Do you have a story like this to contribute to Western Shooting Journal? Each issue we run a Guns of our Fathers story in the print magazine. Submit your story to firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Cecil Beal
The Winchester self-loading rifles came into existence just as our nation was moving into a new, fast-paced century. The train had eclipsed the stagecoach, the horse was soon to be eclipsed by the automobile, and the next area of mechanical expedience was firearms. The gun designs of the old West were still in service with our military and police forces, but soon that would all change. Faster shooting, quick and easy-to-load firearms were just on the horizon.
When “Winchester” is spoken, most people have romantic images of lever rifles from the annals of the old West. A person smiles thinking about their old shotgun, favorite hunting rifle or thoughts of Grandpa’s guns that have been passed down. When you say “Winchester self-loader,” most people outside of the gun-nerd circles go “Huh?” They scratch their heads and look at you a little funny. I know, it has happened to me on several occasions. It is like everyone knows Ford for the Mustang, but not many remember the Edsel.
The Winchester self-loading rifles were not flops in the same sense the Edsel was, but in today’s huge collector arena, these rifles have not grown in their popularity or value. While we can see classic collectible Winchester levers going for hundreds of thousands of dollars, you would be hard-pressed to find a self-loader getting past two thousand – unless of course it is one of the exquisitely engraved versions. This is unlike the Edsel, which had the looks of Quasi Moto and lackluster sales. The Winchester self-loaders enjoyed a decent sales run throughout their history. They evolved, adding bigger, more powerful cartridges and filled a niche in the market. The guns hung around long enough to gain their small piece of history, then drifted into obscurity, ending up in old wooden gun cabinets of Grandfathers all over America.
My dad would regale my brothers and I with stories of my grandfather’s adventures as a young man. The stories were many, but always came back to guns and hunting, and one gun in particular. My dad always referred to it as “the four hundred and one.” As a child and later, the term always intrigued me, because my dad would talk about the power and flame that would accompany firing the rifle, and the specific fact that it had an ivory-tipped front sight with buckhorn rear sight. I would query my dad about this magnificent sounding gun, but he didn’t know very much because my grandfather was quite the horse trader and the gun was traded away when my dad was barely 10 years old. So my father only knew what the cartridge of the rifle was.
In my twenties I searched books to learn about the self-loader – this was before the Internet if you can imagine that. I found that the rifle was a Model 1910 Winchester self-loading rifle, and the cartridge it fired the .401 WSL. Once I was able to see what the gun in fact looked like, I began my search to find one. Scouring gun shows, I was able to find two in 1989, and I bought them both and gave one to my dad for Christmas that year. I will never forget the huge smile that came across his face when he opened that gift. He sat back in his chair and just looked at that old Winchester and I could see he was remembering my grandfather. Both of the rifles were made in 1910, the first year of production, and both had big buckhorn rear sights with ivory tips on the front sights. That Christmas will always be a special one for me.
Editor’s note: Cecil Beal is the owner of 2nd Hand Heaven, LLC, firearms business. He has been involved with guns his entire life, as a shooter, hunter, and gun advocate.