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Famous US Gun Factory to Close

The Connecticut-based factory that produces the famed Winchester rifle -- nicknamed “The Gun that Won the West” -- is set to close in March. The firm that owns the factory will continue making guns, but in non-U.S. locations.

New Haven, Connecticut's Winchester rifle plant once employed thousands. But after years of declining sales, fewer than 200 people now work there. It's only selling a third as many guns as it did three years ago. In March, all remaining workers will lose their jobs when the plant closes. And along with the jobs will go a slice of American history. Pioneers who moved across North America in the 19th century took the rifle with them.

"The Winchester rifle has been popularly known as ‘The Gun that Won the West,’ at least the rifle that won the West," says Phil Schreier, senior curator at the National Firearms Museum outside Washington D.C.

"Winchester repeating arms is certainly an icon of American firearms industry, development and manufacturing. The fact that they are closing their New Haven plant does signify, you know, a little bit of that history is going away from New England," he added.

The rifle itself was invented in 1866, and represented a major advancement in firearms technology with its lever action breech and bullet cartridges.

"So you could fire the gun very rapidly. Most guns up until that time period used powder and ball that were loaded separately and they were also single shot for the most part."

U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt favored the Winchester, using several on a famous 1909 African safari. Historians say his endorsement-boosted sales of the rifle. Later, it appeared in scores of Hollywood westerns, including the 1950s "Winchester '73" and in the TV series "The Rifleman." It was a particular favorite of the quintessential Hollywood western star, John Wayne.

Collectors have long been drawn to Winchester's many commemorative or special-edition rifles, and sportsmen often still hunt with rifles that are generations old. But traditional models are now being phased out.

"The name Winchester is not going away,” says Mr. Scheirer. “The same firearms will still be produced as they have been for quite a while at their plants in Belgium, Portugal, and Japan. But those that say 'Made in the USA' sadly have come to an end."

The job of settling the country couldn't be outsourced, but the manufacture of a gun that helped do it will be.