High Noon for the Gun that Won the West

ByABC News

March 26, 2006 — -- The maker of the gun that won the West has one final shot at staying alive.

Eleventh hour efforts to find a buyer for the U.S. Repeating Arms Company are underway tonight, but it's likely the company that built the Winchester rifle for the past 150 years will close this week.

The U.S. Repeating Arms factory in New Haven, Conn., has turned out the Winchester, one of the legendary pieces of American workmanship, since 1856. But in a few days, the production is planning to move overseas.

"Belgium," said Winchester employee Donald Harris. "I mean they probably don't even know where New Haven is."

Where once during WWII the company had 19,000 workers, the remaining 186 find it insulting that this American brand will make hunting rifles in foreign countries. And, even worse, Winchester will no longer make its iconic level-action carbine.

For many Americans, Winchester's place in history started with "the gun that won the West," the Winchester 1873, which gave its name to the old Jimmy Stewart movie, "Winchester 73."

The model 73 appears in fine art -- depicted being used by soldiers, cowboys and Indians in a painting by Frederick Remington.

A statue of John Wayne, who shot his way through "True Grit" and the Hollywood West with a Winchester, graces the lobby of the Winchester factory. With a history like that, it's no wonder that Winchester has a spot in so many American hearts.

"They've been around for 150 years, and it's just the end of another era," said Ronald Rando, a gun dealer. "Something going down the tubes again."

Winchester also has a spot in some sentimental Americans' wallets. The value of older guns is going up. Rando has a gun from 1891 that he's selling for more than $10,000.

But right now, what really sells is assault rifles -- despite the timelessness and history attached to old lever-action guns (which mechanically differ little to those today).

But for some, those old guns are the only way to enjoy hunting and shooting tin cans with old lever-action guns.

"This is a deer hunting gun that all five of my sons, and even my grandsons, have learned to use from an early age," said John Anderson, a gun dealer.

But if he was still alive, probably even John Wayne couldn't ride to the rescue now.

ABC News' Brian Rooney reported this story for "World News Tonight."

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