In Praise of Pumpguns

The author with his lone Model 12, a 16 gauge from 1934. It still shucks them smoothly, and whacks them hard.

by Terry Wieland

My old friend Clare was a great fan of Winchester, and so for more than 50 years I’ve assumed that his pumpgun was a Model 12. He had only two guns, as far as I know — the pump shotgun and a well-worn 94 in .30-30. In fact, comparing the wear and their overall patina, the 94 and the pump might have spent every waking minute in each other’s company.

This was not an unusual circumstance when I was growing up. Except for the odd acquaintance who was marked down as a “gun nut,” few hunters owned more than one rifle and shotgun. The gun nuts were easily identifiable by the new rifles they turned up with every year, telling all and sundry about their marvelous qualities (power, accuracy, rapidity of firing, ability to spot a deer a mile away) but this rarely — in fact, never, in my experience — translated into any more or bigger deer hanging from the meat pole.

Year after year, the deer were hung up by such as Clare Irwin, who knew how to hunt them and carried the same old familiar gun. He was always polite, listening to the ravings of the gun nuts, but then he was always polite to everyone.

Looking back, I wish I’d paid more attention to his pump gun, but I was first and foremost a rifle nut in those days, as only a 15-year-old can be. My interest in shotguns came a little later, and even then I was a double-gun guy for most of my life. And still am.

The pump is the great American shotgun. Period. And no other pump engenders such passion as the Winchester Model 12.

Being a pumpgunner has been rather a losing proposition for most of the past half-century. The autoloader types think you’re either poverty stricken or hopelessly out of touch, the nouveau side-by-side lovers relegate you to peasant status, and those who embrace the now common-as-dirt Italian over/unders, regardless of quality (they range from abysmal to superb) barely notice you.

Admittedly, I came late to the ranks of pumpgun admirers, and when I did I focused more on the models from the 1930s and ‘40s than the ‘60s and ‘70s.  During the latter decades, pumps bulked up too much, with Monte Carlo stocks and bulbous forends replacing the slim classicism of the ‘30s. To say nothing of gold-plated triggers, an idea whose time should never have come.

Probably the greatest pump gun of all time, by most measurements, is the Remington 870, which has sold so many everyone’s lost count, but I’ve never warmed to it, even when the old Remington threatened to give me one (they never actually did). I like the old Model 12, with its slim “corn-shucker” ribbed forend, and I admire the Ithaca 37 in much the way I would automatically stand to attention before a statue of Sir Winston Churchill. But, if forced to pick my favorite of all the older pumps, I’d go for the Remington Model 31.

The one I have is a 20, while both my Model 12 and Ithaca 37 are 16 gauge.  Either of those gauges always struck me as more graceful and, except for waterfowl, ideal for most pumpgun pursuits.

I wish I could remember what gauge Clare’s gun was, if I ever really knew, but for some reason I have this nagging feeling it was a 16. He never hunted ducks but he loved to hunt ruffed grouse, especially during deer season.  He’d go out in the pre-dawn carrying his 94, but if the weather was nice and he went out again at midday, he’d carry the pump with a shotshell in the chamber backed up by a slug. If he flushed a grouse he was ready, and if he came upon a deer he’d quickly work the pump and get one good shot.

That’s a trick you can’t pull with any other kind of shotgun. It didn’t work all the time, he told me, but it worked often enough. Can’t ask much more than that.


Terry Wieland has been Shooting Editor of Gray’s since 1993 and is the author of a dozen books on hunting, shooting, and history. His latest is Great Hunting Rifles — Victorian to the Present, published by Skyhorse in 1997. Last year, Skyhorse reprinted his acclaimed 1999 book on Robert Ruark, A View From A Tall Hill.