- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 17, 2006

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) — U.S. Repeating Arms Co. Inc. said yesterday 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 hope to find a buyer for the plant before it closes March 31. If no buyer comes forward, it could mean 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 beset by slumping firearm sales. More than 19,000 people worked there during World War II, but the plant employs fewer than 200 now.

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 old television series “The Rifleman.”

“Marlin made lever-action rifles, but nobody ever had a Marlin in films or TV series. They were always Winchesters,” said Ned Schwing, a firearms historian.

Perhaps the company’s greatest unofficial spokesman was President Theodore Roosevelt, who used the 1895 model on his famous 1909 African safari, which historians credited with boosting the sale of Winchester sporting rifles.

Since the plant opened in 1866, tens of millions of Winchester rifles have been produced, the bulk of which were made between the late 1800s and the end of World War II, said firearms historian R.L. Wilson, who has written books about Winchester. More than 6 million copies of the Winchester Model 94, the company’s most popular rifle, have been produced.

“Several generations have worked at this place, a lot of fathers and brothers, sons, uncles and daughters,” said Paul DeMennato, facility director at U.S. Repeating Arms.

U.S. Repeating Arms, which is owned by the Herstal Group, a Belgium company, has said for years that it was on the brink of closing the plant.

Mr. DeMennato said the company is negotiating the plant’s sale. Missouri company Olin Corp. owns the Winchester brand name. In the late 1970s, after a massive strike by its machinists, Olin sold the plant to U.S. Repeating Arms with the right to use the Winchester name until 2007.

Olin had no immediate word on its plans for the Winchester name. Mr. DeMennato said he hopes the name will be sold with the plant. Nobody at Herstal’s headquarters in Belgium could be reached yesteday afternoon.

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