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TITLE:Winchester Aims To Close A Factory, End An Era.
SOURCE: Knight-Ridder Tribune Business News, January 18, 2006
"Jan. 18--The maker of the "gun that won the West" may not have a future in the East.
U.S. Repeating Arms Co. said Tuesday that it plans to close the New Haven plant where it manufactures Winchester rifles and shotguns, potentially ending Connecticut's 140-year history of producing the firearms brand.
Falling demand for the guns, which are used for hunting and target shooting, means the company will cease production and operations at its New Haven plant on March 31, facility manager Paul DeMennato said.
The plant employs about 200 people, including about 150 members of the International Association of Machinists, all of whom would lose their jobs.
DeMennato said the company is in "very preliminary negotiations" with potential buyers for the plant, but said he could offer no further details about who is interested or how likely it is that a sale will be completed.
Founded in 1866 as the Winchester Repeating Arms Co., the gunmaker quickly won fame for its rugged and reliable weapons. Among them was the Winchester '73 rifle, commonly referred to as the "gun that won the West," a phrase sometimes also applied to the Colt revolver.
The Winchester rifle figured prominently in Hollywood depictions of the Old West. John Wayne often carried a Winchester, as did the character Lucas McCain in the TV series "The Rifleman," which ran from 1958 to 1963.
But more recently, the company, now known as U.S. Repeating Arms and owned by the Belgian firm Herstal Group, has faced a variety of financial difficulties stemming from declining sales.
Since the late 1980s, employment has shrunk from about 1,800 workers to the current 200. Last March, the company negotiated a contract with unionized machinists that was aimed at preserving jobs and helping the company reach profitability.
But the market for rifles and shotguns has continued to erode, DeMennato said. The company is selling only about one-third as many guns as it did just three years ago, he said, although he declined to cite exact sales figures.
"The number of units required by the market has decreased to the point where it's no longer profitable for us to stay in business," he said.
He said the problem was an overall decline in the market for rifles and shotguns made by the New Haven plant, not a loss of market share for the Winchester brand in general. The New Haven plant does not make handguns or firearms for military use, he said.
Winchester guns that would be discontinued if the New Haven plant closes include the Model 70, Model 94 and the Model 1300. Guns bearing the Winchester brand name will continue to be made at plants in Portugal, Belgium and Japan, a company spokesman said.
The Herstal Group, which owns U.S. Repeating Arms, also owns the well-known Browning firearms company.
New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. said that the New Haven plant has a manufacturing capacity of 300,000 firearms a year, but that production had fallen to 80,000 units by the end of 2005.
In a statement issued Tuesday, he said he hoped that a deal could be reached to both preserve jobs and maintain the city's legacy as the leading producer of Winchester firearms.
"The rifle's going to get made somewhere by somebody. The broader impact here for New Haven and Connecticut is frankly not the taxes, but the idea that this gun won the West and is part of our heritage," he said.
Over the past 20 years, the plant has received more than $17 million in incentives, $33 million in loans and $2.7 million in tax abatements to keep operating in New Haven.
Under a 1993 tax abatement deal, the company promised to employ at least 400 workers at the plant. But it renegotiated the agreement in 2001 because of a downturn in the firearms market.
Meanwhile, in return for a $4.7 million grant from the state, the company agreed to remain in New Haven through 2003. With that agreement behind it and all its economic assistance loans repaid, it is no longer encumbered by financial ties to the city or state.
Leaders of the machinists union said they were disappointed by word of the plant's closing.
"We did negotiate a contract last year and we did make some concessions that we hoped would alleviate this," said Everett Corey, directing business representative for Machinists' District 26.
Wages for union workers at the plant range from $13 to $26 an hour, with the average being $16 an hour, he said.
Workers were not surprised by the news. "It's a sad thing for us," said Bobby Brown, 59, a machinist who has worked at the plant for 40 years. "All of us are out of a job and most of us are around my age."
Union leaders said they remain hopeful that a buyer can be found to operate the plant. "We'll explore everything we can to try to keep the jobs," Corey said.
One complication could be the status of the Winchester brand name, which U.S. Repeating Arms uses under license from the owner, Olin Corp., the maker of Winchester ammunition. The licensing deal for the Winchester name expires at the end of next year. Representatives of Olin Corp. could not be reached for comment.
Lawrence Keane, spokesman for the Newtown-based National Shooting Sports Foundation, said he was saddened to hear that the production of Winchesters in Connecticut may end.
He said Winchester guns, such as the famed, lever-action Model 94 rifle, remain immensely popular among shooters and hunters. Winchester, with its relatively modest prices, "is certainly not a Parker [shotgun] or a Weatherby [rifle]," but some of the classic guns are still prized among collectors, he said.
Keane noted that Connecticut still has active firearms manufacturers: Colt's in Hartford; Sturm, Ruger & Co. in Fairfield; Marlin in North Haven; and O.F. Mossberg & Sons in North Haven.
Galen O'Bryant, owner of the Trader's Guns shop in East Windsor, said some Winchesters hold their own against even the fancier makes and among collectors can command prices in the tens of thousands of dollars.
"The Model 70 [bolt-action rifle] was the rifleman's rifle," he said. "It comes in every caliber you can think of."
He said the Model 12 slide-action shotgun, made through 1980, was a mainstay of hunters throughout the 20th century."
Answered By: Conan the Librarian - 3/21/2006