June 2009

Duel at the Mostly OK Corral: 12-Ga. Cowboy Action Shotguns

The Model 1878 side-by-side’s double hammers and double triggers provided two certain and accurate shots every time, giving it an edge over a Model 1897 pump-action hammer gun.

Cowboy Action Shooting members, whose increasing numbers show no need of a stimulus package, have developed their hobby into a tribute to the gun battles of the Old West—both real and fictional. Shotguns often figured into these armed conflicts, normally giving the scattergun handler a distinct advantage over opponents armed with a handgun or rifle, as long as the battle was up close and personal.

Cowboy Action Shooting competition

Whether they are being used to knock down steel plates at a Cowboy Action Shooting competition or to defend a homeowner against home invaders, short-barreled shotguns styled after models that helped to win the West have become popular firearms with a growing number of both recreation-minded and defense-minded shooters. We put two typical modes, a side-by-side hammer gun and a pump-action hammer gun both listed for under $500, to the test. This competitor is using a Model 1897 replica at the Trailhead competition in Columbus, Texas.


One of Hollywood’s classic depictions of how a shotgun could turn the tide in a gun battle was in the 1966 movie The Professionals, featuring Academy-award-winning actors Lee Marvin and Burt Lancaster.

Marvin, armed with a Winchester Model 1897 pump-action shotgun, faces down eight mounted bandits armed with bolt-action rifles as they meet in a narrow canyon. With just a little help from Lancaster, himself armed with a Winchester lever-action rifle, Marvin clears the canyon of bandits as he touches off seven shotgun blasts in rapid succession. Most of the bad guys don’t even have a chance to get off a shot before they are knocked out of the saddle.

Although the battle is pure Hollywood, this type of shotgun action and its recreation on film has become a driving force behind the increasing popularity of the veteran firearms. Both the side-by-side hammer guns and the pump-action hammer guns of old left a distinct mark in history and are now resurfacing in the form of replicas finding favor at shooting competitions across the country. The popularity of the simple and easy-to-handle shotguns is also growing among people interested in home-defense firearms.

For our trip back to the past, we selected both a side-by-side and a pump action to see if there is any advantage or downside—other than the number of shots—with either Old West style shotgun.

Our test shotguns were a Cimarron T.T.N. Model 1878 Coach Gun 12 Gauge Side-by-Side and a Cimarron Model 1897 Pump 12 Gauge Shotgun,both carrying a price tag of $480 in the new gun rack at Dury’s Gun Shop in San Antonio (www.durysguns.com). Because of the popularity of the firearms, we waited more than six months to receive the back-order Model 1897.

Both of the shotguns are recreations of solid, dependable and well-used scatterguns of the Old West. With their 20-inch barrels and simple actions, the two firearms are also fulfilling a modern duty as self-dense shotguns for home owners. Shotguns firing typical hunting loads in a home-defense situation have the advantage of providing stopping power that will not pass through walls like handgun or rifle slugs.

To determine the effectiveness of both shotguns, we selected three distinctly different types of ammunition for our testing. For the Cowboy-Action range, our ammunition was Rio Target 2.75-inch loads with 1 ounce of No. 8 shot that produced an average muzzle velocity of 1,210 fps. For our home-defense loads, we used Winchester 00 Buckshot 2.75-inch loads firing nine pellets at an average muzzle velocity of 1,325 fps, and Remington Express Power Piston 2.75-inch loads with 1.25 ounces of No. 6 shot pushed at an average muzzle velocity of 1,330 fps.

In the home-defense simulations, we limited our patterning tests to a range of 20 feet (recreating a shot across a typical room) and relied upon Birchwood Casey Shoot-N-C 12-inch targets to determine pattern effectiveness. Here’s our test report:

Cimarron T.T.N. Model 1878 Coach Gun Side-by-Side 12 Gauge, $480

As we assembled the side-by-side Cimarron, we got the distinct impression of it being a simple, effective shooting tool, and we were not disappointed.

Although the drop in the stock of the shotgun caused some brief concern (quite a bit of drop in the stock was common among old-time shotguns), we found that the pointing ability of the short

Cowboy Action Shooting competition

We tested the pair of shotguns at a Cowboy Action course at the National Shooting Complex in San Antonio, where they were put through the steel plate and patterning circuits.

double barrel was very good, and we were easily able to put the shot pattern in the middle of the target every time.

The overall length of the Model 1878 was 36.5 inches, with its 20-inch barrel, and the drop at the comb was 2.25 inches, combined with a drop at the heel of 3 inches. As noted, we quickly adjusted to the dimensions. Because of the double triggers, we measured the length of pull at 14.25 inches from the front trigger and 13.5 inches from the back trigger. Despite the short barrels, the shotgun tipped the scales at 7.5 pounds, which probably was a factor in it delivering less felt recoil than we had expected.

We were a little annoyed with the trigger pulls of 7.0 pounds on the front trigger and 9.25 pounds on the back trigger. They were heavier than most shooters would like, and we would recommend a trip to the gunsmith for tweaking to reduce the pulls to a more acceptable break point.

Overall, we like the handling ability of the shotgun at the patterning range and with the Cowboy Action targets. This is not a shotgun designed for a lot of clay target use, so we limited our testing to shots at steel plates and some close, trap-style targets. In each test, the shotgun performed flawlessly and was surprisingly easy to keep on target.

Adjusting to cocking the hammers and using the double triggers was not a problem for our test group of experienced shooters. That may be a concern for less veteran shotgun handlers, and we would suggest new owners spend a little practice time to make sure they can handle the hammer gun. One advantage to the hammers is that the shooter always knows when the shotgun is cocked and ready to fire.

On the patterning range, we were very impressed with the performance of the side-by-side. At a range of 20 feet, the shotgun consistently placed 100 percent of the 00 buckshot loads (nine pellets) in the 10-ring of the 12-inch target. With the exception of one or two pellets, the same nearly perfect pattern was obtained with shots using the No. 6 shells. It is hard to be critical of 100-percent performance.

Moving over to the Cowboy-Action steel plates, also set up at close range, we easily handled a pair of knock-down steel plates with the lighter No. 8 loads. Like the older versions of side-by-side shotguns, the Model 1878 featured extractors rather than ejectors, and shells had to be pulled from the chambers. However, by opening the action and turning the shotgun upside down, the shells would slide out for quicker reloading.

Our Team Said: Our overall impression of the side-by-side was that it provided a very pleasant trip back in time to the days of the Old West and also proved to be a very capable, two-shot home defense firearm. Other than the downside of being limited to two shots, we could find few blemishes on this rugged and dependable side-by-side shotgun. Handling ability, patterning, and overall ease of use was very good. We would recommend a little gunsmith work on the triggers.

Cimarron Model 1897 12 Gauge Pump Action, $480

As noted earlier, this Cimarron offering is a replica of the classic

Cowboy Action Shooting competition

If capacity is an issue for you either in competition or home defense, here’s the round count expressed in shotshells: the pumpgun on top holds six in its tubular magazine and one in the chamber for a total of seven—enough to fend off most Comanchero attacks, either turn-of-the-century or modern. The side-byside holds just two, but with practice, the able shotgunner can open the breech, dump two empties, and get back to slapping steel or covering a hallway in short order. Both guns offer vicious closeup patterns.

Winchester Model 1897, and the feel and balance of the modern version remains a classic.

We liked the heft and handling ability of the shotgun, but were a little concerned about the stiffness of the action. However, after a little test time and shell shucking, the pump became a smooth-functioning tool. Only a few minor malfunctions marred its performance on the range.

Just a little longer than the Model 1878, measuring 39.75 inches in overall length with its 20-inch barrel, the stock dimensions were also a more comfortable to our test team. The drop at the comb was 2 inches and the drop at the heel was 2.75 inches, which is more similar to a field gun than the side-by-side. The length of pull of 14.75 inches was just a little longer than some of our team members would like, but after a little adjustment time did not pose any significant problems.

Lighter than the side-by-side, the unloaded weight of the Model 1897 was exactly 7 pounds, and the trigger pull was a very nice, crisp 5.25 pounds.

An added feature that we appreciated was screw-in chokes (one Improved Cylinder tube was included in the package, but others are available by special order). While most of the work with this shotgun would be close in and would not require extensive choke adjustments, the option of opening up or tightening up is nice to have available.

Putting the shotgun to the patterning board test, we were generally impressed with the pump’s performance. There were only a few hits of both 00 and No. 6 shot outside of the 10 ring, and only one or two flyers with the smaller shot outside the 12-inch circle of the target. This type of shot pattern, like the tight hits of the Model 1878, provide excellent stopping power for home-defense situations.

Loaded to the max with six shells in the magazine and one in the chamber, the slight weight increase was only barely noticeable, and the handling ability was actually improved. Multiple steel plates or close, trap-style targets were a pleasure to smack down with the pump.

Our Team Said: The pump action was just a little stiff on this recreation of the Winchester classic, although the action became smoother after a little test time. We were impressed with the handling ability, balance and patterning performance. We would consider the pump action a good choice for either Cowboy Action service or home defense. We would recommend a little break in time for both shotguns. Only one failure to feed a shell was encountered as we put the pump through its paces—well within our acceptable range. In the end, we agreed that if more than two shots were required in a shooting situation, the Cimarron pump action shotgun would be a fine choice.

Cimarron T.T.N. Model 1878 Coach Gun 12 Gauge 3-Inch Side-by-Side

Cimarron Model 1897 Pump-Action 12 Gauge