A Brief History of a Winchester Model 21 Shotgun
By Chuck Hawks
Jack O'Connor, the famous gun writer, believed that the Model 21 was the best of all the American shotguns. When I was a youth, I subscribed to Outdoor Life magazine just to read Jack O'Connor's column. In those days, he was considered the Dean of American Gunwriters, and when it came to shotguns, he was most persuasive about the Model 21. He extolled the virtues of the beavertail forearm, the single selective trigger, selective ejectors, and the "clean" breech face (without rib extensions to interfere with loading). He and his family had four Model 21's, and he wrote stories about using them in places as diverse as East Africa and Scotland (where his British hosts were reportedly most curious about this expensive American side by side). The desire to someday own a Model 21 of my own took hold.
Not so long ago, I was discussing the mechanisms of the classic American doubles (Ithaca, L. C. Smith, Parker, and A. H. Fox specifically) with Larry Brace, a noted gunsmith of my acquaintance and a man who works on them all. At one point, I asked him which he thought was the best. Without hesitation, he named a gun we hadn't even discussed: the Winchester Model 21.
Incidences such as this reinforced my desire to someday own a Model 21. Then, in March of 1994, Fate conspired to bring a Model 21 within my financial reach. Naturally, I could not resist, and 30 years after first seeing a color photograph of a Model 21 (in, I believe, the 1964 Winchester catalogue), I became the owner of Model 21 No. 25684. Perhaps I should say "caretaker" rather than owner, as these guns out live generations of owners and we have an obligation to maintain them for others to enjoy in the future. Reflecting on this stimulated me to try to discover, in so far as I could, the history of No. 25684.
According to information in Ned Schwing's definitive book, Winchester's Finest - The Model 21, frame No. 25684 was forged in 1949. This frame was to become part of a trap grade gun, and is so marked. It was assembled with 30 inch ventilated rib barrels, and a trap style beavertail forearm (the latter was factory standard for VR barrels). From the end of World War II to 1959, perhaps 150 trap grade Model 21's were built, almost certainly no more than 500. They are not common.
No. 25684 was built to special order with nonstandard sights, chokes and checkering. "H.M.S." (the initials of the original owner, Henry Marion Shirtcliff) were engraved on the trigger guard.
Original specifications from the Winchester production records are as follows:
Dunham-Carrigan & Hayden appear to be the distributors through which Henry Shirtcliff, a gun dealer himself, ordered all of his Model 21's (he owned several).
Examining No. 25684, one finds that the barrel markings are of the final type used from 1945 through 1959 (the end of the production era; all subsequent guns were built only by the Custom Shop to individual order). The front sight is not the standard Winchester 81, but the special order Bradley 1/8th inch red bead; middle bead is the Winchester 94B, standard with the Bradley red bead.
Serial numbers on the frame, forearm, forearm iron, and barrels all match, but the stock and straight grip type (long tang) trigger guard bear No. 25081.
At some point, either Henry Marion Shirtcliff, or more likely his son H. M. S. Jr., had No. 25684 restocked with a straight hand stock. The new stock appears to be of Winchester manufacture with a Winchester serial number. It was originally supplied with a Winchester recoil pad.
When the stock was changed, of necessity the trigger guard was too, since straight hand and pistol grip stocks require very different trigger guard tangs. This explains why the initials "H.M.S." no longer appear on No. 25684's trigger guard.
In any case, the wood on good old No. 25684 is of very high grade, approximately XXX (or AAA). This is considerably better than the usual trap grade wood, which is itself better than field grade wood used for Model 21's, which is in turn better than the walnut used in other Winchester guns. Winchester tried to make all Model 21's especially nice. The forearm and buttstock of No. 25684 are well matched.
Another unusual feature is the 22 line-per-inch checkering pattern (22 l.p.i. was standard of custom built guns, 18 to 20 l.p.i. was standard for normal production guns). The checkering pattern on both forearm and buttstock is more extensive and more elaborate than that of pre- or postwar trap grade guns. The forearm is similar in coverage to Deluxe grade checkering, but more elaborate. The side panels of the buttstock are checkered like a Deluxe grade, while the straight grip is extensively checkered and has a sort of scroll effect decorative carving along the perimeter. It is very unique.
The history of No. 25684's owners, as far as I have been able to discover, goes like this:
No. 25684 was built for Henry Marion Shirtcliff of Myrtle Creek, Oregon, in 1950. Mr. Shirtcliff owned the sporting goods store in Myrtle Cr., sold Winchester guns, and owned at least four Model 21's. He was an accomplished trap shooter, often shooting at the Cottage Grove/Eugene Sportsman's Club where, coincidentally, I occasionally shoot today. He broke 99 out of 100 targets, winning a shoot, at 80 years of age! He died in his 80's of heart failure, doing what he loved, on the firing line at the Sportsman's Club.
After Henry (Senior) died, his son Hank Shirtcliff, Jr., also a trapshooter, inherited the gun. I suspect is was he who had the straight hand buttstock fitted, but cannot be sure. He only had the gun for a few years, but was also well known at the Sportsman's Club. He passed away in the middle 1970's.
When Hank Shirtcliff died, No. 25684 apparently remained in the possession of Hanks wife until her death. About 1991, after 40 years of Shirtcliff family ownership, a Mr. Dan Dillman bought the gun from the estate and re-sold it to the late Mr. George Sherwood, of Roseburg, Oregon (this according to the recollection of Mr. Sherwood).
Mr. Sherwood, a Firearms Engraver's Guild Member, was an outstanding and well known Northwest firearms engraver. He painstakingly engraved No. 25684 in the Winchester 21-4 pattern. This explains why the game birds and dogs on No. 25684 are so exquisitely detailed, noticeably better executed than those on other Model 21-4's I have seen.
After engraving, the frame was re-blued to "as new" standard by Jim Johnson, a gunsmith in the Roseburg area. About the same time the barrels were also re-blued. Although the correct rust blueing method was employed, in my opinion, the result was cosmetically inferior to the original factory finish. More on this shortly.
On March 19, 1994, Mr. Sherwood sold the gun to Howard Branch. Mr. Branch only kept the gun for three days. He had bought it for the purpose of turning a quick profit, which he realized by selling it to me on March 22, 1994.
After shooting the gun to verify correct fit and function, I took it to the late Larry Brace, a founding member of the American Custom Gunmaker's Guild, of Eugene, Oregon. Mr. Brace did custom work on fine shotguns (and rifles) sent to him from all over the U.S. He cleaned and adjusted the action and engine turned the barrel lug, barrel flats, and water table. He then refinished the stock and forearm with multiple layers of oil finish, painstakingly hand rubbed to a fine luster. At the same time he refreshed the original checkering, and (at my direction) replaced the solid Winchester pad with a custom leather covered Pachmayr Decelerator recoil pad.
Having seen examples of his excellent work, I also had Mr. Brace re-blue the barrels. This time the barrels were correctly polished and rust blued in many steps to a perfect, satin, blue-black sheen.
Today, No. 25684 is a very beautiful (and shootable) "personal best," cherished through the years by owners who both cared for it and enriched it. From Henry Shirtcliff, who special ordered a fine gun to his specifications; to his son Hank, who presumably added its elegant straight hand stock; to George Sherwood, who engraved it; to me, who had it refinished and up-graded it in minor ways by Larry Brace; we have all done something to make it a little bit nicer.
Whether waiting in my gun safe, or perfectly balanced between my hands (this gun balances exactly under the hinge pin) on the firing line at the Sportsman's Club, No. 25684 is a unique and exceptionally elegant Model 21.
Credit where credit is due
Note: There is an article about the Winchester Model 21 shotgun on the Product Review Page.