If you’ve followed any of my writing, you know I’m a shotgun nerd. I ran across the Winchester Model 1911 SL shotgun when I was doing some research into firearms I consider dangerous to the shooter. Nicknamed the Widowmaker, this shotgun is a very early example of a semi-auto shotgun. The Winchester Model 1911 SL was designed by a man named T.C. Johnson, and he had the assignment of designing a gun around John Browning’s Auto 5 patent.
One of those patent included the idea of a charging handle attached to the bolt. So T.C. Johnson had to develop an auto-loading shotgun that didn’t violate Browning’s patent. Johnson was a brilliant designer, and he gave us one of the best shotguns ever made, the Model 12. It still took him ten years to develop the Winchester Model 1911 SL.
Designing around the Browning patent required some creative problem solving, and in many ways, it’s a great example of why sometimes thinking out of the box…doesn’t work. Still, when I came across one in a pawn shop, I had to have it. It’s an interesting part of history, and only about 80,000 Winchester 1911 SL shotguns were built before Winchester ended production.
The Winchester Model 1911 SL In Real Life
The Winchester Model 1911 SL uses the long recoil system that was popular with semi-auto platforms. Long recoil involves the barrel and bolt moving rearward together for a short period before the barrel stops, and the bolt continues to move. A coiled spring throws the barrel back forward, and a mainspring allows the bolt to close.
One of the features of the Winchester 1911 SL brought to shotguns — and guns in general — was the use of laminated furniture. This was necessary to prevent the stocks from cracking and breaking under recoil. One of Browning’s other patents was metal recoil rings, so Winchester used fibrous rings. These rings, however, wore out quickly and deteriorated and would often deliver a harsher recoil impulse the more they were worn.
The Winchester 1911 SL came in popular shotgun calibers, including 12, 20, 16, and 28 gauge. My shotgun is the 12 gauge model. The gun only chambers 2.75-inch shells and the magazine fits five of them in its tubular magazine. Barrel lengths were either 26 or 28 inches, and the scattergun weighs about eight pounds.
The Model 1911 SL features a bolt hold open that the shooter manually activates. Press the button on the rear of the receiver and the bolt will lock back after every shot if you so choose. There’s also a manual safety behind the trigger.
Take-down weapons were very popular, and this gun features an unusual takedown design. The receiver and barrel stay together, and separate from the trigger and stock when separated. It pops right into a modern AR15 case without issue.
What I’m Leaving Out
I mentioned that Browning patented charging handles and that this gun was built around the Auto 5 patent. So what was the solution Winchester and T.C. Johnson came up with? They knurled a section of the barrel of the Model 1911 SL heavily. The shooter had to grip the barrel and pull it rearwards to cock the gun.
This system is easily the least ergonomic option I’ve ever seen and is why the gun has a reputation for being dangerous. The Widowmaker’s name comes from the fact that many shooters would brace the gun against the ground and work the barrel while leaning over it. I’m not sure if this ever happened, but it’s not like records from 1911 to 1925 are easy to find over google documenting such an event.
The real danger comes from pointing the weapon in a safe direction while trying to cock and charge the weapon or to clear a malfunction. I have big, long arms and it’s awkward for me to try and point the weapon down while I pull the barrel to the rear. If you were a shorter shooter, it would create an interesting challenge. And it it was probably why many shooters put the gun on the ground and tried to charge it vertically.
The barrel cocking system makes it quite an ergonomic mess. A hot barrel doesn’t make the process any better. The safest way to cock and charge this shotgun is to lock the bolt to the rear, load a round into the chamber, close the chamber, and then load the magazine.
When you get to the fifth and final round, it will behoove you to press the bolt lock button at the rear of the receiver. That way, when the gun fires the last round in the magazine, the bolt will lock to the rear and you can reload without having to grab a hot barrel.
The recoil rings are worn out in mine, and that’s evident from the gun’s sharp recoil. I only shoot light loads from the gun, and they deliver a fairly sharp slap for a semi-auto firing cheap game loads.
The Winchester Model 1911 SL isn’t a firearm I shoot a lot, but it seems to be fairly reliable. I’ve had a few failures to eject, which create an interesting situation if the barrel is hot (pro tip: if you own one of these, keep an oven mitt or welding glove in your range bag).
The front sight blade is interesting. It looks like a standard blade, but when you shoulder the gun, it looks like a bead. Placing the sight a little higher over the barrel makes the point of aim and point of impact equal. A bead too low on the barrel gives the shotgun the appearance of shooting high. It’s plenty accurate and swings well, although I won’t take it to the trap range.
So Why Is This Thing Desirable?
The Model 1911 SL doesn’t seem like a shotgun anyone would really want. If the firearm was released today, it would be laughed out of the industry. However, seeing as how it’s a hundred years old, there is certainly an interesting historical factor to the weapon. For me, it’s desirable because it’s weird, and because it’s a shotgun, which are two things I’m already partial to.
It’s also the product of the Browning and Winchester breakup, which is its own deep and often misunderstood story. The Winchester Model 1911 SL has one funky feature that ultimately made the design undesirable for most shooters. Add a charging handle to this thing and maybe some metal rings, and you’d have an American classic.
However, I prefer the weirdness. It makes for a much better story.