A few years ago I was invited to a wealthy man’s duck camp, although duck mansion is perhaps the right term for a colonnaded, 8,000-square-foot home with nine bedrooms and bathrooms. Lined up in his rack were a $100,000 .600 Nitro Express Holland & Holland double rifle, a high-grade Italian over/under for live-bird competitions, and his waterfowl gun-a Remington 870.
I may not be able to afford the mansion, the .600 Nitro, or the flyer gun, but I too can shoot the duck gun of the fabulously well-off. And I do. A good, cheap pump is a rugged, trouble-free joy, the ideal gun to take for a wallow in the muck that ducks and geese call home. My three are a Remington 870 Express, a Mossberg 500, and a Benelli Nova, all of which list at a hair above $300.
** Remington 870 Express**
Introduced in 1950, the 870 was a collection of cast and stamped parts in an era when most pumps were still machined and fitted by hand. Remington has made it in Big Mac numbers since, over 8.5 million. What is there to love about the 870? Everything. It goes off in any weather every time you pull the trigger. You can disassemble one down to the molecular level in a few minutes. And there are more aftermarket widgets available for the 870 than for any other shotgun.
The 870 Express (the lower-priced version of the 870 Wingmaster) debuted in 1987 and comes with a matte metal finish and hardwood stock and slide. It retails for $332 and is available in every gauge from .410 up to 31/2-inch 12, with a wood, camo, or synthetic stock.
It was 42 years and several million units ago that Mossberg made its first Model 500, the six-shot slide-action replacement for the supremely odd Model 200 (a pump gun with a box magazine). The alloy-receiver 500 is comparatively light. My 28-inch-barreled 12-gauge weighs 7 pounds, give or take an ounce, so it can double as an upland gun in a pinch. We southpaw shooters love the 500’s equal-opportunity safety, a top-mounted slide.
At $316, the 500 carries the lowest list price of my three cheap pumps, and it will work forever. Consider this: The service version of the 500 consistently passes the government’s mil-spec 3443-D test, during which guns are frozen, baked, dropped, and required to cycle 3,000 rounds of buckshot with a .1 percent malfunction rate.
There are a few quibbles: The plastic safety buttons sometimes split (steel aftermarket versions are available). The magazine cap is small and doesn’t give you much to grab onto if it gets sticky, so you need to keep the threads greased with choke-tube lube. And the 500 comes with a wooden magazine plug that can swell when it gets wet.
**Benelli Nova **
Call Benelli’s futuristic Nova the 21st century’s answer to the 870. Underneath the Buck Rogers styling, this a great, well-engineered, inexpensive shotgun. The thoroughly original Nova debuted in 1999, utilizing an entirely new type of construction-a receiver and stock molded from a single piece of polymer around a steel “cage.” In the four years I’ve owned mine, I’ve bounced it off reservoir riprap, stuck it in the mud, and generally heaped abuse on it-to no discernible effect.
The Nova weighs in at a substantial 8 pounds, the better to soak up magnum kick. You can add even more weight with an optional stock-mounted recoil reducer. It handles smartly for a hefty gun, and its rotary bolt cycles shells with lightning speed despite the long stroke its 31/2-inch chamber requires. The magazine cap doubles as a pin-punch, allowing you to field strip the gun without tools. Its flaws are a too-small safety and a very heavy trigger.
The Nova comes in 31/2-inch 12- and 3-inch 20-gauge versions and lists for $335 in basic black. Benelli hasn’t made Novas in 870 or Model 500 quantities yet, but give them time. The company will no doubt make its millionth Nova long before I make my first miillion dollars. That’s okay, because I can already afford to shoot great duck guns.