I’ll talk about an old gun that is still widely used today. This American masterpiece has produced over 11 million units. You can find it in police cruisers, pickup tricks, in gun clubs, pretty much everywhere.
If you guessed that it’s the Remington 870, you would be absolutely right. Did you know that this gun turns 70 as of 2020? That’s an awfully long time, so I figured that we should commemorate its special place in our heart by discussing its long history.
The Remington 870 is an old gun with a rich history. You would think that such an outdated piece would be replaced by its more modern brethren by now. What is even more remarkable is the fact that this gun shouldn’t even be great, but is. Some people say that old is gold, and that is certainly the case for the Remington 870. If you are in need of a rugged, no-nonsense shotgun, the 870 is definitely your best option.
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How does the Remington 870 come to be such a popular shotgun?
Back in the 1940s, Remington had an amazing pump-action shotgun already. That was the Model 31, which is made of machined and hand-fitted parts. It was so smooth that Remington marketed it as the “ball-bearing repeater”. It also came in a lightweight alloy-frame and all-steel version. This alluring offering from Remington was the main competitor to the well-known Winchester Model 12.
But then comes the drawbacks. Such a slick-stroking action came at a steep price. To make a single Model 31, you would need 536 machining operations. In addition, after the Second World War, gun manufacturers know that they can still make reliable guns by optimizing their manufacturing methods, therefore reducing costs.
Remington was aware of the Model 31’s flaws, and so their engineers came together to put together a better shotgun. They envisioned the final product to be one that serves as a part of a “family” of shotguns and rifles. In other words, they want to create a series of firearms that use common parts, therefore reducing costs. In addition, these parts are stamped, not machined, therefore saving more time and reducing manufacturing time drastically.
With this concept in mind, the Remington 870 was conceived. Of course, Remington could’ve just be done with it and leave the 870 as little more than a cheaper Model 31. However, the design team made a bunch of smart decisions that changed the fate of this shotgun entirely.
First, the 12-gauge of the 870 is based around the receiver of the 16-gauge 11-48 semi auto. That way, the gun would be trim and light and the shared parts also help shave off some production costs.
Then, they connected the slide to the bolt with twin action bars instead of the single bar that is used in many pump-action shotguns. This little change allows the 870’s pump to be much more durable. So, the chance of you twisting or binding the pumping stroke is minimal.
They’ve also changed the trigger group as well so that you can remove it by only popping out two pins. Moreover, not only that the barrel could be removed by unscrewing the magazine cap, but it was also completely interchangeable without fitting.
After all that design changes, the Remington 870 became a different gun on its own. It is light, lively, easy to dismantle and maintain, reliable, yet also versatile at the same time. You can get extra barrels so that your 870 can be used in various situations, whether you’re shooting ducks from a long distance or quail at a shorter range.
The designers of the 870 took it a step further by making sure that the Remington 870 is suitable for as many people as possible by stocking it with enough drop and a thin comb, allowing almost everyone to get their face down on the gun very easily.
And after all of these changes, the 870 made its appearance in 1950 as a replacement for the Model 31. The Model 31 would later make a comeback about 10 years later as the inspiration for the Mossberg 500, but that’s a story for another day.
The Remington 870 came in two grades: The deluxe, checkered ADL and a plain AP model. In addition, they also came with both a wooden and ¾ pound steel “Vari-Weight” so that you can have some more heft to the gun should you want to use it for waterfowl or target practice.
The Boom in Popularity
Soon after launch, the Remington 870 proved to be very successful. It is introduced in 12, 16, and 20 gauge at launch and also in Skeet and Trap grade. What cements the 870’s reputation as a staple gun was when Rudy Etchen of Kansas took the gun for a spin. He broke 100 straight trap doubles and became the first shooter ever to achieve such a feat. This earned him the nickname “Mr. 870”.
The 870 then started to appear in many gun clubs and its reputation only continued to grow from there. It always goes bang when you pull the trigger. It can sit at the bottom of the boat, all cold and muddy, and you can pull it out and shoot without fear of jamming. It even works in the harsh combat environments of the jungle and deserts as well. It was so reliable that the military and law enforcement across the country started adopting this gun.
In 1955, the 3-inch 12-gauge variant joined the lineup. Five years later, we got the magnum 20. All things considered, the 870s has a model for almost every purpose you can think of. Then, in 1987, the Express model was introduced.
The Express model is a budget variant of the 870 and it came with a hardwood stock instead of walnut, and a lower level of polish, but all other features are identical. In a lot of cases, the Express is many shooter’s first-ever shotguns, and a lot of them say that they can’t imagine themselves shooting any other gun. Since then, countless 870s have been produced from the same factory in Ilion, New York. They’ve produced their 10 millionth gun in 2009. To this day, the Remington 870 is still one of the best-selling shotguns in history. Nowadays, you can almost be certain that you can find an 870 in any gun cabinet.
870s to Look For or Avoid
Of course, when you produce over 10 million of anything and offer them all for a wide variety of applications, there are certain areas that you get wrong. I have shot some 870s and a couple of my friends also own plenty of 870s. So, I’ll tell you a few things you want to look for or avoid. Keep in mind that this is highly subjective, so take my advice with a grain of salt.
870s to Avoid
Early 20 gauges
The early 20-gauge 870s were made by putting 20-gauge barrels on 12-gauge receivers. If you want a lighter and smaller 20-gauge, look for the 870 with “LW” stamped on the frame.
Similarly, every 16-gauge 870s are made using 12-gauge frames. Sure, the frame was borrowed from the 16-gauge 11-48, but you’re only going to get a gun that weights like a 12 but shoots 16-gauge shells. So if you want to get a smaller 16-gauge pump, get an Ithaca 37.
Expresses from the early 2000s
That was around the time when the quality control on the 870 Express slipped a bit. A lot of 870 Expresses produced around that time have a few problems. The most common one is fired shells sticking in poorly finished chambers, oftentimes with inexpensive target loads. The problem goes away when you get the chambers polished or replacing the metal injection molded extractor. Since then, Remington stepped up their quality control, and the newer Expresses are a lot better now.
870s to Look For
Introduced in the 1980s, this variant comes with a straight-gripped, 21-inch (sometimes 23) barreled upland gun in 12 and 20 gauge. It is a great gun for bird hunters who need to walk long distances. Some newer variants also come with removable choke tubes, which I highly recommend if you can get your hands on one.
Some 870 variants were a single shot trap gun that uses a gas system. The gas bled from a port in the barrel and pushed against a weight in the mag tube, lengthening the recoil pulse and you will feel the kick. However, the competition trap is different. It shoots as softly as an 1100.
This one has a heavy, rifled barrel that is pinned to the receiver for better rigidity. It shoots slugs into groups as tight as slug groups can manage. The highlight is the ShurShot stock, which has some sort of modified pistol grip. It is comfortable to hold and also has a comb at the right height if you want to use a scope.
The early 90s is the golden age for the 870s. In 1986, Remington first added RemChoke tubes and they beefed up the barrels and added some weight to their guns. Then, in 1992, they offered 870s with a slimmed-down Light Contour barrel that made the 870s great again. These early 90s guns now come with a lighter barrel and choke tubes.
Any Old Wingmaster from 1963-85
Remington changed the finish on their Wingmaster. It went from semi-satin with cut checkering to a glossy finish. They then change the checkering to a pressed fleur-de-lis pattern. It looks a bit strange, but it has aged very well. The old fixed-choke Wingmasters are made masterfully. The barrels are also light and lively. The actions are slick brand new and they only get better the more you use them.
These old Wingmasters come in 2 ¾ and Magnum variants, although the barrels cannot be used interchangeably between the standard and magnum receivers. You might have some trouble getting your hands on the magnum variant nowadays. If you can find one, get it.
And there you have it, the long and colorful history of the Remington 870. Consider giving us a like if you’ve enjoyed this history lesson and subscribe for more content like this. Thank you for watching and I will see you again next time.