The gun that won the west
Oliver Winchester’s eponymous repeating rifle, known by Native Americans as ‘the spirit gun’, was a major factor in conquering the Wild West, as his descendant, the BBC presenter Laura Trevelyan, reports
OLiver Fisher Winchester was born a penniless farm boy on the outskirts of Boston in the USA in 1810. With barely any formal education, this determined new englander rose to found the Winchester repeating Arms Company, maker of one of the first repeating rifles the world had ever seen. the Winchester, which fired again and again without needing to be reloaded, was revolutionary. it helped transform modern warfare and became known as the ‘Gun that Won the West’ for its role in the brutal expansion of the American frontier.
Oliver was my great-great-great grandfather and, since moving to the USA in 2004, i’ve been seized with the desire to learn more about him. relatives who’d worked for the Winchester factory frowned upon the idea of a company history— we don’t want dead indians and buffalo on every page, opined one.
Oliver was born into a harsh, fend-foryourself world, in which memories of the 1776 revolutionary War against the British were still fresh. Guns had played a vital role in liberating Americans from colonial rule and, back then, a rifle was a way to get food and protect your family. Oliver’s father died soon after he was born, so he had to work on a farm from the age of six to bring muchneeded pennies home to his mother.
Apprenticed as a church builder in his teenage years, he moved swiftly into the world of clothes manufacturing and made a tidy sum by patenting a dress collar for a gentleman’s shirt. Moving to new haven, Connecticut, he mass-produced his shirts and began to look for where he could invest his spare cash. the Civil War between the northern and southern states over the issue of states’ rights and the abolition of slavery was looming and canny Oliver figured that guns would soon be in demand.
Despite knowing nothing about rifles, Oliver piled his money into new haven’s volcanic repeating Arms Company. Unfortunately for the shirt-maker, the ballistics for the company’s weapons were sub-optimal and neither the pistol nor the ammunition was anything to write home about. volcanic went bankrupt, but the irrepressible Oliver formed a new company from the ashes.
this time, the promise of the repeating rifle was turned into reality by his talented superintendent Benjamin tyler henry, who created a gun that could fire and fire again without needing to be reloaded, which would transform the way men fought.
the American Civil War began at Fort sumter in 1861 and Oliver was hopeful of selling his new-fangled henry repeating rifle to the northern side—but he hadn’t reckoned with the obdurate army bureaucracy. the elderly chief of ordnance believed that a repeating rifle could never work properly and would waste huge amounts of expensive ammunition by firing repeatedly, which was checkmate for Oliver and his ambitious plans.
Although individual battalions on the Union side in the Civil War, such as the 7th illinois volunteer infantry, did equip themselves with the henry rifle, the mass Us Army order never came to pass. however, word of the rifle’s effectiveness spread far and wide and it became known as ‘the damn Yankee rifle that fired all week’.
‘Oliver didn’t lose a wink of sleep over the slaughter of the Native Americans’