Among all the vintage actions that remain popular and more or less viable today, the pump action shotgun is overwhelmingly the most popular among shooters, and one of the most viable for defense and general readiness.
For preppers, shotguns are the do-all firearm, equally at home bagging game that walks, crawls or flies or felling home invaders and other miscreants like thin timber.
Among long guns, pump-action shotguns are especially tantalizing to some prospective shooters for one simple reason: they offer considerable punch and capability for not a lot of cash.
But, while shotguns of all types have seen continued refinement and a subsequent increase in cost as the years have rolled by, the price of some new pump-actions bedecked as they are with all manner of accessory and optional doodads can be shockingly high.
For a shooter who wants to worship at Temple of the Gauge, are there any inexpensive pump guns left? Are they worth it?
Happily, the answer is yes, to both questions. One can have an inexpensive shotgun that will perform admirably so long as you know what to look for and what quirks a less-expensive gun might have
In this article, I’ll be providing my take on inexpensive shotguns and a list of models that will work for preppers blasting on a budget.
So bust that piggy bank and start stuffing shells.
Understanding the Limitations of Budget-Category Guns
My regular readers know I am an advocate of buying high-quality gear, and especially firearms.
Firearms are supremely durable goods when made to a high-standard, and I will always advocate that a prospective purchaser save a few more shekels for a gun that will function more reliably under more conditions and last longer.
With guns, more than many other categories of goods, you do get what you pay for much of the time.
Yes, there are some overpriced guns and some inexpensive gems, but I’ll staunchly claim that for 90% of guns on the market you pay according to performance.
Nevertheless, some folks face hard limitations on their gun budget, or are just spendthrifts.
There is nothing wrong with that, and I am not here to admonish you or make you feel inferior for that. I am passionate about getting folks the best tools for their tasks, though.
Any gun to be relied on for self-defense must be possessed of certain attributes for you to be able to trust in it.
It does not matter if you are a whale of a spender or a penny-pincher, any firearm you rely on for self-defense must be reliable first and foremost, as I have stated so many times.
As a rule, cheap firearms will not be as reliable as more expensive ones. The question is what constitutes reliable enough?
It is a good question. “Reliable” means different things to different shooters. There are guys like me who will only dub any given gun so after much high round count, high-tempo practice.
Others think a handful of boxes worth of ammo is sufficient to declare functioning good and call the gun reliable.
There are also shooters who think a handful of shots and wipe down with an oily rag is all you need to call it okay. “If it goes bang, it must be good, right?
There is no truly objective measure for reliability. Shooters in the former category will care very much about empirical testing data, sample sizes, and other metrics to help them determine just what they can expect from an individual firearm or family of firearms. For them, certainty of reliability, or as close as we can get, is the goal.
Shooters in the middle category trust (rather rely) on the assumption that they will not be doling out death and destruction at the max cyclical rate of fire in austere conditions on the worst day of their lives; they assume their fight will be short and sharp if it happens at all and so ultra-reliability is really just overblown for the average prepper.
Shooters in the latter category really just trust to Lady Luck or providence to carry them through. A handful of shots are hardly enough to perform a function check, to say nothing of proper reliability testing.
Since shooters shopping for a gun in this price category likely do not have the funds to pay for larger quantities of expensive shotshells in order to conduct such testing, they must be content with a greatly abbreviated testing session.
Cheaper firearms are also made with inferior materials and typically sporadic quality control.
This does not mean the gun is not adequate to do the job, only that you must be aware that, as a rule, the life span of these cheaper guns is usually less than that of a better made firearm.
It may also require more frequent preventative maintenance to maintain its functionality.
Understand this: cheaper shotguns may likely have the chops to get you around the bend if you need to lay down some lead, but they usually will not hold up to truly harsh abuse or intense firing schedules before breaking down.
But if one of these cheaper boomsticks is all you can afford or all you have, don’t worry about it.
All you have is all you have. Learn to run it, test it, and do your best. Deal with issues as they crop up. But if you’re looking for the best of the best, check out this article.
Aside from reliability, many of the flaws that cheaper pump shotguns possess are less detrimental than they would be found on other firearms.
Their rougher actions will smooth out much with use and shotguns are not terribly hampered by subpar triggers or gritty controls.
Considering how roughly you must handle a pump-action to cycle it at any rate, this is little hindrance compared to, say, a bolt- or lever-action rifle.
Furthermore, a little knowledge and a lot of elbow grease can allow a handy shooter to slick up their budget pump action significantly using common materials.
A few extra dollars spent on better springs (if available) can improve feeding of shells and the trigger.
Remember! Just because you are shopping for a less expensive option does not mean there is no room to improve the gun!
Reliability Testing on a Budget
For testing a shotty on a tight budget, your best bet without breaking the bank is a simple stress test using your chosen defensive ammunition. This is important- conduct your stress test with your chosen defensive ammo, whatever that is!
If you are buying bulk pack Winchester buck from Wally World for your stockpile, do your testing with that. If you are loading Federal slugs, you gotta test them.
You cannot trust the occasional ammo fussiness of a cheaper shotgun to digest everything, and contrary to popular belief, pump-action shotguns are not inherently flawless feeders capable of chambering any fodder you roust from the garbage.
Before testing the shotgun, strip it and give it a thorough, comprehensive cleaning. After wiping off all your old cleaner and degreasing , take the time to carefully inspect the components and their mating surfaces for burrs, nicks and other manufacturing artifacts that can adversely affect function.
You may discover a defective part from the get-go, one that is cracked or damaged in some other way. If everything looks good, generously relubricate your boomstick before assembling it. Now we shoot.
I am assuming here that you are not yet worried about zeroing sights or patterning the gun; instead we are only concerned with shaking it down.
This is best accomplished under greatly compressed ammo and time constraints by running rounds through the gun as fast as you can. A good benchmark while still remaining affordable for most is 50 rounds of your chosen defensive ammo.
This is a stress test: the higher tempo of fire and rapidly climbing temperature may betray flaws or faults that are will not manifest under more considerate treatment.
Defensive ammunition almost always produces more recoil energy and higher pressure than garden variety birdshot, and that is yet another reason for testing our defensive loads.
Mild mannered birdshot or AA trap loads may not put the gun to a true test, and you don’t want to discover your shotty cannot withstand the pounding of “real” ammo when in a fight.
While hardly fool proof, this is a decent standard to test a cheap shotgun against. In my experience, most faulty guns will quickly give up the ghost under such a test, while ones that are good to go will breeze through it fine.
Consider any malfunction that is not strictly ammo related (e.g. dead primer, obviously out of spec, etc.) to be worthy of serious consideration.
While you may not expend even two rounds in a fight, a shotgun that will not produce 50 shots without a glitch may be too malfunction prone to trust.
Either continue testing if at all able to see if the issue goes away (a “break-in period”) or consider changing ammo, warranty service or getting a new gun, in ascending order of cost and hassle.
But let us assume your new Bargain Barn blunderbuss passed all 50 rounds of your test with flying colors. Huzzah! You can probably look forward to a fairly trouble-free existence with it.
The Best Budget Pump-Actions
All of the shotguns on this list have a few things in common: They are all 12 gauge, they can all be had for $400 or less and they can all be had new.
I purposefully left used shotguns out of this running to show people what is possible among brand new offerings.
Don’t mistake me; you can get a lot of shotgun if you want to buy used, but there are plenty of preppers out there who don’t want to spend the time or hassle running through used racks and pawn shops looking for the diamond in the rough.
Additionally buying a new but cheaper gun through a reputable gun shop will usually give you the added perks of warranty assistance if your new gauge should break down or otherwise give you fits, and many gun shops have onsite gunsmiths that can help diagnose and correct issues also.
All of these guns feature basic equipment- conventional stocks, front bead-only sights, and no additional equipment of any kind save perhaps some screw in chokes.
That does not matter so much against their strengths- reliability, robustness and the versatility that shotguns are rightly famed for.
Any of them will make for a good defensive gun or an all-purpose survival tool for hunting.
Remington 870 Express
Remington’s most popular and ubiquitous scattergun rolls out of the factory in dozens of configurations, several of them at a price point that makes them tough to beat for discerning shotgunners on a budget.
The Express variants of the 870 are all entry level models. They are not made with as many heavy duty parts as the Wingmaster and Police variants, but they are still sturdy, hard-running guns for the majority of users.
The actions are a little grittier than the 870’s of yesteryear, and the simple coated black finish is vulnerable to flaking off (and inviting rust) but aside from that you can enjoy all the other hallmarks that 870’s are known for, including a metric ton of accessories, upgrades and enhancements.
An 870 especially makes a good starting gun because one can install tougher parts to replace weak links as funds allow, and while I am always reluctant to recommend frankengunning any defensive weapon, the sheer multitude of parts and comparative simplicity of the 870 make this a viable option.
Mossberg Maverick 88
Mossberg’s Maverick is a long time favorite in the budget shotgun family and it will be instantly familiar to anyone acquainted with the 500 family, with a few differences.
The Maverick sadly lacks the 500 family’s tang safety and uses a crossbolt safety instead, though barrels are interchangeable between the Maverick and 500 lines as long as the appropriate barrel for the host gun’s magazine capacity is selected.
The action is a little bit rough, even compared to the typically crunchy Mossberg action, but finish, fitment and operability are all very good for a gun in this price range.
Considering that many parts and accessories for the 500 line will fit the Maverick, this is another good choice for a starter gun that you can grow into.
Winchester SXP Defender
The latest incarnation of Winchester’s 1300 shotgun is not quite up to the standard set by that underdog but popular pump, but it is still a good gun and good value at any rate.
The SXP, or Super X Pump, features everything you want on a basic defensive shotgun: hard chromed chamber and bore for corrosion resistance and reduced friction, a heavily textured stock and forend and a receiver that is already drilled and tapped for mounting an optic base.
The SXP Defender does use the famed rotating bolt head arrangement and “inertia assisted” action associated with its predecessor.
The two add up to sure and swift cycling, making this and other shotguns that use this design very fast as far as pump actions are concerned.
With just a little practice it is entirely possible to fire two, even three rounds in one second. The best can fire more than that.
While there are not as many dedicated aftermarket accessories for the 1300 (ergo the SXP) as there are for Mossberg, Remington and some other makers’ guns, you still have quite a bit to choose from as far as optics mounts, lights, ammo carriage and so on are concerned.
A great choice, especially if one cares about running a pump as quickly as possible.
Savage Stevens 320
Another shotgun that is an inspired copy of the Winchester 1200/1300 action, the 320 is attractive for its modest equipment at a bargain price.
A pistol grip synthetic stock, field length extended forearm and nice adjustable aperture sights make this the best-equipped out of the box shotgun on our list.
Every silver cloud has a dark lining, or something like that, and this scattergun’s is its country of origin: China. China is known for lots of things, but high quality guns are not one of them
In my experience with these guns and in the course of my research, these are a mixed bag: some produce nothing but problems from the word go, and others run without a hitch.
This may be one of those situations where you don’t want to get one made on a Monday or a Friday as the saying goes. If you are willing to risk a lemon, the Savage Stevens 320 offers a nice package inexpensively.
Weatherby PA-08 and PA-08 TR
Weatherby is not a name commonly associated with pump shotguns, but lately they have been putting their name on a line of decent Turkish shotguns that are fairly impressive in their price range.
More impressively is the testing standard that Weatherby insisted on for the design benchmark: 6,000 rounds with zero failures of any kind. Impressive indeed!
This gun sports dual action bars like its “parent” design, a chrome lined barrel and a nice, raised white bead sight for easy sighting.
Examples I have handled sported far slicker actions out of the box than Remington’s own 870 Express. An alloy receiver shaves weight compared to its progenitor as well. A nice feather in Weatherby’s cap for sure.
Can be had with drop-dead gorgeous (really) wood furniture for right at $400 if you prefer, or less if you want synthetic.
Shotguns are viable weapons for self-defense and disaster readiness, but the sky-high prices of many of today’s best tactical pumps can leave with a bad case of empty billfold.
You don’t have to choose between eating and getting a decent pump-action shotgun. So long as you have reasonable expectations of what you are dealing with, you can get a lot of capability for a few Benjamins with any of the recommendations on this list.