June 2000

12-Bore Rifled Slug Barrels For Shotguns: Buy Browning

The BPS tube sets the standard for 12-gauge pump-actions, in our estimation. Less able products: Winchesterís Black Shadow, Remington 870ís barrels.

[IMGCAP(1)] For many years hunters have used rifled slugs when they go after deer with a shotgun, but it wasn’t until the inception of fully-rifled bores and the introduction of saboted loads that the shotgun became an efficient tool for hunters. Now, in some cases, accuracy can approach that associated with rifles, and searching for the best or most accurate load could provide the “shotgunner” with lots of off-season fun. Moreover, wingshooters and waterfowlers may be able to add a rifled barrel that costs around $150 to $325, rather than buying a complete, new slug gun.

Thus, the idea of simply adding a rifled barrel to an existing pump shotgun and turning it into a tack-driver has enormous appeal. However, one thing becomes clear immediately in an evaluation of rifled shotguns: They are now rifles, not shotguns, and they should have all the attributes of good rifles. Good triggers, sound stock shapes, good sights, and the ability to be held steadily and fired in relative comfort to produce rifle-like accuracy are among the factors to look for. Perhaps the most important of these is a good trigger pull. However, rifle-like triggers are not commonly found on pump shotguns. Also, a shotgun that is designed to be carried in the field at the ready all day long is probably going to be on the light side for use as a rifle, and it will fire hard-kicking, powerful slug loads.

Although some think the familiarity gained by using one firearm for both shotgun and rifle hunting would pay dividends in venison, we think the disciplines required for each are not transferable. A shotgun that works well for snap-shooting grouse would not be used in the same manner or even necessarily from the same shooting position to carefully place a bullet into a deer.

Rifled barrels come with iron sights or with provisions for mounting a scope. Though many hunters ignore the scope option, we thought it would be interesting to compare a trio of shotguns where one of them was scoped, and the other two equipped with iron sights alone. This turned out to be very revealing, as recent testing showed.

The Products
In the February 2000 issue, we tested a Winchester 1300 Black Shadow, a Remington 870 Express Magnum, and a Browning BPS Stalker, all 12-gauge pump shotguns with synthetic stocks. The Winchester took the nod of that test, being fast, inexpensive, and giving more-than-adequate performance. As a follow-up to the earlier test, we decided to pit those brands again in slug-gun configurations. To that end, we acquired fully rifled barrels for two of that trio, the Browning and Winchester, and obtained a new Remington 870 with rifled barrel (our previous gun had been sold). We discovered that the rifled barrel from the new 870 would have worked perfectly with the other Remington, and because the guns were otherwise of similar weight, balance, trigger pull, etc., the new gun gave us results we would have expected to get if we had simply replaced the barrel on the other one.

To repeat what we said in February, all three guns were dark, bland-looking guns with matte-black stocks and similar finish on their metalwork. The new Remington was also pretty bland, with matte finish on its very plain wood. All three were fitted with black rubber buttpads that were too hard for shotgun work, much less rifle-type shooting. All had twin activating rods for their bolts, and all worked well with all loads tried. There were no real duds in our original evaluation, but we found some little problems along the way. We rejected the Browning shotgun in our previous test because we could see little real advantage for the significantly greater cost, $509 (now $448) versus $339 for the Remington and $296 for the Winchester. At the time, however, we noted the precise feel of the Browning, its top-mounted sliding safety, and its greater weight. Would that precise feel and greater weight make a difference when the guns were turned into 12-bore rifles? You’d better believe it!

Our previous analysis told us that the Winchester smoothbore was slick and fast-acting, light and adequately responsive. At 7.0 pounds (as a shotgun), it weighed nearly a pound less than the Browning, and half a pound less than the Remington 870. As we learned shortly, a light field shotgun might not have enough weight for bench-testing very heavy loads.

We really couldn’t fault the Remington 870 tested against the Winchester 1300 Black Shadow as shotguns, other than to note that the 870 was very simply and plainly finished and appointed, and cost more than the slick Winchester, making it a Conditional-Buy gun.

Many hunters still use the old all-lead “rifled” slug in these modern, fully rifled 12-bores, and expect that they’re getting all the accuracy they need. They believe they’ll get better accuracy from the lead slug than from any new-fangled saboted slug. Frankly, we didn’t know what to expect. Would the all-lead rifled slug upset to fill the bore, and/or force its plastic wad into the rifling? We thought we should find out, so we picked one saboted load and two rifled slug loads of different intensity. We chose to test Remington Premier saboted Copper Solid hollow-point slugs, Winchester 2 3/4-inch Super-X hollow-point rifled slugs, and Remington Slugger 3-inch Magnum rifled slugs, all of them loaded with 1-ounce (440-grain) bullets. We reasoned that any brand of saboted ammunition would give similar results to those we would obtain with the Remington brand. Different brands of saboted ammunition might work better than the Remington brand we tried, and finding out could be part of the fun. We thought it would be more revealing to know if rifled slugs would work in these guns, and here’s what we found:

Browning BPS Stalker & Barrel
Our recommendation: Buy It. This setup was truly ideal for accurately placing a saboted slug, and would give enough power for hunting absolutely anything in North America.

Click here to view the Browning BPS Stalker & Barrel features guide

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The rifled barrel for the Browning came with an extension for mounting a scope. There were no iron sights. The cantilevered scope-mount extension was in the form of a Weaver-type base with four cross slots for varying placement of scope rings. We put an Artemis 3-9X onto the Browning in Weaver rings. This relatively powerful scope might not be one’s first choice for a hunting shotgun, because a lower-power unit might be lighter and handier. However, we thought, many hunting rifles have such scopes, so why not try it. We’re extremely glad we did, as it proved to be ideal.

The addition of the scope added enough mass that we found it easy to hold the gun steady even in offhand shooting, a definite plus. The barrel itself of this gun was brilliantly finished inside, with rifling that was very bright and shiny throughout, looking like it was lapped. The barrel fit the steel receiver very precisely, in harmony with the rest of the gun and its precise feel. We started to believe Browning (Miroku in Japan) had planned this gun as a rifle all along. With the scope mounted, the balance was definitely between the hands, and the now relatively heavy gun (9.2 pounds unloaded) felt much lighter than it actually was.

We still had trouble with the recoil pad catching on our clothing when we mounted the gun, and if we owned it would take a rasp to the top of the pad. The long (for a rifle) 14.25-inch pull length helped keep the scope off our face from the severe recoil of these slug loads. We found it very reasonable to mount a 3-9x scope. The power could be dialed down for woods hunting and up as needed for longer shots or for bench testing, or for added clarity of vision in the field if you had time to do so. We believe a 2-7x would have been a good choice, too, and we’d pick either of these over a lower-power fixed scope if we owned this gun. The scope stays with the rifled tube, so when you want to switch it back to a shotgun you lose the weight but retain your zero.

The Browning rifling twist was much faster than the twists of the other two guns. It made what appeared to be a full turn in its 22-inch length, and the other two made about half a turn. All three barrels were close to 0.729-inch groove diameter, all were close to 0.717-inch bore diameter, and all had eight grooves. The surface smoothness of their interiors were significantly different, with none more brilliant than the Browning.

Like the other guns, the Browning had a lousy trigger for precision work. It broke at 6.0 pounds with significant creep. However, the great weight of the scoped package went a long way toward helping with precision shooting. The kick of this setup was so much less than the other two guns that we were able to use the 9X scope option, and the gun was happy to show its colors on the target range.

With the Remington saboted 1-ounce loads, we fired our best three-shot group at 100 yards: 1.0 inch. Yes, a “shotgun” capable of MOA accuracy! The average with that ammo was right at 2.0 inches, better than many a rifle we’ve tested. Did the BPS shoot the slugs well? Absolutely not. We got 14-inch groups with the hot 3-inch Magnum slugs and gave it up. We got 6-inch groups with 2 3/4-inch slugs and concluded the Browning BPS was a fine modern rifle, requiring good modern ammunition.

If you own a BPS Browning and plan to install a fully rifled barrel, you’ll love it as long as you use good saboted slugs, we believe. The scope setup is just about mandatory for best results with good rifled 12-bores, and we recommend a scope with enough power to let you get the most your gun has to offer. The scope and the rifled barrel transformed the BPS into the very best gun of this test, giving outstanding results with no compromise with the past (as with rifled, but non-saboted, ammunition), and its weight and precision made themselves very useful when this shotgun became a rifle. We pronounced it the best of this test.

Winchester Model 1300 Black Shadow & Barrel
Our recommendation: Based on the gun’s poor accuracy results, we can see no reason to put a rifled barrel onto this otherwise outstanding shotgun. The Black Shadow worked extremely well as a shotgun and probably ought to be left as such. The results we obtained with our rifled barrel did not justify its relatively modest cost of $154. A better choice would be to install the $227 scope-mounting version. Of course, if you have a rifled barrel for your 1300, it would be fun to see if you could get useful slug accuracy with one or another brand of ammunition. If you do so, we recommend adding weight to the gun so you don’t kick yourself into next week.

Click here to view the Winchester Model 1300 Black Shadow & Barrel features guide

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On the range we had the delight of seeing this pump-rifle turn itself into a sort-of semiautomatic. Attaching the 22-inch, iron-sighted, rifled tube reduced the overall weight from 7.0 to 6.6 pounds. Recoil was so severe and the action so slick that each shot fired from our bench rest caused the forend to kick clear of the rest and move rearward with such violence as to eject the fired round. All we had to do between shots was move the forend back into place, taking the next round from the magazine with it.

Unfortunately, that was the only joy we got out of the rifled Black Shadow. None of the ammunition we tried gave reasonable accuracy. The best group we got in all our testing was the first one fired with the Remington saboted ammunition, which went into 2.7 inches. Then things went downhill, and we ended up with 7.3-inch average groups with that fodder.

The Winchester 1300 did not do well with the slug loads either, putting Winchester’s own 2 3/4-inch slugs into 10-inch groups and the hotter, longer, Remington 3-inch slugs into slightly better, but still pretty useless, 7.5-inch groups. Perhaps we ought to say patterns, because there was little consistency in their performance. This might be acceptable accuracy for 50-yard-and-under hunting conditions, but would not do for ranges approaching 100 yards.

At 6.6 pounds the Black Shadow was far too light for the performance of even the mildest of these hot slug loads. The recoil was not taken up by either the mass or by the hard recoil pad. A rifle that throws 440-grain bullets at upwards of 1,600 fps has about the same recoil energy as a five-pound .30-’06 shooting 180-grain bullets. The recoil energy of this Winchester 1300 was on the order of 40 foot-pounds. This 12-gauge horsepower needed more weight for containment, something around the 9 pounds of the Browning.

The sight picture was reasonable, being a wide-angle V rear with bead front sight on a ramp. The rear was drift adjustable for windage and step-adjustable for elevation, the sight being its own spring. We longed for a scope. An aperture would have been a better sight, but would have added no weight. We don’t feel our poor accuracy results were from poor sights or too much recoil. The gun just didn’t work with our loads.

Remington 870 Express Magnum
Our recommendation: We liked the rifled Remington 870 more than the Winchester 1300, mainly because it produced some useful accuracy. The Remington was 2 inches shorter, and if we needed a handy rifle for protection in bear country, we’d probably figure out a way to mount an aperture sight onto the receiver. This would make for a relatively inexpensive and powerful arm for those who might not want to carry a powerful handgun, or who don’t want the weight of a scope.

Click here to view the Remington 870 Express Magnum features guide

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This one’s barrel was only 20 inches long, and included iron sights. The front was a large bead dovetailed into a ramp. The rear sight was similar to that found on Remington 700 rifles, a sloping ramp with a movable slide containing an almost-flat-topped U-notch blade. A large white triangle pointed to its center. Adjusting elevation required loosening a slotted screw, but changing the windage required a small Allen wrench.

The wood, which we think was birch, was nicely stained and finished in a workmanlike manner. The forend had wrap-around reversed, or pressed-in, checkering that extended from the bottom of the grooved wood on one side all the way around to the other. The pistol grip area had ludicrously small patches of impressed checkering. This “checkering” was largely useless, being quite smooth. However, the large finger grooves in the forend gave adequate control over its operation, and the pistol grip was curved enough that we could pull the stock into our shoulders with ease. All three guns had stocks that permitted a solid hold and reasonable facial comfort.

The Remington’s wood was slightly smaller than the rear of the action where they met. Wood will only get smaller in time, through drying out, so that poor fit will only get worse. The wood was coarsely sanded but adequately finished. The good news is that wood will always be more comfortable in cold weather than synthetics. As with the other two guns, there were no provisions for sling swivels (the Browning had one stud on the buttstock). There was a black buttpad fitted, and it was a good job, but it might as well have been made of concrete, it was so hard. There was a slight rounding at the top of the buttpad, and though it helped a bit in mounting the gun, we’d have liked to see the elimination of the still-sharp edge at the top of the rubber. Even better would have been a Pachmayr Decelerator pad.

The Remington weighed only 7.2 pounds. That and the hard buttpad did nothing to dampen the severe recoil, nor was it reduced by the humped, rifle-like shape of the buttstock. Like the Winchester, this one kicked like hell. We desperately craved a big, heavy scope, both for increased precision of aiming and to add recoil-absorbing weight.

At the range, in spite of the hard recoil, we found that the Remington 870 was significantly more accurate with our chosen loads than the Winchester 1300. With the Remington saboted load the best group was 3.0 inches, and we’re sure we could have improved that with a scope. That load averaged 3.8 inches. We would have liked the scope to test the hot 3-inch Magnum bruisers because that load threatened to shoot fairly well. We averaged 4.0 inches with it. The milder 2 3/4-inch slugs gave us 7-inch average groups.

Gun Tests Recommends
Browning BPS Stalker rifled barrel, $322. Buy It. If you currently have a Stalker and need slug-gun capability, we give a Buy It recommendation to the separate rifled barrel. We believe the Browning BPS was built with the rifled tube in mind. With it, the BPS was a very powerful, well-made, and fast-operating rifle. It had enough weight, more than enough accuracy, precise workmanship, and outstanding balance. It had one of the best and fastest safeties for rifles. If you want a proper 12-bore rifle, this is the best we’ve seen. If you already have the shotgun version of the BPS, a rifled barrel ought to be mandatory. You’ll love it, but at $322 it’s not exactly cheap. If you don’t own a pump gun but are considering one for possible use as both shotgun and rifle, but were put off by our former advice, remember that our main objection was the Browning’s price. We were just informed the current price for the Browning BPS Stalker (synthetic stock) is $448, not the $509 we reported, which makes the gun all the more attractive. If you need or want a superb 12-bore rifle and sort-of need a pump shotgun, look no further. This is it.

Winchester 1300 Black Shadow, $154 (iron sights). Don’t Buy It. We’d pass on putting a rifled barrel on this one. We couldn’t get useful accuracy with anything we tried, and the gun was so light it was not any fun at all to shoot, much less try to find a “best” load. However, we just learned that Winchester now offers, as of 2000, a cantilevered barrel for the Winchester 1300, with a list price of $227. This barrel features a scope mount similar to that of the Browning, and it might be well worth a look. We have our doubts, however, because the twist rate is identical to that of the iron-sighted barrel we tested, so we would expect similar results to what we got. With the better aiming potential of a scope, accuracy ought to improve slightly, and the added weight would be a godsend. Remember that the rifled bore adds range through accuracy, not power. You can kill a deer at close range with a smoothbore tube and buckshot. Based on what we found, we believe the Black Shadow should remain a shotgun.

Remington 870 Express Magnum, $240 (iron sights). Conditional Buy. If you need a light, handy and powerful rifle, you might consider a rifled barrel for your Remington 870. It’s fun to experiment with the rifled tube. Our test version gave acceptable accuracy for some situations, and could be used for deer in a pinch. Remington also offers a fully rifled barrel with “cantilevered” scope mount, with a suggested retail price of $288. It, too, is 20 inches long, and if you want to do serious work with this gun, we’d strongly recommend the scope-mounting version. In our testing of the iron-sighted barrel we craved more weight for our bench testing, and would definitely want a scope for serious deer hunting. Still, as tested, the Remington was a decent bundle of power for limited or specialized uses. The Remington 870 with iron-sighted barrel wouldn’t be our first choice for serious hunting with saboted or rifled slugs, but it might be right for you.