Gun Review: Remington Model 870 Express Super Mag Waterfowl
This feature was originally published in the November/December 2014 issue of Shooting Sportsman which is available for purchase through our online store.
By Bruce Buck
Introduced in 1951, Remington’s 870 pumpgun is now just about eligible for Social Security. For many of us, it was our first gun. Today more than 10 million 870s have been made, making it by far the most popular shotgun in the world. As well it should be. Modestly priced, ultra-reliable and very, very efficient, the 870 stands apart in its own class. But a lot has happened in the past 63 years. Let’s look at one of the current 870s.
If we concentrate on wingshooting 870s and eliminate the multitude of police, military, tactical and slug versions, one is left with roughly three basic models and many variations thereof. The least-expensive and by far the best-selling 870 is the Express. In various versions it has been around since 1987. Starting as low as $417 in 12 and 20 gauge, Express guns have plain hardwood, laminate or synthetic stocks and matte-finish metal. These are the guns you generally see in the big-box stores.
The Wingmaster is the next step up, starting around $830. Remington currently lists it in 12, 20, 28 and .410, though 16 has been available in the past. Compared to the Express, the Wingmaster gives you nice medium-gloss bluing, an aluminum instead of a plastic trigger guard, a chrome-plated bolt and a plain walnut stock with laser checkering. Most importantly, in 12 gauge the Wingmaster comes with the lighter-weight Light Contour barrel. This barrel is about the same weight as the original non-Rem Choke barrel and noticeably lighter than the thicker Express barrel.
At the top of the line is the new American Classic, introduced this year for $1,249. It’s basically a cosmetically upgraded Wingmaster with snappy wood, extra machine engraving with gold fill, an olde-tyme white-line recoil pad and a highly polished blue finish. Remington shows the gun coming in 12, 20 and 28, but at the time of this writing, it was available only in 12.
Since waterfowl season is starting, I picked an 870 Express Super Mag Waterfowl to review. This is a 3-½” magnum decked out in Mossy Oak Duck Blind camo and retailing for $629. If you aren’t into that camo stuff, you can get basically the same gun for $469 in ultra-plain wood or a very nice all-black synthetic stock. Considering what happens to duck guns tossed into the bottom of the boat with the decoys and dog piled on top, synthetic is a good thing.
Our review Super Mag weighed 7 pounds 4 ounces with its 28” Rem Choked barrel. Action lock-up is achieved by a locking block rising from the bolt and engaging a notch in the rear extension of the barrel, not in the top of the receiver like in some other pumps. The solid-steel receiver houses the traditional dual-bar 870 action. Remington always has made a big thing about the reliability of the dual action bars, and it is true. They are strong. Then again, the sainted Winchester Model 12 pump had a single action bar, and its durability wasn’t too shabby. The Model 12s pumped more smoothly than the 870s too.
The ejection port in the Super Magnum 870 is extended to handle 3-½” shells. The bolt is somewhat similar to the regular 3” bolt but with a spring-loaded thin, steel port cover 1/2" extension on the right rear of the bolt to shield the longer ejection port. The majority of the bolt, slide-block platform and interior locking lug appear to be cast steel and are roughly finished compared to the brightly polished bolt finish of the Wingmaster.
The trigger group is easily removed by driving out two cross pins. The Express trigger housing is some sort of space-age molded plastic, while most of the internal parts are stamped steel. Inexpensive as it surely is, the 870 trigger is, like the rest of the gun, ultra-reliable. What surprised me was that the trigger pull on our test gun was a consistent 4 pounds, with little or no creep or slop. I’ve reviewed some pretty snappy guns with triggers that weren’t any better.
The push-through safety is in the rear of the trigger guard. That’s probably better than in the front but not nearly as convenient as the Browning BPS or Mossberg 500 safety, on the top rear of the receiver.
The dual-action bars are stamped steel and welded onto a collar that goes around the magazine tube. The magazine will hold three 3-½” shells or four 2-¾” or 3” shells. Of course, the gun comes with a separate plug for two in the magazine to meet waterfowl regulations.
The early 870s had the problem of trapping a shell when one was only partly inserted into the magazine and popped back out to lodge between the top of the shell lifter and the bottom of the closed bolt. Disassembly or forza bruta was then required to clear the jam. Today’s 870s, including our Express, have been modified to allow the action to be more easily opened and cleared when a shell is thus hung up.
The barrel of our Waterfowl pump was 28” long, because that’s the only length this model comes in. The extended Rem Choke adds another ⅝”. The gun comes with only one choke marked “Over Decoys” and “.006.” It is 2-¾” long and of typical parallel/conical taper. It actually did measure .006” constriction, so it’s just a nudge tighter than “Skeet” (usually.005” in 12 gauge). If you use steel shot, expect patterns about one choke tighter than lead, so you ought to get good Improved Cylinder performance from that choke. Definitely ideal for decoyed ducks.
Our barrel bore miked .728”, almost exactly nominal for the 12. No fancy overboring here. The chamber is 3-½”, and the chamber forcing cone is standard length. Again, nothing fancy or trendy, just proven to work. The barrel bore is not chrome-lined and did appear slightly less smooth than the bore of a recent Wingmaster, but the difference was not great and certainly would not affect performance. The top of the barrel was capped by a normal ¼”-wide flat rib ending with a plain small steel bead sight. If that isn’t enough and you would rather focus on the front of the gun than on the duck, the gun does come with a package of magnetically attached green, white and red glowworm front sights. Fortunately, they detach as easily as they go on.
And speaking of detaching, the choke-tube wrench is one of those wretched cheap flat stamped things guaranteed to encourage you to finger tighten your chokes, even though you know that’s not safe.
The “wood” on the gun isn’t. The Waterfowl has a properly durable synthetic stock and forend that will probably outlast the Earth. Built for “Mr. Average” circa 1950, the stock has a length of pull of only 13-¾”, including a 1” smooth black Remington Super Cell pad. This pad is claimed to “reduce felt recoil by up to 54%.” Stock height is 1-½” at the nose and 2-¼” at heel. There is no cast, and pitch appears to be about the usual 4° or 2” of stand-off. The stock length appears to be awfully short, but remember that many waterfowlers hunt in heavy clothing.
If these stock dimensions don’t fit you, you are out of luck. There are no shims to adjust stock height or cast. This is a shame, because it wouldn’t cost the company very much to do this and it would make the gun fit far more people. The Mossberg 500 and Benelli Super Nova pumps have stock-adjustment shims. C’mon, Remington. On the plus side, the stock grip is nicely relaxed and comfortable, as is proper for a field gun. Also, the forearm of the Waterfowl is extended to the rear, so that you are not forced to run your left hand all the way forward if you choose not to. Nice touch. The “checkering” is different. Grip panels are outlined by a groove encompassing a slightly roughened synthetic grip surface. It’s not exactly a grippy treatment, especially if your gloves are wet.
The buttstock has a sling attachment molded in, as does the magazine cap. A padded black nylon sling is included in the package. A sling can be very handy in a duck gun, so this is a good thing.
The cosmetics of our Waterfowl Express centered about the Mossy Oak Duck Blind camo. It covered everything except the bolt, magazine cap, trigger guard and recoil pad. The camo adds 50 percent to the cost of the gun compared to the plain black synthetic Magnum 870. I can’t envision the ducks caring one way or the other, so it’s your call. On the plus side, that camo coating is bound to be seriously rust proof.
Shooting any pumpgun is always interesting. There is a little showmanship, but it’s like riding a bicycle. Once you learn to shuck a pump, you never forget. A big plus to a pump, especially the 870, is that it always works. Always. Well, unless you screw up and short shuck it. Throw it in the bottom of a boat, drag it through the mud, use it as a paddle; if the barrel is clear, it will work. And when you do have to use your 870 for a push pole, be assured that cleanup is a breeze. Unlike the Winchester Model 12, disassembly of the 870 to its major components is quick, easy and can be done in the field.
Only the basics come in the cardboard carton. With the Express Super Mag Waterfowl, you get the gun, one choke, the choke wrench, the magnetic add-on front sight with a half-dozen Litepipe glow worms, a black nylon sling, a bulky trigger lock, an extremely basic manual and a two-year warranty.
When assembled with two shells in the magazine, our gun had a definite weight-forward bias. Some will like this for waterfowling, some won’t. This is due to the heavier weight of the 28" Express barrel. A 26" option would be nice, especially when you consider that the 870’s long receiver adds about 4" to the gun, so a 28"-barreled 870 equals a 32" over/under in length. In shooting clays, the balance wasn’t really a handicap on the short shots, and the stability was welcome on the longer ones; but I certainly wouldn’t pick this setup for ruffed grouse.
Remington claims that its twin action bars smooth out the pump stroke of the gun. Maybe so, but when I think of smooth pumpguns, I think of the 870’s predecessor, the Model 31 “ball-bearing” pump, and the Winchester Model 12 and 42. Those guns defined smooth. But our review gun was certainly good enough and as fast shucking as you would ever need it to be. No complaints. The Express has a right-side ejection port. If you are a lefty and this really bothers you, look at the bottom-ejection Browning BPS and Ithaca Model 37 pumps.
While the 870 can certainly get off three shots quickly, it does have the common pump gun issue of barrel movement off target while being pumped. If you take just a moment to reacquire the target, it's fine. But if you are going for speed, the second and third shots require a touch more control. Gas operated semi-autos are better in this respect. O/Us and SxSs are in between.
Since this gun is a 3-½” Super Magnum, I briefly thought about testing some Roman candles in it. Briefly. Then I did the math, and the urge for self-preservation prevailed. In our 7-¼-pound test gun, a light 2-¾” 1-oz lead upland load at 1,150 fps has 17 foot-pounds of calculated recoil. A moderate Winchester Xpert 3” duck load of 1-⅛ oz of steel at 1,280 fps has 25 foot-pounds of kick. A Winchester Blind Side 3-½” 1-⅝-oz steel load at 1,400 fps has a whopping 58.5 foot-pounds of recoil. It’s hard to tell whether it’s the duck or the hunter that gets blindsided.
Even after 63 years and many millions of guns, the advantages of the Remington 870 remain clear. The gun is modestly priced, fully functional, almost indestructible and completely reliable. Our Express Super Mag Waterfowl makes an ideal waterfowl gun. Just save the Roman candles for July 4th.
Author’s Note: For more information, contact Remington Arms Co., 800-243-9700; www.remington.com.
Bruce Buck’s most recent book, Shotguns on Review, is a collection of 38 of his most recent Gun Review columns. It is available in bookstores and online.