. The design was patented in 1860. 

Henry's Patent Repeating Rifle

The President Lincoln connection. As the United States continued her westward expansion and tragically plunged into a Civil War in 1861, Oliver F. Winchester actively sought both military contracts and commercial sales. One of his signature sales methods was to present a beautifully engraved Henry rifle to important decision makers. One such gun was ornately engraved “Lincoln / President / U.S.A.” for none other than Abraham Lincoln.

This priceless rifle now resides in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution. (You might be interested to know that President Lincoln himself was a U.S. patent-holding inventor and an avid student of firearms innovation. It’s said he personally tested several new gun designs by shooting at stumps on a vacant lot next to the White House and was a very competent marksman.)

150th anniversary Lincoln Rifle
Abraham Lincoln

Oliver F. Winchester Creates the “Winchester Repeating Arms Company." Never one to be satisfied with the status quo, Oliver F. Winchester created the “Winchester Repeating Arms Company” in 1866. He continued to refine the original Henry lever-action design and asked his plant superintendent, Nelson King (who had recently replaced Mr. Henry in that role) to make some changes. Mr. King’s improvements included an enclosed magazine tube, a side loading gate and a wooden forearm. The new gun was called the Model 1866, and it represents the lever-action rifle as we know it today. 

150th Anniversary Model 1866 Rifle

Happy 150th anniversary!  So there you have it – a short history on how the development of firearms and ammunition designs in the mid-1800s lead to the creation of Winchester. We hope you’ll join in wishing the Winchester brand a very happy 150th anniversary – and many more to come!

Links to the Winchester timeline and more Winchester history and stories.

Article copyright Winchester Repeating Arms, 2016. Written by Winchester Repeating Arms staff writer, Scott Engen. Most photos above are used with permission and others, to the best of our understanding, are in the public domain.