The 5 Best Pump Action Shotguns
When I say early firearms, you’ll probably think of the arquebus, a musket, or the blunderbuss; all of which had large, smoothbore barrels that could fire both ball, and shot rounds. Who knew modern shotguns share antiquity with such a wide variety of various weapons? Today we will cover the history of modern shotguns and the best pump action shotguns on the market today.
The History and Origins of the Shotgun
Prior to the Revolutionary War, the British army introduced a unique weapon into their arsenal, the Brown Bess musket. What makes the Brown Bess musket stand out amongst its counterparts? The barrel length was approximately 157 cm, 11 inches shorter than the minimum 168 cm standard musket barrel length at the time.
The Brown Bess had a smooth bore .19mm barrel, about the same as the modern 10-gauge shotgun. Weapons like these were the first to start firing buck and ball loads, which is a musket ball with buckshot. With the introduction of shorter barrel lengths, smooth bores, and buckshot loads, the modern shotgun was born.
One of the first specific actions developed for this new class of weapon is the legendary boxlock action, which can still be found in modern double barrel shotguns.
The boxlock is so important in the dawn of the modern shotgun primarily because of the elegant and simple design oh hammerless action. The hammerless action was important because refined the method are using fewer moving parts and completely removing the concept of an exposed hammer, which most shotguns used at the time. Any firearm enthusiast will tell you that shotguns are known for their ruggedness and simplicity.
Shotguns became more prevalent during the 19th century, particularly in the American old west. U.S. army cavalry units extensively used the shotgun because of how effective it was at engaging moving targets and devastating close range stopping power. These units used open break models until the Browning 1887 Lever Action Repeating Shotgun was introduced.
Aside from calvary units, the shotgun saw less and less usage in the latter half of 19th century battlefields due to advancements in rifling, the introduction of machine guns and semi-automatic weapons, the shotgun was still the preferred weapon for lawmen and security personnel because of its versatility and value as a personal defense weapon.
World War I trench warfare reversed the decline of shotgun usage on the battlefield with the introduction of the trench gun. General John “Black Jack” Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, equipped his soldiers with the Winchester Model 1897 and the M1912, which were modified with a bayonet lug and heat shield, so the weapons could be used for hand to hand combat in trench warfare and house to house fighting.
Early model pump action shotguns could be bump fired, which means the weapon could be continually fired if the slide was racked and the trigger is depressed.
One awesome example of how effective shotguns are in a gunfight is the story of Sgt. Fred Lloyd. In September of 1918, Sgt. Lloyd single handedly engaged and routed 30 German soldiers in an occupied French village with a M1897 trench gun. As a result the German Empire set a decree that any soldier captured with a trench gun was to be summarily executed.
From my perspective, I believe the shotgun has been such an effective tool in warfare because of the time. Think about it, the marriage of technology and arms, in a tinderbox political climate. Combatants on both sides of the conflict had the ability to mass produce goods, had the scientific and mechanical minds to produce modern marvels, driven by warfare.
The shotgun was so effective because scientist and engineers borrowed a concept, optimized the design to adapt to the conditions combat would be ongoing. Trench warfare involved tall, narrow corridors. The shotgun offers wide spread on both X and Y axis, chewing and mowing down whatever is its path.
Fast forward 100 years, we now have tactical shotguns that have zero recoil, various shell loads that can blow apart steel locks, stun a subject with a non-lethal Taser round, and customizable hunting and sporting shotguns. It’s an exciting time for shotgun enthusiasts. Now we know the history and understand their effectiveness, let’s go over some topics and considerations when selecting a pump action shotgun.
Considerations When Selecting a Pump Action Shotgun
In my law enforcement career, I must admit I was a huge gun nut and shot any weapon I could get my hands on. My police department allowed us to carry our own long guns as long as we qualified with them. One of our firearm instructors, who was also our SWAT commander, is a Special Forces veteran and he would always advise us greenhorn officers on what criteria to select the best weapons on.
Granted, weapon selection is purely preference, some guns are better than others. I would always have dreams that my weapons would malfunction when I got involved in a gunfight. I qualified at the top of my annual departments marksmanship testing so I knew how to shoot, it was just the puzzling question of which weapons were the best choice.
My instructor’s criteria were simple, I’ll share it with you now in the following list so you can understand my perspectives. Mind you, this doesn’t only apply to tactical shotguns, it’s a catchall for hunters, sport shooters, law enforcement, etc.
- Ergonomics and Nomenclature: The first criteria is fairly straight forward, ask yourself what chassis would fit you best, what kind of grip and stock would work best for the weapons use? A fixed stock would be ideal for hunting and three gun shooting. A telescopic stock would best utilized in a tactical setting, when manipulating and shooting the weapon in corridors, entry ways, confined spaces, etc. Ergonomics are conditional for the intended usage.
- Reliability and Durability: This one was tricky to differentiate as a novice shotgun user. Most officers would bring their old Remington 870 hunting shotguns to the range. They seemed utterly flabbergasted when their shotguns would have feed issues when cycling the slide. Sporting shotguns aren’t made to take a beating like tactical shotguns are. In my experiences, racking a hunting shotgun when practicing tactical shooting, the guide rod on the slide would get bent and prevent the slide from wracking a new shell. In a gunfight, such a malfunction could be fatal. On The flipside, you don’t need a mil spec tactical shotgun with a rail system, sling, and tactical accessories to go deer hunting, a simple, reliable pump will do the trick in this circumstance.
- “Functional Accuracy”: This one is an excellent, and often overlooked consideration. What are you going to be shooting at? What load are you going to be shooting with? Will your shotgun perform consistent and accurate follow up shots with your shotgun? Food for thought.
- Break Down and Disassembly: This isn’t an immediate consideration, more like long term preservation of the weapon. How difficult would it be to field strip and clean your shotgun if debris interferes? Are replacement parts for your weapon commercially available? Could you do the gunsmithing yourself after some research and practice?
- Accessories and Customization: Bot hunting and tactical shotguns benefit from aftermarket accessories and added customizations. The beauty of the pump action shotgun is its simplicity. Most pump shotguns are extremely easy to add a different stock, extended magazine tube, shell saddle, and even a rail system. I took a Remington 870 Express Tactical and added a BlackHawk Six-Position Pistol Grip Stock, a rubber recoil reduction pad, a simple six shell saddle, and a single point sling. The muzzle break on the 870 Express Tactical had teeth knurled into the end of the barrel, I could push my shotgun into doors for breaching, use it for CQB, and perform rapid reloads. I chose the single point sling because it’s a simple elastic loop that wraps the weapon securely to the body, yet loose enough to ditch the weapon if it has a catastrophic malfunction, or to maintain weapon retention and draw your secondary firearm. You can get pretty creative with a little imagination and a barebones pump action shotgun.
Advantages of a Pump Action Shotgun
Semi-automatic shotguns have been all the rage lately in three-gun competitions, military shotguns, and they’ve even found their way into hunting. Contrary to popular belief, pump action shotguns have several advantages over their counterparts. The manual operation of the slide doesn’t require a high-powered shell to cycle the bolt of the weapon. This means you can load a variety of shells into the mag tube of the shotgun.
When I was in breacher school, I’d load buckshot first, three non-lethal bean bag rounds or more buckshot depending on the operation, and two slug shot breaching shells. As soon as the shotgun is racked, I have my breaching shells first. Blow the hinges then I’d have lethal or non-lethal shells at the ready, and a last ditch buckshot shell if things start to get really ugly.
I didn’t keep a sling on my breaching shotgun because I’d want the shotgun to be able to be manipulated both left and right handed. This was because I’m ambidextrous but this is actually an advantage for pump actions. Semi-automatic shotguns have a bolt on the side facing away from the shooter. This means operating a right handed semi-automatic shotgun with it shouldered on your left side very difficult.
Pump action shotguns can be shouldered and operated on both sides of the body. By correctly blading your body and orienting the weapon, tactical or combat reloads are incredibly easy. Just be mindful of ejecting spent shells towards you. In a gunfight, spent brass or shells will burn the living crap out of you.
Disadvantages of the Pump Action Shotgun
The lack of a detachable magazine is honestly the only downfall of pump action shotguns. Even with good technique and practice, reload times are considerably slower compared to reloading a rifle or submachine guns. Manually reloading six shotgun shells under pressure is extremely daunting because of the required fine motor skills.
If anyone of you don’t understand how gross motor skills and fine motor skills work under stress, look it up and educate yourself as soon as you finish reading this. I can’t stress the importance of understand how your body will need to function to perfect the operation and techniques of this weapon.
How Do Pump Action Shotguns Work?
Pump action shotguns operate with a front to forend slide that cycles the action of the shotgun. The forend of the slide is attached directly to the bolt and ejector with a bar that works the mechanism. This is possible because of symmetrical cycling of the bolt which directly controls the elevator and magazine tube simultaneously.
After the trigger is depressed, the bolt unlocks the slide to cycle the next shell. As soon as the slide is cocked, the spent shell is ejected and a new shell is loaded onto the elevator, directly into the shotguns breach. Be mindful of you round count when using a pump action shotgun because most modern pumps don’t have an ammunition indicator. Pumping the shotgun and hearing a soul crushing click is always very humbling.
The Best Sporting Pump Action Shotgun
Now that we’ve covered the history, criteria when selecting a pump action shotgun, and the advantages and disadvantages, let’s talk about guns!
Remington 870 Express
The 870 is by far one of the most popular shotguns in the history of shotguns. Since its inception in 1950, over 30 different variants of the shotgun have been released. From home defense, to turkey hunting, to skeet shooting; the 870 can be modified with thousands of aftermarket parts.
Field stripping the 870 is extremely easy and quick to do, it doesn’t take more than five minutes to clean it thoroughly, and it’s a straight up tank you can beat the crap out of and still expect it fire when you pull the trigger.
The Remington 870 comes in 26-inch or 28-inch barrels. The 26-inch barrel has an overall length of 46 inches, and the 28-inch barrel has an overall length of 48 inches. Weight is 7lbs, 11 oz. The 870 features an extremely durable steel double bar receiver. The controls are generally suited to meet the specifications of right handed orthodox shooters, but Remington makes a left-handed model for southpaw shooters as well.
The length of pull, the overall distance from the trigger to the butt of the stock, is a perfect 14 inches that seats naturally to your shoulder, which in my opinion, feels extremely intuitive when aiming the shotgun. The drop at the comb, the thick part of the stock where your cheek would rest, is 1 ½ inches; the drop at the heel, the butt of the shotgun, is 2 ½ inches.
The sight is a single bead, pressed into the rib of the shotgun. The factory magazine capacity of the 870 Express is four shells in the tube and one in the chamber. The 870 comes with a removable magazine plug that can increase or limit shell capacity.
- Over 40 variants to choose from
- Rugged multipurpose shotgun
- Comes in a variety of calibers
- Lightweight and simple
- An astronomical amount of aftermarket parts are available
- The blued, bead blasted steel is more prone to rusting if not properly maintained
Prior to entering the shotgun market, O.F. Mossberg and company had a reputation for producing very accurate, inexpensive rimfire rifles, primarily .22. In 1960, Mossberg debuted a reliable and accurate shotgun to the market with the Mossberg 500.
Since 1960, over 10 million models of the 500 have been produced, having great success with military personnel, hunters, and law enforcement.
Much like the Remington 870, the Mossberg 500 is extremely user friendly when it comes to disassembly, it can be completely broken down, cleaned and oiled, and reassembled in no time at all. The Mossberg 500 is about nine ounces lighter than the Remington 870, weighing in at 7lbs, 2oz. the lighter weight is possible because the 500 has an aluminum alloy frame, compared to the 870s steel frame.
There is a catch though, the 500s barrel is significantly heavier than the 870s, giving the 500 a weight forward balance. Even with the different weight displacement, the 500 is just as reliable and multipurpose as its counterparts. The added weight makes the 500 a little steadier, I’ve noticed tracking targets tends to be a little smoother with a heavy barrel.
The 500’s controls have an entirely different configuration than most pump action shotguns. I must admit, manipulating the 500 was more of a learning curve for me because of how use to the 870 I was at the time, It’s no big deal though.
The slide release is on the trigger guard, the safety is on top of the weapon vs. the trigger guard. I could work the 500 both left and right handed without any major functionality issues, but I will say the 500 will feel more natural to left handed shooters.
The stock’s length of pull is a comfortable 13 and 7/8th with no significant drop at heel, just the standard 2 ½ inch drop, the drop at comb is 1 ½ inch. The Mossberg 500 features two bead sights, one at the front, one in the middle. I like this setup when I have to aim at a specific reference point on a target, when a single bead sight feels more natural when I’m point shooting.
- The Mossberg 500 anodized aluminum receivers aren’t prone to rust
- Heavier barrel allows for smooth tracking
- Better Ambidextrous controls
- Five shells in the mag tube, plus one shell in the chamber
- Comes with three different barrel chokes to adjust spread for different shooting applications, the receiver is also tapped for adding a rail system/optic.
- Considering the Mossberg 500 is primarily chambered in 12-gauge, it felt like it lacked the heft to feel truly balanced in my arms. The heavy barrel is awesome, but balancing the 500 could get tiring over time.
Best Tactical Pump Action Shotguns
Benelli M3 Tactical
Alright, it’s time to turn my inner police officer on for a second with story time. My personal shotgun I carried in the trunk of my cruiser was my trust Remington 870 Express Tactical, but our departmental issued shotguns we kept upfront was the Benelli M3 Tactical.
The Benelli M3 Tactical is wicked, straight up wicked. It’s both pump action AND semi-automatic! I kept my Benelli M3 loaded with 3 ½ magnum 00 buckshot. I knew this would be the most accessible long gun I had access to in a gunfight. When disembarking your vehicle, you need to be able to send a volley of cover fire at your target to displace to cover.
I kept the M3 in its pump action setting so I could get out and advance or retreat in sync with the racking of the slide. I could move to the trunk of my cruiser and reload, or get more firepower. Keeping it in pump also made transitioning to the 870 easy because you’ll already be acclimated to the motions, sounds neurotic but anything to win in a gunfight.
Changing firing modes is extremely simple, just a simple twist of the selection ring at the forend and you’re in semi or pump action. The M3s magazine capacity is a whooping seven shells in the tube with one in the barrel, getting creative with the load out of shells is something I’ve always enjoyed about the M3, incorporating magnum shells with low powered shells is a cool option to have available in many circumstances.
The M3 comes with many different sight options. You can select a standard bead sight, a ghost ring diopter, or a rail system for mounting reflex or dot sights. I’ve seen some shooters even go as far as adding a low power 1.5x sight on the shotgun, awesome!
Most Benelli shotgun designs feature a butt stock recoil spring but the M3s recoil spring is situated around the tube so you can customize the type of stock you want to put on the shotgun. I’ve seen conventional shotgun stocks, top folding stocks, pistol grips, and 6 position AR stocks on the M3.
There are tons of aftermarket accessories available to customize the shotgun, I’d recommend a rail system for a flashlight and some sort of sling to maintain an edge in low light and weapon retention.
- Innovative pump action and semi-auto adjustment feature that can fire both magnum and low powered shells
- Seven plus one shell capacity
- About a million different ways to customize and deck out
- Weighs in light at Seven lbs., Overall length is 47-inches, with barrel lengths ranging from 20 to 26 inches depending on your needs
- This weapon requires an intimate, fundamental understanding of both pump action and semi-automatic shotguns to operate.
Remington 870 Express Tactical
I don’t want to sound biased or anything but this is my preferred shotgun under any circumstance. The 870 Express Tactical is a straight work horse. I’ve used about five variations of the 870 magnums, expresses, and a few police editions, they all shot true but none held a candle to the Express Tactical.
They are utterly reliable weapons that continue to serve in extremely demanding environments as combat evolves. Although it bears the 870 name, it’s a completely different weapon. This rugged pump action shotgun is built with extremely durable steel and polymer synthetic material that won’t bend or crack with sharp impacts to the weapon. The 18 ½ inch barrel allows for smooth, balanced tracking but remains extremely maneuverable in close quarters combat.
The XS Front Blade sight allows for intuitive point shooting when engaging targets up to 25 yards, and the XS Ghost Ring Diopter with adjustable windage and elevation setting makes engaging targets up to 100 yards possible with the proper shells.
The receiver comes tapped out of the box so you can add a rail for an optic without any gunsmithing, just disassemble the action and screw your rail directly to the receiver. The comb is at the perfect height to shoot using iron sights but if you add a rail system and optic, consider adding a cheek riser to accommodate higher sights.
The 870 Express Magnum mag tube capacity is six in the tube plus one but you can get a two-shell magazine extension and have nine 12-gauge shells at the ready. I decked my personal Express Magnum with a lot of aftermarket parts. I added a AR style stock, a shell saddle, tactical light, and an ambidextrous sling loop. I can honestly say this pump action shotgun is pretty much an adult Lego set with all the ways you can customize this shotgun.
- Proven battlefield shotgun
- High shell capacity
- Countless aftermarket accessories
- Comes stock with a front sight and a rear ghost ring sight
- Receiver comes drilled and tapped to add rails
- The only con for this weapon is the lack of rails on the stock weapon. Many tactical shotguns come factory equipped with a few small rails mounted on the weapon. It’s not a deal breaker in my opinion, just more work when customizing it.
The Best Multi Purpose Pump Action Shotgun
For our last weapon on the list, we’re going to cover an excellent multipurpose shotgun that can be used both for hunting, sport shooting, home defense, and in a tactical role. When choosing a weapon that is a “catchall” you want to think about speed in terms of fluidity. You want to be able to quickly shoulder the weapon, rapid yet reliable cycling of the weapon when engaging, all in a well-balanced, durable shotgun.
Winchester Model 1300
Much like the Remington 870 and the Mossberg 500, Winchester is another shotgun manufacturer that has withstood the test of time. The Model 1300 pump action shotgun had been a favorite for shotgun enthusiasts since the early 1980’s.
The Model 1300 is known as “The Speed Pump” because it utilizes a shortened, dual action charging bolt for rapid cycling. The bolt and receiver is forged in a lightweight aluminum alloy, perfect for quick shouldering and tracking. All barrels are forged steel with front bead sights but you can find some aftermarket tactical sights depending on the role you intend to use the shotgun.
In home defense, you want a lightweight, reliable, shotgun you can rapidly manipulate, which is exactly why the 1300 is my home defense shotgun, I just load it with 2 ½ birdshot; birdshot is ideal because of the wide shot pattern of the smaller BB’s and lack of penetration. I’ve tested a few different models for home defense but I prefer the 1300 I can use its length in weapon retention and rapidly lay down six 12-gauge shells if I need to.
- Lightweight alloy construction
- Shorted bolt for the model 1300s famous “Speed Pump”
- Perfect for hunting, skeet shooting, home defense, and can be outfitted with tactical accessories
- Mag tube capacity of four, five, or seven plus one.
- The weapon isn’t outfitted to fire 3 ½ 12-gauge magnum shells
Thanks for sticking around and reading my comprehensive overview of pump action shotguns. As you can see, there is a wide variety of pump action shotguns available for numerous applications. I have shot shotguns for most of my life, I love them and trust my life with them, I have carried a Remington 870 for almost seven years now but I’d trust every single shotgun on this list with my life.
The quality of weapon manufacturing has increased tenfold in the past 50 years, every gun is damn near flawless engineered so it’s a matter of shooters preference at this point. Do you own research, try out multiple guns in multiple variations and see which one works best for you. As always, I hope you like our best pump action shotguns review, stay safe and happy shooting!