Dan Capel, a former member of the original SEAL Team 6, once shot an enemy in the head with his MP5 9 mm sub-machine gun only to dodge as the same combatant returned fire. After regrouping, Capel waded back into battle with a walnut-stocked Remington 870. He’s been a shotgun man ever since, and he’s adamant it’s the best arm for home defense. “It’s personal,” said Capel when I asked him what he preferred, “but I have a bond with the 870.”
While there’s an argument for a double barrel kept under the bed for neophytes, serious discussions of fighting shotguns boil down to two action types: pumps and semi-autos. Perhaps more than the actions themselves, stock designs, extended magazines and tactical accessories are what make an otherwise ordinary sporting shotgun a fighting shotgun, but for the purpose of this article, I’ll discuss some differences in pump-action types and current shotgun models that utilize them. Next month I’ll focus on semi-automatics.
Because a pump’s action is cycled by muscle and can be run hard, it’s not picky on ammo. While a pump won’t win a race against a semi-automatic in a magazine-emptying contest, in hands that practice, it comes close. The extra fraction of a second it takes to manually work the action is needed by the brain to move the barrel to the next target and pull the trigger, anyway.
Yet, the same trait that makes them reliable can also make them vulnerable. In untrained or stressed hands, it’s easy to short-stroke a pump and cause it to malfunction. So, if you choose to keep a pump—or any arm—in your home to defend your family, practice with it. If you do, a pump won’t let you down. What’s more, it’s one of the most versatile and least-expensive of all guns, period. While slide-action designs haven’t changed much since their inception with the Spencer shotgun in 1882 and subsequent sporting and defensive icons like the Ithaca Model 37, Remington 870 and Winchester Model 12, newer actions feature dual-action bars, handier controls and a few other subtle improvements.
Most are familiar with Mossberg’s 500 and 590 series pumps. These $300 to $800 shotties are available in a dizzying variety of variations. All models feature a single-lug bolt that locks directly into a hole on the barrel extension, so there is no stress on the aluminum-alloy receiver. In 1970, after Remington’s patent expired, dual action bars were added to prevent binding from pressure applied to one side. Besides, who wants to buy a shotgun with one action bar if Remington has two?
Don’t overlook Mossberg’s 500 Special Purpose 20-gauge. It’s the same action, only trimmed down, much like the company’s new HS410 that fires .410-bore. Both are low-recoiling options of a venerable home-defense gun. The mild-recoiling .410 is novel, but I can’t see buying it over the 20. All the 500s feature tang-mounted sliding safeties and an open loading port. All are proven in combat, and require an odd day on Mars before any of them malfunction.
Remington’s 870—the most-popular and most-copied shotgun of all time—is available in umpteen iterations because it’s more reliable than Old Faithful. The Express Tactical holds 7+1 rounds and features a trigger guard-mounted crossbolt safety. Remington’s 887 Nitro Mag Tactical features the same action, but is completely coated in plastic.
Winchester’s Super X Pump (SXP) Defender is both slightly different in action design and also budget priced at $350. This Turkish-made shotgun’s bolt has four lugs and a rotary head that locks onto the chamber; it unlocks at the shot and continues back as the shooter’s body slows the gun around it, thereby initiating the action by itself. Its bolt-release button is located behind the trigger guard so you can work it with your middle finger without altering your grip; the safety is like that on the 870. FN’s P-12 model features the same action as the SXP, but with some cosmetic differences and a $600 price tag. (FN owns USRAC, the maker of Winchester.)
Weatherby’s PA-459 TR features an aluminum 870-style action, pistol grip and ghost-ring sight. (I like a bead sight for home defense, but that’s me.) Its action-release button is underneath the trigger guard, in the middle. Stoeger’s P-350 Defense and CZ’s 612 are virtually the same guns. Benelli’s polymer-coated Nova features a rotating bolt-head-style action that has proven impeccably reliable. All five imported, six-round shotguns cost less than $400 each.
TriStar makes shotguns that are shockingly affordable yet function well. Its $300 Cobra Tactical pump features a spring-loaded fore-end that helps return the bolt back into battery. Harrington & Richardson makes an 870 clone: the Pardner Pump Protector. It costs less than two bills and goes bang faithfully.
There are two new, dual-magazine tube, bullpup-style pump-action shotguns, the UTAS-15 and Kel-Tec’s KSG. The $1,300 UTAS holds 15 rounds, measures 28 inches overall and features a dual-lug, rotating bolt that provides a measure of pump-initiation. Ingeniously, each shell is captured by a “mousetrap” clip that feeds each shell, even when upside down. It also features a cheekpiece/action cover that can be popped open to clear malfunctions—a good thing because the initial UTAS-15s had some feeding problems. Subsequent productions seem have solved this, as I’ve had no misfeeds with the test sample I received. The $990 KSG is similar in concept. Both guns can selectively feed from one magazine over another, so shooters can choose specialized shells with the flip of a switch. While 15 rounds should be enough, both guns are slow to reload. That said, if these actions continue to evolve, they might become the fighting shotguns of the future.
Fact is, nearly all modern pump guns are so reliable and inexpensive you should buy the one that feels best in your hands. If you grew up hunting with a particular model, its tactical version is a great choice, as you already know it. Certainly, there are more accessories available for the Mossberg and Remington than the others. All considered, I like the 870 or the SXP, mainly due to their safety placement, simplicity and price.