When the government started requiring waterfowl hunters to use steel shot, shooters and the firearms industry quickly realized that 12 gauge steel loads didn’t have as much power as the traditional lead shot loads. So, in the late 1980s, the Federal Cartridge Company became the first to produce 12 gauge 3 1/2-inch Magnum shotshells. Several other shotshell manufacturers have since followed suit.
Among the first shotgun makers to come out with a 3 1/2-inch model were Browning and Mossberg. Today, nearly every company that manufactures scatterguns offers at least one such firearm. All kinds of shotguns, from the inexpensive single-shot model to the high-priced over/under, are chambered for the big shell.
Many hunters haven’t warmed up to the 12 gauge 3 1/2-inch shotgun, but its popularity is growing. One reason for this is because it will fire all types of shotshells from 2 3/4-inch up to 3 1/2-inch. Consequently, the shotgun is very versatile.
The Test Shotguns
Our two 12 gauge 3 1/2-inch test shotguns were the new Remington 870 Express Super Magnum and the Mossberg 835 Ulti-Mag Crown Grade. Both of these pump shotguns came with a 28-inch barrel, a Modified screw-in choke tube and a tubular magazine. The Remington’s magazine held three 3 1/2-inch shells, four 3-inch shells or four 2 3/4-inch shells. The Mossberg’s magazine held four 3 1/2-inch shells, five 3-inch shells or five 2 3/4-inch shells.
The Remington Super Magnum had a plain-looking hardwood stock with a satin finish and pressed checkering. The buttstock had a black rubber recoil pad with black spacer that was slightly undersized. All metal surfaces had a matte blue/black finish. The steel receiver was a shade lighter in color than the steel barrel, magazine and bolt. The trigger guard was made of an aluminum alloy.[PDFCAP(1)].
The Mossberg Ulti-Mag’s handsome walnut stock had a glossy finish and cut checkering. Its buttstock had a brown rubber recoil pad with black spacer that was a little oversized. The aluminum alloy receiver had a dull black finish. Most steel parts had a polished blue finish. The bolt was white, while the trigger was gold colored. The trigger guard was made of black plastic. There were 16 gas ports in the front portion of the barrel to reduce muzzle rise.[PDFCAP(2)].
We considered the Remington’s non-reflective wood and metal finish to be well-suited for hunting. No structural or cosmetic shortcomings were found. Fitting of metal components was above average. Most moving parts had only a small amount of play. Stock-to-metal mating was average. The front of the buttstock wasn’t quite flush with the back of the receiver. The forend had a moderate amount of side-to-side play.
Our shooters felt the Mossberg’s wood and metal were reflective enough to spook wary game. After taking this shotgun out of the box, we noted that the top front portion of the buttstock was broken. The shipping box wasn’t damaged, so we surmised that the stock bolt had been overtightened at the factory. Testing was stopped until the buttstock was replaced. Mating of the stock to the metal was below average. The forend had a lot of side-to-side play. Metal-to-metal fit was average. Moving parts had a moderate amount of play.
Weighing 7 1/2 pounds, the Super Magnum handled just like a standard Remington 870 shotgun. Although moderately muzzle heavy, swinging and target acquisition were the quickest of the test. Shouldering was natural. The well-shaped comb provided a comfortable cheek-to-stock fit with a good view of the sighting plane. Most shooters said the pistol grip was overly thin, but it and the forend afforded a secure grasp. Felt recoil was very heavy with 12 gauge 3 1/2-inch ammunition.
The 835 Ulti-Mag weighed 1/4 pound more and was more muzzle heavy than the Remington. Consequently, swinging and target acquisition were the slowest. Shouldering was smooth. The comparatively thin comb wasn’t very comfortable, but it provided a stockweld with very good view of the sighting plane. We thought the pistol grip’s shape was too square, but it and the hand-filling forend could be grasped solidly. The barrel ports did a good job of reducing muzzle jump and, in turn, lessening felt recoil. This was especially evident with 3 1/2-inch shotshells.
All of the Remington’s controls worked smoothly. Right-handed shooters could disengage the crossbolt safety at the rear of the trigger guard with their trigger finger, but had to shift their grip and use their thumb to engage it. Shooters had to move their firing hand forward to reach and depress the action release lever at the left front of the trigger guard. The trigger had a 3/16-inch-wide face with square edges. Its pull released cleanly at 5 pounds.
We found the Mossberg’s controls to be the most convenient, because they could be reached with the fingers of the shooting hand without a grip change. Shooters could operate the two-position manual safety on the tang with the thumb of their firing hand. The action release lever at the left rear of the trigger guard could be depressed with the middle finger. The trigger had a 1/4-inch-wide face with nicely rounded edges. Its pull was mushy and released at 5 3/4 pounds.
At the Range
Operationally, the Remington worked admirably. It functioned flawlessly with all of the 12 gauge 2 3/4-inch, 3-inch and 3 1/2-inch ammunition we tried. Except for a hitch in the action’s rearward movement, it operated smoothly.
The 870 Super Magnum’s sights consisted of a silver/gray front bead on a ventilated barrel rib. The top of the rib had a heavy matte finish to prevent glare, but no serrations. This arrangement provided a decent sighting reference. One Rem-Choke tube rated as Modified was provided with this model. It produced satisfactory shot patterns with the four different kinds of hunting ammunition used.
In our opinion, the Mossberg’s functioning was unacceptable. It malfunctioned 13 times in 100 rounds. With 3 1/2-inch shells, it misfed once and failed to eject twice. With 2 3/4-inch shells, the gun misfed seven times and failed to eject three times. The misfeeds were caused by the failure of the shell latch to release the next round in the magazine. We could not identify the reason for the failures to eject. No problems were encountered with 3-inch shotshells. The action’s movement wasn’t as smooth as the Remington, but it didn’t bind or have any hitches.
For sighting, the 835 Ulti-Mag had a small brass mid-bead and a larger white front bead on a ventilated barrel rib. The top of the rib and receiver was serrated to prevent glare. This system provided a good highly-visible sighting reference. The top of the receiver was also drilled and tapped to facilitate the mounting of an optical sight, which would be handy when shooting slugs.
An Accu-Mag choke tube rated as Modified was supplied with this Mossberg. It yielded good patterns with the 3 1/2- and 3-inch loads we tried, but pellet distribution was very spotty with the 2 3/4-inch ammunition. Our shooters didn’t consider the poor performance with the 2 3/4-inch shells to be a major shortcoming, because patterning can vary significantly from load to load.