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Three faux pas made by Winchester

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Three faux pas made by Winchester
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Faux pas is a French word, meaning a boner, an error in judgment, a gaffe, bungle or blooper, mistake or a flub, bad judgment. When it happens to an individual, it may not be too serious. When it happens in business, whether the enterprise is large or small, it may have telling, disastrous results.


A faux pas was committed by Winchester, one of the world's greatest names in the creation of arms and ammunition. In business, beginning in the last quarter of the 19th century, and continuing to the present day, Winchester had not one, but three faux pas.

When a company starts out in business, it is wise to secure the most able and competent personal people who know the business. Oliver F. Winchester was a wealthy and successful shirt maker, in New Haven, Conn., in the l875 era. He had learned of a new rifle, the Volcanic, and another firearm patented by Tyler B. Henry. He bought the patents of each and the Winchester Repeating Arms Company was born. It was successful from the start.

A young inventor named John M. Browning, living out west in Utah territory, brought the drawings and a working model of a new rifle, to the Winchester works in New Haven. Oliver F. Winchester immediately purchased the manufacturing rights to a new 44 caliber carbine, and this was the beginning of Browning selling many new designs to the Winchester factory. The rifle became the Winchester Model l866 and it took America by storm. The country was moving west after the discovery of gold at Sutler's Hill in California territory. The U.S. Government was giving deeds to its public lands to anyone who settled on it and produced a crop or raised livestock there.

Of course, these settlers needed a dependable rifle and ammunition. Winchester produced these and Samuel Colt was making a reliable six-shooter. Both rifle and revolver used the same cartridges. The plains Indians needed to be controlled, and the firearms were needed. They were invaluable in taking the deer, antelope, prairie chicken and sharptail grouse, along with incredible numbers of waterfowl, which the settlers needed for their food. These were prosperous days for Winchester.

Designer John Browning sold many of his patents to Winchester. The company did not produce all of the guns involved, but Browning was an observant businessman, and he could see that Winchester was enriched by his patented designs, which were bought outright by Winchester.

In 1907, John M. Browning had completed work on new design, a semiautomatic shotgun, whose function could be applied to rifle, pistol, or shotgun. It was to become famous as the A-5 Browning automatic, and it was manufactured, and copied, for more than a century.

In the spring of 1907, Browning boarded a train to New Haven. There he met with the head of the Winchester works, Mr. T. G. Bennett, who was Oliver Winchester's son-in-law. Bennett was enthusiastic about the new design and immediately offered Browning a good sum of money, intending to buy the patent rights outright, as usual. But Mr. Browning was a businessman too and insisted that, beginning now, he would ask for a royalty. A price to be paid for each firearm that Winchester made.

But Bennett would not agree to the royalty system. It was the first faux pas by Winchester, and it was tremendous in its scope, as the inventor offered the design, on a royalty basis, to Fabrique National, of Belgium. The Browning shotgun was an immediate success. E. Remington & Sons of Ilion, NY, also got in on the action, as well as the smaller Savage Arms Company. In any case, worldwide acceptance was at once immediate, and Winchester had no successful firearm of that type in its product line. The Model 12 slide action was a fine Winchester sporting gun, but many were taken by the immediate availability of five quick shots that the Browning gun provided.

Winchester fared well, however, with Army contracts for ammunition during the World War I in Europe and a decade following. But in 1929, the stock market nose-dived, and Winchester stock was of little value.

Winchester was taken over by Thomas Liggett, the owner of Rexall Drug Stores. Winchester was now being run by businessmen who had no knowledge of guns and ammo, and the Simmons Hardware Company of Saint Louis, Mo. took control. Simmons hardware soon began manufacturing Winchester branded hardware items in the arms factories. These included roller skates, flashlights, carpenter tools, washing machines, and pocket knives. Some of the items sold quite well, as they were very well made and did carry the Winchester trademark, an honored emblem. But the competition was fierce, the hardware items did only marginally well in the marketplace. The hardware venture was Winchester's second faux pas.

E. Remington & Sons had merged with the Union Metallic Cartridge Company, to form Remington Arms Company, and this was Winchester's chief competitor. Remington had the Browning semi-automatic shotgun in its product line and was selling more guns than Winchester.

Other competition was fierce, as A. H. Fox, L. C. Smith, Ithaca, and others were marketing side-by-side shotguns, which were then popular.

But Winchester had still another formidable opponent for ammunition sales. This was the Western Cartridge Company, which had its own lead mines, brass mills, and patents on priming mixtures used in cartridges.

Hugely successful, doing more business than Winchester and Remington, Western Cartridge was owned outright By John M. Olin who had taken his two sons into the business with him.

Western sold a superior line of ammunition, headed by a new slow burning powder, put into a brand named Super X with shells, rimfire and centerfire cartridges. Sales were brisk for Western while Winchester was failing in the marketplace. But Winchester had used much of its cash reserves to buy up rights to make many of the hardware items.

In August 1931, John M. Olin's Western Cartridge Company bought the bankrupt Winchester and took over its management.

Winchester had a full line of successful rifles and shotguns. The ammunition manufacturing was merged with the Western brands and this was hugely successful. One of Olin's first challenges was to bring out a side-by-side shotgun, for superior quality, but selling for a good deal less than the English brands. This was the Model 21 Winchester, and while not an immediately great sales success, it was one of the world's best guns.

Winchester did well in the manufacture of the Garand rifle and the Winchester M1 30 caliber carbine during World War II, and its product lines sold well after the war years. America rose to new heights. The sportsman now had the Model 70 Winchester rifle, the Browning design lever action rifles, and a new semi-automatic shotgun, the Model 50. Winchester made a shotgun with a very light barrel, using a glass thread. The company was also the first to offer screw in chokes, naming the new devices "Win Choke," which were innovative and successful.

Remington was not asleep. This company re-designed its entire line of arms, featuring models that used interchangeable parts. They weren't of the quality of Winchester, but the Remington line sold for considerably less money than Winchester's, and the public bought the cheaper guns with an eagerness that astounded Winchester.

In 1960, Winchester retooled and brought out a line of less expensive firearms. To cut manufacturing costs, Winchester sacrificed quality with something less. The new items were not as good as Remington's products. Pre 1964 became a rallying point for American Sportsmen, and guns that were made with quality standards before the year 1964 always brought more than they had cost originally. The "Pre 64" Winchester was in demand.

Cheaper import firearms also came on the market. Remington's Model 870 slide action shotgun, 1100 semi-automatic shotgun, models 760 and 742 center fire rifles were good guns and sold for less than Winchester's offerings.

The manufacture of cheaper, but very good firearms made by Winchester had a hard time. The Olin-Mathieson Chemical Corporation, owner of the Winchester brand, decided to sell the arms-making part of the corporation.

In 1987, executives of Winchester and some employees bought the rights to make Winchester guns. The new venture was the U.S. Repeating Arms Company. Olin continued to market its ammunition; including the Super X brands but divested the arms making part of the business.

But the "pre-64" tag still remained. It was Winchester's third faux pas. The Olin ammunition manufacturing, meanwhile, went on to be the largest bomb and bullet maker in the world, with nearly 70 plants worldwide. It continues to have that distinction to this day.

The U.S. Repeating Arms Company was granted license from Olin to make guns with the Winchester trademark, with the horse and rider emblem.

Some fine guns were born here, including a continuation of the Model 23 side-by-side shotgun, now recognized to have no superior. The Winchester Model 12 faltered after it was made with cast steel parts. It functioned well, sold fairly well, but it wasn't a pre-64 model.

The Super X Model 1 was a successful new semi-automatic. A cheaper line of 22 rimfire rifles were made, along with a Model 70 Winchester rifle, which was good, but faced Remington and an upstart Sturm-Ruger & Company, making an excellent bolt action rifle and very successful handguns.

Olin started an association with an arms maker in Japan, and began to import a line of over-under shotguns, which were lower in cost than the Browning superposed guns made in Belgium. This venture by Olin was totally independent from the U.S. Repeating Arms Company, however.

The U.S. Repeating Arms Company continued on until a French holding company, the Gait Company, acquired the arms-maker. This was merged with Browning Arms of Morgan, Utah, and the FN Corporation of Belgium. Guns of great quality continue to bear the name Winchester as produced in Italy, and Belgium, perhaps Turkey as well.

The Tony Galivan Company in New Haven now makes the famous Model 21, on a special order basis. These guns run in the $40,000 class and more. Winchesters third faux pas was its inability to compete in the worldwide arena. Yet, Winchester's lightning letters across the barrel of a gun commands great respect worldwide. It continues currently with a really fine line of over-under shotguns, made abroad, but eagerly sought and proudly used by American sportsmen. Winchester is a name known and respected from 1850 to the present. Winchesters are carried and used proudly by sportsmen throughout the world.

West Central Waterfowlers

The ninth annual banquet and fundraiser for the West Central Waterfowlers, our branch of the Minnesota Waterfowl Association, will be held at the Callaway Community Center on Saturday, Sept. 13. Individual membership with an individual dinner ticket is $40 or $60 for a couple.

There will be lots of raffle items, including two Remington shotguns, and special items for youthful duck hunters. There will be a grand prize drawing for an Alumacraft duck boat with trailer. Minnesota Waterfowlers is the organization that channels funds exclusively into Minnesota waterfowl hunting projects.