Shotguns & Shooting  |  10/15/2013

The Greatest Field Gun: The Remington 870

With more than 10 million sold since 1951, the Remington 870 is the most popular shotgun of all time. Photo by Anthony Hauck / Pheasants Forever

It works. It’s reliable. It lasts. It’s versatile. It’s American. You want to call it a “starter” gun? Go right ahead, but make no mistake, more than anything, the Remington Model 870 is a “finisher.” It’s a killer field gun.
First in the Field
Shotguns sporting intricate engravings, lavish woods and foreign names make for great gun displays and copywriting, but as far as the 870 is concerned, the next big thing is better left to the avant-garde. The rooster you slide into your vest is too dead to care whether your scattergun has gold inlay or not.
There is a modern tendency to overcomplicate things, and that includes pheasant hunting. One can easily spend thousands of dollars in search of the right outfit, guns, and other helpful gear to make your hunt a success. The 870 harkens to the core modesty of the pursuit. You can fill garages with gear and cabinets with guns, but when you peel the layers away, the basic recipe still calls for just a pocket of shells, a working dog and a working man’s gun.
And isn’t it nice not worrying about your gun? Eight months out of the year fall somewhere between purgatory and eternity, only for heavenly autumn to slip away devilishly quick. Why leave anything to chance? Some hunters trust in God and their 870s, and depending on the day, not particularly in that order.
Every field-used 870 has at least one legendary story of reliability, having braved the elements for an unforgettable day afield or just to put dinner on the table. How many 870s have spent time holding water at the bottom of the duck marsh only to have a few thousand rounds left in ‘em? A reputable owner’s 870 should, by unwritten law, have a few character marks made permanent from good, solid overuse.
An Undiscerning Shotgun
Many have described the 870 as a “tool,” not glamorous but an apt term for the all-purpose gun. Being highly dependable and versatile tends to bring on such workmanlike praise.
Grouse woods, goose pits, duck blinds, deer stands, and pheasant fields, the 870 leaves no room for inclusion in the utility gun category. Remington has catered to hunters’ evolving wants and needs over a half century, now offering no fewer than 25 Rem 870 models for upland, small game, big game and waterfowl pursuits. Whatever “upgrade” and “improvement” each model bears, all hold true to the time-honored, classic Remington pump-action shotgun design with the smooth-as-butter bind-free action. Remington may have invented the concept of variations on a perfect theme.
Some of those variations extend to the 10 or so percent of hunters whose guns shoulder on the left. Used to be unless the left arm was a ticket to the majors, southpaws were misrepresented – heck, unrepresented – by the rest of daily life, gun manufacturers included. Not the 870. “When I was growing up, I remember my dad being a little apprehensive about me shooting left-handed,” says Andrew Vavra, Pheasants Forever Marketing Specialist, “He thought it would be an expensive trait since he couldn’t just give me his hand-me-down guns; not to mention the fact that finding a decent left-handed firearm is a chore in itself. Luckily for him – and me – I’m still shooting the same left handed 870 Express he bought me 13 years ago and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Grouse, geese, ducks, woodcock, pheasant and turkey – that gun has been through every element imaginable.”
Starter to Lifer
Launching a shooting and hunting career with an 870 has become the modus operandi.
There have been more than 10 million 870s from Remington Arms Company sold since 1951 – it’s the best selling scattergun of all-time – much of it due to the ease with which novices can handle it.
There is belief in natural progression held by certain shooters. Start with an 870 and when time passes and money permits, move to something more elegant, more refined, possibly with more barrels. And while 870s are occasionally relegated to backup duty and fill-in hammer, more often than not they enjoy a lifetime afield as intended. The glue from these guns sticks beyond the wood and steel.
My dad bought his first 870, a Wingmaster edition, forty years ago, and purchased two more along the hunting path. A few years back, he added his first 20-gauge Wingmaster for when he feels like lightening the load. Pheasants, waterfowl and deer – to use his words, “It’s the only gun I’ll ever need.”
I’ve seen him drive plenty use out of his 870 collection, but one memory is forever etched in my mind as the classic “Wingmaster” moment. Dad is walking a South Dakota draw, and as a lone poster, I have the privilege of a free hilltop show to this pheasant panorama. There’s a heavy headwind, and a big (naturally) rooster busts out ahead of the small group of hunters, banks right and puts the wind at his back. He’s booking back high and fast, slightly off the veteran’s right shoulder, providing a seemingly unpleasant angle. The old Wingmaster locks into Dad’s shoulder and the barrel begins tracking. It’s an epic lead when suddenly the bird folds. Being a sizeable distance away, I hear the shot a second later as I eye the bird’s final descent into the grass. A late afternoon glow, a perfectly executed shot from the field proven 870 and a true trophy bird made it a post to remember.
I’ve followed my dad’s lead into this legion of 870 lifers. The trusty Wingmaster he gave me is one of my prized possessions, and to date the most-used firearm in my collection. I’m not unlike most pheasant hunters in harboring the occasional affinity for new guns. But I’ll always do well to heed his words and when it’s time to hit the pheasant fields, draw the Wingmaster 870 from its case. “It’s the only gun I’ll ever need.”
This post appears in the October issue of On the Wing, Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever’s monthly eNewsletter. Read more from this month’s issue.
Anthony’s Antics Afield is written by Anthony Hauck, Pheasants Forever’s Online Editor. Email Anthony at AHauck@pheasantsforever.organd follow him on Twitter @AnthonyHauckPF.