If you’re reading this, there’s an awfully good chance you currently own or at one time in the not-too-distant past did own a Remington Model 870, henceforth known simply as the M870, pump gun. Also, it’s likely those who currently own one use it quite often and in a variety of situations, including, but not limited to wingshooting, big game hunting, turkey hunting, and/or home defense.
Haven’t owned a M870 yet? Or perhaps are currently in the market for your first-ever shotgun and are considering a M870? For many, the pump-action shotgun was, and continues to be, an excellent choice, whether it be as an addition to an already existing firearm collection or as a first gun purchase. Why such a bold statement? Versatility is the M870’s most endearing virtue, along with dependability, as we’ll explore here.
With the added benefit of affordability, the M870 is an all around excellent choice for young or new shooters alike. The endlessly possible modifications of the M870 by way of choke tube swaps, stock modification, barrel changes, and the addition of sights or sighting devices extends the model’s useful life almost indefinite. All this for an initial cost of less than $300, most of the time. Try buying the new iPhone for under $300 (let alone having it work for more than two years)!
To those who sold their M870 at some ill-advised point in the past, allow me to go out on the proverbial limb here and say you’ve regretted the decision. Maybe not every day, but each and every time you’ve gone to the gun cabinet reaching in vain for a “One Size Fits All” type of firearm, of which there are actually few.
The M870, however, is one of the few, but is it, as the title might suggest, the ‘best ever’ in terms of pump-action shotguns? That’s saying a lot – ‘Best Ever’ – especially when you look at the rather lengthy list of popular pump guns, a handful of which might be worthy of the descriptive term, legendary.
Shotguns such as Winchester’s Model 12, and the company’s M1897. The list goes on: the venerable Mossberg Model 500, Ithaca’s Model 37, and more recently, Browning’s BPS and Benelli’s NOVA.
Best ever? ‘Tis truly up to the reader, the M870 fan, even the disgruntled former owner, to decide. There is, as you’ll see, plenty of evidence to support the fact the M870 is undeniably good. Perhaps even great. Maybe even, dare we say, the “best ever?”
The M870 walked onto the public stage in 1950, after beginning life two years earlier as the offspring, of Remington’s new autoloading shotgun, the M11-48, designed by company engineers Ellis Hailston, C.R. Johnson, and Ray Critendon. Certain design features, like stamped steel parts and component interchangeability, that were key aspects of the then-revolutionary M11-48 made their way to Big Green’s new pump-gun.
In the case of the M870, a pair of innovative features would endear the scattergun to the shooting public:
Twin action (slide) arms or bars increased positive lockup and overall smoothness of function; in simpler terms, the M870 became more reliable and less prone to cycling hiccups, we’ll call them, than other models. Even the earliest Mossberg 500 shotguns had one action arm, which could bend under heavy stress and bind-up the action, which lead to the company adding an additional action arm to the M500 when Remington’s patent expired.
Remington’s inclusion of a hardened steel locking lug as an integral part of the barrel – as opposed to a mated recess machined into the receiver proper. This not only provided strength at lockup, but allowed barrels to be swapped between like gauges instantly, easily, and positively, without tools, hardship, or the elaborate cursing that commonly accompanied such a task back in the day.
One receiver, three barrels, and a shooter was, within seconds, ready for everything from upland birds and waterfowl to whitetails to a home defense situation, if necessary. The M870 wasn’t Remington’s first pump-action shotgun but it is, without a doubt, the company’s finest to date, as well as its best-selling.
In 1909, Remington, working through designer John Pedersen, introduced the Model 10, a bottom-ejecting 12-gauge. During the M10’s run from ’09 to 1929, an updated version of the model, the M29 and later the M31, were brought to market and more than 250,000 were produced. Both updated models featured the now-familiar side ejection port layout. While it was used for various military and law enforcement applications, the M10 and its variants saw heavy use by civilians as well.
Upon its introduction in 1950, some 15 variants of the M870 were available, including the AP Standard Grade, BC Special Grade, ADL Deluxe Grade, BDL Deluxe Special Grade, trap versions, skeet versions, and a Riot Grade, complete with a 20-inch barrel.
There were differences among them, especially in wood quality and barrel length. There were also three gauge options – 12, 16, and 20. The 12- and 20-gauge versions were available with 2-3/4-inch chambers only.
Four years later, in 1954, a 3-inch 12-gauge M870 Magnum hit the market. Small bore fans would have to wait until 1969 before 28-gauge and .410 field models sporting downsized true-to-gauge receivers to grace gun-shop shelves.
In 1960, the U.S. military obtained approximately 38,000 M870 riot-style guns—plain-jane five-shot pump actions with either 18- or 20-inch barrels and full length walnut stocks—and shipped them to South Vietnam. Other M870s were set aside for use by the U.S. Marines, Army, and Air Force.
In 1969, Remington signed a contract with the Unites States Marine Corps to produce the M870 MARK (MK) 1, which were modified for military service with the addition of a 7-round extended magazine tube (bringing the total capacity to eight rounds) and a bayonet lug.
Popular among many of the troops, the Mark I would see service until the U.S. withdrawal from Southeast Asia in 1975 and beyond.
The M870’s milestones over the years are, in a word, numerous. In 1966, Remington announced their one millionth M870; in ’73, the two millionth. This number swelled to five million units in 1990, and in April of 2009, the company unveiled the 10 millionth M870.
Eight years later, there are over 11 million M870s out there. Somewhere. Everywhere. A bit of trivia: With an average overall length of 48-1/2 inches, 11 million M870s laid end-to-end would stretch approximately 8,420 miles. That’s round-trip from New York City to Los Angeles, with 37 miles to spare. Impressive, eh? Break that one out at your next dinner party.
Then, Much As It Is Now
Since its introduction more than a half century ago, the M870, as a shotgun platform, has largely remained the same—but it has gone through multitudinous cosmetic changes. Features and options such as barrel length, metal finishes, stock and fore-end construction, sights, accessories, and niceties have been offered up.
From recoil pad to muzzle, the elementalism of the M870 is, to many, the firearm’s primary allure. It’s a simple shotgun built around a simple design, especially by today’s standards.
Stocks have, for the most part, been made of walnut through the shotgun’s production; but, synthetic stocks have gained favor in recent years for their extreme weather resistance (important for waterfowls and hunters in general), endurance, and light weight.
Tactical synthetic stocks with pistol grips, as well as folding stocks, have become standard on law enforcement, military, and home defense versions of the 870. Synthetic fore-ends, likewise, have gained popularity for many shooters along with stocks, though wood versions are still popular as well.
Action and Safeties
Operation is straight forward. The aforementioned dual action bars power the bolt assembly; extraction and ejection of the spent hull takes place on the rearward stroke, while elevation and placement into battery of a live round occurs on the forward motion, as the action is closed and locked.
Since the 1970s, nearly all pump-action shotguns, including the M870, include a trigger disconnected safety, which required the trigger to be released before the firing pin can be activated again. On some older pump guns, especially pre-1975 Ithaca 37s, if the user held down the trigger and worked the action, the shotgun would fire instantly as soon as a new round was chambered. This is commonly called slam fire, though an actual slam fire is an accidental discharge that can lead to a runaway. It would be more accurate, in this case, to call it a pump-fire. During both World Wars, soldiers found it an effective technique for clearing trenches and other small areas. Trigger disconnects were later added as a safety feature to prevent pump fires.
In contract to the Mossberg M500’s top-mounted safety, which is naturally ambidextrous by its positioning, the M870’s cross-bolt safety is locate at the rear of the trigger guard.
Southpaws have a couple options for their right-handed M870. If it’s an older model, pre-90s, the solution may be as simple as swapping the right-hand safety for a left-hand version. Otherwise, left-hand trigger groups, interchangeable in the case of the M870, are available. Or, Remington makes M870 models that come fully set-up for lefties.
The M870’s bolt release on the left side at the leading edge of the trigger guard.
Barrels and the Rem-Choke System
The M870’s barrel mates snugly into the receiver and is secured by both a barrel band that wraps completely around the magazine tube, topped with a threaded magazine cap.
Barrel options for M870s have, over the years, been as many as there are stars in the sky. From 18-inch Cylinder Bore shorties meant for home defense to a 32-inch full choke version designed to reach out and touch high-flying ducks and geese, Remington has made available something for every shooter, regardless of their game or target of choice.
Up until 1986, barrels for the M870 had fixed chokes, including improved cylinder, modified, and full.
Fully-rifled barrels, complete with integral cantilevered scope mounts, were – and still are today – created for deer hunters choosing to hunt in shotgun-only states, e.g. Iowa and Ohio. Most popular among wingshooters, however, are Remington’s 26- and 28-inch vent-rib versions, both featuring the Rem-Choke interchangeable choke tube system.
In 1986, Remington introduces it’s Rem-Choke interchangeable choke tube system and 870 barrels to go with it. This means shooters were no longer limited to one choke per barrel. Instead of needing at least three barrels to round out an M870 hunting kit, now only one barrel is needed along with a set of choke tubes, making the shotgun even more versatile and affordable. It also opened up the use of more exotic chokes for specific purposes, like XX-Full chokes for turkey hunting, since the purchase of an entire new barrel was no longer required.
Design Changes and Enduring Quality
As for the M870’s long list of cosmetic changes, it’s tough to imagine a configuration that’s not available.
There are turkey gun setups with Extra Full choke tubes and thumbhole stocks; deer guns with cantilevered and fully-rifled barrels along with a top rail for mounting optics; goose-getters chambered for Roman Candle-sized 3.5-inch shotshells; trap guns; skeet guns; setups for sporting clays; left-handed models, and it goes on.
A quick glance at Remington’s website revealed some 25 different variants of the M870 ranging from a Plain Jane matte finish/walnut stocked Express to the futuristic-looking Shurshot Synthetic Turkey model featuring a thumbhole stock one could put his head through. Electroless nickel plating covers the Marine Magnum inside and out, while the diminutive all-black TAC-14 home/personal defense variant (introduced in 2017) sports a 14-inch barrel and an overall length of just a shade over 26 inches. And that isn’t even taking into account the vast array of aftermarket products available for the 870 from various manufacturers. After all, with 11 million shotguns out there, that’s a lot of different tastes that must be catered to.
And finally, affordability, alongside the aforementioned virtues of reliability, dependability, and versatility, help make the M870 what it is, and always has been—you don’t have to save for months to afford one, and that’s hard to beat.
Prices vary, of course, but Remington lists its least expensive 870, the Express model, at $417. One of the highest-end models, the 200th Anniversary Edition M870 Wingmaster, complete with 24 karat gold inlays, a custom box, and a special serial numbers, rings up at $1,500, which is still extremely affordable.
An Informal Survey
Are the results below conclusive or scientific? Not at all. But in the interest of reinforcing my arguments, I hit the inter-webs and set the question to the men and women of Hunting-Washington.com, and gathered their thoughts on the M870, and their opinion as to whether or not it’s the best pump-gun ever made.
The comments were indeed interesting, and not, I must say, without a common denominator. Read them as they were posted:
“I love my 870. I have several other (more expensive) shotguns and choose the 870 more often than not. Also bought a youth 20 for my kids...really fun gun to shoot. If I could only have one and use it for everything it would be my 870, no question” —BD1
“I shot trap when I was in my mid teens, one of the guns that I could always count on to get me back in the game, if/when something would get in my head, was a 870 TC Wingmaster. I put thousands of rounds through one and though it didn't have the "cool" factor of some of the other trap guns I had, I probably shot it as well or better than any I've ever shot. The thing just seemed to always break everything I pointed it at and will forever have a fondness for the 870’s” —b23
“I have several. Love them all. My all time favorite gun is the 870 express I was given by my dad in 1990. I have literally over 10,000 rounds through that gun. It started having some jamming issues 2 years ago, but I replaced the trigger and that seams to have fixed it. I have killed ducks, geese, turkey, dove, rabbit, Chucker, quail, pheasant, and sand hill crane. I took it to Africa and used it to kill Dove, Guinea fowl and Francolins. This shotgun is an extension of my body. I can cycle it faster than most semi-autos. I own many firearms worth a lot more than this old 870, but none makes me smile more than this one. After 25 years of hard service, this gun owes me nothing. I call her Heather” —Rob
“I got my old man's 870 in 12 gauge to replace my 20 gauge 870 when I was in middle school. He and all his buddies upgraded to auto loaders from Italy all around the same time. I shot all their guns and never found one I liked more than that twenty year old 870. It's still my only bird gun almost twenty years later” —Jpmiller
“An 870 12 gauge was the first gun I bought with my own money. I was 13 years old and saved up the money I earned on my newspaper delivery route. I've had the gun 45 years, shot trap with it for years and killed some birds with it too, never had a single issue with that gun, I'll own it until I die” —bearpaw
There were, certainly, some negative responses as well.
“I currently have an 870 express. POS. It jams more often then it cycles, so I haven't used it in years. I understand that the fix is fairly easy and I need to polish the bore or something?” —WSU
“I had a circa 1970 Wingmaster 20g – it was a solid, reliable gun but it didn’t fit well, recoil was harsh, muzzle rise made follow up shots difficult. Newer Express 12g, POS – same issues as the Wingmaster but add poor fit & finish – unreliable jammer” —CP
“I have an 870 express. I have put several thousand rounds through it and it has jammed 10-15 times. Yes, it normally works, but those jams really give a sour taste” —PastorJoel
And then there was this gentleman, whose post definitely falls into the ‘And there you have it, folks’ category.
“Love them or hate them, they are somewhat iconic, not many guns are produced that long without any major changes” —actionshooter
Truly The Best Ever?
What makes something the best ever? Greatest number sold? Dependability? Versatility? Ease of modification and customization? Price? Maybe a combination of each and every variable here in differing degrees.
There’s no denying that Remington’s venerable M870 ranks high, if not top of the list, in all of the categories that define greatest, if greatest is indeed defined by the terms mentioned here. Even if we consider only how many M870s have been produced and are in use today, it seems clear the iconic shotgun is a super all-round fit for hundreds of hunters and shooters across the nation.