Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Collapse of Winchester

When icons fall, they fall hard and fast. This from yesterday's Newsday & AP:
End of an era as Winchester rifle plant prepares to close

January 17, 2006, 4:52 PM EST

NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- U.S. Repeating Arms Co. Inc. said Tuesday it will close its Winchester firearm factory, threatening the future of a rifle that was once called "The Gun that Won the West."

"It's part of who we are as a nation just like it's part of who we are as a city," Mayor John DeStefano said.

The announcement touched off a lobbying effort by city officials and union leaders who hoped to find a buyer for the plant before it closes March 31. If no buyer comes forward, it could spell the end for nearly all commercially produced Winchesters, said Everett Corey, a representative of the International Association of Machinists District 26.

"Winchester would be pretty much defunct," he said. "They're not going to produce them, other than a couple custom-type models."

The company has been plagued by slumping firearm sales. More than 19,000 people worked there during World War II, but the plant employs fewer than 200 now. All will lose their jobs when the plant closes.

The Winchester model 1873 lever action rifle was popular among American frontiersmen at the end of the 19th century for its reliability. John Wayne made the Winchester rifle a signature of his movies and Chuck Connors posed menacingly with his Winchester on the poster for the television series "The Rifleman."
Jim Shepherd at the Outdoor Wire is reporting this AM that Winchester 94s and Model 70s are flying off the shelves of gunstores as gunnies try to lay their hands on two of the most famous firearms ever made:
While Winchester will continue to their offer firearms, manufactured in Europe and Japan, the company says there are no plans to move manufacturing of the 94, 70 or 1300 anywhere else.

Discontinued in 1963 and re-introduced in 1964, the Model 94, modeled after the Model 1894, is widely regarded as the rifle that symbolized the classic American firearms of the old west. It still remains as one of the most famous deer-hunting rifles in American history.

The Model 1300 pump shotgun was first introduced in 1978 and has gone through a variety of offerings.

The future of the U.S. Repeating Arms facility in New Haven, Connecticut is unclear. Built in 1994, it is widely regarded as being among the most modern firearms manufacturing facilities in the world.
Let's talk macro and micro here. In the micro sense, as soon as this posts, I'm going to be on the phone trying to lay my hands on a Trail's End .44 Magnum color case-hardened receiver M94. I love Model so many other kids in the South, my first "deer rifle" was my father's Model 94 30-30. The rifle I keep in my bedroom is a Winchester Model 94 short-barreled Trapper in .44 Magnum. I have a first year .44 Magnum Model 94 from 1970...not the greatest version, but the first .44 Maggie.

In a macro sense, the Model 94 is the most successful rifle ever made...a direct descendent of "The Gun That Won The West"...the greatest deer hunting rifle ever...a flawless choice for a truck gun, a fast-handling rifle for self-defense or backpacking...a vible choice for cowboy action Doc O'Meara's concise history here.

So what the hell happened?

You're probably not surprised that I have some thoughts on the matter. I'm not going to do a blow-by-blow here, but just hit some high (or low, as it were) points:
• It takes a computer to figure out which are the "good years" for Model 94s. The quality has varied wildly over the years. My 1970 version, for instance, appears to have been made by people who previously manufactured automotive parts. The current 94s are for the most part excellent...and beautiful. But consumers don't like having to have to consult a decoder ring before buying a gun.

• The consumer is always, always, always right, no matter what! For years, 94s were made with a particularly ugly crossbolt safety that broke the classic lines of the gun. Not only that, but the safety was amazingly poorly designed...lay the gun on its side, and the safety was often pushed on, much to the surprise of many startled cowboy shooters and the delight of thousands of white-tailed deer. Winchester was adamant that this unnecessary "safety feature" was the only way the company could survive in the current legal environment. Consumers by the drove bought Winchester copies without the "feature." One morning Winchester woke up and discovered that they could just as easily have a tang-mounted safety like pretty much every shotgun — including Winchesters! — on earth without spoiling the rifle's lines.
• "Assume" makes an "ass" of "u" and "me!" Yeah, it's a stupid little homily, but it ought to be carved in marble over the door of every manufacturing company. In Winchester's case, the birth and initial surge of cowboy action shooting must have seemed like a godsend...thousands of people linging up to buy authentic cowboy guns. And the two most authentic cowboy guns in the entire friggin' universe were Colt and Winchester. But purists didn't like the crossbolt safety, and the long lever throw of the Model 94 was soon surplanted by shorter throw REPLICA Winchester Model 92 and REPLICA Winchester 1873s. A shorter throw, pistol-cartridge-only Model 94 would hardly have been a big issue for a modern manufacturing facility like the one in New Haven, but it never happened. To the best of my knowledge, it was never even considered. Ironically, the replica Winchesters sell for roughly double the cost of an authentic Model 94...and the market never flinched at the higher prices.

• Don't let your competition define the playing field! After a century of gunrags talking about how this new rifle or that new rifle is the "bestest handling brush rifle since the Model 94," the original is still the best. "Vintage hunting" — hunting with vintage guns — has made people like Doug Turnbull of Turnbull Restorations or Mike Harvey at Cimarron or Val Forget at Navy Arms a bunch of money. Who might you have thought would be leading this trend? Not a chance...

In truth, Winchester has seen the light on the Model 94 in the last couple of years, but it may be a case of too little too late. The New Haven plant and the ability to make guns under the Winchester galloping horse logo in the United States might be extremely attractive to any of the clone-makers. A partnership between, say, Uberti and Cimarron Arms would make sense, especially with Uberti's membership in the flush Beretta family. Or U.S.F.A. might see a chance to move into leverguns and pre-'64 bolt guns. Actually, if anyone were to call me and ask — and no one has or likely will!!! — I'd suggest that the New Haven plant, with appropriate union concessions, would make an excellent addition to the Kimber stable, moving the product line to high-end specialty guns like a continuation of the current Model 94s, a Classic Pre-64 bolt gun like the Classic Model 70 Super Grade and a top end pump shotgun like an upgraded 1300 Upland Special Field.
I hope someone picks up the ball!


Anonymous said...

Michael: I will never have enough pre-64 or pre-64 style Model 70 rifles in my possession and I value my 1948 production Model 1894 .30/30 more than you know, but no one is going to miss the Winchester Model 1300 shotgun.

May it R.I.P.,
Frank W. James

Anonymous said...

What's preventing FN from moving production of the 94 and 70 to, say, South Carolina or the 'Browning' plant in Utah?

I've never understood the dislike of the 1300. Light, reliable, works fast. I've got two of 'em.

Anonymous said...

"It's part of who we are as a nation just like it's part of who we are as a city," Mayor John DeStefano said.

Unfortunately, this is the same Mayor DeStefano who forced Wal-Mart to stop selling firearms in its stores in New Haven County. He cares about the union jobs, but doesn't really care about the company or its products...

Liberal democratic politicians want it both ways, but not really....

Anonymous said...

I read about this on The High Road Tuesday at 11:00am. At 12:30 I went to lunch, and by 1:00pm I had a 9422 on layaway at one of the local pushers.

It is one of the 1 of 9422 last production .22s. I missed a 9417 last week. I was told that was only made for a bit more than a year.

I had been eyeing a 9422 for a long time, but after paying off a 4" 651 for Christmas, getting my ordered-in-Feb-'05 Kahr P45 the first week of January, and a 3" 629 on layaway at another shop I was (or so I thought) tapped out.

I don't shoot CAS and even I could tell their were a lot of 92's being sold that didn't say Winchester.

By the way, awesome show. With all the shows you had planned, and the second SHOT Show episode, and other ideas, are you adding to the previously announced episodes or replacing episodes?

Scott in Alaska

Anonymous said...

Beretta would never buy the New haven plant and move in and take over the line. By doing that they would take in a union and create massive headaches for themselves. Just ask Colt. Why anybody would want to manufacture in Connecticut is beyond me.

Perhaps part of the softness in the Winchester long gun market stems from the lack of emphasis placed on shooting and compared to hunting. This may the first fatality in the all out effort to promote hunting and ignoring shooting. Your thoughts, Micheal?

Anonymous said...

When all else fails, return to your roots. Look around people. Count ALL the companies making 1886, 1892, 1894 and M 70 copies. Those are real dollars that Winchester lost and it's their own stupid fault.
How many people would have paid more money for a REAL Winchester 86 or a 92 or a 94. Instead of making damn camo turkey guns (how many of those will sell in a year?) they could have made guns that would sell and sell well. Look at all the flavors of lever actions Marlin sells.
Or better how about a "Classic M70." That's at least 3 or 4 additional models that would've sold like hot cakes. Ruger beat their socks off on that one.
Uberti and Marlin ate their lunch on lever actions. Uberti did it by making stuff Winchester used to make themselves. Marlin just improved and modernised them.
It really is a sad day to lose an American icon like Winchester. We almost lost Smith and Wesson; Colt is dying on the vine. Next gun shop you stop in pick up a Uberti reproduction or an American Western Arms single action or even the NEW/OLD Ruger (or any premium single action) and you'll see EXACTLY why Winchester and Colt are dying. Winchester and Colt could have sold the same products for MORE money and been financially sound to this day.
I picked up an AWA S/A recently and even in their best pre-war years Colt would have given their right arm for a gun of that quality.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't say that Colt is dying.

Consider the WWI Repro 1911 (a beautiful and excellent gun) and the Colt Series 70 pistols.

Retailers can't keep either on their shelves, and Colt is having trouble keeping up with demand.

Colt found their niche. Too bad Winchester didn't.

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