January 2004

12-Gauge Home-Defense Shotguns: Benelli Nova Tactical Pump and the Mossberg Model 500 Pump

We check out a pair of shuck-masters that can sound as chilling as the guttural growl of a guard dog when a round is pumped into their chambers.

The home-defense firearm of choice among many security professionals is a shotgun, particularly a short-barreled pump action, because of the low price tag, dependability, and intimidation factor.

Despite the creative depictions released by Hollywood movie producers, most Old West sheriffs facing down outlaws would rely on a shotgun to give them a gunfight advantage.

At close range, a shotgun is simply the most effective weapon that anyone can put in their hands to defend themselves or their home. Point and shoot, rather than being concerned with maintaining a proper sight picture, gives a shotgun and its easily controlled pattern of shot a clear edge.

Toss in the fact that most shotgun loads, other than slugs, will do their self-preservation damage without passing through walls, and it is easy to see why many security officials recommend shotguns as the best home-defense firearm.

Remaining near the top of the list of recommended shotguns are pump-action firearms. As some experts relate: “The sound of a round being chambered in a pump action shotgun is one of the most chilling sounds you will ever hear.’’ Even a homeowner with just a little experience on the range can be deadly with a shotgun fired across a room.

A load of bird shot produces a disabling or lethal pattern 12 to 15 inches in diameter at the typical distance of 20 feet or less, providing the home defender with a much wider range of error than with the single slug of a pistol or rifle.

Because of the way they cycle ammunition, self-defense experts recommend that a homeowner make sure the pump’s chamber is empty, with shells in the magazine, and the action closed. When the trigger has been pulled on a verified empty chamber, the shotgun remains safely at the ready until a quick “snick, clack” of the action makes the firearm ready.

Several manufacturers have designed shotguns specifically for home defense, with short barrels and other unique features — including moderate price tags. Two of these pumps are the relatively new Benelli Nova Tactical Pump and the venerable Mossberg Model 500. The two pump-actions are available in the price range of about $300 to $350. We last tested the Mossberg 500 series in the January 2001 issue, recommending the Persuader self-defense gun.

While these firearms can be utilized in the field and on clay target courses, their main function is to provide the necessary firepower for an average homeowner to defend against potentially deadly intruders.

A trip to the shooting range found our test shooters pleasantly surprised with the handling ability of both shotguns, with recoil from the 2.75-inch magnums and slug loads less than anticipated. However, without additional recoil reducers, the shooting of 3-inch shells in the Mossberg and 3 1/2- inch shells in the Benelli would not be recommended as an enjoyable experience.

The space-age design of the Benelli Nova No. Z194882, $305, manufactured by Benelli U.S.A. Corp of Accokeek, MD., was an eye-pleaser from the start of the shooting test, in addition to proving to be a functional advantage.

The grip and feel of the Benelli, even with its short barrel complete with rifle sights, was very comfortable. Our testers had no problems handling the short pump even in rapid-fire tests.

The Mossberg Model 500, No. L615978, $357, manufactured by O.F. Mossberg & Sons Inc. of North Haven, Conn., is one of those shotguns that seems to have been around forever, with a look and feel like an old friend. Just a step above “Plain Jane” basic, the test shotgun featured a heat shield on the barrel and is also available with a pistol grip. Even with its slight weight advantage, the shotgun’s recoil was a little harder to control when put to a rapid-fire test.

To cover a variety of shooting experiences, our test ammunition included: Remington Express 2.75-inch shells loaded with No. 6 shot; Remington Slugger 2.75-inch HollowPoint Rifled Slugs; and Winchester 2.75-inch No. 4 Buckshot. In addition, a variety of standard No. 7 1/2 shot shells were fired at ranges of 20 feet or less. Here’s our report:

Benelli Nova Tactical Pump 12 Gauge 3.5 inch, $305


Imported from Italy by Benelli U.S.A. Corporation, here is a shotgun that breaks out of the mold of the standard pump actions resembling the legendary Winchester Model 12 or Remington 870 firearms.

The ultra-modern look and feel of the pump is both pleasing to the eye and functional, with its single unit action and stock, in addition to a sleek forearm. The weather-resistant polymer stock is bonded to the steel action in a single piece, with ribbed groves on the grip rather than standard checkering providing a firm hold. Similar ribbed grooves can be found on the forearm, which also features a recessed finger grove area at its top.

We were also impressed with the placement of the safety and action release controls at the right front of the trigger guard. This setup allows the shooter to control the actions of the shotgun with the trigger finger, then simply slide the trigger finger back into the guard for easy firing.

A check of the action found the rotating head closure system to be very smooth and functional. Internal parts and metal were polished and demonstrated quality workmanship. There were no malfunctions with any of the test ammunition.

Designed for use in close quarters, our test gun measured 40 inches in overall length with an 18.5-inch barrel and open rifle sights. The weight of the firearm was a comfortable 7.2 pounds.

One of the downsides to the shotgun was the way it handled slugs in our test. At close range, 25 yards or less, the shotgun consistently kept shots in the 9 and 10 ring of a silhouette target. However, the best three-shot group at 50 yards was 10 inches in diameter and about 11 inches low.

With the sights offering no elevation adjustment, some gunsmith work or replacing the sights with an adjustable version would be required to produce an acceptable slug pattern at an intermediate distance.

Performance with No. 4 Buckshot, which fires 27 pellets, was impressive at up to 25 yards. Most two-shot groups resulted in an average of 36 killing or disabling hits in the silhouette target’s body or neck.

The Nova seemed to prefer the No. 7 1/2 shot over the No. 6 shot at targets set up at 20 feet (about the maximum range for home defense). Average groups of about 12 inches were achieved with the smaller shot, while the No. 6 shot groups averaged about 14 inches. Both groups would be very deadly in a home defense situation.

The LOP on the test gun was 14.5 inches, falling within the comfort zone of most shooters. The drop at the comb was 1.5 inches and drop at the heel was 2.25 inches. While the shotgun came to the shoulder well, many of the test shots were fired from the hip, as in a home-defense situation, and we found the Nova to be well balanced in both type of shooting tests.

Mossberg Model 500 12 Gauge 3-inch, $357


This “meat and potatoes” basic shotgun is one of the time-tested veterans of home defense firearms, and its simple design has proven to be popular.

Our test gun had an overall length of 40.75 inches, with a 20-inch, polished blue barrel. The length of pull was 14.5 inches, with a drop at the comb of 1.5 inches and drop at the heel of 2.25 inches.

Once again, our test shots were fired from both the shoulder and the hip. The test shotgun, with its heat shield on the barrel, was slightly muzzle heavy and a little unwieldy when fired from the shoulder. No problems were encountered during the hip-firing tests with the shotgun that weighed 7.5 pounds.

The action of the pump was a little rough, with inspection of the interior workings determining that the parts were not as polished and smoothly finished as the Benelli. Because the action was not as smooth as it should be, the shotgun had a tendency to function a little rougher than expected, particularly in rapid-fire situations.

While the extended magazine provided increased firepower, the added weight and uneven balance of the fully loaded firearm counterbalanced this benefit, in our view. Most self-defense shooting situations involve one or two shots, putting into question the necessity of a firearm that can hold eight rounds. We recognize weighing capacity against handling will be a personal preference.

The action release button on the shotgun is on the left rear side of the trigger guard, leaving the trigger finger behind the trigger guard when chambering a round. The safety is on the top of the receiver and is worked with the thumb. These actions were considered cumbersome during our tests, although not enough to be a serious concern in most shooting situations.

The pistol grip on the stock of the test gun was smooth polymer, and the forearm was rounded with ribbed grooves. Single shot operation was acceptable, but in rapid-fire situations, the shotgun occasionally slipped out of our grip on the forearm.

Performance with slugs and buckshot were close, but slightly below, that of the Nova. At 25 yards, the test gun kept an average of 33 body and neck hits with two loads of No. 4 buckshot. Most slug hits were in the 9 ring of the silhouette target. With only a front bead as a sight, no 50-yard slug shots were attempted with the Mossberg.

The 20-foot tests, while producing effective patterns, were also less impressive than with the Benelli. The average group with No. 6 shot was 16 inches in diameter, while the average group with No. 7 1/2 shot was 13.5 inches — both deadly patterns, but slightly larger than the comparison shotgun.

Gun Tests Recommends
Benelli Nova Tactical Pump 12 Gauge 3.5 inch No. Z194882, $305. Our Pick. Good-looking design, easy to handle and a low price tag put this pump-action shotgun at the top of our list. Bonus: If equipped with a longer barrel and choke tubes, this shotgun would be crackerjack firearm for turkey and waterfowl hunting.

Mossberg Model 500 12 Gauge 3-inch No. L615973, $357. Buy it. The action was a little jerky and the added weight of the heat guard caused a slight imbalance in the handling. However, strictly for home defense, this shotgun would fit the needs of most homeowners.