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.

The Browning BPS 20 Gauge

The Browning BPS 20 gauge with 1-ounce Winchester AA No. 7-1/2 Heavy Target loads proved effective in the dove fields. We preferred it over the Remington Model 870 Wingmaster No. 26947 and the Ithaca Model 37 Featherlight. The Browning showed tight fit and smooth finish, and shot where it was pointed. The Remington was poorly fit, in our view, and the Ithaca shot way low in our testing.


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.

The Browning BPS 20 Gauge


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:

Ithaca Model 37 Featherlight

3 Inch 20 Gauge, $859

The current Ithaca Gun Company of Upper Sandusky, Ohio, was formed just about a year ago. There has been a pent-up demand for quality Ithaca Model 37s, and Ithaca has been working hard to fill that need. Ithaca CEO David Dluback and his team are striving to make that happen with new tooling, machining centers, and an aggressive approach to an expanded product line, including the first-ever Model 37 in 28 gauge and a brand-new Ithaca Over/Under both designed and manufactured in Upper Sandusky, Ohio.

The initial evaluation of the Model 37 ended almost as soon as it began. Right out of the box, the supplied Ithaca had a trigger that broke at a tad over 10 pounds, more than the gun itself weighed. Such a ridiculous level of trigger-break weight is not uncommon in factory shotguns, but we feel it is unacceptable in a premium shotgun. In any case, Ithaca discovered that a run of triggers had indeed exceeded the company’s specifications, being machined with excessive sear length, or from using the wrong springs, or perhaps both. The situation was addressed in just a day, and the gun was quickly returned with a proper trigger. Any customer should expect the same treatment, and we believe will get it from Ithaca. We also believe that Ithaca is quite aware of the trigger issues, and has resolved them.

The replaced Ithaca’s trigger broke crisply and cleanly at 4.1 pounds on our calibrated Lyman electronic trigger gauge, an acceptable weight for a hunting trigger, in our opinion. The gun as tested weighed about 7.25 pounds. The Model 37 was neutrally balanced, balancing horizontally on two fingers at the front of the receiver.

The barrel of the Ithaca bears special mention, as it featured Ithaca’s new solderless ribs. Where the risers for the ventilated ribs are soldered or, in some cases, just glued on—the barrel lugs on the Ithaca were integrally machined as part of the barrel. They really were works of art, something we have never seen before. The rib slides effortlessly onto the barrel, being held in place by a flush screw on top of the rib near the receiver. It was obvious that this was close-tolerance, precision work.

As impressed as we were with the Ithaca’s barrel lugs, we were less than impressed with the fit of the Briley-manufactured Ithaca-branded choke tubes. The triple notch tube (Improved Cylinder) screwed in precisely flush with the muzzle as expected. However, the single notch (Full) choke didn’t quite make it, leaving a clearly visible silver ring protruding from the muzzle. The same was true with the Modified tube that was installed in the shotgun originally. We would expect the Briley tubes to fit better at the muzzle than other factory tubes, not less. As best we could discern, the Briley-Ithaca chokes are the same external dimensions as Browning 20-gauge Invector Plus tubes, though Ithaca makes no mention of overboring its 20-gauge barrels. As it turns out, they weren’t: the Ithaca was a .618 inch nominal bore, standard diameter for 20 gauges.

Elsewhere, we appreciated other features of the Ithaca that did show attention to detail. We approved of the grip cap, the fine cut checkering, the cut traditional game-scene engraving, and the well-fitted Pachmayr recoil pad. We also appreciated the semi-shrouded Truglo front tube sight, as opposed to completely exposed plastic tubes prone to snagging, cracking, and breaking. The wood-to-metal fit of butt to receiver was exemplary, featuring no proud wood like that we found on the other pump actions. Yet another nice touch was the jeweled breech block.

The Model 37 receiver appeared to be drilled and tapped for scope use, though the Ithaca’s owners manual offered no particulars on that. As a matter of fact, we felt the Ithaca’s owner’s manual was one of the worst we’ve seen in recent memory, featuring garbled text followed by a bunch of overly dark images on the remainder of the pages. We presume we know what the choke notches mean, for example—but the manual offered zero clues. Actually, we didn’t completely guess—we measured the tubes, and know the more notches the more open the tube. We don’t think a new owner should have to have a micrometer to figure this out, however. We don’t think a new owner should have to wonder what parts are supposed to be included with his new shotgun, and what (if any) factory accessories might be available.

When it comes to controls, with frozen or gloved hands—we felt the Ithaca’s cross-bolt safety at the back of the trigger guard (like the 870’s) would be the more appropriate, primarily because the BPS tang safety’s operating nub was not as pronounced as we would like it. In more moderate weather, with ungloved hands, we gave the BPS safety the edge, doubly so if you are someone with double-gun experience and are accustomed to a tang safety. For a right-handed shooter, the bolt-release placement was ideal, at the front of the right side of the trigger guard. Left-hand shooters might find this a bit less handy, of course, but a finger across the trigger guard is not much of a stretch.

In terms of stock fit, the supplied Ithaca measured 1.4 inches of drop at the comb and 1.6 inches of drop at the heel. The consensus was for more drop overall, though as supplied, the stock was close enough for most of our shooters to start to with. Most of us saw rib with a normal gun mount—way too much rib. To complicate matters further, shortly after the testing concluded we were advised that Ithaca was changing the gun’s buttstock dimensions. So, what we have apparently is not going to be representative of future Ithaca M37 production. We were advised that the future M37 stock dimensions are to be 1.5 inches of drop at comb and 2.25 inches of drop at heel.

The initial patterning comparison was performed with Estate 7/8 oz. 2-1/2 dram equivalent Super Sport Competition Target Loads. The Ithaca, with its factory Full choke, printed distinctly low at a laser-verified 40 yards, although the Full-choke patterns had reasonable Full-choke density. That was an unpleasant surprise.

We were unpleasantly surprised enough to repeat the patterning a few days later. Clearly, the Ithaca shot unacceptably low at 40 yards, nowhere near the 50/50 (or even 60/40) we would expect on a field gun. The vast majority of the pellets printed well below point of aim at 40 yards. As touched on earlier, we were also puzzled by the chokes themselves, which appear to be non-overbored versions of the Browning Invector Plus tubes. Ithaca states that its 20-gauge barrels are about .618 inch bore, so they clearly are not the Browning overbored barrels of .630 inch in 20 gauge. Browning 20 gauge Invector Plus choke tubes will screw right into the Ithaca, but naturally do not have similar constrictions. Yes, the factory Browning tubes extend from the Ithaca muzzle a bit as well. They are not as noticeable as the Ithaca tubes because the Browning tubes are carbon steel.

We found the Ithaca fun to shoot, mild on the shoulder, and smooth operating. We could not get the Ithaca to malfunction, and we were further impressed with the forcefulness that it threw the empty hulls out and forward. It ejected with authority.

We strive to be fair in these head-to-head match-ups. We debated whether to send this Ithaca back (again) in an attempt to sort out the mis-machining of the chokes, or more likely the barrel itself, and to get some resolution of the point-of-impact issue. However, we came to the conclusion that no consumer would be happy with one return on a new premium pump, much less two returns for service on a brand-new, $800+ pump action. Having already returned the Model 37 once for a defective trigger, we felt that Ithaca was given their fair bite at the apple.

We cannot help but comment on what is presented on the Ithacagun website: namely that their guns are made by "tool-and-die machinists who for many decades have worked with tolerances of +/-.0002"." Apparently that does not apply to their barrels and choke tubes. Also, on the Ithaca website: "Doing it right the first time" ensures that the new gun you purchase from Ithaca Gun will give you decades of reliable and enjoyable service." Well, Ithaca did not get it right the "first time" for us, nor did they get it right on the second attempt, either.

While we appreciate the fundamental Model 37 design, and the attention to detail as cited in several areas, the gun failed to do what we expect of any premium shotgun—put a good pattern where we pointed it. While we believe that Ithaca would correct things, there were too many leaks in quality control presented in this example to allow any more than a grade of C.

Browning BPS No. 012211813

3-inch 20 Gauge, $566

The Browning BPS 20 gauge, another clear descendant in the Model 17 hierarchy, surprised us. We initially picked it up on the way to the range, and assembled it right there. All of our shooters were surprised at how light and crisp the factory Browning trigger was; a clear departure from the ponderous, clunky, and heavy triggers we have come to expect from Browning pumps and autoloaders. Yet, after shooting, when we had the chance to gauge the trigger, we found it broke at a repeatable, crisp, but heavy 6.75 pounds. Normally, a trigger this heavy is the uppermost limit of what we felt a usable trigger should be at. Yet, while smashing clays and patterning, it was not detrimental, evoking only positive comments.

What gives? The only thing we could ascertain is that the very wide, generous trigger face of the BPS—by far, the widest trigger profile tested, gave us impression that it was far lighter than it really was. We believe that is a factor, along with the lack of take-up and overall clean break, that combined to give us a acceptable field trigger that we wouldn’t bother touching up. We did check with Browning, and factory spec is from 5 to 6 pounds on BPS, Gold, and Silver shotguns. Browning is happy to touch up any trigger not within their specifications, if asked. So, though our shotgun as tested was 12 ounces over spec, Browning offered to get it within factory specifications, but it was perfectly fine as mentioned. So we didn’t bother.

We were also surprised how comfortable the BPS was to shoot, essentially no difference from our Ithaca. There was no help from the BPS’s hard-plastic buttplate, but perhaps enough from its slightly heavier weight (7.5 pounds as tested) to take the edge off recoil.

The theories surrounding over-bored barrels are myriad. The popular marketing term is "back-bored," but that is a misnomer. They are simply larger than standard ID on OD tubes, nothing gets "bored again" in a production shotgun. The Browning Invector Plus 20-gauge scatterguns are all over-bored, unique in the 20-gauge market. Rarely are the barrel specifications for the Invector Plus barrels cited, so lets discuss that right here.

Where a standard 20 gauge has a nominal bore inside diameter of .617 inch, the Browning 20 gauges are .630 bore. The respective choke exit diameters change in concert as well, cylinder is .627 inch, Skeet .624 inch, Improved Cylinder is .621, Modified .618, Improved Modified .606, and Full is .602 inch for a constriction of .028 inch. Supplied with the BPS, as with the other two test guns, were Improved Cylinder, Modified, and Full chokes.

At the pattern board, the BPS fared well—shooting essentially to point of aim, if not a few points high. While the factory tube produced 40-yard patterns that were adequate, as good as any gun tested, we decided to do a little choke-swapping. We screwed in a George Trulock "Full" Precision Hunter Invector Plus Extended choke tube, and instantly bettered our pellet count by 10-12% over the factory tube. More important, the patterns it produced were far more even, with fewer holes. We have often seen that a quality aftermarket extended choke tube can improve performance over OEM Modified and tighter tubes.

Remington Model 870 Wingmaster

No. 26947 3-inch 20 Gauge, $773

As one of the most popular firearms ever made, the 870 has become a standard to many. For a lot of consumers, it defines what a slide-action shotgun should look like. Our 870, as received, weighed in at 6.9 pounds, the lightest of our batch of 20-gauge slide actions. The Remington trigger broke at a pleasant 4.9 pounds right out the box. It was the best trigger of the bunch as received, though the Featherweight’s trigger was lighter after Ithaca’s second attempt at it.

We were puzzled by the workmanship of the 870 we tested. The 870’s forearm was a very nicely figured piece of satin-finished wood, but its buttstock was straight grain, the most lifeless piece of walnut of all the guns, we thought. Worse, the stain of the forearm did not match the Remington 870 buttstock in color or tone, the buttstock appearing noticeably lighter. Finally, we noticed proud wood near the bottom of the trigger guard of the 870. It had a small part of its finish chipped and flecked away on both sides of the trigger guard right out of the box. This was unacceptable quality control, as far as we are concerned. We expect two-piece stocks to have wood that matches well in color and hue if not grain, and we expect all of the finish to be there when removed from the box, particularly on a $773 retail price gun. This 870 disappointed us in both of these areas.

The Wingmaster had a solid-rubber butt plate of stiff durometer, not qualifying as a recoil pad by any stretch. The barrel of the 870 had a center bead, silver, and also a very small white bead at the muzzle. Mid-beads don’t make a lot of sense to us in field guns, and this one completely obscures the bead at the muzzle. We are easily baffled, of course, and this approach simply baffled us. Mid-beads have their purpose when fitting a gun, of course, and some trapshooters like to use the "figure eight" bead stacking when firing at constantly rising targets. On a field gun, we don’t know what purpose this sight array serves. As presented, the front bead cannot be of any value; it cannot be seen, much less utilized, in our view.

Remington has thankfully disposed of the recent "cross-bar with a key" lockable safety as found in a recent 870 16 gauge we tested, and Big Green has gone back to the standard cross-bolt safety that functioned just fine. As for the 870 action itself, it is a superb design that has passed any reasonable test of time and durability we can think of. The action on this Wingmaster was still relatively slick, smooth, and we couldn’t get it to jam.

The 870 fit most of our shooters well, and though not a real jolter, the 870 did have a touch more recoil and muzzle rise than the other pumps. The 870 was also the lightest; we felt the increased felt recoil was linear to the weight reduction. It would benefit from the addition of a Kick-Eez or Limbsaver recoil pad, certainly more than the BPS would with target loads.

At the pattern board, the 870 did well with its supplied Rem-chokes, its patterns centered to point of aim at 40 yards. Shooting to point of aim is the most important consideration, as far as we are concerned—test and trial with individual loads can fine tune things, or cause us to switch shells for example. But a gun that does not print at all where it is pointed is a problem. We are glad to say the 870 did the job in this area. The supplied Rem-chokes have no muzzle markings to indicate what they are externally. While we certainly don’t make a practice of sticking our snoots in front of muzzles, we like to know at a glance from an empty chamber, opened action trombone gun what tube is installed, without having to unscrew it to see. Remington doesn’t bother with notches; we wish they would.