By Brad Fitzpatrick
The pump gun is a product of the late 19th century, and even the newest models hark back to the earliest days of the machine age. One can still see the Industrial Revolution's marriage of man and machine in the classic slide-action design. There's a love of automation, yes, but that is checked by the need for hands-on performance. Manually operated, the pump gun relies on the coordination and timing of the shooter rather than on sophisticated mechanisms that can fail under tough hunting conditions.
For decades, the pump gun reigned as the most rugged and durable waterfowl firearm around. Its three-shot capacity gave it a decided advantage over the classic side-by-side double gun, and it beat out the autoloader in dependability and price. Although the autoloader has in recent years become the darling of most duck hunters, the pump is still going strong.
Here's a look at history's first successful repeating shotgun, and an exploration of why many waterfowlers still believe that the pump is the best all-around gun for hunting ducks and geese.
Birth of the Pump
The first practical pump-action shotgun was patented in 1882 by American inventor Christopher Spencer and his English collaborator, Sylvester Roper. The Spencer repeating shotgun, as it came to be known, featured a tubular magazine and a forearm that slid rearward to cycle the action. Its slide-action design—one early publication called it a "trombone style of gun"—was a genuine breakthrough. But the Spencer pump never won the hearts of American duck hunters, in large part because it was too heavy and awkward for field use. It didn't help that the shotgun ejected empty shell casings upward through the top of the receiver, into the shooter's line of sight. Despite its flaws, however, the pioneering gun remained in production until around 1907.
Legendary outdoor writer Nash Buckingham hunted waterfowl with a Winchester Model 97 pump during his younger days.
Perhaps inspired by the Spencer pump, gun-making genius John Moses Browning developed his own slide-action shotgun in 1890 and sold the patent to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. The resulting Winchester Model 1893 operated much like the Spencer repeater, by sliding the forearm below the barrel, but the Browning-designed gun was sleeker, lighter, and better suited for everyday use. Unlike the Spencer pump, the Model 1893 featured an exposed hammer. It also offered several practical improvements over its rival, including side ejection and a horizontal sliding breech bolt (the Spencer breech moved vertically). Despite Browning's innovations, the gun had one major weakness: it was built to handle black-powder cartridges and could not stand up to the high pressures generated by the smokeless shells that were quickly taking over the market.
At the behest of Winchester, Browning made several modifications to the gun's design, including extending and strengthening the frame, closing the top of the receiver so shells would eject completely from the side, and changing the stock and drop. These and several other improvements made the gun sturdy enough to safely cycle not only 2 5/8-inch black-powder shells but also the more powerful 2 3/4-inch smokeless loads. To distinguish the revamped pump from its faulty forerunner, Winchester reintroduced the gun as the Model 1897 in that same year. The company then issued what was perhaps one of the earliest consumer recalls, offering to replace any M93 shotgun returned to its factory with a brand-new M97 free of charge.
Gunmaker John Browning not only designed the first commercially successful pump-action shotgun—the Winchester Model 1893—but also used it in trap-shooting competitions.
Thanks to Browning's redesign, Winchester's relaunch of its repeating pump gun proved highly effective. In early advertisements, the company played up the pump's reliability, citing an endorsement by the U.S. Ordnance Board and marketing the gun with the clever slogan, "Stick to a Winchester and you won't get stuck." By 1909, the company claimed that its popular repeater—the first commercially successful pump on the market—was "used by over 450,000 sportsmen." The Model 97 would sell more than a million guns by the time production ceased in the mid–20th century, and it remained a favorite of waterfowlers, upland bird hunters, trap shooters, and deer hunters.
When "hammerless" pump guns hit the market in the early 1900s, Winchester turned to its chief in-house designer, Thomas Crossley Johnson, to develop a modern slide-action gun with the hammer hidden in the receiver. Johnson, who had worked for the company since 1885, tackled the task masterfully, creating the legendary Model 1912, which Winchester soon hailed as the "Perfect Repeater."
The sporting public seemed to agree. Just five years into production, the company claimed that the gun was the number-one choice of American duck hunters.
WINCHESTER MODEL 12
A well-worn Model 12 was the favorite fowling piece of famed novelist Ernest Hemingway. Made in 1928, the gun, a Field Grade 12-gauge with a 30-inch full-choke barrel and a "corncob" forearm, accompanied Hemingway not only on most of his bird hunting outings but also on several of his African safaris. In the posthumously published book Under Kilimanjaro, he wrote affectionately about his Model 12: "I had the old, well-loved, once burnt-up, three times restocked, worn-smooth old Winchester model 12 pump gun that was faster than a snake and was, from thirty-five years of us being together, almost as close a friend and companion with secrets shared and triumphs and disasters not revealed as the other friend a man has all his life."
In 1935, Winchester developed a version of this popular pump specifically for waterfowlers. Equipped with a 3-inch chamber, the Model 12 Heavy Duck Gun, which was available only in 12-gauge, became the first repeater built to handle magnum loads. By the time the Model 12 was discontinued, nearly two million guns had been produced over a span of more than 50 years, making it one of the most successful shotguns of all time.
While its overall blueprint has remained virtually unchanged for a century, the pump gun has benefited from modern technologies that have made today's models lighter, more durable, and more affordable than those of yesteryear. Aluminum alloy receivers and the use of high-strength polymers reduce overall weight and yet are very durable, and modern machining techniques hold tolerances to an absolute minimum. Camouflage dips not only help keep modern pump guns concealed but also add layers of protection against the elements. Many present-day pumps also come with lengthened forcing cones, interchangeable choke tubes, high-visibility fiber-optic sights, and other important advancements that help keep them competitive with modern autoloaders. Here are some of the best contemporary pump guns for waterfowlers.
Winchester dropped the Model 12 in 1964 and replaced it with the Model 1200, which utilized a rotary bolt and came with a lightweight aluminum alloy receiver. The 1200 was eventually supplanted by the better-quality 1300, and that gun ultimately gave way to the Super X Pump in 2010. Winchester bills the SXP as the fastest pump gun in the world, claiming that it can fire three shots in a half second. I can't verify that figure, but I can tell you that the SXP offers lightning-fast follow-up shots. An Inflex recoil pad helps mitigate much of the gun's kick, so you can get back on target quickly. Additionally, there are perhaps more camo options available on the SXP than for any other line of waterfowl shotguns. Hunters can choose from Mossy Oak Shadow Grass Blades, Break-Up Country, and Bottomland, as well as Kryptek Highlander. winchesterguns.com
Known for their tough-as-nails engineering and affordable price, Mossberg 500s have been familiar firearms in duck blinds across all four flyways for nearly six decades. One of the features that makes these guns so desirable is the tang-mounted safety, which is conveniently located for both right- and left-handed shooters. The 535 and 835 variants are both capable of handling 3 1/2-inch shells, but the most exciting news is Mossberg's recent introduction of a FLEX system of interchangeable stocks, recoil pads, forearms, and accessories to its pump gun line. More than 10 million Mossberg 500 shotguns have been sold—a testament to the popularity and functionality of these trusty repeaters. mossberg.com
Production numbers for Remington's 870 pump shotgun exceed 12 million, making it the most popular shotgun of all time. When it was introduced in 1951, the 870 was the first pump gun to feature dual action bars to prevent the slide mechanism from binding during operation. For strength and durability, its receiver was—and still is—machined from a solid piece of steel. Yet the gun was also one of the first pumps to use diecast and stamped components and other modern manufacturing methods. This gave it a competitive advantage over its early rival, the famed Model 12, which was made mostly of machined steel parts. Today, the ubiquitous 870 is available in many different configurations, including several 870 Express Super Magnum 3 1/2-inch waterfowl versions with either walnut or synthetic stocks. As a proud partner of Ducks Unlimited, Remington helps support DU's conservation efforts. remington.com
Browning's BPS pump celebrated 40 years of production in 2017. The gun is based on an original John Browning design, the Remington Model 17. Like its predecessor, the BPS feeds and ejects spent shells through the bottom of the receiver. A hardy all-steel receiver and tang-mounted safety are also hallmarks of the BPS, which is the only pump shotgun currently available in 10-gauge. That hefty steel receiver is a welcome component when you're shooting 3 1/2-inch 10-bore loads at geese. browning.com
Ithaca Model 37
Another pump based on the Browning bottom-ejection concept is Ithaca's Model 37. Once seemingly bound for obscurity, the Ithaca brand has been revived, and a new factory—located in Upper Sandusky, Ohio, instead of Ithaca, New York—is churning out guns based on the much-loved classic Model 37. The new guns follow the same basic platform as the original. For example, they have the familiar interrupting thread design that fastens the barrel firmly to the receiver. What's new is a system that joins the vent rib to the barrel without the use of solder. The company claims that this precision-machined system makes for a stronger and straighter barrel. ithacagun.com
Benelli Nova and SuperNova
Benelli, which is best known for its Inertia-Driven autoloaders, is also a significant player in the pump gun market. The company's Nova and SuperNova pumps feature steel frame receivers that are over-molded with high-tech polymers, making them weatherproof and virtually indestructible. While the Nova's stock and receiver are formed as a single unit for added durability, the SuperNova comes with Benelli's recoil-reducing ComforTech stock system. The SuperNova's modular design means you can change barrels and stocks to create a pump gun that's customized to your liking. benelliusa.com
Stoeger P3000 and P3500
Stoeger recently added two budget-minded pump guns to its lineup, the P3000 and P3500. The first is built to handle 3-inch loads and the second can cycle 3 1/2-inch magnums. These bargain-priced pumps feature a rotary bolt as well as interchangeable choke tubes and a fiber-optic front sight. A lightweight, durable synthetic stock is available in either black or Realtree MAX-5. stoegerindustries.com