The name Winchester is legendary in the history of firearms. Along with Colt, Remington, Smith & Wesson and other US manufacturers of the mid 1800s, the Winchester Repeating Arms Company was at the leading edge of firearm technology, thanks mainly to its lever-action rifle and the invention of self-contained breech-loading ammunition.
With the increasing demand for firearms to support civil conflicts, buffalo hunting and controlling outlaws, the legacy of Oliver F Winchester has endured to this day. Winchester continued to produce hundreds of thousands of firearms over the years and was credited with introducing ‘the Gun that Won the West’ thanks to its Model 1873 lever-action.
This year, US firearms and ammunition giant Winchester marks its 150th year of operation. Here in Australia, there is about to be another birthday celebration. Back in April 1967, Winchester-Western decided to expand its operations into Australia. Yes, that’s 50 years.
Clive Pugh, general manager of Winchester Australia, explains the reasoning:“If we cast our minds back to the mid 1960s, we didn’t have containerised shipping and the shooting and firearms market in Australia was large enough to justify having an ammunition factory here. Back at that time, Winchester USA built satellite factories in Canada, Australia and Italy producing mainly shotshell ammunition.”
Winchester Australia’s operation is based on the eastern side of the port of Geelong, south of Melbourne. When the facility was established in 1967, it initially traded as Winchester-Western Limited. At different times, it has been known as Winchester Australia, Olin Australia and then back to Winchester Australia in around 2009. “Most people, when they think of Winchester, they think of the firearm. And of course Winchester as a company doesn’t manufacture firearms any more - all the firearms are manufactured by Browning,” said Clive. “That development of the Winchester brand away from firearms and into ammunition hasn’t been an easy thing for us to sell to the market; they think we make firearms here in Geelong.”
Clive outlined how the Winchester brand had evolved after making its initial move onto Australian soil thanks to conditions peculiar to Victoria. “Victoria was the main shotgun state in Australia, and probably still is, and the majority of shot-producing towers and shotshell makers were in Victoria. The reason for this would have to be ducks. We’re lucky enough in Victoria to have a duck season most years,” he said.
At various stages, Winchester had to adapt its strategy. “Most people will know that Winchester compression-form shotgun shell, which was the one-piece AA hull that was made here in Australia from 1967 all the way through to 2008,” said Clive. “In recent times, the US has replaced that old design with the new AA two-piece hull...the market in Australia has continued to grow. So we’ve been able to carve out a niche here in the Australian market, loading 12-gauge, .22 rimfire, some centrefire rifle and centrefire pistol [ammunition] and that’s something we’ve done in all the time we’ve been here.
“In the history of Winchester Australia, going back to the 1990s and before, we manufactured all of the components that were going into a case for rimfire and for shotshell ammunition. So we would take brass strip, we would make a brass case, make our own primer mix and so on. Gradually over time, those things have been moved away for cost and other reasons and now we import components, we make some components here and we assemble them together,” explained Clive.
Apart from Winchester’s range of 12-gauge target ammunition, the plant produces 12-gauge field loads as well. 16-gauge is the only other shotshell they make and nearly all of that is exported back to the US. “We just started making Browning-branded shotgun ammunition that will be released into the market this year,” said Clive.
“I would say a fair proportion of the rimfire that we assemble at this facility will be exported to Europe, UK and the USA. Our rimfire has a particularly high-quality standard to it from an accuracy repeatability performance point of view. So PowerPoint for example, commands a sizable share of the UK shooting market. Rimfire is important to us particularly because we make some components end-to-end here.”
The various products each require their own separate handling. “We have a lead smelting facility here. The majority of the shot we use and all of the .22 projectiles we use in this facility are made here. The .22 brass cases we bring in from the US, the shotshell cases we bring in from Europe and we stencil them here as they come off the machine so we have the ability to customise the branding,” said Clive.
“We prime the shotshell and centrefire cases as part of the loading process. To make buckshot and .22 lead projectiles, we start with a lead billet, extrude it into wire, chop it into slug then put that into a press to compress it into the shape of a projectile before loading into the brass case. Buckshot is formed the same way then tumbled to round off the edges.
“The shotgun products that we make here will most likely have an ADI powder in them. The production powders that we use, while they’ll be similar to a reloading powder, there will be variations. Quality control of the product occurs throughout the manufacturing process, not only at the individual component level, but the loaded round as well.
Clive sums up Winchester Australia’s current position: “Winchester is one of the manufacturers that’s stood the test of time,” he said. “Yes, we were initially set up as an ammunition manufacturing business and we still are a manufacturing business today. Except we see ourselves now as having morphed into being, rather than a manufacturing business that distributes, we’re really a distributer that manufactures.”
Look for the June 2016 edition of Australian Shooter for the full story.