Let us now pause and reflect on the pump action shotgun. I think of a Winchester Model 97, a John M. Browning design of great complexity, carried by a friend of mine who was a village constable in upstate New York. He said that when you racked a shell into the chamber in the dark, the racket made by all that machinery frightened most felons into submission.
Its successor, the Winchester Model 12, was a challenge to manufacture, but one of the few beautiful repeating firearms, and virtually indestructible. Trap shooters loved it because you could put a million shells through one, have it rebuilt, and shoot another million. And it pointed like nothing else, before or since.
And there was the Remington Model 870, a virtually perfect machine that was a breeze to manufacture compared to a Model 12 pump-action, and yet it held together just as well. It was introduced in 1950, and 11 million have been sold. If something sells 11 million times, and for a fair amount of money, it must be very, very good.
But are these guns the first pump action shotguns, or even early examples? No way. The first patent on a pump, or slide-action, shotgun was granted to an English gunsmith named Alexander Bain in 1847. Had it gone into production, it would have been anathema to Englishmen in the land of Purdey, Boss, and Westley Richards. But only one was ever made, and not in England.
The First Pump Action Shotgun to Have Commercial Success
The first successful pump action shotgun was the invention of the man who produced the Civil War’s sole-issued repeating rifle, Christian Miner Spencer. Born in 1833, Spencer was an American archtype; a compulsive inventor who created the rifle that bears his name, an automatic screw-turning machine, and a steam-powered automobile, among other things. In his lifetime, he acquired 42 patents, and the things he designed worked.
Spencer had both mechanical aptitude and initiative. After he had developed his repeating rifle, he thought that President Lincoln might like to see it in action, so in August, 1863, he strolled into the White House, past the guards, carrying a carbine and several boxes of ammunition. He and Lincoln agreed to a demonstration the next day. Lincoln shot it, did fairly well, and liked the gun so much he ordered that it be issued to his soldiers.
With the end of the Civil War, light-fingered Union veterans returned home with the Spencers they had been issued, and didn’t need to buy one, and Oliver Winchester’s Model 66 lever action was the king of the lever actions, so Spencer’s Repeating Rifle Company had to shut down in 1868.
But Spencer’s ingenuity did not go away. Along with his fellow designer and business partner Sylvester Roper, he designed a pump action shotgun which they patented in 1882, and started the Spencer Arms Company in Windsor, Connecticut, to manufacture it.
The Spencer-Roper pump action shotgun looked like it had been designed by a committee. It was an ungainly firearm filled with odd bulges and curves and was cursed with a minuscule fore-end. It was distinguished by a second “trigger” set in the forward end of the trigger guard. This appendage was actually the hammer spur, and was a concession to the fallible shotshells of the time. If you had a misfire, you pushed the spur forward and re-cocked the gun without having to cycle the action.
The action was complex. It employed a toggle breech that rocked up and down as the forearm was pulled back and shoved forward. A great deal of mechanical activity pulled a fresh shell into battery, ejected the empty, and re-cocked the gun. Considering the 19th-century cardboard shells that swelled in rain, sleet, and snow, jams must have been frequent.
Nonetheless, in a time when there were no seasons and no limits on any kind of flying game, four shots rather than two held appeal, and the new pump action shotgun was at first a small success. It was offered in 12 gauge (a few were made in 10) in three grades, with 30- and 32-inch barrels. Some Spencers were equipped with the first interchangeable choke tubes on record. The U.S. Government bought a modest number of the guns for prison guards; a handful were sent to England without stocks to have the woodwork done, and the guns sold by Charles Lancaster and Rigby. Annie Oakley bought a Spencer for any stunt that required more than two shots.
In 1886 and 1887, there were Second and Third Models, each an improvement, but sales remained far below what it took to keep the company going, and in 1889, Spencer Arms Company declared bankruptcy.
The Spencer-Roper Shotgun Turns into the Bannerman Model 90
But this was not the end. In early 1890, the assets of the company were put up for bid, and the winning offer was made by Francis Bannerman. Bannerman was a Scots immigrant who literally invented the military surplus business. He began as a kid during the Civil War, picking up gear that had ended up in New York harbor and reselling it, and prospered to the point where he owned more martial equipment than some nations. Bannerman bought everything used to make war, and in huge quantities, so much so that he purchased an island in the Hudson River and built a castle there to house it.
Bannerman thought the Spencer was viable, so he bought the remaining parts, the tooling, and the blueprints and set about producing it himself. He moved the operation to Brooklyn, and by December of 1890, was in production with an improved Model 1887 that was stamped “F. Bannerman Mnfr. New York USA Model 1890” on the receiver. In the next three years, perhaps 9,000 were made, far more than Spencer produced, and the Bannerman Model 90 might have survived, but in 1893, John M. Browning sold Winchester the design for his Model 93 pump gun.
The Winchester Model 93 was far superior to the Bannerman Model 90, and the surplus magnate saw the writing on the wall, so he sued Winchester, claiming patent infringement. Winchester, in turn, sent an agent named George Seymour to Europe to search patent offices and see if designs for a pump shotgun existed before the first Spencer was built.
Seymour found three British and one French patent for pump-actions that pre-dated Spencer. Bannerman responded that no actual guns had been built because the patents were unworkable. Seymour then found a functioning example of the French gun (called a Margot) and Winchester built—with a considerable trouble, because the patents did not give actual dimensions—working models of the three British designs, took them and the Margot to court, and offered to put on a shooting demonstration. The judge declined the demonstration, but in June, 1897, found in favor of Winchester and threw out Bannerman’s suit.
Even if Bannerman had won his case, his shotgun would not have prevailed against what Winchester had waiting for release, which was John Browning’s improvement on his Model 93, the Model 97. This exposed-hammer masterpiece was in production from 1897 to 1957 and, despite its complexity, was a model of reliability. Well over a million 97s were sold. The 97 was beloved of waterfowl hunters, who believed it was a “hard-shooting gun,” and the military doted on a short-barreled version called a Trench Gun, which accepted a bayonet, and which served in every war from the Phillippine Insurrection through the Korean Police Action.
As for Christopher Spencer, he had enough of the gun business. In 1893, he established the Spencer Automatic Machine Screw Company and headed it until his retirement. He passed away in 1922, having led a long and useful life, having accepted that screws were a lot less of a headache than rifles and shotguns.