Oliver Winchester established the company bearing his name on May 22, 1866, in New Haven, Conn., the same year he introduced the Model 1866. The long gun most often credited with winning the west—the Model 1873—appeared seven years later. It was innovative in another way, bringing with it the new .44-40 Winchester Center Fire, the company’s first centerfire cartridge.
By 1894, guns were coming out of the factory at a frequency that would make even modern-day competitors jealous. There was one model that year, followed the next with the Model 1895, .30-30 Win. cartridge and line of Rival shotshells in a wide variety of sizes.
Winchester thrived, but a marketing coup in 1898 made the name familiar to mainstream America. Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders posed for a photo on Cuba’s San Juan Hill with their Model 1895s at their side, which were not standard issue at the time for the U.S. Army. The front-page story and image permanently cemented the brand in firearm history.
The company retooled during World War I to produce Pattern 14 Enfields for Great Britain, an expensive venture that was followed several years later by the Great Depression. Sales plummeted, and finances suffered.
Western Cartridge Company—established by Franklin W. Olin—rode to the rescue in 1931 by purchasing the company. Management changes didn’t hamper the innovation, though. The firm introduced the .357 Mag. in 1935, the famed, controlled-round feed Model 70 came out of the factory a year later and much more followed. The company produced roughly 15 billion cartridges for U.S. troops during World War II.
Then, in 1979, there was a contentious labor strike. The ammo and gun divisions were separated, with the Connecticut firearms factory initially sold to employees who had incorporated as U.S. Repeating Arms. It later became part of Herstal Group, which owns Fabrique Nationale and Browning. Winchester Repeating Arms today are manufactured under a licensing agreement with that pair of firms, both legendary in their own right for quality and performance.
Olin Corporation, of Western Cartridge Company descent, manufactures Winchester ammo in Alton, Ill.