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Winchester Repeating Rifle Model 1866

By The Winchester Repeating Arms Co. New Haven Connecticut, USA
Serial No.112.269.  Calibre .44. With full octagon nickel plated barrel and varnished xxx quality stock. Engraved and gilded with scenes of Diana and the Chase.  Signed by C.F. Ulrich.

This Winchester Rifle represents the very highest quality of weapon produced by the Winchester factory. The engraving and chasing is of an extraordinary standard whilst the choice of subject, Diana, with a Grecian key motif around the wrist is unusual for a Winchester. Although the nickel plating has worn away on the upper side of the barrel, the whole rifle is in very fine condition and does not appear to have been heavily used.

In 1855 the firm of Smith, Wesson and Palmer sold out to a group of New Haven and New York capitalists. Among the group were grocers, clockmakers, bakers and others from the world of shipping. There was also a shirt maker called Oliver F Winchester. The principal production of the new company was to be the ‘Volcanic’ range of pistols and carbines. This was an earlier design attempt by Walter Hunt and Lewis Jennings to produce a repeating pistol. Early production was undertaken by Smith, Wesson and Palmer.

The new company was to be called The Volcanic Repeating Arms Co. It was famously said at the time that Winchester ‘knew less about guns than anyone else in the business’. Nevertheless, he was an astute businessman and he was to go on to found one of the worlds great gun making dynasties. The Volcanic itself was not a great success and the company was insolvent by February 1857. Financial problems and the poor performance of the ammunition originally designed by Hunt made it impossible to market the weapon in competition with other designs.

The Volcanic’s great strength was in the design of the repeating mechanism. A spring loaded tube magazine under the barrel fed the rounds to a mechanism operated by an underlever. This collected a round from the tube, and as the lever was moved downwards, raised it in line with the breach, at the same time the hammer was cocked. Bringing the lever back up pushed the round forward into the breech. Pulling the trigger fired the weapon and operating the under lever down and up again would reload and cock. This action could be operated with some speed. Reloading was quickly carried out. The bullets used in the Volcanic carried their propelling charge in the base, there was no separate case and there is no doubt that had the Volcanic used Smith and Wesson’s centre fire metallic cartridge the weapon would have been much more successful.

The Volcanic system had shown the way. Winchester obtained control of the Volcanic Company’s assets and formed a new company, The New Haven Arms Company.  Winchester had a great ability in choosing his practical personnel and he demonstrated this in his appointment of Benjamin T. Henry as his works manager. Henry already had a wide experience of firearms and brought great improvements to the production of the Volcanic under Winchester’s ownership. Winchester was soon to realise the shortcomings of the original Volcanic ammunition – he already owned the patent for the metallic cased cartridge and one of the first jobs he assigned to Henry was the development of more suitable ammunition. Three years were to pass before his efforts began to show favourable results. The result was the .44 metallic rimfire cartridge. Henry now turned his attention to adapting the Volcanic mechanism to suit the new cartridge. He was granted U.S Patent 3446 in October 1860 which he then assigned to the New Haven Arms Co. The changes were incorporated in a new rifle that bore Henry’s name (see Henry Rifle. HMCMS:ACM1963.91.96) The new rifle was a great success and was to see much service in the American Civil War of 1861 – 1865.

In 1866 the company changed its name to The Winchester Repeating Arms Co. By now all pistol production had ceased and the Company was concentrating its efforts on rifles. The first Winchester Model 1866 rifles were produced in this year.

The price for a standard Model 1866 rifle in 1880 was $24.

The mode of operation is basically the same as the Volcanic. The under-barrel magazine was loaded by pushing the cartridges in through a loading port at the side of the action. As the lever is operated a cartridge is pulled out of the magazine and fed into the breech. As in the Volcanic, the magazine is spring loaded. After the shot is fired the action of the lever extracts the empty case from the breech, which is ejected from the top of the action, before it picks up a fresh cartridge. The action can be operated at high speed, thus giving a considerable rate of fire.

It is not known where Vokes acquired this rifle but an entry in a catalogue of his weapons that were loaned for exhibition in 1951, suggests that it may have belonged to W.F. Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill.

The Winchester Museum at Cody, Wyoming, has the original Winchester production records. The listing confirms the number and level of decoration and states that the weapon was shipped in 1878 but no destination or customer is given. A note at the top of the page states that it was among ‘special guns transferred from back books’.

Sadly, therefore, there is no direct evidence that Cody owned this gun. Certainly Cody was a very flamboyant character and it is more than likely that he owned a rifle of this type. Cody had a close relationship with the Winchester Co. and although he was never employed directly by the Company to publicize its products he did much to spread their fame. He used Winchester rifles and ammunition in his Wild West Shows and was often so armed in the fictional Western dime novels of the day. He made regular visits to the Works to organise supplies of rifles and ammunition for his shows. The suggestion in the 1951 catalogue is that the rifle may have been brought over to England by Cody as a presentation piece. More evidence may yet come to light but until then the ownership of the rifle must remain a tantalising mystery. 

Accession  no HMCMS:ACM1963.91.40