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