Owning a Winchester 1897 isn’t a cheap or easy venture. Owning a solid, shootable variant of an OG 1897 in the configuration I want just isn’t going to happen. I’ve been waiting on Cimmarron to finish their new Trench Gun variant of the Winchester 1897, but that still seems like it is fairly far out. So when I saw a Norinco 1897 trench gun for sale, I scooped it up about as fast as possible.
For a long time, those of us searching for a Winchester 1897 in an affordable configuration that’s completely shootable were satisfied by Norinco. However, even those imports have dried up, and companies like I.A.C. and Century Arms have moved away from the classic cowboy guns. While not as rare as an OG Winchester, the Norinco 97 shotguns can be fairly hard to get.
I bought one out of desperation, not knowing if they were worth a damn. The internet was still fairly divided over the guns, with some working fine and others falling apart. It seemed tough to determine if these lower-priced alternatives were even worth their modest sums. With one at hand and an internet connection, I decided to get to the root of the Norinco 97.
The Deep Lore of the Norinco 1897 Trench Gun
Norinco 97s have been imported into the states on and off for decades now. It seems like a batch comes from across the ocean every few years, and that’s it. In my research into the Norinco 97, I found that Canada seems to get regular shipments, which makes sense since Canada still gets general Norinco imports.
The United States and Chinese arms manufacturers, however, don’t have a great relationship. George Bush the First made a temporary ban on imported semi-auto rifles with certain features permanent in the late 1980s. These so-called assault weapons featured the typical gun grabber wish list of cosmetic and functional features. The typical folding stocks, threaded barrels, standard cap magazines, and more were banned.
China-made neutered rifles, like the MAK-90, saw their way into the United States with all the offending features removed. Kind of. You see, the Chinese didn’t always remove the offending parts. This led Clinton to the ’94 Norinco ban which banned most rifles and pistols but allowed some ‘sporting’ weapons through, especially in the shotgun department.
When it comes to batches of Norinco 97 shotguns, the different batches are attached to different importers, and the importer can determine the quality. The most highly sought are the imports from I.A.C. In researching this article, I kept running across a story that I.A.C. sent a Winchester expert to Norinco to perfect the design.
The So-Called Expert
I can’t confirm or even find the name of the supposed expert, but in every conversation regarding the various Chinese Norinco 97s, the I.A.C. models are routinely brought forth as the best. I got fairly lucky with my Norinco 1897 trench gun in the fact that it’s an I.A.C. model.
I.A.C. imported various Norinco 97 configurations, including the trench gun variant with heat shield, a bayonet, a sporting variant with a 26-inch barrel, and even chrome variants for SASS style shooters.
The one we see here is the ‘Riot” configuration. The Riot variant seems to be the most commonly imported, and that’s likely due to the fact that the most demand comes from SASS shooters in the Wild Bunch category.
Now that I have a Norinco 97 from I.A.C. I planned to figure out if these claims were true.
A Rundown of the Norinco 1897 Trench Gun
If you’ve never seen a Winchester 1897, the M1897, or the classic stereotypical WW1 trench gun, this portion of the article is for you. We are going to break down the basics of the Norinco 1897 trench gun and largely describe the Winchester M1897 as well.
What makes the Winchester 1897 and, therefore, the Norinco 97 so unique was the rather novel design the firearm used. First, it’s one of the very few pump-action shotguns to feature an exposed hammer, not the only one but it is the most famous.
It feeds from a five-round tubular magazine and was only made for 2.75-inch shells. Those big 3-inch magnums weren’t around at the time. The shotgun ejects out the right side of the gun and feeds from a port on the bottom of the gun and in front of the trigger.
This riot variant uses a 20-inch barrel that’s fairly light and thin. A simple gold bead sits at the tip of the barrel for sighting purposes.
The Winchester 1897 wasn’t the first pump-action but was the first successful design. Browning designed it before there was a standard for pump-action guns. This gives it a unique design that plants it half in the world of the wild west and half in the modern world.
Rock, Roll, and Load
I loaded the Norinco 97 with great anticipation. I’ve wanted an 1897-style shotgun to use and abuse for years and finally had one. So I started with a few rounds of Wally World cheap birdshot and let loose. The action is surprisingly smooth, and it’s on par with Mossberg 500 shotguns with a little slop and a little grit as it glides rearward.
The bead sight at the end of the gun is good enough but far from fancy. Nevertheless, it works fine at standard shotgun ranges, and out to 25 yards, you’ll have no problems putting buckshot where you want it. Speaking of buckshot, after a hundred problem-free rounds of birdshot, I grabbed a couple of boxes of buckshot and took it for a spin.
With the bead mounted directly to the barrel, I expected the gun to appear to shoot high. That’s a common issue with these sight setups, but I was wrong. Point of aim and point of impact wasn’t an issue.
Admittedly the old-school design makes it fairly tough to use modern recoil mitigation techniques to tame the gun. The hard plastic butt plate doesn’t do much to help reduce recoil. The pump is of the corncob variety so that you can hold onto it, but getting a good push-pull is tough, and your hands tend to slip and slide all over the gun.
You take a good thump from the Norinco 1897 trench gun, but it’s not exceptionally bad. Moving from buckshot to slugs proved to be a little tricky. The tiny bead sight-mounted low made longer-range accuracy tough. I can ring a 10-inch gong at fifty yards, but man, I’m hitting all over that ten inches.
One thing to watch out for as you rack that action is the bolt carrier coming out the rear and cocking your hammer. If your hand is too close, you’ll pop yourself with it and lose some skin when you start shooting fast.
Does it slamfire?
I’m no expert in machining or Winchester 1897s, but I don’t think you can design an 1897 clone with a working hammer that can’t slam fire. Yes, the Norinco 97 slam fires, but that doesn’t make it somehow more efficient. If you want to somewhat quickly empty your gun and miss most shots, then slam fire is for you.
People talk a lot about why slam fire is great and why it made the Winchester 1897 such a mighty trench broom. In reality, slam fire isn’t faster if you actually plan to hit your target. It is fun, though.
So Are Norinco 1897 Trench Guns Good to Go?
After 200 rounds of birdshot, 100 rounds of buckshot, and 25 slugs, I can say the gun runs. I had one failure to eject. The rim was stuck into the extractor and required a little maneuvering to loosen up. The finish remains solid, everything clicks and pops easily enough, and nothing has come loose or deformed.
I can’t say that all Norinco 97s are good guns, but the reputation of the I.A.C. guns remains strong. The gun works, and I’m very thankful to finally have one of these replicas of a classic. If anyone ever imports more on the cheap, I plan to make a No Country for Old Men clone. But until then, I’ll stick to what I have.