What matters isn’t hardware. If you had to borrow a rifle and didn’t know any more about it than to hold it still while you pulled the trigger, you could still kill an elk. What matters, after October’s meat is in the freezer and snow marks another year gone—and you think less about what you got from it and more about how many you have left—well, it’s the people.
The people in your orbit define it and, in some ways, you. There’s no explaining your interests or challenges, achievements or failings apart from people. You can’t even puff that pet rifle without some unwitting credit to the people who designed it and put it together.
They’re an odd lot, a mix of privileged and hardscrabble, mechanic and intellectual. Not all made history, but whether famous or obscure, if they assemble guns or ammunition they go with us to the mountain and contribute to our memories afield. Here are three of the giants.
By the end of the 18th century, adventurous New Englanders were heading toward richer soil “just up the Mohawk.” On 50 acres for which he’d paid $275, Eliphalet Remington built a clapboard house and began raising hay and grain. New York taxes were low: a sixth of one acre’s produce per 100 acres, 12 cents per 100 acres of forest.
Eliphalet prospered and bought more land, quarrying limestone in winter when he could transport it to a new homesite by sled. His son, Eliphalet II, or “Lite,” was schooled at home. Lite courted Abigail Paddock five years before they married and moved into the Remington house. In August, 1816, on his father’s forge below a home-built dam on Staley Creek, Lite built his first rifle from iron scrap and walnut.
Heating the rod he had chosen for his barrel to a glow, Lite hammered it until it was a half-inch square in cross section, then wound it around an iron mandrel. Next, he heated the barrel until it was white, sprinkled it with Borax and sand and pounded one end vigorously on the stone floor to seat the coils. After the tube cooled, Lite checked it for straightness and hammered out the curves. Then he ground eight flats and took the barrel to Utica. The rifling fee was about a dollar — fair for two days’ work at a time when mill hands made $200 a year.
At home, Remington bored a touch-hole and forged a breech plug and lock parts, finishing them with a file. He brazed priming pan to lockplate and treated all metal parts with hazel-brown, a preservative of uric acid and iron oxide. The walnut stock, shaped with drawknife and chisel, was smoothed with sandstone and sealed with beeswax. Lite assembled his rifle with hand-wrought screws and pins, then took it to a local match and placed second.
The winner wanted a Remington rifle. How much would it cost and when could he have it?
“Ten dollars,” Lite said, “and you’ll have it in ten days.” So began America’s oldest gunmaker.
Remington scoured the countryside for scrap iron: pots, plowshares, horseshoes—anything that could be smelted down and hammered into gun parts. His fourth year in business, Lite sold more than 200 barrels and rifles. When the Erie Canal was finished in 1825, the cost of moving a ton of goods from New York to Buffalo dropped from $100 to $12. So in 1828 Lite bought 100 acres on the Mohawk—most of what is now Ilion’s business district. Remington Arms still occupies ground purchased 160 years ago by its founder for $28 an acre.
But success doesn’t prevent sorrow. On June 22, 1828, Lite’s father was thrown from a wagon. A huge iron wheel rolled over his chest, and five days later he died. On August 12, 1841, Abigail and daughter Maria hitched a spirited horse to their carriage. On the road that had taken Lite’s father, Maria opened her parasol. It cracked like a shot, sending the horse off in a panic. The carriage careened into an oak, killing Abigail instantly.
Twenty years to the day after he lost his wife, Lite died of internal “inflammation,” perhaps appendicitis. It was just one month after the Yankee defeat at Bull Run. By the end of the Civil War, Remington assembly lines would ship almost 1,000 rifles a day. The company supplied Union troops with 9,759,750 cartridges. A century later, Remington would announce its Model 700, now one of the most popular elk rifles ever produced.
The industrialist—Oliver F. Winchester
It may revolutionize the whole science of war. Where is the military genius . . . [to] so modify the science of war as to best develop the capacities of this terrible engine—the exclusive use of which would enable any government . . . to rule the world?
Long ago, those words might have been written of the horse; later, the atom bomb. But in the mid 19th century, this was Oliver Winchester’s appeal to the U.S. government for military adoption of his Henry repeating rifle. Besides offering increased firepower, breech-loading repeaters were proving safer. After the Civil War, a Navy report would show how in the heat of battle muzzle-loading rifles became hazards:
“Of the whole number (27,574 guns collected from battlefields) . . . we found at least 24,000 of these loaded; about one half of these contained two loads each, one fourth from three to 10 loads each . . . six balls have been found with only one charge of powder . . . Twenty-three loads were found in one Springfield rifle-musket . . . ”
Oliver Winchester was in the right place at the right time. His family had come early to America, his grandfather John Winchester sailing from England at the age of 19 to land near Boston in 1635. Oliver’s father Samuel had 10 children by two marriages before his third wife bore Oliver and twin brother Samuel, the youngest of her five children. Oliver’s father died a year later, and Oliver worked on farms from age 7, attending school only in winter. At 14 he was apprenticed to a carpenter. Ten years later, in 1834, he married Jane Ellen Hope and opened a retail store of men’s furnishings in Baltimore. Despite a financial panic in 1837, Oliver expanded his business with a downtown store. Over the next decade he prospered and fathered three children.
In 1847 Oliver Winchester thought the world could use a better shirt. He was disturbed by the “pull of the neckband” and proposed to “remedy this evil” with a curved seam. He sold his Baltimore business, moving to New Haven to make shirts, and was granted a patent for his seam in February 1848.
The following year Oliver Winchester teamed up with John M. Davies, a leading New York importer. Their partnership, Winchester & Davies, built a shirt factory. By 1860 it had 500 foot-pedal sewing machines in use, and the payroll for 1,500 workers (almost all female) approached $17,000 a month. Annual sales of 480,000 shirts: $600,000. By 1855, when Oliver Winchester invested in Volcanic Repeating Arms, he was well-to-do. Volcanic had been the property of Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson who, with financier Courtland Palmer and talented mechanic B. Tyler Henry, had tried to salvage the Volitional repeater invented by Walter Hunt in the late 1840s and improved by Lewis Jennings. When Winchester and 39 other investors bought out Smith and Wesson, the Hunt-Jennings repeater was not doing well.
Volcanic floundered and in February 1857 was declared insolvent. Winchester bought all assets for $40,000 and reorganized the firm into the New Haven Arms Company in his hometown. To improve Volcanic rifles and ammunition, he hired B. Tyler Henry. Henry earned a patent for his lever-action repeating rifle with a tube magazine and a two-pronged firing pin. It struck both sides of a .44 cartridge rim to push a 216-grain bullet 1,025 fps with 26 grains of black powder. The Henry’s main fault was a weak, slotted magazine. But the rifle held 15 rounds to the rival Spencer’s seven; and one flick of the lever would load and cock, while the Spencer required separate motions. During the Civil War, Northern troops coveted the Henry. Southern soldiers feared it: “Give us anything but your damned Yankee rifle that can be loaded on Sunday and fired all week.”
In 1866, successor Nelson King revamped the rifle’s magazine. The addition of a wooden forend gave Winchester Repeating Arms its Model 66, anchoring a lever-action dynasty.
Much of Winchester’s early growth came from abroad. In 1866, Benito Juarez, the Mexican leader opposing Emperor Maximillian, ordered l,000 rifles and 500,000 rounds of ammunition. Winchester salesman Thomas Emmett Addis got the goods and waited in Brownsville, Texas—only to hear that Juarez would pay on delivery. Defying company orders not to leave the country, Addis smuggled the arms across the Rio Grande to Monterrey. When the buyers met him but refused to pay, Addis threatened to sell the guns to Maximillian. He left town in a hired coach with $57,000 in cash, sticking a scarf pin in his thigh periodically during the grueling three-day trip home, so he wouldn’t fall asleep and be robbed by his guards.
Oliver Winchester would not see the lever-action rifle mature. In the late 1870s, his hopes were fixed on a bolt rifle his company had acquired from inventor B.B. Hotchkiss, an American living in Paris. Ordnance tests in 1878 gave the Hotchkiss cherished government approval. Alas, the first infantry rifles were flawed, and soldiers didn’t like the unfamiliar mechanism. Awaiting better reports, Oliver Winchester died December 10, 1880, at age 70. His only son, William Wirt Winchester, succumbed to tuberculosis a few months later. Thomas G. Bennett, Oliver’s son-in-law, would guide the firm through its most rapid growth.
The genius— John M. Browning
Brigham Young’s band of Mormons, thinned by time and hardship to 143 people, reached Salt Lake City July 24, 1847. Jonathan Browning, who had lagged to supply guns for the group, arrived five years later. With $600 he bought a parcel of land in Ogden and began building a house. Jonathan had 11 children. By a second wife, he would father 11 more, one of them John Moses.
John was 10 when he assembled a gun from a scrapped musket barrel wired to a board shaped with a hatchet. He stuffed the barrel with powder and shot, then heated a batch of coke and put it in a perforated can. Brother Matt swung the can on a cord to put air to the coke as the boys crept up on two prairie chickens. Matt lit a long splinter and, at John’s signal, brought it to the touch-hole. The blast put John on the ground. But he and Matt retrieved a brace of birds.
John went to school until he was 15, when the schoolmaster told him. “No sense coming back. You know as much as I do.” The young Browning knew he wanted to make guns. He didn’t have to move. The trans-continental railway had been joined at Promontory Point, 50 miles from Ogden. In 1878 John turned 23.
“You’ve a good head, John,” said his father. “Build your own rifle.” With no drafting tools, John sketched a single-shot mechanism. He hand-forged parts, shaping them with file and chisel and a foot-lathe Jonathan had brought by ox-cart from Missouri. The rifle worked. Massive parts and simple design suited it to the frontier. John filed for a patent May 12, 1879. Shortly thereafter, his father died, leaving him the head of two households.
With brothers Ed, Sam and George, John and Matt built a modest factory, installing machinery they didn’t know how to use. Frank Rushton, an Englishman familiar with British gunshops, taught them. John had priced his rifle at $25. A week after opening a retail counter, Matt sold all the rifles they’d built in three months! And a burglar made off with the prototype!
John was already busy on another dropping-block action. By 1882 he’d built a repeating rifle. A year later, Winchester salesman Andrew McAusland picked up a used Browning rifle and delivered it to Winchester president Thomas Bennett, who lost no time traveling to Ogden. He found half a dozen men barely out of their teens in a shop smaller than a livery. But Bennett was no fool. He met with John Browning and came straight to the point: “How much will you take for your rifle?” One rifle? No, the rifle. All rights.
“Ten thousand dollars,” said John coolly, as if selling paint. It was an enormous sum in Utah in 1883.
“Eight thousand, plus jobbing grants.” Bennett would surely have paid $10,000 but didn’t have to. Less than six hours after he’d arrived in Ogden, Bennett was on a train for the six-day ride back to New Haven. The rifle came out as Winchester’s Model 1885. John immediately began his next project, a lever-action. Bennett bought the gun, to become Winchester’s Model 1886, a repeater that could handle cartridges previously used only in single-shots. It cost Winchester $50,000, “more money than there was in Ogden,” according to John.
“Could you build a lever-action shotgun?” asked Bennett. “Sure,” said John. “But a slide-action would sell better.” Bennett gave him two years; John delivered the lever gun in eight months.
After returning to Utah from the missionary field in 1889, John Browning worked on mechanisms “so simple, so fool-proof, that he measures in inches not thousandths.” This according to one of his shop foremen.
During their 20-year association Winchester bought 44 Browning patents. Only 10 were manufactured as Winchesters. One of the most successful was the pump shotgun Bennett had at first declined. As the Model 1893 and later the Model 1897, it was an instant hit and stayed in production 60 years. Though Bennett turned down the sketches for his Model 1890 .22 pump rifle, John built the gun anyway, shipping it to New Haven with a note: “You said it wouldn’t work, but it seems to shoot pretty fair for me.”
About then, Bennett asked Browning for a lever-action rifle to replace the 1873. “Get a prototype to me in three months, and it’s worth $10,000,” said Bennett. “Make it two months and I’ll give you $15,000.”
John Browning replied. “The price is $20,000 if I can deliver it in 30 days. If I’m late, you get it free.” Incredulous, Bennett agreed. Within two weeks John had a prototype for the Winchester Model 1892. A long-action version, the 1894, would become a popular elk rifle, just as the 1886’s successor, the Model 71, would later.
John allegedly found inspiration for his self-loading guns watching grass in front of prone shooters flattened by muzzle blast. Curious, he placed a wood block in front of a rifle’s muzzle. He drilled the block’s center to allow the bullet to pass through, but at the shot the block flew forward! Harnessing the energy of the muzzle blast, the subsequent Browning machine gun, in .45-70, chewed through 1,800 rounds in Colt’s test lab without a malfunction. It had fewer parts than a revolver and at 40 pounds, weighed half as much as a Gatling. Improvements gave the U.S. a succession of fearsome weapons. Hermann Goering would remark that if Germany had had Browning .50s, the Battle of Britain might have turned out differently.
By 1900, three of every four guns used by American sportsmen were of Browning design. They were all Winchesters. Then, in March 1899, John proposed an autoloading shotgun. Bennett balked. Shotshells of the day swelled and malfunctioned even in pump guns. Besides, hunters might not like an autoloader, for which tooling would be expensive. Another successful Browning repeater would put the skids under the ‘97. John also insisted on royalties. In the end, the men reached no compromise. The honeymoon was over.
John found a buyer for his shotgun in Belgium. As winter fell in 1903, Fabrique Nationale de Guerre (FN) had 10,000 autoloaders en route to New York. Even John Browning must have been surprised when the lot sold within a year. Later, Remington acquired rights to manufacture the shotgun as the Model 11. The Auto 5 Belgian Browning lasted into the 1970s; Japanese versions were built for another quarter century.
John Browning’s next project was an autoloading pistol. By 1902 he had a .38-caliber prototype. But the Moro uprising in the Philippines had shown a need for more powerful bullets. Browning responded with the Model 1911 in .45 ACP. So fault-free that it weathered two world wars with no substantial design changes, it is still considered by many the finest defensive sidearm ever built.
In 1926, checking shotgun production on his 61st visit to the FN plant, John said that he wasn’t feeling well. Minutes later, on an office couch, he observed, “I wouldn’t be surprised if I am dying.” Then he was gone, at age 71. The military ceremonies could hardly do justice to a man whose genius garnered 128 patents for 80 distinct firearms. No gun designer has been as prolific or as adept at converting ideas into steel. None other has been so able to marry complex functions with a handful of rugged parts without blueprints.
In the next issue: “The Invisible Men—Jenks, Hunt, Maynard, Biesen, Emary, Olin, Imgren—and a few other talented if not-so-famous “men behind the guns.”
Wayne van Zwoll has published 16 books and more than 2,700 articles on rifles and shooting. Two of his latest books, Shooter’s Bible Guide to Rifle Ballistics and Gun Digest Shooter’s Guide to Rifles are chock full of information. Just out: Mastering the Art of Long-Range Shooting—and yes, Wayne always tries for the close shot.