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Police Rifles Then and Now

The beautiful craftsmanship and deadly accuracy of antique police rifles match any in today’s squad cars.

March 01, 2003  |  by Huntington, Roy

An appropriate setting for three classics: Remington’s Model 8, Winchester’s 1907, and a 1940 Packard.

Sometimes it's a good idea to re-visit our past in order to learn about the present-and this is one of those times. Lest we forget some historical precedence, it might be a good idea to look at the first of the "modern" police rifles. Be prepared to swallow some pride. It seems we haven't come quite as far as we'd often like to think.

Blued Steel and Wood

Think of the .351 loading of the Winchester 1907 as a very hot-loaded .357 Magnum and you’ll get an idea of what’s going on.

One thing obvious, right off the bat, about our test rifles from the turn of the century, is the fact they are beautifully made. All steel and solid walnut, the Winchester Model 1907 .351 S.L. (for "Self Loader") autoloader and the Remington Model 8 in .35 Remington are, simply put, stunning examples of the gunmaker's craft.

Keeping in mind these were average production versions, the care and attention to detail is something that should be the envy of any gunmaker today. These were "real" guns for "real" lawmen of the old school-and you can see it.

While the word sinister might be a bit strong, there is a certain authoritative air about both rifles that instills confidence when you heft them. A bit of old Hoppe's No. 9 solvent smell seems to linger in their actions and it's a very short trip to imagine them in the hands of lawmen the likes of former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, who used a Model 8 to end the murderous careers of Bonnie and Clyde.

(From left) the .351 and .35 Remington can still hold their own against today’s typical police cartridges, like the .223 and the .308.

When the action is cycled on either rifle, the feel of hardened steel sliding in oiled ways is immediately addictive. The term "old world craftsmanship" is often bandied about, but you actually have it in your hands with these rifles. These were built when old men stood at wooden work benches and used tools like fine files and stones to hone actions. Their knowledge about the craft came only after decades at that same bench. That's a far cry, indeed, from plastic moldings and metal stampings assembled by semi-skilled workers who grab parts from bins and rivet them together with a pneumatic punch.

Indeed, "cutting-edge technology" in 1900 was sperm whale oil for the action and a "new-fangled" optical sight. Of course, we all realize this kind of attention to detail can't happen today in a production rifle, but these rifles teach us things, nonetheless. One of the most important lessons is that design and function remain the single most important traits of a police rifle. Today that lesson is just as important (perhaps more important?) as it was a hundred years ago, when these guns first caught the eye of a generation of "hard-case" cops.

Some 70 years ago when Hamer stood in that back-country Louisiana road and faced off against Bonnie and Clyde, his Remington Model 8 was in his hands-and he knew it would perform. If you see a photo of the front windshield of Clyde's "death Ford," you'll notice two palm-sized groups of bullet holes, one in each pane of the windshield. First Clyde, then Bonnie. The critical role of the rifle in that fight is obvious when you learn that all the officers involved used rifles, including one who shot a Browning Automatic Rifle in .30-06. It was a serious fight and they came seriously prepared.

As Clint Smith, founder and Director of Thunder Ranch says, "A handgun is a good thing to use to fight your way to your rifle." Those lawmen knew they were going to confront death and didn't rely on their handguns as a first line of defense. It seems rifle fire was known to be the final authority, even in those early years of modern law enforcement. It remains so today.

Real World Performance

When was the last time you saw a sight of this quality on a production police rifle today? This folding tang sight nestles snugly on the rear of the Remington Model 8.

In order to understand what role rifles played in those often dramatic years early in the last century, I decided to actually test these two classic rifles.

How accurate are they really? How different are the ballistics from today's modern cartridges, and how do the handling characteristics differ from the plastic and cast guns today?

I was fortunate enough to find these two virtually mint specimens and found that ammo is readily available for the Remington Model 8 and, while the Winchester 1907 .351 gave me fits, I was able to find some ammo eventually.

Both rifles were popular in their day, both as sporting rifles for the general public and-especially in the case of the 1907-as law enforcement rifles. The Remington Model 8 was the darling of the prison system until the 1930s and the heavy, but excellent Winchester 1907 lasted until the late 1960s, since it was actually manufactured through 1957. The 1907's most popular chambering is for the .351, a straight-walled cartridge that might be best described as a hot .357 Magnum. Today, ammo is easily made from .357 Maximum cases and some gentle nursing at a lathe.

The quality and workmanship are obvious on the Remington Model 8—no plastic here.

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Comments (2)

Displaying 1 - 2 of 2

michael garner @ 12/1/2011 11:39 AM

that's a nice story and i love rem. model 8s i have one in 32 rem. a dream to shoot and reload for. but frank hamer did not use his 8 that day, he had a colt moniter that day, a semi auto version of the bar. but prentis oakley had his in 35 rem. and he was the first to fire hitting clyde in the head and blowing his brains out. check it all out on the texas hideout web site.

Kevin Collier @ 2/27/2012 11:14 AM

Very enjoyable! Thanks a bunch.

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