In February 15, 1900, as the train slowly steamed to a stop at the Fairbank, Arizona, station, members of the notorious Stiles-Alvord outlaw gang yelled for express messenger Jeff Milton to throw up his hands. As a shoot-out ensued, they fired a volley into the car, shattering Milton’s left arm.
He scrambled for his 10-gauge Model 1887 Winchester shotgun and quickly sent a blast of 11 buckshot, riddling “Three Finger” Jack Dunlop and wounding a second robber, then he closed the door before he fainted. Although the bandits forced the engineer to open the door, Milton had hidden the keys to the safe, leaving the thwarted bandits to flee without the loot—thanks to Milton’s courage and his ’87 Winchester scattergun.
The brainchild of arms inventor John M. Browning, Winchester’s lever-action shotgun was the result of the 1884 discontinuance of the company’s profitable English-made double-barrel shotguns that were stamped with the Winchester name. Looking to develop a repeating shotgun incorporating their rifle’s lever action, the New Haven, Connecticut, firm turned to Browning, who had been perfecting just such a system in a shotgun.
Patented on February 16 and July 20 in 1886, this scattergun utilized the levering action of cycling the shotshells, much like that of Winchester’s famed rifles. However, unlike the action in the rifle’s sliding bolt, which moved toward and away from the chamber, this repeating shotgun used a rolling block type of bolt that duplicated the arcing movement made by the cycled lever. As the bolt slid upward to a closed position, a camming action forced the rear portion of the bolt solidly against the receiver—an important feature with the oversized and blackpowder fouled chamber or shotshells of the day.
Simply dubbed the Winchester Repeating Shotgun Model 1887, the new 12-gauge smoothbore was initially announced in Winchester’s June 1887 catalog. A 10 gauge was added in November of that year, starting with serial number 22,148. Although sales started off briskly, the large oversized breech required for the big shotshells somewhat negated the resemblance between lever rifles and the shotgun, giving the Model ’87 a comparatively modest acceptance, with stiff competition soon resulting from the introduction of Winchester’s own Model 1893 and 1897 slide action shotguns. Regardless, the gun was the choice of a number of express men, prison guards, railroad agents and others on both sides of the law, with professional gunmen like John Slaughter and George Scarborough listed among the users.
With a total of 64,855 Model 1887s turned out, guns were produced in 30-inch and 32-inch rolled steel barrels (Damascus tubes could be special ordered) with a few 20-inch barreled Riot guns made (added in 1898). The smoothbore held five shotshells in its under-barrel tubular magazine, whose length was 13¾ inches in the 12 gauge and 15¼ inches in the 10 bore.
Most ’87s were finished in bright blue with casehardened receivers, but a few wore an overall blued finish. Oil-stained walnut stocks sporting semi-pistol grips were standard with a unique two-piece fore end. Varnished plain stocks or checkered, special dimension stocks were optional at extra cost.
Most guns left the factory with checkered steel buttplates, although a few were fitted with hard rubber models. Standard front sights were brass beads, with nickel silver, ivory or other materials also offered. Full choke bores were standard, but cylinder bore and modified chokes were also available.
In 1901, the ’87 was phased out. The Model 1901, which was beefed up to take the then-new smokeless powder shotshells, replaced it, and another 13,500 nearly identical arms utilizing heat treated and blued receivers were produced in 10 gauge only. Winchester continued to manufacture the ’01 model until 1920.
With a number of original 1887s still in use today, this Winchester shotgun’s legacy lives on.
Phil Spangenberger has written for Guns & Ammo, appears on the History Channel and other documentary networks, produces Wild West shows, is a Hollywood gun coach and character actor, and is True West’s Firearms Editor.