Correction to This Article
A Jan. 20 Style article about the Winchester rifle incorrectly referred to Theodore Roosevelt as a Montana rancher. He did not own what is now known as the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Ranch in Montana. The ranches he owned were in the Dakota Territory.
Appreciation

Out With A Bang

Holding Winchester Rifle
Light, quick, strong and decidedly American, the rifle was James Stewart's co-star in "Winchester '73." (AP)

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By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 20, 2006

A famous ad that most boy baby boomers will recall from Boys' Life, the old scouting magazine of the '50s, showed a happy lad, carrot-topped and freckly like any number of Peck's Bad Boys, his teeth haphazardly arrayed within his wide, gleeful mouth under eyes wide as pie platters as he exclaimed on Christmas morn, "Gee, Dad . . . A Winchester!"

All gone, all gone, all gone. The gun as family totem, the implied trust between generations, the implicit idea that marksmanship followed by hunting were a way of life to be pursued through the decades, the sense of tradition, respect, self-discipline and bright confidence that Winchester and the American kinship group would march forward to a happy tomorrow -- gone if not with the wind, then with the tide of inner-city and nutcase killings that have led America's once-proud and heavily bourgeois gun culture into the wilderness of marginalization.

And now Winchester is gone too, or at least the most interesting parts of it. The traditional company whose symbol was a fringed rider flying across the plains on a pinto, gripping his trusty Model '73, is finally biting the dust. The entity -- now technically U.S. Repeating Arms, which produces the rifles and shotguns as a licensee of the Olin Corp., which still owns Winchester ammunition -- announced Monday it was closing the plant in New Haven where the rifles and shotguns have been fabricated for a century and a half. Some Winchesters will continue to be built overseas, but three guns -- the classic lever-action rifle of western fame, the bolt-action hunting rifle (called the Model 70) and the Model 1300 pump-action shotgun -- will no longer be manufactured.

That lever-gun -- the quintessential cowboy rifle, the mechanism that "won the West" and maybe helped lose it, too (ask the 7th Cavalry boys who fell to a few dozen Native Americans carrying precursors of the classic Winchester at the Battle of the Little Bighorn) -- is the primary victim of the closing.

In an era of widespread industrial retrenchment, it didn't even make much big national news. And why should it have? Economically, U.S. Repeating Arms is a small company of only some 200 employees. Who really cares? Most people will be indifferent, some glad, and only a few, like me, will mourn.

The Winchester lever-guns mean something to a variety of American imaginations. They have been manufactured in one form or another since 1849. The most abundant variant, the Model 94, has been built more than 6 million times since 1895 with only minor changes. Those 111 years span an era of extraordinary technological development. It's doubtful any other complex machine has a longer record of manufacture. Think about it: Today, in the age of the iPod and robots wandering Mars, essentially the same rattly contraption that felled troopers at the Little Bighorn is still found brand-new and brightly packaged on the shelves of most Western, Southern and Midwestern hardware stores.

If you take one down and examine it -- kids, don't do this at home, unless Dad has cleared the rifle first and made sure no moldy .30-30s from last year's hunt remain in the chamber -- you note certain things instantaneously.

How light it is, how quick to the shoulder, how pointable! It begs to come to the eye. It swiftly finds what's called the natural point of aim, the perfect equipoise between its own grace and its shooter's talent. There, it wants to be fired. It's knobless and trim yet hardly streamlined. It hails proudly from the pre-streamlined world. No ergonomic study went into its design, only the sound trial and error of Yankee genius that finally found the ideal form.

It's weirdly squarish, yet like other classic guns, it boasts an orchestration of lines of unusual harmony, which somehow seem to soothe the eye. The Colt Peacemaker revolver, the Tommy gun and the Luger have the same effect; all are instantly known and knowable. They have a design charisma that transcends their actual usage in the real world.

The funniest thing about the Winchester lever-action rifle is how American it looks. Its directness speaks to the honest greed of westward expansion, its reliability to the honest hunger of its manufacturers for the big houses it bought them, its toughness to the honest brutality by which it was employed in various arroyos and dry gulches. It lacks subterfuge, subtlety, pretension, airs. It's like the cowboy himself, elegant in its total lack of self-awareness. It's beyond irony or stylization. It's cool because it doesn't care what you or anybody thinks.

Now open it; shove the lever -- that oblong loop affixed to the trigger guard -- forward. Feel it slide-clack through a four-inch range of motion and watch the drama as the gun undergoes changes: the breech, which contains the firing pin, glides backward, ratcheting the hammer back. At that moment you can tilt it a little and peer into the opened slot in the roof of the receiver.

You see before you the gun's most private parts: the chamber, the slightly bulged space in the barrel where the cartridge is encapsulated when it fires; the follower, a little spring-powered tray that lifts a cartridge (which has just been popped aboard by the pressure of the magazine tube spring) up to the chamber; the breechface with its tiny hole out of which will pop, whack-a-mole style, the firing pin when the trigger is pulled and the hammer falls.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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