150 Years of Winchester: The Man Who Started it All: Oliver F. Winchester
We touched on Oliver Winchester’s role at the helm of the company that bears his name earlier this year in Live the Legend and looked more at the development of the company than the man.
But who actually was Oliver F. Winchester? As one of the most historic and enduring brand names in all of firearms and shooting, the Winchester brand’s namesake, Oliver F. Winchester was neither personally a gun builder by trade nor an engineer or designer. He was a businessman in the purest sense of the word, who had the ability to identify good designs and find the funding to support efforts to improve upon them.
Without his involvement at the helm of a fledgling Connecticut Arms Company in the mid 1800s, what is Winchester today may have never been
Oliver F. Winchester was born in 1810 on a poor Boston farm and tried a variety of jobs early in life including carpentry, clerking, farming and construction before running a men’s furnishing store in Baltimore through much of his 20s and 30s, according to the book Bulls, Bears, Boom, and Bust: A Historical Encyclopedia of American Business. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, in 1948 he moved to New Haven, Connecticut, to start a factory that manufactured dress shirts. It was his company that developed a patented new way to manufacture shirts. He was successful at that business and soon amassed a measure of wealth, when he learned of a pair of gun builders, Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson (later of Smith & Wesson fame), were seeking investors to support development of their Volcanic Repeating Arms Company, which sought to build and market an improved design of the lever-action rifle. Winchester became their biggest investor.
The venture enjoyed only limited success. It moved from Norwich, Connecticut, to New Haven in 1856, a year after its founding, but soon became insolvent. Winchester and business partner John M. Davies still believed in the product. They purchased the company’s assets and renamed it the New Haven Arms Company in 1857. They also retained the services of Volcanic shop foreman Benjamin Tyler Henry, who perfected the design of a self-contained metallic rimfire cartridge that later became the 44 Henry. Using a similar lever-action mechanism in his own rifle design, he also created what would become the Henry rifle, the first repeating rifle to use the 44 Henry cartridge. They would see service during the Civil War by some Union troops, which ultimately assured the design’s success.
In 1866, a divide had grown in the company and Henry felt he had been unfairly compensated, according to the Winchester Arms Collector’s Association. To right the perceived wrong, he attempted to have the state legislature award him ownership of the company. Winchester, who was in Europe at the time, rushed home and managed to stop the action. He then reorganized the company as the Winchester Repeating Arms Company on May 22, 1866 and under his guidance, the company was improving upon and selling more famed lever-action designs that were among the best selling of their day. Winchester would helm the company until his death in 1880 at the age of 70. The rest, as they say, is history…