Home Defense 12 Gauge Pump Shoot-out

Perhaps due to the Obama-effect and other factors, the HD/Tactical class of self-defense shotguns has seen more consumer interest as of late then ever before. The notion of a twelve gauge pump-action shotgun as an effective close quarters weapon is well supported: the M97 version of John Browning’s Winchester 1897 shotgun was the original “trench-sweeper.” Widely considered the first truly successful pump shotgun, the M97 was fitted with a heat shield and the M1917 sixteen inch bayonet for combat duty. The highly-effective use of the shotgun by United States forces in WWI had a dramatic effect on the morale of front-line German troops. As a result, on September 19 of 1918, the German government issued a diplomatic protest against the American use of shotguns, alleging that the law of war prohibited the shotgun. Secretary of State Robert Lansing rejected the German protest in a formal note. The 5+1 capacity M97 and OO buckshot defined the fast-handling, reliable, effective close-quarters shotgun for about thirty years, the platform of the high-capacity pump persisting through to present day.
The reason to consider a shotgun for personal defense is what many combat studies have shown: the hit probability of a shotgun is roughly twice that of a rifle. For home defense, the shotgun is a quicker stopper than a handgun due to its being able to produce more wound trauma with multiple wound paths, it is considered easier to use in a high-stress situation, and minimizes wall penetration compared to some handgun ammunition. It is also economical to practice with; no firearm is worth much unless you are proficient with it. Regardless of the individual’s choice, it is a very serious matter. It is a matter that commands understanding of all applicable laws, regular practice, and formal training. You might want to practice as if your life depended on it—as that is the general idea.
Number 1 Buckshot is .30 caliber; it is the superior choice as defined by the International Wound Ballistics Association: “Number 1 buck is the smallest diameter shot that reliably and consistently penetrates more than 12 inches of standard ordnance gelatin when fired at typical shotgun engagement distances. A standard 2 ¾-inch 12 gauge shotshell contains 16 pellets of #1 buck. The total combined cross sectional area of the 16 pellets is 1.13 square inches. Compared to the total combined cross sectional area of the nine pellets in a standard #00 (double-aught) buck shotshell (0.77 square inches), the # 1 buck shotshell has the capacity to produce over 30 percent more potentially effective wound trauma. In all shotshell loads, number 1 buckshot produces more potentially effective wound trauma than either #00 or #000 buck. In addition, number 1 buck is less likely to over-penetrate and exit an attacker's body.” For further reading, we refer you to the works of both Dr. Martin Fackler and Duncan MacPherson on bullet penetration and wounding ballistics. 
This comparison includes the Ithaca Model 37 Defense Gun, very close to the M37 “Trench Gun” that saw action in WWII and in Vietnam, the Remington Model 870 Tac-2 FS, and the Mossberg 590A1 w/ Black Aluminum Adjustable Stock. The Mossberg 590A1 in various configurations is currently an active service shotgun for the U.S. Military.
Ithaca Model 37 Defense Gun Eight Shot
The tested 12 gauge Ithaca Model 37 is the high-capacity 20 inch barreled model, able told hold seven shells in the magazine plus one in the chamber. The buttstock is uncheckered walnut, finished off with a nicely ground, black Pachmayr “Decelerator” recoil pad. The external metal finishes of this HD shotgun are Parkerized; the barrel is a plain barrel with a brass bead at the muzzle. We felt the Parkerized finish was extremely well-done and evenly applied. The walnut forearm is a big, beefy “honey-dipper” or “corn-cob” type, currently designated as a “ring tail forearm” by Ithaca. We were instantly impressed with the steady grip and control this forearm gave us. The gun itself weighs 6-3/4 lbs., with a trigger that was exceptionally crisp breaking at 4 pounds on the nose.
As for background, the Ithaca M37’s used in Vietnam were primarily six shot versions: the riot gun was a 18 inch barrel, the trench guns were 20 inch barrel versions typically with heat shields and a mounting lug for the M7 bayonet. The Navy SEAL modified trench gun version lost the heat shield, but added the extended magazine to increase the capacity to 8 shots. The tested Ithaca is most similar to the Navy SEAL M37 both dimensionally and in firepower capability.
Unlike many wingshooting versions of the Model 37, the Ithaca defense model is not a take-down version. It has a solid frame with the barrel permanently threaded into its all-steel receiver similar to center-fire rifle constriction and that employed by the Ithaca Deerslayer II and III. It is a very strong system, as solid threads are obviously stronger than interrupted threads of the same length. By virtue of the bottom loading and bottom eject, the M37 goes a long way towards being ambidextrous. The trigger guard safety is set up for the right-handed shooter, but is reversible if you desire. The M37 is chambered for 2-3/4 in. and 3 in. shells, and is cylinder bore. The receiver is machined from an eight pound block of steel, and its barrel is made of 4140 chrome-moly. Despite the Ithaca’s robust, all-steel construction it was the lightest gun tested.

At 12 yards, the Ithaca produced the above pattern using 2-3/4 in. Remington #0 Buckshot. The large hole low and to the right is the wad blowing through the target.  

At the range, we couldn’t have been happier with the Ithaca’s performance. We made a lot of hulls, in sets of eight at a time, using factory Remington STS loads, and a variety of our heavier reloads for function testing. We had no malfunctions of any kind, the factory Pachmayr pad did a fine job of attenuating the recoil, and hull ejection was both positive and forceful. The Ithaca’s action was by far the smoothest and slickest action of the tested guns. 
The Ithaca Model 37 had the best overall build quality of the tested defense guns, the smoothest action, the best balance, the best trigger, and it was fastest and most user-friendly to operate. It is easy to load quickly, easy to shoot quickly, easy to point quickly, has impressive eight-shot firepower and is pleasant to shoot despite its comparatively spritely weight. Not only was it the easiest to operate of the tested guns, it retails for over $200 less than the others.  The Ithaca wins big on both performance and price.
Remington Model 870 Tac-2 FS (Item # 81402)
The Remington Tactical with its Knoxx SpecOps pistol grip folding stock weighed in at about 8 lbs, 2 oz. The 870’s forearm is black plastic, and the external metal parts are finished in black oxide. Its trigger broke at a reasonable 5-1/4 lbs. The Model 870 Tac-2 folding stock has sling swivel studs installed on a clamp at the front of the magazine tube, and at the folding stock hinge area. This Remington features an 18 inch barrel (chambered for 2-3/4 inch and 3 in. shells) and has a 6 shot magazine capacity due to the supplied and installed two shot magazine extension. The sight on its plain barrel is a dirty semi-silver colored bead, attached to a dissimilar piece of metal that appears to be glued onto the barrel. The steel receiver is drilled and tapped for a Weaver rail scope base (not supplied), with filler screws in place. We found the Knoxx “Tac-2” stock to be an ergonomic nightmare. It is nearly three inches wide, making a conventional sight picture hard to achieve without mashing the side of your face into the left metal rail and canting your head over.
Worse yet, the pistol grip at the back of the 870’s receiver makes easy access to the trigger guard safety an arduous task. In “folded” condition, the stock hinges over on top of the shotgun, making it as easy to snag and snare on clothing and other materials in “folded” condition as it is in the unfolded, locked open position. The folded condition “advantage” is theoretically an easy way to store this 870. It makes no sense at all in this form for personal defense, except to make your “ready” HD arm less ready.
Out of the box, the 870 Tactical action exhibited a significant amount of “stick-slip,” enough where we could open the action and hold the entire 8 lbs. of the gun by the forearm with the action open—and, it stayed that way. While most pumps do tend to wear-in and slick-up over time, we felt that this 870’s action was excessively rough out of the box—particularly when compared to the Ithaca’s silky-smooth operation. With the long term success of the Remington 870, it was hard to imagine a truly clumsy, difficult to use edition of this popular slide-action, but this particular version defines a clumsy shotgun—the exact opposite of what we are looking for in a responsive, intuitive self-protection arm for use in high-stress defensive circumstances.
Though heavy in weight, this version of the 870 pounded us unmercifully with even 1-1/8 oz. loads—it was horribly unpleasant to shoot. We found this to be in stark contrast to Remington’s shameless ad-brag claiming, “Load them up with even the most potent magnum loads, the Knoxx® SpecOps™ stocks are capable of taming even the harshest recoil.” The stock does nothing but attempt to pound the hapless shooter into the ground like a tent stake.
The stuttering stick-slip of the action persisted. With its shell carrier flap in the way, the 870 felt slow and cumbersome to reload compared to the Ithaca. With high recoil, an overly wide “stock” that prohibited an intuitive sight picture, the poorly designed attempt at a pistol grip that prohibited easy access to the safety, and a shell-carrier flap that slowed loading—this 870 model is one of the most frustratingly clumsy shotguns we have ever tested. Not only is this version totally inept for any personal defense application, we unanimously agreed that there was no LE, HD, or tactical application that it would be adequate for. It is a remarkable shotgun only because it has so many clumsy, poorly thought-out “features” all rolled up into one truly abhorrent firearm. For personal defense, the lack of reasonable safety access and the stock that inhibits if not prohibits a fast and clean sight picture could cost you your life.
If a hard to access safety, snag-o-matic folding stock that fits no one, rough action, slow-loading, overweight, hard kicking and poor handling shotgun is a “feature set” you might want for defense, this might be your ticket. We believe that your best personal defense is avoiding this model of 870 under any circumstances, whether in clumsy folder array or just as clumsy Knoxx non-folder wire-stock presentation. It is a magnificent failboat of a pumpgun attempt, our only consolation being that the painful testing of this abomination came at last to a merciful conclusion.
Mossberg 590A1 #51670 w/ Black Aluminum Adjustable Stock
The Mossberg 500 / 590 / 590A1 “special purpose” line has continued to grow to the point where there are some thirty-six variations of this theme currently available, more if you count the hunting versions. The basic Mossberg 590 pump shotgun is currently in service use by the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy and U.S. Marines. The Mossberg 590 is a more robust version of the familiar 500 series of Mossberg pump-actions that were introduced around 1961.  The 590A1 has an aluminum tang safety and trigger guard, a clear upgrade from the more fragile plastic components found on many other versions. Often compared to 870 models, the 590 is considered more ambidextrous due to its tang safety, and easier to load with no shell carrier flap (a.k.a. shell lifter) in the way. Unlike the Ithaca and the Remington’s steel receiver, the Mossberg has an aluminum alloy receiver. As a practical matter, as the Mossberg’s steel bolt locks up to the steel barrel extension, so the alloy receiver it is of no great design consideration for defense applications particularly when considering the 590’s military and LE service records. It may save a few ounces of weight; it is easier to machine neither of which are functional considerations here.
Out of the box, the tested Mossberg 590 A1 weighed 7-3/4 lbs.— noticeably lighter than the Remington, but still a full pound heavier than the Ithaca. The Mossberg has the highest capacity of the tested HD guns at nine shots (8+1). It’s stock is detent-adjustable, allowing the shooter to vary the length of pull from 10-1/2 to 14-1/4 inches with six different positions. It has a 20 inch “heavy-wall” barrel that comes fitted from the factory with “Mossberg Ghost Ring” sights. 
After significant initial take-up, the 590’s trigger broke at 7 lbs., 2 oz. making it the heaviest trigger of this group of slide-actions. The Mossberg also exhibited significant stick-slip out of the box, as did the Remington, with its action noticeably the sloppiest of the three guns. Though all the rattle from the closed action of the Mossberg is just forearm and action bar slop and take-up, having nothing to do with the locked breech— none of testers liked how noisy and loose it felt and sounded.
When a defense firearm comes with a pistol grip, it is only reasonable to assess how its controls can be accessed (or not) with the gun gripped by its pistol grip. In the case of the Remington, we had a safety that could not be accessed despite its proximity to the grip, and a slide release that could not be reached with the thumb or fingers of the shooter’s dominant hand. With the Mossberg, we had a mixed bag of control access. With the shotgun properly mounted by a right-handed shooter, the thumb of the right hand could easily unlock the slide with a quick flick. When mounted by a left-handed shooter, the left index finger could quickly do the same. However, a left-handed or a right-handed shooter cannot possibly access the tang safety when the gun is controlled by the pistol grip. Though a tang safety is ambidextrous, in this presentation a shooter regardless of their handedness cannot use it easily. As a practical matter, considering a home defense firearm by definition needs to be deployed quickly, seamlessly, without conscious effort, and under high-stress and perhaps poorly lit scenarios—we consider this safety as worthless as that of the Remington. The user cannot take the safety off of this shotgun without compromising full control of his shouldered weapon, and we consider that ungood.
The adjustable aluminum stock of the Mossberg was likewise found to be a mixed bag. The threaded tube coming out of the back of the 590’s receiver is aluminum, but the “stock” itself is plastic. While this plastic stock is easily set to several different pull-lengths, a good feature, it fits over the aluminum tube extremely loose and sloppily. At the end of the plastic stock extension there is a rubber pad that slips over the plastic butt. While offering a small amount of felt recoil reduction, it pales in comparison to a “real” recoil pad—like the Pachmayr found on the Ithaca. It is better than nothing, better than the Remington’s attempt, but not much better.
The Mossberg comes with an adjustable Ghost ring sight set-up. We liked the Ghost ring sight in the general sense, but its utility is severely compromised in this specific model. Once the gun is mounted and you have a proper sight picture:  pulling the gun a bit further and more firmly into your shoulder pocket causes the instant disappearance of the orange blade front sight from the Ghost ring. The culprit is the sloppy plastic stock that bows downward with a slight amount of increased pressure, forcing the muzzle’s orange blade to vanish beneath the Ghost ring as a result. A variable sight picture is not something we appreciate; we appreciate it even less when the subject is a firearm presented as a “self-defense or tactical” firearm.
At the range, we appreciated the ability to load the Mossberg’s magazine with no shell carrier to possibly interfere, as is the case with the Ithaca but not the Remington. We also generally liked the adjustable Ghost ring sights, though their value at the typically very short self-defense ranges is dubious. The standard Mossberg 500 / 590 platform is fundamentally sound as the user does not have to break his/ her grip, stockweld, or sight picture to use the slide release, safety, and trigger.  Adding a pistol grip to the 500 / 590 disrupts, if not destroys this substantial ease of use. The catalog description of the 590 A1 #51670 as having a “6 Position Aluminum Adjustable Stock” is more than a little misleading, as we discovered. It is plastic where we come from, and poorly fitted plastic at that. It sorely needs an external locking collar to hold it in position reliably, or a few set-screws. The gun in its present form is still usable, but we wouldn’t buy it. The stock issues overshadow the things we did like about it (ease of loading, magazine capacity, ambidextrous use, Ghost ring sights) to the point where we can’t call this example anything but a bit below average.

It was very, very easy to pick a winner in this match-up: the Ithaca Model 37 Defense did it all for us, did it better, and even did it at substantially lower cost. The Ithaca has by far the slickest action, the best trigger, the lightest weight, the best handling, the softest felt recoil, and is hands down the easiest and fastest to use. We even did some dimly-lit hallway testing, and where the Remington and Mossberg front sights reflected black, the Ithaca’s brass bead retained a soft metallic sheen. The well-fitted Pachmayr “Decelerator” pad did its job well where the Remington failed and the Mossberg was marginal. The Ithaca was the only slide-action of the bunch that we could intuitively operate safety, slide, and trigger without breaking stockweld. It was easy to load, and it’s bottom ejection prohibits hulls from bouncing off of walls or doors. The brass front bead let us quickly deploy lethal buckshot patterns from point-blank to 30 yards, far more capability than most home defense situations require. If we wanted extremely low or no-light capability, the addition of an XS Sights “Big Dot Tritium” front sight is an effortless add-on. While we believe that five or six shots is more than necessary for any foreseeable HD application, we’d rather have a few more rounds at our disposal than a few less—so, the Ithaca’s eight shot capability with its factory one-piece seven-shot magazine tube gives us that as well. Finally, we found the Ithaca M37’s beefy walnut ring-tailed forearm gave us the best feel and control of all the tested shotguns. Ithaca wins this one; the rest weren’t even remotely close.


Copyright 2009, 2010 by Randy Wakeman. All Rights Reserved.

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