The gun that won the West

ToastR’s comment on my post about Japan’s arms trade reminded me about this article I saw in the New York Times a bit over a week ago.

It’s in the subscriber only archive, so I’ll just past the text below.

A Hard Kick From the Gun Of John Wayne
By STACEY STOWE (NYT) 974 words
Published: January 21, 2006

Come spring, the Winchester rifle, immortalized as the gun that won the West and rode into the sunset with John Wayne, will be made in Portugal and Japan.

The U.S. Repeating Arms Company, which has manufactured rifles and shotguns in New Haven since 1866, is set to shut its doors on March 31. About 200 people will lose their jobs, many having worked for decades on the plant’s assembly line.

Workers were told of the decision to close the plant this month after executives learned in December that projected sales for 2006 were expected to decline by one-third.

Paul DeMennato, a company spokesman, did not provide production and sales numbers, but the New Haven mayor’s office released a statement saying that only 80,000 guns had been produced at the plant last year. The factory is capable of producing 300,000 a year.

”It’s just not profitable to continue to manufacture that small quantity of firearms,” said Mr. DeMennato, whose father assembled Winchester guns in the 1940’s, when the plant had 19,000 employees and maintained its own hospital and police department. ”I still have my dad’s guns. These products don’t have a built-in obsolescence.”

The Winchester repeating rifle became the gun of choice for Western settlers after it was introduced in 1866, Mr. DeMennato said. The lever-action breech mechanism allowed the user to fire a number of shots before having to reload. It became so ubiquitous, the gun assumed a stock role in Hollywood westerns and became a kind of sidekick for the actor John Wayne.

”Instead of saying, ‘Get me my gun,’ he’d say, ‘Get me my Winchester,’ ” Mr. DeMennato said.

A 10-foot-high bronze statute of Wayne, eyes narrowed in concentration and left hand clutching a Winchester, stands in the lobby of the New Haven plant. On the wall behind it are the mounted heads of a stag and wild boar and a turkey in its entirety.

”I used to come down and polish John Wayne because I was proud he was here and proud to be here,” said Dave Roy, 48, an electrician at the plant for 22 years. ”Not anymore.”

The Belgian-based Herstal Group owns the company, but the Winchester name is owned by the Olin Corporation, which makes Winchester ammunition. Certain models made in New Haven will be discontinued when the plant closes, but other Winchester guns will continue to be made in Japan and Portugal, Mr. DeMennato said.

Echoing several other employees who streamed out the doors after 3 p.m. on Wednesday, at the end of their shifts, Mr. Roy tied declining sales to a diminished product. He said that in recent years, company executives worried more about saving money than making a good product, and the guns suffered for it.

But Scott Hoffman, who owns Hoffman’s Gun Center in Newington, Conn., said that sales of the guns were lackluster because of the Winchester company’s poor marketing strategy.

”They never knew who they were selling to,” he said.

Mr. Hoffman called the Winchester ”the common man’s gun,” one whose moderate price helped make it popular. He said a lever-action Winchester rifle is priced starting at $300.

”You take a gun and put ‘made in Japan’ on it and start selling it at the local Wal-Mart, and it loses something,” Mr. Hoffman said.

Since 1993, U.S. Repeating Arms has received $17 million in incentives and $33 million in loans from city and state governments to remain in New Haven, including a $4.7 million state grant and $31 million in industrial development revenue bonds to build a 300,000-square-foot factory 13 years ago.

Connecticut has a history of firearm production with companies like Colt’s Manufacturing in Hartford; Sturm, Ruger in Fairfield; and Marlin Firearms in North Haven.

Yesterday, Mr. DeMennato said that his company was engaged in discussions with two ”major players in the firearms industry” to sell the plant, but would offer no details.

John DeStefano Jr., the New Haven mayor, said on Thursday that he asked the company to postpone closing to explore ”any rescue packages that could be offered by the city or state.”

But workers leaving the factory on Wednesday, resigned to losing their jobs, were bitter about the plant’s closing.

”It’s depressing, said David Pallanti, 58, who has worked there for 14 years, packing guns. ”Who’s going to hire someone 58, 60 years old?”

Dressed in blue jumpsuits, with their names emblazoned in red above the breast pocket, Jim Close, 44, and Donald Harris, 39, are metal finishers at the factory. Each man has two children. They have worked here for 6 and 10 years, respectively.

On a break during their shifts, they stood next to the entrance of the plant under a moody, wind-swept sky, near a sign that reads: ”Through these gates pass the greatest craftsmen who make the world famous Winchester firearms.”

The message left Mr. Harris cold. ”That’s just a sign now,” he said, before heading back in to work where he pours acid on steel to rustproof the guns. ”It used to mean something.”

Photos: John Wayne and a Winchester rifle, from ”The Shepherd of the Hills” in 1941. The Duke was a company spokesman for the Winchester brand manufactured at the U.S. Repeating Arms plant in New Haven. (Photo by Bettmann/Corbis); (Photo by Douglas Healey for The New York Times)(pg. B1); Workers at the end of their shift this week at the U.S. Repeating Arms Company. They may lose their jobs. (Photo by Douglas Healey for The New York Times)(pg. B4)

2 thoughts on “The gun that won the West”

  1. I just visited the custom shop in November 2005. I know this anouncement was a real surprise. I bought a very nice 9422 gun stock while I was there. I have 7 USRAC lever guns in my gun safe. I hate to see them close. Real American Workmen are making history right now. I wish all the Winchester gunmakers and their family god speed as they regain their footing.

  2. I am pissed that winchester is gone and I imagine John Wayne is turning in his grave knowing that the guns that won the west will be produced overseas.Thank god I own an old model 94 30/30 I will cherish it forever and I will never buy another winchester product as long as they are made over seas.F#%k all you people that were invovled with this sale of an american icon and my heart goes out to all the employees that lost there jobs!Maybe they can find work at Remington!!!!!!

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