How The West Was Won – The Winchester Rifle
The Wild West was won, or tamed, by a great many things. The gold rush, the expansion of the railway network, the monster cattle drives and of course the hard working pioneers, all set for adventure and fortune. The one thing they had in common was ‘the gun that won the west’, the ubiquitous Winchester repeating rifle.
Established as the New Haven Arms Company in 1857 by entrepreneur Oliver Winchester, its products were continually developed by engineers Ben Henry and Nelson King. In 1866, after the end of the American civil war, Winchester renamed the company Winchester Repeating Arms.
The new Winchesters were sold as Model 1866s, or more popularly known as the Yellow Boy, on account of its brass alloy receiver. This model in particular was proving something of a hit among the new pioneers, prospectors, cowboys and Native Americans.
As time passed and the range of Winchester models available increased, so too did the myth surrounding this remarkably simple, beautifully balanced yet highly effective rifle. All myths soon become legends though and in Winchester’s case the legend was associated with other legends, including Teddy Roosevelt and John Wayne.
Capitalising on this status, Winchester soon started to produce unique and limited edition models. These were beautifully engraved and detailed either by Winchester or, on one occasion, by the Italian artisans of Giovanelli, who turned their continental flare and attention to detail upon the venerable Winchester. These limited editions are highly sought-after items worldwide.
One East Coast countryman has become the de facto UK Winchester expert and collector, Mike Kaye. Mike’s own introduction to firearms as a youth was through his father, himself a skilled military trained marksman of the old school, to whom safety was as equally important as groupings. His talent, respect and enthusiasm for the sport and art of shooting clearly rubbed off on Mike, who has held a licence continuously since 1966. Starting initially on .22 ranges of the local town, Mike soon progressed to black powder and rifle.
Mike’s Winchester collection started 25 years ago and stems from his love of Western films, the Wild West and the values that were to be found in themes and scripts of the day. Such themes were often of stalwart defiance in the face of overwhelming odds, linked with the desire to do right.
These battles were well played and epitomised by the performances of the giants of the silver screen such as John Wayne. The films were also early introductions to the romance of the cowboy lifestyle and the team of Colt and Winchester to numerous cinema going teenagers.
Sadly Winchester tends not to release collectors’ models to the European market. On the very rare occasions they do, the units released can be counted on one hand. As such Mike has found his continental US contacts, often fellow members of the Winchester Arms Collectors Association, have been invaluable in sourcing rarer guns. As Mike himself says, it’s all about the contacts.
Mike’s own collection now numbers some 40 odd examples of rare and limited edition Winchesters. The collection includes a rare presidential presentation rifle. These rifles are not only limited runs but the first of the series are traditionally given to US presidents, with J.F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan both receiving their own unique rifles, numbered 0001.
Within his collection Mike owns several commemorative rifles, which are often nigh on impossible to obtain outside of the continental US. This includes the Buffalo Bill, a replica of the 1873 ‘one of 1,000’ model, with its unique Whitworthesque octagonal barrel with a traditional rifled bore and gold plated medallion, as well as the wonderful, almost mesmerising Winchester and Colt set.
Mike very kindly let me handle a couple of the Winchesters and I was surprised by their weight, even more so by how balanced they were considering the design is essentially 150 years old (if it ain’t broke…). When you take into consideration the small butt plate, especially when compared to contemporary rifles, particularly those of current Scandinavian origins, you can feel the rifles balance intuitively in the standing aim.
As the triggers were retarded by a safety loop to prevent hammer damage I can’t say how much initial pressure one has to apply before committing to the shot. All I will say is the rifles have a feel that is natural and intuitive to a rifleman such as me. The barrel finish is both consistent and exceptional. The stocks are of rich American walnut which is beautifully carved and finished.
The rifles themselves remain truly faithful to their design roots. Although these beautifully engraved rifles are not fired, as that would raise the likelihood of ejected cases damaging the receivers engraving, they are fully working weapons. Ultimately this is one of those subjects where it’s sometimes best to let the object do the talking for fear of doing the craftsmanship that goes into producing these rifles a grave disservice.
Mike considers himself to be very lucky (as well as being a lovely chap) and freely shares this remarkable collection regularly. Mike and his collection can be seen at next year’s British Shooting Show, being held for the first time at Birmingham’s NEC and supported by The Countryman’s Weekly. Be sure to seek out the man and his guns, you won’t be disappointed.
Article written by Ben Skipper and supplied courtesy of Countryman’s Weekly.