The shotgun has remained a popular weapon for personal preparedness since shortly after its inception and it is, aside from innovations in the action departments, virtually unchanged since.
The adaptability and versatility of the shotgun makes it a solidly dependable choice for hunting and a deadly defensive weapon. If it is a humble wood and blue hunting scattergun or a tricked-out tactical blunderbuss, shotguns get things done in ways that rifles can’t.
Shotguns are common everywhere and the amount of models and variations to choose from can make picking the right one for you disaster readiness or self-defense kit challenging. But if there is one type of shotgun that is truly iconic in America it is the classic pump-action. Something about the no-nonsense mechanism and that truly addictive chak-chak from running the slide has seen these guns permanently enshrined in the minds of U.S. gun owners.
Any pump gun that works is a truly formidable tool but choosing one that is perfectly suited to your needs will make your life so much easier. It runs counter to popular sentiment, but pump-action shotgun is not the simplest and most foolproof shotgun to work with. Having a model with a track record for reliability and user-friendliness is important to make sure your time with the scattergun is happy and productive.
In the following article, I’ll be making my case for the ideal pump shotgun for self-sufficiency and self-defense, and offering a list of my favorite pump guns for your consumption. So grab a box of shells and let’s get going.
Regarding the Pump-Action
The pump-action shotgun as we recognize it today has been around since the latter half of the 19th century. To say this type of firearm is “vintage” is an understatement. The pump-actions of yesteryear compared more favorably to other contemporary firearms of their day since autoloading guns had not yet reached maturity and viability.
Compared to bolt-action and even most lever-action guns, pump-actions (including our trusty smoothbores) were faster to cycle and fire again, an act made even simpler by allowing the shooter to keep their firing hand on the gun and near the trigger.
Particularly concerning the shotgun, this rapid rate of fire, greater capacity than a break-action and potent punch in close range made them instant favorites among everyone from armed guards on stagecoaches to fast moving infantry and cavalry forces who needed decisive power in close range brawls.
Another feature that made the pump-action shotgun so appealing then and remains a favored characteristic today is their insensitivity to shell type. Shot or slug, loaded light or heavy, it makes no difference: so long as the shell is an appropriate size for the chamber of the gun, the pump action will fire it and cycle again barring a malfunction.
Speaking of malfunctions, while adaptable and insensitive to most types of ammo compared to autoloading shotguns, pump-actions do suffer from an Achilles’ heel; if the action is not cycled briskly enough, with emphasis, a user-induced malfunction can result, This requires some practice and time on the gun to ensure that the shooter is cycling the gun with emphasis every single time!
The only other major disadvantage of the pump action is that it naturally requires two dedicated hands to run the action shot to shot. If you have on hand tied up or out of action for any reason, you are only able to fire the shell in the chamber. Especially if you have an injured hand or arm, it will be very unlikely you can run the gun at all.
Pump-Action Shotgun Pros and Cons
- Generally reliable –barring shooter-error, there is little to go wrong with a pump gun
- Ammo insensitive – shoots any shell of appropriate gauge and length of reasonable quality
- Powerful – any major gauge is entirely adequate for self-defense and most hunting on the continent
- Inexpensive – Compared to other shotguns, high-quality pump-action guns can be had for less.
- Requires training and practice to iron out mishaps when shooting
- Recoil is worse than semi-auto – modest to stout
- Requires two hands to use
- Often heavy and long – strength is a factor with pump-action guns
Things You Should Consider on Your Self-Defense Shotgun
When it comes to a hunting shotgun, you can get away with almost anything so long as the gauge is 12 or 10, and increasingly 20 with some of the newer high-performance loads that are coming out. A handful of rounds, 24”+ barrel and a decent front bead is all you need for success in many shotgun hunting scenarios.
When considering a self-defense shotgun, it is trickier because the playing field, if you want to call it that, is so very different. Also since it is far easier to adapt a defense-specific shotgun to a hunting role than the opposite sometimes (thanks to the preponderance of very loooooong barrels on many hunting shotguns) I will pitch my ideal self-sufficiency shotgun primarily as a defensive tool.
The most important attribute of any gun for defense is reliability, plain and simple. If your shotgun (or any gun!) is not totally reliable, and durable enough to remain that way for a good long time you don’t want it unless you have no other choice.
If you have any doubt whatsoever about the reliability of a given shotgun, or your shotgun, you probably have not enough time shooting it to say for sure. The proof is always in the pudding.
You should also take care to make sure that a given gun is reliable with more than one brand of shell. It may be okay for a semi-auto to be a picky eater, but that is generally frowned upon in a pump-action. That is one of the reasons why we are choosing a pump gun after all; we want a shotty that will handle anything!
Gauge is a good conversation to have, assuming you aren’t defaulting to 12 gauge and, frankly, you should be. 20 ga. is just fine from a performance perspective but my gripe with it is that it is just not as plentiful as 12 gauge is. Trust me: stocking of ammo in quantity and with the appropriate loads will become very important to you in short order if it is not already.
12 gauge will place at your disposal a huge selection of loads, from powder-puff low recoil birdshot loadings to robber-stomping magnum buckshot and 11 flavors of slugs. Picking 12 gauge means you can have it your way. The 20 gauge may be the way to go if you are recoil averse, are dealing with an injury or are looking to kit someone out with a scattergun who has less strength or is of smaller stature.
Let me repeat so I am totally clear: the 20 gauge works just fine in almost every circumstance! I simply caution folks against its admittedly very attractive reduced recoil and lighter gun weight from the ever-important perspective of quartermaster. You will have to shop a little harder to come up with certain 20 gauge loadings. Other than that, go with my blessing.
One of the most important characteristics for a shotgun is length, as these guns are often long and heavy. Keeping the barrel length at an 18” minimum is a good idea, and 20” is probably the extreme I’d go for a defense gun.
The new breed of pistol-braced “non-shotguns” as rolled out by Remington and Mossberg make good compact options, though since they are even lighter and the “braces” make for so-so stocks recoil can be an issue for some. Caveat emptor.
There is no such thing as an ultimate shotgun load. The very nature of the gun and the ammunition it fires means that varying loads are optimized for some situations and not others. If you want a set-it-and-forget-it projectile weapon, get a rifle.
That being said, we do have some rules of thumb we can rely on as to what loads are best for self-defense and in what situations. Remember, we are talking about defense against our fellow man here, not dangerous beasties.
The two most commonly recommended loads for self-defense in shotguns are buckshot and slugs. For buckshot, any of the “aughts” will work fine against people, but the all-time favorite is 00, or double aught. Number 1 buckshot is also a highly effective load and preferred in some LE circles.
lugs work wonders against targets behind obstructions, but take care that you have planned for your backstop; the whole point of a slug is massive penetration so a miss, or even a scratch hit, can see a giant 1 ounce chunk of lead hurtling through several walls.
Of the two, buck offers a better chance to hit at intermediate or maximum range, but also makes for complications as it is your responsibility to ensure all of the pellets you fire hit the target, and not someone else. Slugs are you go-to when you need pin-point accuracy, range beyond 50 yards, or massive penetration.
Either cause terrible wounds to people and animals and are great choices for defense so long as you have taken stock of your surroundings and choose your load accordingly. Most seasoned shotgunners have and practice with both and will load based on the terrain and situation they find themselves in.
Extras and Upgrades
You should definitely consider enhancing the sights of any defensive shotgun. Most factory trimmed guns will have a rudimentary bead at the far end of the barrel and that’s it.
Nicer factory guns sold for tactical or self-defense use will sometimes have highly visible blades up front and either rifle sight or aperture rears. These are desirable, if for no other reason than they let you zero the gun effectively with your chosen shot loads and with slugs.
If you have one of the aforementioned plain beads, at the very least consider an upgrade for it. A big, bright white dot or a fiber optic makes for an easy to see sight, but if you are working without a rear sight your effectiveness at range will be hampered. Don’t believe the hokum proffered by the brain-dead that says you don’t need to aim a shotgun; you sure do, and you’d better if you want to get your hits when it matters!
Lastly, you may want to consider installing a red dot sight on your shotgun. Just as with other guns, a single bright, clearly defined aiming point is a huge advantage no matter what. Red dots are right at home on short range guns like shotguns, and make zeroing for slugs a snap to boot.
The Best Pump-Action Shotguns
Remington 870 Police
Remington’s iconic and legendary best seller continues to be the pump-action scattergun by which all others are judged. A smooth and reliable action combined with nearly limitless options for customization, conversion and personalization make the 870 about as foolproof a choice as you can make.
Most 870 models will work just fine for the majority of shooters but if you are looking to get a gun that will truly endure the apocalypse, definitely pickup the Police Magnum version. It isn’t just a bigger chambering; the Police Magnum is made to a higher standard of care with better parts and materials than its run-of-the-mill brethren. That is one gun that will stand up to any test.
Another iconic American shotgun though one that has always seemed to be in Remington’s big, green shadow. The 590A1 is a military version of the popular 590, and sports a set of nice ghost ring sights, a triple rail forearm, a bayonet lug, and a very beefy heavy barrel for ultra durability. Mossberg’s completely ambidextrous tang safety makes this a sure choice for right- or left-handed shooters.
While it is the chunkiest and heaviest shotgun on our list, the 590A1 makes up for it in strength, reliability and extreme durability. If you are going to be racking up the round count on your shotgun, consider the 590A1.
Mossberg Maverick 88
Proving once and for all that a really cheap pump-action shotty does not have to be some foreign made boomstick, the Maverick 88 from Mossberg features the action and salient features of their better known 500 line, but omits the tang mounted safety for a more usual cross bolt in the usual place behind the trigger instead.
The action is a little rough, but if you are really scrimping trying to get into a new shotgun you can still have quality and American assurance with the Maverick.
Benelli’s Supernova is a wild looking shotgun but one that is packed with features sure to tickle your fancy. If you have need of truly massive payloads, the Supernova has you covered; it can chamber the huge and hard-hitting 3 ½” 12 gauge loads you want. Its extensive use of corrosion-proof polymer means this is one of the lowest-maintenance guns on our list.
A handy shell cutoff button built into the forend makes unloading or swapping shell types a cinch and the stock sights are Benelli’s excellent ghost rings. It is large, but lighter than it looks. Even if you don’t need the powerhouse potential of 3 ½” magnum loads you should give the Supernova a look.
An older now discontinued gun, but one that is easily found on used gun racks across the country and in pawnshops. The 1300 is famous for its rotating bolt head and super fast action. A skilled 1300 user can easily keep pace with shooters using semi auto shotguns.
While you will not have quite as much in the way of add-ons compared to more modern guns, the 1300 still makes for a great no-frills pump gun, especially for a dedicated shotgunner thanks to its fast cycling.
A re-imagining of the Winchester 1300, the F.N. P-12 picks up the legacy of the 1300, dusts it off, and improves it in almost every way. The famously fast action is retained and married to an improved synthetic stock and aggressively checkered grip and forend for sure manipulation no matter the conditions.
A fiber optic front sight is mated to a folding buckhorn rear sight and the whole affair is crowned by a cantilever barrel and its integral optic mount to allow easy use of an optic. I would have much rather had a receiver top rail, but the cantilever works fine otherwise. A slick, fast, highly refined classic.
Pump-action shotguns are a venerable but viable choice for self-defense and emergency preparedness today. Their versatility and power make them favorites among civilians and professionals alike.
Pump guns do have a learning curve and demand much of their shooters, but if you start your journey off with a good one the rest should be smooth sailing. Take a look over this list and you will surely see a pump-action powerhouse that is calling your name.