American Industrial Giants

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: War and Military  |  House: Booksie Classic

Oliver Winchester and Samuel Colt lent their names to companies that would expand and dominate the firearms market during the latter half of the 19th century and the early 20th. This is the story
of their marriage and how it shaped the market.

Submitted: April 14, 2018

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Submitted: April 14, 2018



The image of gruff lawman Marshal Rooster Cogburn taking his reins in his teeth and using his Winchester and Colt to blast "Lucky" Ned Pepper and gang is one that is a prevalent memory. I was very young when I watched it for the first time, and it was something that always got my blood flowing. The marriage of the beautiful Colt Peacemaker and Winchester's (Anachronistic) 1892 lever action was so well handled in the film, that it never felt out of place. In the new film, they swapped out the Peacemaker for a couple Colt Dragoons, and took out the Winchester. (This may be because the Winchester 1873 that he uses in the film is difficult to spin cock) The original film, (Which I prefer) issued a statement that I suspect John Wayne had never contemplated. That Colt and Winchester were the two greatest companies of the late 1800s. To say this, to many, means that you should exclude the businesses of Rockefeller and Carnegie. However, to me, even the likes of Carnegie and Rockefeller and the railroad owed their success to the likes of Samuel Colt and Oliver Winchester.
In the 1830s Samuel Colt was the apprentice to a London Gunsmith, who focused on percussion revolvers. When Colt left London, he wrote that the man's revolvers were not how to build revolvers. So, while studying the ship he rode on, he began designing his revolving weapon. Colt noted a problem with industry in general. The lack of standardized parts. Eli Whitney started the turn to the universal pieces with his cotton gin. The pieces that were universal however were hard to manufacture, and many saw it as unimportant. Colt began work with money lent to him by his brother-in-law, Mr. Paterson. He built the first lever action rifle, with a revolving cylinder, but that was turned down by the military and police, so he scrapped the lever, and added a hammer, this rifle saw more success, in being cut down and turned into a "Pirate Pistol" style weapon. Colt took note of what was being done, and released the Paterson pistol. After economic ruin took Colt's company, and after the Texas Rangers rescued it from ruin, Colt revolvers were adopted by the US Army, Navy, Cavalry, and Police, with a different model for each. They were used in the Mexican-American War with the 1847 Colt Walker, and so on. Yet by the Civil War, they were nearly obsolete. The Smith and Wesson company had released a small caliber pistol that took cartridges and utilized a fulminate mercury primer.
That was only after they had abandoned a failing repeating arms company called the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company. The Volcanic was a lever action that used an anemic cartridge and was prone to misfires. The lack of power and difficulty of use led to the financial destruction of the company. One of the first corporations, Wesson and Smith sold their remaining shares and jumped ship. One man held just over fifty one percent of shares, and took it upon himself to save the company. Oliver Winchester of Winchester Clothing Company. Started looking into upgrading the Volcanic rifles, and scrapping the pistols. He appointed his shop foreman to the position of chief designer, and as Civil War loomed, they rushed to finish the rifle. Benjamin Tyler Henry, the Foreman, in 1860 demonstrated his new creation. It took the new .44 Henry Rimfire round, and held sixteen shots. It was an instant success, and Union and Confederate soldiers clamored to get their hands on the new weapon.
The companies would take a turn in the post-war era, that would turn them from economic powerhouses to industrial giants of the American variety.

Many will say that reconstruction was facilitated by the Radical Republicans and their need to punish the southern Democrats for secession. The truth is that the rifle and pistol facilitated the military occupation of the south, as well as its industrialization. Before the war, the Colt Company had suffered a fire, and so rented out its patent of the Colt revolver. Companies like Griswald and Gunnison and Connecticut Arms, (A Colt affiliate) pumped out revolvers to the tune of thousands a year. Lincoln introduced to the question of reconstruction, the principle that any who fought in the war would be allowed to keep their small arms. Small arms are any weapon that can be carried by one man and utilized by that single man. Rifles, pistols, swords and shotguns fell into this category, and so many confederates and union men went home with rifles and pistols that were "Military grade." This principle flooded the civilian market with cheap surplus weapons and created the first military surplus shops. With these weapons so common, people were looking to gain an edge on criminals who would also be armed with the same weapons. Smith and Wesson, who facilitated the culture of, "It's not who or what you know, but what patents you can buy," bought the patent for the bored through cylinder for revolvers, which allowed for the loading of metallic cartridges. Remington bit the bullet, pun intended, and paid royalties to make their weapons fire cartridges, but the Colt Company, (recently having lost Samuel Colt) refused to pay the dues. Several small companies, like the Richards Mason Company, began building cylinders and parts to convert Colt revolvers to cartridge firearms, and put the company up to par with its rivals. Into 1871 and 1872 Colt would sell their black powder revolvers pre converted, so there was no need to buy the parts. During the late 1860s, it was not uncommon to see Smith and Wesson revolvers, Remington revolvers and Colt revolvers on the hips of soldiers, police and carpetbaggers in the south. This also led into the industry of the railroad. Many railroad workers carried Colts, and groups like the Pinkertons and the Wells Fargo Stage Company had the Colt Company design custom revolvers only for their organizations.
By the war's end, the Henry Rifle Company had become the New Haven Arms Company, and by 1866 they unveiled their next darling of firearms invention. Oliver Henry had considered his weapon the Henry perfect, until he received a letter detailing a gunfight between lawmen armed with the Henry, and eight outlaws. The letter was nothing but praise for the weapon, and stated that the lawman had killed all eight gunmen using only nine rounds. Winchester decided that this was unacceptable, and had his foreman, Benjamin Tyler Henry, and several other men, work on upgrading the rifle. At this time, a man named King patented a side loading gate for rifles, King worked, much like the Richards Mason Company to upgrade the weapons that he worked in. He worked to add the King's Patent Loading Gate to Henry rifles, to try and increase rate of fire and speed and safety of loading. The New Haven Arms Company forced him to sell his patent to them for fear of being sued, and they began working on their new weapon. Essentially a Henry with a loading gate and a fore stock, so you were not gripping the barrel. This update was the first Winchester named rifle, the Winchester 1866.
The Colt and Winchester became synonymous with the workers of the railroad, and security groups like Pinkertons. These were the weapons of professional men, gone were the days of black powder, and borne were the days of cartridge weapons that strove to change the world.

The picture above is the chosen weapon of William Henry McCartney, AKA William Henry Bonney, Billy Bonney, Kid Billy, Young Willy, or most famously as Billy the Kid. Many picture Billy as a fast talking, faster shooting quick draw artist who killed twenty one men before his twenty first birthday. The truth is much darker, Billy was a violent young man and a back shooter. He preferred to take care of his problems at a distance, and so used his Winchester rifle to great effect. His Colts were hardly used if he had a choice. He was once quoted as saying, "If I had my trusty Winchester, I could beat any man here." To a courtroom full of military and police entities.
This is not an isolated case of favoritism for the Winchester, and the Colt saw just as much favoritism. In 1873 three major advancements were made toward the firearm world. The 45-70 Government round was invented, the Winchester 1873 rifle was released and so was the 1873 Colt the Peacemaker. This is really the height of the Winchester-Colt marriage. This marriage was facilitated by the Colt and Winchester being both chambered in 44-40. Many Colt revolvers were chambered in .45 Colt, but it was far more common to carry a rifle and pistol in the same caliber so you could fire out of the same bandolier or bullet belt. Though weapons were being built at the time, such as Eli Whitney's Whitney Kennedy Rifle, or the Spencer rifle, or the Smith and Wesson Schofield, and Remington's Army Outlaw revolvers. Colt and Winchester were the definitive weapons of the day. The Texas Rangers issued Winchester 1873 rifles and Colt Peacemakers to every new recruit in an effort to arm themselves better than many outlaws. Even if one couldn't afford the newest Colt and Winchester weapons, surplus revolvers and rifles were flooding the market.
Self defense was important at the time, renegade Indians were as likely to kill you as the government was likely to kill them. Travelling in the wild was as likely to kill you as the wild animals were. Of course when you got to the west, though much of the violence in film is exaggerated, it had almost 200x the violent crime that we have today. Criminal organizations like the James Younger Gang, Billy's Regulators, and the Cowboys Gang cut a swath of death and crime that they rode to infamy. These groups were often armed with fancy weapons that could be afforded with their ill gotten gains, yet, their bread and butter were Colts and Winchesters. They were simply the easiest and fastest weapons to learn to use and issue.
In Cochise County, after Mexican Rurales caught up with Old Man Clanton, Curly Bill Brocius and Johnny Ringo took over the Cowboys Gang, with Ike and Billy Clanton and Billy Claiborne the two latter were killed at the shootout at the OK Corral, they held Cochise county under their boot of terror until the time of the great Vendetta Ride. Many these days are of mixed feelings about the necessity of the Vendetta Ride, saying that the Earps proved themselves vigilantes and criminals, simply murdering the Cowboys. Others will say they were well within their rights as lawmen. Whatever the legality of their actions, the Vendetta Ride culminated at a spring in Arizona, where Wyatt Earp killed Curly Bill with a double barrel shotgun, and proceeded to fire on the rest of the Cowboys with his Colt revolvers. A few weeks later, Johnny Ringo committed suicide, and the Cowboy Gang was dissolved.
The Civil War hero George Armstrong Custer, leading the 7th US Cavalry, split his force in three groups, one group, headed by he himself led the attack on a Sioux Village, where Red Cloud, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull had planned a trap. When the trap started clamping shut, Custer's second division came charging in to save the attack. The 7th Cavalrymen were armed with Colt 1873 Cavalry models, which were seven and a half inch barrels and were chambered in .45 Colt, and with Springfield Trapdoor rifles, single shot weapons made from old muskets. The Sioux forces who outnumbered the force was armed with old Winchester 1866 rifles and the Henry 1860, these rifles allowed a rate of fire that was just overwhelming to the US Cavalry. Who were simply torn to shreds. The Sioux victory was short lived, due to Custer's wife who was the daughter of a politician. After this defeat, much of the support for Indians disappeared from the mainstream of the US Government.
The Colt Company started designing a lever action rifle called the Burgess, and presented it to the Winchester Company to get some constructive criticism. The Winchester Company took it as a slight, and a challenge to their rifle supremacy. The Winchester Company then showed Colt a design for a double action revolver, that Colt took as a challenge to their own pistol supremacy. The two groups buried their desires to produce these weapons and silently agreed to stick to what they were best at. At least until a young Mormon boy from Ogden Utah changed EVERYTHING.

Though he gave his name to the company, John Moses Browning never entered into firearms sales by himself. When he was a young man, the market for long range, single shot rifles had become prevalent again. Browning made his start by building rifles for the general public, and building custom long range rifles for competition. One of Oliver Winchester's sons made contact with one of his rifles, and was instantly in love. He set out personally to find the master of firearm craft, thinking him to be this "Old Man Browning" but discovering a young twenty something tinkerer. Browning was an eccentric as many in the field were, and he was a thinker beyond his years. While Winchester was in Ogden, Browning showed him a working wooden model of a new lever action that he intended to be chambered in 45-70 Gov. Winchester bought the patent and began negotiating for Browning's single shot rifle. Browning had seen the corruption of the firearm marketplace, and how hard it was to fight to protect your patents against foreign companies that were not subject to American copyright laws. Browning offered that for a high price and a pension, he would sell Winchester his rifle designs. So Winchester got their 1885 Single Shot Rifle, and their Winchester 1886 rifle. His work was prevalent into the later 1880s to about the 1920s. He built many rifles that would become staples of sportsmen and law officers. His lever action rifles included the Winchester 1892, which was John Wayne's favorite, the 1894 which was a beefier version of the 92, and was chambered in rifle rounds instead of pistol rounds, and was my twice great grandfather's favorite. The 1895, which was a rifle that could fire new and powerful rifle rounds like the 30-40 Krag, the 7.62x54r, and so on, and was well loved by Theodore Roosevelt, and the Russian Army. Browning also invented one of the first pump action shotguns, the lever action shotgun and some of the first semi-automatic rifles while in the employ of Winchester.
Browning being an inventive genius, was not only about the rifle market, and Colt approached him, by this time, the century had changed and we stared the First World War down the gullet yet did not know. Colt commissioned handguns from the man, which were among the first semi-automatic handguns in history. He designed the Colt 1903 Pocket, still credited as the single greatest concealed carry firearm of all time, which appears in the popular game "Red Dead Redemption" As the High Power Pistol. He designed the FN GP35 which was released in the US as the Browning High Power, and was originally sold by Colt and Fabrique Nationale in Europe. What many see as his Magnum Opus, he designed the Colt M1911, (pronounced eM 1911, not eM1 911. As it was Colt's Model of 1911) the handgun would see international acclaim, and be used from its design in 1911 into the modern day. He designed the strikerfire pistol with his hammerless 1903, and almost every single semi-automatic handgun after 1900 was designed in part by his designs.
Colt and Winchester were sitting rather pretty during the last part of the 1800s, but there was a blemish that could not be removed. The Gatling Gun had revolutionized the battlefield by introducing a high rate of large caliber fire that could be sustained. As the world looked for how to improve on the Gatling, a young American man toured Europe selling little electric toys. No not Browning. This young man was named Hiram Stevens Maxim. While on a train, dejected, another American tried to comfort Maxim. He said, "Europeans have the market cornered on entertainment. Killing each other, if you want to make any money here, find a way for them to kill each other faster." this idle chat started the wheels in Maxim's head. When he reached the US, he began designing his weapon. With the expelled gas from the shot, he could force the barrel back and cause it to work the action which would load another round and ready it to fire. The reciprocating barrel was his brainchild, and baby. He patented the process effectively blocking out any other machine gun manufacturer. Browning, not to be outdone, started his work on his own machine gun. His would use some of the wasted gas, channeled back toward the action, which would work the action. This process demolished the patent and kept it legal. He was at a loss, however to whom to sell the patent to, and so in 1895 he sold the patent to Colt, and would sell all of his machine gun patents to Colt. When World War I rolled around, it became a war between Maxim Machine Guns and Browning Machine Guns. By 1918, Browning decided that the machine gun was a weapon that needed more mobility on the battlefield and taking a note from the Lewis Machine Gun, he designed a rifle that could be mobilized easier than what was more readily available. He designed the Browning Automatic Rifle, or BAR, which was sold to Colt and contracted by the US military. I could go on Ad Nauseam just discussing Browning's additions to the modern firearm world, but I believe it's summed up perfectly by the fact that the 1911 and the Browning M2 machine gun are still used the world over. As is his BAR and many of his designs are reiterated in more firearms than can be counted.

After the 1940s and America imported its gun designer from Canada to build our battle rifle, the M1 Garand and after WWII surplus weapons flooded American markets, and firearms became less a tool of the day to day, and more like tools with very specific uses, Winchester and Colt found themselves being left behind. By the 1970s, Sturm and Ruger, an American company had started and offered exceptionally quality firearms at an exceptional low price. By the 1990s Gaston Glock had released his handguns and many Americans scrambled for the new weapons. Colt and Winchester couldn't keep up, despite selling much the same weapons as other companies. By the 2000s Winchester had been sold and their firearms started being made in Japan, Colt's weapons became specialties. One could buy three Rock Island 1911s for the price of one Colt 1911. The Henry Repeating Arms Company made lever actions and so did Marlin, who made rifles far better than Winchester, allowing them to be more powerful and have more uses, like allowing for a scope. The new market has become a difficult place to survive. Many new companies crop up due to the ease of building AR platform rifles, and it has become harder and harder to prevent lawsuits when the former president advises families to sue gun manufacturers for the deaths of their relatives. In the 1800s gun manufacturers faced ruin when they couldn't defend their patent, now they face ruin because they hold a patent. The history of the American firearm is a long and complicated history. This is a much abridged and simplified explanation of the companies of Winchester and Colt. At some point, I may go into further detail about the industry as a whole, but until then. This has been a Colt .38 Cowboy essay.

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