Has a weapon with the same rate of fire and magazine capacity as the modern AR-15 been widely available for civilian purchase in the U.S. since 1907?
The ONLY functional difference between the 1907 and a controversial and much feared AR15 is the modern black plastic stock
While it's true they are both semi-automatic rifles, they diverge in significant ways from there. And while the author has correctly pointed out that "black rifle" has become a scare tactic, it doesn't mean there aren't differences. One has to ask why people aren't carrying Winchester 1907s if they're just as good as an AR-15?
About 400,000 semi-automatic rifles were produced before WW2.
Which sounds impressive, until you realize that's over a range of over 30 years. Only about 50,000 Winchester 1907s were ever produced in its 50 year production run.
In contrast, it is estimated 5 to 10 million Americans own AR-15s with 300 million total firearms. Quite a large quantitative difference.
What about qualitative differences?
Ian McCollum (Forgotten Weapons) in his review of Winchester Model 07 Self-Loading .351 Caliber sums up the Winchester 1907 like so...
This was not a semiauto replacement for a .30-06 Springfield, it was the gun that filled the space between the Winchester 1892 lever action and the M1 Carbine.
The .30-06 Springfield was the standard rifle of the US Army back then, analogous to the AR-15 today. The M1 Carbine was intended to give troops in the rear who weren't expected to see a lot of fighting, truck drivers and artillerymen, something better than a pistol, but still light and handy. Ian is saying the Winchester 1907 was not comparable to a military rifle, it was more for the casual shooter.
[The author] references an extensive library of vintage hunting and shooting books and magazines to see what the historical view of the gun has been (and the results are not flattering).
In contrast the AR-15 is one of the most successful gun designs of the 20th century.
The 1907 fired just as fast as an AR15 or AK47 and the bullet (.351 Winchester)
(Note: the AK-47 ended production in the 1970s. Modern "AK"s are AK-74s.)
Maybe you could pull the trigger at the same speed, if the 1907 doesn't jam (more on that later), but you're not going to hit anything doing that with the Winchester. To understand why, let's look at what it's like to shoot the guns, and their details.
Take a minute to watch Mae of C&Rsenal fire the 1907 Winchester. Note the significant recoil.
Now watch Russell Phagan use a $550 kit-built AR-15. In particular, at 5:30 watch him make hits like its nothing.
Both are very experienced shooters.
Additional information comes from C&Rsenal's Small Arms of WWI Primer 084: French Contract Winchester 1907, in particular Mae's assessment at 55:45.
We can note some functional differences.
- The Winchester recoil is significant; it is simple blowback relying on a heavy bolt and simple spring to slow the bolt before it slams into the back of the gun. The AR-15 is gas-operated with a long recoil buffer and a locked bolt allowing the pressure to dissipate before unlocking and sending the bolt backwards resulting in much less felt recoil.
- The shooter must wait for that heavy bolt to travel backwards, stop, and then be pushed back into battery, it is slower to load the next round than the much lighter bolt and refined action of the AR-15.
- The Winchester reload process was awkward and significantly slower with no hold-open requiring the shooter to re-cock the gun with an awkward and stiff plunger at the front of the gun, the magazine was stiff and the magazine release in an awkward position. The AR-15 holds open and cocked on an empty magazine and its ergonomics are excellent. This makes reloading very fast.
- The Winchester trigger is very heavy making repeated precision shots slower. The AR-15 can be customized with triggers of many different styles.
- The Winchester sights are small and slow to acquire targets, as were many sights of that era, in stark contrast to an AR-15 with any number of modern iron sights, scopes, or the red dots like Russell is using.
All of this, the recoil, the small magazine, and poor sights makes the effective rate-of-fire of the Winchester far, far slower than an AR-15 or AK-74.
Magazines and capacity
The Winchester came standard with a 5 round standard magazine with a 10 round option with very limited examples of 15 and 20 round magazines. The single-stack magazine limits its practical size. The magazines are finicky and require some finesse to fit to the rifle and feed properly.
In contrast, one can get AR-15 magazines up to 30 rounds and even 60 round drums. They're extremely standardized.
While the Winchester 1907 had a detachable magazine, they were not intended to be semi-disposable like today. Today you might carry several magazines and use them one after the other, dropping an empty magazine and putting in a new one. Then you might have one or two magazines, keep them when empty, and reload them by hand.
the bullet (.351 Winchester) was actually larger than those fired by the more modern looking weapons
This is an attempt to make the Winchester 1907 seem more powerful than the AR-15. It is not. "Bigger is better" is an obsolete idea of bullet design. Modern ammunition uses smaller, lighter bullets at higher velocities. They are flatter shooting (easier to aim, less bullet drop and target motion), higher penetration, more accurate, and you can carry more of them.
The limitations of blowback
The straight blowback action is one of the reasons why the Winchester 1907 was fairly successful for being such an early self-loading rifle. It's very simple. But it also has severe limitations.
Because the Winchester is blowback operated there is no locking mechanism; when the gunpowder explodes there's nothing keeping the bullet in the barrel but friction and the weight of the bolt. More powerful ammunition needs a heavier bolt. This limits the power of the ammunition the Winchester can handle. Blowback actions are typically for pistols which use much less powerful ammunition than rifles.
In contrast, the AR-15 locks the bolt. When the gunpowder explodes, the bolt stays locked behind the bullet. This allows the AR-15 to use much more powerful ammunition.
.351 Winchester was underpowered and unpopular
Ian McCollum again...
[The Winchester 1907] is generally seen as being hopelessly underpowered today, and that view has been around for many decades... The .351 WSL cartridge was never used in any other production designs, and has not been manufactured in significant quantity now for 40 years or more.
Othais of C&Rsenal agrees.
Whereas the 5.56 NATO and .223 Remington ammunition commonly used in the AR-15 have been wildly successful for 60 years.
The .351 Winchester was not a modern round even by 1907 standards. It's slow, heavy, and round nosed. It is more like what would be fired from a large pistol than a military rifle with an effective range of 100 to 200 yards. As a civilian and police rifle, its lack of penetration was a benefit for police departments who did not want to fire through walls and risk civilians.
The 5.56 NATO round, used by the AR-15, is a modern intermediate military cartridge designed to kill people at 300 to 600 yards. It is almost twice as fast with a pointed spitzer nose. This makes aiming easier as one does not have to account for bullet drop nor lead a moving target as much. The much lighter weight means you can carry more ammunition. And high penetration is desirable for military use.
A note about civilian vs military rifles
Civilians had hundreds of thousands of these for 40 years, while US soldiers were still being issued old fashioned bolt action rifles.
This is attempting to say that civilians had better rifles than even the military because civilians had self-loaders and soldiers had "old-fashioned" bolt-actions.
Civilian and military needs were quite different. For military use, reliability, durability, accuracy, range, penetration, cost, and ease of maintenance are paramount. Your fancy self-loading rifle is useless if it breaks, or if it's too expensive to arm an army, or if it fires an anemic bullet that can't reach the enemy.
Self-loading rifles of the era were complex, fragile, expensive, and hard to maintain. The .351 round is low power and too short range for the needs of the day where military rifles were expected to fire out to 1000 yards or more. For these reasons and more, the Winchester 1907 was not acceptable for use in WW1 except in specialist roles. Only a few thousand were purchased for WW1, a drop in the bucket.
All self-loading rifles were inadequate for military use, too complex, too expensive, too unreliable, until the US put significant effort into the M1 Garand. Arming an entire army with self-loading rifles was unprecedented.
The Winchester 1907 is a very early civilian self-loading rifle firing a round suitable for hunting, home defense, and police. It is significantly slower to acquire targets. The high recoil makes follow up shots slower. It has a smaller magazine capacity, and a slower and awkward reload. It is less accurate, less reliable, and weighs more. .351 Winchester round is slower, less accurate, harder to aim, heavy, short range, and low penetration.
The modern AR-15 is the civilian version of one of the best military rifles in the world. It is high capacity, light, quick to acquire targets, fast to reload, extremely reliable, durable, and easy to service. 5.56 NATO is one of the most successful rounds in the world; light, high capacity, high velocity, accurate, and high penetration.
Only someone who has never handled either rifle could conclude they have no functional difference.