Winchester 1887 lever action shotgun history
Left: American Old West lawman “Texas” John Slaughter, who carried a Winchester Model 1887 shotgun (seen under his right arm in this photo) during his time as Cochise County sheriff . Right: One of John Moses Browning’s patent drawings for the Winchester Model 1887 shotgun

History: Winchester Model 1887 & Model 1901 lever-action shotguns

A few years ago you may recall the anti-gun crowd had a public meltdown over the existence of lever-action shotguns, which were clearly part of a sinister gun lobby plot to circumvent Australia’s World Class Gold-Standard Gun Laws™.

What pretty much everyone in the shooting community tried to explain — with limited success — was that lever-action shotguns dated back to the late 19th Century, with the first commercially successful design being the Winchester Model 1887, the subject of this history piece.

Winchester 1887 lever action shotgun history
The Winchester Model 1887/1901 shotgun as shown in a 1914 Winchester catalogue. The $US30 price for the ‘plain’ model is about $A1500 today

In the mid-1880s, gunmaker Winchester approached arms designer John Moses Browning with a request for a repeating shotgun, but with an important condition: The design had to be a lever-action firearm, as Winchester was known for its lever-action guns and that’s what customers expected. 

Browning suggested that a pump-action design would work better, but Winchester was insistent that it new repeating shotgun had to be a lever-action.

Browning sighed, went to his drawing board, and created what Winchester had requested — the lever-action shotgun which became known as the Model 1887 and received patent number 336,287 on 16 February, 1886.

Commercial firearms at the time were still generally chambered for black powder (smokeless powder had only been invented in 1884), and so the Model 1887 was available in either 12ga or 10ga black powder shotshells with a standard price in 1888 of $US25 (about $A1320 today).

Winchester 1887 lever action shotgun history
A couple of pages form a 1914 Winchester catalogue, with a cutaway illustration of the action of the Winchester Model 1887/1901 shotgun, and the gun’s major component parts

The Model 1887 held five shells in the tube magazine under the barrel, and operating the lever would cause the firing block to roll back and down, extracting the fired shell in the process, while the transporter in the action would lift the next shell from the magazine into place and eject the fired shell. Then the shooter would return the lever, which would feed the new shell into the breach, as well as cock the firing hammer, and the transporter would return to its position underneath the firing block ready for the cycle to be repeated.

Winchester 1887 lever action shotgun history
An internal view of the Winchester Model 1887’s action while open, showing the tube magazine, shell transporter, and firing block

To load the shotgun, the firer lowered the operating lever, which would allow access to the magazine via the bottom of the action, and then feed the shells in one at a time, before closing the lever and re-working the lever action to chamber a shell.

The design was solid enough and for a few years the Model 1887 was pretty much the only repeating shotgun design on the market; it was initially offered with a 30-inch barrel and was followed the next year by a 20in option. 

Despite being innovative, the Model 1887 wasn’t perfect. It had a tendency to jam, both due to mechanical difficulties and powder fouling if not cleaned properly; and if cardboard shells were not properly seated in the traveller, they could occasionally get crushed by the firing block when they were being fed into the breech, destroying the shell and jamming the gun (or worse). 

Winchester 1887 lever action shotgun history
The open Winchester Model 1887 action as viewed from the side

Shooters found the lever-action could be awkward to operate, compared to a Winchester Model 1873, but in spite of all this, the Model 1887 sold very well at first. Over 64,000 guns were produced between its introduction and 1898. 

The very first Winchester Model 1887 — serial number 1 — was sold to none other than Henry Ford, who presented the gun to Henry Firestone, founder of the Firestone Tyre & Rubber Company. That shotgun is now in the collection of the Cody Firearms Museum at the Buffalo Bill Centre of the West, in Wyoming.

In 1893, Winchester decided that Browning was right about pump-action designs, and introduced the Model 1893 pump-action shotgun, which was also chambered exclusively for black powder shells.

For the next four years, however, the Model 1887 lever-action and the Model 1893 pump-action shotguns co-existed (more or less), although it was clear that the pump-action design was far more popular with shooters than the lever-action. 34,000 Model 1893 shotguns were produced between 1893 and 1897, but only 9500 Model 1887 shotguns were made in that time. 

Winchester 1887 lever action shotgun history
An IAC-Norinco reproduction of the Winchester Model 1887 shotgun. Unlike the originals, these are chambered for standard 12ga smokeless shotshells

By the late 1890s, smokeless powder had achieved popularity as a propellant for commercial cartridges and the Model 1893 was upgraded for smokeless shotshells, resulting in the iconic Winchester Model 1897 pump-action shotgun.

The Model 1887 too was upgraded for smokeless shotshells as the Model 1901 shotgun, but it was only chambered in 10ga.

Winchester didn’t want two repeating Winchester 12ga shotguns on the market. It wanted the Model 1897 as its flagship shotgun, and didn’t want the Model 1901 eating into potential sales. 

However, there was still a market for 10ga shotguns, especially for high bird hunting, and thus Winchester could sell repeating shotguns in both the major gauges of the era.

Winchester 1887 lever action shotgun history
The Chiappa modern reproduction of the Winchester Model 1887/1901 shotgun with a 28in barrel and interchangeable chokes

About 79,500 Model 1901 shotguns were produced between 1901 and 1920, when the market for lever-action shotguns was deemed to have run its course, and production switched to focus on pump-action and self-loading shotgun models. 

The Model 1887/1901 shotguns were used by lawmen and stagecoach and railway guards. Texas Ranger John Slaughter carried an 1887 during his tenure as sheriff of Cochise County, Arizona, and on February 15, 1900, railway guard Jeff Milton used a Model 1887 in defence against a train robbery in Arizona.

On the other side of the law, bank robber Clyde Barrow was known to have a sawn-off 10ga Model 1901 shotgun; one was found in the car in which he and partner Bonnie Parker were fatally ambushed by police on 23 May, 1934.

Up until the late 1990s the Model 1887 shotgun was essentially an interesting sidenote in firearms design, albeit a well-known one thanks to its iconic appearance in the 1991 film Terminator 2: Judgment Day in the hands of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The Australian firearms law changes in 1996 essentially banned most shooters from having pump-action shotguns. However, lever-action shotguns were not restricted, likely due to their obscurity — the Winchester Model 1887/1901 were the only designs that had ever been made commercially, and they had been out of production for 75 years by that point.

There was an effort made to have ADI Lithgow produce the Model 1901 shotgun locally, but it did not progress beyond approximately 55 “proof of concept” examples.

In the early 2000s Chinese gunmaker Norinco began producing, in conjunction with the US-based Interstate Arms Corp (IAC), a reproduction of the 20in “riot gun” configuration Model 1887 intended for the burgeoning Cowboy Action Shooting market. 

It was chambered for 12ga 2¾in smokeless shotgun shells and a lot of the guns were imported to Australia, where they proved very popular with hunters in the bush who had spent more or less the previous decade restricted to double-barrelled break-action shotgun designs. 

While the IAC-Norinco designs were only imported for a few years around 2006, Chiappa soon introduced its own modern reproduction of the Model 1887, which is still in production today with either a 20in barrel or 28in barrel with adjustable chokes.

Winchester 1887 lever action shotgun history
The Chiappa modern reproduction of the Winchester Model 1887/1901 shotgun with a 22in barrel and interchangeable chokes

The Model 1887 has also become a cult firearm in video games, appearing prominently in some extremely popular games including Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Fallout: New Vegas, Far Cry 3 onwards, and, perhaps most appropriately, Red Dead Redemption II.

From a practical perspective, the modern Model 1887/1901 reproduction shotguns are very much in the “fun gun” category — they are absolutely viable for hunting (especially against feral pigs in the bush), but have a few quirks such as the lever needing to be operated quite forcefully to ensure proper extraction/ejection of the fired shells. It means they aren’t for everyone. 

With the plethora of straight-pull and button-release shotguns on the market here in Australia, the Model 1887 is once again back to an enthusiasts’ curio rather than a serious primary hunting firearm — but that doesn’t make it any less cool.




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Royce Wilson

Royce is something rare in Australia: A journalist who really likes guns. He has been interested in firearms as long as he can remember, and is particularly interested in military and police firearms from the 19th Century to the present. In addition to historical and collectible firearms, he is also a keen video gamer and has written for several major newspapers and websites on that subject.