Shooting History-Winchester’s Widow Maker?–Old Gun Review

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Shooting History is our series where we take an old gun and review it like a new one.  Well, the round counts are lower. If you have missed the other articles in this series you can find them here. If there is an old gun you would like to see in this series comment below and we will do our best to procure a shooter.

A Winchester 1911?

Yep, Winchester made a 1911.  But it is not the 1911 you are looking for.  This is the 1911 SL.  The SL stands for self loading.  This 1911 is a shotgun.  Unlike the other 1911, this one was not designed by John Browning but he influenced the design in an interesting way.

The checkered grip on the barrel is a key feature of this design.

The checkered grip on the barrel is a key feature of this design.  The front sight reminds me of one on an 1873 Winchester.

  The Browning Auto 5

John Browning designed the first successful auto loading shotgun with the Auto 5 in 1902.  FN was the first to produce the new shotgun in Europe, the ones imported to the US were branded Browning. It quickly became a huge hit and was license to Remington and Savage.  The Auto 5 is the second best selling semi-auto shotgun of all time. But before Auto 5 was made by FN, Browning took the design to Winchester who passed.  They soon regretted this decision and set about making their own auto loading shotgun.

Patents

Winchester’s attempt to design an auto-loading shotgun was troubled.  The main problem was to get around John Browning’s patents. Browning had been meticulous in securing patents on this design.  Ironically this is something he had learned to do while working for Winchester in the past — notably designing the 1894 lever action rifle and the 1897 pump shotgun. With the Auto 5, Browning had patented everything that he could on the design. The primary designer of the Winchester 1911 SL was T.C. Johnson who once said it took him 10 years to design a shotgun that would work with out infringing on the Browning patents.

The Winchester 1911 SL has a long recoil action like the Auto 5. Long recoil actions have the barrel and bolt locked together during recoil. They share some other basic features as well.  The both hold 5 shells in a tube magazine under the barrel around which is a recoil spring. But that is about it for the similarities.

The Widow Maker

One example of how the two deigns are different is in how they deal with recoil.  Browning came up with brass and steel friction rings that control the action when fired.  The Winchester couldn’t use the same friction rings so they used ones that were made of fiber.  These break down over time and usage resulting in excessive recoil.

But that is not the biggest difference and design hurtle that Winchester faced.  Browning patented the charging tab on the bolt. Yep, that little piece of metal that sticks off the bolt on the vast majority of auto loading shotguns and some rifles was at one time under patent by John Browning. So how on earth to you manually work the action without a charging tab on the bolt?! Well since this is a long recoil action, you use the barrel. See the pictures.

Step 1: Grab the barrel.

The Wrong way to do it. Step 1: Grab the barrel.

Step 2: Shove it down into the receiver.

Step 2: Shove it down into the receiver. Note the distance it travels in.

Barrel extended to its full firing length.

Barrel extended to its full firing length.

Barrel compressed. Note the position of the text.

Barrel compressed. Note the position of the text.

Loading the 1911SL is not hard.  There is a push button that will lock the bolt back when you cycle the action with the barrel.  Once the bolt is back, you load the magazine then release the bolt and it chambers a round. You can load another into the magazine to top it off after.  That is easy and straight forward enough.  Shooting it empty is not a problem either.  The bolt does not hold back on the last round so you just start the process over to reload. This is supposed to be done while holding the shotgun in your hands and pushing the barrel and receiver together.

The problem comes when you need to unload the 1911SL.  The only way to do this is to cycle the rounds through the action by pressing the barrel up and down until the shotgun is empty.  If you are doing it the correct way you just have to make sure the barrel is in a safe position, like we all should be doing with every gun all the time. But a lot of people put the butt of the shotgun on the ground and cycle the action with both hands on the barrel.  This is what I did in the above pictures. Doing it that way your face and head is awfully close to the muzzle. So close that if the shotgun were to discharge you could be seriously injured (as in killed dead).  And it has happened a number of times with this Winchester design.  That is why it has the Widow Maker nickname.

It works!

It works!

This Old Gun

I picked this 1911SL up at a gun show a month or so ago especially for this series.  This is not the first of these I have seen or shot.  I have always been fascinated with them mainly for how Winchester got around the patents. Aside from the novelty of the Browning patents, they are actually pretty cool shotguns. One cool thing is that they are take downs.  Hell, making it a take down was probably trying to get around another patent!

The review gun has been around the block and no telling how many bird hunting trips.  There is very little of the finish left on the metal. The stocks on the 1911SLs are three pieces and have a tendency to crack.  This one is not cracked but it is easy to see the 3 pieces.  This one was made in 1920.

Shooting

Loading the magazine.

Loading the magazine.

This old shotgun still work really well.  I didn’t try anything other than light target loads in it, but it cycled all 50 I put through it with out a problem. It had no problem dusting clays either. The recoil was pretty mild, about what I expect from an Auto 5 shooting the same load. The shells were not ejected very far, about a foot and a half from my feet.  That was possibly a product of the light loads. I also shot it empty every time I loaded it.

Final Thoughts

In my opinion this is more of a novelty shotgun today.  It was a very clever effort to get around the patents of what is one of the best designed auto loading shotguns ever made. That was what the Winchester 1911SL was up against. Look at the production numbers for proof.  Winchester made around 83,000 of the 1911SL.  Remington made 850,000 of their version of the Auto 5, the Model 11. And don’t forget that Winchester was offered the Auto 5 first.

Talk about the three piece stock.

The bolt return spring is in the stock like on most semi-auto shotguns. But most of them do not have 3 piece stocks. This might be another Browning patent go around.

Push the button down and turn the knob to take the stock off the receiver.

Push the button down and turn the knob to take the stock off the receiver.

The trigger group is attached to the stock.

The trigger group is attached to the stock.

Hammer and spring.

Hammer and spring.

Bottom of the receiver with the trigger group out.

Bottom of the receiver with the trigger group out.

Grip on the barrel.

Grip on the barrel.

The button is used to lock the bolt open.

The button is used to lock the bolt open.

 

{ 28 comments… add one }
  • Herb Snowden July 9, 2017, 7:22 pm

    I have this shotgun, would never load it that way. You can easily flip your latch pin, hold the butt against your arm and pull the barrel back to latch. With the barrel facing away from you or anyone else. The widow maker name came from loading, with gun butt on ground. And losing your head with a misfire. Just my opinion, you tube has a video showing how I load mine. Thanks

  • Bolden Bankston January 29, 2017, 12:24 am

    What ejects the shell?

  • Robert Burger November 12, 2016, 7:31 pm

    I also have a 1911sl, knew nothing about this gun until this article. Serial# 63017. Was given to me as a gift. Tight as a new gun but have not fired it. Good article.

  • Michael Hatfield November 11, 2016, 8:55 pm

    I inherited a Winchester 1911SL .12Gauge from my Uncle. It is in great condition but the stock was shortened slightly and a rubber recoil pad installed many years ago. The rubber pad has since gotten hard. I have never fired it but it seems mechanically sound. I have some light loads for it and some reduced recoil #4. I want to have the fiber washers checked before I try to shoot it. I have read about people that have changed the fiber washers with steel or high strength plastic and even one guy that used kevlar. The guy with the plastic washers said it had a much softer recoil compared to the fiber ones. I need a disassembly manual before I would try. I have read this shotgun is very difficult to dissasemble beyond field stripping. If I can get a decent price or trade I may let it go, if not I’ll keep it. I wish I could have a charging lever/handle installed/welded to the bolt lîke an Auto-5 or Remington 11. Great article.

  • Ray Stackpole July 14, 2015, 4:51 am

    A few years back , I purchased a Browning A 5 . One day,out on the back porch at gramp’s old farm, nobody around, I
    decided to push another round into the magazine tube with a live round in the chamber . Well, that thing went off and to this day
    do not know why ! I did find that someone machined the chamber to take longer shells but that shouldn’t have mattered,I think?
    This particular gun had the early style ” front to back “safety in the trigger housing and never felt comfortable with it . Let’s just say , here , I didn’t keep that piece very long after that .

  • K. Zerangue April 29, 2015, 4:32 pm

    I found one of these shotguns a couple of years ago in an old deer hunting camp when I leased the property. The old camp structure was one large room with a big kitchen/dining area on one end, and about 10-12 bunks on the other. The floor was pea-gravel. As I looked around in the camp, standing in a dark corner was an old vinyl gun case. It was heavy when I picked it up. I was so excited opening it! It contained a well used Winchester 1911 shotgun much like the one reviewed in this article. It was a bit rusty, but I brought it home and cleaned and lubricated it so that I could cycle it. I did some research on it and found out exactly what is written in this article. I haven’t shot it, and don’t plan to, but it is an interesting old gun to have in my cabinet.

  • Gregory Charping April 29, 2015, 3:16 pm

    I have one. When I bought my home in 2001, an older gentleman was showing around the home, and he opened the closet to show me around. I collect old rifles and pistols, and when I looked into the closet, I saw an old shotgun and I asked if I could see it. He passed it too me, and I knew that I had found something different! He told me about it and when he went hunting on horseback with his father. You can see where it is worn under the receiver where it was held down against the saddle. I asked him if he could part with it . With a little hesitation, he said yes. I then asked him how much he wanted. He said \”would $25.00 be too much?\”I couldn\’t get my wallet out fast enough! The stock is cracked, and I haven\’t fired it yet, but the action works great, and it\’s a keeper. By the way, the gentleman was 87 years old, and I have a jewel!

  • LDHare April 28, 2015, 3:32 pm

    I too have a Winchester Mdl 1911 and I have to agree with you that it is a fascinating shotgun, largely due to TC Johnson’s efforts to get around John Browning’s patents.
    The cracked, and broken stocks on this shotgun are most likely due to excessively severe recoil. This excessive recoil, in turn, is frequently due to deteriorated fiber recoil absorbing washers that are contained within the forearm assembly. Unfortunately, replacements for these fiber washers are no longer listed as available for sale by GunPartsCorp and it is not an easy, or intuitive process to gain access to them for inspection/replacement without the owners manual.
    At any rate thanks for the interesting review.

  • Robert Hogan April 27, 2015, 1:46 pm

    My uncle had a 1911 SL and while duck hunting he chamberd a round , It fire when the bolt closed and did not stop firing till it was empty. He toss it into a pond.

    • D Hicks April 28, 2015, 7:45 am

      That the way to fix it,sounds like something I’d do.Throw it in the pond!!

  • Robert Ball April 27, 2015, 12:52 pm

    I was with a hunting buddy who tried to unload an 11 by putting the butt on truck bumper and pumping the barrel. It discharged but was pointed straight up

  • Byron Shoffner April 27, 2015, 12:06 pm

    I grew up using a Winchester Mod. 11, and from the time I was 11 years old, I could brace the stock on my thigh and chamber a round with my left hand with out pointing the barrel at anything but open sky. Up until I was eleven, I used a 12 ga double with one hammer. I thought I was in tall cotton when I got my Mod. 11. I never felt that it was in any way dangerous if you used common sense. Mine was reliable, and many quail and rabbits became meals because of it.

  • D Hicks April 27, 2015, 11:47 am

    Good article !You didn’t mention which self loading shotgun was produced more than the A-5 ?

    • Boyd Horton April 29, 2015, 7:21 am

      Remington 1100

  • Jeffrey L. Frischkorn April 27, 2015, 11:03 am

    Would it not have been easier and ultimately less expensive to make simply to have paid Browning or FN or whomever a royalty for using the patented components and designs? I can well imagine the look of horror on the faces of attorneys for a gun maker today which proposed to come out with a “widow maker” design.

  • Tommy Barrios April 27, 2015, 10:50 am

    My father at 14 saw someone do that ejection thing with Winchester 1911SL and then tried doing the same thing with a Remington Model 11 which was very similar to an Auto 5 (manufactured under the Browning Patent) and ended up blowing his right first finger completely off becasue he had it draped over the end of the barrel to force it back into the the receiver.
    He recreated this action while the gun was empty years later to show me how it happened ( he reacquired the same gun from the friend who originally owned it), and you could hear the hammer click after the barrel came forward!
    Never understood how this happened, but the Remington Model 11 would fire it you tried to mimic the Winchester 1911SL ejection tactics!
    BEWARE!

  • Gary Gibson April 27, 2015, 10:49 am

    These are interesting guns, very well made, but fatally flawed in design. They are trim and light, much more so than a Browning. They have a couple of other characteristics not mentioned in the article that are noteworthy. Loading and unloading are certainly a safety issue, but there is also the problem of verifying if the gun is loaded. A chambered shell is not visible through the extractor cut and not visible if the barrel is pushed back a bit for inspection. I have to believe a few widows were made because of this quirk. I don’t exactly agree with the author and some of the posters about recoil. Mine kicks the living daylights out of me, even with light loads. That’s why they break stocks, both forend and buttstock. Winchester made the buttstocks laminated of walnut and beech for this very reason. The violence of cycling is hard on the action parts, even though all are made of forged and finely milled steel. In my youth I knew an avid duck hunter who loved the 1911 SL. He kept two of them, one for duck hunting and the other for the gunsmith to rebuild for next season. I have never seen one with intact bluing. The nickel steel alloy that Winchester tried on this shotgun shed blueing in short order, leaving a silvery patina. Quirky and interesting old guns.

  • Jim Leggett April 27, 2015, 10:23 am

    An interesting gun to see featured in this series , in my opinion would be the Winchester 1893. I have one manufactured in 1895. It had been rescued by my father in the mid ’30s while cleaning out a boarding house attic in London Ontario. I believe from my reading that this uncommon shotgun was one of the 1st significant industrial recalls in the US. I have shot it a few times on the skeet field with very mild hand loads It appears to be choked open cylinder.

  • Frank Hamrah April 27, 2015, 9:42 am

    I have a Winchester 1911 SL. I have had it for about 30 years. I have shot it only once, clay pigeons. I remember the recoil as being not bad. Of course I, like many, chambered the first round by putting the butt of the gun on the ground, grasping the barrel with both hands and cycling a round into the chamber, but unlike many, I knelt down and pointed the barrel in a safe direction. I keep it as a novelty.

    Frank

  • Leon April 27, 2015, 9:28 am

    My late uncle had one of those. I always thought it was a cool old gun. The knurled barrel was an attention grabber. This gun is not for the uninformed or careless.

  • Jack April 27, 2015, 8:48 am

    Sam, thanks for the well written, well pictured classic review.
    I do have a request though for consideration. When these older firearms are reviewed,
    I always wish the writer would seek out an older gunsmith or service member, in the case
    of military firearms, that can give insight as to what they had to do and what their field fixes were on these
    older designs.
    As an example, I am starting to research reviving an old Garand. Plenty of book knowledge out there.
    My best source of knowledge has been talking to older vets that had to deal with them out in the field.

    • Pete April 27, 2015, 3:02 pm

      I always figured God knew when he inspired the .30-06 cartridge that He was going to inspire the M1 Garand. That’s the only ’06 that doesn’t beat you to death. That aside, an older Garand– most of them– will show parts from different manufacturers. At the front, there was an armorer sitting with piles of parts. When he took a gun that had something wrong with it from a stack, he identified the correct part and replaced it. Needless to say he didn’t check to see if the replacement part and the gun were from the same manufacturer. There was a war going on, and the gun was needed back in combat. So if anyone ever tries to sell you a Garand from 1943, for example, with all matching parts, it’s wrong, unless there’s convincing provenance that the gun was unissued. A friend told me about a film he saw of such an armorer, and I met a guy whose father-in-law was one of those armorers. Not surprisingly, my Garand manufactured in November, 1940, has parts by several makers.

  • Mark April 27, 2015, 7:04 am

    Well, I’m dating myself here.
    I used my Dad’s 1911 for a couple years in my teens (16 – 17).
    It was better (to my way of thinking) than my HR Topper single 16ga, while I was trapping and saving up for my sweet 16.
    I would put the butt stock in my lap (bending over) pointing the barrel at the ground in front of me and pull the barrel with both hands to cock it. Maybe being a farmer and trapper made this easier for me than the store clerk kids who had difficulty with cocking it. That tall front sight caused a few misses until I got used to it. It did account for more than a few coonies and grouse though. Maybe Dad loaned me that one so I would hurry up and buy my own new shotgun, which I did as soon as I could. I loved that little 16ga. browning I got and hated selling it to pay bills in college.
    I don’t miss that 1911 though, and haven’t thought about it for nearly 50 years until this article.
    Thanks for bringing back the memories.

    Mark

  • Bernie April 27, 2015, 6:58 am

    I have one no pin to lock bolt back still works

  • Mr Max April 27, 2015, 4:56 am

    They’re still killing users ! I know a gunsmith in southern Indiana that has a stub for a finger after putting his finger in the barrel while working on it with live ammo, he was trying to repair the fault of it firing when the barrel went forward ..

    • Guy Smalley April 27, 2015, 9:50 am

      Well in your example what gunsmith puts their finger in a loaded shotgun barrel to work on it?

    • Mike Cornett April 28, 2015, 1:44 am

      I have to use my chin because I have already blown off my hands.
      Sorry, I just can’t help myself. I realize this is serious business.
      Guys & Gals. Always think SAFETY when around firearms. Times 10 to the 10th power when kids are around.
      Better yet leave kids at home. Their first firearm should be a single shot 22 , NOT a Ruger 10/22
      Bad stories: Gun went off @ a Gun Show. Father killed his 3 yo son with his AR 15 type rifle. Resent story. (It made me cry)
      Watch other people when you are at the gun range. They may not like it, but I have talked to a couple of people about safety.

  • Gary Zager April 27, 2015, 4:34 am

    This is my first time seeing this gun. Thanks for the good description and clear photos.

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