U.S.A. –-(Ammoland.com)- Ever since we saw the second Terminator, with Arnold Schwarzenegger clutching a lever-action Winchester shotgun there has been a resurgence of interest with lever-action shotguns. Despite the fact that lever-action shotguns have been surpassed long ago by their pump-action and semi-auto brethren, the interest remains.
So why do lever-action shotguns fascinate us, and why do companies keep trying to make them?
The first lever-action shotgun is still the most well-known, the Winchester Model 1887, which was designed by none other than John Browning, although Browning didn’t want to make the gun in the first place. The top brass at Winchester thought since they were known as a lever-action company, that a lever-action shotgun would fit more in line with their market, Browning thought a pump-action shotgun would do better. The top brass won out and soon Browning got to work on the new lever-action shotgun.
Winchester's 1887 was made in both 10 and 12 gauge, but for black powder shells, which were what was loaded at the time. The gun held five rounds in a tubular magazine below the barrel which was loaded with the action open by pushing one round in behind the other, similar to lever-action rifles. However, if you’ve ever tried to load one of these guns, it’s not often as simple as you would think, and the odd angle that you have to get the shells incorrectly at can be difficult. Still, the gun proved to be popular with more than 64,000 produced from 1887 to 1901.
In 1901, Winchester refined the gun more and came out with the Model 1901 which was only available in 10 gauge. The Model 1901 was made to handle the new smokeless powder rounds, it was never offered in 12 gauge because Winchester didn’t want it to compete with their new and already very popular shotgun, the Model 1897, which happened to be a pump-action and was designed by none other than John Browning. The 1901 also had another refinement, it had a two-piece lever with a trigger block to prevent accidental discharges. The Model 1901 only came with a 32-inch barrel, whereas the Model 1887 could be had with a 30, 32 and 20-inch. In the nineteen years, it was produced, there were far fewer Model 1901’s that left the factory, only 13,500, a huge drop compared to the Model 1887.
Still, the concept of the lever-action shotgun was not dead, and it was Winchester’s biggest competitor, Marlin that tried next, but they went an entirely different route. In 1929 Marlin took their Model 1893 lever-action rifle and reworked it to chamber and fire .410 shells. It had a lengthened loading port and a different tube magazine but still resembles the Model 1893 and handles more like a rifle than a shotgun. It came standard with a full choke 26-inch barrel with a gold bead, but there some made with a shorter 22-inch barrel. Holding five rounds, the Model 410 made for a great rabbit or small game gun, but Marlin chose not to heavily market it. Even though the list price of the gun was $30, one would be given away when you purchased four shares of Marlin preferred stock, which at that time was about $25 a share. This, of course, was right at the start of the Great Depression and $25 alone was a lot of money in a time when people were struggling to make nickels and dimes. Still, the Model 410 stayed in production until 1934 with less than 10,000 produced. Today these guns are highly sought after by collectors and shooters alike.
It would be decades before the attempt would be made by a company to make a lever-action shotgun, but suddenly in the late 1990s, it seemed as though there was a resurgence, maybe some nostalgia was involved. One was the Model 9410, Winchester’s offering based on their Model 94 rifle. This, like the Marlin 410 was made by taking an existing lever-action rifle and adapting it to fire .410 shells. The Model 9410 though was made in a variety of different styles and barrel lengths, from 20 to 24-inches, compact models that held four rounds up to nine. The Model 9410 sadly also didn’t last very long, only being made from 2001 to 2006.
Marlin also jumped back into the lever-action shotgun game, giving the .410 lever action another whack in 2004. This time the new Marlin was based on the heavier 1895 frame, had a 22-inch barrel, fiber optic front sight, rifle style rear sight and a cylinder bore choke. The new version was much heavier than the original, weighing over seven pounds. The new gun also called the Model 410 after the homage to the original, lasted only one year in production as the gun was discontinued right at the time Marlin was bought out.
It was nostalgia though, that brought back an old design to the forefront again. With the popularity of Cowboy Action Shooting bringing back old guns out again that collected dust for years, that included the Model 1887 Winchester shotgun. Norinco first introduced these, which, unlike the originals, can handle and fire smokeless rounds. There have been many complaints about the quality of these guns, but they have also had many singing their praises. Much of what I have seen about the issues with these guns leads right back to the design itself. There has been a lot of complaints with the new 1887 clones not being able to feed or extract, but with some work, they seem to be workable and usable guns. One thing that Norinco did was to use the Model 1901’s two-piece lever on their 1887, making it the best of both worlds.
The Chinese versions that are now being imported by Century Arms can be had for a little over $300. I own a PW-87, the latest version, which like the Norinco has a 20-inch barrel, is chambered in 12 gauge, taking only 2 ¾” shells and has a cylinder bore. Like many other shooters have said, the more the gun is used, the smoother it seems to get. While not on the same level as a pump-action, I would hardly call the design junk. I would say it’s different, and it takes some getting used to.
Chiappa also makes several versions of the 1887 Winchester shotgun, from full length stocked 22 and 28-inch barreled guns with interchangeable chokes to pistol grip variants reminiscent of the Terminator film with an 18 ½ inch barrel in both a walnut and rubber-coated stock with a cylinder choke. The Chiappa guns are true 1887 variants with the one-piece trigger guard. The only downside to the Chiappa 1887 is their cost, they often run three to four times the price of the Chinese P87.
I got into lever-action shotguns a few years ago because an arm injury doesn’t let me use a pump-action the way I used to be able to. I bought a CAI PW87 copy of the 1887 after my last attempt at owning a pump-action 12 gauge proved to be pretty futile. The biggest thing I would tell people who aren’t used to shooting a lever-action shotgun is that it’s just different, very different than what you’re familiar with.
I can say I like the PW87, after I took it apart and cleaned the action, smoothed out a few burrs. It patterns very well with 2 ¾ “00 buckshot from Winchester and likes #4 buckshot. Recoil is a bit brisk given the thin buttplate, and despite what some others have said, I didn’t have any issues ejecting empty shells. I can see where this design had its drawbacks, but it is certainly nothing to sneeze at even by today’s standards. One could hardly say they weren’t well armed with one of these guns.
Another lever-action shotgun I have a real soft spot for is the Marlin 410. I first saw one of these at a friend’s house some twenty years ago and have always liked them. I am referring to the original versions built on the 1893 action, not the later version made on the 1895 action, which I find to be much too heavy to be practical. I found one of the early guns, and it is an absolute joy to shoot. Mine was apparently owned at one time by someone who had a few bucks, not just because they were expensive to buy back then, but whoever had it had some very fine checkering done on the stock and then some real ivory inlays. Then for some reason, they had what looks like a round knob that is threaded added between the lever and the forearm where the spring for cartridge lifter goes. The best I can come up with that this was some sort of block to turn the gun into a single shot. It looks like the knob might have had a spring in it once because turning it up doesn’t affect the action at all. No one I have shown the gun seems to be able to tell me for sure what it is.
The Model 410 Marlin I think may have very well been the nicest lever-action shotgun ever made. It patterns well, handles well and the action is one of the smoothest I have ever seen. If it has a rival, I would have to say its Henry’s lever-action .410 shotgun. The Henry .410 lever action was introduced in 2017 in two versions, a 24-inch barrel with a full choke and a brass bead sight and a 20-inch version with rifle sights and a cylinder bore choke. Both hold five rounds and are chambered for 2 ½ “shells. If Henry has one drawback, it’s the weight. The longer barrel version weights a little over 7 ½ pounds and the short barrel a few ounces less. Still, that’s not bad considering the gun you’re getting.
One gun that has not made it big yet here in the United States but has made a big splash in Australia because pump-action shotguns are heavily regulated is the Adler A-110. The Adler is made in Turkey and depending on the exact model can hold anywhere from four to seven rounds in a tube magazine and comes in 12, 20 gauge and .410. Right now, it seems as though just the .410 version is being imported by Century Arms with a five-round magazine and a 20-inch barrel. Time will tell if this gun catches on, but with a price that’s under $400, it’s certainly an attractive option.
The lever-action shotgun has been with us for a long time, and here’s to hoping it will be around a lot longer. It might not be as popular or even as effective as a pump-action, the fact is that they have a following, and even as John Browning knew back in 1887, it wasn’t even about the lever-action shotgun design being better, it was about offering a different option, and if you want different, then a lever-action shotgun is definitely for you.
About David LaPell
David LaPell has been a Corrections Officer with the local Sheriff's Department for thirteen years. A collector of antique and vintage firearms for over twenty years and an avid hunter. David has been writing articles about firearms, hunting, and western history for ten years. In addition to having a passion for vintage guns, he is also a fan of old trucks and has written articles on those as well.