Remington 870 Police Magnum, Tactical Shotgun Match and the Magic Wand Theory of Firearms

I’ve never really been a fan of shotguns.  I don’t shoot trap or clays and have always considered them overrated as far as self-defense use goes; tropes about the fearsome effects wrought by the mere sound of a racking pump aside, any time one can carry a long gun in self-defense, a magazine-fed carbine like an AR or AK will be infinitely superior.

But even though I didn’t have a proper 12 Gauge pump action shotgun, I did have three cases of ammo for one – No. 4 and 00 Buck along with a case of Slugs – bought from an acquaintance in the midst of a move.

12 Gauge Ammo Collage

Now it never really bothered me to have so much ammo for a firearm I didn’t have; ammo as a rule is an investment that never declines in value and, worst comes to worst, a 12 Gauge shotgun is probably the single-most common chambering one is likely to come across in a pinch (or to use as a barter good).

That said, for a few years I shot in Three Gun matches, borrowing a friend’s back-up 870 Express on a long term basis and buying a few boxes of whatever shotshells were cheap.  And I always knew that I would eventually need one again to shoot the odd Three Gun match, the long-term loan option having washed away with the passage of time and vagaries of fate.

Coming to such a pass late last year, I began shopping about.  Budget and a desire to keep the process simple dictated a pump, which left the choice of Remington 870 (or one of its Chinese-made Hawk clones) or Mossberg (or one of its Mexican-made Maverick clones).  I leaned against going the Mossberg route; even though they have some interesting features – the safety is very nice – and a wide variety of aftermarket parts are available, I’ve never really liked them, something about their fit and finish always striking me as cheap.

The Remington 870 Express is the natural first alternative to explore; the most popular shotgun in America, they are available in all the major retailers, with substantial discounts often available.  Unfortunately though the wide availability through corporate big-box retailers has taken its toll, the basic shotgun now cheapened up with various plastic and Metal-Injection-Molded components.  Still, all is not lost; like with Jeeps, the aftermarket support for the 870 is immense, with drop-in replacements available to upgrade nearly every component (This site has covered many of the potential upgrades quite well).

There are also Norinco clones available, imported by Interstate Arms and sold as the Hawk 982 or H&R and sold as the Pardner Pump.  These are well-regarded, reputedly made from better quality steel than the now-cheapened Express.  They do suffer from one shortcoming – apart from being from the PRC, that is – both having slight dimensional variations that make the fitting of some 870 accessories problematic.

Considering that my recent purchase of a Glock 22 from Summit Gun Broker was such a positive experience and given their high volume of police trade-in weapons, I decided to check their site.  Pleased to find a section dedicated to ‘Riot Guns‘, I opened it, finding a selection for used 870 Police Magnums.

Despite being nominally the ‘same’ design, the differences between 870 Police (abbreviated to 870P) and 870 Express are considerable (Remington has a helpful list of the differences here).  Aside from the added labor in fitting and inspecting, the material differences include:

Extended magazine tube

One piece barrel with polished chamber and detent mounting

Aluminum trigger guard v. plastic on Express

Heavier sear spring giving an (ouch) 8 lb trigger pull

Machined extractor and ejector v. MIM on Express

Shorter forearm for fitting in vehicle racks

Deluxe R3 recoil pad

Parkerized finish v. bead blasted blued on Express

Sling swivels

Financially the upgrades of the Police v. Express are definitely worthwhile; by the time one replaced the crappy MIM extractor and ejector with proper machined parts, plus purchased and Dremel fit a magazine extension and new mag spring, plus added the sling swivels, PLUS added the shortened forearm – necessary if a side saddle is going to be added – and upgraded the recoil pad, you would have more money into it than a used 870P plus still having the plastic trigger guard, less durable finish and cheaper barrel.

Total was $350 shipped with another $25 for FFL transfer, the shotgun in my hands within a few short days after ordering.

870 In Package

It’s the classic police trade-in weapon; the finish worn with the discoloration and light oxidation Parkerized finishes tend to get over time and use.  It doesn’t bother me in the least – although I do prefer the European style enamel paint over Park for the added protection – but people who are turned off by surface wear would be better served going the new 870 Express route and adding upgrades as they see fit.

The weapon also has the larger, Allen head trigger group pins; it looks as if the department which previously owned it had a side-saddle mounted and removed it before taking the weapon out of service.

870P Action Detail

It will chamber either 2 3/4″ or 3″ shells and comes with an Improved Cylinder choke (No screw-in choke tubes).

870 Barrel Markings

It has the standard open sights found on most slug barrels.  These came adjusted perfectly, slugs hitting right to POA at 50 yards.

870P Sight Detail

The shotgun already came with a set of QD sling swivels and a well-made nylon sling so the first order of business was to add a butt cuff shell holder.  I found one from Allen for the princely sum of $4.29 (Ordered from Amazon, although Gander Mountain and other retailers carry the exact same thing).  Only needed a hole cut for the sling swivel, five minutes trimming with an X-Acto followed by melting the stray fibers with a match to prevent unraveling.

Ammo Buttstock Sleeve

I also ordered two shell holder belts (Allen as well, $5.99) giving me a more convenient way to carry spare shells than boxed or loose in a pocket.

Ammo Belts

Despite the gun already being fitted with sling swivels, I have no plan to get a shell holder sling.  I don’t like them for a variety of reasons: the way they add weight, and a particularly unwieldly weight at that, swinging about beneath the weapon: hanging freely as they do, the shells are rather difficult to extract, slowing reloading: and the whole thing gives the weapon a poseur-iffic appearance I’m not especially fond of.

With the weapon(somewhat) rigged out, next step was to properly run it.  An opportunity soon presented itself in spades when a local club ran a six stage, +100 round Tactical Shotgun Match.

Shooting Rig

Weapon racked (top) and ammo belt donned (bottom).  The shirt blousing out over the belt did cause issues, leading dropped rounds on several occasions.  I ended up putting the belt on over an untucked shirt to prevent the blousing and didn’t have anymore problems.

The match was 100% steel (apart from two clays activated by falling Poppers), a mix of Pepper Poppers, Mini Poppers, plate racks, plate trees, individual plates and Texas Stars.  Several of the courses of fire were relatively simple, open views with direct movement from one target set to the next.

Bay 2 Crop

Bay 3 Crop

Others though were more complicated, multiple shooting positions with constrained sight lines forcing deliberate movement and scanning for targets (The only target I failed to engage came on one of these, a popper that required a stretch through one of the ports to spot).

Bay 1 Comp

Bay 4 Comp

Best of all was an actual shoot house, 14 individual plates arrayed outside a house with 7 windows.  While it was possible to game out the movement to engage all the targets without using all the windows, I took a more conservative approach and simply went counterclockwise from window to window, shooting whatever I saw and topping off as I went (You know, how you would actually use a shotgun in the real world).  As you may imagine, this was the most enjoyable stage.

Shooting House Comp

The main thing that one takes away from such an event is just how much work it is to run the conventional tube magazine fed, pump action shotgun.  The shooter is literally ALWAYS working the weapon: aiming, firing, cycling the action, loading rounds, shouldering and unshouldering (I came away with a massive bruise on my upper arm because, as you’re trying to run the weapon quickly and safely on the move, it tends to drift down from a perfect shoulder weld).  Compared to running a pistol or magazine fed semi-auto rifle, it’s quite a change, and one that’s only partially remedied by a semi-auto shotgun (which still leaves the loading issues while introducing reliability concerns as well).

It never ceases to amaze me how so many Gun Counter Commando types proselytize about the pump 12 gauge as the ultimate home defense implement and how many firearms neophytes seem to buy into it.  It’s an unfortunate phenomena I call the Magic Wand theory of firearms, the idea that the mere presence of a gun renders its bearer protected, the thing waved about like Gandalf’s walking stick.  And no category of firearm seems to attract this sort of thinking more than 12 Gauge shotguns.

You hear it parroted constantly, even by people who have never shot a gun, and the movies are rife with it (Best example being the gun fight in Open Range where Robert Duvall knocks a man flying ten feet with the blast of his shotgun). The instructor of the CPL class I took last year went on at length in this vein, waxing ecstatic about how the mere sound of the slide racking and the sight of the massive bore was enough to defuse most confrontations, a dubious bit of advice given how many home invaders now come from the ranks of Latin American gangs who have little apprehension regarding either guns or violence; pointing a gun at someone figuring they’ll flee and instead seeing one’s bluff called is perhaps the ultimate Bad Idea With No Second Act.

I can recall on several occasions talking to people who were ‘getting a gun to keep around the house just in case’ who looked askance upon my skepticism regarding shotguns, using it as an excuse to dismiss my advice – usually a prosaic ‘Glock 19 and a good hollow point’ – completely.  Which isn’t so bad when you come to think of it since getting known as ‘The guy who’s into guns’ is bad news for a whole variety of reasons, some annoying, others genuinely disconcerting.

As it is I feel genuinely bad for the people who take this ‘Magical Shotgun’ advice.  It’s irresponsible to encourage novice shooters to potentially place their lives – and the the lives of others – into the hands of a weapon that they’re most likely going to find too challenging to learn how to use properly.  I always wonder if the people who offer it so freely – and with a tone of such infallibility – have ever actually run one in a tactical match, using one as it ought to be used; in most cases I highly doubt it but then again, experience is usually the mortal enemy of infallibility.

That said, I still see the value of shotguns.  The police and military definitely have the right idea regarding their use: great to have access to as a supplementary weapon for certain specific tasks – crowd control, house clearing and guard duty come to mind – but in no way practical as a primary weapon, especially for a solitary individual.  Their challenging nature also gives them significant value as a training tool; indeed, I’ll run in every tactical shotgun match I can simply because if you can run a pump shotgun well, a pistol or magazine-fed semi-auto rifle becomes that much easier.

As far as my 870 Police Magnum itself, there isn’t much to be said; the Remington 870 is the most popular pump shotgun of the past 50 years for very good reasons and whatever shortcomings have been introduced through their recent cheapening are thankfully absent from the Police Magnum package.

My first and most immediate priority is to do something about the excessively stiff trigger; while it didn’t prevent me from making hits in the action shooting with bird shot, it was definitely an impediment to taking advantage of the weapon’s impressive accuracy with slugs.  Remington has alternate sear springs available to lighten the trigger pull, including a ‘Competition Trap’ spring with a claimed 3.5 lb.  These are a simple drop-in change and cheap at less than $10.

Over the longer term, I plan to upgrade with Mesa Tactical side saddle shell holder and perhaps add Trijicon Night Sights.  I also plan to experiment with better methods of carrying rounds.  Several people at my last match ran these and, although I’m no big fan of pure gamer accessories, this seems like an exception to the rule; the practice of loading two rounds in one stroke looks to be a good dexterity exercise which helps the body and mind to contend with hand/eye coordination and fine motor operations under stress.