BOOK REVIEW: 'Winchester 1886': Old West Comes to Life in First of a Series with a Gun as Major Element

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'Winchester 1886':  Old West Comes to Life in First of a Series with a Gun as Major Element

"They say that it kills at one end and cripples on the other…" -- The last words cattle rustler Noble Saxon hears before he's killed by a gunman armed with a Winchester '86 rifle, 50-100-450 -- .50 caliber, 100 grains of powder, with a bullet that weighs 450 grains

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Readers hungry for more than a whiff of the old West will enjoy "Winchester 1886" (Pinnacle Books/Kensington Publishing Corp., 378 pages,  mass market paperback, $7.50) by William W. Johnstone and J.A. Johnstone.

It's the first of a series of Western novels featuring a specific firearm. The novel reminded me of a 2013 non-fiction book:  "American Sniper: A History of the U.S. in Ten Firearms"  by former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle with William Doyle. (For my review: Kyle and Doyle have one Winchester on the list, the Winchester lever action repeater rifle, the Winchester 1873. The 1886 is a far more powerful gun, suitable for downing buffalo -- or even elephants. Kyle, of course, is the central figure of the Clint Eastwood helmed motion picture "American Sniper."

The story begins with teen-ager James Mann in Randall County, Texas, as he's babysitting his siblings, brother Jacob, 8, and sister Kris, 12. It's the late summer of 1894 and they're playing a game with the "wish book," a Montgomery Ward catalog. For those who are age-deprived, once  upon a time there were two mail order giants, Sears, Roebuck and Co. and "Monkey Ward" -- both based in Chicago. Why Chicago? It was then -- and still is -- the nation's railroad capital and everything moved by train in the late 1800s through much of the first half of the 20th Century. I remember the Railway Express wagons at the two train stations in my hometown of Rochelle, IL, about 80 miles west of Chicago, in the 1950s. Before there was a UPS or Fed-EX, there was Railway Express.

James has managed to save the just under $20.00 needed for the big Winchester and a box of cartridges.

The teen never gets his gun: It's stolen by train robber Danny Waco, who kills Borden Mann, Marshal Jimmy Mann's eldest brother and James's uncle, in the process. From then on, it's Jimmy Mann vs Danny Waco.

Before the showdown in Tascosa, Texas, a wide-open town northwest of Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle, however, the Winchester has a violent odyssey as it travels from one owner to another.

A homesteader's young bride looks at the Winchester as a way out of her hatred for living in a sod hut, far away from civilized Indiana. Shirley Sweet,  a rival of Annie Oakley in a threadbare traveling show,  uses it to win a shooting match. The rustler-hunter uses it to end the life of Noble Saxon and several others.

All along, Jimmy Mann searches for his brother's murderer.

Did I say a whiff of the Old West? In "Winchester 1886" the stench of unwashed bodies -- and many other odors -- is ever present. This is the real Western deal. If you're among those who've never experienced the joy of Elmore Leonard's Westerns, or Elmer Kelton's or Louis L'Amour's, or William Johnstone's, give yourself a literary present and read "Winchester 1886."

About William W. Johnstone (1938-2004)

 William W. Johnstone  was born in Southern Missouri, the youngest of four kids. His father was a minister and his mother was a schoolteacher.
He quit school when he was fifteen and joined a carnival  but he went back and finished high school in 1957. After that he worked as a deputy sheriff, did a hitch in the army, came back and went into radio broadcasting, where he worked for sixteen years.
Johnstone started writing in 1970, but he didn't get published until late 1979. He wrote nearly 200 books including the best-selling Ashes series and the Mountain Man series. He began writing full-time in the early 1980s. His first published book was "The Devil's Kiss."

About J. A. Johnstone
Being the all around assistant, typist, researcher, and fact checker to one of the most popular western authors of all time, J.A. Johnstone learned from the master, Uncle William W. Johnstone.
Bill, as he preferred to be called, began tutoring J.A. at an early age. After-school hours were often spent retyping manuscripts or researching his massive American Western History library as well as the more modern wars and conflicts. J.A. worked hard—and learned.
“Every day with Bill was an adventure story in itself. Bill taught me all he could about the art of storytelling and creating believable characters. ‘Keep the historical facts accurate,’ he would say. ‘Remember the readers, and as your grandfather once told me, I am telling you now: be the best J.A. Johnstone you can be.’”