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The Winchester Rifle:
"The Gun That Won the West"


Science Reference Section
Science, Technology, and Business Division
Library of Congress



Photo of Buffalo Bill Cody holding a rifle.
Buffalo Bill Cody -
Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress


Rifling refers to spiral grooves that have been formed into the barrel of a firearm. It is the means by which a firearm imparts a spin to a projectile to gyroscopically stabilize it to improve accuracy.

A repeating rifle is a single barreled rifle containing multiple rounds of ammunition that are loaded from a reservoir chamber (magazine) by means of a manual or automatic mechanism.


(For a detailed history, read Stephen Hunter’s article in the Washington Post, cited below.)

In the 1800s the idea of a repeating rifle was finally realized by Oliver Winchester, the largest stockholder of the New Haven Arms Co. of Connecticut. He was assigned US patent No. 5501, which protected improvements to the Henry rifle. The new technology included a spring-closed loading port on the right-hand side of the frame, directly at the rear of the magazine tube, and resulted in the first reliable lever-action repeating rifle, produced as the first Winchester, Model 1866.

Famous for its rugged construction, the original Winchester rifle allowed the rifleman to fire a number of shots before having to reload: hence the term, "repeating rifle." Manufacturing of the Model 1866 started in Bridgeport, Conn. in 1867; the Winchester Repeating Arms Company moved to New Haven in 1871. The Company also manufactured and licensed to the U.S. government the M1 Carbine, the standard 30 caliber weapon used by Allied forces in World War II.

The U.S. Repeating Arms Co. (owned by Herstal Group, a Belgian gun-making conglomerate that also owns Browning Arms Co.) announced in January 2006 that it would close its Winchester plant in New Haven on March 31. The plant closing will end production of a celebrated line of rifles and shotguns known collectively as "the gun that won the West."


Hunter, Stephen. “Out With A Bang: The Loss of the Classic Winchester Is Loaded With Symbolism.”
   Washington Post, January 20, 2006; Page C01.


Cody Firearms Museum, Buffalo Bill Historical Center
   Houses the most comprehensive assemblage of American firearms in the world. The Winchester Collection, the heart of this museum, was transported from New Haven, Connecticut to Cody in 1976.

Patent No. 55012, “Improvement in Magazine Firearms.” Washington, US Patent Office, May 22, 1866.

History of Winchester

Wikipedia: Winchester Rifle

The Winchester Arms Collectors Association

Winchester Model Information

Winchester Repeating Arms


<SciRR> indicates books in the Science Reading Room.

The History of Winchester firearms 1866-1992. 6th ed. Edited by Thomas Henshaw. Clinton, NJ, Winchester Press, c1993. 268 p.
   TS533.2.H57 1993

Smith, W.H.B. and Joseph E. Smith. The book of rifles. 4th ed. Harrisburg, PA, The Stackpole Co., 1972. 656 p.
   Revised and enl. ed. of author’s The N.R.A. book of small arms, v. 2, Rifles, published in 1948.
   TS535.S548 1963 <SciRR>

Walter, John. Rifles of the world. 2nd ed. Iola, WI, Krause Publications, c1998. 510 p.
   "The definitive illustrated guide to the world’s centrefire & rimfire rifles."
   TS536.4.W39 1998 <SciRR>

Walter, John. The guns that won the West: firearms on the American frontier, 1848-1898. London, Greenhill Books, Mechanicsburg, PA. Stackpole Books, 1999. 288 p.
   Includes bibliographical references.
   TS533.2 .W35 1999

Photo of a winchester rifle. on display.

Jesse James' Winchester.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress


Compiled January 2006; reviewed May 2014

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   February 24, 2017
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