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Winchester Model 1866 Lever Action Rifle
This Model 1866 rifle, manufactured in 1882, features a 24-inch octagonal barrel.
Winchester (U.S.) Model 1866 Lever Action Rifle (repeater /
breech-loading / black powder / cartridge ammunition)
After the Civil War, the industrial states blossomed with new technology. Out of this profusion came what is probably the best known shoulder gun ever made, namely, the lever-action Winchester rifle. Known as the Yellow Boy" because of its brass frame, the Model 1866 featured design improvements by Tyler Henry which allowed the gun to be loaded from the breech. Benito Juarez liked the new gun so much that he purchased 1,000 guns for Mexico. Settlers in the U.S. also bought thousands for frontier use. Based on performance, it is deserving of the title, "The Gun That Won The West." Lever-operated repeating rifles would become the first love of some gun users because the action is so quick and easy to operate."
- Dr. William L. Roberts, THE AMERICAN LIBERTY COLLECTION; #82
Oliver Fisher Winchester was born on November 30, 1810 in
Boston, Massachusetts. Although raised on a farm, Winchester
eventually became a carpenter, and by 1830, he was a construction
supervisor in Baltimore, Maryland. While in Baltimore, he entered
the dry goods business, and after several years, Winchester became
a manufacturer of men's shirts in New Haven, Connecticut. This
venture proved to be sufficiently profitable that he began to
extend his business interests.
In 1855, Winchester became a stockholder and director of the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company, a firearms manufacturing firm that brought together the talents of Winchester with those of Horace Smith, Daniel B. Wesson, and B. Tyler Henry. Volcanic produced lever-action repeating pistols and carbines based on the patents of Smith & Wesson. These two, who would later become famous for their revolvers, had followed up on the earlier repeating rifle designs of Walter Hunt and Lewis Jennings. Smith and Wesson sold their patents and other assets to the newly-organized Volcanic Company, and after a short time, both left Volcanic and began work on the first of many revolvers to bear their names.
The Volcanic's operating mechanism was very similar to that still used today in lever-action repeaters, but the guns were plagued by problems with their self-contained cartridges. These consisted of a hollow-based, powder-filled conical bullet backed by a fulminate primer plate. In addition to problems with velocity due to the limited amount of propellant available, these rounds also had the unfortunate tendency to go off prematurely, sometimes while still in the magazine. A further complication was the Volcanic's lack of an extractor or ejection system. These were not necessary when the ammunition functioned properly, but their lack created additional problems in case of misfires. Consequently, marketing and sales efforts were hampered.
In 1857, financial problems forced Volcanic into insolvency. The company's assets were purchased by Oliver Winchester, who by this time had become Volcanic's president. Winchester reorganized the firm and resumed operations under the name of New Haven Arms Company. Unlike others in the field of firearms manufacture during this period, Winchester's talents lay not as an inventor but as a successful businessman. This success would continue with New Haven, and it extended beyond financial matters to the staffing of the new company. Among those hired by Oliver Winchester was B. Tyler Henry, who became plant manager. Henry had a great deal of experience with repeating firearms, having worked previously for various arms makers, including Smith & Wesson. One of his tasks was to develop a metallic cartridge to replace the inferior self-contained bullets chambered by the Volcanic.
Others, including Daniel Wesson, were also working on this problem, and Wesson's .22 rimfire cartridge may have influenced Henry's efforts. By 1860, Henry had developed a .44 rimfire, and he then turned his efforts to modifying the Volcanic to load, fire, and extract his new cartridge. His subsequent patent for these improvements was assigned to the New Haven Arms Co. The firm abandoned its pistol line and concentrated its efforts on the manufacture of lever-action rifles of Henry's design which also bore his name.
The coming of the Civil War brought with it a great demand for firearms. Although the Henry, with its sixteen-shot tubular magazine and impressive rate of fire was a truly revolutionary rifle, conservative elements within the U.S. Army favored the tried-and-true single-shot muzzle loading rifle-muskets as a standard infantry arm. The government did place orders for a total of over 1,700 Henry rifles, and many of these were issued to troopers of the 1st Maine and 1st District of Columbia Cavalry regiments. Many more found their way into the ranks through private purchase. These rifles provided Union troops with a formidable advantage over their enemies. At least one awed Confederate referred to the Henry as "that damned Yankee rifle that can be loaded on Sunday and fired all week!"
In 1867, the New Haven Arms Company was re-organized and became known as the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, with Oliver Winchester serving as president, treasurer, and board member. The new company also introduced a new firearm, the Winchester Model 1866. These .44 rimfire caliber brass-framed arms were available in musket, rifle, and carbine configurations. Winchester still hoped to crack the military market, but despite the Henry's success and its popularity during the Civil War, the Army remained wedded to the single-shot rifle.
Nonetheless, Henry and Winchester Model 1866 "Yellow Boy" rifles found a ready market on the western frontier. The Indians referred to these arms as "many shots," and "spirit gun," which showed a measure of awe and respect for the products of the New Haven-based company. Many warriors were able to obtain these arms for themselves, and more than twenty of them were used against George A. Custer's 7th Cavalry and their single-shot Springfield carbines at the Little Bighorn in June, 1876. Winchester repeaters also found favor with miners, homesteaders, ranchers, lawmen, and highwaymen. Winchester's success continued with the centerfire Model 1873 and 1876 lever-action repeaters, both of which were available in a range of calibers and optional features. The Model 1886 was a milestone for the company in two respects: it marked the first association between Winchester and designer John Browning, and it was also the first lever-action rifle capable of chambering big-game calibers, including the .50-110 Express cartridge.
Other Browning-designed Winchesters include the Model 1885 single-shot rifle, Model 1887 lever-action shotgun, Model 1890 slide-action rifle, Model 1893, Model 1894, and Model 1895 lever-action rifles. The Model 1894 alone accounted for over five million sales and is still in production. Winchester was able to enter the military market in later years, with sales both to foreign governments and to the U.S. Army.
During both World Wars, Winchester-manufactured rifles and shotguns served U.S. and Allied troops in various parts of the globe. In addition to contract production of the U.S. Model 1917 bolt-action and the famous M1 Garand semi-automatic rifles, Winchester also produced the Model 1897 and Model 12 slide-action shotguns, as well as the M1 Carbine. In the civilian market, the bolt-action Model 70 rifle is still popular with big game hunters, and Winchester lever-action rifles continue to meet with sales success.
Under his leadership Oliver Winchester saw his company rise from near-bankruptcy to become one of the most successful firearms manufacturing firms in the world. He was a gifted businessman who was able to foresee opportunities and to make the most of them, and a skilled judge of people and their abilities, as evidenced both by the success of his company and by his association with men such as Horace Smith, Daniel B. Wesson, B. Tyler Henry, and John Browning. Declining health forced him to take a less active role in the affairs of his firm, but the company's continued success was all but assured by his vision and leadership.
Oliver Winchester died in December, 1880 at the age of 70, but both his name and his company survive. The Winchester Repeating Arms Company was acquired by Olin Corporation, which created U.S. Repeating Arms as the manufacturer of Winchester rifles and shotguns. In addition, Winchester arms were produced by Miroku of Japan. In 1992, U.S. Repeating Arms was purchased by Giat of France.