By Dan Shine
Winchester Repeating Arms Co.
Special thanks to Dorothy White Gemmell for her generous help with this story.
Dan Shine (who many years later would become The Boy’s grandfather) left the family homestead on Peck Avenue one morning to catch the Campbell Avenue trolley into New Haven; there he would quit his job and join America’s effort in World War I, serving in the Aviation Section, Army Signal Corps. At age fifteen, he had quit school and gone to work as a blacksmith with the New Haven Railroad. At age nineteen, he had left the railroad to take a better job at Winchester Repeating Arms, for they were expanding their workforce in order to satisfy some large defense contracts for rifles and ammunition. Now at age twenty-one he was off to war.
But what became of his employer, Winchester? Well, it’s like this-
Throughout the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Winchester was a household name, and everyone had a family member or knew somebody that worked there. The business had begun in 1855 through the efforts of the legendary team of Smith and Wesson, along with Benjamin Tyler Henry, who had created the “Volcanic” lever-action repeating rifle. The original location was on Union Street, New Haven in the Wooster Square neighborhood. The corporation’s largest stockholder was Oliver Winchester, who had already begun making his fortune in the garment industry.
Born in 1810, Oliver Winchester grew up penniless, and with no formal education. What he did have was a strong drive and a tremendous business sense. He had his first idea patented while still a young man. By 1857, Winchester had acquired the majority share of the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company which was declaring bankruptcy. Winchester purchased the rest of the company’s assets from the remaining stockholders and reorganized it as New Haven Arms Company in 1857.
Over 12,000 of the Volcanic rifles were produced in the ensuing years, and many of them saw action in the War Between the States. By the end of that war, New Haven Arms had moved to Bridgeport, and Benjamin Henry, in a compensation dispute with Oliver Winchester sued for ownership of the company. In a successful defensive maneuver, Winchester reorganized the company as Winchester Repeating Arms and completely redesigned the Volcanic Repeating Rifle, now calling it the Model 1866. This was followed by the Model 1873. These very popular long guns became known as “The Guns That Won the West.” Even as all of this was happening, Winchester was elected Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut–the only state which had two capitols—one in New Haven, the other in Hartford.
Oliver Winchester’s products, which revolutionized the firearms market, enjoyed growing popularity and success in the ensuing years. By now, Winchester’s production had returned to New Haven. Tragically, following a long illness Oliver Winchester died in 1880, just at the time his company was achieving real success. His son and carefully groomed successor William Winchester, would die of tuberculosis just four months later. For the company it was a double tragedy.