Winchester 1887 Lever Shotgun – The $350 Century Arms PW87 Full Review – Cowboy Time Machine


When I was cowboy shooting at SASS matches back in the mid-90s, my holy grail cowboy gun was the Winchester 1887 lever action shotgun. It never made any sense to me that the most competitive shooters used a ’97 pump gun, and up until I found an ’87, I shot strictly side by sides. Sure, the cowboy era officially didn’t end until the turn of the century, but the real time of dimestore novels and wild west personalities ended much earlier. To truly shoot cowboy, I think the ’87 is the latest you can go in a true to period shotgun. And until recently, if you wanted to travel the Cowboy Time Machine back to 1887 and own and shoot the first lever action shotgun, they were a fortune. The Century PW87 changes all that. Right now they are in the market at under $350.

John Browning designed the ’87 Winchester, and he predicted that it would not do well in the market, even though at the time it had a considerable firepower advantage over the old doublegun. No doubt some of this was due to cleaning. There is a considerable amount of gas leakage in the ’87, and before the advent of significantly less corrosive smokeless powder around 1890, shooting the gun with black powder meant that the guts of the action had to be cleaned well after firing, or there would be disastrous pitting and breakage of smaller parts. That is why there are very few original ’87s in the market these days. Far more common is the 1901, that people call the ’87, but they were only made in 10 gauge.

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My experience with an original ’87 was limited to about 4 cowboy matches until the gun fell apart in my hands on a stage. It could not have looked more staged for a movie than it did at the time. Nothing went flying. It went bang, and then the pieces just collapsed in my hands and fell on the ground. Fortunately it was earlier times and the entire posses weren’t composed of 95% people who had completed the RO courses, so I didn’t get a DQ. But it was a sad day for my ’87.

Shortly after that I scored the Norinco you see here in the video on GunsAmerica, for I think $450. Importation from China had stopped, and they were already getting scarce. And it came with the leather. Shortly after that the ’97 copies also stopped coming in, and the cowboy world was left scrambling for shotguns.

That was when Chiappa, the Italian firearms maker, came up with their high end version of the ’87 specifically for cowboy shooting. It has a fast load system where you can dump 2 shells into the action, close it, and bang bang. For cowboy, that is all you need, because you have to load 2 at a time regardless of what type of shotgun action you use. That Chiappa gun still goes for $1,569 today, and for a guy like me who couldn’t care less how I score, it’s a joke.

When I saw that Century Arms was bringing in the ’87 again, I was really excited. Even if you are never going to go to a SASS match (and you really should), plastic guns get so boring after while. If you want to truly step into a time machine and shoot a gun that was only known during the cowboy era (though the 1901 was made until 1920), I don’t think there is a parallel to the 1887 Winchester. And for $350 or less, I can’t think of anything else to say but no brainer.

The Century Arms PW87 is a clone of the old Norincos from the 80s, probably made on the same tooling by the same craftsmen under a different corporate name. It is a 5 + 1 12 gauge that only can handle standard 2 3/4″ shotgun shells. As you can see in the video, my test gun loaded with difficulty, as has every ’87 I’ve ever shot except the Chiappa. Once you have shot the gun for a while you’ll develop the scoop motion, and you’ll be able to feel where the retainer spring catches. Functionally I had no failures, but the lever is stiff, stubborn and somewhat painful to rack without leather gloves from the shoulder. I demonstrated this in the video.

I have looked around and I do not see that Galco heat shield that came with my ’87. It could be that someone in the SASS newspaper makes them these days, but I haven’t gotten the newspaper for a few years since I let my membership lapse. Perhaps one of you active SASS guys or gals can help us out in the comments. If you have never held an ’87, see if you can find one at a local dealer. I personally would buy one sight unseen, but if all you’ve ever owned is a Glock and an AR, this is a whole different world. The natural progression of a red blooded American gun enthusiast is to eventually evolve from self defense guns into guns that give you the ability to hold history in your hands, and the ’87 Winchester is a great start. At this price you can’t go wrong.

Century Arms PW87
At Century Arms
Buy one on GunsAmerica

Wikipedia Page 1887/1901 Winchester

Check out the book Winchester Shotguns from our own Dennis Adler on Amazon.


[This is an interactive dealer locator map with the dealers who have the PW87 available. IF YOU DON’T SEE A MAP, CHANGE THE ZIP TO A MAJOR METRO AREA NEAR YOU.]

{ 17 comments… add one }
  • Will Drider April 26, 2017, 12:50 am

    You could modify the trigger and lever so it fires upon closing the lever Aka the old Rifleman TV Show. The used a pinto engage the trigger (permanant fire every time). Another way was to add a saddle leveron the trigger guard that would ride flush for normal firing and when extended it would catch the trigger and fire on closing the action.

    Didn’t Arnold the Terminator use this shotgun too?

  • Don April 24, 2017, 8:25 pm

    How about a nice picture of the gun without having to watch the video?

  • CaptMidnight April 24, 2017, 11:24 am

    ~Spend $100-150 extra @ the local gunsmith shop for an action job and you have a decent shotgun.
    Retire the Winchester ’87 to the wall. Those guns were not designed for modern smokeless powder.
    Even Cowboy loads put a strain on the action.

  • robert ohl April 24, 2017, 11:03 am

    I have 4 original 97s and 1 parts gun. Are they worth anything? Just wondering as they are for sale. ! I use for rabbit hunting in 16 gauge. 1 for deer hunting in 12 gauge.Thanks for any info.

    • Paul Helinski April 24, 2017, 3:09 pm

      For sure the 97s are worth money. Sell them on GA.

      • James M April 24, 2017, 9:34 pm

        Your the shit Paul. Thanks for doing a great job. Look forward to many more articles.

        • Paul Helinski April 25, 2017, 6:47 am

          Wow someone said something positive in an internet comment. You might want to see a doctor and have that checked out. Thanks. 🙂

  • Dan April 24, 2017, 10:45 am

    Chicom gun. “Nuff said.

  • john creveling April 24, 2017, 10:38 am

    I can think of only two Cowboys who shot ’87s in a CASS match and only one was very quick with it.Sure it is only $350 but that and a little more will buy you a good running ’97 or Coach gun.If you wanted one just for the novelty well to each his own but it sure looks like a cheep piece of junk to me.Spend the $350 more wisely.

  • Msgt3227 April 24, 2017, 7:55 am

    I too have a chinese made made version of the ’87, and confess I love it… Style points abound with this old-school workhorse! I have owned & shot a number of different shotguns in my SASS career; this is the coolest. With a bit of practice, I became as quick with my 2 round reloads as I was with a coachgun. Although, high speed was never my diving force… I shot/shoot italian made ball & cap 1858s, and an 1860 Henry lever action. (ahhhh, the Holy Black!) The only thing I did to my PW87 shortly after I got it was to strip the bluing and then brown all the metal parts, strip off the gloss finish and the dark stain from the wood and refinish with linseed oil, and polish the wear surfaces inside to smooth the action out. This shotgun is well worth the easy-on-the-budget price!!

  • Luke April 24, 2017, 7:42 am

    Thanks for something new. I had no idea there even was a lever action shotgun. Not impressed with this one and sheer novelty isn’t worth hundreds of dollars to me. Interesting piece though. Thanks for the review.

  • Mark N. April 24, 2017, 1:58 am

    Was the original 87 as clunky as these two guns? The actions seemed particularly crudely made. How do they compare to the Chiappa? My ’92 (Japanese) Winchester doesn’t require nearly as much effort to cycle. Now it may not matter to you, but some of us are willing to save up for as long as it takes to buy a superior product, and would rather a Stoeger coach gun than something as difficult to operate as this Chinese gun in the meantime.

    • shrugger April 24, 2017, 7:41 am

      Winchester was adamant that John Browning develop a lever action shotgun for them as it was their trademark. He did it but he wasn’t at all into it. He really wanted to go the pump action route. Did he intentionally make them clunky and unreliable? We’ll never know.

    • Paul Helinski April 24, 2017, 9:49 am

      All of the old 87s I’ve either used or held in gunshops are really loose, so that the lever is almost opening on its own. So far my experience with these Zhonzou (sp) machine guns are that they are really tight and probably unfired out of the factory. I personally would rather see that than sloppy loose, because it will eventually shoot looser, and if you wanted a gunsmith the slick it up, probably not an expensive job. I’m sure there are guys in the SASS paper would do a good job.

      The Chiappa is a finely made Italian firearm. Like your Miroku Winchester, it is head and shoulders above any of these grind them out Chinese guns, but you pay for that, a lot.

      • Mark N. April 27, 2017, 1:39 am

        I was lucky. I scored my Winchester on the used market in excellent shape for just over $700.

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