Winchester 44
Jacobsen  /  Getty Images file
Once the U.S. Repeating Arms plant closes March 31, the only new rifles carrying the famous Winchester name will be the modern, high-end models produced in Belgium, Japan and Portugal. The older models, including the .44 rifle seen in this 1955 photo, will be scrapped.
updated 1/18/2006 6:52:09 PM ET 2006-01-18T23:52:09

The traditional Winchester rifles carried by pioneers, movie stars and Wild West lawmen will be discontinued in March, a Belgian manufacturer said Wednesday, confirming the end of an American icon that became known as "The Gun that Won the West."

Once the U.S. Repeating Arms plant closes March 31, the only new rifles carrying the famous Winchester name will be the modern, high-end models produced in Belgium, Japan and Portugal. The older models, including the famous Winchester Model 94, will be scrapped.

"The name will continue, but not with those traditional products," said Robert Sauvage, a spokesman for the Herstal Group, the Belgian company that owns U.S. Repeating Arms and the right to the Winchester name.

Herstal announced Tuesday that the U.S. Repeating Arms factory in New Haven would soon close, capping 140 years of Winchester manufacturing in the city.

"Economically speaking, we cannot continue. We have lost a lot of money," Sauvage said.

More than 19,000 Winchester employees worked in New Haven during World War II, but after years of a softening firearms market, the plant now employs fewer than 200. All will lose their jobs when the plant closes.

Officials and union leaders said they hoped someone would buy the plant and continue building the traditional rifles, but the Winchester name wouldn't necessarily come with the factory. Such an arrangement would need to be worked out separately.

Missouri-based 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 along with the right to use the Winchester name until next year.

Sauvage said the Herstal Group wants to extend that right past 2007 but Olin has not decided whether to allow it. Spokeswoman Ann Pipkin said Olin is disappointed with Herstal's decision to close the plant and may sell the Winchester naming rights to someone else.

"The legendary Winchester name, we want it to be on a great-quality firearm," she said.

The Winchester model 1873 lever action rifle, popular among American frontiersmen at the end of the 19th century for its reliability, inspired the 1950 James Stewart film "Winchester '73."

John Wayne made the Winchester a signature of his movies and Chuck Connors posed menacingly with his Winchester on advertisements for the television series "The Rifleman."

President Teddy Roosevelt was also a Winchester devotee, using the 1895 model on his famous 1909 African safari, which historians credited with boosting the sale of Winchester sporting rifles.

While collectors were drawn to Winchester's many commemorative or special-edition rifles, sportsmen often still hunt with rifles that are generations old, a longevity that historian R.L. Wilson said became both the hallmark of the Winchester brand and part of its demise.

"It's not unusual in my work, I'll talk to someone, they'll say, 'I've got my rifle that belonged to my grandfather. I'm still using it,'" Wilson said. "These things get recycled as long as you keep a gun clean and you look after it."

Sauvage said Herstal is proud to have manufactured Winchester rifles for so long. He said he thinks customers will continue buying the new line of weapons, which can be produced quickly and for less money, because Belgium, like America, has a reputation for quality manufacturing.

Others say it won't be the same.

"It would be like Chevrolet going out of business or Chevrolet being made in Japan or China," firearms historian Ned Schwing said. "Winchester is an American legend, whether you're a gun person or not."

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