Wingshooters are often torn in making a choice when they go shopping for a “field gun.” Our definition of such a creature is a working shotgun, one which will suffer the ignominies of hard use banging around in a canoe, leaning up against barbed wire, or getting dropped in the dirt. The tension in the decision comes from the desire to buy a gun that works and which shoots well—those two qualities are musts—but also the desire to get the most for your money.
Some other factors may come into play as well, such as beauty. Diehards will argue that cosmetics have no place in a consideration of which working shotgun to buy. But why buy something that’s ugly if you don’t have to? Well, good looks usually cost good money, so why pay more for something you don’t need? Also, you may not want a knock-around gun to look too pretty, because it probably won’t look pretty for long.
So, we sought to balance cost, cosmetics, functionality, and handling in a three-way test of 3-inch-chamber 12-gauge pumps. To ensure we got real-world price comparisons, we priced these guns at the same retail store, and actually used an ad-hoc consultant to help us pick them out. Coincidentally, a friend was in the store picking out shotguns for his three boys. Dove season was set to open in just a few weeks. He asked us our opinion of several guns to buy, but we flipped the question back to him to see which products he was considering, and why. For a variety of reasons, including cost, durability, simplicity, safety, and availability, he had narrowed his list down to three: a polymer-stocked Mossberg Maverick Model 88, $140; a wood-stocked Remington Express Magnum, $170; and a blued-and-wood Browning BPS Hunter, $370.
This was an intriguing problem, because he was considering buying a trio of guns that could range from a low price of $420 (three Mavericks) to a high of $1,110 (three Brownings), plus taxes. Of course, there could be variations in the total price if our friend bought different guns for different boys. Because his three sons varied in size from 180 pounds to college-lineman dimensions, we didn’t have to evaluate the trio as youth guns. These youths made adult-size guns look like toys. What would be our recommendations? We tried all three guns, and here’s what we found:
Mossberg Maverick 88 No. 31010 12 Gauge, about $140
There are five Maverick models including our test gun, the Model 88. Labeled the “All Purpose” model, the 88 featured a 3-inch chamber, six-shot capacity, interchangeable, 28-inch, non-ported, ventilated-rib barrel, and an interchangeable Accu-Choke system with one Modified tube. A black synthetic stock and forearm, blued-metal finish, front and mid-point sights were standard. It had a list price of $249, so the sale price — at the sporting-goods store where we ran into our friend — was more than $100 off list.
It was easy to see where Mossberg saved money on the gun. At the pistol grip, the polymer stock had no checkering. The fit at the buttpad gapped noticeably. The underside of the buttstock had a gouge, where it looked like something had broken off. The trigger guard was plastic. The gun came with only a Modified choke tube, whereas the Browning had a total of three in its case.
Still, the metalwork was fine overall, with deep, flawless bluing on the steel and a flat-black finish on the aluminum receiver. The ventilated rib was machined evenly, all down its length. It measured 10mm (0.4″) wide and had a midpoint bead (gold) and a muzzle bead (white). For our money, Mossberg could have saved another $5 and left both beads off. We thought they contributed nothing to the sight picture. Our Maverick had dual extractors and twin-action slide bars.
The gun measured 48 inches overall, a big chunk of which was its 14.5-inch length of pull. This seemed at least a half-inch too long for most of our shooters, especially if they were wearing heavy clothing. The gun had a six-round capacity, which would be plugged for field work, of course. It weighed 6.9 pounds unloaded.
The trigger was heavy at 7.2 pounds, we thought. Moreover, it seemed slow. By that we mean its weight and movement made it harder to break shots when we wanted to. In contrast, the slide action was positive and fairly easy to operate, but we thought the Remington and Browning guns were slicker.
Pointing was hampered, we thought, by the overlong LOP (length of pull), compounded by a sticky rubber buttpad. It would need to be ground down to allow easier mounting, in our view. The gun was also muzzle heavy, a combination of the barrel and magazine tube (both steel) not being sufficiently offset by the weight of the aluminum receiver and plastic stock.
Mossberg’s low-cost Mavericks have barrels that are compatible with two other Mossberg models. Maverick 91 barrels are compatible with the barrels of Mossberg’s Model 835, and Maverick 88 barrels are compatible with Mossberg’s Model 500 barrels. All Maverick Accu-Choke and Accu-Mag choke tubes are fully interchangeable with Mossberg 500 and 835 Ulti-Mag models respectively. Model 88 barrels are equipped with 3-inch chambers and handle 2.75-inch and 3-inch loads. The Model 91 barrels have 3.5-inch chambers and handle 2.75-, 3-, and 3.5-inch shotshells. All Maverick barrels and choke tubes are capable of firing lead, steel or other non-toxic loads. A cable lock is included with each gun. All Maverick models include a one-year limited warranty.
Remington Express Magnum No. 25568 12 Gauge, $170
The Model 870 Express is offered with a wide selection of barrel configurations and with a Rem Choke system. Although formerly available only in 12 and 20 gauge, new for 2002 are 28-gauge and .410-bore versions. All the Express models have a suggested retail price of $329, so our test gun was marked down more than $150.
The Expresses’ wood and metal surfaces have a non-reflective, non-revealing finish. The 3-inch-chamber 12 gauges are offered with 26- or 28-inch barrels. We tested the latter.
Unlike on the Mossberg, exterior corner-cutting was less noticeable. At the pistol grip, the wood stock had minimal impressed checkering, but at least there was some. The fit at buttpad and tang was satisfactory, and though the wood had a dull sheen to it, it wasn’t marked. Because the finish didn’t seem to fill the wood pores, we wondered if the stock would absorb water, which could cause cracks. Testing that was outside the scope of this report.
The trigger guard was plastic, and like on the Mossberg, the gun came with only a Modified choke tube. The metalwork was fine for the field, with a flat-black, almost sandblasted finish on the steel receiver, barrel, and magazine tube. The 8mm (0.32″) ventilated rib had a similar finish, and we thought the Express’s receiver and rib had less distracting glare than the other guns in this test. This gun had a single gold front-sight bead at the muzzle.
Our Express measured 48.5 inches in overall length, and weighed 7.5 pounds. The gun’s LOP was 14 inches, with a drop at the comb of 1.5 inches and a drop at heel of 2.5 inches. It held four rounds in the magazine.
In our view, the slightly shorter LOP was a boon, allowing the gun to be mounted more easily. Some of that reduced effort was also due to the buttpad’s top being ground down, a nicety we appreciated.
The 6-pound trigger was easier to work than the Mossberg’s, and there was less pull-up to deal with, too. We were a little bothered by the narrow trigger shoe, but that didn’t become an issue until we had shot 75 to 100 rounds through the gun. The wider, smoother, Browning shoe was more comfortable to pull on repeatedly, we thought.
Like the Mossberg, the slide action was easy to operate (but we thought the Browning was slicker still). Pointing was easier than with the Mossberg due to the shorter LOP, and the Remington’s kick seemed less pronounced than the Mossberg’s, a sensation we attributed to the softer Express buttpad, the corners of which had also been ground off.
We thought this gun swung better than the Maverick because of its heavier weight. The steel receiver put another half-pound between the shooter’s hands, instead of just on the left hand.
Browning BPS Hunter No. 012-211304 12 Gauge, $370
There are four varieties of 12-gauge Hunters. They come with 3- or 3.5-inch chambers, and with either 26- or 28-inch barrels. The Browning had a $473 suggested retail, which means our gun was marked down more than $100. The marked-down Browning was more than twice as pricey as the marked-down Remington, but for the money, the shooter does get some extras. To start, there’s three choke tubes (Full, Modified, and IC). The receiver is machined from a solid block of forged steel. The barrel is back-bored, and features the Invector-Plus choke-tube system. Hunter models use select walnut for the buttstock and forearm.
In contrast to the other guns, the Hunter had a top-tang safety and bottom ejection. The others had crossbolt-style safeties on their trigger guards, and side ejection. The Hunter’s slide action had double bars to prevent rocking and wobble on cycling the action, but we didn’t notice the Hunter had any less side-to-side movement than the others.
The thumb-operated, top-tang safety on the BPS could be operated by right- and left-handed shooters, and bottom ejection didn’t intrude on the sight line of lefties. But we thought bottom loading was slightly less convenient than side-loading the others.
Browning claims that its back-boring barrel feature helps shootability. Back-boring means that bore diameter is increased to its maximum-allowable specification, which reduces the friction of the shot charge against the barrel wall. This is supposed to result in fewer deformed shot pellets and more uniform patterns. However, we noticed much more variation in patterning between shotshells than between guns.
On this gun, cosmetics weren’t sacrificed. The walnut was straight-grained and clean, and the clear matte finish filled the wood pores. The pistol grip had cut checkering that mostly filled the grip.
The Browning’s high-post, ventilated rib with matted sighting plane allowed for a high head position, which we agreed kept recoil off our cheek. The trigger broke more cleanly than the others, but it was still heavy at 6.5 pounds, we felt.
The trigger guard was steel, and all the metalwork was glossily blued, except for the ventilated rib, which was matte finished, and reflected very little light. The receiver itself, however, did cast annoying glare.
Our gun weighed 7 pounds, 11 ounces, and measured 48.75 inches in length. It had 1.6 inches of drop at the comb and 1.9 inches of drop at the heel. Length of pull was 14.25 inches. The rib was 8mm ( 0.32″) wide. The front-sight bead was nickel silver. It was also small, which we liked. The Hunter held four rounds in the magazine.
This gun was as long in the shoulder as the Mossberg and heavier than the Remington. For some larger shooters, it balanced very well. Shorter-armed and smaller shooters said it was simply too much gun.
The buttpad could have been softer, and it needed to be ground down, particularly on the heel and toe. The trigger shoe was nice and smooth—easily the best of the set. The gun’s weight came in handy at the range, dampening recoil from 3-inch magnums. As we noted, the Browning’s slide-action feel was very nice. We judged it to be the best of the test.
Gun Tests Recommends
Mossberg Maverick 88, $140. Buy It. Though it wouldn’t be our first pick, there was nothing mechanically wrong or unsound with this gun. This was a lot of gun for only $140.
Remington Express Magnum, $170. Our Pick. As a working shotgun, and at this price, the Express’s features were rock solid. It was smooth enough and looked like it would clean up easily if a little duck blood got on it.
Browning BPS Hunter, $370. Conditional Buy. This, too, was a nice gun, but it faced tough price competition per our “working gun” definition. Some shooters lobbied for this to be Our Pick, and in some respects it could be, depending on your needs. But the Remington has a substantial edge in price, so if money is an issue, then go with the Express. If cosmetics are in any way important to you, then the BPS is hands-down the best choice here. If you can’t handle the extra stock length, then go with the Express. If you can go longer, you might like the BPS better. If you are left-handed, you’d probably be happier with the Browning over the others, mainly for the bottom-eject feature. If Modified chokes will cover most of your shooting needs, then you don’t need the extra chokes that come with the BPS. So as they say, you pays your money and you takes your choice.
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