Sangamon County Rifle Association
Right Reason on Second Amendment Rights
Winchester Model 1897
SCRA Meeting, August 7, 2006
September 2006 GunNews
Winchester's pump action repeating shotgun is an American Legend. Everybody knows the 1897 Winchester and the gun Davis showed us was the trench gun version, which was not made by Winchester. If it were it would be worth about $1,000 for a reworked, two times reworked from World War II and Korean and Vietnam parkerized version to over $3,500 for a pristine blue World War I issue version. The gun he showed us was a replica made by the Chinese of the 1897 Winchester worth about $450.
Everybody thinks the Winchester 1897 was the first pump-action repeating shotgun. It was not. In 1893 Winchester came out with an earlier version. It was not real popular. Winchester also had a lever-action repeating shotgun that came out in 1887. Norinco has also made a copy of it lately. If you want to see one of those they have one on the shelf at Birds and Brooks. It's an unusual gun because when you shoulder in and drop the lever you're actually staring down the bore.
The 1897 Winchester has had several nicknames, such as the old thumbuster, and the widow maker but the old 97 is the one that stuck. Davis racked the gun and said that is possibly the most terrifying sound in the world. Production of the gun by Winchester stopped sometime in the late 1950's. Over one million were made.
Davis also showed members a later version of of the 1897 or what they called a take down model and it was a real Winchester in pristine condition. Davis believes it was made in 1957 because it had a flat hand guard on it rather than what they call the corncob hand guard. Pulling out the magazine tube and rotating the barrel away from the receiver can take down the gun. It comes apart into two parts. This was also possible on the Model 12 Winchester.
The trench gun version is a solid frame version that does not come apart. You can tell the difference in that it does not have a little pin that goes through the magazine tube. It has a little lug at the end that holds the magazine tube on.
It was catching on slowly before the first World War. It was still fairly popular but they hadn't sold thousands and thousands of them before the first World War broke out. In 1917 the United States joined World War I. When the U.S. Army went to war, they were scarce on weapons. What they did take was a little bit of their American styling and realism with them. They had been observing the war for the first three years and they realized how brutal trench warfare was and how much you needed close range fire power when you were in a trench.
Imagine if you will it is spring of 1918 and you are an American soldier about ready to assault a German trench. The standard U.S. infantryman is issued a rifle, either 1903 or a 1917, both of them are five-shot 30.06 bolt action repeaters. If you are one of the lucky ones you will have also been issued a side arm, either a 1917 revolver or a Colt Model 1911 semiautomatic pistol. If you are real lucky you will also have been issued one of these, a 1897 trench gun. It has a 20 inch cylinder bore barrel and it has a lug and a boss on it for the mounting of the U.S.1917 sword bayonet. You have eighteen inches of cold steel on the front of your shotgun.
This is how the assault would happen. As nightfall came you would be ushered up to the front trenches. You could stare out across no man's land. It is called no man's land for a reason, no one can move there, if you moved you died. Snipers, machine guns and artillery owned no man's land. Between you is approximately two hundred yards of ground that is tilled up to approximately the consistency of a garden that has been tilled by a roto-tiller. The reason why it is that powdery and dusty is artillery has been slamming into that ground day and night for months. It churns up everything, trees that were once hundreds of years old are now nothing but splinters and sawdust on the ground. There are shell holes big enough to drive a car into, push the dirt over the top and never see them. Poison gas is in the bottom of these holes because mustard gas and phosgene gas is heavier than oxygen, it settles into the holes. You cannot get safe just by diving into a shell hole. When the time for the assault comes, you will know because the artillery will begin firing. It will not begin immediately firing on the enemy's trenches, it will start by firing on the barbed wire in front of your trench to clear a path. You don't want to slow down, you have to cover that ground and cover it fast. Then it will start walking across no man's land, kaboom, kaboom, kaboom, a few yards at a time, just keep moving forward, hundreds if not thousands of pieces of artillery firing all at once. Not only does this wake you up, it also lets the Germans know, guess what, they're up to something out there. The artillery sweeps across no man's land, for two hundred yards and wipes out the barbed wire, hopefully, of the enemy. Now the enemy has thoughtully left open spots in the barbed wire for you though, usually guarded by Maxim machine guns. So if you go through a hole that is already there, guess what, you're going into a death funnel. They're guaranteeing that you're going to be shot if you go through there. The artillery goes and stops on the German trench and begins pounding and pounding.
Then you'll hear, get ready, stand by and you'll hear one blast of a trench whistle. At that blast everyone rushes up over the top and you hope the artillery has done its job. Because if it has done its job you'll get a good start going across no man's land slogging through knee deep mud running as fast as you can which isn't very fast. As you get about half way across you'll find out if the artillery has been effective or not because if you start hearing tacca, tacca, tacca, the constant hammering of a Maxim gun, you'll know it didn't work. As you get to the other side, they'll stop the artillery barrage about halfway, that way they don't hit you. You begin firing as the Germans begin firing. You have five shots out of a Springfield, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, and you reload the stripper clip. You keep firing and those of you who make it across no man's land, and if its been a successful raid, maybe half your men get across no man's land without being injured.
You jump into the German trench. Now it is hand-to-hand combat in a trench that is about as wide as a table (three feet or so) and zigzagging so you don't know what's around the next corner. When it gets down there it turns into combat of the most primal style, it is every man for himself, everything is a weapon and there are no prisoners. You cannot leave a person as a prisoner behind you because the minute you take a step past he's going to turn around and kill you. It is brutal. That is where the 1897 trench gun was very effective. The nice thing about the 1897 was it was very effective when you were panicking because you could empty a five shot magazine, boom, boom, boom, boom boom, a lot more fire power than any bolt action rifle. Every time you pulled the trigger, twelve pellets of double ought buckshot came flying out the muzzle. If you did not have time to reload you always had eighteen inches of cold steel on the front.
This gun was hated by the Germans, who would kill any man on sight if they found him with a shotgun. They complained to the Hague and Geneva Conventions that we were using inhumane weapons. Up until that time they had never thought of using a shotgun in combat. Shotguns were for shooting grouse, pheasants and quail, bird shooting, gentlemen's weapons, usually side by sides, very ornate, beautiful works of art.
We Americans, however, are mass producers, we are machinists and we are very effective in making new ways of killing our enemies.
Before the war the 1897 Winchester was sort of looked down upon as a weapon. People were not sure about this because a shotgun was considered to be more gentlemanly. A shotgun was supposed to have two barrels, and if it had a single barrel, it must be a single shot. GI's who saw these things in action, however, came home and flooded Winchester with demands for them; they wanted them to hunt with. Police departments flooded Winchester with requests but wanted theirs made without the heat shield and bayonet lug on them. The 1897 Winchester became the symbol of the American hunter and the American policeman. If you saw the police doing a raid in Chicago on a bootleggers establishment, the first man through the door was armed with a 1897 Winchester. No one messed with the guy with the 1897. One guy called it the street howitzer. You could sweep out a room real quick with one of these.
Also, during the time of the Great Depression, you might be able to afford a 1897 Winchester whereas most people could not afford a fine grade double shotgun. This was a workingman's gun. GI's liked them. That's one of the reasons why the 1911 .45 and the 30.06 rifle cartridge took off so well - GI's used them.
As we seem to do after every war, we disarmed after World War I. When World War II began, they did have a new trench gun, which was the Model 12 Winchester. This is the hammerless version of the same thing. When the war broke out and people went to the South Pacific and they realized they were going to be fighting at close range again, all the 1897's that were still in supply were pulled out, parkerized, and reissued. The same thing happened in Korea and the same thing happened in Vietnam. We have combat shotguns, both Benellis and Mossbergs being used in Iraq and Afghanistan today. If you are clearing the room in one of those adobe houses over there, consider yourself a happy guy if you're the guy who has the shotgun.
The 1897 shotgun, whether it be the military version, the police version, or the hunting version is one of the classics of American firearms. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. The Chinese recently took one of these to China and made an exact replica of it. They shipped them back to us and we bought them by the thousands. That is quite a bit of flattery.
The 97 Winchester is the same gun as long as you know what you are doing with it. Remember half cock is there for a reason. When you buy an original '97 always cock it, put your thumb under the hammer and try to press it off of the cock position. A lot of them have weak seer springs or worn seers and they will go forward. Thump them on the butt a few times on cock and see if the hammer falls and make sure your half cock stays cocked when you thump it. Make sure when you have it in the half cock position it will not let go. Those are a few things to look for on an 1897.
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