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

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden -

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’

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