The question I get the most as this magazine's Shotguns columnist is this: "Should I buy a Remington 870 or a Mossberg 500?" I reply that I happily shoot both, that left-handers like the Mossberg's ambidextrous safety, and that both guns are affordable and popular.
But there's more to the world of shotguns than inexpensive pumps. Thus, here is my list of the 50 greatest shotguns.
What makes them great? Artistry, innovation, reliability, ergonomics, durability. Every gun on this list has at least one of those qualities; most possess several. Some very deserving candidates, such as the Holland & Holland Royal Ejector—one of the world's finest side-by-sides--didn't make the cut. In no imaginable bizarro universe is the Winchester 1200 greater than the Holland, but I didn't want this merely to be a litany of the world's fine guns. I chose the Purdey to represent all London Best doubles, including H&H;, just as I picked Arrizabalaga to carry the flag for the whole Basque region. That left room for innovators like the unpretentious 1200.
While most of the guns are long-running bestsellers, some were commercial failures. One or two are personal favorites that elbowed out other, possibly more deserving guns, but this is my list, after all. And I learned long ago that a good day of shooting isn't defined by the name stamped on the barrel. Or engraved on it.
Photos by Spencer Jones
Purdey Side-by-Side Game Gun
Established in 1814, James Purdey and Sons of London builds one grade of double, "best," which costs as much as a small house. The Purdey doesn't earn the top spot because it's expensive; it's here because it epitomizes the British game gun, which represents the Platonic ideal of a shotgun. Start with wood and steel and cut away everything that's not a gun, and you're left with a game gun. Slim, light, ergonomically perfect and fitted to the owner, it comes as close as any firearm can to becoming part of the shooter. Given $100,000 to spend on a house or a gun, I'll take living indoors every time, but I'm glad that Purdeys exist to show us what a shotgun aspires to be.
Shown: A 1979 Extra Finish 12-gauge, No. 2 of a matched pair
If you think of a gun as nothing but a tool, then the 870 is the greatest shotgun ever made. It is the Gun That Works, and if it doesn't, it disassembles to the molecular level in a few minutes, and whatever ails it can quickly be put right. With its stamped parts and pressed checkering, the 870 sold for much less than the Winchester Model 12, the Ithaca 37, and the Model 31 it replaced. Though inexpensive, the 870 is every bit as reliable and durable as its costlier competitors. It has gone on to become the best-selling shotgun of all time.
John Browning spent his life inventing guns that shot more and faster than others, but his last creation was the elegant Superposed. The Superposed survived the death of its inventor (Browning's son Val completed the design), the Great Depression, and the Nazi occupation of Belgium. Reintroduced in 1948, it became the affordable fine gun of an affluent postwar generation of shotgunners in the '50s and '60s. If you want to nitpick, the Superposed is overweight and too tall in the action, but more than any other model, it established the over/under as the glamour gun of American wingshooting.
Italy's finest shotguns equal London's best, and bulino engravers turn them into works of art. Rather than drive a chisel with a hammer, they use a handheld tool called a burin to draw on the steel, enabling them to create works of astonishing detail. Engraver Mario Abbiatico deserves much of the credit for popularizing bulino engraving in the mid 1960s, and the Abbiatico & Salvinelli guns made by Famars are, to this day, the standard against which others are measured.
Remington Model 1100
Debuting in 1963, the 1100 wasn't the first gas-operated autoloader, but it was the first reliable one. The 1100 worked and it didn't kick. Expanding gas that bled from the barrel drove the action and had the very pleasant side effect of turning "kick" into "shove." Target shooters, dove hunters, waterfowlers--anyone who dealt with a lot of or repeated recoil--loved the 1100. It's my favorite gun for introducing new shooters to the sport. The 1100 also fits almost everyone. The secret is the slender comb, which makes it a gun anyone can "get down" on.
Produced by Browning: 1903--1998. Produced as the Remington Model 11: 1905--1949
So forward thinking was John Browning's long-recoil autoloader that it took 50 years for any other American maker to come up with another autoloading design. In the A-5's long recoil action, the entire barrel moved back with the bolt, giving this gun a unique, shuffling kick. It worked in all conditions--the only way I ever made my A-5 stop was by dunking it in wet snow on a day cold enough to freeze the action shut. An A-5 made in Belgium was the prestige gun among waterfowlers for most of the 20th century.
Winchester Model 12
Over 2 million Model 12s rolled out of the Winchester plant between 1912 and 1980. The Y-Series, with some stamped parts, was made from 1964 to 1980, but the pre-1964 Winchester was milled and machined to a glorious slickness. Upland hunters, waterfowlers, and target shooters alike loved the Model 12 and for good reason: It pointed beautifully, was graceful to look at, and lasted forever. I used to borrow my cousin's 30-inch-barreled, Full-choked Model 12, which was lethal to turkeys out to 40 yards and greatly enhanced my elegance afield, even after I covered it with camo tape. Shown: A near mint-condition 1956 20-gauge
Beretta AL390 Produced: 1992--1999. Reintroduced as the 3901: 2002--present
As the gas guns of choice for high-volume shooting, Berettas redefined autoloading reliability. Like the 303 before it, the 390 could withstand 1,500-round days in South American dove fields, and the gas action helped shooters hold up almost as well. The 390 was the first Beretta auto that could shoot 23/4- and 3-inch shells with no adjustment. On the downside, the nooks and crannies of its gas system are a little tricky to clean. The good news: All these guns perk along happily for 1,500--2,000 rounds between serious cleanings, which makes them my kind of gun.
Westley Richards & Co. Droplock
Based in Birmingham, England, maker Westley Richards has never had the cachet of a London shop, but its guns are so good the company has remained in business for 195 years. Patented in 1875, Westley Richards' Anson and Deeley boxlock had internal hammers that were cocked by the opening of the barrels; doubles as we know them wouldn't be possible without this capability. Today, WR builds the ultimate refinement of the boxlock: the droplock, which features a hinged plate on the bottom of the frame that gives access to the lockwork.
Produced: 1866--1934 By Remington: 1934--1942
America's iconic double sprang from humble beginnings: The first Parker shotguns were crude breechloaders made from parts left over from a Civil War rifle contract. Recognizable by a distinctive recessed, slotted hinge-pin, the Parkers of the early 20th century came in more gauges, grades, and frame sizes than any other American double. Foxes and Smiths are equally good guns, but the Parker beats them for mystique. Czar Nicholas II ordered an A-1; Carole Lombard gave Clark Gable a DHE. The priceless, missing Parker Invincible is the Maltese Falcon of fine guns.
Benelli Super Black Eagle
Today it possesses the duck-blind status that A-5 Magnums did in the days of lead. Back in 1991, however, the Super Black Eagle--a high-priced gun with a dumb name from a little-known maker and chambered for a new load--was a gamble. Benelli hit the jackpot. The SBE's combination of reliability, sweet handling, and long-range capability won over American waterfowlers, who discovered the unique Benelli inertia action to be a model of simplicity. Great as it is, the SBE has a single flaw: It's too light a gun for most people to shoot 3 1/2-inch magnums out of comfortably.
Produced: 1903--1930 By Savage Arms: 1930--1942 By Connecticut Shotgun Manufacturing Co.: 1993--present
Inventor Ansley Fox's automobile is long forgotten; his self-lighting cigarette never dented the marketplace. But his shotgun is arguably the simplest, strongest, and possibly the best of the classic American doubles. Teddy Roosevelt called it "the finest gun made." The Fox was a well-designed gun that hardly ever broke down; its receiver was beautifully sculpted and it closed with the quiet strength and precision of a Swiss bank vault. Some of the American doubles in the lower grades look cheap, but not the Fox.
Shown: A 1916 12-gauge "Philadelphia Fox"
As Belgian production costs rose in the '70s, Browning began making guns in Japan, including a new budget version of the Superposed. Browning execs joked that Citori was Japanese for "No. 1 Shotgun" (the name was made up). Original Citoris suffered from one of the chunkiest, ugliest forearms ever put on an o/u, but 30 years later the Citori has gone through numerous makeovers. It comes in all gauges, in models suitable for virtually any kind of field or target shooting. It's still No. 1, reigning as Everyman's Dream Gun. When a pump or auto shooter tells you he wants to buy an o/u someday, chances are he's thinking of a Citori.
Beretta 680 Series
What the Browning Citori is to Americans, the Beretta 680 series is to the rest of the world. Like the Citori, the 680 series has been spun off into countless versions from plain hunting guns to medal-winning target breakers to beautifully decorated high grades. Their low-profile action helps make these guns into natural pointers, and light weight makes them a pleasure to carry in the field. American hunters and shooters have begun to discover these qualities. My own favorite, the alloy-framed Ultralight, weighs next to nothing at all.
The gunmakers of Spain's Basque country turn out guns ranging from cheap and awful to truly world class. Those of Pedro Arrizabalaga are definitely in the latter category. The Basques are less innovators than disciples of the classic game gun. They will build a gun for you one way, theirs, and it will be a "best" grade. Patterned after the seven-pin sidelocks of Purdey and H&H, the Arrizabalaga isn't cheap, but it's a bargain compared to a British best.
Established in Suhl, Germany, in 1898, Gebruder Merkel produces excellent, overengineered o/u's and doubles built to exacting Teutonic tolerances. Made to last 10 forevers, they are incredibly stiff when new. I once took a brand-new Merkel out of the box and couldn't get the forearm onto the barrels. I called the importer, who put a German gunsmith on the phone. "You must hit it very hard," he told me.
While traditional Suhl-based gunmaking firms like Sauer, Heym, and Krieghoff relocated to West Germany after the Soviet occupation, Merkel continued to make fine guns under the East German Communist regime. Banned from importation to the United States during the Cold War, the Merkel became, for American shooters, the unattainable Cuban cigar of fine shotguns until the fall of the Berlin Wall made it available again.
The first pump gun for smokeless powder, John Browning's Model 97 cut a swath through clouds of waterfowl at the end of the market-hunting era. It has the feel of the 19th-century machine that it is; work the slide of a 97 (it's nowhere near as smooth as a Model 12), and parts (including a hammer) stick out in all directions. Even with this most ungainly action, Browning made a gun that pointed very well.
Introduced a few years before the A-5 was discontinued, the gas-operated Gold was groomed to fill the giant void left by the Humpback's departure. A-5 lovers like me couldn't imagine any gun measuring up to their old favorite. Moreover, early 3 1/2-inch Golds had serious issues. I took one to South America where it jammed constantly. While everyone else made ducks rain out of the sky, I had to take the gun apart every two or three shots, each time afraid I would drop an important piece into the knee-deep water. That was then; this is now. The Gold is so reliable, so versatile, so soft shooting, so easy to clean, it pains me hardly at all to admit that it's become a better shotgun than the A-5.
Parkers and Foxes get all the love from gun writers, but the New Ithaca Double was every bit as good. Boasting a lightning-fast (for its day) lock time of 1/625 second, the NID was simple and famously strong. Such was the gun's reputation that in 1932, Winchester-Western chose Ithaca to build the first gun to chamber the 3 1/2-inch, 2-ounce, 10-gauge cartridge. NIDs remained in production until 1948, when the company discontinued it to devote more resources to building the popular Model 37 pump.
Produced by hunter arms: 1890--1945 By Marlin: 1945--present
Before going on to become half of a household word as the manufacturer of the Smith-Corona typewriter, Lyman Smith dabbled in the gun business and left his name on America's only sidelock double. In 1890, Smith sold out to Hunter Arms, which made the L.C. Smith double in a dozen grades, from plain to princely. The high-grade Smiths built by Hunter Arms from 1890 until the imposition of cost-cutting measures in 1913 have some of the finest engraving and the most pleasing lines of any American gun.
Beretta's 3 1/2-inch waterfowl gun is simple, easy to maintain, soft shooting and, with its rust-resistant "Aqua" coating, totally weatherproof. Inside, the Xtrema is a marvel of simplicity. The gas system consists of just three parts, and the return spring is located on the magazine tube, where it's easily accessed. The stock-mounted Kick-Off recoil reducer works so well that this is the only gun out of which I would consider shooting the abominable 3 1/2-inch magnum. Given time to establish a track record, it may turn out to be the best waterfowl gun ever. Period.
When the Tar-Hunt RSG debuted in 1990, it was everything slug guns of the day were not: bolt action, expensive, and very, very accurate. Randy Fritz, its inventor, reasoned that if a slug gun was going to shoot like a rifle, it had to be built like a rifle. So he built one accordingly. His creation had a glass-bedded action, a free-floating barrel, a McMillan fiberglass stock, and a rifle trigger. And it shoots. The Tar-Hunt can produce minute-of-angle groups, although five shots under 2 inches is more common. By shotgun-slug standards, that's revolutionary accuracy.
Produced: 1962 -- present
Don't let the hardwood stock, plastic parts, and wooden magazine plug fool you. Even in the worst conditions, the humble Mossberg 500 is the Little Engine That Could of shotguns. Although O.F. Mossberg made its reputation producing a good gun at a low price, people don't give the company the credit it deserves as an innovator. It introduced the first production cantilever-rifled slug barrel; the first completely closed muzzleloading, 209 primer--firing barrel; and the first factory stock with a comb insert that could switch out for a higher one--all accessories for the 500.
The Ithaca 37 was essentially the Browning-designed Remington 17 built after its patent expired. Bottom ejection made it a favorite of duck hunters and left-handers. Bird hunters liked its light weight. I can take the 37 or leave it alone as a gun for wingshooting, but the Deerslayer version is one of the best slug guns ever. So many hunters carried the 37 in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s that today's hunters remember it nostalgically as Dad's or Granddad's gun. The high price of building the complicated Model 37 keeps driving Ithaca out of business, but it apparently has a catlike number of lives.
Shown: A circa-1960s 12-gauge Featherlight
By Connecticut Shotgun Manufacturing Co.: 2002--present
Winchester's John Olin didn't want to build just any side-by-side; he wanted an unbreakable one. His Model 21 fit the bill. During its development, he gathered best guns from around the world and subjected them to a proof-load test, firing each until it broke down or blew up. Only the 21 survived. Winchester made it in all gauges and grades. Even the plain-Jane field guns were good looking. The high grades made by the Winchester Custom Shop took your breath away twice: once when you saw them and again when you looked at the price tag.
The Smooth Operator
Remington's first side-ejecting pump, the "ball-bearing" repeater was silky smooth out of the box and got better with use.
The Lost Classic
With its low profile, fast lock time, and simple, strong sliding top latch, the short-lived 32 may have been (pause, look up for lightning bolts) a better gun than its contemporary, the Browning Superposed. Only about 6,000 were made before the 32 was discontinued. Remington's next version, the 3200, is bulkier but treasured.
The Liege Deluxe
Lebeau-Courally Holland & Holland--style Sidelock
We know Belgian gunmakers as the craftsmen behind Browning's best, but they can do much more. These beautiful H&H--style sidelocks are proof of that.
The Great Scot
Dickson Round Action
With its locks mounted on the trigger plate, the round action can have a tiny frame, making this one of the slimmest and most graceful doubles ever made.
The Competitor (shown at left)
Perazzi M Series
Perazzi made its name for target guns grinding clays in competition, but the firm's gorgeous o/u game guns work just as well on feathers.
The Perfect Peashooter
Winchester Model 42
A favorite of quail hunters and skeet shooters, this scaled-down Model 12 is the gun to have if you must hunt with a .410.
The A-5 Lite (shown at left)
Franchi 48 AL
Franchi put John Browning's long-recoil A-5 design inside an aluminum receiver and made a superlight auto beloved by uplanders. If I didn't already have a Benelli Ultra Light, I'd want a 12-gauge 48 AL for long treks after pheasants.
The Back to the Future Gun
Winchester Model 59
Almost 50 years after the 59's debut, gunmakers still haven't matched the light weight and strength of its barrel: a steel core wound with 500 miles of fiberglass thread.
Ultimate proof of the Japanese skill at copying, these beautiful reproductions had parts that interchanged with the originals and barrels tough enough for steel shot. Since we won't be shooting lead forever, I would almost take one of these over an American Parker.
By Bruchet: 1989--present
The oddly beautiful, highly durable Darne doesn't break open; its receiver slides back. I don't lust after many high-grade hunting guns, but the Darne is so different I would love to have one.
The High Roller (shown at left)
Lefever Arms made the costliest double in pre-WWI America, the lavishly decorated Thousand Dollar Grade.
Winchester Super X1
Beautifully machined, very reliable, all steel, soft shooting, and designed to have the feel of a Model 12, the X1 was wonderful, but it simply cost too much to produce. If, like me, you're depressed by the plastic and alloy trigger guards on modern repeaters, get yourself a used X1 and bliss out.
The Real Deal
Browning BSS Sidelock
This BSS was perhaps the greatest gun bargain ever: a Japanese-made sidelock game gun that sold for $1,500. The public stayed away in droves. Now it sells for three times what it cost new. Me, I was tapped throughout the '80s or I'd have bought a 12 and a 20. What's your excuse?
The Answer in Search of a Question
Browning Double Automatic Twelvette
An autoloader that holds two shells makes no sense--until you pick up a light, sweet-handling Twelvette and shoot it. Earlier this year I wrote a column about my dream inheritance gun; the Double Auto was my real inheritance gun. When my grandfather left me a few hundred dollars, I blew it on a used Twelvette, which I adored and, later, inexplicably sold.
The Roman Candle Gun
When Federal Cartridge introduced the new 3 1/2-inch 12-gauge load, Mossberg continued its tradition of innovation, building the first gun for it, a 12-gauge pump with a long chamber and the first over-bored production barrel.
The Rising Sun
This spot should go to the better-known Winchester 101, another Japanese import that debuted in '63, but this is my list and I am partial to the Browning copies made by Charles Daly/Miroku. Made in Japan meant "junk" in the '60s until the Daly and the 101 started changing our minds.
The Triceratops Gun**
Browning A-Bolt Shotgun
It looked like a gun to take on safari to Jurassic Park and was accurate enough to head-shoot velociraptors at 100 yards. This neglected 12-gauge was ahead of its time--10 years ago, most slug hunters still wanted cheap guns that held lots of shells and shot fast.
The Family Affair
Caesar Guerini Tempio
There's a reason so many excellent Italian o/u's bear a strong family resemblance: They're all made by the Rizzinis of Brescia, which include the three Rizzini makers (I., B., and E. Rizzini), Fausti Stefano and, most recently, Caesar Guerini. For me, a 20-gauge with 30-inch barrels for doves and targets, please.
The Grouse Gun (shown at left)
These Japanese-made side-by-sides were some of the lightest, best, modestly priced upland doubles offered to U.S. hunters in recent memory. Its contemporary, the Browning BSS (the boxlock, not the sidelock at No. 38) commands ridiculously high prices on the used market in 20 gauge. A used 100 is a better bird gun for half the money.
The All-Load Auto
Smith & Wesson Super 12
Produced: only in 1984
S&W's Japanese-made Howa Super 12 was the first autoloader to shoot all 2 3⁄4- and 3-inch loads without the need to switch barrels or adjust valves.
The Gun for All Seasons
Winchester Model 1200
Way back in 1969, Winchester introduced a version of this gun that you could use for everything. It had easy-to-swap tubes called "WinChokes" that screwed flush into the barrel--the first commercially successful interchangeable choke system.
Ruger Gold Label
The first new American double in over 75 years, the Gold Label borrows the sleek lines of the Dickson. A 12-gauge GL with 28-inch barrels weighs just 61⁄2 pounds, yet points and swings with the assurance of a heavier gun. Unfortunately the gun has been a production headache for Ruger from the beginning, and its future isn't clear.
London's great gunmakers don't just build side-by-sides. They make gorgeous o/u's, which they sometimes quaintly call u/o's.
The Incredible Hulk (shown at left)
Big Green bought the rights to Ithaca's gas-operated Mag 10, then redesigned the gun to iron out its bugs, resulting in the ultimate soft-shooting 10-gauge. The SP10 doesn't kick so much as it nudges you backward with the inexorability of a glacier.
The Workingman's Double
When I write about a gun that costs more than $500, Crabby Old Guys put pencil to lined paper and give me what for: "I've owned the same Stevens double-barrel that cost me $78 in 1962 and it's killed more game than you'll ever see," and so on. Here's a salute to the chunky but dead-reliable 311 and the frugal people who own them. You could buy the 311 at Sears under the J.C. Higgins name, too. It's been the first gun of countless hunters, and the only gun of many others.