November 2008

20-Gauge Pump Shootout: BPS Slide-Action Has What We Want

Browning’s shotgun instills both pride of ownership and confidence in its utility for less than $600. Our testers preferred it over Remington’s Wingmaster and Ithaca’s M37 Featherlight.

Where are some great reasons for considering a 20-gauge pump shotgun. Considering the common 3-inch chamber length available today, the 20 gauge itself works well as a general-purpose hunting gauge, handling appropriate payloads for most upland game as well as decoying waterfowl, all in a trimmer package than expected from a 12 gauge. When a common question with autoloaders is constantly focused on "what it cycles with," no such issues exist with pump-action repeaters that do their job regardless of payload and velocity considerations. Finally, in a day when quality autoloaders can easily breach the $1500 threshold and the sky is seemingly the limit for stack barrels, pump-action repeaters with similar (or better) build quality and less maintenance requirements can be acquired with significantly less financial stress.

We recently tested a trio of slide actions whose prices, at least, promised more value for the dollar than some other lines can deliver. The parameters for this match-up were simple: we wanted representative high-quality models of highly polished blue and checkered walnut in 20-gauge pump guns that are presented as high-quality repeaters. Our 3-inch-chamber 20 gauges were the Ithaca Model 37 Featherlight, $859; Browning’s BPS No. 012211813, $566; and the Remington Model 870 Wingmaster No. 26947, $773. The three have interesting and sometimes interlocking histories.

The pump gun is an important part of Americana. The inherent appeal is clear: single sighting plane, reliability, load flexibility, and attractive price point in a repeating shotgun that offers the potential to drop that third bird. The pump gun has long had a history of military and civilian use, and accomplished shooters still enjoy the pump for the same reasons that some of us like manual transmissions. The days of the great pump gun have provided a lot of hunting memories, and continue to.

The 20-gauge-only Remington Model 17 was introduced in 1921. The design is attributed to John Browning (U.S. Patent #1,143,170 of 1915) with later refinements by John Pederson in 1919 and even later by G. H Garrison. It was Remington’s first 20-gauge pump, and 73,000 were sold.

Ithaca was poised and ready to introduce this shotgun coinciding with the expiration of the Browning patents: it was to be the Ithaca Model 33. Noting that related Pederson patents were in force until 1937, it became the Model 37 instead. Reportedly, Ithaca’s motivation was to compete with the Winchester Model 12, which also was originally produced in 20-gauge configuration only. With the discontinuation of the Model 12 from standard production models in 1963, the Ithaca has assumed the mantle of the longest-running pump-action available, a direct descendant of John Browning’s last pump-action design.

Browning’s own BPS, its parentage also likewise entrenched in the Model 17, was introduced in 1977. Currently, it is offered in more gauges and configurations than any other pump action we’re aware of, the line continuing to expand over the last 30 years. Unlike many other pump actions, the BPS has never been offered with poor finishes and crude machining intended for the big-box stores. Rather than just a clone of the 1917 genre, the BPS quickly assumed an identity of its own by virtue of its double action bars, a tang-mounted safety, and its eye-catching higher-post ventilated rib.

Remington’s 870 Wingmaster has become a dynasty of sorts all on its own. Unlike some Remington shotguns that became instant popular successes (the Model 1100, to name one), the history of the 870 shows that the converse was true. In its 1950 introduction, it was introduced to great fanfare with a variety of gauges (12, 16, and 20) and a variety of configurations. Not all shooters at that time were pleased, as it was a clear downgrade compared to the Model 31 it replaced. Yet, the Model 31 was never the popular success of the Model 12 it attempted to compete against, and in its 18 years of production, never achieved 190,000 units. Despite the somewhat sluggish start of the 870, it cracked the million-gun mark by the mid-1960s, and 4 million by the mid 1980s. As of this writing, more than 9.5 million 870s have been manufactured, with the 10-million mark growing ever closer.

Though we nominated a clear winner below, we still think the slide-action repeater can be improved, and we would suggest these makers consider modifying their stocks to make them user-adjustable for cast and drop. Implemented quite successfully in semi-autos, such a change would be an easier task with pumps—no worries about tubes or springs residing in the buttstock that might be compromised. Whoever said, "Fit isn’t everything in shotguns—it is the only thing," wasn’t off the mark, in our estimation. The first manufacturer to apply adjustable stock shims to pumps will have a big leg up over the competition.

But for now, we have what we have, and here’s what we learned in this shoulder-to-shoulder evaluation:

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