Weird West: Winchester Revolvers

Fact or Fiction? Did Winchester and Colt produce each other’s claims to fame for retaliation in the 1880s?

Fact: Winchester, a company best known for its rifles and shotguns, did indeed produce pistols. Oliver Winchester’s earlier enterprise, the New Haven Arms Company in Connecticut, produced a superposed 10-shot revolver. This company, well known for the Henry rifle, was contracted to make 3,000 Walch revolvers, but when the purchaser did not pay, Winchester was left to sell the pocket guns.

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This unpleasant sales experience did not deter Winchester from wanting to create a pistol. By 1872, Winchester began prototyping a revolver series. Winchester revolvers went through several variations, including the Wetmore-Wells, which ceased production in 1876, and the Wetmore-Wood. The Wetmore-Wood was actually revolutionary because designer Stephen W. Wood, with Hugo Borchardt, created one of the first cylinders that moved out of the frame for cartridge ejection. The Turkish government ordered 30,000 of these firearms in 1877.

Winchester Vs. Colt

The relationship between Winchester and Colt was tested in 1880, when Winchester imported double-barrel shotguns from England to undercut the price of shotguns introduced by Colt in 1878. Around the same time, Colt purchased the Andrew Burgess patent and began making the Colt-Burgess lever action. In turn, Winchester began importing another English competitor, the Webley revolver. To add insult to injury, Winchester hired William Mason away from Colt to design a single-action revolver to compete with the Peacemaker. Ultimately, the two companies worked out a “gentleman’s agreement” for Winchester to stay out of the revolver market if Colt stayed out of the lever-action business.

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Later in history, Winchester did launch several pistol experiments, including a bolt-action single-shot made between 1900 and 1922.  And in 1917, Winchester had a contract to make the 1911 based off of Colt’s patent. However, that order was later cancelled.

Winchester pistols were not popular in the public realm. Not many Walch revolvers have survived because the double-chambered firearm had a tendency to explode upon firing. Some of the revolvers and single-shot pistols were produced in limited runs. However, the prototypes and design drawings have been immortalized at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West Cody Firearms Museum.

History is not always black or white, fact or fiction. Many popular myths of the American West grew from real events, others from urban legends passed down through oral tradition—and ultimately creating work for historians to track down the truth behind the myth.

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This article originally published in the Winter 2016 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.