The Winchester Model 1911 — Old School Cool

This is not your typical Model 1911. No, it’s quite far from John Browning’s famous .45 ACP pistol. The Winchester Model 1911 SL is a semi-automatic shotgun designed to compete with Browning’s own A5. In fact, Winchester created the Model 1911 SL because of a disagreement with John Browning over his A5 design and the way in which Browning would receive compensation.

Winchester might have lost John Browning, but they did have T.C. Johnson who would later design the Model 12—a pump shotgun widely considered to be the very best pump shotgun up until the Model 870 from Remington came to be. The Model 1911 SL had to be designed without running afoul of any of Browning’s patents on the A5. Winchester actually wrote the patents, as they typically did for Browning, as Winchester would purchase all the designs he pitched.

Winchester Model 1911
It’s a classic appearance, but where is the charging handle?

That meant the patents were pretty bombproof. T.C. Johnson had an unfair task ahead of him and one that would take a decade to complete. The patents by Browning included lots of little things, and the one that affected the Model 1911 SL the most well-known is the charging handle. Browning had the patent on a charging handle attached to the bolt of a shotgun. How would the Model 1911 SL function?

Well, T.C. Johnson found a way, and it worked, but it cemented the position of the Winchester shotgun as an interesting piece of history.

Model 1911 SL Running and Gunning

The shotgun certainly looks a bit like the A5 and features that eye-catching humpback design. SL stands for Self-Loading, and the gun is fairly standard. The weapon has a tubular magazine that holds five rounds. The weapon uses an old-school long recoil action. With a long recoil action, the barrel and the bolt recoil together to the end of the recoil action. A spring propels the barrel forward, and the bolt remains to the rear until the barrel is completely forward.

Winchester 1911 SL

As the barrel moves forward, it ejects the empty casing, and the next cartridge is positioned to be loaded into the chamber. The next round is picked up and loaded into the chamber as the bolt moves forward. It’s simple but effective, although outdated by modern standards.

Winchester Model 1911 SL
It’s awkward to charge the weapon and load a round.

That’s how the weapon cycles, but how does the first round make it to the chamber? At first glance, it appears that the charging handle is missing. However, the gun doesn’t have a charging handle. Instead, Winchester textured a portion of the barrel for the user to grip and push rearwards. When it is released, the first round loads. 

Charging the Model 1911 SL

That is an interesting way to solve a complicated problem. This odd method of charging the weapon helped the weapon earn the nickname ‘Widowmaker.’ Legend goes that paper hulls would swell and jam in the chamber. This made it tough to clear.

Supposedly, not-so-smart shooters would brace the gun against the ground to gain extra leverage and press the barrel downwards, with effort, to free the stuck shell. Sometimes the gun went off and injured or killed the shooter. I could see it happening, but I couldn’t find any documented stories.

I did find a story about four police officers being wounded by a Model 1911 SL. They were attempting to clear confiscated firearms, and the Winchester was in the pile. The weapon discharged and the officers sustained minor injuries.

Admittedly charging the weapon can be fairly difficult to do safely. It can be safe but it’s tough to do while pointing the weapon in a safe direction. I’m a good-sized guy, and my long arms make it possible to point the weapon to the dirt, but this wouldn’t be the case for everyone.

Winchester's widowmaker shotgun
While it was a failure, the gun had a little innovation.

Another option is to use the bolt lock to complicate the loading of the gun. Load the magazine tube, lock the bolt to the rear, point into the dirt and release the bolt. Top off the magazine and call it a day. That’s still awkward. That bolt lock would be handy if you were shooting high volume and the barrel was getting hot.

On the last shot, remember to engage the bolt lock before you fire. This makes it easy to port load and reload the magazine. If not, get an asbestos glove to work that hot barrel.

Winchester’s Odd Shotgun

Another Browning patent was the use of metal friction rings. Winchester used fiber friction rings, which worked until they fell apart. Sadly, they never lasted long, and the harsh recoil would get worse. The heavy recoil could eventually crack the stock. That sucks, so if you get a Model 1911 SL, you need to check those rings or just fire light loads.

Winchester model 1911 widowmaker shotgun
Recoil can be hefty with the fibrous fiction rings.

One neat feature was the takedown capability. You could disconnect the stock and trigger from the receiver and barrel portion. To do so, all you need to do is unscrew a small bolt at the rear of the gun. Once split, the gun comes apart and shrinks in size.

Winchester 1911 takedown
The old days loved take-down rifles.

Internally the gun features an interesting bolt design. The bolt has a rat tail which imparts into the recoil spring housed in the stock. A very similar design has been used in the FN FAL and FightLite SCR. It’s neat to see in a gun from 1911.

Shooting the Old Warhorse

Oooh boy, the other nickname for the Winchester Model 1911 SL is the skull cracker. I see why. The friction rings in my gun are basically gone. I just shoot soft loads only through the gun, and they tend to buck and bite a little bit. It’s not always nice, but it’s also a gun I’m not going to shoot often. The Model 1911 SL is a cool part of history, but for me, it’s a safe queen.

The Model 1911 SL used laminate furniture, which was a novel concept at the time. The furniture still looks fantastic and has so much character that I can’t help but love the gun. It’s almost like you can feel the frustration of T.C. Johnson.

rat tail bolt on Winchester 1911 SL shotgun
The rat tail bolt is very FAL-like.

At least he was able to create the Model 12, which is a gun anyone would be proud to have as a legacy firearm.

Would I suggest the Winchester Model 1911 SL to most people? No. The design isn’t great, and it’s a hefty recoiling gun that does nothing that other semi-autos can’t do more efficiently. For shotgun nerds, it’s a fun collectible, and interesting piece of scattergun history.

Travis Pike is a former Marine Machine Gunner and a lifelong firearms enthusiast. Now that his days of working a 240B like Charlie Parker on the sax are over he's a regular guy who likes to shoot, write, and find ways to combine the two. He holds an NRA certification as a Basic Pistol Instructor and is probably most likely the world's Okayest firearm instructor. He is a simplicisist when it comes to talking about himself in the 3rd person and a self-professed tactical hipster. Hit him up on Instagram, @travis.l.pike, with story ideas.

Sign Up for Newsletter

Let us know what topics you would be interested:
© 2022 GunMag Warehouse. All Rights Reserved.
Copy link