Probably the least-collected pre-’64 Winchester shotgun is the Model 1911 Self Loader, also known affectionately (?) as the Widowmaker.
For those of you who came in late, the M1911 was Winchester’s attempt to knock off the Browning Auto-5. When John Browning and Winchester couldn’t come to terms on Browning’s new autoloading shotgun — Winchester refused to pay Browning royalties and didn’t want to cannibalize sales of its Model 1897 pump shotgun, anyway — the great John B took the new design to Belgium, where Fabrique Nationale made it a worldwide best-seller. Unfortunately for Winchester, most of the patents involved in the Auto-5 had been registered in John Browning’s name, so Winchester couldn’t do more than produce a loose facsimile of Browning’s gun.
Which is exactly what the Model 1911 is. Winchester had turned to Thomas C. Johnson, designer of Winchester’s “Self Loading” line of rifles (Models 1903, 1905, 1907 and 1910) and said, “Build us an Auto-5.” The trouble was that Winchester’s own lawyers had so tied up the Auto-5 with patents, which were now assigned to Browning, that just about the only features Johnson could borrow were the Auto-5’s long-recoil operation and kinda-sorta humpbacked profile.
Browning’s patents even covered the cocking handle on the bolt! So Johnson designed the M1911 to be cocked — now, get this — by one’s grabbing the barrel and jerking it sharply backward. A short section of the barrel near the muzzle was even knurled to provide a sure grip.
If this sounds awkward to you, you’re right. Most long-recoil shotguns, the M1911 included, contain a rather large recoil spring to push the barrel back into battery after a shell is fired. Cocking the M1911 involves compressing this spring, and it ain’t easy. Common practice in the old days was to rest the gun’s butt on the ground and use both hands to cock the barrel using a downward motion. This left you momentarily looking down the barrel of a loaded, cocked 12-gauge shotgun. Hence the “Widowmaker” nickname.
It gets worse. The rear of the M1911’s receiver contains a cushion-type barrel buffer that’s supposed to soften the wham-bam of the recoiling barrel. On most of these guns, however, the buffer is about as cushiony as a cast-iron doughnut, and the gun will kick you hard enough to leave a mark with anything but the lightest field loads. In the accompanying video showing what it’s like to fire the 1911, I’m shooting Brenneke 2-3/4″ standard rifled slugs and as you can tell, recoil is stout.
As bizarre as it is, the M1911 can still get the job done, but give me a real A-5, a Remington M11 or a Savage 745 any day. By the way, our good friend John Malloy has written a nice introduction to the Widowmaker for the 2011 edition of Gun Digest. Check it out here.
And let’s all try not to make any new widows, okay?