The history of Winchester Ammunition

Winchester Ammunition logo

For more than 150 years, Winchester has been one of the most famous names in the firearms industry. It’s synonymous with many iconic firearms and some of the most popular calibers of ammunition in the world. Although this post is primarily about Winchester ammunition, we can’t discuss ammunition without also talking about some of the company’s most famous rifles.

Winchester and the Wild West

Winchester traces its origins back to the 1850s when partners Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson (later of Smith & Wesson fame) brought several earlier firearm and ammunition developments to market as the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company. An early investor in Volcanic was a New Haven, Connecticut, clothing manufacturer named Oliver Winchester, who saw opportunity in New England’s booming firearms industry. The Volcanic design failed commercially and the company went bankrupt the following year, but its legacy is the connection of several influential technologies and personalities, including Winchester and Benjamin Henry. Reorganized as New Haven Arms with Henry as foreman and designer, the new company built the famous Henry rifle that saw extensive use by the Union Army during the Civil War. In 1866, following a business dispute with Henry, Winchester reorganized again as Winchester Repeating Arms Company, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

The new company’s first rifle was the Model 1866, known as the Yellow Boy for its brass-framed receiver. It fired an anemic 44 caliber rimfire round but was easier to load than the Henry. In 1873, Winchester introduced the Model 1873, the Gun that Won the West. Along with it came the 44-40 Winchester round, the company’s first centerfire metallic cartridge. Over the next several decades, in partnership with prolific firearms inventor John Moses Browning, Winchester introduced a series of highly successful rifles including the Models 1886, 1892, 1894, and 1895, as well as the Model 1897, the first commercially successful pump-action shotgun.

Winchester Ammunition in the Smokeless Era

In 1895, Winchester introduced the .30-30 Winchester cartridge, the first commercial sporting round in the United States designed for smokeless powder. The Winchester 94 in “30-30” combination has undoubtedly accounted for the taking of more North American game than any other. 

Winchester’s success continued into the 20th Century and through the first World War. The Model 12 shotgun came in 1912 and in 1921, Winchester launched the Super-X brand of shotshells, still sold today. Two years later, the company introduced the .270 Winchester, destined to become one of the all-time classic hunting rounds, followed by the Model 54 bolt action rifle in 1925. 

The Great Depression hit the company hard, and in 1931, Winchester declared bankruptcy. The assets were purchased by the Olin Corporation, owner Western Cartridge, which it founded in 1898. In 1935, the two ammunition brands were merged to become Winchester-Western. Winchester introduced the legendary Model 70 bolt action rifle, dubbed The Rifleman’s Rifle, perhaps the finest sporting rifle of its kind, in 1936.

The company’s fortunes improved during World War II with production of the M1 Garand rifle and the M1 carbine. The ammunition business split off from the firearms division in 1944 as the Winchester-Western division of Olin Corporation. In the post-war years Winchester-Western expanded its range of hunting ammunition, introducing popular rounds such as .308 Winchester in 1952 (developed along with the U.S. military’s adoption of the 7.62×51 NATO round), 300 Winchester Magnum (1963), and the .458 Winchester Magnum (1956).  In 1980, Olin sold off the firearms business and a new employee-owned entity was established as US Repeating Arms. Olin retained the ammunition business, which it still owns today.

The 20th Century and beyond

The dawn of the 21th century saw Winchester ammunition revolutionize the industry with a series of high-powered short and super-short magnums ranging in caliber from .223 to .325 that took the hunting world by storm. In late 2020, Winchester took over operation of the Lake City Army Ammunition plant in Missouri, the largest producer of military ammunition in the country, with an annual volume of more than one billion rounds of ammunition, including 5.56mm, 7.62×51, 50 BMG and 20mm cannon.

Today, Winchester remains one of the biggest names in ammunition manufacturing and is a company that Patriot Defense Ammunition is proud to call a partner, with some of their most popular calibers in stock and shipping daily.