Winch History and Basics

Winch Basics – History, Selection, and Use

By Justin Banner

The winch is the essential tool for off-roading. It doesn’t matter if you’re crawling on the rocks or enjoying the dunes, a winch can help you and your fellow dirt-headed friends when the time comes. Without one, you’re going to regret it.

The winch has been a tool of man since our early history and knowledge. The first recorded use of a winch was the account of Herodotus of Halicarnassus in 480 B.C. Obviously, these aren’t the winches we’re used to today, but they were used to tighten cables for a pontoon bridge across Hellespont (modernly known as Dardanelles and links the Aegean Sea with the Sea of Marmara in Turkey). For centuries, these winches were human powered utilizing a crank to wind up or out a line. These could do anything from hoisting objects and people to adjusting the tension of a line.


Evolution of the Modern Winch

The winches we use are technically known as “winding winches” since the line winds into the spool. Something to keep in mind is that as the line gets closer to the spool drum the pulling capacity of the winch increases. We’ll talk about this in more detail later, but it has to do with the leverage of the line against the spool.


The earliest known winches utilized the Power Take Off (PTO) of vehicles that had the ability to use one. The PTO is a gearbox that is driven by the engine on the transmission but can be driven separate of it. While the earliest PTO known for a road-going vehicle was the 1919 Cadillac (which was used to power an air compressor to inflate tires), it wasn’t until the 1930s that winches were powered by them.


Military vehicles – including the beloved Jeep grandfather, the Willys MB – used winches for a variety of jobs. While using the engine to power a winch is great and could provide great pulling capacity, this also meant that was the only way it was powered. If the engine stalled, you also had no power for your winch.


The first commercially known electric winch appeared in 1959, the Belleview Winch. It was manufactured by Belleview Manufacturing in which made things for Warn Industries (who was making things like beer keg tops to motorcycle parts to Boeing aircraft components to axles for mail carrier carts). Thurston Warn eventually bought Belleview and rebranded the winches to the Warn Industries family.


The first was the Model 6000 – abbreviated to M6000 – in which the number indicated it could pull up to 6000-pounds. However, the name was changed to M8000 after it was discovered it could pull up to 8000-pounds without issue. These Belleviews and early Warns were very basic compared to the modern recovery winch we think of today. There was no automatic brake and instead they had a cable operated brake that someone inside the vehicle would operate. To unspool the cable, you had to do it manually. There was only a power-in function for these “ancient” winches.


Selecting a Winch

The basic idea of selecting a winch is to have one with enough pulling power to move your vehicle. That’s done by the weight rating you see through the description or sometimes even the part number like Warn continues to do. For maximum comfort room and to also account for line layering, you should take the weight of your vehicle and multiply it 1.5 to two times. Some sources even go as high as three times, but that’s usually overkill.


For example, the typical Jeep Wrangler JK Unlimited Rubicon is 5700-pounds, so using the 1.5 times multiplication, you’re looking for a winch capable of at least 8550-pounds but the three times multiplication would be 17100-pounds. That’s more than the capacity the Warn winch offered on the 2018 Ram 2500 Power Wagon with a capacity of 12000-pounds. So, that just shows you how overkill the three times multiplication is.


Winch Cable and Matching Fairlead

Most winches you’ll get will be already loaded with a steel cable and a roller fairlead. However, some winches will come without a cable on the spool or come with a synthetic rope instead of the steel cable. The steel cable has been the standard for winches since they were used on vehicles. They work and do so very well. The problem, however, comes when something goes wrong and it breaks while in use.


Under Tension and Wear

When a steel cable is under tension, it has a lot of energy stored in it as it’s being stretched out. It wants to naturally come back to its original, resting tension. If this cable suddenly snaps, that energy – along with the weight of the steel cable – turns that cable into a dangerous and deadly whip if you don’t have a winch line damper to arrest that energy. So, not only should your winch be in your cart, so should a line damper and a few other bits of recovery gear.


You also stretch the cable over time and it can also begin to take the form of the drum if it isn’t allowed to be spooled out from time to time. Steel cables can also kink and create weak points along the line. Older cables also oxidize as most didn’t have corrosion resistance, so if you’re buying a used winch, you should include a new cable in the total cost along with maintenance and repair parts.


Synthetic Rope

The latest trend in winch cable is the synthetic rope. The first instances of synthetic rope were done back in the late 90s and early 2000s with Samson AmSteel-Blue, Plasma Rope, and Master-Pull all using a form of Ultra-High-Molecular-Weight Polyethylene (UHMWPE or UHMW) fibers.


Most were using Dyneema or Spectra fibers that had yield strengths of 350-thousand-PSI (2.4-GPa) with a density as low as 0.561-oz/in3 (0.97-g/cm3). Other fibers included Technora, Vectran, and Kevlar. That was equal to steel cables being used at that time for far less weight and modern synthetic ropes are made of even stronger, lighter and better materials.


While the rope can still be stretched, it does not store as much energy in tension like a steel cable does. Combine that with the reduced weight (some steel cables weight as much as 23-pounds while most synthetic ropes come in at 3.5-pounds for the same amount), the energy is reduced and far less dangerous. You still don’t want to stand beside it if it breaks and you still want an arrester on the line, but it won’t whip like a steel cable does.


With such positives, there are negatives to go along with synthetic rope. The biggest is that it costs more. You can pick up a decent steel cable for $35 to $60 where as an inexpensive synthetic rope will come in at or above $100. UV rays from the sun will damage synthetic rope (some statistics are as high as 20-percent strength loss after a year of direct exposure to the sun). So, covering your winch will become mandatory.


You also must use the correct fairlead for a synthetic rope. A steel roller fairlead will chafe or abrade it while any roller fairlead (steel or metals) will potentially pinch the rope and damage it that way. You’ll want to either use an aluminum Hawse-type fairlead or a roller fairlead that is made of softer material than steel and prevents the rope from becoming pinched.


Finally, you will want to try and get a rope that features a cover with tight braiding. Nearly all synthetic ropes are done in a 12-strand open weave to form the rope itself. However, those loose braids can allow dirt and small particles to get into the rope and damage it from the inside. Many rope manufacturers will wrap a tight weave of synthetic rope around a loose braided rope to mitigate this and this is what you should get. It will be more expensive but will be worth it in the long run.


Drum Loading and Physics

When winches are rated, they are tested with only one layer of rope. After that second layer, your winch power is reduced as the radius increases. You want the torque action to happen closer to the power source. With each layer beyond that second, you’re looking at exponential reductions. You lose nearly 20-percent at three, just over 30-percent at layer four, and more than 40-percent at layer five.

You’ll only want to use down to a minimum of five wraps of line on the drum and never pull more line than that – this goes for both steel cable and synthetic rope. Those five wraps are the industry standard for safety as the fastener that holds the line to the drum will not support the load. If anything, you’ll want to have a full layer to ensure you don’t accidentally pull too much out, but never go lower than five wraps of line.


To load an empty spool drum, you’ll start from the fastener and work your way to the opposite site, ensuring that the line wraps from over to under the spool. The line you’re keeping tension on should be positioned under the spool, if not, start again. You will also keep the line straight as you load it. Don’t let it pull against the fairlead and bend in both loading and use.

You don’t want it to bunch on the drum and a sharp angle will cause that. Once you reach the first side, lead the line back to the other side of the spool until you’re back at the fastener end. Continue this back-and-forth with tension on the line until your hook is at your fairlead.


Snatch Blocks

If you need some more pulling power, there is an option: the pulley block or as its better known, the snatch block. Using the snatch block attached to a solid object will not only allow you to use the drum at the lower layers, but also the physics of the snatch block allow the pulling power to double.


The block will also allow you to pull against an object that isn’t directly straight ahead of you or you don’t have a direct line of sight of. Attaching the block to a second object that is in line of sight and attaching the hook end of your line to an object that’s less than 45-degrees from it will allow you to pull against the primary recovery point without it being directly straight ahead of you.


Ground Anchors

So, let’s say you’re stuck some where like a sand dune. There are no trees, bushes, or even boulders you can use to pull yourself out. Don’t worry, you’re not doomed. Yet. In combination with a traction aid in the sand, you can also utilize a winch anchor. There is the free, “bush” way and there is the modern way.


The Bushcraft Way

The bush way is to find some logs or anything heavy and create the “deadman anchor.” First, you’ll dig out a trench that angles up towards your vehicle. You’ll then grab some recovery rope to wrap around the largest, heaviest object you can find. You’ll then set it into the trench you just dug. For some extra security, find the two pointiest logs you can find and hammer those in front of the heavy object (towards the vehicle) with the recovery rope between them. You’re going to eyeball it, but you want to try and get close to 15-degrees from vertical.


Take that last log and put your recovery rope on top of it and having someone pull a bit of tension on it. Finally, bury the log and recovery rope up to where it meets that last log. So long as you dug deep enough, you should now be able to pull yourself unstuck. If not, dig deeper and try again. Can’t find any logs or anything to use? Use your spare tire and bury it as deep as you can with the recovery rope wrapped around it instead.


That’s No Boat Anchor

The modern version of that is the ground anchor. In a few cases, it looks just like a boat anchor and the sharp points dig into the ground. Another version looks like a large folding shovel and you shove into the ground in the same way. Either way, they dig into the dirt, mud, snow, or gravel until its able to pull you out of your stuck situation. They are usually large and heavy to ensure that it will not move after they dig in.


The Deadman

The final one we’ll mention is the Deadman Earth Anchor, which was started after a successful Kickstarter funding campaign. It’s designed like a large blanket with four ropes, though it is tougher than the one you sleep under at night. It can be wrapped around boulders and trees with minimal damage (if any) to them. However, the biggest thing it’s great for is being buried under snow, gravel, or dirt to work as a deadman anchor.


Winching Around

Now that you have a bit of history of winching, how it works, and how to use one properly, you have a start to what you need to start recovering your Jeep when you need to. There are more technical details and techniques, so this is just a start and we’ll bring you more. In the meantime, check out our selection of winches from Mile Marker, Warn Industries, Westin, and Rugged Ridge. If you already have one, we have the accessories to make recovery easier, too.