December 2016

Shotgun Shootout: Self-Loader, Pump, or Dual-Action Design?

Tested: The semi-auto Mossberg 930 Tactical, Benelli’s Nova Tactical Pump and TriStar’s TEC-12, which can operate as a pump or semi-auto. All three will do the job, but we prefer one.

buckshot rounds

This is only a portion of the buckshot rounds we fired for this test. Our raters were soaking their wrists in Epsom salts the next morning. The 12-gauge 2.75-inch 00 Buckshot loads were Sellier & Bellot, Hornady Critical Defense, Remington Managed Recoil, and Winchester Super X shotshells. Rifle-type sights on the TEC-12 and Benelli weren’t necessary to put devastating buckshot loads on target.

When we decided to test three tactical shotguns suitable for home defense, rather than test three pumps or three self-loaders, we tested one of each, and one that could be either. The Benelli Nova Tactical Pump was our first type, followed by a semi-auto Mossberg 930 Tactical and TriStar’s TEC-12, the latter of which can operate as a pump or semi-auto. If we were jumping into the sandbox at the moment, we think the Benelli M3 might be our choice, especially after firing the near clone of it, the TEC-12. However, the team thought the Benelli Nova pump had the simplest action to use well, and for us, its performance could not be faulted. The Mossberg 930 Tactical had its advantages as well, among them being it was the most comfortable shotgun to fire and use. We had our preference, as we describe below, but you may decide one of the others is better for you. To make that decision easier, our shooters went over the three guns with an eye toward finding flaws, and before we begin in earnest, we will say we found few problems, and that any of these three would do good duty for home defense.

We have had generally good luck with Benelli’s Nova variations over the years. Way back in July 2007, we tested the field-grade Benelli Nova Pump 12 Gauge and gave it an “A-” for its overall performance, the feel and function of the synthetic stock and forearm, and its selection of choke tubes, which was impressive for this bargain-priced firearm. Then in the October 2013 issue, we tested a Benelli Super Nova Tactical No. 29155 12 Gauge. That gun earned an “A-” grade, losing out to a less expensive Stevens 320 that was every bit as good as the Super Nova and hundreds of dollars cheaper. Also, that Tactical Super Nova was the heaviest of those shotguns, which can be good or bad depending on the shooter and the load. But in that test, our shooters particularly liked the feel of the grooved polymer forearm and pistol grip. Downside: The out-of-the-box trigger pull of 8.75 pounds was too hefty for our tastes. Functionally, however, the Super Nova was fine. Those same likes carry over to a Benelli Nova H2O, which features a nickel-plated barrel, that we have not worked into a head-to-head against other corrosion-resistant units. Functionally, it has felt and operated like the other Novas we’ve tested, but the unit we’ve been shooting off and on (No. 20090, $669 MSRP) for a couple of years has open rifle sights (blade front and rear notch), which we don’t like as well as the Ghost Ring sight on the Nova Tactical, and the price is a big step up from the plain black Benelli. At the time of this test, GanderMountain.com listed the H2O at $650, not including shipping and other charges such as FFL receiving fees. If you need the anti-corrosion features, you may be willing to pay the premium price for it, but for us, because of the price and the sights, we’d have to call the H2O a “B” in terms of value.

Mossberg 930 Tactical

Our defensive shotguns included the semi-auto Mossberg 930 Tactical, which we thought was the softest-shooting of the trio.

We have tested a variant of Mossberg’s Model 930 as recently as the September 2016 issue when we put a Waterfowl Mossy Oak Shadow Grass Camo No. 85212 12 Gauge to the test as a field piece. It rated a “B” beside other guns from Beretta, Browning, and Winchester because it was just a little heavier and didn’t glide as well as the other test shotguns, in the opinion of our rates. Also, we were a little disappointed in the patterning performance with both clay-target and waterfowl loads. More to the point of home defense, however, was our February 2015 test of the Mossberg 930 Tactical Special Purpose Semi-Auto 85330, very similar to the 85320 tested here, with the major difference being the earlier 85330 has a door-breaching muzzle brake. Most shooters can forego the brake and save about thirty bucks. Another option is to order the Mossberg Tactical with Ghost Ring sights, although this gets the 930 closer to the $700 range.

Benelli Nova Tactical Pump

The Benelli Nova Tactical Pump, which had consistent and positive ejection.

We first tried the unusual dual-action TriStar TEC-12 No. 25120 Pump/Auto 12 Gauge in the July 2015 issue. The ability to fire in either pump-action or semiautomatic mode was an unusual feature on this shotgun. But in a scenario involving three close-up potential threats, one in the pump-action mode and one as a semiautomatic, we got quick and solid center-mass hits. As a pump action, the TriStar run was completed in 4.84 seconds. In semiautomatic mode, the TriStar run was cut down to 4.42 seconds total. One negative that dropped its grade to an “A-” was its 9-pound trigger pull, so we looked for a sample that had a lighter trigger to retest, even though the heavy trigger did not detract from putting quick and effective shots on targets.

To test, we used Sellier & Bellot 12 gauge 2.75-inch 00 Buckshot ($119/250 from SportmansGuide.com), Hornady 12-gauge Critical Defense 00 Buckshot shells ($11/10 from CheaperThanDirt.com), Remington Managed Recoil 00 Buckshot ($5/5 from CheaperThanDirt.com, some Winchester 2.75-inch 00 Buckshot shotshells ($4.50/5 from CheaperThanDirt.com), Remington Slugger Managed Recoil Slugs ($4/5 from TargetSportsUSA.com), and the Lightfield 12-gauge Hybred Slugs ($13/5 from Cabelas.com). These four buckshot loads and two slugs gave a good range of power and function in the shotguns. We did not fire any birdshot or low-power field loads.

Here’s what we thought of this trio of shotguns:

Benelli Nova Tactical Pump 20051 12 Gauge, $372

GUN TESTS GRADE: A (Best Buy)

Benelli Nova Tactical Pump

The Benelli pump-action shotgun impressed all our raters. The lockup is tight, the build quality is impressive. Its patterning with buckshot was better than the other shotguns. The sights are among the best combat-style units we have seen on a factory shotgun. We liked the loading gate and the ability to cut off the magazine instantly, if need be, to change munitions. This is a lot of gun for the money. Benelli also has a 10-year warranty.

ACTION TYPE  Pump
CHAMBER SIZE  3.5 in. 
OVERALL LENGTH  39.8 in. 
CAPACITY  4+1 
WEIGHT UNLOADED  7.2 lbs. 
BARREL  18.5 in. long; steel 
RECEIVER  Black polymer over steel frame 
CHOKE  Cylinder 
BUTTSTOCK  13.9 in. LOP, black synthetic 
DROP AT HEEL  2.25 in. 
DROP AT COMB  1.25 in. 
FOREND  Black, 10.8 in. working surface, OAL 11.6 in., dual action bars, shell-stop button 
FRONT SIGHT  Post 
REAR SIGHT  Ghost ring aperture 
TRIGGER PULL WEIGHT  7.2 lbs. 
WARRANTY  10 years 
TELEPHONE  (800) 264-4962 
WEBSITE  BenelliUSA.com 
MADE IN  Italy 

Benelli Nova Tactical Pump sights

The Benelli pump’s sights were voted best of the test and are perhaps the best we have tested. A bold front post with a white-dot outline make good hits easier with the Benelli.

This was a recent retail price at BudsGunShop.com, but the online retailer said this model was out of stock at press time. At the time of this test, GanderMounain.com listed the Benelli Nova Tactical Pump for $430. We purchased our test gun used for $250. The Benelli Nova tactical pump may be overshadowed by more expensive Benelli shotguns. A canvass of the raters revealed that no one had chosen the Benelli as their first gun. The beginning shooter usually chooses a Remington or Mossberg, or perhaps an economy import. In our experience, shooters move to the Benelli brand after disappointment with some other make, or perhaps curiosity. As default choices, Remington and Mossberg have earned their excellent reputation by satisfying the market, and individuals in the marketplace won’t spend more money on a shotgun that isn’t as widely accepted as those brands. For example, one of our raters, primarily a hunter, did not realize that Benelli made a tactical version of the company’s field-grade pump-action shotgun.

Benelli Nova Tactical Pump gate

We liked pressing the loading gate down to load. It stays locked in place until the shotgun is fully loaded.

The Benelli Nova tactical shotgun is businesslike in appearance and features a polymer receiver. The furniture is all black, and the shotgun is a modular design. The stock is the typical pistol grip. The forend is long and comfortable, inviting good control. The Nova features a generous ejection port. We like the robust bolt with solid locking lugs. The action is controlled by parallel bars moving the bolt. We found the action to be very smooth and capable of excellent speed. The action was smoother than the TEC-12’s pump-action mode, in our estimation. The forend is ergonomic and shaped to afford excellent control. The pistol grip offers good adhesion by virtue of stippling. The safety is a push-button in front of the trigger guard. All raters gave it a high mark for positive operation. The bolt release is located on the right side of the trigger guard just ahead of the safety. The action of this test gun is tight, with no rattles. Takedown is simple; remove the magazine cap and remove the barrel. The magazine cap has a pointed component on the end for pushing the receiver pins out for detail disassembly.

Benelli Nova Tactical Pump

Fired offhand, the Benelli is comfortable enough due to stock design and an efficient recoil pad.

The magazine holds four rounds, although it looks as if it would hold five. We like the loading sequence: Press the follower up and it stays in that position as shells are loaded. There is also a button in the bottom of the forend to cut off the magazine. Why is this helpful? As an example, if you have fired a buckshot shell and now wish to quickly feed a slug into the chamber, depress this button in the forearm as you rack the bolt and the magazine will not feed. Load the chamber and get on with business. The button pops back out automatically as the forend travels forward. While the same may be done with practiced manipulation of other designs, the Benelli Tactical shines for versatility.

The barrel is 18.5 inches long. There is no choke tube and the choke is rated as Cylinder, or no choke. The action is chambered for 2.75, 3, and 3.5-inch shells. As a combat shotgun, the sights are the outstanding feature of the Nova. They offer a white-outline three-dot aiming point. The front post is protected by wings. The post may be adjusted in much the same manner as an AR-15 rifle. The rear sight is a generous peep sight that is fully adjustable. The Benelli trigger is manageable, but heavy, at 7.2 pounds.

Winchester PDX slug

Winchester’s formidable PDX slug produced good results during testing.

In firing the Benelli, the impression was of a good, tight shotgun. The action was very smooth in operation, with no slop at all. Fire, pull the forend straight to the rear, and the shotgun feeds and you are good to go. We felt none of the rattle or loose motion common in economy shotguns. Raters said the stock was an excellent fit for a variety of arm lengths. The solid recoil pad gave some relief from hard recoil with the heavier loads. Recoil was no more uncomfortable than any other lightweight 12-gauge shotgun; however, it did kick the most of the three shotguns. When firing, we noted that the shotgun gave a better pattern than the other two shotguns tested, usually an inch to two inches tighter at 20 yards. The buckshot performed well, with the full-power Winchester load producing the tightest patterns, with the Hornady within a quarter inch on average. The Benelli isn’t actually marked as a Cylinder bore, and it performed on the tight end of what we would expect from a Cylinder bore.

The Benelli Nova was definitely fast and smooth in operation. With buckshot loads, the shotgun was surprisingly controllable. This control is more apparent the faster you fire the shotgun. We chose a powerful slug load for testing, the Lightfield, along with the Remington slugger, and the Benelli gave good results, although recoil was stout with the formidable Lightfield. At 25 yards, the three-shot groups were as small as 2 inches, often with two slug imprints touching. Accuracy was equal with either slug load when we fired them from a standing barricade rest. The sights were part of this accuracy potential.

Our Team Said: In the end, the raters gave the Benelli our highest accolade, a Best Buy ranking. At the time of the research for this report, Benelli was offering a $30 rebate, making the Nova Tactical an even better deal. We did not test the Benelli with light loads but the pump action should be reliable with such loads. Neither did we test 3.5-inch shells, as they seemed a bit much for a tactical shotgun that you might use in and around the house. For function, accuracy with slugs, and reliability, the Benelli Nova Tactical is a good all-round choice.

TriStar TEC-12 No. 25120 Pump/Auto 12 Gauge, $557

GUN TESTS GRADE: A

Tristar TEC-12 No. 25120 Pump/Auto 12 Gauge

We like the TEC-12 a lot. It has modern styling and handles just like the expensive Benelli M3. Reliable, fitted with Benelli choke tubes, and with good sights and a pistol grip stock, the TEC-12 is a good home-defense shotgun.

ACTION TYPE Pump/semi-auto
CHAMBER SIZE 2.75 to 3 in.
OVERALL LENGTH 39.5 in.
CAPACITY 5+1
WEIGHT (UNLOADED) 7.5 lbs.
BARREL LENGTH 20 in.
BARREL Matte black steel
RECEIVER Matte black steel
CHOKE Extended ported cylinder tube
BUTTSTOCK Black polymer w/ pistol grip
LENGTH OF PULL 14.75 in.
DROP AT COMB 1 in.
DROP AT HEEL 1.25 in.
FOREARM Black polymer
FOREARM LENGTH 7 in.
FRONT SIGHT Raised front bridge fiber optic
REAR SIGHT Adjustable ghost ring
TRIGGER PULL WEIGHT 7 lbs.
WARRANTY 5-year limited
TELEPHONE (816) 421-1400
WEBSITE TriStarArms.com
MADE IN Turkey

Tristar TEC-12 No. 25120 Pump/Auto 12 Gauge

The TEC-12 is a thoroughly modern shotgun with excellent features, such as switching back and forth from pump action to semiautomatic mode with the flip of a lever (arrow).

This was the counter price at BudsGunShop.com at the time of this test. The TEC-12 came with high expectations because it is the most expensive shotgun in this test and we had already rated it an “A-” about 18 months ago. Expense isn’t always a sign of quality, but the TriStar gave good results.

The TEC-12’s outline, controls, and operation will be familiar to Benelli fans. This is a straight-up copy of the Benelli M3. This isn’t a bad thing when done well, and as we discovered the TEC-12 is done well. Nor is it a poor man’s version of the expensive Benelli shotgun, but we will note the finish isn’t up to top-line Benelli quality, as might expected in this price range. Perhaps the TEC-12 may be termed a smart man’s version of the M3.

The TriStar shotgun uses the dual action mode of operation pioneered with the SPAS 12 and which is likewise used with the Benelli M3. The TEC-12 uses the Benelli inertia action rather than a gas-operated action. The main parts are the rotating bolt head, inertia spring, and bolt body. Compared to a gas-operated shotgun, there is no powder residue likely to find its way into the action. While the action is cleaner, the lighter mass of the parts, according to Benelli, makes for faster cycling. We found this to be true with the TriStar clone.

Tristar TEC-12 No. 25120 Pump/Auto 12 Gauge

Although we did not mount optics on the top Picatinny rail, the option to do so on the TEC-12 is appreciated. The extended bolt (arrow) is required to work the action when the TriStar is in semiautomatic mode.

The TEC-12 features a 20-inch barrel. A difference we found worthwhile is that the TEC-12 barrel is threaded for Benelli chokes. Some prefer a tighter choke than Cylinder bore, and the TEC-12 offers this option, whereas the Nova does not in the unit we tested. We fired a few shells with a Full-choke tube in place, and there is a difference in the tightness of the pattern, making the TEC-12 more useful at long range, if need be. The pistol-grip configuration of the TEC-12 is comfortable and helps the shooter shoulder the gun quickly. The TEC-12 proved to be a comfortable shotgun to fire. Even when emptying the magazine quickly, we saw excellent results on target. The shotgun swings quickly, although perhaps not as quickly as the Mossberg 930. However, we felt that we were able to center hits more efficiently with the TEC-12 due to the sight configuration. The cycling speed made the TriStar fast; the Mossberg’s speed came from lower felt recoil.

The sights are a protected wing front post, and the rear sight, an adjustable peep design, are also protected by a wing. It is mounted on a Picatinny rail, which likewise would allow mounting a good optic, if desired.

The use of the pump-action feature should be carefully considered. As an example, one of our raters deploys this shotgun as his personal alarm and emergency shotgun. He never uses the pump action. But then, few of us have a need to launch flash-bangs or use rubber riot-control loads. To change from semi-auto to pump action, the shooter looks for a locking ring that fits over the locking lugs. To operate the selector, which is located at the end of the magazine tube, close the action. Move the ring counter clockwise to disengage the locking rings. Then pull the forend to the rear, and you are in pump-action mode. To return to self-loading operation, the ring is moved clock wise. The pump-action mode isn’t necessarily intended for use if the self-loading function doesn’t operate. It is intended for light-load use. As an example, when attempting to feed light loads in the TEC-12, the owner noted it did not function. But some partially ejected, tying the gun up. You cannot simply fire light loads and expect to work the self-loading action. You may get by with some loads, but with most, you have a tie up that presents varying difficulties of freeing the shotgun. Using birdshot for practice in a pump and then relying on a self-loader for combat doesn’t make sense either. Still, the pump-action mode is good to have and an undeniable advantage.

Tristar TEC-12 No. 25120 Pump/Auto 12 Gauge

A bold front post with red fiber-optic sight proved an advantage for the TEC-12 in rapid fire. The extended and ported choke (arrow) may have been a factor in the reduced felt recoil we felt when firing the TriStar.

Loading and using the TEC-12 requires attention to detail. When loading the shells, we found that an effort must be made to be certain the shells catch in the magazine. To unload the shells, a spring-loaded shell stop on the left of the magazine may be used. The magazine holds five 2.75-inch shells, and it will chamber four 3-inch shells as well. The shotgun never malfunctioned.

Accuracy with slugs was on par with the Benelli. We found that the adjustable Ghost Ring rear sight and red-bar front sight bracketed by high-rise side plates were easy to align on target. That resulted in exceptional performance on longer targets. The Lightfield slug proved particularly accurate, with a group of less than 2 inches at 20 yards while the Remington spread to almost four.

Patterning was similar to the Mossberg 930 with most buckshot loads, but we saw they were not quite as tight as the Benelli’s. During firing, the rear sight fell off, but we feel that it took a lot of shooting to cause this to loosen. After tightening down, it won’t happen again. The owner is glad it happened on the range, not during critical use.

Our Team Said: We like the TriStar TEC-12. It isn’t overly complicated for a dedicated user and it works well. We think most homeowners will be better served with a simpler shotgun like the Nova, and the price for the Benelli is a lot better. But this product does work well, and the slightly lighter trigger pull at 7.0 pounds allows us to give it that half-grade boost it didn’t earn before.

Mossberg 930 85320 Home Defense 85320 12 Gauge, $514

GUN TESTS GRADE: A-

Mossberg 930 Tactical 85320 12 Gauge

The Mossberg suffered one unexplained malfunction. Otherwise, the shotgun performed well. The 930 was the lightest kicker, a not inconsiderable advantage when the recoil of the 12-gauge shotgun is considered. The Mossberg has the highest magazine capacity. Balance is excellent. The bead front sight would be no impediment in fast-moving defensive situations, and perhaps an advantage inside the home.

ACTION TYPE Gas-operated semi-auto
CHAMBER SIZE 3 in.
OVERALL LENGTH 39 in.
CAPACITY 7+1
WEIGHT UNLOADED 7.5 lbs.
BARREL LENGTH 18.5 in.
BARREL Steel
RECEIVER Steel
CHOKE Open cylinder
BUTTSTOCK Synthetic
LENGTH OF PULL 14 in.
FOREARM Black synthetic
FOREARM LENGTH 11.1 in.
FRONT SIGHT Bead
REAR SIGHT None
TRIGGER PULL WEIGHT 7.5 lbs.
WARRANTY 2 years
TELEPHONE (800) 363-3555
WEBSITE Mossberg.com
MADE IN USA

Mossberg 930 Tactical 85320 12 Gauge

The Mossberg’s honeycombed recoil pad was rated the best of all three shotguns tested. The Mossberg cycles quickly and offers modest recoil. After firing the shotguns, all raters agreed the Mossberg produced the least felt recoil.

This was a recent online price listed for an in-stock gun at CheaperThanDirt.com. The Mossberg 930 Home Defense (sometimes listed as the Home Security) shotgun is 39 inches in overall length and features a bead front sight. The Cylinder-bore 18.5-inch barrel rides over a 7-round magazine. The Mossberg 930 is a gas-operated self-loading shotgun. The 930 featured a black synthetic stock, bead front sight, and had the largest payload of any of the shotguns tested.

The bolt features a large cocking knob. You may cock the bolt with the right hand or reach over the receiver and cock the shotgun with the left hand. Either works just fine. An indicator in the front of the trigger guard gives both visual and tactile warning the shotgun is cocked. Checking to make certain the piece is cocked is pretty easy, but we would still do a chamber check before critical use. The stock fits most raters well, and the recoil pad is adequate. The Mossberg features the trademark receiver-mounted tang safety. The location is universally praised, and we like it as well. The Mossberg locks up tight with a single but very large locking lug. It is more similar to most pump-action shotguns in lockup than the general run of self-loading shotguns. The 930 uses gas operation versus the inertia operation of the Benelli-derived TEC-12. This gas operation actually works between two action bars; it is as if a pump-taction shotgun were converted to gas operation.

Mossberg 930 Tactical 85320 12 Gauge

The knurled disassembly knob (arrow) locks tight but allows for easy disassembly.

The Mossberg 930 fits most shooters well, comes to the shoulder quickly, and balances well. Shims are provided to allow the shooter to adjust the drop at the heel. This is a good touch. With a shotgun intended to be used primarily by feel, the Mossberg handles ideally. Some shotguns fire a little above the barrel and some a little low, but how you hold your head, erect or on the stock, also affects the point of impact of the shotgun when the shooter uses the barrel-mounted front bead. This shotgun features a simple front bead, while the others employ aperture sights. For fast shooting at moderate range, the bead works well enough.

Trigger compression was excellent, with the trigger breaking at 4.5 pounds. We did not waste time attempting to fire the 930 with light birdshot loads; it isn’t designed for those. The Remington reduced-recoil buckshot would be an example of the lightest load chosen for this shotgun, and Remington’s reduced-recoil slugger would be the lightest slug load most shooters would use. Those two and the other slug and buckshot loads functioned well. Hornady’s Critical Defense patterned best in this shotgun. The greatest felt recoil was with the Lightfield Hybred slugs, as may be expected by their weight and powder charge. Over the course of a week, our shooters ran a total of 100 buckshot shells through the Mossberg, encountering only a single problem. The rater loaded the chamber, dropped the bolt, then loaded the magazine full with the Sellier & Bellot load. The first shell fired and ejected, and then the rater pressed the trigger, and got only a “click.” He quickly racked the bolt and fired the remaining magazine of shells. What caused the malfunction? We do not know for certain, but it was the only one we had with the Mossberg.

Mossberg 930 Tactical 85320 12 Gauge

The Mossberg 930 offers plenty of abrasion for a good hold. The semi-pistol grip is a good all-round option for most use. All raters felt the tang-mounted ambidextrous safety (arrow) on the Mossberg is ideal.

All raters liked the way the Mossberg handled. It has a solid feel, and the stock fits the shoulder well. When firing the shotgun at 7, 10, and 20 yards, our shooters were suitably fast with the Mossberg. Because some shooters like to have the home-defense shotgun’s chamber empty and bolt open to discourage youthful mistakes, we also looked at how fast we could make the shotgun ready from that state. We found it was easy to quickly rack the bolt of the Mossberg 930 with either hand to charge it, while an empty Benelli must be pumped to load. The TEC-12 was as fast as the 930 to load with the right hand, but we found the action release to be more difficult to operate when reaching over the receiver.

Mossberg 930 Tactical 85320 12 Gauge

The Mossberg 930 gave excellent results in rapid fire, proving that a bead-sighted shotgun can be brilliantly fast. The Mossberg 930 holds a total of eight buckshot loads with one in the chamber, which is plenty of firepower. The Mossberg 930 fits most shooters well, comes to the shoulder quickly, and balances well. Shims are provided to allow the shooter to adjust the drop at the heel.

With slug loads, the Mossberg 930 fired low for one rater and high for another, reflecting different head positioning. Accuracy was good, with three slugs hitting inside 2 inches at 20 yards and two overlapping in the group.

Our Team Said: We like the Mossberg 930 Home Defense. Spending more money for the Tactical version with aperture sights might be worthwhile for true tactical use, but for home defense, the Mossberg is effective. It also had a big advantage over the others if smaller shooters are in the market: felt recoil was the lightest of the shotguns tested. The Mossberg is downright comfortable to fire. We rated the Mossberg down a half grade based on an unexplained failure to feed.

Written and photographed by R.K. Campbell, using evaluations from Gun Tests team testers.

Add your comments ...

New to Gun Tests? Register for Free!

Already Registered? Log In