April 2000

Gobbler Guns: Should You Pick Pump, Bolt, or Single Shot?

We pit the last of the bolt-action shotgun breed, Savage’s Model 210FT, against the slide-action Mossberg Model 835 Ulti-Mag and the single-shot NEF Pardner SBI to see what you should buy.

[IMGCAP(1)] Spring turkey season brings good adventure and, hopefully, good food to the table for those who venture forth after this big bird. Many, if not most, spring turkey hunters use shotguns (some states permit rifles, some mandate shotguns), and they generally take head shots with Full- or Extra Full-choked barrels at moderate ranges. Range depends on the individual hunter’s skill in calling, the pattern produced by his shotgun, and of course the evasive luck of the chase. No matter the range, the shotgun-equipped turkey hunter must do some very accurate pointing, holding, and squeezing off of the shot. At very close range a shotgun works more like a rifle than a “scatter” gun, and on more distant shots, the shooter must be careful to center his pattern on the head, and not simply blast away at “the bird.” Thus, the shotgun has to print its pattern where it looks, and this is vitally important to the turkey hunter.

Most turkey hunters use the iron sights that came on their shotguns, but not all shotguns shoot where they look. Install a scope and the sighting problem disappears, because the pattern can be centered by simply adjusting the scope. Still, we wonder how many turkey hunters have tested their guns for pattern at their expected ranges with their choice of loads.

Coming into the spring gobbler seasons, we decided to do that and more when we tried a few of the viable turkey-type guns head to head. Initially, our plan was to look solely at bolt-actions, but after consulting several manufacturers, we learned that this action type was endangered, if not quite extinct. The sole bolt gun still available was the Savage Model 210FT with 24-inch, 3-inch chambered Full-choke barrel ($440 MSRP, $375 street). Gone from the market are the Browning A-Bolt Stalker shotgun and the Mossberg Model 695 Turkey, which we last reviewed in the November 1997 Gun Tests, and Marlin’s 50DL, which we hadn’t covered in these pages.

What has nearly killed the bolts? We don’t know for sure, but the manufacturers told us the bolt actions were squeezed out by single shots, which don’t cost as much, and by pumps, which offer easier operation than bolts for about the same money. To see for ourselves if a bolt-action shotgun is an inferior turkey-hunting product, we decided to match up the Savage 210FT with a pump-action Mossberg Model 835 Ulti-Mag with 24-inch, Ulti-Full Turkey-choked barrel and delightful glow-in-the-dark sights ($300 actual street price), and an inexpensive single-shot New England Firearms Pardner Model SBI 3-inch 12-gauge ejector with Modified barrel ($120). Our tests indicated the Mossberg pump would kill a turkey cleanly at any range out to at least 40 yards as it was set up, and hotter loads would make that even more certain.

The Mossberg was by far the fastest and most comfortable gun of this test, and would be our immediate first choice. But there were other interesting insights about the guns we gathered along the way, which we relate below.

Hunting Paper Turkeys
To begin, we tested the three guns for group centering at 15 yards by the simple expedient of aiming at the center of a sheet of 8.5- by 11-inch typing paper. We used a general 2.75-inch upland game load of 1.25 ounces of No. 6 lead shot by Winchester, perhaps not the perfect turkey load but adequate for this part of the test. We next tried the guns at turkey-head targets at 40 yards. We thought this would be near the outer limits of shotgun-based turkey shooting, where head shots were the only ones taken. Would the Extra-Full choke of the Mossberg come into its own here? Would the Modified choke of the single-shot give adequate results? We looked for pellet strikes on the head, and evaluated the pattern position and relative density for each gun. The pattern size, quality, and position for each gun were immediately visible from our typing paper and turkey-head testing, and we’ll discuss them on a per-gun basis later in this report.

Along the way we decided to find out how fast we could get a second aimed shot off with each action type. This was a major disadvantage of the New England Firearms single shot. The Pardner single shot had an ejector, but, unfortunately, it didn’t always clear the chamber. That meant we had to pull out the spent shell, dunk in the new round (clipped in the fingers of our left hand for easy access), close the gun, and cock it as we returned the gun to our shoulder. This gave us an average of 5 seconds for the follow-up shot—plenty of time for a lightly hit tom to make his escape. Contrast that to 1.5 seconds for the second aimed shot with the bolt-action Savage and a mere 1 second for the pump Mossberg, and you quickly realize the limitations of the inexpensive single. Here is how the guns stacked up.

Savage 210FT
Our recommendation: Solid, but not our first pick. The gun worked well, but it needed trigger work and a scope. Also, it wasn’t as fast on target as the pump Mossberg.

Click here to view the Savage 210FT features guide

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This bolt-action 12-bore had a striking resemblance to a big-bore rifle, complete with open rear sight mounted on the front of the action. The 210FT had a Full-choke tube inserted in its 24-inch barrel. Lockup was by a single lug rotating into the top of the forward part of the action. This single lug was more than enough to take the pressure generated by even the hottest 12-bore loads. The bolt rotated only about 60 degrees. Cocking was a bit difficult, but not impossible with the gun remaining on the shoulder. Dual extractors dragged the spent rounds out, and ejection was by a spring-loaded plunger in the lower-rear portion of the action. The magazine follower was orange plastic, and the magazine held two rounds.

This gun was supposed to work with 3-inch shells only. Three-inch shells worked to perfection through the magazine. They loaded into it easily, and it was possible to slip a third round up the spout and close the bolt onto it. The 3-inch shells fed flawlessly from the magazine. This shotgun didn’t like 2.75-inch shells, but we can’t fault it for that. We tested the Savage with 2.75-inch shells and found that the second round was a bugger to get into the magazine because its rim interfered with the forward end of the brass of the first shell in the magazine. (The brass is slightly higher on a 3-inch shell.) Also, it wouldn’t feed the top round reliably into the chamber, though it fed the bottom short shell flawlessly.

Removing the Savage’s bolt was a snap. Withdraw the bolt fully, then press the trigger while simultaneously depressing the lever located at the right rear of the receiver, where you’d expect to find a safety lever. Then the bolt came easily out the rear. There were two gas-escape ports, one on each side of the front of the receiver. The safety was a slide located directly behind the bolt, centered in the rear tang. It was easy to move it forward to the firing position with gloves on, but there was not enough room to move it easily rearward (On) with gloved fingers.

The Savage stock bore a Realtree camouflage pattern that was well applied. The molded-in checkering was fully functional. There was a firm black rubber trestle-style butt-pad that did little to cut felt recoil. There were QD sling-swivel studs at butt and forend. The camouflage finish did not extend to the barrel, which had a matte-blued finish. The trigger guard was black plastic. The front sight was a large brass bead; the rear, a flat-top U-notch blade secured to the front action ring. The trigger pull was nothing to write home about, breaking at 6.5 pounds with some creep, but nearly no overtravel. The overall fit and finish and inletting of the Savage were more than adequate. We’d rate them very good.

The handling qualities were outstanding. The gun had good, if somewhat muzzle-heavy, balance and felt more like a big rifle than a shotgun. This rifle-like feel would probably give the turkey hunter added confidence in placing his shot, but this would be much easier if the gun had a good trigger pull. On the test range, the bolt-action Savage with its Full-choke tube centered its group at 15 yards on the top of a piece of 8.5- by 11-inch typing paper, which means it shot about 5 inches high at that range. On the turkey-head target at 40 yards, the Savage’s pattern was clumped, as we had noticed with this load even at 15 yards. It was also quite high compared with the aim point. Only one pellet struck the head area. Another lone pellet struck the upper neck area, and four struck the heavily feathered lower neck. This turkey might have been brought to bag, but that’s uncertain.

We expected better results from the Savage, but of course one target doesn’t tell the whole story. More testing with different loads would be in order, but for now we wouldn’t try to kill a turkey with the Savage as it was set up, unless the bird were well within 40 yards range. The Savage absolutely decimated a turkey-head target at 25 yards, and though the center of the pattern was slightly higher than the head, there was no doubt this bird would have been brought to bag cleanly at that range.

Mossberg Model 835 Ulti-Mag
Our recommendation: We see why the bolt actions had trouble competing, because this $300 gun would be our first pick for turkey hunting. The ported barrel would let us shoot even the hottest, most pellet-filled loads with relative comfort, and the sights—while they lasted—gave an excellent picture in the dimmest light. We’d find some way to protect the sights or fit a low-powered scope if we owned this gun.

Click here to view the Mossberg Model 835 Ulti-Mag features guide

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Also, we’d shorten the pull—a simple job—and try to improve the trigger pull. This Mossberg pump was a solidly made shotgun. The mechanism worked smoothly and well. The forend had twin action bars extending to the bolt, and the twin extractors did a good job of hauling empties out of the chamber. This gun would handle just about any 12-gauge shell you could find, from 2.75-inch target loads up to 3.5-inch Roman candles. The 25-inch barrel was fitted with a ventilated rib, and some of the best fixed sights we’ve seen.

The sights were fiber optics that gathered all the available light and displayed to the shooter’s eye a prominent green front bead and two red beads bracketing that. It did all this without electrics, the plastic sight pieces simply gathering in any and all ambient light. The sights appeared to glow even in a dingy interior room lit by only one small lamp. They were visible by the dimmest sundown light outside.

Unfortunately, the sights were not adjustable for either windage or elevation. Also, very unfortunately, the rear sight either blew off the gun after very few shots, or fell off when the gun was inadvertently bumped. A fine sighting idea like this one needs to be very well mounted and then well protected, and Mossberg failed in this respect. The rear sight was held onto the gun by a dovetail in the bottom of its plastic base, and the two red eyes passed through small holes in the mount’s plastic base that in turn prevented the sight from sliding forward off the dovetail.

The very thin ring of plastic surrounding the left dot broke and permitted the entire sight to move forward until it fell off the base. We found the sight and were able to examine it. The weather was very cold when we tested the gun, and this apparently made the base brittle, and then even the slightest bump would have broken it. Even so, the sight was still usable after the insert fell out. It just wasn’t as good.

The action had a sliding tang-mounted safety that worked very well. It was handy to the shooter, ambidextrous, and very fast in operation. The action was of aluminum alloy, as was the trigger guard. The trigger was steel as was the magazine tube. The entire gun was covered in wavy camouflage. The “checkering” was roughened areas on pistol grip and forend, which didn’t offer much stickiness to a bare hand, but seemed to help a gloved hand get a grip. The buttpad was solid black rubber, quite hard, not rounded at the top, but reasonably well fitted to the stock. The butt stock had a QD sling swivel stud. The front of the barrel nut was drilled and tapped for another stud, which was supplied with the gun.

The barrel porting consisted of 16 holes drilled in the upper surface of the barrel some 6 inches back of the muzzle. It seemed to help considerably in recoil taming. Muzzle jump was noticeably less with this gun than with the similar-weight Savage. The Mossberg also had a major capacity advantage, where this is legal, in that it holds six shells with the magazine plug removed. That’s twice the capacity of the Savage.

All the gun’s controls were easily manipulated while we were wearing gloves. The Mossberg had a great recoil advantage from its ported barrel, and that, combined with the slick action, permitted very fast follow-up shots. The handling was relatively fast, in spite of the gun’s muzzle heaviness. However, the length of pull at 14.5 inches was too long for most shooter’s arms, and that’s without heavy outdoor coats on. Bolting on a thinner pad could easily cut the pull by half an inch.

The trigger pull was just over 6 pounds with very little creep. We could live with this pull, but would prefer it a bit lighter. At 15 yards, the Mossberg clearly had a much tighter pattern than either of the other two shotguns, as you would expect from its Extra-Full “Ulti” choke. The pattern was centered on the top of the typing-page sheet, which was about 5 inches high. On the 40-yard range, the Mossberg Turkey lived up to its name. Its glowing sights gave a fine sight picture, and we counted 17 pellets in the target’s head and neck area. Again the pattern was centered somewhat too high, as we had discovered at 15 yards, but the bird would have been killed cleanly. We would like some way to adjust the sights on both the Savage and Mossberg, but there were no provisions for doing so on either gun.

New England Firearms Pardner
Our recommendation: If someone wanted to take this gun turkey hunting, he would have to learn how to aim it to put its charge where he wanted it, or modify the gun somehow to print its pattern considerably higher.

Click here to view the Mossberg New England Firearms Pardner features guide

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We ruled out 40-yard shots on turkey for the Pardner and its Modified choke. We thought this gun would be quite suitable for turkey shooting at 25 yards and under, as the gun was set up, but would kick the shooter mercilessly with any stout load. Of course a load with more shot might improve your chances, and this is worth investigating if you want to spend the least possible money for a turkey gun. Still, we’d strongly advise adding weight somehow, such as filling the butt with lead, or gluing an anvil to the muzzle. This gun would have benefited from the weight of a scope, but there was no way to mount one easily.

How much shotgun can you expect for a little over a C-note? This simple single-shot came with Modified barrel (no choke tube) of 27.5-inch length. The gun was very light, only 5.4 pounds, and we expected to get kicked into next week with hot loads. We weren’t disappointed. The first round felt like someone hit us a good belt on the jaw. The upchuck of the gun was the pain-giver, not the unpadded butt.

Nonetheless, it was well balanced, mounted fast and pointed well. Cocking the hammer while mounting the gun was easily learned. The hammer was also relatively easy to uncock, even with gloves on, and that was important because the hammer and a trigger-operated firing-pin block were the safety devices on the gun. There was a lever to the right of the hammer—easily hit by either right- or left-handed shooters—that opened the action. The ejector fired no matter whether the gun had been fired or not. This would eject your unfired round as readily as fired rounds, if you were not ready to catch it. The ejector worked better, in fact, on unfired rounds. Spent shells usually didn’t clear the chamber, slowing reloading.

The forend was held to the barrel by a through bolt, which we found preferable to the poor spring catch commonly found on inexpensive single shots of previous times that so often came loose with each shot. This forend stayed put. The wood was red-dyed hardwood (we’re guessing birch) that was attractive and warm to the face even in freezing weather. The wood finish was excellent, though there was no buttpad or checkering. Pores were mostly filled, and the finish was semi-gloss. Trigger pull was 5.75 pounds with no creep or overtravel. The barrel was evenly matte blued, and the action had very attractive case coloring. The trigger guard and forend “iron” were black plastic.

Inletting of wood to metal was outstanding. The action closed positively and the gun worked well in all respects, except for poor ejection of fired shells. Polishing the chamber would help this. The only sighting device on the gun was a large brass bead at the front. The Pardner balanced close to the hinge pin of the barrel. However, we don’t think it’s a turkey gun. Here’s why.

At 15 yards, the NEF Pardner single shot hit very low. Its pattern was centered on the bottom of the typing paper. This gun’s Modified barrel (not a choke tube) made a much larger pattern than the other two guns, though it showed very even pellet distribution. This meant its ultimate range would be less than either of the other two guns, and the Pardner probably wouldn’t make clean kills on turkey at ranges approaching 40 yards. Also, the kick of the 1.25-ounce upland shotshells we tried in the little gun was so severe we couldn’t imagine shooting this lightweight with hot loads preferable for turkey hunting.

As we predicted, at 40 yards the NEF Pardner displayed its very even pattern, but most of the pellets struck too low.

Gun Tests Recommends
The bottom line for turkey hunting is that you must test your gun. Once you know where it hits and have seen the patterns, you will then know something about your maximum range. Also, no matter the range, you must aim carefully. All three guns in this test would have benefited from better trigger pulls and some sort of adjustable sights. Mossberg and Savage made mounting a scope easy, but we could see no easy way to do this with the NEF Pardner. With these thoughts in mind, here’s what we’d buy, and not buy:

Savage 210FT, $375. Conditional Buy. The gun worked well, but in our view, it would require trigger work and perhaps some choke massaging and a scope to get best results. The action was a dandy, both solid and reliable, and the gun gave us a strong “rifle” sense, which would probably lead to more careful aiming, a key to turkey-hunting success.

But we thought this gun didn’t handle recoil as well as the Mossberg, and was not quite as fast for either the first shot or follow-ups. We hope Savage continues to offer the gun simply because it would be a shame for the bolt action shotgun to go the way of the dodo, but we can also see why pumps like the Mossberg are tough competition for bolt actions.

New England Firearms Pardner, $120. Don’t Buy It for turkey hunting. We think the simple little Pardner would be great with suitable light loads for general rabbit and bird shooting, would be splendid to take along on camping trips or day hikes, and might make a great survival gun for aircraft use, but it is not a first-line turkey gun by any stretch of the imagination.

Mossberg 835 Ulti-Mag, $300. Buy It. We liked the feel of the gun, its speed and handling, and especially liked the shot pattern. Its porting softened the recoil of stiff magnum loads, and its sights were excellent. We believe the Mossberg 835 gave us the best chance for a turkey dinner.