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.
Page 2 of 2   <      

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)

You see: trays, pins, holes, steel walls. You see a miracle of timing by which all these elements have been choreographed to mesh in a brilliantly syncopated sequence. But you're also looking back into the 19th century and to what it was that made this country great. For what you're seeing is a solution -- elegant as any poem, efficient as any mousetrap, smooth as any crooner -- to a set of problems that might be enumerated as follows: How do you package chemical energy of roughly 3,000 foot-pounds safely in metal that is at the same time light enough to be carried, strong enough to be operated and simple enough to be manufactured?

Then you realize you're in the cockpit of what was then the hottest, most brutally competitive arena of that portion of the Industrial Revolution -- its Silicon Valley, if you will. New Haven is where all the young Bill Gateses -- their names were Winchester, Colt, Henry, Smith, Wesson, Marlin and a few others -- went to make their fortunes as their nation grew, sometimes violently, westward.

The key gizmo behind the lever-action Winchester's genius, present from the first prototype in 1849 to the last one that will come off the New Haven line in a few weeks, is a little thing called a toggle-link, which is why the guns produce such a volume of clacking and sliding and clinking when they are worked. With this doohickey, the manual downward and forward rotation of a lever opened the breech, allowed an empty case to eject as it slammed against a prong and a fresh cartridge to come out of a tubular magazine and rest on that tray just below the action even as the rearward thrust of the breech cocked the hammer. Then the lever was rotated upward and backward, the tray was lifted, the breech came forward and moved the fresh cartridge into the chamber. That was it: two cranks of the lever, one forward a few inches, one backward the same few inches, and you didn't even have to take the gun off your shoulder. You were ready to shoot again. "It is placed beyond all competition by the rapidity of its execution. Thirty shots can be fired in less than one minute," wrote Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly in 1858.

The mechanism went through many iterations -- among the inventors and investors were men named Hunt, Jennings, Arrowsmith, Palmer and Henry. It was sometimes called the Hunt Volitional Repeater, the Smith & Wesson rifle (before Messrs. Smith and Wesson took their investment money into the handgun market exclusively), the Volcanic Navy Pistol and finally the Henry -- before it found a home under the sponsorship of capitalist, shirtmaker and business genius Oliver Winchester, who took over the company in the late 1850s and renamed it after himself in 1866. (For more on all this, see "Winchester: The Gun That Won the West" by Harold F. Williamson and "Winchester: An American Legend" by R.L. Wilson.)

Winchester produced lever-gun models of 1866, 1873 (this was the famous "Gun That Won the West"), 1886, 1892, 1894 and 1895, each an improvement upon what had come before. Probably the most radical upgrade occurred in '86, when the genius gun designer John M. Browning brought his brilliance to Winchester and found a way to strengthen the action so that it could fire high-power rifle cartridges, which made it far more useful as a hunting arm (it had fired only pistol cartridges before). When smokeless powder increased the efficiency of the cartridge in the 1890s, the 1894 Model was ideally suited to take advantage of the breakthrough, and the Model 94 in .30-30 became the preeminent deer hunting rifle of the early 20th century.

"The Winchester is by all odds the best weapon I ever had and I now use it almost exclusively," wrote Montana rancher Theodore Roosevelt in 1885. "The Winchester is the best gun for any game to be found in the United States, for it is as deadly, accurate and handy as any, stands very rough usage, and is unapproachable for the rapidity of its fire and the facility with which it is loaded."

If the gun was a star almost from the beginning, it had a unique ability to make stars as well. I can think of a batch of men who were helped enormously by their association with Winchester. One was a fellow named Henry McCarty, or possibly William H. Bonney. Whatever he was named, he became known as Billy the Kid and the only extant picture of him shows him clutching a Model 73 almost half his size, while his other hand dangles close by, thumb cocked, fingers tensed, over his Colt Peacemaker, whose grip tilts provocatively out of the holster. Dressed for bear or Garrett's posse, the Kid looks tough, dangerous, fast and cool. Did the rifle make the Kid a star or did the Kid make the rifle a star? Who knows? He looks to me like he knows he's already a star, that hat atilt on his head, his face calm. Whether he killed 21 as legend says or only four as many historians believe, he's a deadly little tyke and his killer's intensity works a weird alchemy with the big rifle he clearly loves and trusts and has and will use again.

Then there's a taller, grave guy, better-looking, less lethal, just as entwined with the Winchester. His was a short-barreled carbine Model 92 and someone had battered the loop of the lever until it looked swollen and distended. This allowed the fellow to gracefully swing-cock it under his long arms. It was a cool move, so cool that when Pappy Ford filmed him doing it in 1939 in Monument Valley, near the Utah-Arizona border, he made John Wayne a star. Wayne used that rifle or one just like it (there seem to have been four altogether) over the years in a variety of movies, like "Hondo" and even as late as 1959's "Rio Bravo." Wayne, something of a gun expert himself, knew that a handgun's only purpose was to fight your way to the rifle you were going to win your fight with. He used the Winchester a lot.

A few years later, a cowboy from Pennsylvania helped rekindle a stumbling career by picking up a Winchester. His name was Jimmy Stewart, and the movie was called no less than "Winchester '73," in the year 1950.

Another tall fellow with another set of long arms and another Model 92 had worked the first base position for the Chicago Cubs in the '50s, to no particular distinction. He ambled westward, and in 1962 Chuck Connors became "The Rifleman" and had a few years of TV stardom plus an immortality in the baby boomer imagination.

Then a surly ex-Marine picked up a '92 that had been radically shortened at both barrel and stock so it could be carried like a handgun, and glared his way to stardom on "Wanted: Dead or Alive." His name was Steve McQueen.

The Winchester lever-action rifle was very good to these gentlemen, to thousands and thousands of ranchers, actors and hunters, more than a few lawmen, even a newer generation of Cowboy Action Shooters who used it as their enabler for a fantasy vacation in the Old West. But now it's going away for good. The tough old capitalists who invented it wouldn't shed a tear for it: If you can't sell it, dump it, was their motto. Actors, farmers, hunters and lawmen have all found better guns, and so have Cowboy Fantasy shooters.

But here's a vaya con Di os for the old smokepole. May it go to a Long Branch in the sky where the whiskey's always flowing, the gals are purty and the clock always reads High Noon.


<       2

© 2006 The Washington Post Company