Former Beltrami County Sheriff Keith Winger assists with manufacturing of sheriff's rifle
When Keith Winger sent off an email to a major rifle manufacturer one Friday afternoon, he never expected to hear from the CEO of the company the following morning.
BEMIDJI — When Keith Winger sent off an email to a major rifle manufacturer one Friday afternoon, he thought that maybe he could expect an acknowledgment of his suggestion the following week sometime.
He did not expect to hear from the CEO of the company the following morning.
Winger, a retired Beltrami County sheriff, had sent an email to Henry Repeating Arms, a rifle manufacturer well-known for its selection of tribute rifles, ornately designed rifles that honor certain civic organizations and professions, such as firefighters, the American farmer, oilmen and more.
“They’ve been kind of noted to do that,” Winger said. “I sent them an email and said, ‘Have you ever thought about doing one for the American sheriff?'"
Winger noted in his email that there are more than 3,000 sheriffs throughout the United States and even more sheriff’s deputies. It was a large, prospective market.
Anthony Imperato, the CEO of the company, sent him a reply the next morning — and invited Winger’s input on potential artwork that could be incorporated into the design.
“I suggested that, first of all, it should say the American Sheriff, and I said it should say ‘Since 1634,’ because the first sheriff in America was in a colony of Virginia in 1634,” Winger said.
At one point, the design included a seven-point star, but Winger suggested it be changed to the more common five-point star.
“Those were my contributions,” Winger reflected, “but I never expected all of that to happen, to be honest.”
In April, Winger and his stepson, Aaron Schlosser, drove out to Rice Lake, Wis., to tour the Henry plant and meet with staff.
“We met with Andy Wickstrom, the president of the company, and he took us through the plant, giving us a complete tour of the manufacturing plant,” Winger said.
“We observed, among other things, machining of many components, the polishing and finishing and fitting of components, and people sitting with calipers. We watched the assembly line where it just went around just like all of Henry Ford’s assembly line and every person did one thing and at the end, they were stacking up guns.”
The company was making several different rifles at the time of their visit, and Winger and Schlosser were sworn to secrecy about what they observed.
Once the sheriff tribute rifles were ready for manufacturing, Henry staff reached out to ask if Winger wanted to order one. The first few produced would be reserved to be auctioned off for charity with the proceeds benefiting a law enforcement fund or an officer’s family impacted by tragedy.
Winger received No. 00005, likely the first one made available to the public; Schlosser got 00011.
Since the rifles could not be sold directly to Winger himself, Timberline Sports in Blackduck agreed to be the dealer.
The Henry rifle was originally developed by Benjamin Tyler Henry, who received his first patent for a lever-action rifle in 1860. At that time, mostly in use were the old muzzle-loaders that you loaded one at a time. Henry’s lever-action rifle held 15 rounds of ammunition.
By 1862, Union soldiers were using Henry’s rifle, firing a .44-caliber metallic cartridge that is similar to what is used today. Some of the Confederate soldiers called it “the Yankee rifle that you loaded on Sunday and fired all week.”
“I really enjoyed the entire experience,” Winger said, looking back on trading emails with the CEO of the company as they worked on the design for the rifle and bonded over a shared appreciation of music. “I never expected any of this. But it was an enjoyable process.”