Josef Werndl

Josef Werndl was born on the 26th of February 1831 at Steierdorf in Upper Austria as the son of an old established family of gunsmith's. His father Leopold had transformed the family business from tool manufacturing into a company for weapon parts, especially for rifles, in 1821. After school Josef Werndl learned the profession of a gunsmith and worked at Prague as well as in Vienna. As was usual at the time he traveled widely to gain experience which took him to Thüringia, England and at last to the USA where he would gain valuable experience at the famous companies of Colt and Remington. He returned to Steyr in 1853 and started to work in the family business - at this time a manufacturing concern with 500 employees - which he had to take over after the sudden death of his father in 1855. Josef Werndl started to reorganize the firm following modern practices and specialized in producing high quality barrels and other parts for small arms. Following the spirit of the time he also started to develop, together with his foreman Karl Holub, a modern breech loading rifle system. For the distribution of such a rifle he founded with his brother the "Josef und Franz Werndl & Comp. Waffenfabrik und Sägemühle" on the 16th of April 1864, registered with the commercial register of the city of Steyr on the 13th of August of the same year. The continually growing company delivered their breech loader to several foreign countries but the "Big Deal" would come a little later!

In July 1867 he took out the patent of an easy to use breech loader with a unique tabernacle gun lock (Wellblockverschluss mit Lademulde) which finally won the competition against the Remington System with the k.u.k. Army. Josef Werndl offered the Army his rifle for use without any patent fees free of charge- of course not out of any "patriotic feelings" as he officially announced, he simply knew that his firm was at this time the only company which was able to produce the Werndl rifle in the necessary quality and quantity for the whole army and both Landwehrs. Werndl's business acumen worked and he was awarded a contract for 100,000 pieces shortly followed by the next order for a  further 150,000 rifles. The company soon expanded to the size of 6,000 employees and it became necessary to develop into a public limited company. On the 1st of August 1869 the firm transformed with the support of the Boden-Credit-Anstalt into the "Österreichische Waffenfabrik AG" (OEWG) with Josef Werndl as its director general. The decision of the Austrian authorities to issue the Werndl rifle as the standard small arm to all branches of the armed forces entailed many other orders from all over the world and at this time the OEWG had an output of 8,000 rifles a week.

While all this great success was transpiring, Josef Werndl remained an unpretentious person as before. When he was honored with the award of the 3rd class of the Order of the Iron Crown on the 13th of February 1870, which was normally the basis for the recipient to be eligible for a tax free raising to the nobility,  he decided not to ask for that honor. He cared about his employees much more than was usual at this time, building modern housing estates for his workers to give them the possibility of modern and cheap living, paid a higher salary than usual at his firm and provided free medical treatment. Soon he became obsessed by the possibilities of electricity and promoted the production of water generated electricity. He established at the civilian branch of his firm the production of arc lamps and electrical street lamps and so it came to be that Steyr was the first European city with electric street lighting installed gratuitously by Werndl's company. Even Kaiser Franz Joseph visited the small Upper Austrian village to see the "Bengalian Wonder" in 1884!

Another aspect of his success was his ability to get other highly talented constructors such as Karl Holub, Anton Spitalsky, Otto Schönauer, the artillery officer Alfred Kropatschek or the railway engineer Ferdinand Mannlicher to work with him and for him. In particular the cooperation with Ing. Mannlicher since 1875 made Josef Werndl's company the leading European producer of small arms, delivering between 1869 and 1913 more than 6 million rifles of varying models to Austria and several other states of the world. The success of the Mannlicher/Schönauer rifle after 1900 again gave the company an additional stimulus in the area of hunting rifles too. The mark of 10,000 employees was crossed in 1889. In 1883 Josef Werndl was honored with the award of the commander's cross of the Order of Franz Joseph and again he declined to request ennoblement.  In Spring 1889 Josef Werndl again displayed his extraordinary social spirit and personally participated in the rescue work following a large flood.  Tragically the work in cold water caused his infection with pneumonia. Josef Werndl died on the 29th of April 1889 at Steyr (Upper Austria) only 59 years old having built one of the largest and most successful industrial companies in the history of Austria.

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