In the Trenches: the Legendary Winchester Model 1897 — Full Review
There are few manufacturers that have a long-storied history in the defense industry as Winchester. Undoubtedly, few things are more formidable or reliable in battle than a 12-gauge pump action shotgun. Winchester’s Model 1897 has proven over time to be a reliable firearm for protection of America’s finest.
Eddie Mangione had grown up with literally nothing on a rural farm in Tennessee. Now he was a world away squatting in the fetid trenches of war-torn France. For Eddie the summer of 1918 had become surreal and otherworldly.
Eddie had joined the U.S. Marines for all the timeless reasons young men join the Marines. He wanted out of his drab familiar world, and military service overseas promised adventure, exotic locales, and camaraderie. Like so many others before and since Eddie found that reality differed from the lies the recruiters peddled. The adventure was horrifying, the exotic locale was dank, rotten, and miserable, and the camaraderie involved watching his friends get torn to pieces by artillery. He had only been in the trenches a month.
His fellow Marines clutched their 03 Springfield rifles. These instruments turned the Marine rifleman into a deadly agent of chaos. Their French Chauchaut light machineguns were utter rubbish, but these beautiful Springfields were perfected tools of the riflemen’s art. Eddie’s backwoods Southern upbringing had ultimately put a different weapon in his hands. Eddie’s stiff terrified fingers curled around the walnut stocks of a Winchester 1897 Trench Gun 12-gauge.
Eddie’s mission was to knock incoming German hand grenades aside before they could land in the trenches. Pushing nine OO buckshot pellets per round and carrying five rounds on board, Eddie’s shotgun had successfully accomplished this feat twice already. Eddie’s reputation as a backwoods wing shooter had been well founded.
The enemy artillery barrage finally lifted after what seemed an eternity. Several ears were bleeding from the overpressure, but the Hun artillery had not adequately ranged the thin linear targets that were the Allied trenches. Everyone in Eddie’s platoon still drew breath.
From 1897 to 1957 over 1 million of these shotguns were produced and notably during World War 1 and trench warfare. Eddie’s story is not unique. It’s a small glimpse into the reputation that makes a Winchester shotgun a legendary trench warfare tool.
Hunting Arm, Combat Tool, Gangster Gun
The influence of John Moses Browning on the world of firearms cannot be overstated. He designed several familiar lever-action Winchester rifles, some of the most influential handguns ever built, and all of the successful repeating shotguns available in the first part of the 20th century. At the time of his death, the man held 128 patents for various firearm-related inventions. His repertoire spanned the spectrum from .25-caliber pocket pistols to 37mm aircraft cannons. His 1897 shotgun ushered in a new era in scattergun technology.
The 1897 was itself an evolutionary development of the previous model 1893. The 1893 slide action gun bears an esoteric similarity to its later sibling but came up in the era of low-pressure blackpowder shotgun shells. The Model 1897 incorporated a stronger steel receiver that better surrounded the gun’s bolt. The resulting weapon was proofed for higher-pressure smokeless rounds. The 1897 was available in both fixed and takedown variants.
As a sporting arm, the 1897 was fabulously successful. The gun cost $25 new when originally introduced and could be had with barrels reaching out to 36 inches. The external hammer served as a manual safety, and the American walnut stocks exuded a lithe almost effeminate vibe. However, the lack of a manual disconnector meant that the gunner could hold down the trigger and empty a five-round magazine as fast as he could cycle the forearm. Extending a tab on the far end of the magazine tube and rotating the assembly allowed the gun to break in half at the front of the receiver via interrupted threads. As a result, the 97 could be tucked into compact spaces for storage or concealment.
The militarized version of the weapon was universally referred to as the Trench Gun. This variant started as a 20-inch barreled 1897 to which was affixed a sheet steel heat shield-cum-bayonet lug and sling swivels. In this configuration, the Trench Gun saw action in both World Wars as well as a variety of brushfire conflicts in between. Though the guts of the gun resemble a sewing machine for their complexity, the 1897 Winchester rendered reliable service and was well-received by the troops who wielded it.
Resurrecting the Dead
If your gun collecting proclivities wander toward rarefied stuff like period Western guns or, Lord help you, transferable automatic weapons then you’d best be shaved and prepped to hock a kidney to pay for your habit. However, in the case of cool old shooters like the 1897 Winchester, getting into a facsimile of the guns used by J. Edgar Hoover’s G-Men to bring down Dillinger and Capone need not be spendy. A million of these old scatterguns rolled off the lines before production ceased in 1957. That means high mileage used versions are plentiful and cheap.
I found a shopworn 1897 that sported an absurdly long 34-inch barrel, little remaining finish, and an ugly home-built stock extension for a cool $250. While that was indeed a good deal, these old guns float around auction websites for a bit more than that all the time. Given the gun’s advanced age I could transfer it straight to my doorstep via my personal Curio and Relic FFL. Where others might see dingy, tired, and ugly, I sensed a diamond in the rough.
The gun was mechanically intact, and the takedown feature works as well today as it did when the gun first rolled off the Winchester line in 1907. The freckled brown patina lends the gun a pleasant been-there done-that ambiance. The inimitable American Walnut furniture ages better than Christie Brinkley.
Chopping the Tube
I have shortened a lot of shotgun barrels in my day and have found that all you really need to do it well is a table saw, a drill press, and a little patience. Run a cleaning rod down the barrel and mark the point where it meets the muzzle. This is the initial barrel length. If you want a fixed point like 18 inches for legality or, in this case, 20 inches for historical cred, just subtract that from your measured barrel length and make a mark with a Sharpie marker that far back from the muzzle. Wrap that spot in masking tape for a precise cut.
Mount up a fiber-reinforced cutoff wheel on your table saw and cut the barrel a time or two near the muzzle to get a feel for things. Tape an old towel over the top of your saw to protect the finish on the barrel. When you are comfortable with your technique, make your final cut in a single smooth motion. You can then dress the cut end with a Dremel tool and a sanding drum. If you are careful the pruned tube will look factory perfect.
Brass front sight beads are available online, but I’m cheap. I typically chuck a machine screw into my drill press and grind the head down into a ball with a file. Carefully spot the hole for your new front sight with a spring-loaded center punch, drill it meticulously with your drill press, and thread the hole with a hand tap. Seat the new sight with red thread locker. Then go back with the Dremel tool sanding drum to polish the stubby end of the new sight flat from inside the bore. If you want real performance from your new shortened barrel you can have the bore threaded internally for a choke tube.
The end result looks like something Elliot Ness might wield on his late-night raids against Al Capone’s Speakeasies yet set me back a whopping $250. Should you be in the market for a really inexpensive hunting arm, these old shotguns really never wear out. My resurrected 1897 runs birdshot like a champ as fast as you can cycle the action even at 110 years old.
The 1897 Winchester armed generations of American hunters, Law Enforcement Officers, criminals, and soldiers on their enterprises of sustenance, peacekeeping, crime, and combat. The gun’s takedown feature brings a capacity for
stowage or concealment not rivaled today. The restoration project also represents an inexpensive and fun way to kill an otherwise lazy Saturday afternoon.
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