In Praise of the Pump

Revered for its toughness and reliability, the pump shotgun is part of the fabric of American waterfowling

by Doug Larsen

Shoot. Pump. Repeat. The operating instructions for the iconic pump shotgun are as easy as the wash, rinse, repeat instructions on the back of your shampoo bottle. Yet, the pump seems to have fallen from grace in recent years as the semiautomatic moves to the forefront in waterfowling. Let's hope we have not collectively become so semiauto-centric that we look past the many charms of the dependable pump. It is not only one of history's most legendary fowling pieces but also one of the most reliable and cherished gun designs of all time.

The pump gun has earned its reputation for being as tough as a banquet hall steak and as reliable as a rail conductor's watch. And while they are just plain fun to shoot, pumps also offer a nostalgic link to duck hunting's past. From our fathers and grandfathers to post-war duck club sports, the pump has been the one shotgun that crossed economic lines and suited every man.

Back in the years when someone said "crank down the truck window" and you actually used a handle rather than an electric button, my duck season travels took me to many different duck clubs and public boat launches, and in those days, I would see pump guns on virtually every gun rack. Today, I see fewer and fewer of them as they have been elbowed out by sleek autoloaders. But in the centers of waterfowling, from Eastern Shore goose pits to moss-draped duck blinds in the Mississippi Delta, the pump is still the workhorse for many hunters.

Regardless of geography, the pump remains the archetypical duck gun for a large, steely-eyed segment of the hunting community. You don't hear from these folks much. They tend not to post hunting photos on the Internet or brag in the diners. They don't Twitter, and they don't have newfangled . . . anything. More often, pump gunners are found in parkas worn threadbare from weeks in the field, and along with dry waders, they cherish one good dog and one good gun. They may have a safe full of guns, but the pump goes on every duck hunt. Pumps appeal to those who don't have time to monkey around cleaning "fancy" guns. The pump is not fussy. It goes along because it rides in the toolbox. It sometimes paddles the boat. And it is regularly strapped to a four-wheeler under a bag of decoys. Most point where you are looking and keep shooting through rain, snow, frozen mud, or anything the dog may shake on them.

When comparing pumps to autoloaders, we usually hear three arguments. The first is speed, the second is recoil, and the third is reliability.

First, let's look at speed. The autoloader is fast. You can shoot three rounds as fast as you can pull the trigger. Indeed, semiautomatic shotguns cycle an empty out and usher a new round into the chamber in the blink of an eye. But a hunter who has spent just a little time with a pump gun is almost as fast, and a hunter who shoots one a lot for ducks actually revels in the time and process of pumping the gun. He uses this time to find a second bird—peeking over the receiver at a greenhead that has ducked behind an oak while he works the slide action back. He hears the satisfying sound of the action sliding open. There's a solid ringing of steel on steel as the bolt returns home. Having calculated the lead during this opening and closing process, the experienced pump gunner anticipates the mallard as it appears again from the other side of the tree. At this point, I don't like the drake's chances. While you shoot a semiautomatic fast, you operate a pump smoothly yet swiftly, and the operation and mechanical feedback make the pump special.

Secondly, there is recoil. Understandably, smaller framed adults and kids getting started in shooting don't want to have their jaws realigned by a gun that bites back. But I like to feel the recoil of a duck load in the same way that I like to feel cold spray on my face when I'm boating to a distant blind in the dark. It's another part of the duck hunter's day. Generally, a pump gun will shoot a modern duck load quite comfortably, and as with any shotgun, while there is recoil, it is not attention getting.

Thirdly, there is reliability. I am not looking to start a debate here, so please don't send letters. Somewhere out there in duck country, somebody has a pump gun that jams on every duck hunting day that ends in the letter y while someone else has an autoloader that has not jammed since disco was the rage. But the heart of the matter is that there is more "stuff" going on inside semiautomatics, while a slide-action gun is beautiful in its simplicity. Too much oil on your pump? Not a problem; wipe it on your sleeve. Not enough grease in the action? No worries, steal a little off the outboard. Drop your pump in the lake? Clear the barrel and then fire away. The pump is not powered by gas, springs, or inertia. It is powered by the operator, so it will usually accept a shell with a little ice or a few rust spots on the brass.

Beyond the pump's legendary reliability, there's something immeasurably satisfying about manually sliding the forearm of a pump open to eject a fired shell. Watching the whorl of smoke that floats from the blackness of an empty receiver is as mesmerizing as watching fog that seems to grow from the surface of a still marsh. There is something about the feel of a pump gun and the experience of shooting one that cannot be explained or measured.

Shooting a pump is like driving a truck with a clutch. It's not like an automatic transmission, where you just grab the wheel and go. You negotiate with a manual transmission. You work the clutch in and out, shifting as the time is right. With a pump gun, as the geese drop their feet over the decoys, you swing, shoot, and the first goose folds. Then you have time—a precious second to look, listen, and react. Recoil helps you slide the forearm back, ejecting a shell and chambering a new one. All this activity raises the muzzle, so you are forced to bear down and find another goose. Maybe you focus just a little harder because you are not simply along for the ride. Finding a goose flaring to make his escape, you swing through, and with luck, he goes down too.

Another byproduct of the pump-gunning process is that when I shoot one I seem to remember hunts longer and see shots in my mind more clearly. Perhaps the pump is akin to the shutter of a camera, providing a pause that freezes the moment with more clarity.

Consider that pump guns have been integral to the waterfowling landscape since live decoys were commonplace. Pump guns are classics that still function today. It is enjoyable just to work the action of a pump that has a patina of use. Like hats and boots, pump guns get better with age. And even the sounds of pump guns act as harbingers. Working the action of a pump has signaled the beginning and end of countless duck hunts. We've all had mornings in the blind when the solid, unmistakable closing of a slide action has served as a starting bell, telling you it is officially time to watch the skies in earnest.

At morning's end, a high sun, a nodding retriever, and a slowing of conversation in the blind are all signs that the hunt is coming to a close, but it is the slack, metallic sound of a pump gun falling open that ultimately signals "it is over for the day." Shoot. Pump. Repeat. There's something about the action and sounds of a pump gun that seem to communicate.

Pump Gun Pedigree

While a Danish designer conceived the first "piston action" shotgun, John M. Browning designed the American pump shotgun as we know it with the Winchester 1893. The Winchester 1897 soon followed, and it enjoyed great popularity as a dependable repeating shotgun. The 1897 was the first pump gun I ever saw, and when compared to the sleek lines found on today's guns, the Model 97 was an angry-looking gun, with a waterfall of drop in the stock, a corncob-sized forearm, and an exposed hammer, which was the safety.

The 1897 was Winchester's stud dog for the Model 1912, one of the most revered pump guns of all time. Soon called simply the Model 12, it was produced until 1963. The Model 12 was duck hunting's gun in those days; there were no substitutes. Collectors still prowl gun shows and attics looking for the perfect Model 12. To this day, many still report for duty in the marshes each fall.

Following the Model 12 in the parade of pump popularity was the Ithaca 37, another John M. Browning design. The Ithaca was a gun I favored as a teen, since as a lefty, I found the bottom ejection to be a boon. However, I also learned that since the featherweight Ithaca weighed less than a brace of mallards, its recoil could be potent.

Soon my breath steamed the glass of the gun store cabinets, and my next gun was the Remington 870 Wingmaster, a gun I still own and use regularly. Over 10 million 870s have been produced since the gun's introduction in 1951, making it the most popular pump-action shotgun of all time, and the 870 is still used and abused today. Thousands upon thousands were in duck blinds scattered across America this morning. Though value-priced versions of the 870 have boosted sales greatly over time, dedicated pump gunners agree that the wood stocked, steel-receivered Wingmaster stands alone for balance and classic looks. In the duck blind, the 870 Wingmaster has few equals.

Mossberg shotguns have been a staple of the pump-gun market for decades, and though some find them plain, the 500 series, 800 series, and present day Ulti-Mags continue to enjoy popularity as reliable repeating shotguns at a reasonable price.

1978 was a big year for pump guns. Winchester introduced the Model 1300, and at the same time, Browning gave duck hunters the bottom-ejection BPS. Both guns have been popular throughout duck country, but many Model 12 fanciers believe that the BPS comes closer to the Model 12's feel than any other currently produced pump gun.

More recently, Remington has just introduced its 887 pump, which is an armored version of the 870 built to withstand everything from swamp water to your partner's black coffee. Winchester has discontinued the 1300 in favor of the SXP (Super X Pump). With a sleek new age design, the SXP looks a little like Benelli's extremely popular Nova pump. Times are changing, and both the SXP and Nova's futuristic looks seem designed to be classics with a new generation of duck hunters.