Gun Test: Winchester Shotguns

Anyone with a lick of self-preservation had to think twice when facing a lawman (or an outlaw) with a shotgun. And the odds got progressively worse for those on the receiving end after John Moses Browning and the Winchester Repeating Arms Company joined forces in 1887. That was the dawn of the Winchester repeating shotgun.

As far back as the late 1830s, Samuel Colt had been manufacturing revolving percussion shotguns, and during the Civil War, revolving shotguns using brass pinfire shotshells were imported from Europe. By the early 1870s, the brass-cased centerfire shotshell was in general use, making all of the aforementioned revolving scatterguns obsolete, even with only double-barrel shotguns to chamber them. A break-action shotgun was quick to reload, and a manufactured shotshell (in various loads, including buckshot) was a formidable round capable of taking small game, birds and anything on two or four legs that was threatening to the individual holding the gun. For Winchester, however, lever action rifles had consumed its brief history into the 1870s. There were no Winchester shotguns until 1879, and only then did the New Haven arms-maker begin importing side-by-side double guns of exceptional quality built in Birmingham, England.

Winchester’s First Shotguns

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This well-preserved 12 gauge Class B double-barrel shotgun (from the Winchester factory collection) is representative of the quality of construction and high level of embellishment the imported British models offered. Between 1879 and 1884, Winchester imported approximately 10,000 examples of varying grades.

The British-built doubles were marked atop the barrel rib, “Winchester Repeating Arms Co. New Haven Conn U.S.A.” The receivers were also marked “Winchester” and further noted the grade of the model ranging from “Class A” through “Class D” and “Match Gun,” the latter being the top of the line. This same inscription was also included within the address on the barrel rib. The “Class B” was one of the most popular, and those found today in very good condition sell for several thousands of dollars.

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The 1879 models had beautiful Damascus barrels, color-casehardened receivers, hammers, break locks and triggerguards as well as select walnut stocks and forearms. The elegant and highly detailed hand engraving on the Class B, Class A and Match Gun made the Winchester doubles popular among sportsmen, while the lesser grades found their way into the hands of settlers, lawmen and shopkeepers. Known makers of the Winchester double guns were W.C. Scott & Sons (later acquired by the prestigious firm of Holland & Holland), C.G. Bonehill, W.C. McEntree & Co. and Richard Rodman. It is not known which manufacturer made the various guns, as there are no maker’s marks; all, however, bore English proof marks.

Between 1879 and 1884, when Win-chester discontinued its importation, it is estimated that 10,000 examples of varying grades were ordered by Winchester agent P.G. Sanford and sold through the company’s New York City sales branch, which was the exclusive retailer. The Winchester 1879 catalog included an insert describing the five grades of “Double Barrel Breech Loading Shotguns.” The 1880 catalog listed the retail prices as $85 for the Winchester Match Gun, $70 for Class A, $60 for Class B, $50 for Class C, and $40 for the basic Class D model. In addition to the five grades, barrels could be selected in 26-, 30- and 32-inch lengths and chambered in 10, 12, 16 or 20 gauge.

Bennett & Browning

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The Winchester Model 1887 changed the entire concept of shotguns with a six-shot, lever action design created by John Moses Browning.

Almost five years had passed since Oliver Winchester’s death on December 10, 1880, and the company was now under the direction of Winchester’s son-in-law, Thomas Gray “T.G.” Bennett. And it was Bennett who decided that Winchester would not introduce its own double-barrel models to compete with Colt and Remington, but rather build on the established success of its rifles by introducing a lever action shotgun. Of course, it had to be invented first, and that took the genius of Utah gun-maker John Moses Browning.

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The Model 1887 was designed by John and his brother, Matthew S. Browning, and patented by Winchester on February 16 and July 20, 1886. Winchester had actually purchased the design rights, along with a hand-built model of the Browning lever action shotgun, two years earlier after the Browning brothers designed a prototype specifically at the request of T.G. Bennett. Ironically, when Bennett asked Browning to design a lever action shotgun, the latter was actually more interested in developing a pump action model. Of course, Browning got his way six years later when Winchester added the Model 1893 pump action shotgun to its lineup.

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Changes in the 1897’s design (bottom) to keep up with smokeless shotshells and rationalize production costs led to the Model 1901 (top), which was built stronger, only in 10 gauge, with a blued receiver and an improved, two-piece action lever.

The 1887 lever action was initially available only as a 12 gauge, but after serial number 22148, an even more powerful 10 gauge version was added. Intended for sportsmen and bird hunters (not necessarily lawmen or outlaws), Winchester’s 1888 sales catalog described the new lever action shotgun as follows: “Sportsmen will find this a strong, serviceable arm. The system contains but 16 parts in all, and can be readily understood from sectional cuts. The breech block and finger lever form one piece, and move together in opening and closing. The hammer, placed in the breech block, is automatically cocked during the closing motion; but can also be cocked or set at half cock by hand.

“The trigger and finger lever are so adjusted that the trigger cannot be pulled prematurely, and the gun cannot be discharged until closed. The barrel can be examined and cleaned from the breech. The magazine and carrier hold five cartridges, which with one in the chamber, make six at the command of the shooter.”

The 1887 models had beautifully color-casehardened receivers and levers, and barrel lengths of 30¼ inches in 12 gauge and 32¼ inches in 10 gauge. Custom barrel lengths were also offered, and short-barreled versions were soon made available for lawmen, prison guards and messengers requiring a lighter, more maneuverable shotgun. Most guard guns had a 22¼-inch barrel. Late in 1897, Winchester added another variation listed as a “Riot Gun.” According to the company, “The Winchester lever action ‘Riot’ gun is made with a 20-inch, rolled-steel barrel, a cylinder-bore barrel, bored expressly to shoot buckshot…They are far superior to a revolver for shooting in the dark, where aim is uncertain, as a buckshot cartridge contains nine bullets to one contained by a revolver cartridge.” The point was well taken.

Pump Actions

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Three of Winchester’s pump action variations: the Model 1893 (bottom), the Model 1897 (center) and the Model 97 (top), which is distinguished by the flat bottom forend put into production in 1947, half a century after the gun was introduced. Also note the change over time from the rounded pistol grip, copied from the 1887 lever action, to the half-pistol grip introduced during Model 1897 production.

While Browning generally gets the credit for inventing the pump action shotgun, it wasn’t an original idea, but he did manage to make it his own by designing a pump action shotgun that eclipsed the notoriety and, for the most part, the memory of earlier pump action designs. Browning’s model was actually the third pump action shotgun put into production. The first had been introduced in 1882 by celebrated rifle-maker Christopher M. Spencer and his partner, Sylvester Roper, and originally sold by the newly organized Spencer Arms Company of Windsor, Connecticut. The Spencer may have “inspired” John Browning, but it did not influence him, nor did an 1892 patent by Andrew Burgess and the Burgess Gun Company of Buffalo, New York. The Burgess also took a completely different approach. Neither were successful, while Browning built what remains the prototypical pump shotgun for the ages—the basis for the Model 1912 and modern-day versions.

Since Winchester did not discontinue the 1887 lever action shotguns when the new 1893 pump action was introduced, the company had two entirely different models in production simultaneously and would continue to do so well into the early 20th century with the 1883’s replacement, the improved Model 1897, and the Model 1887’s successor, the Model 1901.

The pump guns were, in a word, handsome, if such physical attributes can be applied to a firearm. Like Winchester’s Model 1890 pump action rifle, the 1893 and 1897 shotguns had exposed hammers. They utilized side ejection, the stock had a trim wrist and a bold, rounded pistol grip, and the shotguns had very clean lines through the receiver, barrel, magazine and forearm. They had the look of a fine sporting arm. The general specifications were for a plain wood stock with a pistol grip and a choice of either 30- or 32-inch, full-choke, rolled-steel barrels. The tubular magazine held five rounds and, with one chambered, the pump gun, like the lever action, was a shotgun six-shooter.

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The wellspring for the modern pump shotgun, the Model 1893 introduced the horizontal-sliding breech bolt with an extractor attached. It used an opening at the bottom of the receiver to load the magazine but also permitted loading with the action closed, thereby allowing a shooter to reload while the gun was kept at the ready. The 1893 pump gun, like the 1887 lever action, was designed for blackpowder shotshells, and the advent of smokeless powder brought about the 1897 and 1901 versions designed for the new, more powerful rounds, which, when fired in the earlier guns, often led to fractures in the receivers and damage to the action.

With a slightly longer receiver ruggedly built to withstand the pressures generated by smokeless powder, the Model 1897 could chamber both the old 2-5/8-inch blackpowder and the new 2¾-inch smokeless shells. Aside from the new receiver design, the Model 1897 had the same general appearances as its predecessor. While initially only solid-frame models were available, in 1898 Winchester added a 12 gauge takedown model, the world’s first takedown pump shotgun, followed in 1900 by a 16 gauge version.

Throughout the Model 1897’s long production history, continual improvements were made with resulting visual differences in later designs. In The Winchester Book, author George Madis noted that during its first 12 years of production, Winchester made 37 major and 52 minor changes to the Model 1897’s design. The Model 1897 was offered in a variety of grades in 12 and 16 gauges, in short-barreled “Riot Guns” and military “Trench Gun” variations used in WWI and WWII. The 1897, later known as the “Model 97,” remained in production for a remarkable 70 years with more than 1 million manufactured! The Model 1901 lever action remained in production until 1920 and the last days of the Old West.


This article originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.

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