While the Spencer slide action had already been introduced to the world, Winchester wanted to play it safe. Lever-operated repeaters were the standard for modern commercial firearms in the 1880’s and so that’s what they asked John Moses Browning to provide. Despite also favoring the pump action, Browning would deliver a mechanism that would be summed up in his 1885 patent, and put into production as the Model 1887.
Browning’s gun feeds from a five round tubular magazine, which can only be loaded with the action levered open. Shells are both fed into and ejected from the same top-side ejection port. The heart of the action is a massive “rolling” block which rotates on a cross pin. This includes the breechface, extractors, and nested hammer. Locking is achieved by a “shelf” on the back of the block, which is indexed into the receiver as the action levers closed. This possible because the cross pin hole in the block is actually a groove, allowing off-center extension and making this, in truth, a falling block design. Two chamberings were offered: 10 and 12 gauge, both intended for black powder loads.
While fascinating to tinker with, the 1887 largely missed the target in its market. The ’87 shoehorned the lever action design onto a cartridge poorly suited for this sort of operation, making for an ungainly looking firearm. Debuting just before the release of smokeless powder was certainly unlucky timing, but the 87 also stuck to the then-standard 2⅝” case length, which quickly fell out of favor for 2¾” shell. Heavy use or heavy loads also tend to wear on the 1887 thanks to the breech face being so far off axis from the main action pin; these regularly show signs of stretching or warping from abuse.
With production lasting until 1899, a number of minor changes would be made to improve the strength and ease manufacturing of these guns. All existing upgrades, plus some additional strengthening, would lead to a new model in 1901. Total production did not exceed 65,000 units, which while profitable was no where near what Winchester would accomplish with other guns in our series.
C&Rsenal releases their flagship series “Primer” every other week. It focuses on one firearm of the Great War at a time, in depth with animations, live fire demonstrations, and historical context! Our mission is to document and describe historical military small arms from across the world. We hope to share our love for all the attention that went into the design, development, manufacture, and issuance of these pieces.