15 Oct 19
How we got here!
Walter Hunt in 1848 designed the Volition Repeating Rifle. It combined a primitive “lever-action,” tube magazine, and self-contained cartridges, consisting of a hollow lead bullet that contained powder, but no primer. A primer had to be emplaced before each shot could be fired.
Hunt’s revolutionary rifle never got beyond the prototype stage, but Lewis Jennings improved Hunt’s original design the following year and actually went into production in 1851 through Robbins and Lawrence, and called the new product the “Smith-Jennings Rifle”
Involved in the production team were Ben T Henry, Dan Wesson, Horace Smith, and Courtland Palmer.
The project was a financial failure, as there was scant consumer interest. They went out of business in 1852.
In 1854, Smith, Wesson, and Palmer revived the project, this time adding a primer to the self-contained cartridge. “Smith & Wesson” was thus born, but promptly went broke! A few pistols were made, but again there was little consumer interest.
Shirt-maker, Oliver Winchester, then stepped-in (1855) with fresh funds, and the project was revived once more, now called the “Volcanic Repeating Arms Company.” Winchester liked the term “Volcanic,” after reading a Scientific American article on volcanoes.
But, it also met with quick failure. No consumer interest!
Winchester and Ben Henry then went off by themselves and formed the “New Haven Arms Company” in 1857.
Smith and Wesson went their own way and started making revolvers!
S&W developed a metallic-cased, 22 caliber, rimfire cartridge. Together with Rolland White, who had the idea for the bored-through cylinder, they form the new S&W Company and make a seven-shot revolver in 1857.
Revolvers from Colt were available at the time, but they were all loaded from the front of the cylinder, with a separate primer (cap) that had to be added at the rear of each cylinder. S&W’s new revolver could be loaded/reloaded much faster!
Meanwhile, Ben Henry developed his famous metallic rimfire cartridge (44 Henry), an improved rifle to fire it (the Henry Rifle), which incorporated Hunt’s original tube magazine and lever action.
The main problem with Hunt’s original “Rocket Ball” cartridge was obturation, adequately sealing the chamber during ignition and subsequent propagation of the bullet down the barrel. It was a persistent issue with all attempts at designing breech-loading guns. Hence, all Volcanic pistols and rifles were low powered and short range.
Metallic (copper, later brass) cartridges cases solved that problem and made powerful, log range cartridges possible.
Winchester again swooped-in and reorganized the project under the name “Winchester Repeating Arms Company.”
The Henry Rifle was used by some Union Troops at the very end of the American Civil War, but came along too late in the conflict to have any significant influence.
However, repeating arms now rose to the forefront of public consciousness, and success would no longer elude Winchester and Henry!
Most pistol and rifle barrels of the era were octagons. This is because bar-stock of the era used for making barrels was mostly square,, and cutting off the edges, making eight sides instead of four, was much easier than chucking-up the square bar on a lathe and turning it into a circle.
Winchester’s company thereafter enjoyed spectacular success, but curiously his lever-action rifles, with all their advantages, never garnered the interest of war planners in the USA.
However, they did in Russia and number of other countries, worldwide!
Winchester’s first rifle’s (Model of 1866) main improvement over the Henry Rifle (1860) was the addition of King’s Patent Loading gate (named after Nelson King, a Winchester employee), a sizable technological advancement over the front-loading tube of the Henry Rifle.
Both the original Henry and the new Winchester 1866 were chambered for 44 Henry, a rimfire cartridge with an all-copper case. Both rifles had duel firing pins.
The 44 Henry was, at least be today’s standards, a pistol cartridge (220 gr bullet at 1200 f/s), so the rifle itself was a 100m gun.
Black-powder rifling twist-rates ranged from 1:40″ to 1:60″, far milder than what is common with modern rifles using smokeless propellant.
Oliver Winchester and Ben T Henry ultimately had a falling-out, with Winchester the clear winner! Henry subsequently faded away, working as in independent gunsmith until his death in 1898 (age 77)
Next technological leap forward was the Winchester of 1873, chambered for the 44WCF (44-40), a center-fire cartridge (200 gr bullet at 1400 f/s), now with a brass case. Range went from 100mm to 200m, but it was still mostly a pistol round.
Brass receiver was replaced with steel. Also added was a sliding dust-cover.
Colt’s “Frontier Model” SA revolver of 1878 was cleverly chambered for the same cartridge!
The Winchester 1873 provided the central theme for the 1950 feature film, “Winchester ‘73.” Main character was Lim McAdam (played by Jimmy Stewart). Rock Hudson and a very young Tony Curtis also starred.
Next came the Winchester Rifle of 1876, chambered for the Winchester’s proprietary, and vastly more powerful,
bottleneck 45-75 round (350 gr bullet at 1300 f/s). The receiver was larger and more robust than on the 1873.
The 1876 could be used effectively on bear, elk, etc.
The government 45-70 round of the era came in several different lengths, and therefore could not be chambered for a production lever-action rifle with a receiver of fixed dimensions.
Sharps Rifle Company, makers of single-shot rifles, would go out of business in 1881, unable to compete with Winchester!
Winchester’s next rifle, 1886, used JM Browning’s design (which Winchester bought from Browning), that now incorporated locking lugs and made for a much stronger action than the Henry toggle-lock which had been used on all lever-guns up until then.
Browning’s half-brother (Ed Browning), and his (JM’s) son, Val Browning, were both also prolific gun designers and promoters.
The Model of 1886 instantly rendered all previous lever-guns obsolete!
Winchester then took the Government 45-70 case and used it to produce a plethora of permutations, all with the “WCF” suffix (45-90, 38-56, 38-70, 40-65, 40-70, 40-82, 45-70, 45-90, et al) all shootable in the 1886 Rifle. Velocities ranged from 1300-1500 f/s.
On the 1886, the receiver was well sealed, so a dust-cover was no longer necessary.
Model of 1892 was next, and the second Browning-designed rifle produced and marketed by Winchester. It was intended as a replacement for the 1873, that is: a modern lever-gun in pistol calibers.
The Model of 1892 was produced well into the 20th Century, but in the 1930s was re-designated “92,” so it didn’t sound quite so old!
It was the Winchester 1892 that was used by Lucas McCain ( played by Chuck Conners) in the ABC TV series “The Rifleman,” 1958-1963
The model of 1894, also a Browning design, was the first smokeless-powder-cartridge-firing rifle of the Winchester lever-gun series, and by far the most popular. In fact, it was the most popular commercial rifle ever produced in the USA!
Over seventy percent of 1894s produced were in 30WCF (30-30), Winchester’s new smokeless-powder cartridge. There was never a black-powder version of the 30-30.
The 1894 has an improved lock-up with a transfer-bar ignition, and a trigger-safety. Over two million were ultimately manufactured.
John Browning worked closely with Winchester until 1905. Winchester essentially bought every patent Browning came up with, many of which were never produced, never even saw the light of day.
Winchester’s 1895 lever-action (box magazine) rifle was the last Browning-designed weapon ever produced by Winchester!
It was stripper-clip-fed and chambered for a number of smokeless cartridges, including 30-40 Krag, 303 British, 30-06, and 7.62x54R, for the Russians. In fact, most of the 1895 production went to Russia, where they saw heavy military use and were highly regarded!
When in 1905 Browning came to Winchester with his idea for an autoloading shotgun, Browning demanded a royalty payment on every unit sold. Heretofore, he had received a lump-sum payment from Winchester for each of his designs (whether they were ever went into production, or became a commercial success or not, as noted above).
Winchester balked at the royalty idea, and that abruptly ended their relationship with John Browning!
Browning then took himself and his ideas to FN in Belgium!
By 1899, FN was marketing Browning’s first autoloading pistol, and Browning was, once again, off to a whole new success story!