Winchester is viewed in some quarters as a part of the ‘powerful gun lobby’, but in reality, the company has for 50 years been a stable Australian manufacturer, a good corporate citizen and employer and a generous contributor to the general community and more particularly, shooting sports.
Winchester Australia bears the name of a 150-year-old global brand but the Geelong ammunition factory is no multinational behemoth, it is nimble and responsive, which is a big part of its success in an increasingly globalised marketplace.
General manager Clive Pugh said the factory was built as part of a global strategy before the advent of containerised shipping.
In the 1960s, Winchester USA built satellite factories in Canada, Italy and Australia, mainly to produce shotshell ammunition.
“That was their way of servicing the world and we were set up to service South-East Asia; Japan for a long time was a huge market for us, 12 million rounds a year shipped there from this facility,” Clive said.
Australia had a large enough market to sustain a production facility, and Victoria, with both the availability and popularity of duck hunting, was the logical location.
Premier Sir Henry Bolte, a keen duck hunter and patron of Field & Game Australia, was presented with a Winchester 1866–1966 Centenial rifle by Winchester USA vice president Herbert E. Boge during a visit in 1965. By 1967 the Geelong plant was in full production.
“For all of those years we have been there to service the local market; we are much more now a load and pack operation,” Clive said.
The Winchester Australia factory produces shotshell and .22 rimfire, some centre-fire rifle and centre-fire pistol ammunition.
Brass casings for the projectiles were once manufactured on site but that ceased when the brass strip factory that supplied the raw material closed. Hulls for shotshell production were locally produced until 2008 but are now imported from Europe.
Clive said local manufacturing had to adapt as the industry has changed.
“We still load shotshell but all the cases come in now; we used to do it end-to-end but the economies of scale of making product have changed. When we used to make 25–35 million rounds of shotshell a year it was viable, but now to be viable you have to be making 100, 200, 300 million rounds.”
In recent years, the lack of scale in Australia has proved a distinct advantage because the factory is flexible and nimble enough to respond to industry and consumer demand.
“We never used to load a round for the NRAA until they came to us looking for a consistent spec. From time to time we’ve produced branded products for traders or competitions. All of Winchester USA’s 16-gauge are made in this facility, our smaller size gives us greater flexibility to go and make that,” Clive said.
Winchester manufactures to tighter tolerances than the regulated standards with a single aim, producing ammunition that performs reliably and consistently.
“When we talk about tolerance it is really repeatability, that one round is the same as the next round and the next round, so the consumer can be confident that every round they load does the same thing.” Clive said.
“We would argue that is one of our points of difference with our competitors.”
In the field or in high-level competitive shooting, where accuracy is important, consumers may opt for a premium product but Winchester’s manufacturing process and continual testing during production runs delivers a uniformity of performance to every product.
“We pride ourselves on doing that; there is a cost to do it and sometimes we question ourselves as to whether it is worth doing that, but we think that it is because Winchester is a brand we want people to associate with being consistent and reliable every time you use it,” Clive said.
That consistency is due to the dedication of Winchester Australia’s employees; many have been on the factory floor for decades. A wall in the tearoom is adorned with 50th birthday messages from staff.
“I’ve been here for over 40 years of Winchester’s 50, I’m very lucky,” Graeme Main wrote, summing up the feelings of many.
This was Clive Pugh’s own message: “For 50 years we made and sold products for Australian and international shooters. Our ability to adapt and change means we can prove how resilient our people are. Go the 100th.”
Adaptability and ingenuity will get the factory to that milestone.
Jeff Gordon, Winchester Australia’s sales and marketing manager, tells the story of a US executive and the problematic squirrel. Essentially, he wanted a way to get his nemesis without frightening the neighbours.
“Any chance you can load me a subsonic magnum?” was the question.
“Subsonic magnum is a bit of an oxymoron,” Jeff said, “but he was serious, so when I got back we started playing around with it and ended up loading a 45-grain subsonic magnum.”
Somehow, word got out and it was being talked about on forums as some mythical magic bullet but that wasn’t in any catalogue.
“We released it to market in Australia first and it sold out in days and we’re now loading it here to supply the United States with their subsonic magnum,” Jeff said.
“It all started with a conversation about a squirrel.”
A little known part of the Winchester’s Australian business is producing charges for the construction industry, including development and manufacture of a specialised underwater charge for Ramset.
Add to that a custom round and a modified firearm developed for shooting from a helicopter and a charge used to fire lines between Royal Australian Navy ships and you get an idea of the Winchester Australia’s appetite for innovation and problem solving.
Winchester Australia is also a major importer and distributor of firearms and ammunition for private, law enforcement and military use but it is a source of pride that they still “make stuff” here.
While part of the broader firearms industry, Clive Pugh bristles at the notion of a ‘powerful gun lobby’ when at both industry and participant level, representation has historically been fragmented.
A media perception that any advocate for firearms is speaking on behalf of the ‘powerful firearms lobby’ precludes the media seeking other views and opinions.
Winchester Australia is a major player yet the company isn’t sought out to contribute to public debate on issues affecting firearms ownership and use.
“I’ve been here just on 11 years now; I’ve never taken one phone call from a member of the press asking my view as a member of the firearms industry, not once,” Clive said.
“It does frustrate me when you hear the press talk about the gun lobby; we think we’re an important part of that, we represent 25 per cent of the market in what we do.”
The Shooting Industry Foundation of Australia (SIFA), an alliance of the key players in the firearms industry, formed to change that dynamic and provide a stronger, unified voice for the industry.
Winchester Australia’s Geelong factory has stood the test of time but the last question to Clive is how to ensure it will still be going strong in another 50 years.
“We have to be thinking about how the market will innovate; one of the things that has kept us here is we have shown an ability to evolve and change. Winchester Australia now isn’t the same as it was 50 years ago.”