By Holt Bodinson, GUNS Magazine
If there ever were a shotgun with an iconic image, it’s Winchester’s big lever action. Known as the Models 1887 and 1901 and chambered in both 10 gauge and 12 gauge, it was John Browning’s response to Winchester Vice-President T.G. Bennett’s request for a lever-action shotgun that would complement and enhance Winchester’s extensive lever-action line.
Browning’s first reaction, however, was to try to dissuade Bennett from pursuing a lever-action shotgun. Browning had been working on a slide-action design (later to see light as the Model 1893), and he felt strongly that his pump gun “would be easier to operate and better-looking.” On the other hand, speculation has it that Browning had just been handed a $50,000 check from Bennett for his 1886 rifle patent so he might have been feeling somewhat solicitous that day toward Bennett.
In any case, less than a year later, Browning had been issued a patent for a perfectly functional, compact, lever-action shotgun, which Winchester dubbed their Model 1887 and put into immediate production. A remarkable fact is that in three successive years, Winchester Repeating Arms had purchased and placed into production three of Browning’s greatest designs: the Model 1885 single-shot rifle, the Model 1886 lever-action rifle and the Model 1887 lever-action shotgun.
In March, 1887, at the age of 32 and married with two children, Browning was “set apart as a Mormon missionary to the southern states.” He had never seen a production model of the 1887 since it was not released until June of that year, and Browning had left on his mission in March. In a window of a southern sporting store, John Moses Browning finally got his first glimpse of the Winchester Model 1887. He entered the store, picked up the shotgun, mounted it and rapidly cycled the action before Browning’s companion told the flabbergasted owner the man operating gun invented it.
Like most of Browning’s designs, the action of the Model 1887 is unique and distinctive with a minimum of moving parts. The humped-back action is actually compact when you consider that the shotgun was chambered for the 12- and 10-gauge shells. The secret to its compact design is that it is a true, enclosed rolling block.
As the lever is opened, the breechblock rotates rapidly away and down from the chamber. As the lever is closed, the breechblock rotates up and forward, another shell is positioned to be chambered by a lifter being fed from a 5-round tubular magazine, and the recessed hammer is fully cocked. There is an interference built into the parts so that the lever must be fully closed and locked before the gun can be fired. The hammer features a 1/2-cock safety notch, which is engaged by lowering the hammer as the trigger is pulled.
It’s a fast action to cycle. In an era when single- and double-barreled shotguns prevailed, the 1887 provided an astonishing level of firepower—six quick shots to be exact—one in the chamber and five in the magazine.
The Winchester proved popular on both sides of the law. In fact, the first Model 1887 I ever saw was on the floor of Jensen’s Gun Shop in Tucson, Ariz., 4 decades ago. It was a 20-inch barreled, riot gun in 10 gauge and marked along the barrel “TPD” or “Tucson Police Department.” Not knowing any better and at the time focused on 1911 match pistols and big game rifles, I passed it by.
The Model 1887 could be ordered in a variety of grades, finishes and barrel lengths. The standard 12-gauge model featured a 30-inch, full-choked barrel and either a case-hardened or blued receiver. The 10-gauge model sported a 32-inch, full-choked barrel. Either model could be ordered with a cylinder or modified choke at no extra cost. Winchester even offered Damascus barrels as an upgrade.
According to Winchester historian, George Madis, three, rifled-barreled, Model 1887s are known to exist chambered for the .70-150 Winchester cartridge. That’s a .70-caliber cartridge formed from a brass 12-gauge shell pushing a bullet weighing 700 to 900 grains by 150 grains of powder. A real stomper round on both ends!
In production for 11 years, from 1887 to 1898, approximately 64,855 Model 1887’s were produced.
In 1901, Winchester introduced a refined version of the Model 1887. According to the contemporary Winchester catalog, “It has a tighter breech joint more completely supporting the shell in the chamber. A positive firing-pin retractor is supplied. The 2-piece, finger lever is made separate from the breech-block and with a finger lever lock.” The Model 1901 was available only in 10-gauge. It was in production from 1901 to 1920 and only 13,500 were produced.
The fact is that another Browning design, the Model 1893 and its successor, the highly successful Model 1897 pump gun, and simply destroyed the lever-action shotgun market, but the 1887/1901 is back and back big.
Cowboy action shooters, who were familiar with the movie debuts of the big Winchester in The Professionals (1966) and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972), were a natural market for the intriguing model.
Then flashing across the screen in 1991 in the hands of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2: Judgment Day was a sawn-off barrel and pistol grip stocked lever-action Winchester. Hollywood producers seemed to fall in love with Winchester’s lever-action shotgun because in a matter of years it made a series of big screen appearances in Jumanji (1995), The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), The Mummy Returns (2001), Monte Walsh (2002), Ghost Rider (2007), Hot Fuzz (2007), Sherlock Holmes (2009), Public Enemies (2009) and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011). Hollywood should have awarded it an Oscar.
It didn’t take long for companies like Cimarron Firearms and Chiappa to move quickly to fill the demand with the most recent and most affordable model being imported from China by Century International Arms. The model pictured here is the Century International Arms 20-inch barreled, 12-gauge, riot gun rendition which is being made for them in China by the Zhong Zhou Machine Works. It carries with it a suggested retail price of only $399.95.
The Century International Arms model is not as nicely machined and finished as an original or as one of the more costly replicas. It incorporates an abundance of cast parts, but it functions just like an original Winchester, and it functions fine as long as you cycle the action with gusto.
The bore at the muzzle measures 0.725 inch on my gun, which places the choke midway between cylinder and improved cylinder, and I have been extremely pleased with the uniform and well centered patterns it throws at 25 yards.
The Century Model PW87 is one of those unique, historical and affordable fun guns. I could see myself carrying it hunting cottontails over beagles or quail over pointers. It’s perfect for informal clays shooting, and you’ll probably be the only one in the community to own one.
“Iconic” is the word for Winchester’s big lever-action shotgun, simply iconic!
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