In one of the final scenes of the western “Big Jake,” John Wayne could have been talking about the Winchester rifle as he reflected on the passing of the Old West.
“Well,” says Big Jake to his Apache sidekick, “times change -- usually for the better.”
The sign of changing times for the Winchester -- the “Gun That Won the West” and the brand most closely associated with Wayne’s long career in film Westerns -- is that it will no longer be made in America.
After years of losses and dwindling sales, U.S. Repeating Arms Co. announced last week that it would close its New Haven factory by March 31, idling 186 workers.
The Winchester brand will continue, but the firearms will be made in Japan and Europe.
In New Haven, an old-line industrial city, the main surprise is that the ax didn’t fall sooner. The low-slung, modern Winchester plant, built with state, city and bonding support in 1994, produced no more than 80,000 guns last year, about one-fourth of its capacity, according to Mayor John DeStefano Jr.
“It’s ironic that an icon of America is going to be made overseas,” DeStefano said.
The relative handful employed by the plant today is a far cry from the peak production period of World War II, when Winchester’s sprawling old brick factory employed 19,000 people who turned out rifles for the war effort. At that time, nearly every worker was a New Haven resident; today 40% of the plant’s employees live in the city.
A symbol of the forces behind last week’s announcement is the black, yellow and red flag of Belgium that flies between those of the United States and Connecticut outside the plant. Belgium is the home of the Herstal Group, which owns U.S. Repeating Arms as well as Browning firearms.
“After 10 years of desperately trying to make that facility profitable, our owners said, ‘Fix it,’ ” said Scott Granger, a spokesman for Repeating Arms, which is based in Morgan, Utah.
For years, Herstal has manufactured some Winchester shotgun models in Belgium and assembled them in Portugal, Granger said. A number of 19th century Winchester rifle models, sold mainly as collectors’ items or for use in the fast-growing sport of cowboy action shooting, have been made in Japan, he said.
Those guns are well made, said William H.D. Goddard, a weapons historian in Providence, R.I., but he said the New Haven plant closing may cause some gun enthusiasts to turn away from Winchester.
“The American population that still hunts and shoots and collects is by and large more conservative and has a great reverence for things that are American made,” Goddard said.
About 150 of the 186 workers in New Haven are members of the International Assn. of Machinists Local 609. They make from $13 to $24 an hour, averaging about $16, said Everett Corey, directing business representative of the IAM district that includes the Winchester factory.
Corey said the union some time ago negotiated exclusive rights for the New Haven plant to produce the Model 1300 pump shotgun and two American classics, the bolt-action Model 70 and the lever-action Model 94.
The Model 70, a 70-year-old design, has long been the first choice of many military snipers and remains popular with police SWAT teams as well as sportsmen. The Model 94, first built in 1894, has appeared in countless Hollywood Westerns and is similar to the tricked-up, rapid-fire weapon used by Chuck Connors in the 1960s TV series “The Rifleman.”
The union had initially hoped that its rights agreement would provide enough leverage to keep the plant open. But U.S. Repeating Arms now plans to retire the Model 70 and Model 94, although Corey said the union is hoping to generate some interest from another manufacturer to resume production in New Haven.
Mayor DeStefano said New Haven is trying to make the transition from heavy manufacturing to emerging high-tech industries.
The city’s largest employer is Yale University, with about 11,000 workers. Yale’s medical school and scientific research have attracted 40 small biotech firms to New Haven, he said.
“Our manufacturers now are people in lab coats,” DeStefano said. “The nature of work in America is changing, and everybody has an obligation to change with it.”