By: Frank Jardim
The lever-action Winchester Model 1887 shotgun is often considered the first successful repeating shotgun, but it was by no means the first repeating shotgun. The four-shot Roper repeater was patented in 1866 and sold for a decade. The Spencer repeating pump-action shotgun first appeared in the early 1880s, and its sliding forend, mounted around the magazine tube, remains the archetype of all pump actions to this day. All of these shotguns had commercial success, just not to the extent of the Winchester Model 1887.
The 1887 was the first lever-action shotgun every made. Though it looks strange to our eyes, in its day it was no weirder than any of its contemporaries. By design, it bore a striking resemblance to the excellent lever-action rifles that Winchester had built its reputation on. From a marketing standpoint, that was worth a lot. The company sold 64,855 Model 1887 shotguns by the year 1900.
The weapon’s success owes much to the ruggedness and simplicity of its design, which were hallmarks of the man Winchester commissioned to create it—John Moses Browning. He was less than enthusiastic about the concept of a lever-action shotgun because he already had ideas for a pump action that he felt would be far superior. However, Winchester was a paying customer, and a good businessman gives his clients what they want. Browning designed the gun, sold Winchester the patent and went off to do missionary work for the Mormon Church. The first time he actually saw the production gun was on the shelf in a general store he happened to be walking by.
The Model 1887 was a big brute of gun. When it was first introduced, its seven-round capacity represented the apex of shotgun firepower. Its reign did not last long. In the 1890s, more advanced pump-action repeating shotguns entered the marketplace, and by the end of the decade some truly superior designs emerged in the form of the 1897 Winchester and 1898 Marlin. Winchester gradually phased the 1887 lever-action design out of production so as not to compete with itself. In 1901, the company dropped the 12-gauge version and re-engineered the 10-gauge model to handle the new and more powerful smokeless powder cartridges that were clearly destined to replace black powder. The Model 1901 ceased production in 1920 with another 13,500 units sold, and the sun set on the lever-action shotgun until renewed collector and shooter interest led Chiappa to reproduce this unique design in various forms, traditional and modern.
Chiappa’s version of the 1887 shotgun is beautifully finished, and the wood-to-metal fit is excellent. The stock on the one I tested for this article was made of a striking striped walnut. It was finished in a low-gloss sealant that left the grain of the wood visible so it looks like wood and not plastic. The receiver, lever, barrel band and buttplate are color case-hardened. The barrel, magazine and trigger are blued steel.
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Those familiar with the 1887 will notice the stylized Winchester logo is conspicuously absent from the left side of the receiver. It is obvious that the maker cared to avoid marking up this gun and spoiling its historic character. The only markings I could find were “Chiappa Firearms Italy 12 Ga. 2-3/4” – 12/70” along the top of the barrel, the serial number laser engraved in the usual spot on the bottom of the receiver. The barely noticeable proof markings that are very discreetly applied to the lower left side of the receiver, and there is a small “CF” logo in the middle of the smooth buttplate. I can forgive the logo. If I made a shotgun this fine, I’d want to put by name on it, too.
Close examination of the major components showed they were cast and then machined and polished. Unless you open the action and look at the inside of the lever, it might be very hard to notice this. I found only a few tiny imperfections in the polishing where the porosity of the casting showed through. It did not detract from my overall impression of the gun, however. I only noticed it when I inspected with a magnifying glass in an attempt to discern the means of manufacture by searching for tooling marks. The trigger was the only exposed part that remained in its porous cast finish. If it bugs you, it’s certainly no big deal to take it out, polish it and hot blue it.
The 28-inch-barreled model I tested had a nice brass bead front sight and came with three screw-in choke tubes (full choke, modified and cylinder) and a wrench. They installed and came out with ease. Chiappa warns not to go crazy over-tightening them lest you end up getting them stuck. Also included were some mounting screws for a removable sling.
The instruction manual is a must read if you are not completely familiar with this model. Don’t be embarrassed about this because it includes just about everyone. The 1887 is a unique design, and back in the olden times, there was a basic expectation that people would exercise good common sense. Old technology can hurt you if you are not careful. For example, this model never had a safety, other than a half-cock notch on the hammer. Once you chamber a round, the gun is cocked and ready to fire. I would not recommend attempting to lower the hammer to the half-cock position over a loaded chamber. It wouldn’t take much for it to slip from under your thumb despite the checkering that Chiappa wisely cast into the surface. I scrupulously try to avoid all accidental discharges, and especially the 12-gauge kind. You should, too.
Shooting the 1887 requires you to discard all your pump shotgun muscle memory and get into the lever-action mindset of the 19th cen-tury. It didn’t take me long to get the hang of it. Despite its ungainly appearance, this gun is very fast. I loaded five shots into the magazine tube, one in the carrier and another in the chamber for a total of seven shots. I got off seven aimed hits on water jugs in a bit less than seven seconds, and I’m fairly ham-handed. A skilled hunter could bring home a lot more birds with this gun than a double-barrel. Arizona Ranger Clarence Beatty was partial to a sawed off 10-gauge Model 1887 that he claimed to be able to shoot from the hip so fast it was like an automatic. He used it to break up ambushes and rioters. There is an economy of motion to the lever action that differs from the pump action. Working the lever, even with its long throw, seems less disruptive to my aim. The action’s operation out of the box was all right, but it got smoother the more I used it, and the 1887 was great fun to shoot. At 9.25 pounds, the shotgun requires some upper body strength to swing it around, but the weight does help soak up a lot of the recoil.
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Loading the 1887 takes a little finesse. You push the shells deep into the receiver from the top and then slide them forward with the tip of your thumb into the magazine tube by their top edge. The front edge of the pivoting carrier holds them in the magazine tube, which is why you need to push them in by their top edge so you don’t accidentally depress the carrier, preventing it from catching the shell’s rim and ejecting the rounds you previously loaded. It helps to point the barrel downward while you load, too. I found I could load a round in the cartridge guides and another in the chamber for a total of seven rounds. Even today, that’s awesome firepower. However, unlike a modern bottom-loading pump shotgun, the 1887’s magazine is more complicated to top off if the shotgun is partially loaded. Every time you work the lever, another round pops from the magazine into the cartridge guides and pushes the empty shell being extracted from the chamber out of the top of the action. To load more shells into the magazine, you would need to first push the round in the guides back down and forward into the magazine tube before you can load any additional rounds. In an age of side-by-sides, this was hardly a big deal. It wasn’t until the graceful Winchester Model 1893 pump shotgun that the world learned how slick and easy to load a repeating shotgun could be.
From a benchrest, I patterned the Chiappa 1887 with a modified choke tube at the standard 40 yards using 1.13-ounce Winchester AA #7½ target loads and 1.13-ounce Federal Game-Shok #7½ field loads. Then I ex-perimented with Winchester’s nine-pellet Super-X 00 buckshot through a cylinder bore at 40, 35, 30, 25 and 20 yards to get a feel for what this shotgun was like as a man-stopper. Like the original, it has a 2¾-inch chamber.
The low-brass Winchester AA load was pleasant to shoot, and I broke clay birds with an ease that I didn’t expect from such a clumsy-looking gun. It patterned well, putting 66 percent of its pellets in a 30-inch circle. The velocity averaged 1,141 fps. The high-brass Federal Game-Shok loads I tested were absolutely punishing and chronographed at 1,498 fps. Only 32 percent of the pellets hit the 30-inch circle, evenly peppering the paper.
I don’t think there’s much reason to use buckshot on deer these days, but it has a long history as a potent anti-personnel load. The Winchester buckshot I tested lived up to my expectations and chronographed at 1,328 fps. At 40 yards, it threw a 32.25-inch pattern that you could count on hitting two men with. At 35 yards, the pattern tightened up to 27 inches. At 30 and 25 yards, the patterns were 17.38 and 17.13 inches, respectively. At 20 yards, the pattern was only 12 inches. I marked each shot pattern on the target, and by the time I was done, I had a target with a lot of closely clustered pellets just below the point of aim. At every range tested, this 28-inch-barreled gun can put pellets into a man-sized target.
Legendary Arizona Sheriff John Slaughter was said to favor a short 12-gauge, double-barrel shotgun during his law enforcement career, but there are at least two photos that show him armed with an 1887 just like this one. Chiappa has done a fine job in recapturing the character of this classic Old West repeater while discreetly improving it. This is the best replica of this model on the market right now, and probably ever. I couldn’t help but channel a little of the spirit of Slaughter while I was shooting it.
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For more information, visit http://www.chiappafirearms.com or call 937-835-5000.
This article originally published in the Fall 2015 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.