WINCHESTER MODEL 21 - 50 Famous Firearms You've Got to Own: Rick Hacker's Bucket List of Guns (2015)

50 Famous Firearms You've Got to Own: Rick Hacker's Bucket List of Guns (2015)


After a long quest by the author, this Model 21 is finally back in the field. The hand-checkered buttstock is protected by a Galco recoil pad, which also adds a half-inch to the length of pull.

I suspect I’m not the only one who does this, but sometimes I lie awake at night thinking about certain guns that I simply must have, no matter how costly or rare they may be. As a matter of fact, that’s how this book got started. As an example, for decades I felt this way about the Winchester Model 21, technically and aesthetically the finest shotgun ever created by American craftsmen and perfected by American ingenuity. Produced by Winchester Repeating Arms Company from 1930 until 1988 (after 1981, it was under the auspices of U.S. Repeating Arms Company), this side-by-side boxlock was the ultimate smoothbore for serious upland and waterfowl hunters, as well as for highly competitive trap and skeet shooters.

It took seven years of development by T.C. Johnson, Winchester’s chief designer, and further refinement by Edwin Pugsley, their factory manager who would go on to become its vice president, but the company had created a masterpiece. Interestingly, it was the first double-barreled shotgun Winchester ever produced, as all of its previous side-by-sides had been imported.

The Winchester 21 owed its fame to a number of manufacturing techniques and design features that had never before been incorporated in a side-by-side shotgun. For one, the action broke open at an unusually shallow angle, to reduce ejecting and reloading time. Moreover, the Model 21 ignored traditional shotgun manufacturing techniques by foregoing the standard practice of brazing the twin barrels together, a process that often weakened the steel. Instead, the right and left tubes were each forged with an integral chopper lump lug, which, in turn, was cut with a dovetail that locked into the corresponding dovetail of the matching barrel and then soldered. Winchester referred to this as its “interlocking grip.” Because of the incredible strength of these dovetailed barrels, the Model 21 didn’t require a rib extension. To give additional strength to this already muscular design, the receiver and barrels were forged of Winchester’s proprietary chrome molybdenum “Proof Steel,” which was developed especially for the Model 21, but, because of its unprecedented durability, ended up being used for other Winchester firearms, as well.

Hacker proudly poses with his Model 21, after taking these Nebraska pheasants.

The entire shotgun was so well machined and the parts matched to such close tolerances that it could easily withstand over 2,000 high-velocity “proof loads,” a feat that, in an actual field test, completely decimated the actions of other top-grade American shotguns, including the sidelock L.C. Smith and the venerable Parker boxlock. Only the Model 21 emerged unscathed from this grueling trial, a fact that was subsequently touted in ads featuring the surviving rock-solid Model 21 resting atop a stack of spent proof load casings, dramatic testimony to the gun’s mechanical superiority.

Of course, all these innovations came with a high price tag. Making its ill-timed appearance on the eve of The Great Depression, the Model 21 was an extremely expensive shotgun to produce and sell. In fact, if not for John Olin, whose Western Cartridge Company purchased Winchester Repeating Arms in 1931, the Model 21 would have been discontinued because of its unprofitability, its unsurpassed excellence as a sporting arm notwithstanding. But Olin was an avid wingshooter who knew a good thing when he saw it, and he devoted the rest of his life not only to keeping the Model 21 in the line, but improving and upgrading it. Under his direction, the original double triggers were replaced with a sturdy single trigger that featured a push-button barrel selector, a faultless inertia-driven design that was regulated to the trigger pull (thus making “doubling” impossible), and which was the brainchild of Louis Stiennon, one of Winchester’s research and development men. That innovation has since been copied by numerous other companies.

The Model 21’s inertia-driven single selective trigger prevents doubling and enables the shooter to choose either right or left barrel by pushing the button to the right or left. Originally developed by Louis Stiennon, one of Winchester’s research and development men, it has never been improved upon.

Because of the incredible strength of the “interlocking grip” dovetailed barrels, the Model 21 does not require a rib extension.

In addition, the Model 21’s splinter fore-end was reshaped into a more hand-filling beavertail, first offered as an option in 1934, but becoming standard by 1941. Whether it was the plain Field Grade, the specialized Trap, Tournament, Skeet, or Duck (Magnum) models or, in later years, the more elaborately engraved and artistically checkered Custom Built, Deluxe, and Custom Deluxe grades and the stratospherically priced Pigeon Grade and Grand American showpieces, the Winchester 21 had evolved into the epitome of a classic, side-by-side American shotgun. And, in the true spirit of American equality, no matter what its grade or price tag, internally every Model 21 exhibited the same superb degree of mechanical perfection and workmanship. When that boxlock action softly snapped shut, it locked up tighter than the hatch on a Bradley Fighting Vehicle.

The author’s Skeet Model 21, with 26-inch barrels and ventilated rib, was shipped from the factory on December 12, 1946.

Even back in my early pre-gun writing days, I sensed this shotgun was unique. My hunting buddies often spoke of it in hushed tones, as if it were something sacred. In gun stores, there were nodding heads and murmurs of reverence among customers of the fabled Winchester 21. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one to come under this double gun’s spell, and, as I learned more of the Model 21’s attributes, it only increased my desire to own one.

My acquisition of this shotgun was perpetually thwarted by its high price tag, always just out of reach of my meager budget. By the 1980s, when my income had finally risen to a point where I thought I could afford a Model 21, I was shocked to discover that the cost of a new plain Field Grade had also risen. It was now over $5,000, and an engraved Custom Grade would break the bank (my bank, for sure), at more than $11,000. Once the gun was discontinued, prices on the higher grades and rarer 20- and 28-gauges and the scarce .410-bore rose even more. Besides, with only an estimated 32,500 guns having been made, there just weren’t that many Winchester Model 21s around; they never wore out, and shooters who owned them obviously were in no hurry to get rid of them.

Occasionally, I would find a used Model 21, but they invariably featured options that priced them well out of any negotiating range. At one point, I lucked into a Field Grade 12-gauge in the used gun racks of a favorite sporting goods store. Even though the gun had been reblued and featured a non-factory Simmons ventilated rib, the price was $4,500 (the Model 21 is one of the few collectibles in which wear and refinishing don’t seem to affect value as dramatically as they do with other guns). A bit steep, I thought, as I left the shop and drove home. Then something snapped: What was I thinking? Here was my dream gun, the first one I had seen for sale in years. Go back and buy it, you idiot! The next day, I returned to the shop, armed with a bevy of credit cards. As I entered, an empty spot in the gun rack confirmed my fears. During my brief absence, the gun had been sold! As my long-suffering wife can attest, that was a sad day at Hacker House.

Undaunted, I continued my search. At one point, I discovered that my friend, the late cowboy movie star Roy Rogers, had an exquisite two-gun set of Grand Americans, each with a separate set of barrels.

“Would you like to see them?” Roy asked one afternoon, as I was telling him about my quest for a Model 21. I began mumbling incoherently and salivating, which Roy took to mean “Yes.” Years ago, he had visited the Winchester factory to be measured for the stocks and to select engraving patterns for these fabulous guns. After all, no matter what its grade, the Model 21 was always a hand-built firearm, and Winchester offered any option the customer wanted and could afford. Each of Roy’s Grand Americans sported finely figured, fleur de lis-carved, black walnut stocks and was fully engraved with gold inlays of Roy, Trigger, his dog Bullet, and other western and hunting motifs. Roy was an excellent shotgunner and occasionally competed with these showpieces. I, of course, would have been settled for a plain 12-gauge Field Grade, should I ever again stumble onto one that was affordable.

A few years later, at the Wally Beinfeld International Sporting Arms Show held each year in Las Vegas, I thought that day had finally arrived. It’s worth the price of admission just to see some of the world’s finest rifles and shotguns on display and for sale. And it was here that I discovered the Mecca of Winchester Model 21s—every grade, gauge, and barrel length, with price tags to match. Entranced, I was able to cover only half the show and decided to return the next day to continue my quest. On the way back to my hotel, I shared a cab with a fellow who seemed remarkably happy.

“Get anything good at the show?” I asked, curious as to the cause of his beaming countenance.

“You bet!” he enthused. “I just bought the shotgun of my dreams.”

“What was it?” I had a bad feeling about this.

“A Model 21!”

I was immediately filled with a mixture of admiration and blatant envy. “What did you have to give for it?” I dreaded asking, but I had to.

Wide-eyed, he turned to me and said, “Only $2,500. Can you believe it?”

Don’t get me wrong; I was happy this guy had struck the mother lode. But I couldn’t help thinking that, if I’d walked the show a little bit longer or a little bit faster, that gun could have been mine! Needless to say, there were no other $2,500 Model 21s at the International Sporting Arms Show the next day. Or the next year.

Then, once again fate dealt me a hand that made me believe ownership of a Winchester 21 might become a possibility. At the annual Shooting Hunting Outdoor Trade (SHOT) Show, a trade event for firearms dealers and manufacturers, I met Anthony Galazan, owner of Connecticut Shotgun Manufacturing Company. Tony had purchased all the remaining inventory of Model 21 parts and machinery when USRC ceased manufacturing the shotgun. CSMS is now the official factory repair center for Winchester 21s and has resurrected the production of custom Model 21s but, of course, without the Winchester logo. Naturally, I told Tony of my eternally frustrating pursuit of this fabled and elusive shotgun.

“Come on down and visit my factory,” Tony offered. “I’ve got the largest selection of Model 21s anywhere.”

Indeed he had, for Tony has been buying up all the Model 21s he can find (contributing, I might add, to their scarcity on the open market). As it just so happened, a few months later I was in Connecticut on a business trip. I extended my stay an extra day to visit the Galazan operation. Tony’s factory is a beehive of activity, with craftsmen busily hand-building Model 21s just, I imagined, as they must have done at the Winchester plant many years ago. Bluing, engraving, hand fitting of parts—it was like stepping into a time warp. But the best part was the showroom, a wood paneled shrine of shotguns that lined the walls—Parkers, Remingtons, L.C. Smiths, indeed, double guns of all vintages and descriptions. And there, taking up one whole wall, was a case full of Winchester 21s, some all original, others reconditioned by CSMC to “factory mint.”

“Why don’t you look around and see if there’s something you like,” Tony offered.

Left alone in the room, I began to hyperventilate as I picked up and examined virtually every Winchester 21 in the place. By this time I knew what I wanted: a single trigger, pistol-grip gun with open chokes for upland wingshooting (no way was I going to take a shotgun like the Model 21 into a wet, muddy duck blind). After a couple hours, I had selected three Model 21s that fit me and my criteria. I laid each of them on a table and called for Tony to come in, all set to do some hard and fast wheeling and dealing for one of them. This was as close as I had ever gotten and I was fully prepared to max out my credit cards and end my quest that very day. But, after hearing me out and glancing at the three shotguns on the table, Tony said, “Listen, you’ve waited so long for a Model 21, why don’t you let me build a gun for you? That way you’ll have exactly what you want—chokes, beads, everything. It will be made to measure and I’ll even put some fancy wood on it.”

By golly, he was right—why shouldn’t I have the ultimate custom-made shotgun? Okay, so I wouldn’t leave Connecticut with my goals finally attained, but I would, eventually, get a Model 21, even though it wouldn’t have the Winchester name stamped on the barrels. So I agreed. We never discussed price, but CSMC Model 21s are not cheap. However, I rationalized the decision by thinking this would probably be the only shotgun I would ever need. And so I got professionally measured for the stock: length of pull, cast on, cast off, drop at heel, grip at comb, all the same criteria Winchester called for on its original Model 21 order forms. If I was going to plunge into debt, I was going to do it in style.

I sent my measurements to Tony, along with my choice of chokes, WS-1 and WS-2, Winchester’s well-researched Skeet combination known for its superb close-range patterning. And then I waited. And waited. Bird season came and went. Twice. At the next SHOT Show, I caught up with Tony. To his credit, he was trying to save me money by looking for an original Model 21 receiver, which evidently was harder to find than original guns. Of course, he was also busy filling orders for his A.H. Fox doubles, as well as his Galazan Over & Under and Round Body Sidelock, both of which feature no visible screws or pins. Another year passed, and this time I saw Tony at the Las Vegas show. He had Model 21s on his table, but he had convinced me: after so many years, I wasn’t going to settle for anything that wasn’t exactly to my specifications. Again I was advised that the wait would be worth it. I had to admit, CSMC’s Model 21s looked every bit as good as the original Winchesters. The problem was, I began to fear that if I ever I got the gun, I would be too old to shoot it.

Then, one day, as I was perusing Cabela’s latest catalog, I noticed a blurb on the order form for the Cabela’s Gun Library. I must have glanced over this innocuous announcement numerous times, always thinking it was a listing for gun books. This time I read it. “We Buy Guns, Antique and Modern,” it said. Of course, it was just like wine libraries. Older, high-end collectibles. I immediately got on the phone to Cabela’s flagship store in Sidney, Nebraska. With trepidation, I asked if they had any Model 21s in stock. The Gun Library manager pulled up his computer listings for all seven Cabela’s stores. They had 16 of them! But, by now, my lengthy search had made me even more specific about the gun I wanted.

“Listen,” I said, “it’s got to be a 12-gauge, with a pistol grip, and have 26-inch barrels with a ventilated rib, and choked WS-1 and WS-2. And another thing; it’s got to have above average wood.”

A moment passed while the manager searched through the 16 guns on his computer screen. “Well, look at this!” he exclaimed. “Our Michigan store has a Model 21 in 12-gauge with a pistol grip, factory vent rib, 26-inch barrels choked Skeet 1 and Skeet 2 … and its got the prettiest wood you ever saw!”

I had him e-mail me a jpeg image of the gun, which I used as a screensaver for weeks afterwards. Cabela’s Gun Library manager was more than accommodating. Learning I had a December deer hunt scheduled in Nebraska, he offered to have the gun shipped from their Michigan store to Sydney. They would hold it for me so that I could see it firsthand after my hunt. Was that service or what?

From Cabela’s, I obtained the Model 21’s serial number and contacted the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, where, for a fee, they can supply information from Winchester factory records. It turned out that this particular Skeet model was shipped on December 12, 1946. Unfortunately, it was not only used but abused, for it was returned to Winchester on February 28, 1979, for a complete overhaul, which included rebuilding the receiver, rebluing the barrels, and refinishing the wood. Then it went off to a new owner, who took much better care of it, until he finally sold it to Cabela’s. In short, to use the Gun Library manager’s words, it was “as close to a factory new Winchester 21 as you’re likely to get.” In addition to this research, I paid a modest fee to verify the approximate value by contacting the Preferred Customer Service division of Steve Fjestad’s Blue Book Publications. After all, in spite of Cabela’s extremely competitive prices, this was still going to be a major purchase for me. The Blue Book report was money well spent for the peace of mind it brought.

Cabela’s store in Sidney is huge, but, after my hunt, I rushed past the racks of outdoor gear, stuffed wildlife dioramas, and Christmas decorations and headed straight for the Gun Library, a separate area from the regular sporting guns department. Inside the gun-filled room, the manager and his assistant were waiting with the Model 21. I took it from them like a long lost friend and threw it up to my shoulder. As expected, the factory’s standard 14-inch length of pull was a little short for me, but, when they slipped on a leather Galco recoil pad (which also protected the hand-checkered butt), the fit was perfect.

“Maybe you’d like to take it out and shoot some pheasants,” the manager joked. Plenty of time for that, I thought, as we wrote up the sales receipt and arranged for an FFL delivery. Later on, I called Tony and changed my order. I now wanted one of his new Model 21 Over & Unders, which he had just started building at a very competitive introductory price. It would be a perfect companion double. But for now, almost 70 years since it was originally shipped from the New Haven factory, my quest for a Winchester Model 21 was over.