When you go to the local gun shop or sporting goods store these days you can find a dizzying array of brands and corporate logos to choose from. Many are known for a specific kind of firearm or model. This was true in the 19th century as well. Firearms manufacturers of the day sought their share of the market and those that found their niche could become serious competitors.
Enter Colt and Winchester. By the time of the Civil War, Colt had become an established revolver maker. Following the conflict, Winchester introduced the Model 1866 rifle that propelled that company into a household name. For the next two decades these two rising stars of the firearms world stayed mostly out of each other’s way.
In the firearms world of the 1800s competitors knew each other very well. They were mostly based in Connecticut’s “Gun Valley,” and sometimes hired each other’s former employees or bought a rival’s patents. One illustration of this pattern shows in the tale of Colt’s lever action rifle and Winchester’s revolver.
In the early 1880s Colt set out to make a lever action rifle, and they hired a prolific inventor named Andrew Burgess. Burgess had previously worked with the Whitney Arms Company, Marlin Firearms Company, and following his work with Colt, would form his own company to build firearms.
As an aside, an earlier blog post touched the topic of G.W. Morse’s Civil War Carbine. That same Morse collaborated on the short-lived, but lengthily named, Whitney-Burgess-Morse Rifle. Colt asked Burgess to design a rifle, which became the Colt-Burgess Rifle. In 1883, Colt began building these rifles, and soon caught the eye of Winchester.
Winchester, in the meantime, had been up to its own intrigue. They had hired a designer named William Mason. Mason had worked for Remington, then Colt, before joining Winchester. He had been a key designer for Colt’s iconic Single Action Army. Winchester tasked Mason with designing a revolver, which he did. Winchester did not start production of the revolver, but did take it with them on a trip to see Colt. After a meeting between the two companies, Colt discontinued its 1883 rifle after only 16 months of production, and Winchester never started building Mason’s revolver. Was there a tacit “gentleman’s agreement” between the two companies? It isn’t recorded, but many allege that there was.
Since then Colt hasn’t produced a lever action rifle and Winchester or its descendants haven’t started building revolvers. If there was a deal, it must have been pretty binding, unless Colt’s slide action Lightning counts as a loophole. Whatever the case, the brief rivalry involved two major companies and two of the most prolific firearms designers of the 19th century and two rivals that later both laid claim to the slogan “The Gun That Won the West”.