December 2008

Best-In-Class Firearms 2008: Handguns, Rifles, and Shotguns

Which firearms offer can’t-miss combinations of performance and value? We look back at the previous 11 months of evaluations in GUN TESTS and tell you what we would buy.

Every December I survey the work Ben Brooks, Roger Eckstine, Ray Ordorica, Joe Syczylo, Gene Taylor, Randy Wakeman, Kevin Winkle, and Ralph Winingham, have done in Gun Tests, with an eye toward selecting guns the magazine’s testers have endorsed without qualification. From these evaluations I pick the best from a full year’s worth of tests and distill summary recommendations for readers, who often use them as year-end shopping guides. These "best of" choices are a mixture of our original tests and other information I’ve compiled during the year. After the magazine’s FFLs sell high-rated test products to readers, I keep tabs on how many of those guns do over time, and if the firearms continue performing well, then I have confidence including them in this wrap-up.

This is our second year of letter-grade scoring, and all the guns in this compilation are "A" or "A+" choices—the Best in Class.

—Todd Woodard

Best in Class: RIFLES

Fulton Armory FAR-15 Predator Varmint

Precision 003020 223 Remington, $1995

Reviewed: June 2008

We chose this gun as Best in Class because it offered a complete look at the possibilities of the AR platform. The coolest and costliest gun in the initial test provided the best overall accuracy, although it just missed the claimed "1/2-inch MOA or better" guarantee.

Best-In-Class Firearms 2008: Handguns, Rifles, and Shotguns

The FAR-15 arrived in a plain cardboard box, with no gun case, just the gun sandwiched between two sheets of foam, along with a set of tools and directions for the Geissele trigger, and a modified version of their The AR-15 Complete Owners Guide.The FAR-15 inside was a striking gun, complete with a Magpul, PRS Precision adjustable sniper stock, $245, which provides exact cheek-weld and LOP adjustments. Other accoutrements included a target-gray stainless barrel ($35), a tac-latch on the charging handle for easier access when a scope is used ($20), a pre-installed Harris bipod ($80), and a side-cocking module ($125). Rounding out the features were a Krieger heavy 1:13-twist barrel ($390) and a Geissele adjustable two-stage trigger ($200). All of these options bring the gun to a wallet-emptying $1994 retail price.

The side-cocking module deserves a little more explanation. In lieu of the standard charging handle, the side-cocking module replaces the bolt cover and fits into the side of the gun by machining away the brass deflector. The bolt remains open after the last round is fired, but the shooter releases it by hitting the traditional bolt-release lever or tugging backward on the side-cocking module. Even the two lefties in were impressed with this feature.

When we took the gun to the range, it was the first gun the testers reached for when the guns were laid out on a desk. The gun was termed a "Sexy Beast" by our female tester. In particular, they liked the Magpul stock, side-charging handle, and target handle. The testers’ preference for the Fulton gun was further enhanced when we began shooting.

The Fulton turned in the best overall grouping at 0.89 inch, despite some balky performance by the Remington ammo we used that none of the guns could group under 1 inch. The two lefties in the test felt they might have improved their performance, but for the handle that felt it was installed backwards, or as another tester described it like trying to hold a "prickly pear."

Southpaws should order any handle but this one if they decide on the FAR15.

We felt the Giessele trigger was the best out of all the guns tested, but was also the hardest name to pronounce. Perhaps the greatest praise was directed toward the side-cocking mechanism. Although it eliminated the brass deflector, we had no problems with the ejection pattern. One tester felt the handle should be black to reduce glare, because his ADD caused him to focus on the "neat little handle" running back and forth.

You might wonder why we listed the prices of each option at the beginning of this review. The reason is that the base price for the FAR15 is $900, and every gun is bench built, so each shooter can pick and choose the options he can afford.

As configured, our testers said the FAR15 was a first-class performer that richly deserved the "A" grade we gave it. Its balance and weight will suit both the bench blaster and the predator hunter.

New England Firearms

Sportster SS1-217

17 Mach 2, $169

Reviewed: January 2008

Now owned by Marlin Firearms, NEF rifles are about as simple to operate as any rifle can be. Our test gun did have some up-to-date features.

The black synthetic stock was backed by a thick ventilated rubber pad. The comb met the shooter’s cheek with a Monte Carlo–style contour. A pebble finish covered its entire surface. We found the grip end of the stock mated flush to the right-hand side of the flat-black colored receiver, but the left-hand side was slightly offset. The manufacturer said that this was not a palm swell or similar feature but actually a manufacturing defect. If we were dissatisfied, they were willing to apply a new stock. But since it didn’t really look out of place or affect function, we were willing to let it pass.

The outer diameter of the barrel was almost five times its bore, and its outer surface showed a gleaming brushed pattern of vertical lines. A 5-inch-long scope mount was seated atop the barrel with its edge nearly flush with the chamber end of the barrel. There were only three operational features on the NEF Sportser. They were the trigger, which broke cleanly at 4 pounds every time, the hammer, and the barrel release.

Pushing in the barrel release automatically ejected the shell. As advised in the owner’s manual, we found it best to dismount the cheek from the stock prior to ejection to avoid getting smacked by the empty case as it rocketed out of the chamber. A transfer-bar system was in place to help prevent accidental ignition. The transfer bar fills the gap between the face of the hammer and the firing pin. Unless the trigger was pressed, the transfer bar remained in the down position. The resulting gap prevented the firing pin from being struck.

Of the four Sportster models, only the 22-caliber rifles are shipped with sights. But both the 17 HMR and 17 Mach 2 rifles ship with a Weaver mount in place. The scope mount was tall, but the supplied extension had to be mounted on to the tang of the hammer. This part was waiting for us in a plastic bag glued securely to a fold inside the corrugated shipping box. The extension slipped over the tang and made it possible to pull back the hammer from the side. The extension can be mounted to provide access from either the left- or right-hand side. Even with the barrel release offset to the right, we would judge this rifle to be equal in favor of right- or left-handed shooters. The extension was tubular with a checkered outer surface. Inside the extension was an Allen set screw that was remarkably hard to turn. But we didn’t strip the screw or the wrench, and the tight fit made the application of Loc-Tite unnecessary.

We found that the $21 Burris Zee rings that worked so well on our other two rifles were too tight for the Weaver mount atop the NEF Sportster. We resorted to using a set of Traditions-brand rings we found in a hardware store selling for about $8. These aluminum rings worked perfectly well and we were able to mount our Konus Pro scope just above the hammer. Having pieced together a truly budget rifle, we headed for the range.

Mounting the NEF Sportster for our bench session was easy because without a magazine protruding from the bottom of the receiver, we could support as much of the rifle as we wanted on to our sandbags. This freed up our position and helped us avoid such pitfalls such as pressing the front of the magazine against the sandbag.

This also trimmed its profile for more comfortable carry when slung over-the-shoulder. We also enjoyed carrying the Sportster cracked open with one hand cupped beneath the action. This point of balance made the gun feel lighter than its 7+ pounds.

From the 50-yard line, the NEF Sportster was the top performer. The barrel never seemed to heat up, and performance was consistent. We only printed one five-shot group that measured as much as a full inch across. Groups measuring less than a half inch were printed with both the Hornady and Remington ammunition. From the 100-yard bench, our groups averaged 1.8 inches across firing the Hornady ammunition, mainly due to one 2.2-inch cluster. Our tightest five-shot group at this distance measured 1.3 inches across. We never thought a single-shot rifle could be so enjoyable.

Weatherby Stainless

Vanguard 270 Win., $673

Reviewed: February 2008

Hunting rifles fall into an interesting category among the firearms crowd, with more shooters having more opinions about the long guns than any other smoke pole. The likes and dislikes range from composite versus wood; short barrel versus long barrel; and don’t even try to argue about the perfect caliber.

Although our Weatherby came equipped with the manufacturer’s custom Accubrake recoil reducer, we removed the device for velocity tests. To determine the accuracy of standard hunting ammunition available in the 270 caliber, we selected the following for our test rounds: Federal Premium Boat-Tail Soft Point featuring a 130-grain bullet, which is listed by the manufacturer with a standard muzzle energy of 2703 foot-pounds; Remington Express Core-Lokt Soft Point in a 150-grain bullet with a standard muzzle energy of 2705 foot-pounds; and Winchester Power Point in a 150-grain bullet with a standard muzzle energy of 2705 foot-pounds.

We fired the rifle from a Hoppes Bench Rest at two different ranges over several days to handle different weather conditions. Targets that produced very visible three-shot groups were the Birchwood Casey Shoot-N-C 12-inch bulls-eyes.

In addition, single shot, off-hand (no rest) shots were taken at various ranges to simulate hunting conditions. The heaviest and largest of the three test rifles, we liked the feel and handling of the Weatherby as a solid shooting tool. With an overall length of 44.5 inches, featuring a 24-inch barrel, and an unloaded weight of 7.5 pounds, the heft and balance were very comfortable. Combined with a short 13.5-inch length of pull, a drop at comb of 1.25 inches and a drop at heel of 0.9 inch, the Weatherby’s Monte Carlo stock was a good fit for all of our team members.

The trigger pull of 3.75 pounds could have been a lighter for the sensitive fingers of some members of our test team, although we do not believe the pull was excessive.

We considered the five-round magazine a bonus, although the four-round magazines in the other two rifles are normal for most hunting tools in calibers of the 270 range.

As noted, our test rifle came equipped with Weatherby’s custom Accubrake recoil reducer. The reduction in recoil from all the test ammunition was significant and appreciated. The addition is well worth the $160 and change required for the custom shop option.

However, even when the Accubrake was removed, recoil was not unpleasant and was very similar to the other two rifles. The 270 is not noted for its heavy recoil, and even after numerous firings, none of our test team suffered shoulder shock.

Of particular note is the manner in which the Weatherby handled all the test ammunition. None of the three-shot groups fired through the rifle were larger than 2.5 inches and the smallest group of 0.5 inches with factory ammunition was quite impressive. We found that Weatherby lived up to its guarantee of three-shot groups of 1.5 inches or better fired from a cold barrel with premium ammunition. This rifle is a classic case of the equipment being more capable of high performance than the shooter.

Beretta Tikka T3 Lite

.300 WSM, $595

Reviewed: March 2008

Right off the bat we noticed the hard recoil pad on this relatively light, Finnish-made rifle. We were quite sure it would test our shooters’ shoulders, but we’d have to wait until the actual shooting for our final pronouncement on the pad. The pad might have magic, like Ruger’s new yet thin pads, and might not hurt us, but we’d be surprised. The rifle was indeed light, at 6.4 pounds without scope. That was good news to those of us who realize most hunting involves lots of walking and not much shooting. The Tikka had a detachable magazine that did nothing for the looks of the rifle, but it was made of plastic and was extremely light, and that was also all to the good. The mag held three of the fat 30-caliber rounds. Unlike the magazine on Sako rifles, which require a trick to remove, the Tikka’s came out in a straightforward manner by pressing a lever at the front of the box.

The metalwork was not fancy, but presented a decent matte finish with a decent bluing job. Though the barrel and action were both of steel, the finishes were slightly different, though not enough to matter to the serious hunter. The bolt and trigger were finished in the white, the sole bright spots on the rifle. The 24.4-inch barrel was free floated from about 3 inches forward of the tasteful, octagonal-section action. The top flat of the action was machined to form a rail-type scope base, and—wonder of wonders—the Tikka came with scope rings. The forward one of these had a downward-protruding lug that fit into a hole on top of the action to prevent the scope moving rearward under recoil. This was a simple solution to what can be a problem with light rifles.

The matte-black stock had sculptured lines on forend and butt that broke up the plain look so common to plastic-stocked rifles. Also, the forend and pistol grip areas were covered with raised and elongated dots that served for checkering. On the rifle this looked a bit like basket-weave checkering. It worked well enough, wet or dry. The pistol-grip area also had a modest palm swell on each side. So far as we could find out, there are no left-hand-dedicated versions of the Tikka. However, the stock was fully ambidextrous, if the bolt was not.

The trigger pull was typical Sako: clean, crisp, excellent, with a break at 2.9 pounds. Not many production-rifle triggers can match that. Workmanship was quite simply excellent everywhere we looked. How this rifle can sell for roughly one-third the suggested price of the Sako Model 85 is beyond us.

One commonly quoted "attribute" of the short magnum cartridge is that it permits a shorter action, which means a lighter rifle. But the Tikka’s action was actually longer than that of the Ruger, and had the same-length opening for its ejection port. Also, the Ruger had a huge opening with not much metal on top of its action, while the Tikka design had metal surrounding the entire magazine but for the ejection port. Yet the Tikka was far lighter.

We mounted our new Nitrex 3-9X in the Tikka mounts and it was time to go to the range. We tested with three loads. They were Remington Core-Lokt 150-grain, Federal Premium Vital-Shok 165-grain Nosler Partition, and with Federal 180-grain Power-Shok. We began with the 150-grain bullets, though we had guessed the heaviest bullets would give the best results with the slightly faster 1:11-inch twist of this rifle over most 30s. We got both excellent velocity — a shade under 3200 fps — and useful if not stellar accuracy with the Remington Core-Lokt 150 grainers. Our average group size was 2.3 inches at 100 yards. Switching to the 165-grain Nosler Partitions as loaded by Federal, accuracy improved, but velocity didn’t drop much. All groups were under 2 inches, and bullet speed was a surprising 3150 fps on average. With the heaviest bullet we got what we were expecting, sub-inch groups. The worst group was 1.6 inches with these 180-grain slugs, and velocity was nearly 100 fps faster than the same-weight bullet in the 300 Win. Mag.

We quickly found the Tikka to be a very pleasant rifle in all respects.

Marlin Model 60 22 LR, $179

Reviewed: May 2008

The 22 autoloading rifle is an American icon. Many a youngster had one for his first rifle, and while they may not be ideal for that service, they are unquestionably handy rifles for any serious outdoorsman. They can also be excellent training pieces for just about anyone interested in serious shooting. One we tested was the Marlin Model 60 with tubular magazine and hardwood stock, $179.

We tested with three types of ammunition: Winchester Super-X Power Point HP, Aguila Supermaximum Hyper Velocity solid point (flat nose), and CCI Mini Mag round-nose ammunition.

We immediately took to this wood-stocked little rifle, which we found selling for $143 retail. The feel was solid, and we liked the thought of shooting a relatively warm-stocked hardwood stock in cold weather. Our suspicions were correct. This was the most comfortable stock on our shooter’s faces. Our first surprise was that this rifle held 14 rounds, and you could get 15 into it.

The stock was birch, slab-sawn, with a walnut-like finish. Birch is an excellent choice for gun stocks, and can have attractive grain. This one was fairly plain. The wood finish was impeccable, smooth and slick and offering excellent protection against nicks and dings. There was no checkering. The styling was classic, with the addition of a hump on the butt to get your face higher if you wanted to use a scope. The iron sights presented a really good sight picture. The front blade was flat on top and the rear, though a U notch, had a wide, flat top so elevation was not a question. The width of the U notch was just right for the size of the front sight. The rear was adjustable via the ancient spring-and-wedge system for elevation, and by drifting for windage. We had to make slight adjustments to both, for our eyes. The flat-topped front blade had a square whitish insert that caught the light and provided a much better picture than if it had been simply plain black.

The steel barrel was polished well and blued without excess glare. It plugged into a black-matte, alloy receiver that had grooves on top for a scope, but was not drilled. The trigger guard was polymer with a matte black finish. The magazine tube was blued steel, with a brass inner tube for the cartridges. A twist opened it, and as in days of old, you poured your fresh rounds into the magazine until it held no more. A tug on the bolt handle chambered the first round. Practicality told us that with a chambered round we didn’t want to open that magazine and put in a 15th round, because doing so would expose our hand to the hot muzzle.

The rifle’s safety was a cross bolt behind the trigger, in the back of the guard. We don’t like these, but there you have it. It worked well enough. After the last shot the bolt stays partly open, and we liked that. A bolt stop permits closing it if desired, or you can lock the bolt open any time you want by pressing forward on the bolt-stop lever.

On the range we found loading the rifle very easy. All operations worked to perfection, and the rifle performed flawlessly throughout our test shooting. The trigger pull was consistent and clean at 5.6 pounds. Our groups were all between 1.5 and 2 inches, with occasional bursts of brilliance that we believe would easily justify a scope. We saw many groups with four of the five shots well under an inch, at 50 yards, with a fifth spoiling it. We suspect this was our fault, not the rifle’s. This rifle was the only one that tolerated the extremely high velocity of the Aguila ammo, making several groups well under 2 inches. Velocity was 1450 fps out of this rifle, which is stepping right along.

Best in Class: PISTOLS

Bersa FireStorm 380 ACP, $307

Reviewed: February 2008

Finding an affordable, compact handgun is always a thrill, and we think you’ll love shooting this one.

Our first impression of the Argentine-made FireStorm was that it sure looked like a PPK. The lines were mighty similar, but the finish in this case was all business. The entire gun was matte black except for the white marks on the huge sights and the red dot under the safety lever. The finger-grooved, hard-rubber grips gave excellent traction and good control to the gun. We thought the magazine extension was an important part of the grip. It would help get the magazine out of the gun if the mag happened to stick, and also provided a good rest for a finger.

The sights were very good. The front blade was thick and prominent, with a slightly sloped rear face that held a huge white dot. We’d have liked more room between the sides of the front blade and the edges of the rear notch, but this setup worked. The rear was dovetailed into the slide with no provision for elevation adjustment. The rear-sight notch was outlined with a highly visible white band. The FireStorm had a smooth front face to the rear sight to permit practicing clearance drills without visiting your doctor.

The FireStorm’s hammer could be easily cocked, and that’s advisable if you have time. The safety was on the left side of the slide. In front of that, and slightly below, was the slide release. This popped up to lock the slide back when the gun ran dry, and could be used to lower the slide after inserting a loaded magazine.

On the right side of the frame near the front of the trigger guard was the takedown lever. When turned downward, this permitted drawing the slide back far enough so that its rear end could be raised, and then the works could be eased off.

The left side of the frame also held the magazine release. The magazine held seven rounds. Only one magazine came with the gun. Extras are $27. There was also a key-lock for the frame, located on the left just above the trigger pivot. This was for those who feel a need to secure the gun from firing in a positive manner. The gun would not shoot with the magazine removed.

Inside the FireStorm we saw decent workmanship throughout. There were some sheet-metal parts in the Bersa where some other guns use machined pieces. Further differences were that other guns had a larger chamber mouth and a longer, wider ramp leading to the chamber. However, the Bersa never failed to feed during our testing. The Bersa also had an automatic firing-pin lock that required the trigger to be fully pressed before the pin could reach the primer.

The FireStorm was normally double action for the first shot, if you’re in a hurry. There was no way to get around that, because applying the safety—which took significant effort—would drop the hammer. So carrying the gun cocked and locked was not possible. This is identical to the familiar Walther PPK. But there the similarity ends. The PPK requires a very stiff DA pull to get the gun to fire. The FireStorm’s DA pull started out soft, then increased in force—commonly called "stacking"—and then broke cleanly at about 10 pounds.

With a little practice, our testers found the DA pull to be highly workable. However, the second shot is always single-action, and shooting fast pairs requires thorough familiarization.

Ruger MKIII6 Standard

.22LR, $342

Reviewed: March 2008

There are several versions of the Ruger MKIII, but we chose one of the plainest, with the 6-inch barrel. This blued Ruger was exceptionally well balanced, something we all noticed right away. We all loved the feel of the grips, too. The grip angle seemed just right for most of us, and the checkered plastic panels were mighty comfortable as well as functional. We’ve handled the 4-inch version of the Ruger Standard in the recent past and it didn’t balance nearly as well for us. The Ruger Standard is the gun that put Sturm, Ruger & Co. on the map. Introduced in 1949 and selling for $37.50 for many long years, it provided the background and basic building blocks for today’s huge Ruger operation. There have been a few changes to the gun over the years, and most changes may be seen as improvements.

The finish was outstanding. The metal polish and semi-matte bluing quality were about as good as it gets in today’s market. The sheet-metal frame, tubular-steel action and nicely tapered barrel all had excellent metal work with no machining marks. The dovetailed rear and bold post front sights were well matched, easily seen, and excellent for their job. The front blade can be replaced easily if need be. The rear was adjustable for windage by drifting. The takedown system for cleaning was as mystical as ever, a distinct Ruger touch that has at first stumped and then—once understood—pleased shooters for many decades now. The checkered grips featured a red, not black, Ruger monogram and excellent tactile feel for positive and pleasant control of the gun. All the new gun’s controls but the safety were as easily operated by lefties as by the right-handers.

Recent additions and/or changes include a button magazine release, not the old lever in the heel of the grip. Then there’s a slide lock, and a hidden, internal security lock. On the left side of the main body in front of the embossed message is the new chambered-round indicator, essentially a slot that permits dust and dirt to enter the gun, and also tells the presumably careless shooter that a round is in fact in the chamber. We submit that if you don’t know there’s a round in the chamber you have no business handling firearms.

We found another item that’s been changed since the very first Rugers were built, and that is the bolt ears. In early versions these stuck out to the sides and were very easy to grasp and operate. Today’s version has narrower ears, with cuts in the side of the main receiver tube to permit the fingers to grasp these shorter ears. We found these to be harder to grasp and operate than the early wider-eared version, and also the new system pinched the dickens out of our fingers more than once, something that never happened with the original design. Another change since the early days is today’s Ruger MKIII will not fire with the magazine removed. The gun came with two ten-round magazines. We loved the magazine release. We also loved the crisp, clean trigger, which broke at 3.5 pounds, best of this test. The feel of the grip and the fine balance of the gun we’ve already mentioned, as well as the clean sight picture.

We were eager to take the gun to the range. There we found it to be one of the finest handguns we’ve ever fired. The Ruger performed way better than it looked, and it looked pretty good, we thought. If you can’t make a group smaller than an inch at 15 yards, you’re just not trying.

Stoeger Cougar 8000 9mm,

$449 MSRP, $390 Street

Reviewed: July 2009

There is also a 40-cal version of the Cougar with 11-round capacity for the same price. The gun in either caliber comes with two magazines The Turkish-made Cougar was a blocky, bulky handgun that, frankly, we didn’t think we’d much like. Its bulky grip was big, which aided in giving the Cougar a 15+1-round capacity in 9mm configuration. The gun’s blocky-looking front wouldn’t fit into a standard 1911-style holster. The light weight was thanks to an aluminum frame.

On its surface, the Cougar was a well-finished handgun. The steel slide had a smooth, almost greasy look. The matte-black frame had similar-finished checkered grip panels made of hard plastic. There were vertical serrations on the front and rear grip straps that gave good control to the hand-filling gun. There was an ambidextrous safety that dropped the hammer if it was cocked, and prevented firing the gun by disconnecting the trigger, when the safety was down. We could operate these twin levers with the strong-hand thumb, but it was not easy. The large trigger guard had a hook at its front for those who prefer to wrap a finger of the weak hand around the front of the guard. Yes, there are excellent shooters out there who still grip the gun like that, including a former IPSC World Champion.

The sights were great. Three white dots set off the Patridge-type, fixed units adjustable only by drifting for windage. The sight picture was excellent, and the rear sight was smooth enough on its front surface that it would not cut the hand during clearance drills. All the gun’s controls were well placed and functioned properly. The magazine fell free when the button was pressed, and you could fire the gun with the mag out. Another button on the right side of the gun, above the front of the trigger guard, permitted the disassembly of the Cougar. Take the magazine out first, and when you clean any gun always make sure it is completely unloaded. Press that button in, and turn down the takedown lever on the left side. The slide may now be removed forward off the gun. Inside you’ll find a big surprise.

The barrel locks by rotation. You can see the barrel rotate as you pull the slide rearward. It spins within the slide much like a bolt on a bolt-action rifle, the barrel having lugs and the slide having recesses for them. This means the barrel stays concentric with its original location within the slide as the gun cycles. The makers claim this aids accuracy, but those of us who know better realize accuracy depends more on fitting than on the lack of motion of the barrel, or its location, during the reloading cycle. However, the system is mighty clever, makes for an easily-moved slide, and was masterfully made. All the stuff inside this gun was beautifully finished and machined. There was even an arrow on the one questionable part inside that might cause confusion during reassembly. Point the arrow towards the muzzle and it all falls easily back together. We were favorably impressed by the design here, and by its execution.

At the range we found the Stoeger 8000 Cougar had a clean SA trigger, which broke at 6.0 pounds. There were no failures with the Cougar. It fed, fired, and ejected everything. The trigger broke a bit too far toward the back, for our taste, but that’s something you get used to.

Best in Class: SHOTGUNS

Remington 11-87 Police

12-gauge 3-inch No. 9861, $850

Reviewed: February 2008

Beefy tactical guns are ready to go on the offensive to serve warrants, root out armed bad guys, and break stuff with either lead or steel. This is one of the best.

This law-enforcement version of the Model 11-87 shotgun is all business. The Model 11-87 Police series guns feature synthetic stocks and fore-ends, Parkerized metal finish, and a choice of bead (No. 9859), rifle sight (No. 9861, tested here) or a Wilson Combat ghost-ring rear sight and an XS front sight (No. 9849). The receiver, barrel, magazine extension, and bracket are coated with a Parkerized metal finish.

The polypropylene stock and fore-end have a matte-black finish that won’t reflect light, and the stock has molded checkering and is finished with a 1.2-inch-thick black ribbed R3 recoil pad. Stock dimensions included a length of pull of 14 inches and a drop at heel of 2.25 inches from the top of the action. The gun didn’t have a comb. The drop at heel from the sightline was 3.0 inches, and the stock had a lot of pitch.

No choke tubes were provided, and the muzzle wasn’t threaded for tubes. It was choked Improved Cylinder to allow it to shoot slugs. Our gun’s buttstock included a fixed sling-swivel stud in the buttstock and swiveling stud on the barrel/magazine bracket.

Our testers thought the pistol grip was too long, but the shelf at the bottom offered a comfortable place to rest the hand. The top of the grip also felt too square for our tastes, and we’d probably buy this gun with the ghost-ring sights given the choice. But the Remington won this evaluation on the strength of its ease of operation, soft shooting action, and accuracy. As we noted above, loads pounded our shooters when they emptied the magazines, but the recoil was much worse on other guns, in our view. One tester commented, "We’d shoot a full magazine from one of the others and get stung, then pick up the 11-87, shoot it and say, ‘How nice!’"

Reloads were easy, too. To test reload speeds, we’d load one in the chamber, fire it, then load another and fire it. Shot-to-shot times were much faster with the Remington. Our shooters would start with rounds tucked between the belt and the pants (civilian style), or in a shell holder in full police gear. Once the first round was fired, keeping the gun shouldered, the shooter could control the shotgun with the trigger hand on the pistol grip. Then, he could tilt it slightly counterclockwise to expose the now-open ejection port, drop a shell into the receiver, hit the big carriage-release lever on the bottom of the follower with the left hand to close the action, then in the same motion, continue sliding the left hand onto the fore-end. That took about 3 seconds. If getting the next shot off wasn’t crucial, the shooter could just as easily feed more shells into the bottom of the gun until another threat appeared.

We had no hiccups shooting any of the shotshells, and the accuracy with the Remington slugs was great. Point of impact was 2 inches above the aiming point at 15 yards, and the groups were about 2.2 inches across (the slugs tear ragged holes). But we had the confidence to shoot at pieces of the silhouette target (ear, shoulder, crotch) and get hits with the slugs. One of our testers called this "surgical" performance, which is notable in a shotgun.There was a lot to like about the 11-87. In particular, it had a compact feel, topnotch fit and finish, and the recoil pad made it comfortable to shoot. Also, the crossbolt safety was easy to disengage, but still offered a positive "click" when it came on and off. The blaze-orange magazine follower permitted quick inspection of the chamber and magazine.

Winchester Model 101

12 Gauge, $900

Reviewed: August 2008

Finding a "veteran" over/under shotgun under $1000 can be a trick. Nonetheless, during one of our forays into the well-stocked shelves of Dury’s Gun Shop in San Antonio (www.durysguns.com), we found a 12 gauge that fell within the search parameter—a Winchester Model 101, production for which stopped in 1984.

This was the company’s standard stack-barrel model from the time it was introduced in 1963 until production was discontinued in 1984. To this day, there are tens of thousands of shooters who swear by the "Old 101" as their shotgun of choice for field and target use.

Our ammunition selection for this test included the Winchester AA Xtra-Lite Target 2.75-inch loads that were 2.75 dram equivalent shells with one ounce of No. 8 shot traveling at 1,180 fps; Remington STS Low Recoil 2 3/4-inch loads with a 2.5 dram equivalent, 1 1/8 ounce of No. 7 1/2 shot and a muzzle velocity of 1,145 fps; and Estate Super Sport Competition Target 2 3/4-inch loads with 2.75 dram equivalent, 1 ounce of No. 8 shot and a muzzle velocity of 1,180 fps.

Weighing in at exactly 7 pounds, our test shotgun featured a 28-inch barrel with fixed chokes of Modified and Full. The drop at the comb was 1.5 inches and drop at the heel was 2.75 inches, with a length of pull of 14 inches. An aftermarket recoil pad had been added to the stock, but none of our test team had any problems adjusting to the stock dimensions.

We were particularly pleased with the slim and trim pistol grip of the Model 101. Even for our shooters with large hands, the grip provided a firm hold and smooth handling of the shotgun. Although the Winchester has a reputation of excessive recoil because of the design of the shotgun, we found that the punch was not unpleasant.

The 28-inch barrels of the Winchester and overall balance provided an excellent platform for handling all types of targets. We were very impressed with the way the shotgun smacked targets. Part of the target-busting performance could be attributed to the tighter chokes, but another part was the gun’s handling. On the patterning board, the Winchester produced a 50-50 spread (an equal number of pellet strikes above and below the center of the target) with the Modified barrel.

We were also impressed with the 101’s trigger pull. The top barrel and the bottom barrel were both very crisp, and both broke at 5 pounds. Although not as important as with a rifle or handgun, trigger pull on a shotgun should be smooth and light to prevent any jerking that will cause a shooter to pull off of the target.

Overall, we could find no faults with the Winchester other than the fixed chokes. Adding another couple hundred dollars to the price tag to have screw-in chokes installed would be worth the extra cost.

Browning BPS No. 012211813

3-inch 20 Gauge, $566

Reviewed: November 2008

Browning’s BPS 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. Rather than just a clone of the Remington 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.

The Browning BPS 20 gauge 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.

Best in Class: REVOLVERS

Ruger SP101 KSP-3231X 32 H&R Magnum, $572

Reviewed: April 2008

Gun Tests readers tell us they are interested in smaller-caliber handguns, and a new trend in wheelguns may be on the horizon. Modern defense loads can produce a lot of damage without harsh recoil. The 32 H&R Magnum may jump-start fresh interest in the snubnosed revolver.

Our SP101 SP-3231X was chambered for 32 H&R Magnum. Our 32 H&R Magnum ammunition was Federal Champion 95-grain lead semi-wadcutters and Federal Personal Defense 85-grain jacketed hollowpoints. The 32 H&R Magnum was more forgiving in terms of shooting alternate ammunition, such as 32 S&W. The lower pressure helped make it less sensitive to debris building up in the chambers.

Firing the H&R Magnum ammunition, we were reminded why this caliber is still hanging on. The recoil was pleasant, and accuracy did not depend largely on recoil control, a characteristic common to snubnosed revolvers of more powerful calibers. Velocity of our more powerful rounds, the 85-grain JHPs, was closer to 1100 fps and produced about 211 ft.-lbs. of energy.

In our August 1999 test of 32 H&R Magnum snubbies, the SP101 KSP-3231 produced more than 290 ft.-lbs. of muzzle energy firing 50-grain MagSafe Defender ammunition. This is one of the top-selling frangible rounds. The low bullet weight helped contribute to less muzzle flip. For those with less hand strength or a touch of arthritis, or even shooters with less time to practice, the appeal of 32 H&R Magnum is obvious. A 4-inch-barreled SP101 chambered for 32 H&R Magnum was recently discontinued. We would have liked to know how much added velocity and punch was available from the 4-inch barrel.

As noted, the double-action trigger on our 32 H&R revolver was lighter than the one found on the 327. The difference was only 2 pounds but it seemed like more. The 12-pound DA trigger found on the 32 H&R is generally accepted as the ceiling. We think 14-pound DA triggers are excessive. We found it much easier to replicate rapid fire strings dry-firing the 32 H&R model and then perform such drills live.

From the bench we were happy to find that the hollowpoint ammunition was not only stronger but more accurate. We didn’t have any trouble at all printing 1-inch-wide groups. Our average for five five-shot groups was a measurement of 1.2 inches across at a distance of 15 yards, and we think this figure is wholly representative. We found this gun to be a pleasure to shoot, and only wish a wider variety of 32 Magnum ammunition was available.

Taurus Raging Bull

.44 Magnum 444B8, $625

Reviewed: March 2008

Light years ago (February 2000), we tested the Raging Bull model, which was designed to take the pounding of the newest grenade on the block, the 454 Casull. At the time, the Bull was built on a new larger frame that was fit with a heavy 8.4-inch barrel. The barrel featured a deep full-length underlug and porting. The cylinder was braced with a second latch on the crane. The grip was also a new design with a shock-absorbing insert along the backstrap. Each of these features were carried over to subsequent chamberings, which today include 454 Casull, 41 Magnum, 500 Magnum and of course 44 Magnum.

Given that construction was the same for our 44 Magnum as it was for the original 454 Casull Raging Bull, we would expect durability from this gun. In fact throughout our tests none of our guns experienced a failure of any kind. The blued finish that distinguished our Taurus from our stainless-steel test guns proved durable, holding up to a couple of gaffes where we unceremoniously dropped the gun—once out of a tree and another time on to the door frame of a gun safe. Built to handle the Casull, we also expected our Raging Bull to be the most comfortable to shoot in 44 Magnum. This assumption turned out to be correct. Even when shooting fully locked-in over a bench, felt recoil from the Taurus was the least abusive among our test guns. The single-action trigger did not offer any type of take-up and the action was grit free. The double-action trigger was also clean and consistent from shot to shot.

When preparing to load the Raging Bull, we had to remember to work the two cylinder releases mounted on the left simultaneously. The frame-mounted latch to the rear needed to be pushed forward with the thumb. The latch on the yoke, which swings outward with the cylinder, needed to be pushed upward. The ejector rod did not take part in lockup. All three revolvers shielded the ejector rod in a cavity machined into the underlug.

The rear sight was fully adjustable for windage and elevation. Its rearward face was not grooved to diffuse light, but it was slanted to the rear to reduce glare. This helped us peep through the rear notch and find a clean picture of the front sight, which was a plain black rectangle. The rear-sight blade appeared to be fragile, in our view, and its edges were unprotected.

But the front sight was long and firmly mounted upon a stanchion. Regarding facility for a scope, Brownells lists a drill-and-tap scope mount for $30 from Weigand Combat. Taurus (taurususa.com) offers a $50 scope mount that bolts on using brackets that weave through the vents that run along the top of the barrel.

Firing offhand, standing or seated, our testers found the Raging Bull to be well balanced. Taurus did their homework in designing the grip, which offered finger grooves and a subtle but effective palm swell.

From the bench the Taurus Raging Bull was the top overall performer. We shot groups averaging about 1.5 inches across with two of our three test rounds under conditions that were fair at best. The Bull also had the two best groups of our test, 1.1 inches and 1.2 inches, respectively. We think the Taurus Raging Bull was clearly in tune with heavy recoiling ammunition.

S&W 625-3 45 ACP, $900

Reviewed: September 2008

The stainless-steel 625 was slick and smooth, and generally wonderful all over. The small, slim Pachmayr grips made the gun pleasant to hold and shoot, and gave easy access to the trigger. The right side of the under-lugged barrel had "45 CAL MODEL OF 1989" electro-etched into its matte-stainless finish. The left side had the company name. The hammer retained the old-style firing pin, though the barrel was not pinned in place. A stubby, well-checkered hammer and a wide, smooth trigger completed the setup. The latch had had its edges rounded by the gun’s owner. He told us the gun had come with finger-grooved rubber grips that had not fit him at all. He cut the grips down but eventually replaced them with the small ones shown. The timing, fit, finish, and workmanship were excellent throughout. The lockup was tight, with no slop anywhere. The extremely smooth double-action pull had us grinning. The SA trigger pull was crisp and clean, breaking at 3.8 pounds. The DA pull was extremely smooth at 10.3 pounds.

The gun was matte finished everywhere except for the blued, adjustable sights. The ramped front-sight insert was serrated to cut glare, and both front and rear were devoid of all dots, glitter, paint, and what-have-you. That was refreshing. We noted this was one of the first modern S&W revolvers to have the correct dimensions to its cylinder outlets. They closely matched the groove diameter of the barrel. Earlier Model 25s commonly had outlets as large as 0.458 inch, much too large for the 0.450-inch to 0.451-inch barrel. This gave leading with cast bullets, less-than-ideal accuracy, and even some spitting with jacketed bullets. Not so this one. All recent Smith 45 revolvers we’ve checked have the correct dimensions.

We used the owner’s trimmed full-moon clips, which were easy to load. The factory ones that come with other S&W revolvers were so hard to load as to defy our strongest fingers. They need to be "tuned" with a circular file or other suitable tool to make them easy to load, yet tight enough to hold the cartridges firmly. When it was time to remove the empties from the clips, we used a "Demooner," available for about $17 from Brownells. If you like 45 ACP revolvers and full moon clips, get yourself a Demooner. Trust us, they’re worth it if you value your fingers, time, and serenity.

Rapid-fire results with this gun were the best of the test. The weight and balance of the gun let us get excellent hits as fast as we could work the smooth DA trigger. The 625 was extremely fast to reload. The full-moon clips held the cartridges in firm alignment so the reload was able to drop into the gun easily. Loose rounds all fired properly. There were no problems with the 625, and its accuracy was outstanding. We thought it was a mighty pleasant handgun.

FULTON ARMORY FAR-15 PREDATOR VARMINT PRECISION 003020 223 REM.

NEW ENGLAND FIREARMS SPORTSTER SS1-217 17 MACH 2

WEATHERBY STAINLESS VANGUARD 270 WIN.

BERETTA TIKKA T3 LITE 300 WSM

MARLIN MODEL 60 22 LR

BERSA FIRESTORM 380 ACP

RUGER MK III6 22LR

STOEGER COUGAR 8000 9MM

REMINGTON 11-87 POLICE 12-GAUGE 3-INCH NO. 9861

WINCHESTER MODEL 101 O/U 12 GA

BROWNING BPS HUNTER 3 INCH 20 GAUGE

RUGER SP101 KSP-3231X

TAURUS RAGING BULL 444B8 44 MAGNUM

S&W MODEL 625-3 45 ACP

2008 Don't Buy Guns