Let it Slide

Why the American pump gun keeps going and going and going and going.

by Terry Wieland

THERE’S AN ENDURING IMAGE IN THE WORLD OF SHOOTING: A gathering of shotgunners, some armed with the latest, others the most expensive. A trap range, the finals, big money on the line.

Out of nowhere comes a man with weathered hands and a wind-worn face wearing coveralls and carrying a pump gun. The bluing is gone, and it never had any checkering.

Start adding up the numbers, and it becomes apparent that not only are there more pumps than any other shotgun in America today, but there are likely more pump shotguns than any other single type of firearm.

The guy with the Purdey snickers. Parker and Ithaca smirk. But Pump Gun just pays his fee and steps up to the line. When the last clay pigeon has turned to dust, he quietly collects his prize money and disappears.

This tale has been depicted on magazine covers, recounted in books, and told around campfi res for a century. It’s a staple of American myth and shooting literature. Did it ever really happen? Probably— or at least something very much like it. And probably more than once.

Never play cards with a man named Doc. Never eat at a joint called Mom’s. And never bet against a man with a well-worn pump gun.

START ADDING UP THE NUMBERS, and it becomes apparent that not only are there more pumps than any other shotgun in America today, but there are likely more pump shotguns than any other single type of firearm. Consider the basic numbers: The Remington Model 870, in production since 1950, has passed the 10 million mark and is still coming off the line. More than all the Winchester lever-action rifles of every model ever made.

The Winchester Model 12, the crème of pump guns, is a century old this year. Before it was discontinued in 1963, Winchester turned out almost 2 million of them, and its cheaper replacement, the Model 1200, another quarter million. Then there’s the Winchester 97 (1 million), Ithaca 37 (more than 2 million), and Remington Model 31 (200,000.) Very quickly you’re surpassing the 15-million mark. That’s a lot of guns of any kind.

The pump shotgun is as much an American institution as the lever-action rifle and single-action revolver. And like them it owes its longevity and continued popularity not to tradition, economics, or force of habit but to performing its job exceedingly well.

Entire histories have been written about gunmakers and specifi c guns, with in-depth coverage of models, prices, changes, rarities, and collectibility. But that isn’t our purpose here. The question we want to answer is, What makes the pump gun so damned good?

The Spencer, ancestor of the modern American pump gun, beside a Remington Model 17—an early gun, one of J. M. Browning’s designs, and still revered by many.

We can approach this in a number of ways, but let’s try something completely different. Let’s ask Gough Thomas, the English shotgun expert from the 1960s, why a devoted lover of doubles like him had such a soft spot for the pump gun.

Gough Thomas (full name, G. T. Garwood) wasn’t just a shooter; he was also an engineer. He was among the few writers with a technical engineering interest in all things shotgun, from chokes, to patterns, to balance. He was also fascinated by a particular quality for which there was no name until he coined it: eumatics. Eumatics, as he defined it, is “that quality in a manually operated device whereby it is totally correlated to the human being who has to use it.” He goes on to note that “there is no doubt of the pleasure to be derived from using some mechanical implement or device that has been designed on the best eumatic principles. There is an aesthetic quality in smooth, sweet action, responsive to easy control. . . .”

Although Garwood gave high marks to the best English doubles (and some are better than others), he flatly stated that “the standard American pumpgun is probably the weapon with the highest eumatic rating of all. It was surely a stroke of genius to make the business of cartridge ejection, recocking and reloading ensue, more or less automatically, from the convulsive reaction to recoil and the instinctive recovery from it.”

Like most such inventions, the stroke of genius can’t be attributed to just one person. Alexander Bain, an English gunmaker, patented a pump gun design in 1854—preceding even the centerfire cartridge—but nothing ever came of it. It was an American, Christopher Spencer, who produced the first usable pump gun in 1885. Eumatically speaking, the Spencer was barely a 3 on a scale of 10. It took the attentions of John Moses Browning to set the pump gun on the right road.

THE BASIC PUMP ACTION IS BUILT ON TWO ELEMENTS: a breechblock that moves back and forth inside a receiver, locking and unlocking as needed for fi ring and ejection; and a sliding forend connected to a rod that moves the breechblock.

In between these two actions are a number of related functions, including cocking a hammer or striker, feeding ammunition from the magazine (a tube under the barrel that also serves as a rail for the forend), lifting new rounds into position, and ejecting empty hulls. It was on these ancillary actions that the Spencer fell short, becoming complicated and awkward, and it was on these that Browning concentrated.

The result was the Winchester Model 93, a gun with an external hammer and slim receiver that resembled the lever-action rifles Browning was designing at the time. The 93 was refined into the Model 97 (most pump guns are numbered for the year they were introduced), another external hammer gun that stayed in production until 1957.

The Model 97 is a distinctive design that drew many adherents. The external hammer allowed the gun to be carried hammer-down, without depending on a safety, and this had great appeal for hunters accustomed to hammer guns of all kinds. The 97, in short-barreled configuration, gained some fame during the Great War as a trench gun, and in the postwar era as a riot gun.

Pump guns are as ergonomic in their own way as the finest double. This slide, on a Winchester Model 12 from the late ’30s, fulfills its dual purpose in the finest minimalist style.

From here, the history of pump gun development becomes as intertwined as a skein of wool, with patents purchased, abandoned, and adopted by other companies, all jockeying for a piece of what became a very large pie.

Winchester saw ways to improve the 97, and the company’s designer, Thomas C. Johnson, set out to produce a more modern pump. The result was the Winchester Model 12, which with its internal hammer and side ejection is considered by many the greatest pump gun ever made (and no worse than number two by everyone else). For almost 50 years, the Model 97 (hammer) and Model 12 (hammerless) coexisted in the Winchester stable, satisfying every taste

Having designed the Model 97, John Browning continued to refine his approach. Remington bought a later Browning patent and produced the Remington Model 17, introduced in 1921 and available only in 20-gauge. The Model 17 ejected its empty hulls through the bottom of the receiver, depositing them at the shooter’s feet (or in the duck boat)—a convenience in some ways, an inconvenience in others. The 17 was discontinued in 1933, replaced by the Remington Model 31, a side-ejecting gun similar in many ways to, and intended to compete with, the Winchester Model 12.

When Remington dropped the 17, Ithaca pounced on the design as the basis for its famous (and still in production) Model 37. At 75 years and counting, the Ithica is the longest-lived of any pump gun.

The Remington Model 31 was famous for its high quality and “ball bearing” smoothness, but it struggled against the Winchester Model 12. In 1950, Remington introduced the Model 870 Wingmaster, a complete redesign that could compete with the Model 12 on quality, and at a lower price. The 870 became the most successful pump gun design of all time.

In 1963, finding itself in a losing race, Winchester replaced the Model 12 with the Model 1200, a cheaper (and cheapened) version that ultimately lost the struggle against the 870.

Meanwhile, every other major American gun company attempted to break into the pump-gun market, usually with a design drawn from an expired patent. Ithaca adopted the Remington 17; Mossberg turned the Remington 31 into its Model 500 series, and others came from Marlin, Savage, High Standard, and Harrington & Richardson.

This, then, is a brief history of the American pump gun—an ongoing economic and technical success story.