Martially marked World War I Winchester Model 97 trench guns; separating fact from fiction.
Posted by Bruce Canfield
Among the most popular and sought after U.S. military shotguns are the Winchester M1897 trench guns. This was the first officially adopted military issue combat shotgun and was the prototype for such weapons even through the present day. As most collectors are aware, the term “trench gun” refers to a short barrel riot type shotgun having a bayonet adapter and protective hand guard. The term “trench gun” was actually short-lived as military nomenclature but is now widely used by collectors to differentiate these weapons from other types of shotguns such as the plain barrel riot guns.
The shotgun was initially adopted as a trench warfare tool by the Americans soon after our entry into the First World War. Shotguns had been in limited use for combat and other purposes for many years prior to WWI but no combat versions had been officially standardized. The Winchester Model 1897 was selected to be our first combat shotgun due to its availability and proven success in the commercial marketplace. A unique bayonet adapter unit with an integral ventilated sheet metal hand guard was jointly developed by Winchester and the government’s Springfield Armory for use with the newly adopted weapon. The bayonet adapter was designed for use with the Model 1917 rifle bayonet since this item was in mass production by Winchester (and Remington) and large numbers were available. The new “trench gun” was initially tested by several U.S. Army units in the summer of 1918 and by early fall began to be issued to front line combat outfits. Remington Arms Company also delivered a relatively small number of trench guns based on their Model 10 slide action shotgun. The M10 trench guns utilized an entirely different type of bayonet adapter and separate wooden hand guard as compared to the Winchester trench gun. Both types, however, were designed for use with the M1917 rifle bayonet. Winchester delivered over 25,000 M97 trench guns to the government during WWI and Remington a much smaller number of M10 trench guns (possibly just a 1,000 or so). In addition, a number of plain barrel riot guns of both types (M97 and M10) were also produced.
The trench gun only saw limited use prior to the Armistice in November of 1918 but quickly garnered a reputation as an effective and fearsome close combat weapon. Large numbers were beginning to come into front line service as the war ended. The First World War vintage Winchester Model 1897 or “97” trench gun is rather easily identified. The weapon was essentially a standard 12 ga. Winchester Model 97 shotgun with a 20” cylinder bore barrel and fitted with the afore-mentioned hand guard/bayonet adapter assembly. Sling swivels were fitted to the bottom of the adapter and the bottom of the butt stock for use with the standard service rifle slings of the period. The guns were finished in standard commercial grade blue and had uncheckered walnut stocks and grooved forend slides. The weapons were stamped with standard Winchester factory markings on the barrel. Normally, hallmarks of military issue shotguns are the various types of martial markings stamped on the receiver, barrel and/or stock to denote acceptance into military service and government ownership. For example, all known original Remington Model 10 trench guns were stamped on the receiver with the initials “US” and well as the Ordnance Department’s “flaming bomb” insignia. The “US”, of course, indicates that the weapon was United States property and the “flaming bomb” signifies that the weapon had passed all ordnance inspections and was accepted into service. During WWII, military issue shotguns of all types were marked with a number of various types of U.S. military markings including, in some cases, final inspection stamps on the stocks.
However, for some reason, a number of World War I vintage Winchester Model 97 trench guns known to have been procured by the government were not stamped with martial markings of any sort. These weapons were fitted with the proper hand guard/bayonet adapter assemblies and sling swivels but had only the Winchester commercial markings. On the other hand, a number of weapons of this type have been observed stamped with “US” and flaming bomb markings similar to those found on the Remington Model 10 trench guns. The format and placement of these markings on the WWI vintage M97 trench guns are generally extremely consistent. They were stamped on the right side of the receiver above the ejection port and were obviously applied by hand due to the misalignment of the letters.
Collectors and students of the subject today have logically wondered why some guns of this type were martially marked while others weren’t. Unfortunately, this situation has led to some unwarranted and careless speculation; hence the purpose of this discussion. As readers of my previous books and articles probably know, I try to take great pains to separate fact from speculation. There is nothing wrong with speculation if it is clearly labeled as such and has some logical basis from which to assert the speculation. In the course of researching my book, Complete Guide to U.S. Combat Shotguns, I sifted through reams upon reams of government reports from the 1917-1945 period regarding military shotguns and was unable to find anything relating to this subject. We will discuss what is known on the subject, some theories that have been expounded and, hopefully, some reasonable points to consider. It must be stressed, however, that unless irrefutable official documentation is discovered, the question will remain open.
Determining what is known on the subject to be unquestionably true is easy:
- Some Model 97 trench guns known to have been purchased by the United States government during the WWI period were stamped with the above-described martial markings and some weren’t.
- All known Remington Model 10 trench guns of the same vintage were stamped with martial markings.
- Military shotguns procured after World War I were normally stamped with martial markings of some sort.
I don’t believe anyone can rationally argue with the above points. However, the question remains why some of these WWI Model 97 trench guns were martially marked and some weren’t. Unfortunately, some collectors and persons interested in the subject have proposed theories that have been accepted as gospel by others and have been repeated as fact in subsequent articles and books. The most ubiquitous theory is that the martial markings were applied sometime after the World War I period when some trench guns were distributed to the United States Post Office Department in the 1920s. The theory is that these guns were so marked to identify them as government issue weapons. It has also been widely reported in many of the same sources that 20% of the weapons were martially marked and the remaining government owned M97 trench guns were never stamped with military markings.
While one cannot prove a negative, there is no credible government documentation (at least that I and several other advanced collectors are aware of) to confirm the fact that such guns were martially marked in the 1920s when some were transferred to the Post Office or anywhere else. Likewise, the 20% figure appears to have been plucked out of thin air or, possibly, is based on a very small sample of observed shotguns. For example, if five shotguns of this type are seen and only one is martially marked, one could infer that only 20% were so marked. While this might be true of the sample of five, no reasonable statistician would even begin to draw any hard and fast conclusions based on a non-scientifically drawn sample of 5 guns, 25 guns or 250 guns out of a universe of over 25,000 guns. Unfortunately, this 20% figure has been repeated so many times that is now accepted as fact by some collectors. This percentage is extremely questionable and it is foolhardy to give it any credence whatsoever without demonstrable government documentation.
As far as the business about marking the guns after WWI prior to the transfer of some to the Post Office, this is likewise highly suspect. Like many myths, it has a grain of truth. Some First World War vintage M97 trench guns were definitely transferred to the Post Office during the rash of mail robberies in the 1920s. However, most of the security for the mails during this period was provided by the U.S. Marine Corps and some of the marines were armed with M97 trench guns. (There is an interesting photo of a marine guarding the mails during this period in my combat shotgun book.) This brings up a logical question… Since the Post Office and USMC were branches of the United States government, what would have been the point in going to the trouble of stamping such weapons to denote government ownership when they never left government service?
This, of course, still doesn’t address the reason for marked vs. unmarked guns. To reasonably explore this issue, one must look at the military procurement practices of the time. Unlike many military weapons that were only built under contract, such as the M1917 rifle, the M97 trench gun was nothing more than a slightly modified civilian gun that was pressed into government service. These guns were apparently manufactured by Winchester and delivered to several ordnance facilities for subsequently shipment to other army units. As stated, the war ended before many of the trench guns could be issued. Therefore, by no means, were all of the approximately 25,000 that were manufactured actually issued. This meant that a number of the guns were sitting in various ordnance depots after the Armistice and never issued to the troops.
It seems a more logical assumption that the martially marked guns were those that were actually issued. In addition to denoting government ownership, the Ordnance Department “flaming bomb” insignia often served to identify weapons that passed inspection and were accepted into military service. This logically explains why some guns were martially marked and some weren’t. The guns that passed inspection were then hand-stamped to denote this and issued to the troops. The guns that remained in packing crates after the war and not issued had no need to be so marked and weren’t. Many were subsequently disposed of and were never martially marked. They were, of course, government owned guns but were not issued during the WWI era as were the martially marked guns.
There are several things that give credence to this assumption. It is inarguable that the non-martially-marked Model 1897 trench guns were not military weapons (double negative sentence!). This is proven by the acquisition of the “Ivanhoe” guns which were 70+ unmodified Model 1897 trench guns acquired by the Richmond (VA) Police Department in the early 1920s from the Virginia National Guard. The military provenance for those guns is unquestioned. None were martially marked. All were former Army (National Guard) weapons.
Secondly, there were some Winchester M1894 .30-30 carbines procured by the government during the 1917-1918 period for issue as supplementary martial arms (stateside guard use, etc.). These were stamped with martial markings identical to those found on the WWI martially marked M97 trench guns. I don’t believe any of these were sent to the Post Office Department after the war! These carbines were certainly marked during the same time period they were issued. Why would one expect the trench guns to be treated any differently? Both were commercial weapons procured under government contract from Winchester and stamped with the exact same type of marital markings. It is not logical to believe that one type of weapon was marked at the time it was accepted into government service in 1917-1918 and the other type was not marked until it supposedly “left” government service five or ten years later. Also, as stated, all (or at least the overwhelming majority) of the Remington Model 10 trench guns extant are martially marked. Since the M10 was made in much smaller numbers than the M97, it is reasonable to conclude that a much larger percentage were actually issued than was the case with the M97.
There can certainly be reasonable disagreement on the subject and divergent viewpoints are to be expected. However, unless unquestioned documentation is presented, all theories and assumptions must remain as strictly speculation. While most collectors would probably prefer to obtain a martially marked specimen, the fact remains that any World War I vintage Model 97 trench gun in decent condition, martially marked or not, is a desirable and interesting collectible. One must be very cautious when asserting an opinion or repeating someone else’s opinions. There are too many supposed “facts” floating around out there that are not true to spread any more. When someone expounds on the fact that only 20% of the Winchester Model 97 trench guns are martially marked and those are the ones that were not issued, ask for proof. The fact it may have been printed in some article or pamphlet does not necessarily constitute proof. Skepticism is a healthy and desirable trait for martial collectors.