The Winchester Model 21 Shotgun

By Chuck Hawks

Winchester Model 21
Illustration courtesy of Connecticut Shotgun Mfg. Co.

The Winchester Model 21 side-by-side shotgun was the last of the American "best guns" to be introduced, and Winchester's timing could not have been worse. It was introduced in 1930, right after the stock market crash of October 1929 which began the Great Depression.

The gun has had a very long run. The last Model 21 from the Winchester Custom Shop was not completed until 1990, and a very few are still being built (as I write this in 2006) under a special arrangement between Winchester and Connecticut Shotgun Mfg. Co.

John Olin became President of Winchester in 1931 and was closely associated with the Model 21 until his death in 1982. He strove to make the new boxlock double superior to the best double guns made anywhere in the world. He wanted it to be compared, not so much to other American doubles, but to the finest British guns (which were the best in the world).

In The Winchester Era by George Madis, Winchesters head gun designer, Mr. T. C. Johnson, is quoted as saying that the gun was " . . . equal in quality to any double model anywhere, and of superior design and craftsmanship. This will be a lifetime gun for the most particular shooter." Mr. Johnson was the director of Winchester's design department during the period of the Model 21's creation, which started in 1924 when the company decided to go ahead with the development of a new double gun. Edwin Pugsley (then Winchester's Factory Manager), and noted gun designers George Lewis, Frank Burton, and Louis Stiennon also had much to do with the development of the Model 21.

The Model 21 represents the pinnacle of American shotgun design, and it is built of the finest steel ever used in a double gun. Unlike other double guns, whose frames were made from case hardened steel, Model 21 frames were machined from a heat-treated cro-moly steel forging. This is why they have a blue finish instead of a color case finish. Model 21 frames are approximately twice as strong as a similar case hardened frame. The frame is also comparatively long, which contributes to the overall strength of the gun by increasing the leverage of the underbolt that holds the barrels to the action.

The Model 21 uses special chopper-lump type barrels made from heat-treated chrome molybdenum alloy steel. These barrels have lumps that are designed to be dovetailed together, then pinned and soldered with soft solder composed of half tin and half lead. This process avoids the high temperature brazing required with normal chopper-lump (or inferior types of) barrel construction. It results in barrels at least twice as strong as normal double gun barrels.

In his Shotgun Book, Jack O'Connor said he had never seen a Model 21 shot loose. He considered the Model 21's dovetailed barrel construction to be superior in strength, and wrote that the Model 21's frame was made of the best material ever put in a shotgun. He wrote, "I believe the Model 21 Winchester double is probably the strongest, most rugged, and most trouble free double ever made."

This opinion was born out by the results of the famous Winchester proof load test. To promote the gun when it was introduced, Winchester went to great lengths to demonstrate the gun's safety, strength and durability.

Winchester purchased a selection of top brand double guns, which included all of the other famous American brands, for a "test to destruction." The technicians at Winchester fired violent proof ("blue pill") loads in all of the guns until they broke or blew up. None of the guns survived more than 305 of these "blue pill" proof loads, except the Model 21. It successfully fired 2,000 of these 150% pressure proof loads without any kind of failure, at which point the test was stopped and the gun torn down. Absolutely no discernible wear or change of dimension had occurred. This gun was featured in Winchester advertisements, photographed with the pile of 2,000 fired proof load hulls behind it.

In another test, Winchester technicians fired a standard 1 1/8 oz 12 gauge field load in a Model 21 with the top lever and locking bolt removed. The gun was safely held closed merely by ordinary hand pressure.

The M-21's optional single selective trigger is durable, mechanical, and works as it is supposed to. The selective ejectors eject. The single underbolt is adjustable to compensate for wear. An extremely elegant ventilated rib was available on special order (standard on Trap grade guns). As noted above, the Model 21 sports a clean breech face.

Until 1959 the Model 21 was available without any engraving, or with any of six increasingly ornate factory patterns (21-1 to 21-6). The top "Grand American" grade featured 21-6 engraving with gold inlays added to the sides and bottom of the receiver.

Stock wood was select American black walnut. Checkering ran from fairly simple diamond or kidney patterns, to the elegant "A" pattern, to the ornate "B" pattern fleur-de-lis style.

Standard gauges were 12, 16, and 20, although 28 gauge and .410 bore guns have been built to special order on lightened 20 gauge frames. In fact, pretty much anything could be had on special order guns from the Custom Shop, as well as non-standard engraving and checkering. Even an experimental Model 21 double-barreled rifle was built.

Before WW II, Winchester offered the Model 21 in a variety of models, including Standard, Duck, Tournament (also Tournament-Skeet), Skeet, and Trap (also Trap-Skeet), as well as Custom Built guns. Standard and Duck guns were stocked with select black walnut, which has always been the standard wood for Model 21's. The Tournament models received a better grade of black walnut than the Standard guns. Trap and Custom Built guns came with fancy and highly figured black walnut. Any model could be special ordered with high-grade wood.

After WW II Winchester offered the Model 21 in Standard, Magnum (previously Duck), Deluxe, Skeet, and Trap models, as well as Custom Built (briefly called Custom Deluxe, but in any case built to special order). Grades were also combined, as in a special order "Custom Deluxe-Skeet grade." Deluxe, Trap, and Custom Built guns still came with fancy and highly figured black walnut. Only the Trap grade came standard with a ventilated rib. Throughout its production life, the Standard (field) Model 21 was the biggest seller, and the fancy Trap grade the smallest (perhaps 5% of production). A large percentage (almost half) of the Model 21's produced were Custom Built guns.

Unfortunately, Winchester discovered that the Model 21 was simply too expensive to build and sell as a production item, and for most of its life the gun has been put together in the Winchester Custom Shop. After 1959 Model 21's were only available as special order Custom Built guns. The Model 21 became entirely a bespoke gun.

From 1960-1981, the (Olin) Winchester Custom Shop years, the Model 21 was built in three primary grades, Custom, Pigeon, and Grand American (in ascending order). Grand American grade Model 21's came standard with two sets of barrels and a fitted hard case. All Model 21's delivered through 1982 were ordered under Olin ownership.

During this period the Custom grade, which was usually not engraved and was typically checkered in a diamond point pattern, was the least expensive and the most popular (about 73.7% of sales). The Pigeon grade, usually engraved in the old 21-6 style without gold inlays and checkered in the fancy "A" pattern, was the least popular (about 3.7% of sales). The famous Grand American, with its 21-6 style engraving with gold inlays and very fancy "B" pattern checkering, accounted for about 22.6% of sales. Of course, all grades could be altered according to the customer's wishes, and some unusual guns were produced in all grades.

The most popular gauge was 20, closely followed by 12. A few 16 gauge guns were ordered, and a very few in 28 gauge and .410 bore. Production was in single digits for both of the last two gauges. The most popular barrel length was 26" (approximately 44%), followed by 28" (35%), and 30" (16%); other lengths accounted for the balance.

About half of the Custom shop guns were ordered with ventilated ribs. Approximately 18% were ordered with straight grip stocks, the rest with pistol grips. The great majority of Custom shop guns were ordered with one of the 4 available beavertail forearm styles; less than 1% of customers ordered splinter forearms.

All of the above percentages were calculated from production information contained in the book Winchester's Finest, The Model 21 by Ned Schwing. This book is the definitive source on the Model 21, and I recommend it highly to all Model 21 owners, and anyone else interested in this great gun.

In the late 1970's, seven guns were produced that were intended to become a super grade series for presentation and charitable purposes. These guns were called "Grand Royal." The first of these was built as a gift for John Olin with 28 gauge and .410 bore barrels. Unfortunately, Mr. Olin died shortly before the gun was completed. Eventually, all seven guns were sold to a single customer.

The second gun in this series, sold to a secondary buyer, was returned to the Custom Shop for completion with two sets of 28 gauge barrels. The third gun in the series was damaged and became unusable. I believe that, as I write this, the Connecticut Shotgun Mfg. Co has completed one other Grand Royal set for another secondary customer. The three remaining Grand Royals, still in the white, are possibly still available.

United States Repeating Arms Company purchased the rights to the Winchester name, and Winchester's New Haven production facilities, in July of 1981. Winchester Model 21's delivered after 1982 were still built by the same craftsmen, in the same Winchester Custom Shop, under U.S.R.A.C. ownership. In that year the Pigeon grade, never very popular, was discontinued. The grades were revised as follows: Standard Custom Built (a field gun without engraving and fewer options), Custom (unchanged from the Olin days), Grand American (now available for the first time in multi-gauge two barrel sets), and Special Custom Built. The latter was the new top of the line, unlimited as to features and decoration, and therefore priced individually on application. This became the most popular grade during the U.S.R.A.C. years.

U.S.R.A.C. offered for sale a special series of eight Grand American grade Model 21's to be built on 20 gauge frames. These were referred to as the "One of Eight" small bore sets. They were to be three gauge sets with 20, 28, and .410 gauge barrels. According to Ned Schwing's book Winchester's Finest, only four of these sets were ever completed and sold by U.S.R.A.C.

After 1988 no new orders for Model 21's were accepted by U.S.R.A.C., although the gun was never formally discontinued. The last Model 21 came from the Winchester Custom Shop in 1990.

Connecticut Shotgun Mfg. Co. (builder of the new A. H. Fox guns) has arranged with U.S.R.A.C. to build the Winchester Model 21, and at the 1998 SHOT show I got to inspect a couple of new 21's in the white. In 2001 I saw finished guns. They looked perfect. But the last Model 21 frames were made in 1955. The remaining supply of frames is reported to be very small.

As you probably realize, I am a fan of the Winchester Model 21, and I regard it as the finest of the American double guns. The sad fact is that the dwindling supply of frames means that the assembly of new Model 21's must come to an end at some point in the not too distant future. When it does, the long life of America's finest "best gun" will have finally come to an end.

Note: For more on the Winchester Model 21, see the Product Reviews page.

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Copyright 2001, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.