April 30, 2021
By David M. Fortier, Senior Field Editor
An iconic design, the Winchester Model 1897 was yet another brilliant piece from the fertile mind of none other than John Moses Browning. An improvement of his earlier Model 1893, the Model 1897 was introduced in November of that year when Browning was just 42 years old. Conceptually the Model 1897 was intended to be stronger, to allow use of smokeless powder, safer and more reliable than the very similar Model 1893. Changes to the design included:
- The receiver was strengthened, lengthened and the top extended.
- The receiver was redesigned to accept the then new 2 ¾-inch shell in addition to the older 2 5/8 inch.
- A slide-lock required the slide to be pushed slightly forward, which happened automatically under recoil, to release the action.
- A cartridge guide was added to the right side of the carrier block to improve reliability.
- A longer stock with less drop was mounted.
While originally introduced with a solid frame, in October 1898 a take-down model was added to the line. Simple in concept, the take-down feature allowed the gun to be easily split into two units, the stock/action and barrel/pump assembly. This feature would prove very popular and the vast majority of Model 1897s manufactured would include this handy feature. Browning’s design would go on to become exceedingly popular among sportsmen. 1,024,700 are said to have been produced during it production life which ran from 1897 to 1957. During this time it also saw widespread use with law enforcement agencies and prison guards. It was even adopted by the US military in a specialized ‘trench gun’ configuration. This was equipped with a 20-inch cylinder bore barrel, solid frame, ventilated steel heat shield, sling swivels and a bayonet lug. The M97 served during the Great War, World War II, Korea and even Vietnam before finally being retired. On the commercial side, the old exposed-hammer design eventually was eclipsed by sleeker looking hammerless models such as Winchester’s Model 12 and Remington’s 870.
While I appreciate the advancements of modern technology and manufacturing, I have a soft spot for classic Winchester shotguns. So, when I began looking for a shotgun capable of performing a specific task, I ended up selecting a Model 1897 rather than a more modern design. Basically, I was looking for a simple to operate, extremely light pump shotgun which was absolutely reliable. The kicker? I wanted it to be able to break it down allowing it to store in a small and discreet bag. One nice feature of the M1897 is how easily it breaks down for storage.
So, to see if a Model 1897 was actually viable for this role I picked up a well-worn but mechanically sound example. It sported a 30-inch full-choke barrel, slick action but much of the finish was gone. The wood on the other hand had turned a blackish color from almost a century of oil and hard use. It was ugly but fully functional.
My next task was finding the right gunsmith to send it off to for its transformation. I wanted both halves similar in length for easy storage when broken down, plus he would need to make it:
- Absolutely reliable.
- Very light and handy.
- Short and maneuverable.
- Equipped with removable choke tubes for versatility.
- Fitted with a large and easy to see front bead.
- Able to accept a sling.
- Fitted with an effective recoil pad and shortened length of pull.
- Finished in a simple, durable but attractive manner.
While a number of people specialize in reworking 1897s for Cowboy Action competition, I went with Richard Parker of Parker Arms & Tool Works. A graduate of the Colorado School of Trades Gunsmithing Program, he apprenticed with Austin Behlert and Art Leckie before setting up his own shop many moons ago. A Class “A” Toolmaker, he’s not a cheap date, but his work is very good and his turn-around time is fairly fast. He does not have a website but can be reached at 215-541-1099, just don’t expect him to talk all day on the phone. He has a busy small shop to run.
When it arrived at his shop he stripped, examined it and provided a detailed list of what I wanted done and what it would cost along with a delivery date. Then he got to work. At this point I’ll let Rich tell in his own words how my project took shape: “I cut the barrel to 18.5 inches. This does what you want, which is to be stubby and also symmetrical with the butt-half on takedown. It also does what I want, which is to give you an extra half inch of legal length. Colonial Arms reamed and tapped it for the choke tubes, and installed a cylinder bore tube. You had enough wall thickness to accept the Winchokes, but the Colonial system gives you more variety. I installed the biggest brass bead I could find. I cut the stock to your specified 13-inch length of pull over a Pachmayer pad. It’s a good length for this gun, that stock was a boat paddle previously.
The wood on this gun was a nightmare; it was as dry as dust. Not punky yet, but not far from it. I spent about three hours trying to get all the black out of the wrist, I think it looks a little better than it did. It took on about 25 coats of Linseed oil over three weeks, and the pores still aren’t completely filled, that’s how dry it was. But there was no other choice but to hand-rub it with oil, because it needed to be rejuvenated. Regarding sling attachment points, I inletted a big military job into the butt and modified it to use your original buttplate screws. The front swivel took some thought to get it on the mag tube band like you wanted, sort of reinventing the wheel. I found a beefy old commercial swivel, modified the standoff, and made up a spacer for it. Then, I had to go into the lathe and make up a new screw for it, one with a longer thread and the required .100 inch diameter pin.
Checking the mechanism involved total disassembly, cleaning, inspection, reassembly and test firing. I’d bet your gun is four ounces lighter, now that I’ve dug out all of the crud and filth that was packed into it. Mostly likely the gun was carried hard, over-oiled (hence the black wrist) and shot little. There’s tons of adjustment left on the take-down. As the finish starts to wear, you’ll probably wind up having to adjust the takedown a notch or two. The finish is a flat gray Parker Panzer-Kote. This is a thermos-bonding polymer with Teflon. It resists all acids and alkalis, is good to 800 degrees F and resists salt spray. It really made that action slick. Each part is abrasive blasted then put in an oven for pre-heat. After it’s heated, I then take it out of the oven and apply the coating. Then it goes back into the oven, and I repeat the process for the second coat. After I’m done, everything bakes at 300 degrees for two hours to cure the finish. Then, I put it all back together.”
A short time later a box arrived on my doorstep. Opening it I was shocked at the transformation. Snapping the ’97 back together I initially thought he had replaced the wood. But closer examination revealed it to nicely refinished. The whole gun looked better than I’d hoped for. I told Parker to make it short and light and he didn’t disappoint. At 36.8 inches long it’s very handy. Plus, it tips the scales at exactly 6.4 pounds, so it’s very light. The next question was how would it run? I grabbed 100 rounds of low-brass birdshot and buckshot to find out. The magazine loaded easily and the action cycled extremely smooth. Thanks to the 13-inch length of pull the ’97 was now much quicker to the shoulder. The short barrel and overall length also made it handle like greased lightning, and the fat front bead was easy to pick-up at speed. The new tube threw a wider, but even, pattern. Plus, the soft Pachmayer Decelerator pad soaked up recoil substantially better than the hard factory buttplate.
Initial testing took place using Winchester’s 12-gauge Supreme Elite PDX1 Defender slug/buckshot load. A modern take on the 19th-century buck and ball load, it features a 1-ounce rifled slug topped with 3 plated 00 buck pellets and Grex buffering. The buckshot pellets are intended to form an outer triangle, to compensate for aiming error, with the slug in the center of the pattern. At 10, 15 and 25 yards the slug hit right at point of aim with the buckshot pellets evenly spread out around it. Three shots fired at 15 yards put the slugs into 1.8 inches and 9 pellets into a 14-inch pattern. Next I tried Hornady’s 12-gauge Critcal Defense 00 buck load. This 2 ¾-inch length shell features 8 00 buck pellets inside a VersaTite wad. These are launched at an impressive 1,600 fps. At 7 yards the ‘97 put all eight pellets into a 1.5 inch knot. At 25 yards it kept all 8-pellets in a 10-inch pattern.
After using the 1897 for a number of years now, my favorite load has become Winchester’s 16-pellet No. 1 buck 2 ¾-inch load. The .30-caliber pellets penetrate deep enough to meet FBI requirements while providing a denser pattern and more total tissue destruction than a 9-pellet 00 buck load. Used in conjunction with an extended and ported Modified choke tube it will keep all 16 pellets on a silhouette at 25 yards, 9 pellets on a silhouette at 50 yards and 2 all the way out at 100 yards. Off the range it has proven brutally effective on predators around the farm. The additional pellet count is a big plus in my book.
One great feature of my 1897 is being able to take it down. With a push of a pin and a twist of the magazine tube it splits neatly in half. The action/buttstock measures 19 inches while the barrel assembly measures 18.5 inches long. Both of these pieces will stow neatly in a mundane looking messenger bag. If needed the ‘97 reassembles in seconds. I also like the huge loading port which runs almost the entire length of the receiver. Plus, there is no lifter to depress, just throw the shells at the loading port and they find their way into the tube. The ejection port is also gaping. The lack of a disconnector can also be a useful feature if properly understood and employed.
Does this mean the 1897 is a perfect design? No, it’s very much a product of the 19th century with numerous small parts. The fore-end is very small. Plus, the exposed hammer only offers a half-cock safety, which can fail. The design does have its shortcomings. Even so, I love how this project turned out and the old Winchester’s performance. If you’ve ever wanted to build something like this I suggest going for it! Sarco, Inc. has a variety of M1897 parts in stock and it’s a very fun shotgun both on the range and in the field.
If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com
About the author:
David M. Fortier has been covering firearms, ammunition and optics for 23 years. He is a recipient of the Carl Zeiss Outdoor Writer of the Year award and his writing has been recognized by the Civil Rights organization JPFO. In 2007 he covered the war in Iraq as an embedded journalist.
Parker Arms & Tool Works
Winchester Model 1897 build price list:
Detail strip, clean, inspect, reassemble and test fire: $65
Cut barrel and install bead: $95
Cut stock and install pad: $135
Front sling attachment: $80
Rear sling attachment: $75
Refinish metal, Parker Panzer-Kote: $275
Strip, repair and refinish wood: $150
Colonial choke tube system w/Cyl bore tube: $175