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Why This Highly Customizable Shotgun Makes a Great First Gun

By: Earl Mclean

Not long ago, I read an article in Gunpowder Magazine titled, “The Remington 870: The Workhorse of Law Enforcement.” It inspired me to bring something to your attention that I think gets looked over quite a bit, and that is the true versatility of this great gun.

The article I read focused more on the tactical side of this gun, but I am going to go pretty much in the opposite direction. My father owned one in the 60s. It had the early “corn cob” type forearm that was popular then. After getting married in the 70s, I would borrow it for occasional hunting, target shooting, etc. because it just pointed and shot so well.

Well, eventually I needed a gun of my own, so I went on a mission for that “magic gun.” After going through several really good guns that I actually shot well, I happened to see one very much like the one my father had. Somehow or another, it followed me home. I thought it would be nice to shoot it in some of the pump tournaments, but after shooting it a few times, the love affair was on.

This gun didn’t become as popular as it is because of its good looks. It is one great pointing and shooting shotgun, and on top of that, it is built to last. I loved it so well, I now have one in 12 gauge, 16 gauge, 20 gauge 28 gauge and.410 bore. This is what brought me to use it as the platform for The Heads UP Shooting System (more about that here).

Now getting to the point: building a custom gun on a budget. Right out of the box, just about anyone 5'9"-6'1" can shoot an 870 like it was made for them. Good shooting not only comes from skill, but having a gun that fits your measurements and has the right balance and weight.

Out of the box, the Wingmaster (which I am using for this article) is a little on the light side – perfect for hunting and carrying for long periods, but noticeable recoil when shooting a lot of clays. More about that shortly.

What if, though, you are a boy or girl 4'10"- 5' 6"? Years back, Dad would just whack the stock off and put a pad on it, then hand it back. Sometimes a saw went to the barrel, too. Actually, it worked pretty well for most kids this size, but they grow. Uh oh! got to find another stock and barrel, or another gun. Youth stocks got popular, and then you can exchange it for an adult stock later. There are also aftermarket barrels.

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The 870 came out in 1951 and has remained basically unchanged as far as the gun itself goes. A wide variety of furniture is now available, including standard stocks, youth stocks, pistol grips, trap stocks, Monte Carlo, Synthetics Camouflage thumb hole, and now a lady’s model. Barrel lengths vary from 18-1/2" to 34" ribbed and non-ribbed, there are rifle sights, rifled bores, scoped with rifled bores, etc., and all these will fit from the first 870 until the most recent.

But back to the target world. As I mentioned before, for the youth or smaller-framed shooter, the recoil of standard 12 gauge loads are too much. Most semi-autos are too heavy, so you have to buy another gun for him to outgrow, right? Look what’s available now: super soft pads and 12 gauge ammo with less recoil than a standard 20 gauge load. Most semis don't cycle them well, but with the 870, no problem.

As growth comes, you’ll need longer barrels and longer stocks, while still sticking to a budget. That little girl is turning into a woman, and that youth stock doesn't work so well anymore. Now there is a bonafide lady’s stock that goes right on it. Wow! Sure beats $2,000 for another gun!

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Stocks, top to bottom: standard top, youth, and lady's

Your kids may start shooting on the high school trap team. Trap stock or new gun? What about that lightweight problem? There are a couple of companies that make sealed units with mercury inside. When you shake it, you can feel it moving inside.

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They are designed to work in a way similar to a dead blow hammer, adding a little weight and retarding the gun’s force, thus absorbing recoil. They work pretty well. Some fit in the stock bolt hole. You can cut two pieces of 1/2" plastic pipe to stop it from moving inside. Also, if you want weight up front, there is a model that fits inside the magazine tube where the plug normally is. They come in different sizes, so you can custom balance the gun to your specs.

If you just need some weight, you can go old school by taking a short piece of threaded rod nuts and flat washers that fit in these spaces and get near the same effect. The recoil reducers are also threaded in one end, so if you want to shift the weight more to the muzzle as I did to make the gun less whippy and more controllable, drill a hole through the barrel nut (very hard material) or get one with a swivel and remove the swivel (shown on the 28 ga and .410 bore).

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Like I said before, the versatility of these guns is endless. They are much easier to maintain than semi-autos and much easier to balance and customize than semi-autos or over-unders.

The Remington 870 is unbeatable for someone’s first gun. Look at it like this: $350 for a good used Wingmaster, $50.00-$175 for a stock (if needed), and a shorter or longer barrel would be $125-$175.00 (if needed). So that’s $750.00 max for a gun that fits like a glove, hits where you look, and has great dependability.

And no, I do not own any stock in Remington. But I do shoot them regularly and use them to teach with. I have been a competitor for many years, won my share of tournaments, and have been teaching others for 22 years. If I have learned nothing else, it is that there is no magic gun on the shelf for everyone out there.

Sometimes it takes a little customizing no matter which gun you choose. I am not knocking any other brand, because there are a lot of good guns on the market.. Everyone doesn't have an unlimited amount of money to work with, but that doesn't mean you can't shoot and shoot well comfortably.

Earl Mclean is a coach and target setter at Drake Landing and is the owner of Heads Up Shooting System LLC, writing from Fuquay Varina, North Carolina.

Article photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, DoD photo by: PHAN MILNE/PHAN DILLON

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Gunpowder Magazine.