It has come a long way since the Wild West but this retro shotgun, though unorthodox, handles well and is great fun to shoot, says Lewis Potter
The 1950s, when I was growing up, were probably the heyday of cheap Western films and many lads then dreamt of what it must have been like to be “home on the range”. The rearms of choice for those fairly awful productions were, with dull repetitiveness, the single-action Colt revolver and Winchester lever-action rifle. The shotgun, if it appeared, was usually a nondescript double-barrelled hammer gun in the inept hands of a stagecoach guard. Such was the dearth of smoothbores you would have been forgiven for thinking that Americans did not make shotguns.
It therefore came as a surprise to find that Winchester made its first shotgun in 1887, the year of introduction being the model designation. It occurred to me what a tool it would be for a young nimrod, a whiff of the Old West and a magazine-fed lever-action to boot — surely a case of “rabbits beware!” Now, thanks to Chiappa Firearms and the importer, Edgar Brothers, I was about to find out if that boyhood daydream bore any resemblance to reality.
The original model of 1887 was conceived for Winchester by that legendary and prolific firearms designer, John Moses Browning. It is recorded that Browning actually favoured the pump-action but Winchester wanted to promote the lever-action for which they were already famous. History tells us that Browning was right, as 10 years later the Winchester Model 1897 pump-action was in production and remained so for many years. The lever-action 1887 withered away and was gone by 1901: while not a success story for Winchester, it has become a sought-after collector’s item.
First impressions of the new Chiappa version of the Model 1887 are of a fairly heavy shotgun, coming in at nearly 8½lb on my scales. This does seem a lot for a single-barrel gun but the receiver is really big, which is a lot of steel to contribute to the overall weight.
The slightly humpback design is also quite deep and thick-walled and, while somewhat inelegant in style, it follows the American philosophy of the period when reliability and function were held in much higher regard than form.
The lever is recognisably Winchester and undoubtedly what the company intended when the original idea was put to Browning. As for the deep butt stock, shod with a substantial steel heelplate, it may not compare well in looks to Best London but goodness is it strong, sandwiched between long top and bottom tangs for most of the length of the pistol grip.
We are, of course, familiar with the tubular magazine, but the band at the front holding it to the barrel smacks more of rifle than of shotgun. Even the fore-end is novel, being two pieces of wood held in place with screw pins located between the barrel and magazine. The Chiappa is very much as an original except for the use of modern steel and the provision of screw-in chokes with a choice of three as standard: cylinder, half and full.
The working of this lever-action is a type of semi-hammerless rolling block where, when pushing the lever down and forwards, the breechblock, to which it is attached, rotates rearwards and down into the back of the receiver. When fully open, the vee mainspring is exposed and the end of the hammer, which has a long, curved extension with two cut-outs (bents in the Birmingham trade, hammer notch in London) that provide half-and full-cock positions.
On closing the action, the full-cock bent engages directly with the trigger, which then brings the hammer to full cock as the action is closed. This means each time the action is cycled it is automatically at full cock and ready to fire, while a “safe” position is achieved by lowering the streamlined and barely exposed hammer to half-cock.
Loading is achieved when the action is open and the cartridges inserted between two sprung carrier arms and pushed directly into the magazine. In this way it is possible to load the magazine then drop one into the chamber, giving a two-plus-one arrangement, though a Section One five-plus-one version has proved popular.
For unloading the magazine it is possible, with the action open, to push down on the mechanism holding a cartridge in the magazine whereupon it will be freed to pull clear from inside the receiver. However, I would recommend, due to this shotgun’s unfamiliarity, a good study of the user’s manual for all aspects of safe operation.
Chiappa 1887 on test
This Chiappa actually handles quite well because much of the weight is between the hands, though it comes to the shoulder more like an open-sighted rifle than a lightweight game shotgun. In fact, there is a “U” cut-out in the top of the receiver that lines up remarkably well with the foresight bead if you adopt a one-eyed method of shooting.
The gun is chambered for 2¾in (70mm) cartridges, so I chose a selection that would qualify for rabbit or general vermin use. These included Eley Grand Prix and Impax (both cartridges I would have been using in the early 1960s), Gamebore Clear Pigeon, Hull Special Pigeon and Lyalvale Express Pigeon Special as well as a random selection of old mixed stock. The Chiappa handled both 2½in (65mm) and 2¾in (70mm) cartridges without a hitch and its weight soaked up recoil.
When dry cycling the action it seemed a bit noisy, though little different to early pump-action guns, but out in the field, concentrating on the job in hand, it was not noticeable. For speed of reload it matched many pump-action guns and for anyone who had not used either type, a lever-action might be the easier with which to quickly familiarise oneself.
Shot patterns were good with all the cartridges used.
The trigger-pull proved to be quite delightful, with a crisp break and ejection of empty cases that could be fast or slow depending upon how quickly you operated the lever. In use, even the quirky forward-angled trigger, which at full travel engages with a slot in the rear of the trigger-guard, seemed little different to any other shotgun.
I would be quite happy to take it out rabbiting because, while heavy, it is pointable. Nor would I baulk at using it in a pigeon hide, especially with the ease of reload.