January 21, 2021
By Joseph von Benedikt
To earn a place amongst the all-time greats, a pump-gun must have survived the test of time, and must have a cult-like following. Here, in alphabetical order, is a lineup of the very best of the best.
Browning makes the claim that the BPS is the finest pump-action shotgun made today—and that’s a legitimate argument. It’s the only pump gun that, over the years, has been available in every single shotgun gauge that shells are currently made for, including 10-gauge, 12-, 16-, 20- and 28-gauge, and 410 bore.
Plus, the BPS is the only truly ambidextrous pump-action shotgun made. It loads and ejects from the bottom, and has a tang-mounted safety, so it’s one hundred percent the same for right- and left-handers.
Because the BPS is built on a machined steel receiver, shotguns are generally a tad heavier than competing models built on aluminum allow receivers. However, that provides outstanding durability and helps the gun mount smoothly and balance and swing consistently.
In 2020, Browning reworked the BPS, giving it an updated/upgraded stock profile for increased aesthetics and ergonomics. A larger trigger guard makes the gun comfortable to shoot with gloves. A space-age recoil pad softens kick.
First versions rolling off the line since the update are primarily all-purpose hunting guns, dedicated waterfowling guns, and clean-lined upland guns. If the past is any indication of the future, before long rifled deer guns, turkey guns, and defense guns should join the lineup.
Ithaca Model 37
Designed, like so many others, to compete with Winchester’s Model 12, the Ithaca Model 37 was introduced in 1937. But unlike the Model 12, Ithaca’s gun survived, and is still in production, earning it the title of the longest-lived pump-action model in constant production. In fact, production numbers hit the two million mark in 2003, putting the Model 37 right there with the Model 12 in total numbers manufactured.
That’s not to say it’s been Easy Street. Ithaca Gun Company has undergone several ownership changes, and multiple moves. At present, it calls Ohio home, and continues to produce upper-crust shotguns for the discerning field gunner.
The Model 37’s claim to wartime fame came during Viet Nam, during which time it gradually replaced the Model 12 Trench Guns in service. Of bottom-loading, bottom-ejecting design, it proved particularly suitable for use in rainy jungle climates. Plus, versions built up until about 1975 could be “slam-fired,” meaning the shooter could hold the trigger back and simply work the pump as fast as possible, dumping a shocking quantity of buckshot downrange.
That bottom eject makes the Model 37 appealing to left-hand shooters. As long as the gun has no cast in the stock, it’s a nearly ambidextrous design. The only element that is not properly ambi is the crossbolt safety in the trigger guard.
While a simple Home Defense model is available, these days Ithaca’s new Model 37s are mostly geared for hunters. Youth models, hog guns with rifled barrels and high-capacity magazines, waterfowl camo… you name it. And recently, a superb all-chrome and high-grade walnut version was introduced in 28 gauge. Friends, I’d gladly sell several teeth in order to afford one.
Mossberg Model 500
Of all the pump guns in all the world, only Mossberg’s Model 500 can claim a legitimate challenge to Remington’s legendary Model 870. While it’s a cool million short of the 870 in production numbers, it has still topped ten million made. That, my friends, tells a significant story. Plus, Remington has recently faded in a broil of bankruptcy fog, and Mossberg quietly and capably keeps cranking out hard-working guns.
For the most part, Mossberg’s are not regarded as highly refined guns. And that’s ok. Rather, the company has an enviable reputation for reliability, affordability, and performance in any and all conditions and on any scene from police cruisers to duck blinds to competition stages.
Also, no other pump-action model ever offered nearly the variety that the 500 does. Duck guns? Naturally. Wood-and-walnut pheasant slayer? Yep. Turkey walloper? Indeed. Big buck gun with a rifled barrel? Of course. Best of all, down-sized versions called the Mini Super Bantam series are purpose-built in 410 bore and 20 gauge, and fit kids perfectly. Even little kids. And even in slug guns with rifled bores and fiber-optic sights.
Introduced in 1960, the Model 500 is a 60-year veteran of the pump-shotgun popularity wars. And right at this moment, it seems to be winning.
Remington Model 31
Known to have an action so smooth it felt as if it had ball bearings, the Model 31 demanded inclusion here—even though less than 200,000 were made—because many connoisseurs consider it to be the finest shotgun Remington ever built.
Extremely refined, it incorporated considerable handwork and tuning. As a result, function was universally effortless and impeccable. Mechanically, it had a shorter stroke than Winchester’s Model 12 and its own successor, the Model 870, making it faster to operate. Additionally, less effort was required to run the pump. No wonder it garnered such a reputation.
First off the press in 1931 were 12-gauge versions. In ’33 both 20- and 16-gauge versions were added. As with Winchester’s top-selling Model 12, the 16-gauge guns were built on the 20-gauge frame, making for a gun as light and responsive as a sleek 20-gauge that hit like a 12-gauge. Unfortunately, the Model 31 cost about 25 percent more than a Model 12, and it was introduced in the middle of the Great Depression. Success was doubtful from the start.
A plethora of variations were made, including some for military and police work, but the Model 31 was discontinued in 1949, making way for what was to become the highest-selling pump-action shotgun of all time: Remington’s Model 870.
Remington Model 870
With more than eleven million built, Remington’s Model 870 has become the pump-action shotgun by which all others are judged. It’s the most practical hunting shotgun available, offering outstanding performance and capability for impressively reasonable prices. It’s served armed forces and police honorably for decades. Introduced in 1950, the 870 Wingmaster version became legend in the hands of hunters, and the model successfully made the transition to the waterfowling world of steel shot, 3.5-inch magnum chambers, and camo finishes.
Although the action is not as smooth as Winchester’s Model 12, or even its own predecessor (Remington’s Model 31), the Model 870 can make a very strong claim to being the most reliable pump gun in the world. And it’s adaptable. From the Wingmaster to combat guns to turkey guns to rifled slug guns for deer, the Model 870 has proved its worth.
As I write this, the Remington Arms Company’s future is questionable because of the recent bankruptcy and sale of all its assets at auction. However, the believer in me remains confident that the great Model 870, like a phoenix from the ashes, will rise again and continue its legend. There’s just no way to keep such a good gun down.
Winchester Model 12
Of all the pump-action shotguns every created, this one is most loved by purists. Introduced in 1912, it reigned supreme until Remington introduced the Model 870 in 1950. Extremely smooth-functioning, hand fit and tuned, the Winchester Model 12 was—and is—extraordinary. Nearly two million were made in its 51-year lifespan, first in 20-gauge, then in 16- and 12-gauge, and eventually in 28 gauge. Its tubular magazine held 6 rounds, allowing an impressive total capacity of 7 cartridges. Incorporating elements of John Browning’s exposed-hammer Model 1897, the Model 12 was an internal-hammer gun; the first of its type and wildly successful. More than 100,000 were purchased by the U.S. Military and used from WWI through WWII, the Korean War, and into Viet Nam.
While most Model 12s were chambered in 12 gauge, more desirable today are the 20-gauge versions. These are sleeker, lighter, and undoubtedly more responsive. Built on a smaller frame, 20-gauge Model 12s are a vintage pump-gun lover’s ultimate upland game gun. Rarest, at least by my own observation, are the 28-gauge guns.
Not uncommon, and certainly a dark horse, are the 16-gauge Model 12s. Built on the same svelte frame as the 20-gauge versions, they handle, shoulder, and swing like a 20-bore but hit nearly as hard as a 12-gauge. They do kick with more zest than either the 20 or 12s, and as a result their stocks have often been cut and a recoil pad added. This lowers collector value, but puts them within reach of hunters that want to actually use their vintage guns.