Winchester Model 37

Stone-simple, single-shot .410 perfection

From top: Winchester Model 37, Iver Johnson Champion, Steven 940D.
All full-choked .410s with an external hammer.

No, it’s not a 3-1/2" 10-gauge but countless turkey and other smaller game
have had terminal encounters with the venerable .410 in the Model 37.

If you’re fortunate to shoot long enough, you’ll probably develop a fetish for specific types of guns. I’m no exception — I could in fact be Exhibit A, as I happen to be a sucker for .410 shotguns. My love isn’t always the usual high-dollar vintage items like Winchester’s M42 pump, scaled-down Browning O/Us or even Remington 1100 autos.

I’m talking about relatively inexpensive, out-of-print American-made break-open single-shots made by Harrington and Richardson, Iver Johnson and Stevens. And, of course, perhaps the coolest and most desirable of them all — Winchester’s Model 37 — made from 1937 to 1963.

With a 28" barre, a 44" OAL and a weight of 6 lbs., the Model 37 .410 isn’t
the smallest vintage single shot to be had but it’s plenty nimble.

Scaling Down

When I first got bit by the sub-gauge bug, my initial impulse — against all my better judgement — was to go all the way down the size scale to a .410. No stopovers at 28 gauge. After all, why fool around? And since anything above and beyond a budget single shot was out of the question economically at the time, I used a couple of utility items for a couple of years — specifically a late ’40s Iver Johnson Champion and an early ’60s Stevens 940D.

Truth be told I couldn’t find a Winchester M37, a real prize. I became acquainted with it on long-ago dove hunts with my cousin Mike, who used an M37, but in a more serious and popular 20-gauge chambering.

Like all vintage Winchesters with a moderate price tag and a long production life, the Model 37 fits the time-worn description of “a lot of gun for the money,” joining the ranks of Winchester’s excellent Model 67 and 69 .22 bolt actions. When it premiered during the Depression, the MSRP was around nine bucks. Not to seem overly nostalgic — or bitter — but the price wouldn’t cover a 25-round box of Winchester AA .410 skeet loads today!

During the course of its production run, the workhorse Model 37 was offered in 12, 16, 20 and 28 gauges as well as .410 bore. Barrel lengths ran from 26″ to 32″. It featured a walnut stock and a top-break lever just forward of the reasonably low-profile exposed hammer spur and an automatic ejector. One side note: During WWII, 12-gauge M37s were issued to the National Guard!

Although well over one-million Model 37s were produced, it took me a while to find one in .410. I could’ve found one sooner but, as I’ve learned, “all things come to those who wait,” unless your personal lifespan becomes an issue!

What I eventually ended up with was worth the proverbial wait. A word to anyone interested in an M37: Don’t expect “utility gun” prices on any decent specimen you’re lucky enough to find.

The Model 37: No serial numbers, but a long production life and bombproof pedigree.
The .410 “Steelbilt” was produced from 1937 to 1963.

Five big ones: Winchester 3" 000 Buck produced one notable flyer at 25 yards,
but that’s still a “predator unfriendly” pattern.

Winner, Winner

My auction prize has a 28″ barrel choked Full plus the cool “Steelbilt” stamp on the receiver. In the sub-gauge world, Full choke diameter in a .410 ranges from .395 down to 0.389″ (Extra Full). Mine measured 0.388″, which puts it in the “tighter than Dick’s hatband” category. By way of comparison, my Iver Johnson Champion .410 single shot measures 0.391″ while my equally elderly Stevens 940D measures 0.396″.

It’s difficult to find a single-shot .410 not choked Full but quibbling over what constitutes what kind of choke in a .410 always struck me as a bit silly. The practical differences between IC, M and F get diminished somewhat when you’re talking about half-ounce of shot in .410 bore. There are guys who can tell the difference but I’m not one of them, particularly not at 15-21 yard skeet distances. If I’m pointing the gun right, any old .410 will work. If I’m not, a Cylinder Bore 12 gauge isn’t going to help.

I tried the M37 at a 12″ Caldwell “Orange Peel” turkey target at 25 yards and managed to get six or seven No. 4 pellets into the head/neck area. I aim to try some of the newer turkey-specific No. 5 or 6 .410 loads as soon as I can lay hands on some.

My first skeet experience with my Model 37 was less than I’d fantasized about — at least in comparison to my earlier .410 single shots. I busted 13 birds using Winchester AA No. 8s. Truth be told, the heavier barrel of the M37 was not what I was used to, at least in comparison to my Iver Johnson Champion, which had 2″ less barrel and a bit over half a pound of gun weight.

The automatic ejector is fairly forceful and — to be honest — I could live with a bit less power. Considering the cost of .410 ammo, I like to “shortstop” those empties while breaking the action without having to hunt for them.

A couple rounds of skeet isn’t really enough to get right with a new .410. Shooting well on clay birds isn’t a mystery. You just gotta do it. And that’s something I intend to do a lot of. Problem is, when you’re dealing with a half-ounce of shot from a Full choke, your margin of error gets scaled down a bit. All I can tell you is when I’m swinging the Model 37 right, keeping my head down and following through, the birds I center just flat smoke.

Here’s to more of the same!

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