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Rick Hacker

Winchester’s Bad Boy Smoothbore — Model 97 Riot Gun

When it comes to iconic collectable smoothbores, few hold a candle to the Winchester Model 97 Riot Gun.
When it comes to iconic collectable smoothbores, few hold a candle to the Winchester Model 97 Riot Gun.

Whether brandished by Lee Marvin in The Professionals or wielded by William Holden in The Wild Bunch, the Winchester Model 97 Riot Gun is the bad boy of smoothbores.

Paradoxically, it was also a favorite of early 20th century law enforcement agencies, including the Texas Rangers, the Los Angeles Police Department, Alcatraz prison guards, and the Union Pacific Railroad, to name just a few of the authenticated guns I have examined over the years. In fact, a rather pristine Model 97 Riot Gun that I have in my collection was purchased by the Pasadena Police Department in 1924, during the heyday of the “Roarin’ ’20s.” It is nothing short of fascinating that, with all these historical links, one wouldn’t want to own one.

Because of its rugged yet fast-shooting action, the Model 97 Riot Gun is a favorite among Cowboy Action Shooters, and yet, due to those very attributes—its short, easy-to-swing 20-inch barrel, an Improved Cylinder open choke that makes it hard to miss in tight quarters, and an exposed hammer for easy cocking in times of stress—it's perfect for home-defense, as well. Still, it is hardly surprising that, in its standard 30-inch barreled configuration, the 12-gauge version of John Browning’s pump design was one of the most popular sporting shotguns in America around the turn of the last century. In more modern times, I remember rabbit hunting with a friend of a friend, many years ago, who was using his granddad’s old Model 97 riot gun as a brush clearing device with the first couple of shots, thereby exposing any cottontail stupid enough to still remain in the vicinity.

The Model 97 was rugged and fast-shooting, making it a favorite of numerous law-enforcement agencies.
The Model 97 was rugged and fast-shooting, making it a favorite of numerous law-enforcement agencies.

The Model 1897 was a much-needed evolution of Browning’s Model 1893, a weaker gun that was designed for blackpowder and, consequently, was plagued by fouling problems and a resultant poor reputation. It was one of Browning’s least successful inventions, bad enough to the point that, after approximately 31,000 guns had been sold, Winchester offered dealers a trade of any unsold Model 93 for a brand new Model 97. Fortunately, by the time Browning’s improved 1897 slide-action came on the scene, not only was it mechanically more proficient, but, by then, smokeless powder was in vogue and the new firearm’s metallurgy was ready for it.

With its solid-topped receiver and side ejection, the Model 1897 was a marked improvement over the Model 1893. In fact, the Model 97 stayed in the line until 1957, with 1,024,700 guns made. Initially chambered for the new 2¾-inch smokeless 12-gauge shells, the Winchester 97, like its 1893 predecessor, featured a tubular magazine that held five rounds. A forward movement of the automatic slide lock—usually recoil was enough—freed the pump handle for fast cycling of the action. First offered as a solid-frame model with a 30-inch barrel, a number of variations were eventually cataloged, including Field, Trap, and Pigeon Grades. However, the most dramatic of the Model 97’s configurations was the Riot Gun, which featured a 20-inch Cylinder-choked barrel. By 1898, a takedown version was also being produced. A note of warning: Riot Guns are so popular that many standard-length barrels have been cut down over the years, so, if buying the gun as an original or for investment, be sure the choke is marked CYL (Cylinder), the only authentic choke on a Riot Gun.

Collectors will notice that many Model 97s show ware, given many saw action on battle fields or were carried often by law-enforcement.
Collectors will notice that many Model 97s show wear, given many saw action on battle fields or were carried often by law enforcement.

Another fascinating variation of the Model 97 Riot Gun is the Model 97 Trench Gun, which was given a military countenance via a distinctive, ventilated “heat shield.” Normally in a hunting situation, a sporting arm such as the standard Model 97 isn’t fired enough to become too hot to hold—in a wartime firefight, that 20-inch tube can become sizzling. To prevent scorched hands, a perforated steel heat shield was affixed to the barrel, along with a bayonet lug. This lug was meant for the standard military M-1917 bayonet, but the bayonet’s 16½-inch blade interfered with the otherwise excellent balance of the Trench Gun and was cumbersome in close quarters, especially during the trench warfare of WWI. The bayonet looked menacing when affixed to the Trench Gun, but it hampered movement and, obviously, was only useful in last-ditch operations. The sling swivels that were often fitted onto the Trench Gun, on the other hand, were much more practical. Early WWI guns were unmarked, but a “U.S.” and Army ordnance “flaming bomb” stamped on the receiver completed the identity for WWII guns that were called back into service.

Military loads often consisted of 00 buckshot, and an extra round in the chamber gave the Trench Gun a formidable capacity of six fast shots (in fact, sporting versions of the Model 97 were often advertised has having “six shots” even though their magazines only held five shells). Plus, the lack of a detent or trigger disconnect on the Model 97 meant a soldier could keep the trigger of his Trench Gun depressed and fire as fast as he could work the slide. The Trench Gun became so effective that it was soon nicknamed the “Trench Sweeper,” and soldiers who had been skilled trap and skeet shooters in civilian life often used their Model 97s to blast enemy hand grenades in mid-air before they landed. So devastating were these smoothbores that Germany tried unsuccessfully to get them outlawed from The Great War, declaring that “Every prisoner found to have in his possession such guns or ammunition belonging thereto forfeits his life.” Naturally, our troops continued to use their Trench Guns to blast their way to victory. And even though Trench Gun production was halted in 1945, this sawed-off shotgun continued to see action throughout Vietnam and the Gulf War.

Of course, the standard Model 97, including Riot Guns, remained in production for slightly more than a decade after that. When encountered today, most Trench Guns are quite worn, showing hard battlefield use, while the Riot Guns used by various police departments are usually in better shape, having spent much of their time in station gun racks and patrol cars. Whichever way, whether in civilian, law enforcement, or military dress, the Winchester Model 97 Trench and Riot Guns played important roles in keeping America not only safe, but free, which more than qualifies them to be included on my bucket list.

This article is an excerpt from 50 Famous Firearms You've Got to Own.

Learn More About Legendary Winchester

Savage 99, Unique as the Man Who Made It

The Savage 99's forward looking design made the gun a staple for riflemen for nearly 100 years.
The Savage 99's forward looking design made the gun a staple of riflemen for nearly 100 years.

Most guns are reactive products of their times, fulfilling a need that exists. But the Savage 99 was ahead of the curve, in both design and calibers. Moreover, it was invented by a man as remarkable as the rifle that bore his name.

Arthur W. Savage was born in Jamaica, in 1857. The son of a British colonial official, he was schooled in England and the United States. While still in his twenties, he decided to seek adventure in Australia. He found it, for he was captured by Aborigines and held prisoner for more than a year. Finally gaining his freedom, Savage remained in Australia and created the largest cattle ranch that country had ever seen. He returned to Jamaica briefly before finally settling in Utica, New York, where he became the Superintendent of the Utica Belt Line Railroad.

Evidently he had plenty of free time on that job, because on June 8, 1887, at just 30 years of age, Savage patented a rifle based upon the Martini lever-action system. By all accounts, the gun didn’t work. Undeterred, Savage kept at it, until he ended up with a rifle that featured a more conventional-looking finger-lever and a unique rotary magazine.

With a group of financial backers in Utica, on April 5, 1894, the Savage Repeating Arms Company was founded. The rifle it produced was the Savage Model 1895, forerunner of the Model 99 and the world’s first hammerless lever-action. Moreover, the solid brass internal magazine was revolutionary, in the most literal sense of that word. Looking somewhat like a can opener wedged in the receiver, it rotated within the action of the gun, aligning a fresh cartridge with every crank of the lever, thus making the Savage imminently suitable to the new, ballistically superior spitzer bullets.

Mindful of its somewhat shaky financial footing, Savage subcontracted with the Marlin Firearms Company to produce tooling and manufacture the Savage Model 1895 rifles, which explains the “JM” stamp on their barrels. Although the goal of Arthur Savage was to secure a military contract with his unique rifle, the Army had already adopted the Model 1892 .30-40 Krag.

So, in spite of the fact that the prototype featured a 30-inch barrel with a full-length military musket stock, Savage turned to the now-familiar half-stocked 26-inch barreled sporting rifle version (along with a much less commonly found 20-inch barreled carbine), to appeal to the civilian market. The Savage 1895 was only chambered for the .303 Savage, a round developed especially for it and ballistically equivalent to the then-new Winchester .30-30. It is obvious Savage wanted to compete with this smokeless powder cartridge on a proprietary basis.

In addition to its hammerless feature and rotating magazine, another distinguishing feature of the Model 1895 was a hole in the top of the bolt through which the firing pin could be seen. When the rifle was cocked, a stamped letter “C” was visible though the hole; when fired, the letter “F” appeared. Almost needless to say, this “safety” feature caused problems with rain and debris. Consequently, a number of improvements evolved over the next four years, culminating in the new Savage Model 1899.

Looking into a Savage 99's receiver, the gun revolutionary rotary magazine is easily seen.
Looking into a Savage 99's receiver, the gun revolutionary rotary magazine is easily seen. The advancement allowed the gun to utilize the then new and ballistically superior spitzer bullets.

The Savage 99 (as it was later called) emerged with all the attributes of a lever-action destined for the twentieth century. Small wonder it would remain in production, off and on, for the next 98 years. Its sleek, straight-gripped walnut stock, schnabel-tipped fore-end, and slim receiver combined to produce a handsome, well-balanced gun that was fast pointing and easy to carry, as its weight was centered in the receiver by virtue of the six-shot rotating magazine.

A coil mainspring provided an extremely fast lock time, and the viewing hole on the bolt was replaced by an oblong post—easy to see and feel—that popped up from the top of the bolt when the rifle was cocked. Later, around 1908, this cocking indicator was redesigned as a steel pin on the upper tang. Another notable innovation, a small oval hole on the left side of the receiver, revealed a brass cartridge counter that displayed the number of rounds left in the magazine. Fired casings were smartly ejected to the side, even though the Model 99 did not come drilled and taped for scope mounts until the 1950s. Until then, a wide variety of factory-supplied tang sights and open iron sights were the norm.

Initial chamberings were for the .303 Savage, as well as Winchester’s .30-30, with scarcer variations in .25-35, .32-40, and .38-55. Some of Savage’s more popular Model 99 calibers over the years included the .22 Hi-Power, brought out in 1912, and the classic .300 Savage, introduced in 1920, a round that was a stubby-necked equivalent to the .30-06 (for which the Model 99 action was too short).

To me, the cartridge most representative of the Model 99 is the .250-3000 (or the Savage .250, as it is known today), which came out in 1914. Its nomenclature was derived from the fact that the original 87-grain bullet was the first factory round to crack the 3,000 fps barrier. That feat all of itself gave the Model 99 another boost in notoriety among early twentieth century hunters. Even today, a Model 99 in .250-3000 remains a potent pairing for whitetail and antelope, although the cartridge is now offered in a heavier 100-grain bullet, which doesn’t travel quite as fast. In the latter years of its life, the Savage 99 proved adaptable to numerous “modern” chamberings, including the .308 and .358 Winchester.

In 1919 a notable event occurred in the annals of Savage history—and firearms advertising. A Native American named Chief Lame Deer contacted Arthur Savage in the hope of procuring a number of the highly esteemed Model 99s for use on his reservation. Savage agreed to sell his rifles to the tribe at a discount, if he could get their endorsement. To fully grasp the significance of this transaction, one must remember that this was an era in which many could still remember the Indian uprisings. The chief accepted and presented Savage with an image of his profile, which Savage promptly made part of the company logo. Thus, the rifle inventor’s surname took on a new and even more romanticized imagery.

Savage went on to invent the detachable box magazine, which would appear many years later on the Savage 99C. He also became enraptured with building and racing automobiles and, in 1901, moved to California, where he established the Savage Tire Company in San Diego, and subsequently invented the radial tire. Sadly, Savage committed suicide in 1938 at the age of 81. Thankfully, his namesake rifles lived on.

One of the features of the Savage 99 that shooters of every striped loved was the swift and smooth lever action.
One of the features of the Savage 99 that shooters of every stripe loved was the swift and smooth lever action.

Throughout its long and distinguished history, the Savage Model 99 was produced in many versions, including a takedown model introduced in 1909, and a 22-inch barreled short rifle which was made from 1899 until 1922. An octagon-barreled rifle—the 99B—was made from 1899 until 1922. There was also a Model 99 Featherweight supplied with a separate .410-bore smoothbore shotgun barrel (which had to be used as a single-shot, as the shells would not function in the rotary magazine).

In 1960, the button safety on the lever was changed to a sliding tang version, and a new 99DL incorporated a Monte Carlo stock. That same year a low-cost 99E was brought out, without the famous cartridge counter and sporting a plain, uncheckered birch stock. But the most radical departure from the famous rifle’s logistics was the 99C, made in 1965 and, again in the late 1990s. This iteration featured a detachable four-shot clip, thus eschewing the famed rotary magazine. This, along with the pressed checkering (introduced in 1965), that replaced the hand-checkered workmanship of earlier years, were indications of the complexity of manufacturing the Model 99. Even an embellished Model 99CE (Centennial Edition), made to celebrate the company’s hundredth anniversary, came out one year late, in 1996, thus foretelling the gun’s demise.

A great gun from inception, manufacturing costs and questionable manufacturing decisions combined to close the curtain on the Savage 99 in 1997. Thus, it barely missed making the centenary mark it so richly deserved—but, at least it made our bucket list.

Editor's Note: This article is an excerpt from Rick Hacker's book 50 Famous Firearms You've Got to Own.