francis bannerman

The Immortal: The Winchester Model 1897

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these posts, and I’ve been racking my mind trying to think of a gun that could really work for this post, as I’ve had many famous guns requested but I’ve never done due to their being a ton of sub-variants, but also noting that those posts where I cover a gun in brief don’t do so well.

Then after watching some movies, I’ve found the lone survivor that appears almost everywhere. Gangster dramas, noir, war flicks, and in the hands of everyone from Burt Lancaster to Billy Dee Williams. It’s one of the older pump shotgun designs, but also one of the more common older models. It’s Winchester’s very own Model 1897.

Now I’m sure we all know the designer of the Winchester 1897, our lord and savior John Moses Browning, but there’s other elements to it’s birth than just that. The concept of a pump-action shotgun dates all the way to the early 1880′s when two other designers, the famous Christopher Spencer of the Spencer rifle and Sylvester Roper patented a similar pump action shotgun, the Spencer 1882.

Spencer’s design was interesting, using the same pump mechanism you see on the 1897, except it ejected from the top. However, while the gun was novel, it came out in a bad time. At this point, Winchester had begun a rather long crusade to stop many competitors and the Spencer rifle was one of them. By 1889, the company Spencer was running was out of money and bankrupt, and the license for his guns went to Francis Bannerman, who you should remember from when I talked about US made Mosins.

Now Bannerman continued selling and making Spencer shotguns, rebranded as the Model 1890 from the 1880′s until 1907. At the same time, Winchester had grabbed the patents and copyrights for the pump handle, and while forcing other guns like the Burgess shotgun out of the market, tasked their chief designer John Moses Browning to make a pump-action shotgun rather than the rather unpopular lever action 1887. 

Browning improved upon the 1882 with a number of changes, the main being the larger pump handle, exterior hammer and the much better bolt design allowing for an ejection port. This hit the market as the Winchester 1893, and was reasonably successful. But it had problems and by 1897, the gun was improved and also made into the brand new smokeless powder 12 Gauge. Winchester offered any owner of the 1893 a brand new 1897 and the rest is history.

The 1897 was a very successful shotgun in many hands. It was well liked for it’s fast action and accuracy for hunters, and it’s fast action made it well liked by soldiers. The 1897 and later 1912 models had no trigger disconnect, so as long as you held down the trigger, it fired. The US Armed Forces bought many shotguns during WW1, and were rather famously used by US troops to pepper German trenches, something that became so devastating that many German higher-ups threatened to execute any US soldier captured with shotgun ammo or caught with a shotgun.

Now while they never followed through, the 1897 helped set the standard of combat shotguns in militaries, and while it was elderly by WWII, it still saw service alongside more modern guns like the Winchester 1912 and Ithaca 37. In fact, despite it’s age, the 1897 soldiered on all the way through Korea into Vietnam, with a few remembering the trenches of France, the cold of Belgium, the havoc of Seoul and even the jungles of Laos. And even now, many hunters and a few police departments still have or use the old 1897. It’s quite a long lasting shotgun, and if the heavily worn ones in your local gunshop’s used rack isn’t a prime example, then it’s long history in the real world and film would.

The film industry and the 1897 have a very long history, dating back to the 1920′s and 1930′s. It’s ability to be slamfired allowed for some gloriously large muzzle flashes, and with many coming off of surplus from many police departments made them cheap. And like I said, the 1897 seems to breach many genres. Gangster flicks feature them in the hands of both sides of the law. Action flicks of every flavor use them, from the dark overtones of Assault on Precinct 13 to the chases of Bullitt. Westerns like The Wild Bunch have them, and every WWII movie tends to have some character with an 1897. It’s everywhere, and while it’s starting to fade away to modern gun, most period pieces still use the 1897.

Now unlike the Ithaca 37, the 1897 is a somewhat common shotgun in the field of video games, but in many different forms. Almost all war shooters set in either world war use the 1897 Trench Gun as it’s standard shotgun. Many games set in specific periods use the 1897 or 1893 as their premier pump shotguns, and survival horror love the 1897. While the exact model in these games vary, the external hammer, fast firing rate and 5-6 round capacity clue you in that it’s an 1897.

And that’s the long history of the Winchester 1897, one of the oldest and yet also common pump shotguns. It’s production ran from 1897 to the mid 1950′s, and while it’s an antiquated by modern standards, the 1897 is still useful for many situations even after around 100 years of technological evolution. It’s big, old and goes boom, when you need to pepper a flock of birds, Germans or zombies with shot, not many can beat the old Winchester.

Boom boom boom, gonna shoot your ass down”

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The first pump action shotgun, the Spencer Model 1882

Who invented the first pump action shotgun? The standard answer of course is our lord and savior John Moses Browning with his Winchester Model 1893 and improved Model 1897. However decades before gunmakers had experimented with pump action designs. Perhaps the first practical was a pump shotgun called the Spencer Model 1882, invented by Christopher Spencer, famous for the Spencer repeating rifle. After Spencer invented the Spencer repeating rifle, he made a nice living inventing various tools and machines such as a new type of sewing machine, a lathe, a steam carriage, and drop forged hand tools.  In the 1870’s he was partner with Sylvester H. Roper to produce the Roper Revolving Shotgun, a design which was ingenious but a commercial failure.

In 1882 Spencer formed his own company called the Spencer Repeating Arms Co. located in Amherst, Massachusetts.  It was there that he invented a new type of shotgun, a shotgun using a slide mechanism which loaded shells from a tubular magazine.  Called the Spencer Model 1882 it is famous for being the first successful pump action shotgun in the world and the first commercially successful repeating shotgun design.  Chambered in 12 gauge (with some 10 gauges being produced), the Spencer 1882 held five rounds in a tubular magazine beneath the barrel.  By working the pump action a breechblock dropped which removed a shell from the magazine, then simultaneously ejecting an empty shell from the top while chambering the fresh shell. The tubular magazine was loaded through the open action.

Unlike the Roper design, the Spencer 1882 became the most popular model of repeating shotgun during the 1880′s. It’s popularity would only wane with the invention of the M1893 and 1897 by John Browning. Eventually, successive models of pump action shotguns would replace the double barrel as the shotgun of choice.  Even today the pump action shotgun is the most popular form of shotgun among hunters, police, military, and sport shooters.  The Spencer 1882 was manufactured by Spencer from 1882 to 1890.  In 1890, Christopher Spencer sold his company to Francis Bannerman, who continued to produce the design until 1907.

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Spencer-Bannerman M1890 Slide-Action shotguns

Designed in 1882 by Christopher Spencer of the 1860 repeating carbine fame, manufactured by Francis Bannerman c.1890-1907 - serial numbers 6464 and 5294.
12 gauge five-round tubular magazine, pump action repeater, 32″ barrel.

It’s hard to find those in a good state.

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The Bannerman Model 1903 Springfield .303 British Conversion,

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, Francis Bannerman IV was popular as the largest retailer of military surplus in the United States.  Originally born in Scotland, Bannerman still had a love of the old world.  So when the United Kingdom went to war with Germany during World War I, Bannerman wanted to do his part to support his former nation.  In 1914 he donated 1,000 Model 1903 Springfields to the British Army. Pieced together from surplus parts, the rifles were rechambered and rebored for .303 British, then the standard infantry cartridge of the British Army.  A new extractor was also mounted on the bolt to extract empty cartridge casings, as the .303 British is a rimmed cartridge.  Included with the rifles were bayonets, ammo pouches, webbing, slings, and other associated accessories. 

While the donation of 1,000 converted Springfield rifles was certainly a grand patriotic gesture on the part of Bannerman, one must keep in mind that it is the thought that counts.  Unfortunately it was found that the conversion was flawed, and that the rimmed .303 cartridge could not feed properly through the magazine.  Thus the rifle were marked “DP”, for drill purposes only, and issued City of London Volunteer Training Corps as a drill/training rifle.