Winchester’s Model 1911 might just be the worst shotgun ever. That’s a bold claim, as there have been some bad ones. The fact that it earned the nickname “widowmaker,” however, is a good clue that a shotgun belongs on the “worst ever” shortlist, if not at the top.
Like most gun invention stories of the first half of the 20th century, this one starts with John Browning. Early in his career, Browning learned the hard way that inventing didn’t pay off unless you patented your designs. So, when he designed the Auto 5, he patented every last piece of it he could. Then he offered to it Winchester, with whom he had often worked in the past. The Auto 5 had taken up so much of his time and energy (he believed it was his greatest invention; I would agree) that he asked Winchester for a royalty per gun sold. Winchester said no. The meeting went badly enough to end Browning’s relationship with Winchester.
The rest of the Auto 5 story is history. Browning collaborated with FN in Belgium to build his gun, and also licensed it to Remington and Savage. Left out, Winchester needed a semiauto of its own, so it turned to its gifted engineer, Thomas Crossley Johnson (who designed the Model 12, a mic drop of a shotgun if ever there was one), and asked him to come up with a gun to compete with the Auto 5.
The result was the 1911, a long-recoil semiauto that tiptoed around all Browning’s patents. Unfortunately, one of those patents was the bolt handle. So, the Model 11 got a textured gripping surface on the barrel, which you would grasp and pull back to open the handle-free bolt. In theory, it was awkward but safe. In practice, it killed people. Shooters would rest the butt of the gun on the ground and stand over it, pulling down with both hands, and from time to time they managed to set the gun off while unloading it, especially when trying to clear swollen paper cartridges.
The 1911, like the Auto 5, had friction rings, which, of course, Browning had patented. But he hadn’t patented fiber friction rings. Not surprisingly, they didn’t last very long, and when they wore out, the bolt would open so fast under recoil that it battered receivers and split stocks. The gun did have one interesting innovation: There was a latch on the back of the receiver that allowed you to pull off the stock, to which the trigger group was attached, which at least made cleaning easier. That’s a nice feature, but it didn’t make up for the lack of a bolt handle.
Apparently, product liability laws were not the same then as they are now, because Winchester made the gun until 1925, although never in huge numbers. Only 83,000 were made. I’ve only seen one—it showed up at my local gun store last year. I should have bought it as a curiosity and had it wired up as a floor lamp, which might well be the best use for the Model 1911.