“The Gun That Shoots Through Steel.” That is how Winchester introduced its Model 1907 rifle chambered in .351 Winchester Self Loader (WSL). In the wake of the gangster-era Kansas City Massacre, when four law enforcement officers were killed, the police across the nation upgraded their firearms. The Winchester Model 1907 became America’s first police patrol rifle.
The Winchester Model 1907 is a blowback-operated semiautomatic rifle produced between 1907 and 1958. Winchester designed the Model 1907 to be a carbine-length rifle with a magazine large enough for law enforcement. The rifle was simple, reliable and quick handling, with fast follow-up shots. The Model 1907 in .351 WSL was the most widely used law enforcement rifle during the gangster eras of the Roaring ’20s and the Wild ’30s.
The Kansas City Massacre
The 1933 Kansas City Massacre was the ambush and murder of four federal and local law enforcement officers. A fugitive in the custody of these officers was also killed. The shootout prompted a nationwide upgrade in police firearms.
This ambush took place in the parking lot of the Union Station rail depot in Kansas City, Missouri. It was an attempt by the Vernon Miller gang to either free Frank Nash, a federal prisoner, or it was an act to kill him to prevent him from testifying. He and the seven officers escorting him came under fire from three or four gunmen, some armed with machine guns, in an ambush lasting about 30 seconds.
In the wake of the gangster-era Kansas City Massacre … the police across the nation upgraded their firearms. The Winchester Model 1907 became America’s first police patrol rifle.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover reacted quickly; first, to get his agents properly armed, and second, to arm them with powerful weapons. (Prior to this massacre, FBI agents did not have the authority to carry firearms federally (state to state) and had to obtain permits and licenses in accordance with local laws and each individual state. In May 1934, Congress expanded the FBI’s authority to carry firearms nationwide.)
The first weapons authorized for carry by the FBI were the Thompson .45 Auto submachinegun, the Springfield and Remington .30-06 bolt-action rifles, and the Winchester Model 1907 .351 WSL self-loading rifle.
This act by the FBI made the Model 1907 America’s first true police patrol rifle. The Winchester Model 1907 immediately gained popularity with the police across the United States as they also upgraded their firearms during the Depression era of violent gangster activities.
Although the FBI later adopted the Remington 81 in .35 Remington, the Winchester Model 1907 became the police patrol rifle-of-choice for most county, and especially state, police officers. The .351 WSL had the ideal combination of stopping power, car body penetration and controllable recoil for rapid follow-up shots.
The .351 Winchester was such a popular and widely used patrol rifle that it would have been rare for the police in any of the 50 states not to have used one at some point in the period between the 1930s and the 1960s during its heyday. Some police departments still used them and had them in their arsenals until the mid-1980s.
It was also used in the federal prison system and state prisons throughout the nation. It had ample power for police and guard duty without the disadvantage of extreme range and heavy recoil found in some of the more-powerful rifle calibers. In these prison roles, the .351 Winchester remained the rifle-of-choice until it was replaced in the 1980s by the Ruger Mini 14.
Delayed Blowback Action
The Model 1907 uses a delayed blowback action—meaning that it fires from an unlocked breech. The blowback bolt is connected to a 2.5-pound breechblock that cycles back and forth under the rifle’s hollow forearm. The combination of a strong boltspring and the weight of the bolt and breechblock slows the bullet’s recoil impulse enough that a locked breech is not necessary. That means no gas tubes, no pistons, and no rotating bolts or locking lugs.
The breech remains completely closed by the force of the boltspring and inertia of the breechblock until the bullet exits the barrel. Then, the recoil of a fired round forces the bolt back far enough to eject the empty case, strip a loaded round from the magazine and chamber it.
The semi-auto Model 1907 produces less disruption to the sight picture and involves zero hand movement for repeated shots.
The Model 1907 is fed from a detachable box magazine. The hunting and police versions used five- and 10-round magazines, while the military version used 15- and 20-round magazines.
The Model 1907 had familiar ergonomics for weapons of the time. For either a right- or left-handed shooter, the support hand simply pulled back on the cocking lever to chamber a round. This is the same motion of their support hand to pump a slide-action shotgun.
Pre- and Post-War Models
The Winchester Model 1907 came in two versions: pre- and post-World War II models. About 30,000 rifles of the Model 1907s are pre-war (1907–1942), and about 28,500 rifles are post-war (1948–1958). For the post-war versions, the Model 1907 moniker was shortened to Model 07.
The biggest improvement with the post-war rifles was the use of thicker wood for the forearm and buttstock. The pre-war forearm was very thin. The reciprocating breechblock beat against the wood to the point at which about two-thirds of the pre-war rifles have cracked forearms. Likewise, the slim buttstock would crack where it met the receiver. The post-war upgrades to the Model 07 buttstock and forearm totally solved those issues.
Another improvement, especially for law enforcement officers who change magazines under stress, was a bigger magazine thumb release. The wider, longer and knurled post-war release replaced the smaller and smoother pre-war release. This was an important change, because the magazines are a tight, almost gunsmithed, fit. It takes some force and precision to remove them, and it starts by proper pressure on the mag release.
A third big improvement was an upgrade to the operating rod tip. The pre-war Model 1907 used a coin-like circular cap on the end of the op rod. The post-war Model 07 got an aggressively curved, hooked cap on the end of the op rod. Under stress, it is easier to grab the post-war curved hook to chamber a round.
Minor changes included a swap from a “Winchester” embossed plastic buttplate to a more-durable, heavily checkered steel buttplate. The detent holding the takedown screw was eliminated. Sling swivels inletted into both the buttstock and forearm were added.
Military Model 1907/17
The Model 1907 came in many models during its 51 years of production. The Plain Model was the base, hunting grade rifle. The Deluxe Model used a higher grade of marbled walnut stock and had heavy checkering on the forearm and pistol grip area. A limited number of Prince of Wales grip (English straight stock) rifles were also produced.
In 1917, Winchester produced a military-only version called the Military Model 1907/17. The fully automatic Model 1907/17 fired at a rate of 650 rounds per minute and came with 15- or 20-round magazines.
The Military Model rifle used a larger-diameter barrel without a front sight. The bull barrel accepted a sleeve with an integrated lower bayonet lug and upper front sight. The sleeve slid over the sightless muzzle and was held in place with two screws. The lug was designed to accept the bayonet from the Model 1896 Krag-Jorgenson bolt-action rifle.
Police Model of 1935
In 1935, Winchester used some of the leftover Military Model components for a short run of the Police Model. An extremely rare rifle, the Police Model was dropped from the Winchester lineup in 1937, because so few were sold.
The post-war Model 07 Police Model used the same large-diameter bull barrel as the Military Model 1907/17 and used the same bayonet lug-front sight sleeve. In fact, the Police Model allowed Winchester to use up parts left over from the French military contract, which was canceled in 1918 when World War I ended.
The Police Model came with one five- and one 10-shot magazine. The Police Model rear sight was a simple V-groove plate drifted into a dovetail that was machined 2⅜ inches farther to the rear of the fully adjustable Plain Model. The Police Model, like the Military Model, was not adjustable for elevation but was drift adjustable for windage. The Police Model came with an M1907 leather sling virtually identical to the M1 Garand-type used by the military.
Otherwise, the Police Model was simply a modified pre-war Model 1907. However, there is a lot of confusion about the Police Model. To make it clear: The Police Model of the 1935 Winchester took the pre-war Plain Model and modified the buttstock, buttplate, forearm, magazine release and operating rod cap.
The Police Model was dropped shortly thereafter (in 1937). However, all the improvements made to the Police Model—except for the fixed rear sight and bayonet lug-front sight—were incorporated into the redesigned Plain Model. This improved Plain Model came to be called the Post-War Rifle due to the obvious changes, even though the changes were actually made in 1937 when the Police Model was dropped.
It’s common to see a post-war Model 07 “used by a police department,” but don’t confuse this as being a Model 07 Police Model. Most .351 Winchester rifles that are called a Police Model are actually post-war Plain Model rifles. The bayonet lug-front sight sleeve is the best way to identify the Model 07 Police Model. If the barrel does not have a sleeve with an integrated bayonet lug and front sight, it is not a Police Model.
The .351 WSL Caliber
The Model 1907 rifle was chambered for just one round: the .351 Winchester Self-Loading (WSL) cartridge, also known as the .351 Winchester and .351 SL (Self-Loading). The .351 WSL fires a true, .351-inch-diameter bullet using a semi-rimmed, straight-wall case. This semi-rimmed cartridge design allows feeding from magazines but also simplifies the head spacing in a straight-wall cartridge.
The original Winchester-Western factory loading for the .351 WSL was a 180-grain bullet at 1,860 fps, producing 1,385 foot-pounds of energy. The Model 1907 can take mule deer, black bear, moose and elk out to 150 yards.
The .351 Winchester is midway between the .30 M1 Carbine and the .30-30 Win. in both recoil and energy. The .30 M1 Carbine fires a 110-grain bullet at 1,990 fps, producing 970 foot-pounds of energy. The .30-30 Win. fires a 170-grain bullet at a velocity of 2,230 fps, producing 1,870 foot-pounds of energy. The .351 WSL cartridge produces 15 percent less recoil than the .30-30 Win. cartridge, and the Model 1907 semiauto rifle weighs 25 percent more than the Model 1894 lever gun. The Model 1907 has very little felt recoil for the power of the cartridge.
In the mid-1930s, the test for the power of a hunting rifle was the number of ⅞-inch pine boards the bullet could penetrate with hunting-oriented soft-point ammunition. The Winchester catalog at the time showed the .30-30 Win. penetrated 12 pine boards, and the .351 WSL penetrated 13 pine boards. About 80 years later, we duplicated those results exactly.
The 300 AAC Blackout is frequently heralded as the ultimate police and tactical caliber. While it is available in a wide range of bullet weights, the 300 AAC Blackout pushes a subsonic .30-caliber, 208-grain bullet to 1,020 fps with 480 foot-pounds of energy. It pushes a 110-grain bullet to 2,300 fps with 1,310 foot-pounds of energy. The .351 WSL pushes a .35-caliber, 180-grain bullet to 1,800 fps packing 1,398 foot-pounds of energy. The .351 WSL has almost three times the power as the subsonic load and a little more than the sonic load. This is no handgun cartridge; the .351 WSL is a true rifle cartridge.
The 351 Model 1907 was the gun that could shoot-punch 1930s-era auto bodies, including pickup trucks. It also had the ability to penetrate the best soft-body armor of the day. Yet, it had a low enough recoil for fast follow-up shots. All of that was rare for the time in such a portable and maneuverable rifle.
Shooting Impressions and Accuracy
The Model 1907 is heavy but well balanced. It is carbine in length but not in weight. At 8 pounds, it has the heft of a fully loaded, extended magazine pump-action shotgun. The absorbed recoil from the Model 1907 allows faster follow-up shots than any lever-, bolt- or pump-action rifle. The semiauto Model 1907 produces less disruption to the sight picture and involves zero hand movement for repeated shots.
The factory sights comprise a fully adjustable Buckhorn rear sight and blade front sight. A factory peep, or aperture, rear sight was a factory option. The benchrest accuracy is somewhat hampered, both by these open iron sights and the duty-oriented trigger pull. It is perfect for police operations but not so much for match and target shooting. The official accuracy numbers for the Model 1907 are 3.5-MOA with iron sights. We got 3.3-MOA with a 180-grain jacketed soft point; 3.5-MOA with a 180-grain full metal jacket; and 3.7-MOA with a 170-grain flatpoint lead.
Today, new factory ammunition using new cartridge cases is readily available from several reloaders and can be easily found via a Web search. Load-X Ammunition in California does good work. New 351 WSL ammo comes in jacketed soft point, full metal jacket, totally copper plated, and swaged, flatpoint lead bullets. That said, the Model 1907 is expensive to shoot at $1.35 to $2.65 per round.
We fired the .351 WSL 180-grain jacketed soft point into a block of ballistic gelatin. It penetrated 27 inches. I’ve been doing gelatin testing for 30 years, and I could not tell any difference in the wound channel between this .35-caliber 180-grain soft point and the .30-caliber 170-grain soft point from the 30-30 Win. The .351 WSL makes up in caliber what it gives up in energy.
Think of the .351 WSL as a reduced-recoil .30-30. The Model 1907 is a true deer rifle that “shoots through steel“. No wonder it dominated law enforcement during the gangster era, becoming America’s first police rifle.
About the Author
Lieutenant Ed Sanow is the patrol rifle instructor and the director of training with the Benton County, Indiana, Sheriff’s Department and co-author of three ammo stopping-power books.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the August 2017 print issue of Gun World Magazine.