Police Rifles Then and Now

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.

Roy Huntington Headshot

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

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.

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

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 1907 Winchester

Ballistics for the .351 read like a classic article from a gun magazine in the '20s. It throws a 180-grain jacketed soft point bullet at a nominal velocity of around 1,850 feet per second (fps). While it sounds mellow by today's standards, I wouldn't want to stand in front of accurate, aimed fire that tops a .357 Magnum by another 50 percent. The factory-supplied five-round magazine could be augmented by a ten rounder, and there are examples of 20-round mags being cobbled together by home-town gunsmiths.

Think on it for a moment. This handy rifle, at only around eight pounds, offered one of the very first semi-auto capabilities to law enforcement and at ballistics that topped virtually any small carbine-sized rifle at the time, most of which were lever actions like the Winchester Model '92 in pistol calibers. Even today, this round will punch through a modern vehicle's sheet metal like butter, probably penetrate most soft body armor, and change any miscreant's channel permanently. And it's almost 100 years old.

The general ergonomics quickly make themselves apparent when you handle the rifle. It's reminiscent of the G.I. .30 Carbine, only much more accurate and hitting much harder. Although a bit heavy by modern standards, the extra weight calmed the recoil down to almost non-existent levels and made rapid, accurate fire easy for anyone in need of a problem-solver.

The unique bolt-operating feature of the 1907 deserves note. This ground-breaking semi-auto was developed in the very earliest days of the concept. As such, things were being tried that we may think of today as being quaint, but in actuality worked extremely well for the intended role.

Being a straight blowback, the bolt is connected to a weight that runs inside of the walnut fore-end. The collective mass of both parts slows the recoil impulse of the powerful round and makes operation possible. Otherwise, a locked breech would be necessary along with corresponding complications in operating systems. No gas tubes, no locking bolts, just simplicity itself. Perhaps there's something to be learned there?

The cocking rod protrudes from the front of the fore-end, and, while it seems awkward at first, you soon get used to it, and it feels quite natural, since your hand's there anyway. Is the bolt operating rod on an AR platform any less weird, I wonder? The safety on the 1907 is naturally placed under the trigger finger, like a Remington 870, and I'd hazard a guess it would take minimal training to transition a modern cop to this rifle.

Ruger Police Carbines or even H&K MP5s-in all honesty-don't have anything on this rifle. Roast me if you will, but I can't think of anything this gun won't do in today's mean streets. Ditto for the Remington Model 8.

Shooting the 1907 was a delight. Recoil was modest and follow-up shots easy. I shot it at 50 yards and found rested groups at around the one-inch mark. Some shots at the 100-yard, 12-inch gong found it ringing every time. Due to the ammunition situation, my testing on the range was limited to 20 rounds.

But in that short time, I realized that this rifle is immediately addicting and there is no reason why it couldn't work in a beat car today. Of course, an agency would probably have to pay $2,000 for it due to the high level of workmanship and materials involved. Too bad.

Remington Model 8

As elegant as a 1930s-era Packard, the Model 8 is unique in many respects. The first is the fact our test gun fires an honest rifle cartridge, the .35 Remington. With a 150-grain bullet at around 2,400 fps, the Model 8 was-and still is-a contender in the power curve.

With the explosion of pistol-caliber carbines today, a true rifle caliber in a police rifle is getting to be almost a rarity. The .223 is certainly in the forefront, but when it comes to problem-solving, the .30 caliber or larger rules. Equate the .35 Remington to a modern .30-30 load or almost a .308. Serious medicine in anyone's book.

That word, "ergonomics," seems to want to creep in again here. Handy but serious, the Model 8 comes to the shoulder quickly and easily, perhaps in direct contradiction to its unusual lines.

With the built-in five-round magazine, there's enough firepower to handle most situations. In the heyday years of the Model 8's involvement in law enforcement, makers offered 10- and even 20-round magazines for it. Picture a 20-round, semiauto, Winchester 30-30 and you'll have an idea of why this gun was so popular. Just ask Fank Hamer and look at the morgue photos of Bonnie and Clyde to see the results of when the Model 8 spoke.

The really nifty thing about the rifle is the fact in those kinder, gentler times, it was not unusual to travel on a trolley or train with your rifle. Consequently, the Model 8 is a "take-down" rifle and breaks in two quickly and with some elegance. Perhaps another lesson here?

Shooting revealed yet another surprise. Since ammo is commercially available, I shot for groups and found it was possible to manage less than 2 inches at 100 yards, with iron sights. I was fortunate the test rifle came with a factory receiver sight and that may have made the difference. Nonetheless, the performance was, and still is, impressive. As one by-stander said, "That's a pretty cool old rifle you've got there." I couldn't have said it better myself.

Long Arm of the Law

Perhaps the lessons here are two-fold. A rifle in the hands of a police officer is something no one should be surprised to see. From the earliest days, cops have relied upon rifle fire to quell the bad guys. The other-and perhaps more important lesson-is the fact we need to learn to rely on reliable, tried-and-true technology in the field when possible.

The examples shown by these two rifles illustrate once again, it's the man behind the gun that matters, and, even today, 100-year-old rifle technology could still rule the field if needed. It simply depends on the man behind the gun.

Remington Model 8

Caliber: .35 Remington
Barrel length: 22 inches
Weight: 8 pounds
Action: Semiauto, locked breech
Magazine: 5 rounds
Construction: Blue steel and walnut
Production: 80,000

1907 Winchester

Caliber: .351 S.L.
Barrel length: 20 inches
Weight: about 8 pounds
Action: Semiauto, blow-back
Magazine: 5 rounds
Construction: Blue steel and walnut
Production: 57,000 (approx.)

Roy Huntington is the editor of American Handgunner magazine, as well as a member of the Police advisory board, and he would like to gloat a bit and say he owns the two rifles tested.

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