Built for Fun: Century Arms PW87 Review
March 12, 2013
It was a sight to behold, my friend Don Grover running an old lever gun faster than most would think possible. The Winchester's lever was a blur as empties streamed out the top. What was impressive though was the air was filled with empty 10-gauge hulls rather than effeminate .38-40s or the like.
When the seventh empty 2 5/8-inch hull hit the ground he turned and gave me a smile, and then handed the 1901 Winchester to another of my friends. I still remember it like it was yesterday. Back many moons ago my buds would brawl over shooting my old 1901 Winchester lever-action shotgun.
Why? Well, when stuffed with my handloads the bobbed 10-gauge was simply a riot to shoot. I loaded 2 5/8-inch shells on a MEC press during the week and we'd burn it all off on the weekend. Was it the most useful shotgun in world? Don't be silly. But it was hard to beat for plain entertainment.
There are certain things, whether good or bad, I have a weakness for. Big block Plymouths are one. Old Winchester shotguns are another. Currently I'm in a 12-step program for Plymouths and doing pretty well.
It's taken a while to get used to not tripping over grenaded 727 Torqueflites, spread bore intakes and RB heads every time I need something in the garage, but I'm dealing with it.
Winchesters are a bit different; my Model 1897 is going nowhere. I have to admit, though, that as much as I enjoy my pump guns I do occasionally find myself lusting after a Model 1901 again. I sold mine in a fit of starvation many years ago and never replaced it. Unfortunately, today original Winchesters have become fairly pricey and are difficult to find in excellent condition.
Recently though, I stumbled across a reproduction being imported by Century Arms called the PW87. Manufactured in China, it's billed as a reproduction of the original Winchester Model 1887, the model which preceded the 1901 I owned. Over the years there have been a number of companies offering Chinese reproductions of both the Model 1887 lever gun and Model 1897 pump. Some didn't work very well and most were ugly. I never paid them much attention, to be honest. On a whim though, I decided to take a look at this new offering from Century Arms.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Winchester Model 1887, let's pause and consider the original design. Developed in the late 1880s, this model was the labor of none other than John M. Browning. Winchester desired to add a repeating shotgun to their line and felt it necessary for it to be a lever-action design.
Why a lever action? Simply due to the fact that during this time period Winchester was making a name for itself as the lever-action gun company. It's interesting to note, though, that Browning felt a pump action design would be superior. He was, of course, later proven correct and his Model 1893/1897 would go on to be hugely successful.
But, in the 1880s he was doing as Winchester wished and designing a clever yet simple rolling block type action. This was large enough to accommodate both 12-gauge and 10-gauge blackpowder shotshells. The receiver was beefy in the front and the rear and pretty empty in-between. Housed inside were a shell lifter, rolling block and hammer operated by a lever. A 30-inch barrel was standard and a five shot tubular magazine was fitted beneath the barrel. Two pieces of wood on either side of the barrel/magazine served as a fore-end. A simple butt was fitted.
This model was in production from 1887 to 1901, with 64,855 pieces manufactured. In 1901 the original blackpowder Model 1887 was discontinued and replaced by an improved smokeless powder version. Unlike the Model 1887, the Model 1901 was not available in 12-gauge. Instead it was only available chambered for the manly 25â'•8-inch 10 gauge. Approximately 14,600 of this refined model were produced before it too was discontinued in 1920, a victim of the pump-action 1897's success.
During my youth, both Model 1887 and 1901Winchesters were still highly prized among the old timers in Mid-Coast Maine. The 10-gauges in particular were very well respected as waterfowl guns in the days before steel shot. They knocked birds out of the sky the old fashioned way, with hefty loads of lead shot heaved in a dense pattern.
While the old lever guns were respected for their power and reach, they were also legendary for their ability to send a duck boat to the bottom. According to gun shop lore, fingers numb from the cold, the almost non-existent hammer spur and a heavy main spring could be a bad combination.
Add in a hunter not paying proper attention, and it was possible to have the hammer inadvertently slip while attempting to lower it to half-cock. If this occurred aboard a duck boat the result could be a sudden inrush of water in addition to a surprised look. Or at least stories along those lines were bandied about by the old timers.
While I don't know if any New England duck boats were actually sent to Davy Jones' Locker in this manner, it is true the hammer spur on these models is pretty insignificant.
I purchased my 1901 when I was about 24. I was looking for one for about a year before a good friend of mine came across one. He was an old retired dealer who still bought and sold guns just to stay busy and have something to do. I had told him I was looking for one and he found me a dandy. Not only that but it came with an original wood crate of 25â'•8-inch 10-gauge ammunition.
I can still remember the first time I touched it off. I had stuffed a heavy waterfowl load in the chamber and the recoil was brutal. I loved it. I went on to concoct all sorts of handloads for it, from very light birdshot loads to very heavy buckshot loads. I even tried my hand at loading roundball slugs.
The one thing I do remember about that M1901 was it was a bit fussy about ammunition. I had scoured one end of Maine to the other hunting for 25â'•8-inch 10-gauge hulls to reload and then began cutting down 31/2-inch hulls. The Winchester proved to be a picky eater. The shells it liked ran through the gun flawlessly. The shells it didn't like gave problems ejecting. It just seemed to be the nature of the beast.
No, the old Winchester wasn't perfect. It was a hefty piece that felt like swinging a farm jack, to be honest. Recoil and muzzle jump was enhanced by a poor stock design and by how high the center-line of the barrel was above the stock. Plus, she didn't always run reliably. But stuff five 18-pellet OO buck shells into the tube, drop one on the shell lifter and another into the chamber and you felt pretty studly as you rolled that lever shut. Lean into it and send seven empties into the air just as fast as you could run the lever, and all her sins were forgiven. It was a very fun piece to shoot which turned everyone's head.
So how would Century Arms' PW87 stack up? To be frank, I don't expect an inexpensive Chinese made shotgun to compare to a classic Winchester design from the heyday of firearms production. However I was interested to see if the PW87 offered the same amount of fun as my old M1901 did. So I contacted Century Arms for a review sample and a short time later a box arrived at my dealer.
First pulling the PW87 from the box churned up a lot of old memories for me. The Model 1887 may not have been Browning's best design, but still the guy was a genius. I think of that every time I examine the simplicity of this action's design.
As to be expected though, China's Zhong Zhou Machine Works' quality does not compare to an original Winchester. I first noticed the stock on my sample was loose. Then poking about inside I noticed the machine work was fairly rough. This meant the action was rougher than it could have been. Externally, though, the PW87 doesn't look too bad, with its simple blued finish and dark American hardwood stock.
It's fitted with a short 19-inch barrel chambered only in 23/4-inch 12-gauge. This sports a large brass bead front sight and is listed as having a modified choke constriction. Length of pull is 13 inches, with an overall length of 37.5 inches. So it's a fairly compact piece that weighs 7.9 pounds.
Quickly looking it over, I noted it's not a true 1887 copy but rather sports the improved 1901 type lever. The difference here is the one-piece 1887 lever could drop and pop the action open at inopportune times. The two-piece 1901 style lever locks on a small catch when closed. This was an improvement Browning himself made to the design, so no complaints from me on this. But it's not a true copy of an 1887 Winchester.
Initially the action scrunched and ground along as I worked the lever. However it smoothed up noticeably after I put a few hundred rounds through it. Out of the box, the trigger pull and lock time can best be described as Brown Bess-like. The pull kind of scrunched along, hitched for a bit and then scrunched some more and then suddenly the hammer began falling and boom. So yes, it's an inexpensive replica built at Zhong Zhou Machine Works. OK, I've got that, but how would it actually perform?
To find out I gathered up a variety of different 12-gauge loads and hit the range for some fun. Let me stop here though and mention that I am not a Cowboy Action competitor. I've shot Cowboy Action before and enjoyed it, but do not currently compete. So I am not looking at the PW87 as a competition gun for this fun sport. Rather I was simply looking at it from a recreational point of view.
My use for the PW87 would be casual plinking and perhaps an occasional try at birds and small game for fun. Or for tossing buckshot at a coyote too close to the farm. Mostly though, it would be for having fun with friends. Shooting needs to be fun and I love getting out with something different.
For test ammunition I selected six different loads. At the top of my list was Winchester's Super-X 16-pellet No. 1 buckshot load. This is perhaps my favorite buckshot load due to its balance between pellet count, pellet size and penetration. It's a great load for 2 3/4-inch chamber guns.
Next I selected Hornady's No. 4 buckshot Varmint Express load. This drives 24 pellets at an advertised velocity of 1,350 fps. This was my first time testing this load, and I was interested to see how it would perform. For a traditional nine-pellet 00 buck load I selected Wolf Performance Ammunition's Power Buckshot offering. This load drives nine unplated and unbuffered pellets at an advertised velocity of 1,325 fps.
Then for something a little different I selected Centurion's two .650-inch round ball load. Basically, this load drives two stacked .65-cal. lead pumpkin balls at an advertised velocity of 1,200 fps. For a conventional slug load, I picked Federal's 1-ounce Vital-Shok Truball rifled slug HP. This load is designed to work well in conventional smoothbore shotguns and drives its slug at 1,600 fps. Lastly I picked Federal's inexpensive bulk packed birdshot. I buy this locally at Walmart and for this testing I used their 3-dram 1 1/8-ounce load of 7 1/2 shot.
I began testing by patterning the buckshot loads at 15 yards. Five shots were fired with each load at this distance offhand. Winchester's Super-X 16 pellet No. 1 buck load averaged 16-inch patterns at his distance. Hornady's Varmint Express 24-pellet No. 4 buckshot load averaged 16.5 inches.
I was somewhat surprised to see Wolf Performance Ammunition's 00 buck load pattern the tightest, averaging 13.5 inches. The center of the pattern of all three loads was 2-3 inches above my point of aim at 15 yards. Next I stretched the distance to 50 yards and tried the No. 1 and No. 4 buckshot loads again on a standard Action Target B-27 target. At this distance the Winchester Super-X load came up a bit lacking with just three pellets on the silhouette. To my surprise Hornady's load put 10 out of 24 pellets on target.
Next I switched to Centurion's dual .65-cal. round ball load. I tried this at 25 yards without much luck. Aiming at the center of an Action Target B-27 silhouette I found point of impact to be some 18 inches high. Firing three rounds put six big holes in the paper. Group size at 25 yards was five round balls in 10.5 inches and all six in 19 inches. So this load was not to the PW87's liking.
Switching to Federal's 1-ounce Vital-Shok Truball rifled slug HP improved performance considerably.
Walking back to the 50-yard line I fired three rounds kneeling. These impacted just right of my point of aim and measured 5.2 inches center to center. Moving back to 100 yards I took up a sitting position and put two more rounds into the group. These brought it out to 7.7 inches.
I was surprised to find this load shot almost to point of aim at 100 yards using the simple brass bead and contour in the receiver. Hitting a man-sized target at this distance was easy with this load, if you managed the trigger. Unlike throwing buckshot at 15 yards, the trigger really came into play when trying to place slugs at 100 yards. In a word it was horrible.
From the sitting position, recoil with this load was fairly brutal. The amount of drop, the height of the bore and the hard plastic buttplate all conspire for their ounce of flesh. I shot this load at 100 yards smacking silhouettes until my shoulder went numb from the recoil. Then I went and did something else for a bit.
When feeling had returned to my limb, I patterned Federal's 3-dram 11â'•8-ounce load of 71/2 shot. At 25 yards, the PW87 put 74 pellets in a 20-inch circle. The other 320 pellets being fairly evenly distributed with the majority a bit below my point of aim. Good enough to put meat in the pot.
Frankly I had a lot of fun with Century's PW87. It patterned reasonably well with loads it liked and shot slugs better than expected. The more I shot it, the smoother the action became.
Operation is fairly straightforward. To load you swing the lever open. This rotates the locking block out of the way. To load, you place shells into the receiver through the top and push them forward into the tubular magazine. The magazine holds five, but you can add a sixth by placing it onto the shell lifter. A seventh shell can be placed directly into the chamber before closing the action. The PW87 may now be fired by pressing the trigger.
The only safety is a half-cock notch. Use caution and common sense when lowering the hammer to this position lest you too sink your duck boat. Lowering the hammer onto a loaded chamber is not recommended.
Running the PW87 is simple after a try or two.
Working the lever has a different feel than, say, a Model 1894 rifle. Its throw feels much longer with more of a roll to it. Plus keep in mind the two piece lever bow. The rear half of this needs to pivot to release it from its catch. But with a bit of practice the PW87's action can be operated at a surprising rate of speed. Make no mistake, a lever action shotgun can provide fast follow-up shots if required.
In 1991, the movie Terminator 2: Judgment Day introduced a whole generation of people to Winchester's classic lever-action shotgun design. The movie was a fun ride as the hero wielded the cut-down Winchester with impressive results. Today many younger shooters will recognize the M1887 from its appearance in different video games. They are fun too. But actually shooting a lever action 12-gauge has to be experienced. I just find it very enjoyable and the PW87 was great fun to shoot.
Was the PW87 perfect? No. It ran flawlessly with some loads, and with others I had consistent failures to eject. Basically it ran about like my original Winchester. The finish on the internals leaves a bit to be desired and my buttstock rattled about until I fixed it. Plus I wish the Chinese markings had been placed a bit less visibly than across each side of the receiver.
My thoughts? If you are used to only modern guns and expect the PW87 to perform 100 percent out of the box with whatever you stuff into it, then I suggest you skip it. However if you understand this basic design dates from 1887 and that you might have to experiment with different loads, then it could be something to consider. A little time spent polishing internal parts would go a long ways towards smoothing things up. I plan on keeping this PW87 and doing a bit of work to it. It is an awful lot of fun to shoot and the suggested retail price is just $359.95.