June 2007

12 Gauges: 870 SPS Rates an A+ Over Benelli, Mossberg Guns

The expensive Remington pump outperformed the promising Benelli SuperNova. The less-expensive Mossberg 535 ATS Thumbhole wasn’t in the same league, in our opinion.

Most of us with at least a little gray at the temples and a background in hunting retain in memory at least one "Long Tom" shotgun that was reputed to reduce a gallon can to window screen at 60 yards. Most had at least a 32-inch, fixed-choke barrel — some longer — and were typically described by someone with a tendency toward embellishment. True, in the dark ages of barrel manufacturing, an occasional super-tight tube did fall into public hands — and was capable of impressively tight patterns. They were pretty rare, however, hence the "Long Tom" legends.

Remington 870 SPS-Turkey Camo

The Remington 870 SPS-Turkey Camo Thumbhole, shooting Remington Wingmaster HD turkey loads, downed this Merriams gobbler in Wyoming.

But today there are shotguns and powerful, dense space-age shotshell loads out there that can, in the right hands, consistently kill waterfowl or turkeys at 60 yards and farther.

Though there are those hunters who see hammering a strutting gobbler at the length of a hockey rink as a travesty against the sport, virtually everyone nevertheless wants to have that ability.

What Is A Turkey Gun?

Understand, first of all, that hunting turkeys with a shotgun requires a specialty application.

Wingshooting, which is what shotguns are designed for, requires pointing the barrel and spraying a wide pattern from a moving barrel. Turkey hunters, on the other hand, actually aim rather than point, focusing tightly-choked barrels to concentrate small, dense patterns at small, fixed targets, ideally a standing turkey’s head and neck.

A specialty turkey gun thus needs rifle-style sights or optics to aid in aiming; and an extra full choke. It helps if they are dressed up to look like the understory (to fool the birds’ amazing visual perception), and are relatively short and light to lessen the burden on a peripatetic hunter who has to maneuver through dense foliage.

Remington 870 SPS-Turkey Camo

The Remington 870 SPS-Turkey Camo thumbhole (left), Mossberg 535 ATS Camo thumbhole (center), and Benelli SuperNova (right).

Through the first half of the 20th Century turkey hunting was largely a "Southern thing" since the indigenous wild birds had long been extirpated from their original range in the north, east and west by that time. But trap-and-transfer efforts by state game departments brought the Eastern subspecies back to the Northeast and Midwestern ranges and the Merriams subspecies back to the West.

Sport hunting for turkeys returned to many venues by the mid-1970s, and today there are huntable populations in 49 states (all except Alaska), including several in which turkeys were not indigenous.

That burgeoning market (there are nearly 5 million turkey hunters today) was fed, at first, by conventional shotguns and military-style camouflage. By the mid-1980s commercial camouflage patterns evolved. By the 1990s a company called ColorWorks, using Japanese technology, was applying camouflage film covering to shotguns to match the hunters’ livery and hide them from the ever-cautious birds.

Today, virtually all major firearms manufacturers make a fully camouflaged 12-gauge "turkey special" with an Xtra Full choke tube, 3.5-inch chamber, relatively short barrel and other facets to appeal to the modern turkey hunter.

We selected three state-of-the-art pump-action turkey hunting specialty guns — the Remington 870 SPS-Camo Turkey Thumbhole, the Mossberg 535 ATS Thumbhole Turkey, and the Benelli SuperNova — for comparison. The latter is available in a drop pistol-grip (SteadyGrip) model, which would have provided a common denominator among the three, but we couldn’t get our hands on one and tested a conventionally-stocked gun.

How We Tested

Caldwell Lead Sled DFT

The Caldwell Lead Sled DFT was used for point-of-aim testing and patterning.

We shot each gun from a recoil-absorbing, fully adjustable Caldwell Lead Sled DFT (dual frame technology) rest on a solid bench to determine if they shot to point of aim.

The Lead Sled DFT was chosen because, when weighted, it can eliminate 82 percent of a 12-gauge magnum load’s recoil. The DFT model features an adjustable front rest, which allows the receiver of a pump gun to be rested, rather than the slide.

After the point-of-aim testing, we stepped away from the bench and, from a seated position that would be common for a concealed hunter in the turkey woods, fired several 3-inch and 3.5-inch lead and tungsten-alloy specialty turkey loads through each gun to test function and to compare perceived recoil, trigger pull and patterning potential.

We went back to the Lead Sled DFT (used to take the human factor out of the bridge-rattling work of repetitive shooting) to do the critical patterning on Caldwell Orange Peel turkey head targets.

We used 3-inch Winchester Supreme High Velocity and Federal Grand Slam loads in No. 4 copper-plated lead shot and 3-inch and 3.5-inch Remington Wingmaster HD and Federal Heavyweight tungsten-alloy loads with No. 6 shot.

The sixes were a lighter load, since the shotcup walls are necessarily thicker for tungsten-alloy loads to protect the barrel walls from the hard pellets — and lighter loads are easier to pattern uniformly. The extreme density of the tungsten-alloy loads actually gives the No. 6 pellets better energy and therefore range than the larger No. 4 copper-plated lead pellets.

Remington 870 SPS-Turkey Camo Thumbhole

The devastating 35-yard pattern shown at right was achieved by the Remington 870 SPS-Turkey Camo Thumbhole and Remington Wingmaster HD No. 6 shot.

It’s typical when testing specialty guns to find that each patterns a specific load differently. The interior diameter of the barrels is different and the pattern is influenced by that specific ID as it corresponds to the choke tube diameter.

The Remington 870 SPS Turkey Camo Thumbhole, using a .672 Turkey Full Remchoke, was the most consistent with the various loads, producing killing patterns out to 40 yards and beyond with virtually everything. The 3-inch Remington Wingmaster HD and Federal Heavyweight loads patterned exceptionally well in the gun, to the point where we wouldn’t hesitate to shoot at an unobscured bird at 55 to 60 yards.

The Benelli SuperNova’s .684 full choke did a surprisingly good job patterning the 3-inch loads lead loads but was labeled "no steel," which meant that it couldn’t be used to pattern the super-hard tungsten-alloy loads, which require the same hard steel tubes as steel. On a lark we used the Benelli modified tube, which was rated for steel, to shoot the tungsten-alloy loads and found that it patterned fairly well — not as well as the other two guns’ .670 turkey chokes — but fairly well nonetheless. The tungsten-alloy loads have a tendency to pattern tightly even out of more open chokes.

The Mossberg 535 ATS Camo Turkey also patterned well — a trait we’ve found common in Mossbergs despite their inexpensive make-up. The fact that it patterned off-center was another trait we’ve found depressingly common with Mossbergs — but one that can be easily corrected by adjusting sights or adding adjustable optics.

The Remington and Mossberg guns were also tested under field conditions on turkey hunts in Wyoming and Texas, both killing birds.

Such things as weight-between-the-hands balance, wood-to-metal fit, load capacity and quick-change external choke tubes are facets wasted on turkey guns, but there are some other qualities (such as rifle sights, magnum chambers and recoil absorbsion) that are welcome.

We found all three guns to be more-than-suitable companions in the turkey woods, although each had its strengths and shortcomings. The Remington patterned the tungsten-alloy loads the most consistently and had the best trigger, while the Benelli was the best in handling recoil and was the only one with a trigger guard that easily accommodated gloved fingers. The Mossberg was the only gun tested with a receiver drilled and tapped for a scope rail and featured a ported external choke tube.

On the other hand, the Remington was the heaviest, the Mossberg kicked like a mule and the Benelli’s trigger was far too heavy.

Here is how else we saw them:

Remington SPS-Turkey Camo

Thumbhole No. 25189, $799

With more than 9 million Model 870 pump guns in circulation, one must assume that Remington has gotten the bugs out of this particular design.

The SPS (Special Purpose) series represents the high-end (along with Wingmaster) of the venerable dual-rail pump model line, which originated in 1950. While the Cheapened-to-sell-at-Marts Express version of the 870 is second only to Mossberg in annual worldwide sales, it appeals to the price-point conscious rather than the serious hunter or shooter. The SPS line offers higher quality albeit matte-finished, specialized versions for turkey, waterfowl and deer hunters.

The test model sported a 23-inch barrel with adjustable fiber-optic (TruGlo) rifle sights and an extra full Remchoke Turkey choke tube. The thumbhole stock was a wood laminate built by Boyd’s. It was the only tested gun that came with a sling, which in our view is essential for a turkey gun.

The trigger averaged a crisp, effective 5.2 pounds for 10 pulls with the Lyman digital trigger gauge. The 8-pound-plus heft, the ergonomics of the thumbhole stock’s rollover comb, and the peerless Sims R3 recoil pad made the mule-like kick of heavy turkey loads tolerable. The comb was just the right height to place the shooter’s eye in line with the raised rifle-style fiber optic sights — resulting in a solid cheekweld that also helps suppress perceived recoil. The gun was covered muzzle-to-heel with Mossy Oak’s Obsession pattern and featured an external choke tube.

While the receiver was not drilled and tapped for a scope rail, several mount manufacturers offer a saddle-style receiver mount that is affixed with pins that also hold the fire control system in the receiver.

We may have been a bit partial to 870 SPS in that we’ve made two of the most impressive shots of our turkey hunting lives with this particular gun. Suffice to say that, loaded with 3- or 3.5-inch Remington Wingmaster HD or Federal Heavyweight tungsten-alloy loads, the gun is absolutely lethal out to 60 yards and beyond.

Benelli SuperNova

No. 20130, $545

Once the traditionalist gets past the Star Wars look of the largely plastic (but virtually bomb proof) Italian-built Benelli Nova, its function labels it as a quality pump gun.

The SuperNova differs from the well-established Nova line in that it incorporates the company’s wonderfully effective ComforTech recoil-absorbing stock system — which should appeal heavily to anyone shooting heavy loads.

According to Benelli’s marketing folks, the distinctive rubber chevrons on the walls of the flexible stock and a super-soft gel recoil pad reduced felt recoil by as much as 62 percent, shot recovery time by as much as 52 percent, and muzzle jump by as much as 33 percent over competitive models shooting 3.5-inch Federal 1 3/8ths-ounce loads. Although we couldn’t confirm those figures in quantitative terms, our experience gave no reason to doubt them.

It was by far the most comfortable shooting gun of the trio tested. The receiver is a lightweight steel with a unique polymer covering that protects it from the elements and gives it a confident, easy-to-grip feel. The pump action had a plastic feel to it compared to the rugged 870 but was not a turn-off.

While the mid-rib stainless steel bead and pedestrian red plastic muzzle bead were functional for turkey hunting, an adjustable fiber-optic system and/or a receiver drilled and tapped for scope mounts would have been preferable in a $500+ gun.

The SuperNova was by far the most versatile choke system in that it came with four thin-wall stainless choke tubes in the conventional IC, Modified and Full constrictions, but no specialty turkey choke, which hurt its potential. The SuperNova was also the only gun tested that offered shims to adjust the stock for cast and drop. It also features a unique set screw in the pump handle through which the handle tension can be adjusted to alleviate rattle.

While the conventional pistol grip was more comfortable than most, a SuperNova with a SteadyGrip function would have been more comparable to the Remington and Mossberg thumbhole-stocked versions.

According to the Benelli website, the SteadyGrip stock SuperNova, billed as the SuperNova Turkey Gun, is priced at only $15 more than the conventionally stocked gun we tested, and the stocks themselves are available and easily changed out. Regrettably, even that specialty gun comes with the pedestrian IC, Modified and Full choke tubes, and no turkey tube. This is an oversight that puzzles us.

Mossberg 535 ATS Thumbhole

Turkey No. 45110, $456

The 535 ATS (All-Terrain Shotgun) was introduced in 2006 as a bridge between the best-selling 3-inch Model 500 pump and the company’s bulked-up 3.5-inch chambered 835 pump gun.

You’d have to look closely to see room for a model to fit between the two — or a reason for one’s existence. The difference was certainly not in terms of recoil reduction as the new 535 ATS is just as savage a kicker as its brethren.

But the 535 ATS Thumbhole Turkey is a solid little unit fitted with several of the features that the innovative Mossberg line is known for. Still, those features weren’t enough to overcome the Remington SPS Turkey’s advantages, we thought.

The stock comb was just a hair too high for us, resulting in a need to scrunch the cheek down to align the eye with the sight system.

Virtually no other company ports its barrels or choke with impunity the way Mossberg does; the 535 was the only gun tested with a receiver that came drilled and tapped for scope mounts (Weaver rails), and the Connecticut-based company was a pioneer in offering free gun locks, adjustable-length stocks and a 10-year limited warranty.