When it comes to liberties, the right to bear arms is, for many Americans, one of the most important, defendable by death if necessary. Despite this, the right to manufacture arms is not so clear. Be it sky-high insurance premiums, expensive labor contracts, government regulation, or wrongful-death lawsuits, most gun manufacturing has moved overseas. So it wasn’t a great surprise to read that one of the most-recognized American firearms brand, Winchester, is planning to shutter its factory in Connecticut next month (shown here in better times). In its heyday, the factory employed as many as 1,800 workers and could churn out 300,000 guns a year.
To me, a big-city, left-leaning, blue-state, pacifist liberal, it seems clear that the gun industry has outlived its usefulness. Looking at old gun ads feels just like looking at old cigarette ads — it’s hard to believe we didn’t see the downside that loomed behind the smiling faces of happy gun-toting family members (shown here in a 1972 Christmas ad for Daisy rifles).
Winchester, founded in 1866, is the gun brand most associated with the taming of the wild West, at least when it came to rifles. The company produced reliable, reasonably cheap weapons, and worked hard to establish a distinct image for its brand. From the beginning, Winchester favored a rugged outdoor look for its advertising, as shown here in a 1904 magazine ad and color poster.
Winchester is owned by a Belgian firm now, but in its prime during the early 20th century, the Winchester Repeating Arms Company represented the epitome of American manufacturing and American branding. Famous for its calendars, posters and other printed material, Winchester commissioned a variety of artists to illustrate the uses of Winchester rifles, as shown in the images below. The first, by artist H.G. Edwards, is from a 1921 promotional calendar. The second, by illustrator W.R. Leigh, is also from a promotional calendar, this time from 1917.
John Wayne favored Winchester Rifles in his movies, it was a Winchester that starred in the title role of the TV series The Rifleman, and a 1950 Anthony Mann movie was all about one of the most popular Winchester rifles ever made — the Winchester ’73. The film starred Jimmy Stewart, Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis, and Shelley Winters.
Most gun manufacturers were careful to officially portray their products being used against animals, tin cans, or other “harmless” targets, though at times some brands played off the fears of individuals living in tough times. Here, in a turn-of-the-century ad for Iver Johnson hand guns, a police officer is shown battling a knife-wielding assailant, but at least it’s the good guy who has the gun.
The groups most targeted in gun advertising have always been hunters and shooting sportsmen, and those images are still conjured up by gun advocates defending automatic-weapon ownership. Accordingly, branding for many guns and ammunition boiled down to pictures of choice game, be it ducks (shown below in a ’40s ad for Super-X shotgun shells), pheasant (from a 1952 ad from Xpert Shotgun Shells), or antelope (in a 1962 ad for Savage Rifles).
In fairness, gun manufacturers always seemed to promote responsible use of weapons. The relationship between guns and alcohol was done mostly by alcohol manufacturers who relished in the rugged male image of hunters bagging game. Here, from an ad for Paul Jones Whisky, a properly fortified hunter does much better under the influence than if he had gone into the woods with a bottle of Coke.
Since you can’t have hunting without hunting dogs, illustrations and photos commonly included man’s best friend. Here are several examples: a 1950s ad for Colt (showing that you didn’t even have to stand up to kill game), a Winchester ad from the mid-’60s, and a 1959 Federal Duck Stamp illustration by Maynard Reese.
Hunting is apparently very much a father-son affair, though in my family it was actually my sister who took an interest in guns. I’m fortunate that my father wasn’t a hunter, though he did have an extensive gun collection. So while he took me shooting to a firing range once, I never had to endure any wilderness moments with Dad. Shivering with Pop in a misty duck blind is just the kind of place where the talk turns to the birds and bees and other uncomfortable subjects. Here are two father/son gun moments, starting with a 1949 ad for Winchester, followed by a 1930s ad for Daisy rifles.
Unlike cigarette companies, who have to appeal to children indirectly, gun manufacturers have always been free to target youngsters directly. And so they did on a regular basis, as shown in these ads from Boy’s Life Magazine. My favorite, the first ad for Daisy Air Rifles, suggests that “the happy Daisy boy” asking for his first gun is just “the strong, upstanding American man in him asking for a chance to grow.” Gun training, the ad goes on to say, is recognized by both fathers and mothers as building character and “manliness,” all in the context of “clean-cut, harmless fun.” That ad is followed by another Winchester ad, and finally another 1968 ad for Daisy.
Shooting guns was not limited to boys and their fathers, of course, and gun manufacturers courted the Mom market as well. Most of these images didn’t show up until the ’50s and ’60s, however, when women were moving out of the kitchen more. An adventurous Mom could double her fun as shown in the Colt ad below from the late ’50s, or could pair off with Grandpa as in the 1952 ad that follows, or simply watch hubby shoot his rifle as in the third, early -50s ad.
Moms weren’t as interested in killing animals, however, so gun shooting had to be portrayed more as a competitive skill, as shown here in two ad. I love that the first ad, from 1952, shows the family taking turns shooting at a target placed strategically in front of one of the home’s glass windows.
You can’t shoot without ammunition. I particularly enjoy the illustrations of bullets like these ads for Remington ad and Peter’s High Velocity Bullets, both from the mid-’50s.
No discussion of guns, and particularly Winchester rifles, would be complete without a reference to the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California (below). That sprawling, weird mansion was the product of Sarah Winchester who, on the advice of a spiritual advisor, spent her inheritance continually building on to her home to atone for the guilt her family shared for all the deaths caused by their firearms. But that’s a story for another column.
With the exception, perhaps, of abortion, there is no topic that generates such passion as gun control and gun ownership. Intellectually, I can appreciate the importance of citizens to be able to arm themselves and rise up against oppression, but clearly something has gone wrong. Most of the gun ads I found for this week’s column showed images that are hard to argue with — rugged individualism, father/son bonding, family fun, victory over our enemies. However, I did find the ad below, fittingly from Winchester, that hinted at the sort of gun violence to come. Snipers don’t hunt deer — they hide out in school book depositories, clock towers, and the hollowed-out trunks of beat-up Plymouths. But those aren’t images you’re likely to see in any gun advertising.