May 2002

Self-Defense 12-Gauge Shotguns: Five Ways To Protect Your Castle

Two Armscor models function as well as we could ask, and similar guns from Norinco and Winchester are worth a look.

The Armscor M30SAS1 shotgun (shown),
$211, gets a Buy rating, but we preferred the
non-heatshield-equipped, cheaper M30R6.

The two most-often cited self-defense situations gun owners want to protect themselves against are (1) when they are out and about in public, and (2) at home. In the former situation, the handgun is the medicine of choice, both for a sidearm’s portability and its concealability. In the second situation, however, the range of possibilities is endless. At home, the gun owner doesn’t have to worry as much about concealment (except for safeguarding against children) and portability, so everything from a .22 pistol to a 20-gauge over/under to a .458 Remington Magnum elephant gun can work.

Still, the accepted “best” weapon for defending your castle is the shotgun, because it has topnotch terminal ballistics (and in this case we mean “terminal”), capacity (in the case of pumps and autoloaders), ease of use, fast handling (depending on stock configurations), and limited penetration risk outside the home.

We have tested home-defense shotguns in the past, most recently in the January 2001 issue, in which the Mossberg Persuader 12 gauge won out over the Winchester Defender 1300 and Remington 870 Magnum Express, on the basis of price, the location of the slide release, and the location of the safety.

Necessarily, a home defense shotgun has a restricted, but important, set of qualifications we want it to meet. It must be easy to use, even in the dark; it must go bang every time; and it must be easy to reload. Patterning, cosmetics, and many other aspects of shotgun performance we normally consider don’t apply.

To see if we could find a gun that met our qualifications, we acquired a quintet of pumps with different stock configurations. We baselined them against the Mossberg in terms of what we liked and didn’t like, considering how we would store and use these guns in a real-world situation.

Our test guns included a Norinco Model 98, which we tested as a full-stock/pistol-grip combo that cost $222. Next up were two Armscor shotguns, one the $211 heatshield-equipped M30SAS1 and the other a $188 non-heatshield M30R6. Then we added two new versions of shotguns we previously had tested, the first being a Winchester Defender 1300 with a pistol grip stock, $333. (A combination version with pistol grip and full stock runs $361). Last, we picked up a law-enforcement Remington 870 Express Magnum Synthetic 12 gauge, which comes with an 18-inch barrel. But because of its similarities to the gun in the January 2001 test, we tricked it out with a Choate Top Folder No. 010112 Folding Stock, which offers a pistol grip and the folding extension for $96.25. We bought the base gun for $372, bringing the package price to $468.25.

Range Testing
When we shot these guns with live shells, the main thing we checked on at the range was that they fed a mixture of low noise/low recoil clay target loads, standard bird hunting loads, and magnum self-defense loads interchangeably, and that they extracted everything perfectly. We chose a mixture of shot sizes mainly to test function, though for self defense we would pick something between No. 4s and buckshot.

Overall, we found that in this most crucial area of evaluation, you could buy any gun in this test and have at least an adequate home-defense gun. No gun failed to chamber and fire any shell. So our eventual winner would have to present some unique qualification to separate it from the pack.

But beating the Mossberg would not be easy, we learned. That shotgun, which weighed 6.6 pounds with its full stock on, held five rounds in its tubular magazine. The tang-mounted safety and the action release, located behind the trigger guard on the left side of the action, could be operated simultaneously without changing the grip on the gun. The 7.5-pound trigger was heavy, but smooth. The gun came with an 18.5-inch barrel and an optional pistol grip.

In fact, it was this last piece of equipment that made us curious about trying different stock configurations. The pistol grip shortens the gun’s overall length, but it can make the shotgun harder to hold on target, and the recoil can be vicious if the shotgun isn’t braced right. But more on that later.

We shot these guns in the field, and we looked carefully at the operation of the shotgun, and began to wonder exactly how we would use it in a home-defense situation. We decided to also evaluate the guns on our ability to handle them safely in the dark, without glasses. To do that, we made one important assumption: If we used these guns as home-defense weapons, we would likely store them near a bed or in a closet. So how easy are they to find and load in the dark?

After running a few simulations in the dark without ammo, we began to wonder: Why are these guns black? Even in a dim room, when we were fully awake and knew exactly where they were, it was difficult to locate them and grasp the guns. More than once we stuck our fingers in the trigger guards or picked the gun up clumsily. Now, we know they’re black because we don’t want the bad guys to know where we are, but that seems like more of a tactical police problem than a home defense problem. More than once we wished for a glow-in-the-dark trigger guard, action release button, or some other cue to help us maneuver the gun in the pitch.

That lead naturally to a question of how we would store the guns. We decided that we would not store these guns locked and loaded, with a shell in the chamber. If the gun is sitting with the muzzle up somewhere, the gun owner will almost certainly sweep his own head or body getting the gun into action. Or, if the gun was sitting loaded with the muzzle down, it was easy to mistakenly hit the trigger grasping the gun. Neither situation struck us as particularly smart using a loaded gun, since the first object of home defense is to avoid shooting oneself.

So that meant we felt more comfortable with a loaded magazine and a locked-open or partially open action, or a totally unloaded gun.

Like nearly anyone else, we question the wisdom of having an unloaded gun as a self-defense weapon. But people with children may not want any loaded gun being available to the rug rats, and we would have to agree, since the second law of home defense is not to let the kiddos shoot themselves. So we ran the unloaded simulation in the dark, starting with a closed and empty gun and loading three shells into each gun and racking the action. This allowed us to get a real feel for the layout of the buttons.

Still, we eventually wound up preferring to keep the gun’s magazine fully charged, with the action open or half open on an empty chamber and the safety off, and the muzzle down. Thus, all we had to do to make three of the five guns ready to fire was pick them up and rack the slide backward and forward. Two guns allowed the action to be fully open yet still pick up the round in the magazine, meaning the slide simply had to be pushed forward to charge the gun. We preferred this.

Here’s what we learned about the guns individually when we shot them at the range and when we handled them in the conditions we described above.

Norinco Model 98 12 Gauge, $222
This inexpensive Chinese import is available from Interstate Arms Corp., (800) 243-3006, as either a fully stocked version ($209) or the model we tested, which comes with a full stock and pistol grip for $13 more.

Click here to view the Norinco Model 98 12 Gauge features guide

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It had an 18.5-inch barrel with a 3-inch chamber, a 0.14-inch-wide gold front sight bead, and a trigger-guard-mounted safety switch. The shooter pushed the cross-bolt safety button to the left to fire.

The pump shotgun had a Cylinder choke and measured 39 inches in overall length. It had matte-blued steel construction with black synthetic stocks. There was a Hi-Viz Fiber-Optic front sight mounted to a shell that clasped onto the front of the barrel. An optional item ($10), it could be added or removed easily. The full stock had a 1-inch-thick rubber-recoil pad. The tubular magazine held five shots. The action strongly resembled the Remington 870; in fact, it is fair to say the Norinco is a clone of the Express.

The gun came assembled as a pistol grip model, and that’s how we fired it first. Recoil was tolerable with the low-recoil 2.75-inch load and the field load, but the magnum 3-inch load really strained the right hand’s grip on the pistol stock. Repeated shots with the gun made the shooter’s wrist and elbow ache, especially in the web of the trigger hand. However, we noticed the same problem with all the pistol grips. We much preferred shooting the gun with the full stock on. It was more controllable, and to our minds, just as fast on target as the pistol grip, with both guns held at low ready. However, the pistol grip gun is much easier to maneuver around corners. Shooting blind around a barricade (much like shooting down a residential hallway) was easier to do with the pistol grip, and in that situation, who cares about recoil?

One of the not-so-hidden advantages of the Norinco was the fiber optic sight. Even in low light conditions, it was easy to see on the front of the barrel. Still, we would have preferred a pure glow-in-the-dark sight. Sights like this are available from Meprolight, <www.meprolight.com>, or you can see pricing on several models (about $30) at <www.tacticalshotguns.com/sights.htm>.

We also liked the narrow shape of the grip, but it was slick and lacked texturing. We would have preferred the slide release to have been located behind the trigger guard, like on the Mossberg. When we started with a closed, empty gun, it required us to move our hands off the pistol grip to find the release and load the gun. When we worked the half-open action with the magazine loaded but the chamber empty, the gun easily picked up a shell and inserted it for ignition. But the gun wouldn’t start fully open, since the follower kicked the shell out loose into the receiver.

We wanted a completely open action to pick up a shell from the magazine with one forward movement of the slide, and this gun wouldn’t do that. Two other options, however, that would work is to keep a round in the chamber with the action locked open and rounds in the magazine, or to leave the chamber empty and half-open the bolt. The first situation simply requires the shooter to push the slide forward and fire. The second requires the slide to be worked backward then forward.

The trigger was heavy at 7.5 pounds, and the trigger itself was thinner than we like. The black-polymer full stock was press-checkered at the grip, as was the forend. The barrel and receiver were flat black.

The gun measured 29.5 inches in length with the pistol grip fitted, and 39 inches with the full stock on. It had a 14.5-inch LOP and weighed 5.9 pounds unloaded with the pistol grip (the lightest in the test) and 7 pounds with the full stock on. The action was easy to work, but it had enough friction to hold either half-open or fully open. The rubber buttpad helped soften recoil, but it was tacky enough to catch on clothing. We would grind down the top of the pad to make sure it didn’t catch on our pajamas. For those of you who sleep in the buff, you’re on your own.

Remington 870 Express Magnum Synthetic No. 4907, $372
Choate Folding Stock No. 010112, $96

The Remington 870 Express Magnum Synthetic has an 18-inch barrel with an Improved Cylinder fixed choke. It is bead Parkerized black. Otherwise, it is identical to the No. 25549 12 gauge we reviewed in the January 2001 issue, and its operational details mirror those of the Norinco clone reviewed above.

Click here to view the Remington 870 Express Magnum Synthetic No. 4907 features guide

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So we won’t re-cover that ground, instead focusing on the usefulness of the Choate Top Folder Folding Stock, www.riflestock.com, (800) 972-6390. As noted above, this addition to the Express adds a pistol grip and the folding-stock extension for $96.25. Is it worth it?

In our opinion, no. The folding stock was painful to shoot because the buttplate was 4.7 inches tall and 1.25 inches wide, and was covered by a rubber pad less than 0.2 inch thick. We wouldn’t like shooting slugs with this gun. It added 14 inches of LOP to the gun, but the stock drop made bringing the gun up cumbersome.

This stock operated with a simple push of a thumb button to lock it in either the open or closed position. When the stock was folded up on top of the receiver, the overall length of the gun was reduced by more than inches, but its depth increased from 6 to 8 inches. The stock was steel, which made the total gun weight jump to 7.8 pounds from the standard-stock weight of 6.9 pounds.

We liked the pistol grip by itself, and if it didn’t cost $96, we would recommend buying just that piece alone. The pistol grip shortened the gun, but the pistol grip was attached to the stock extension mount. It had a nifty molded-in sling-swivel mount, and the grip itself felt good. We thought the checkering was too sharp, however, but that could be knocked down with a pass or two of sandpaper.

Winchester Defender 1300 Pistol Grip, $333
This was basically the same gun as reviewed in January 2001 with a pistol grip, which adds $12 to the base Defender’s price tag of $321. A combination version with pistol grip and full stock runs $361.

Click here to view the Winchester Defender 1300 Pistol Grip features guide

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To recap the gun’s basic stats, it has an 18-inch barrel and a 3-inch chamber. It’s choked Cylinder and is 29.2 inches long. It weighs 5.5 pounds with the pistol grip, down from 6.5 pounds with the full stock. Defender models have a total shot shell capacity of 8 (7+1), or subtract one for 3-inch shells. The gun presents non-glare metal surfaces, and it comes with removable a front Truglo fiber-optic sight.

The gun’s pistol grip was the focus of this evaluation, since we have already covered the full-length gun. As with the Norinco and Remington guns, recoil wasn’t too bad with 2.75-inch loads, but the 3-inch load stung. We preferred shooting the gun with the full stock on, but we recognize the advantages of the pistol grip in close quarters. We liked the shape of the grip, which had more undercut than the Norinco/Remington grips and three finger grooves. The trigger on this gun broke at 8 pounds, 1.5 pounds less than the one we tested last year but still not very good.

It’s worth noting some action situations here, especially in light of how the Mossberg gun functioned in January 2001 and the Armscor guns below functioned. The Winchester’s slide release is a button behind the trigger guard, like on the Mossberg. We thought it was hard to find in the dark. To load three rounds into a closed action, we needed to hold the gun next to our chest and then fumble to find the release. The Mossberg and Armscor guns hold an edge there, we feel. Also, when we worked the half-open action with the magazine loaded but the chamber empty, the gun’s slick slide action would fall forward under its own weight with the muzzle down, closing, but not locking, the bolt. This meant the gun would need nearly a full cycle of the action to load. We didn’t much like that either.

But the Winchester did something some of the others wouldn’t: It would pick up a shell from the magazine and hold it securely in the carrier, ready to ram forward with a push of the slide.

This means the shooter could visually verify the shell was in the ejection port, see that the gun was (nearly) loaded, and bring the charged and ready shotgun to bear in a fraction of a second. This is how we would use this gun, and it effectively negates the Winchester’s loading flaws unless the gun is shot dry.

Armscor M30SAS1 (with heatshield), Armscor M30R6, $188
Armscor Precision, (702) 362-7750, manufactures these M30 shotgun series for law enforcement, security and home defense. Each model offers a pump action incorporating double slide bars fitted into a carbon steel receiver. The M30SAS1 has a Parkerized finish, heat shield, polymer plastic buttstock, 6+1 capacity with 3-inch shells and 7+1 capacity with 2.75-inch shells. This gun has a 20-inch barrel. The M30R6 has a blued finish on an 18.25-inch barrel, 4+1 capacity with 3 shells, 5+1 capacity with 2.75-inch shells, and a polymer butt and forearm. Both guns have a crossbolt safety located in front of the trigger guard.

Click here to view the Armscor M30SAS1 (with heatshield) and Armscor M30R6 features guides

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The guns from Arms Corporation of the Philippines, better known as ARMSCOR, were identical in most respects, so we concentrated on the less expensive blued model, since it matched the configuration of the Mossberg 500A Persuader most closely.

The pump shotgun had a Cylinder choke and measured 38.5 inches in overall length. The full stock had a 0.5-inch-thick rubber-recoil pad that was very hard.

We thought it handled both the low-recoil 2.75-inch loads and the magnum 3-inch load comfortably, but sharp edges on the rubber buttstock did leave outlines on the shooter’s shoulder at the toe. Those would need to be filed off. We liked the gun’s grip, which was thin and straight, and it had enough texture not to be overly slick.

It had a 0.11-inch-wide gold front sight bead which was impossible to see in the dark. As we noted, we would prefer some sort of simple luminescent sights on these guns.

The slide release was positioned behind the trigger guard, like on the Mossberg. While loading three rounds into a closed action on top of an empty magazine, this feature allowed us to orient our hands on the stock before finding the release and loading the gun in the dark. When we worked the half-open action with the magazine loaded but the chamber empty, the gun picked up a shell and smoothly inserted it for ignition. The action would also stay open by itself, unlike the Winchester.

And like the Winchester, the Armscor guns would pick up a shell from the magazine and hold it securely in the uplifted carrier. This set of features offered the most variation of loading options in the test, we thought.

The trigger wasn’t heavy as some at 6 pounds, and the trigger itself was thicker and shaped better than the Norinco’s, we thought. The gun had a 14.5-inch LOP and weighed 7.1 pounds unloaded. The action didn’t hang anywhere in its movement.

On the heatshield-equipped M30SAS1, we saw largely the same functional traits as on the other gun. The SAS1 was longer and heavier (7.8 pounds) than the M30R6, partly due to the heat shield and partly due to a thicker Speedfeed buttstock. The Speedfeed stock had a nice, soft buttpad with the edges knocked off. We liked it much better than the pad on the other Armscor gun. Unlike the trigger on the M30R6, the SAS1’s broke heavily at 8.6 pounds. We didn’t see much need for the heatshield with the number of rounds we shot at a time, but it does make the gun look aggressive, if that’s important to you.

Gun Tests Recommends
Norinco Model 98 12 Gauge, $222. Conditional Buy. For the money, this is a lot of shotgun—two stocks, an upgraded front sight, dependable action. But it didn’t fit exactly how we’d like to prepare the gun for use. We wanted a completely open action to pick up a shell from the magazine with one forward movement of the slide, and this gun wouldn’t do that. Two other very good options, however, that would work is to keep a round in the chamber with the action locked open and rounds in the chamber, or to leave the chamber empty and half-open the bolt.

Remington 870 Express Magnum Synthetic No. 4907, $372; with Choate Folding Stock No. 010112, $96. Don’t Buy. Our Conditional Buy ranking for the 870 alone hasn’t changed, but the addition of the heavy, costly, and not particularly useful Choate Folding Stock doesn’t help.

Winchester Defender 1300 Pistol Grip, $333; or Pistol Grip/Full Stock Combo. Conditional Buy. The pistol grip was a faster-handling version of the Defender we tested earlier. Depending on how it was loaded and stored, this gun could come into action quickly. But the Mossberg still has the edge, we feel, on the location of its controls, and the Persuader comes with a pistol grip and full stock for $307, or more than $50 cheaper than the similarly configured Winchester combo.

Armscor M30R6, $188, Our Pick. Armscor M30SAS1 (with heatshield), $211. Buy It. Though these guns are substantially cheaper than the other guns we’ve tested, they handled and fired everything we fed them safely and surely. If Armscor offered a pistol grip attachment, we would buy it, too. A similar gun, the M30BG, is a pistol grip–equipped version in the same price range, and it’s likely worth a look as well.