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.
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.