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The Evolution of the Winchester Rifle

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 05/17/2017
By Joel Kolander

[Note: This story originally appeared in our blog as “The Evolution of ‘That Damned Yankee Rifle” in May 2013. Previously only detailing up to the Henry rifle, the story has now been extended to also include the transition from New Haven Arms to Winchester Repeating Arms.]

Some stories just get better every time you hear them and chances are, if you’ve been collecting for any length of time, you’ve heard the legend behind the Winchester rifle. Born of the Henry rifle, that unassuming looking rifle of a modestly sized production, these lever guns changed the shape of our nation and likely the world. Unfortunately, when pressed, many firearms enthusiasts have difficulty recalling the predecessors and contributors to this iconic collector firearm. Part of this is to be expected as history seldom favors those who finish second, but as the legacy of such an important invention, their contributions should not be forgotten. Many of their names you already know, so let’s take a look at the men and rifles that comprise the origin of the Winchester rifle.

Walter Hunt

Walter Hunt, inventorThe first person that is partially responsible for the Henry rifle and the subsequent success of Winchester Repeating Arms is the un-notably named Walter Hunt. This native New Yorker was a mechanic and an inventor who started his business in 1826 in the city of his birth. Walter Hunt is now recognized by revered institutions such as the Smithsonian Museum as one of the most productive inventors of his time, but he had an unfortunate habit of not patenting his inventions. His list of inventions is best described by R. Bruce McDowell.

“Among his many inventions were the safety pin (to which he sold the rights for only $400), the fountain pen, the foot-operated gong for stages and trolley cars, an advanced nail-making machine, the paper collar for the well-dressed 19th Century gentleman, a self-closing inkwell, a new type of heating stove, an ice boat, a flax-spinning machine and a lock-stitch sewing needle which led to the invention of the sewing machine credited to Elias Howe.”

It is only fitting that a man so content to watch his inventions be credited to others be the first mentioned in this abridged history. His contribution to the Henry rifle lies in his invention of the Hunt Magazine, the “rocket ball,” and a lever mechanism rifle suitable for firing his new ammunition. Through his cooperation with one Mr. Lewis Jennings, an inventor and model maker, Hunt came to make working models of his repeating rifle, which he called the “Volition Repeater,” and eventually to simplify it in the design of another rifle to be discussed later, the Jennings repeater. It is popularly, yet incorrectly, accepted that Hunt’s rifle failed for several reasons (potential cost of manufacture, primitive manufacturing equipment, too complicated) and that after its failure Jennings improved on the design and patented it. Those reasons for Hunt’s failure have some merit but are far from the whole story. The Volition Repeater design was likely never finalized, improved upon, nor produced because Jennings was already developing and redesigning a simpler rifle. Also, since Jennings and Hunt were under the mutual employ of one Mr. George A. Arrowsmith, they were likely working on it together. This is especially credible considering the patent dates of both inventors on their respective inventions. It should also be noted at this stage that Mr. Arrowsmith could not fund both inventors so for $10,000 (perhaps already knowing he had a failure on his hands) he sold the patent rights to a Courtlandt C. Palmer, former railroad president and leading hardware merchant in New York City. Without getting ahead of ourselves, Palmer would eventually finance the production of 5,000 Jennings rifles through the Robbins & Lawrence Company. None of those names sound very important until one is told that the shop foreman of the Robbins & Lawrence Co. was one Mr. Benjamin Tyler Henry.

Hunt Volitional Repeater

Image courtesy of Cody Firearms Museum

To his credit, Walter Hunt provided the “Hunt Magazine,” the tubular magazine to run parallel and underneath the barrel.  This basic design would be present in all subsequent revisions leading up to the Henry rifle and remains in prolific use today.  Half of this tube would hold a compressed spring when reloading and would hold, as Hunt would phrase it in his patent text, “twelve balls, which I consider sufficient for convenience or utility.” While he is largely credited with this ubiquitous design feature, he cannot claim to be the first. That patent (US 6136 A) was issued on February 20, 1849 to one Mr. Christian W. Buchel.

 

Lewis Jennings

 

Jennings Repeater

This Jennings breech loading single shot rifle sold by Rock Island Auction Company in September 2015 for $6,900

 

 

Besides his notable presence in the life of Walter Hunt, Lewis Jennings made several independent improvements to the Hunt rifle. In fact, the only Hunt design characteristics he kept were the sliding internal bolt, the tubular magazine which would still run underneath the barrel, and the “percussion pill” magazine. The Jennings rifle was contracted by Courtlandt Palmer to be produced by the Robbins & Lawrence Company of Windsor, Vermont, then the largest non-government arms manufacturer in the United States. It was also the employer of a shop foreman named Benjamin Tyler Henry, who was in charge of making improvements to the mechanism. Other notable gunsmiths present at Robbins & Lawrence include:

  • Horace Smith had been stationed at the Robbins & Laurence plant by Courtlandt Palmer himself to supervise the manufacturing of the Jennings rifles.
  • Daniel Wesson, who was employed by Leonard Pistol Works but was inspecting parts and finished pistols of the Leonard percussion pepperbox pistols that were contracted to Robbins & Lawrence.

Unfortunately, despite this “who’s who” of American gun makers present, the Jennings rifle was a failure. While the rifle would fire a “naked ball” (that without patch or lubricant) twenty times in a minute, Mr. Lawrence himself stated that, “The result in firing the gun was that the ball leaded the barrel, by building on, to such an extent that in firing twenty shots from a 50-100 calibre bore there would be a hole in the barrel less than 25-100.” Apart from this it was called “too complicated” by the Ordnance Department and was still underpowered due to the limited powder in the “rocket ball.” It is thought that the only Jennings Repeaters produced were for testing and a patent model. The order of 5,000 from Robbins & Lawrence, never filled in its entirety, was to be converted entirely to Jennings single shot muzzle loaders. There were less than 1,000 Jennings rifles produced in all its varieties and every last one was weaker and more expensive that other muzzle loaders in common use at the time – a rearward step in the evolution of the repeating rifle.

 

Jennings Converted Muzzleloader

One of the Jennings single shot rifles, converted to a muzzle loader. Sold by Rock Island Auction Company in September 2012 for $4,600.

 

 

Horace Smith

Horace Smith

Courtlandt Palmer, not being a man to quit (or to misuse an investment), assigned Horace Smith to “fix” the Jennings rifle. Smith kept the magazine tube, sliding bolt, bolt locking lever, and priming pill magazine of the prior two designs, but with some important modifications. Most notably the action was completely redesigned by removing the rack and pinion action from the Jennings models and replacing it with an action that pivoted at the front, which would look much more familiar to shooters today. Smith was working in the same building as B. Tyler Henry and undoubtedly aware of his design improvements. However, this variant was also not without its shortcomings (e.g. the percussion pills igniting in the magazine and causing a chain reaction), and it went through three notable variants each one improving slightly the bugs of the last. There was even an experimental Smith-Jennings repeating pistol! Despite its improvements, it was still a rifle that was still dependent on the weak rocket ball cartridge, an external primer & magazine, and it was not yet self-cocking.

Smith-Jennings repeater

Second Model Jennings Rifle with Smith’s Improvement (Smith-Jennings). Sold by Rock Island Auction Company in 2016 for $40,250.

 

 

“The Volcanic”

Daniel Wesson

How Horace Smith initially met Daniel Wesson to form The Volcanic Repeating Arms Company, of New Haven Connecticut is a bit of a mystery. However, there is no mystery that the men conversed while working at the Robbins & Lawrence factory and discussed the failures of the Jennings rifle and the Smith-Jennings repeaters. Another persistent unknown is how the eventual partners came up with the toggle joint, a feature so improved that it appears in almost every lever action thereafter. It is commonly accepted that Smith was sent to London by Courtlandt Palmer in 1851 to attend The Great Exhibition in order to show their 1841 “Mississippi Rifle,” but also to perform some reconnaissance on the recent innovations by European gunsmiths. While in London, Smith spoke with Louis Nicholas Auguste Flobert about his “copper case, self-contained rimfire ammunition,” and method of extraction. While Smith & Wesson fully admitted they did not invent the rimfire, metallic cartridge, the claim of the toggle joint is another matter. No one knows how Smith came to utilize the toggle joint. He could have invented it himself, employee B. Tyler Henry could have invented it, or maybe he saw the little piece of engineering at work in London. In any case, it was a watershed improvement that saw prolific use in future firearms.

Smith & Wesson are also to be credited with innovations in ammunition, though the lack of a reliable cartridge would eventually lead to their downfall. They recognized that neither the Flobert cartridge from France, the rocket ball, nor their own primed rocket ball had enough power to be used successfully in rifles. So they made their own new self-contained cartridge, an improved pistol to fire it, and asked Mr. Courtlandt Palmer for around $10,000 for tooling of the new inventions. He agreed and re-assigned the Hunt, Jennings, and Smith patents to the new partnership known as Smith & Wesson. Under the new partnership, the men produced many pistols chambered not for the Flobert cartridge or their own improved cartridge, but instead for their primed rocket ball, eventually nicknamed the Volcanic cartridge. It was never named that officially, but the term was popularly used to describe both firearm and ammunition after being compared to the fiery eruption of a volcano in a magazine’s review of the gun. B. Tyler Henry was employed likely as a shop superintendent. Smith & Wesson lasted only a year before design flaws and finances were exhausted. Returns of the pistols abounded and performance was spotty at best. Palmer, the seemingly eternal source of funds, had lost a lot of cash investing in the development of firearms and now wanted to recoup his funds. He did so with Smith & Wesson by incorporating the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company 17 months after the forming of the failed company “Smith & Wesson.” There were 29 stockholders in all, one of which was a local men’s shirt manufacturer inspired by the success of Samuel Colt. This shirt maker purchased 80 shares and went by the name of Oliver F. Winchester. Within eight months the three men, Wesson, Smith, and Palmer, had fully abandoned the company and pursued other avenues in the industry even as Volcanic arms and ammunition continued to be produced and improved. It was a company of little capital, several patents on failed firearms and ammunitions, and a board of investors that knew nothing about manufacturing firearms. Smith & Wesson’s insistence on using primed rocket ball cartridges, despite knowledge of other, superior rounds led to an early failure for the partners. They were not to make a practical lever action repeating pistol. It would be another two years before Smith & Wesson formed their second business venture involving the manufacture of “revolving magazine, metallic cartridge pistols.”

Smith & Wesson Volcanic pistol

A rare large frame Smith & Wesson “lever action magazine pistol,” a predecessor to the more frequently encountered brass-frame “Volcanic” pistols.

Smith & Wesson No. 1 volcanic

A factory engraved Smith & Wesson Small Frame Volcanic No. 1 Repeating Pistol. Less than 1,200 produced. Sold by Rock Island Auction Company in May 2016 for $9,200.

 

Oliver Winchester

Oliver WinchesterThis name is certainly known to anyone even vaguely familiar with firearms. After becoming a minority stakeholder (1.33%) at Volcanic Arms, he also joined its Board of Directors as a Vice President in June 1855. He knew nothing of the gun business but enjoyed such success manufacturing shirts that his capital available for outside investments was significant. Thanks to stockholder squabbling and the underperforming Volcanic (the rifle and its ammunition), within two years the company was declared insolvent. Through the death of Volcanic Arms’ president, in addition to Winchester paying off of Volcanic’s debtors, the courts awarded all assets of the Volcanic Repeating Arms Co. to Oliver Winchester in1857. This included the assignments of all patents of Hunt, Jennings, Horace Smith, and Daniel Wesson that had previously belonged to Volcanic. Other stockholders received nothing. Oliver Winchester had not given up hope on magazine-fed repeating firearms. On the contrary, prior to the insolvency, he had been promoting a new firearms company called the New Haven Arms Co., and after acquiring some capital from the very people that had just lost every cent they had invested in Volcanic, Winchester sold all the assets from Volcanic to New Haven with the exception of the patents. He only sold to New Haven the right to produce the firearms and ammunitions named in those patents, while keeping the actual patents for himself. Winchester had just made out like a bandit. New Haven Arms Company would now be manufacturing the Volcanic Repeating Arms and paying him to do it. Besides noting the high value of the patent on the improved cartridge firearm, Winchester also took note of the experience of a man well acquainted with the design of repeating firearms and the ever-evolving design of ammunition: Benjamin Tyler Henry. Horace Smith & Daniel Wesson were not to follow Winchester in his new venture.

 

 

Volcanic Arms Navy pistol

A stunning example of a Volcanic Arms Navy Pistol, formerly of the Winchester Gun Museum. Sold by Rock Island Auction Company in September 2015 for $57,500

 

New Haven Arms Volcanic Carbine

A scarce New Haven Arms Volcanic Lever Action Carbine. Sold by Rock Island Auction Company in December 2011 for $48,875. Approximately 1,000 were produced between 1857-1860.

 

Benjamin Tyler Henry

Benjamin Tyler HenryIf you’ve been following closely, you’ve heard this name mentioned in several places. He was a shop foreman during the manufacture of the Jennings rifles, was employed as a shop superintendent by Smith & Wesson’s first failed partnership, and had now been scooped away and was being given full control to develop a new cartridge for the New Haven Arms Co. Prior guns’ actions had been serviceable at best, but their cartridges were the true Achilles’ heel. Standing atop of all the cartridges Henry had seen developed, he dove right in and began experimenting with the .22 caliber rimfire cartridge of Wesson, making it larger and more appropriate for rifle use. Even though Volcanic’s insolvency took place in February 1857, by the end of 1858 Henry had developed a .44 caliber cartridge capable of a 1,200 fps muzzle velocity; a noted improvement over the 500 fps Smith & Wesson cartridges. All that needed to be done now was design a gun to fire it. Much easier said than done. It would require the frame to be larger, the barrel adapted for the new cartridge, the addition of firing pins independent from the bolt face, and the development of an ejection system. The task before Henry was monumental, but he was the right man for the job. In early 1860 Henry had completed all the changes and incredibly had a patent issued by October. He had made all the adaptations in just over a year, sounded the death knell for rocket balls and other Volcanic arms, and forever associated his name with American firearms. Despite their 1860 patent dates, the first regular production Henry rifles were made in 1862. In 1860 Winchester had recently expanded his shirt-making factory and could not also afford to manufacture a new rifle. To raise the money, he manufactured 3,000 Walch pocket revolvers and by 1861 he began re-tooling the factory to make the new Henry rifles.

 

 

 

early production Henry lever action Rifle

An early production Henry Rifle, SN 205. Formerly of the Samuel Colt Collection. Sold by Rock Island Auction Company in May 2014 for $184,000.

The Coup

The exact nature of the events leading up to the dissolution of the New Haven Arms Company and the formation of Winchester Repeating Arms are a bit convoluted. Some sources tell the story of Oliver Winchester moving his business, housing it temporarily in the rented factory of two other board members, and gradually changing the name. Others tell a story of a disgruntled Benjamin T. Henry, who felt he was given short shrift financially for his contributions while Winchester became a Connecticut fat cat, and it seems the more likely of the two. Henry, still under his original employment contract, felt little motivation to produce more than the 5,000 rifles required in his quota. To circumvent this, Winchester rented a factory in Bridgeport, CT (owned by two directors of New Haven Arms) so he could increase production once Henry’s contract was up. He wouldn’t have to wait long; Henry quit soon after in 1864, but the battle was not yet over. In Henry’s absence, Winchester hired 63 new workers, one-third of which were women hired to manufacture cartridges, as well as a new foreman: Nelson King.

 

Iron Frame Henry Rifle

A rare, early iron framed Henry rifle, SN 49. The finest known example. Sold by Rock Island Auction Company in September 2013 for $603,750.

 

That story goes that in early 1865, while Winchester was in Europe courting new buyers, Henry, who was still a stockholder at that time, petitioned the Connecticut State legislature to acquire the rights of the New Haven Arms. To do this he used a power of attorney from Winchester and had help from the company secretary, Charles Nott. He also petitioned them to change the company name from New Haven Arms Company to the Henry Repeating Rifle Company. Upon hearing the news overseas, Winchester is alleged to have telegrammed his shirt-making partner, John M. Davies to call all the liens Winchester held against Henry Arms as owed to him by New Haven Arms. As Winchester could not prevent Henry Arms from operating, he formed his own, new company: Winchester Repeating Arms.

Henry’s coup was behind the eight-ball from the very start. Oliver Winchester’s name (not the company) was on the lease for one of New Haven Arms’ factories, thus it would not be available to Henry. Winchester had also paid for the manufacturing equipment in that factory out of his own pocket, so not only were New Haven’s production capabilities in half, but Winchester already had a factory that he could begin using right away to manufacture the improved version of the Henry rifle that Winchester was already pushing forward with King. Benjamin Henry then sued New Haven stating that his 1859 contract was in breach and he had not been compensated fairly. Oliver Winchester, realizing the very real financial threat this posed, organized a takeover bid that was approved by shareholder vote. Once made the president of New Haven, Winchester made short work of New Haven Arms, shuttering it on July 7, 1866. Winchester began selling stock on December 30 of that same year and Winchester Repeating Arms (WRA) was officially incorporated on February 20, 1867, with the final transfer of assets from New Haven Arms to WRA taking place on March 30. The coup was over and Winchester Repeating Arms was born.

Rare 1st Model flatside Winchester rifle 1866

A very early 1st Model Winchester 1866 with the rare flat loading gate. Sold by Rock Island Auction Company in May 2014 for $92,000

Nelson King

The venerable 1866 rifle, first available to the public in summer 1867, featured several large improvements courtesy of  WRA employee Nelson King. Most notably, he added the loading gate into the breech, simplified the action, improved several internal components, and enclosed the magazine tube (since it no longer needed to be loaded at the muzzle). The magazine tube, now without the exposed follower present on the Henry, was also given a wooden forearm, this eliminating two of the large complaints against the Henry. The fragile metal magazine tube was made more robust with the addition of the protective forearm, and it was now fully enclosed preventing dirt and other detritus from entering. Perhaps having learned their lesson from Benjamin T. Henry, the WRA board of directors voted King a bonus of $5,000 and made him the highest paid man in the company, second only to Winchester himself. In fact, the words “King’s Patent” were placed on barrels immediately next to the “Henry’s Patent” markings, and would be later replaced around serial number 23,000 with Henry’s contribution removed, leaving the sole marking of “King’s Improvement – Patented.” Henry rifles enjoyed a certain level of success with about 13,000 made, but nowhere near that of the Winchester Model 1866 which totaled more than 170,000 produced when its run was completed in 1898. Turmoil with Henry may have birthed the company, but the Model 1866 was the genesis of an American legend.

 

On the Rocky Mountains Winchester Rifle 1866

Known as “On the Rocky Mountains” for its masterpiece panel scenes, this engraved Winchester 1866 rifle also features rare and beautiful maple stocks. Sold by Rock Island Auction Company in May 2017 for $598,000.

 

 

SOURCES:

Boatner, Mark Mayo, Allen C. Northrop, and Lowell I. Miller. The Civil War Dictionary. New York: D. McKay, 1959. Print.

McDowell, R. Bruce. Evolution of the Winchester. Tacoma, WA: Armory Publications, 1985. Print.

Madis, George. The Winchester Book. 1st ed. Brownsboro, TX: Art and Reference House, 1981. Print.

Parsons, J. E. The First Winchester: The Story of the 1866 Repeating Rifle. New York: Morrow, 1955. Print.

Quick, Les. The Henry Rifle: Story of Benjamin Tyler and His Famed Repeating Rifle. Santa Ana, CA: Graphic, 2008. Print.

Trevelyan, Laura. The Winchester: The Gun That Built an American Dynasty. New Haven: Yale UP, 2016. Print.