Versatile, reliable, affordable slide-action classics
The 3″ Winchester Model 12 lay next to me in the blind, loaded with three rounds of Kent Tungsten-Matrix No. 3s in hopes that ducks and geese might fly before sunset. With just minutes of legal shooting time remaining, everything flew at once. When the first bunch of Canadas dipped toward the decoys, I sat up and shot a pair, then thumbed two more shells up the magazine tube just before a flock of mallards swirled down into the spread. As the first few backpedaled above the decoys, I picked out a couple of drakes. And just like that, I had shot two doubles on my first hunt with my new used Model 12 and never been aware of working the action or much else about the shots. It was as if the old gun had pointed and pumped itself.
A slick pumpgun is one of the great, affordable joys of shotgunning. It works in conditions when semi-autos choke, clog or freeze. Years ago on a southwest-Iowa snow goose hunt, fine loess blew into every cavity of my Mossberg 500 until it sounded like a coffee grinder when I worked the slide; but the gun never stopped shooting. At night I’d blast Gun Scrubber into the action, and it would run out brown and muddy onto the newspaper I’d laid on the floor of the motel room and the gun would be ready to go again.
On another occasion I fell down a steep bank, launching a Browning BPS into a creek. Sticking in the muddy bottom, it stood upright for a moment like Excalibur in the hand of the Lady of the Lake before tipping under the surface. I rinsed mud out of the clogged barrel and action with creek water, loaded the gun with slugs and shot a buck an hour later. Every pumpgun owner has similar stories. If you want a gun that shoots every time no matter how badly you abuse it, you pick a pump.
For all its advantages, the pumpgun remains largely an American shotgun. It fits our egalitarian outlook. When I told a friend that the British game gun was the apex of shotgun design, he countered with the Remington 870 because, he said, it was the best shotgun available to the largest number of people. It’s hard to argue with that.
It’s equally hard to argue with the success of pumpguns in duck blinds, in the woods, in the uplands, at gun clubs, in police cruisers and on the battlefield. For versatile, reliable, affordable firepower, the pump shotgun is hard to beat—and it has been for 140 years. We dote on the great American doubles, but one look at production numbers tells the truth: We once were a nation of pump shooters. With semi-autos now improved to the point where you could call the pump obsolete (as gun writer and scattergun curmudgeon Don Zutz did in the 1990s, writing “We no longer hand crank our automobiles. Why must we hand crank our shotguns?”), the pump endures. It’s the first gun of many hunters, the only gun of others, and every gun cabinet should hold a couple.
In 1854 Englishman Alexander Bain invented a slide-action rifle, but the first practical, production pumpgun was invented by Christopher Spencer, best known for his repeating carbine used by Union forces in the Civil War. The 1882 and 1885 Spencers featured a toggling action that projected out the bottom to lift a shell, and the breech block popped out the top to eject the empty upward. Market hunters and some sport hunters loved the six-shot firepower of the hammerless Spencers. Others scorned them. One gunwriter of the time said: “How can a man use one of these vile things? I would rather catch trout in a net.” The effectiveness of pumps on waterfowl caused the state of California to briefly ban repeaters.
The Spencer’s success prompted Winchester to ask John Browning for a lever-action shotgun to complement its rifles. Browning responded with the 1887, but the gun he wanted to make was the pump-action Winchester 1893. The Winchester Model 1897 would follow, but first Winchester faced a patent-infringement challenge from Spencer’s owner, Francis Bannerman. Understanding that repeaters were the future, Winchester spared no expense in fighting back, going so far as to scour Europe for expired pump patents and then building a working, full-size model of the very steampunk Krutszch rifle to bring to court. Winchester won and introduced the Model 97 four years later.
The 97 was a takedown version of the Model 1893 beefed up for smokeless powder. Unlike later, smoother pumps, the 97 required a good tug to work the slide, and when you did, parts stuck out in all directions. You had to be careful of hammer bites to the thumb too.
Despite its awkward looks, the 97 pointed very well, thanks to a low profile, slender forend and relaxed semi-pistol grip that put your hands close to the bore. It won championships at trap and live-bird shooting in the hands of Browning himself among others, cleared trenches in World War I, and was a duck-blind staple. More than a million 97s were made during the model’s 60-year life. Cowboy action shooters like to buy old Model 97s and cut them down, but you still can find an intact 97 if you want one. American gunmakers went on to refine the pump and produce a number of classics—some still made, some not. None of them are hard to find if you want one.
Winchester Model 12
Charged with making a hammerless stablemate to the 97, Winchester’s T.C. Johnson created one of the greatest shotguns ever. Sleek where the 97 was ungainly, the Model 12 was smooth enough that you could hold the gun upright, push the bolt release and the weight of the forend would open the gun. In practiced hands the Model 12 is lightning quick. I hunted Mearns quail in Arizona with a transplanted Georgian dog trainer who could get off three good shots with his father’s Cylinder-choke 20-gauge Model 12 in the time it took me to shoot an over/under twice.
The Model 12 was built in 12, 16, 20 and 28 gauge, and 3″ 12s were made from 1935-’63. The Model 12 exceled in the field and won at trap and skeet. The only competition the hand-fitted, machined Model 12 couldn’t win was in the marketplace against the cheaper Remington 870 and Mossberg 500. After the Model 12 was discontinued, “Y” models, made from parts on hand, were sold through the ’70s. With more than 2 million having been made, Model 12s aren’t hard to find, and the 12 (especially), 16 and 20 are easily affordable classics.
It’s a design that can be made cheaply and still work with smooth reliability.
Winchester Model 42
As the new game of skeet grew in popularity, Winchester needed a .410 Model 12 for all-gauge competitors. There were only small differences between the Model 12 and the .410 Model 42, introduced in 1933, but there were enough to give the scaled-down gun its model designation. One difference was the removable sideplate allowing access to the internals. Another was the 3″ chamber. Winchester’s John Olin wanted the gun to appeal to the hunting market as well as to skeet shooters. To give the Model 42 extra power, he introduced a magnum shell for it. Having dubbed the Model 12 “the perfect repeater,” Winchester called the 42 “everyone’s sweetheart” and marketed it as a gun anyone could shoot, thanks to its light weight and low recoil.
About 164,000 Model 42s were made in various configurations over the gun’s 30-year life, and while it commands much higher prices than Model 12s do, you can find one for $1,500 to $2,000 if you want the trimmest pumpgun ever made.
Remington Model 31
Remington had a good gun in the bottom-ejecting Model 17, but the company lacked a side-ejecting gun to compete with the Model 12. While bottom-ejecting pumps have their advantages in the field, they are no fun to load on the trap or skeet field. Remington’s answer was the Model 31, a gun some pumpgun lovers prefer to the Model 12. Nicknamed “the ball-bearing repeater” for its slickness, it came in both a steel-frame model and an alloy-frame lightweight version. Around 195,000 were made during the gun’s 18-year run before it was retired to make way for the 870.
Having tried and failed to compete with Winchester with the Model 31, Remington introduced its successor in 1950. Remington used stamped parts to reduce costs and came up with an Everyman’s classic. Built as part of a “family” of guns that shared some common parts, the 12-gauge 870 was made on a 16-gauge Model 11-48 frame to make it as light and trim as possible. The efficient production methods let Remington undercut the price of a Model 12 by $15, and the gun was lighter too. It was a success from the beginning.
Since the 870 was introduced, it has been made in every gauge but 10, for every possible purpose, and in the budget Express grade as well as the well-finished Wingmaster. More than 11 million 870s have been made, and the vast majority have been great. And though Remington quality has slipped in recent years, from what little I have seen so far, new owner Roundhill has taken the gun in the right direction, replacing the Express with a better-finished, slightly more expensive FieldMaster version.
Ithaca Model 37
Now in its 85th year, the Ithaca Model 37 holds the distinction of being the longest-tenured American pumpgun and the only pre-WWII pump still being made. Ithaca designers started work on a modified version of John Browning’s bottom-ejecting Remington Model 17 but had to wait until the last of its patents expired—in 1937—before beginning production. More than 2 million Model 37s have been made, and while Ithaca has struggled at times, the guns have always been popular. Model 37s, like most American pumps, have been made in military and police versions as well as in lightweight upland models and DeerSlayer and TurkeySlayer guns. My old DeerSlayer III, with its heavy, fluted barrel fixed to the receiver, was a shooter that could fit a half-dozen slugs into a hand-size group at 200 yards. The gun is now made in Sandusky, Ohio, not New York. The new owners haven’t changed or cheapened the gun, for which I am thankful, although it means that 37s start at $1,199.
Some might bridle at the inclusion of Mossberg’s Model 500 with the rest of these classics, but it has passed all the tests. It has a good pedigree, with a design borrowed from the Model 31, and the lefty-friendly top safety originally seen on John Browning’s Stevens 520. It’s everywhere and actually reached the 10-million-made milestone faster than the 870 did. It’s also a design that can be made cheaply and still work with smooth reliability.
Mossberg made rimfire rifles, some bolt-action shotguns and the odd Model 200 pump, which had a two-shot magazine and a one-piece wooden stock with a nylon slide. In need of a more conventional gun to compete in the pump market, the company introduced the Model 500 in 1961. With its alloy receiver, it was inexpensive to make, and Mossberg was able to sell it for less than the price of an 870.
Adding to the 500’s position as a value gun, Mossberg marketed it as a “shooting system,” offering a half-dozen extra barrels when the gun was launched. Made in 12, 20 and .410, the humble 500 has been the platform for a host of innovations: the first factory rifled slug barrel, a dual-comb stock allowing a choice of comb heights, even an inline muzzleloader barrel. The Model 500 may not have the fit and finish of finer hand-fitted slide-actions, but it demonstrates every bit of the ingenuity, durability and reliability that made the pump shotgun an American classic.
Phil Bourjaily writes the shotgun columns for Field & Stream and Ducks Unlimited magazines and is an enthusiastic waterfowler and upland hunter. A 1981 graduate of the University of Virginia, he makes his home in his native Iowa with his wife, Pamela, and his German shorthaired pointers, Jed and Zeke. He has two grown sons.