The Winchester 1911 Widow Maker

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Its dubious distinction has kept collectors away but this is changing in recent years. However, be careful with this hundred-year-old shotgun, before it adds you to its list.


The beginning of this story starts with a Dear John letter. You see, Winchester firearms had a long and fruitful relationship with a genius gun designer from Utah by the name of John Moses Browning. It was Browning that worked in partnership with Winchester for nearly twenty years, giving them some of the most classic designs of all time. These included the Winchester Model 1887 and the Model 1897 pump shotgun, the falling block single shot Model 1885, and the lever-action Model 1886, Model 1892, Model 1894, Model 1895 rifles.

The Winchester 1911 Widow Maker - christophereger - auto-five-1429.jpg
(Browning took his Auto-Five shotgun to Winchester first, but they turned him down. This led to the company chasing a rival design for ten years)

Well, in 1898, Browning left Winchester, formed a partnership with FN in Belgium, and brought to that Hertsal-based company a revolutionary new semi-automatic shotgun, his Auto-5. Browning also collaborated the design out to Winchester's archrival, Remington, who produced it as the Model 11 starting in 1905.

This led Winchester with an urgent need to beat Browning at his own game, while not being able for the first time in twenty years, of using his patents.


The Winchester 1911 Widow Maker - christophereger - winchester-1911-1425.jpg

Without Browning, Winchester turned to their next best thing, engineer Thomas Crosley Johnson. Johnson had made a series of self-loading rifles for the company and would later make their famous Model 12 pump action shotgun. Old TC had to work for ten years to come up with a design that worked, while not stepping on any of Browning's huge list of patents. One of the patents that TC had to work around was a charging handle on the bolt. To get
around this, he designed the barrel of his gun, to be pushed back to cycle the bolt.

The Winchester 1911 Widow Maker - christophereger - sl1911-1426.jpg
(No charging handles here...)

The Winchester 1911 Widow Maker - christophereger - winchesters-model-1911-1-1428.jpg
The SL1911 was made in several calibers and variants, and these guns, while they look like an Auto Five from a distance, can be quickly identified by the knurled grip on the barrel that can be used to help cycle the gun, and of course the lack of a charging handle on the receiver.

Everything seemed right with the world and Winchester put the gun in production as the Model 1911 SL ("Self-Loading") shotgun. However, it went on to be known by a different name...

The Widow Maker

While Johnson and Winchester did indeed produce a creative way to load and unload their gun, if the process fell into just the wrong set of circumstances, it could end in disaster. Users who had swollen paper cartridges (the plastic hulls of today didn't become common until the 1940s) often had a problem removing these rounds from the chamber. To push the tightly fitting rounds out, they would stand the shotgun up on its butt, and use their weight to force the barrel down and open. Unfortunately, this could set the gun off and with the barrel right under their face-- this led to accidents and even some deaths.


Winchester kept the 1911 in production in 12, 16, 20, and 28-gauge until 1925 and quietly retired it. Some 83,000 of these guns were made and have been out there for generations. The company has never really been able to make a successful semi-auto shotgun, with both its Model 40 and 1400 being seen as failures.

The Winchester 1911 Widow Maker - christophereger - 460657-winchester-model-1911-s-l-widow-maker-12-guage-price-drop-1427.jpg

However, the 1911, even for its Widow-Maker status, has found a certain following among collectors. These guns go for as little as $150 if you shop around, just learn how they load, unload, and cycle, always treat them as they are loaded, and keep the muzzle in a safe direction. These guns have injured people as recently as the past decade when four law enforcement officers who should have known better accidentally triggered one of these guns.

If nothing else, they can make a great display piece.

Maybe shrouded in black.

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