The All-American pump

The All-American pump

Bourjaily, Phil

As I tripped and fell dawn the bank, the Browning pump flew from my flailing hands, describing a long, graceful arc through the air, then sticking like a javelin into the muck of the creek bed.

Picking myself up, I examined the gun. Gritty mud oozed fro the plugged muzzle and filled tI e bottom ejection port. With no cleaning kit handy, I had no other choice: taking the BPS apart, held the pieces under water until the current rinsed the gun clean. I shook the water off, did my best to dry the bore, slid the barrel over the tube and screwed the magazine cap back on.

On the other side of the creek, I sat against the trunk of a large tree, pulled three Brenneke slugs from my pocket and thumbed them into the gun. When a nine-point buck ambled down the trail a few minutes later, the soggy BPS boomed once, and the buck collapsed with a .73-cal. hole though its heart.

All pump owners have a tale like mine. The details of the story may vary: the quarry might be turkeys, ducks, geese or pheasants instead of deer; the elements could be ice, snow, dust or sleet as easily as mud. You may call the gun a slide-action, a trombone gun or a cornsheller, but the moral of the story never changes: If you want a gun that shoots every time, no atter what the weather, no mattel how badly you abuse it, pick a pump. More than 100 years after its invention, the slide action’s reliability and low price keep it shucking out millions of empties a year across the marshes, woods and fields of America. The pump has been called the All-American repeater, and with good reason: Its history and popularity are almost strictly an American phenomenon.

The pump never caught on in Eruope and has always been actively sneered at in England. That said, it’s pleasingly ironic to note that an Englishman, Alexander Bain, patented the first slide-action firearm–a rifle-in 1854. The first pump shotgun, however, was the American Model 1885 Spencer. That six-shot repeater made an instant hit with market hunters and not a few sportsmen of that gluttonous era. More conscientious outdoorsmen were just as quick to condemn the pump. One gun writer of the late 1800s spoke for all outraged hunters when he wrote: “How can a man use one of these vile things? I would rather catch trout in a net.” Early reports of waterfowl slaughter with Spencers even prompted the stato”of California to ban repeaters (meaning pumps, since the autoloader was yet to be invented), although the law was quickly struck down by the state’s supreme court.

Protests notwithstanding, Americans wanted a practical repeater. The Spencer

showed the way, but it took firearms genius John Browning to come up with the first great pump shotgun, the Model 97 Winchester. A revamped version of Browning’s Model 93, the five-shot, exposed-hammer 97 became extraordinarily popular, selling more than half a million guns. Model 97s won championships at trap and live bird shooting in the hands of Browning himself among many others), cleared trenches in World War I and were a fixture in duck blinds for more than 50 years. As late as 1949, gunwriter Bob Nichols asserted in his book The Shotgunner that the 20″ barrelled riot version of the 97 made “the deadliest weapon we could have in our hands for short range thicket and woodland gunning on woodcock, quail and grouse.” There are still 97s in circulation. I owned an early 1900s-vintage 97 for a few years in the 1990s. After adding a couple of turkeys to its lifetime bag. I passed it along to the next owner.

Handle a 97 and you’ll be impressed by its low profile and slim fore-end. You will not ooh and aah over the silkiness of its action, though; it takes a good tug to work a 97’s slide. Cycle the action, and parts stick out in all directions as the 97 ejects the old round and chambers a fresh one. Great as the 97 was, it still had the air of a harvesting machine about it.

Browning did away with the external hammer in his next pump design, the Stevens 520, introduced in 1904. Winchester then ushered in the Golden Age of pump guns when it unveiled the legendary Model 12 in 1912. Dubbed “the perfect repeater,” the Model 12 was hammerless, slick and modern. Model 12 owners liked to hold their guns upright and show how the weight of the fore-end was sufficient to open the action by itself, a trick 97 fans couldn’t begin to duplicate. Perhaps significantly, the very first Model 12s were 20 gauges, a sign that the slide action gun had evolved from a game hog’s tool to a piece suitable for well-heeled sportsmen.

The Model 12 marked the beginning of the pump gun’s Golden Age. Shooters realized that well-made, finely-fitted pump guns cost less than doubles, held more shells and worked more reliably than autoloaders. Customers demanded pumps. Gunmakers responded with some great guns.

Remington countered the Model 12 with its own 20-ga. pump, the bottom-ejecting Model 17 in 1921. It went on to produce two more pumps, the Model 29 and the Model 31, the latter known as “the ball bearing repeater” for its smooth action. Not a few pump gun fans crown Remington’s 31 as the best pump of all time.

Winchester’s slender Model 42 came out in 1933 and dommated .410 skeet events for years. After the Remington Model 17’s patent expired, Ithaca turned the design into its classic Model 37. The ’30s, ’40s and ’50s saw pump guns reigning everywhere: in the uplands and marshes, and in the winner’s circle at trap and skeet championships. Paradoxically, the Golden Age of pumps began to fade in 1950 with the introduction of another classic, Remington’s 870.

Remington’s discontinuation of the 31 in favor of the 870 in 1950 marked a turning point away from machined, hand-fitted guns. The 870 took advantage of stamped parts and cheaper production methods perfected during the mass production of arms for World War II. Even the checkering on the 870 was pressed. Those accustomed to finer pumps derided it as sa “punch– press gun.” True, the 870 was inexpensively made, but the design proved drop-dead reliable. Today at 50 years old, the 870 has outlasted a good many of its critics and will no doubt bury the rest. With several million made, Remington’s pump has transcended mere classic status to become totally ubiquitous. As gunwriter L.P. Brezny declared to me once in duck camp: “If you don’t have an 870, you don’t have a shotgun.”

Mossberg’s Model 500 made its debut in 1962. An inexpensive gun, it too has gone on to sell in the millions. The 870 and 500 were the wave of the pump gun’s future. As autos became more reliable and handsome Belgian Superposeds and other over-unders caught the public’s fancy, pumps lost their glamour, becoming relegated to first-gun and beater status. When a shooter needed a gun to lay in the bottom of a duck boat, he still chose a pump; when he wanted something more, he gravhated toward autoloaders and over-unders.

A Model 12 may have been the gun responsible for the first 100 straight from the 27-yd. line, but you’ll rarely see top trapshooters shouldering a pump today. While the Model 12 or 31 with a Cutts Compensator reigned on skeet fields throughout the ’40s and ’50s, autoloaders and, later, over-unders eventually came to dominate the game. You will never see a pump in a sporting clays tournament today except in pump-only events.

Pump gun makers who couldn’t read the writing on the wall floundered. Ithaca hung on, producing pumps the old-fashioned way into the ’70s while matching Remington and Mossberg prices. The firm stumbled into repeated bankruptcies as a result. Thanks in large part to Winchester chairman John Olin’s efforts, the Model 12 remained on life-support long after it had become too costly to make. The original Model 12 was discontinued in the early ’60s to be replaced by the less expensive Y– Model, which included some stampings in its production.

While the pump has lost the high ground, its rock-solid simplicity and entry-level price assure that it still commands a huge following among those who want a gun that always works. The pump has become a niche gun, although the niche it occupies is broad indeed: a gun for new hunters, hunters on a budget and anyone who wants the last word in repeater reliability. And for some shooters raised on pumps, there’s just something missing from a shotgun that doesn’t have to be cranked by hand.

Pumps are available in everything from .410 bore to 10 ga. If I had to pick a few favorites, I’d name Browning’s 28-ga. BPS, which is heavy for an upland gun but a delight for doves or skeet; Ithaca’s Deerslayer II slug gun (after a trigger job); Winchester’s 20-ga. 1300 Youth Model for my children; Remington’s Light Contour Wingmaster as an all-around gun and the Benelli Nova for hard duty in the duck boat, goose field and turkey woods. If you really want a nice shooter, though, pick up an 870, a 37 or some other older pump with a 30″ plain barrel and have the choke opened from the inevitable full. Without the weight of a vent rib or the operating system of an autoloader, such guns are long, light and a delight to handle.

Like other scatterguns, modern pumps now feature synthetic stocks, camo dipped finishes, choke tubes and 12-ga., 3%” chambers. The only real innovation in pump gun design in recent years has been the rotary bolt used in Benelli’s Nova and Winchester’s 1300. It’s impossible to forget to shuck a Nova or 1300’s action; the gun almost opens itself as the bolt unlocks. Rotary bolts are fast, too. In timed tests a couple of years ago, a Winchester 1300 cranked out three rounds in a lightning-fast 0.56 seconds.

Hunters who claim they can’t remember to work the slide– my dad was always one-need only shoot a few rounds at clays. I started out with autos and learned to shuck a pump with halfdozen shots at targets. The drill is simple: break the target, slide, shoot the biggest piece. Now I (just like thousands of other shooters) can switch back and forth from pumps to autos without missing a beat. In fact, some hunters score better on follow-up shots with the pump gun since they have to move the gun quickly to re-acquire the target after working the action.

While there’s a raft of pumps available, two of last year’s new guns stand out both as great shooters and illustrations of where the pump gun has been and where it may be heading in the next century: Benelli’s Nova and Ithaca’s Model 37 Classic.

The Nova, with its Buck Rogers styling and one-piece polymer stock/receiver, is a working blueprint for 21 st century gunmakers. Though manufactured in Italy, it’s made with Americans in mind. Selling at less than $400, it’s an affordable, entry-level gun, full of clever design features: a magazine cap that doubles as a disassembly tool, a twist-off recoil pad that allows you to drop in a recoil reducer, a magazine cut-off button in the fore-end (which, incidentally swoops all the way back to meet the receiver, eliminating hand-pinch for those of us who like to take a short hold on the fore-end).The Nova’s one piece polymer stock is simply molded around a steel reinforcing “cage” in the receiver, allowing Benelli to make the stock, receiver and rear swivel all of a single piece in one operation.

In some ways more astonishing than the futuristic Nova is Ithaca’s reincarnated 37 Classic, a ghost from the ’50s replete with ringtail fore-end, sunburst recoil pad and an allsteel trigger guard (when is the last time you saw one of those on a pump?).

Despite three bankruptcies between 1979 and 1995, Ithaca is up and running today, employing a small workforce and machinery that in some cases dates to World War II. Using the Internet as a market research tool, the company stays in touch with Ithaca fans and listens to them. What they want is nostalgia, what they got last year was the 16-ga. 37 Classic. At $695 the Classic is expensive for a pump, but Ithaca has sold out of 16s and for good reason: If any gun makes you want to hunt in a necktie, this is it.

Granted, the 37 Classic will never sell in huge numbers; the first run consisted of 1,000 guns, but all of them were gone in a few days. The Nova is destined to sell big numbers, and the Mossbergs and 870s continue rack up Big Mac-type sales figures with millions and millions sold. On a recent visit to the Remington plant in Ilion, N.Y., I saw huge stacks of 870s that left no doubt people still want pump guns.

In 1910, no less a shotgun authority than Charles Askins, Sr. predicted the pump gun’s demise, writing: “an autoloading mechanism is the ultimate fate of all pump repeaters.” Yet 86 years later, when I admired a world duck calling champion’s Super Black Eagle in a blind on Arkansas’ Cache River, the champ confided: “I shoot this because I won it in that contest in Stuttgart. When it’s bad cold, I take my 870 … ’cause it always goes bang.”

The slide action may have seen its day in the sun, but there’s no better choice than a pump gun when the clouds roll in. OR

Copyright National Rifle Association of America Jan 2001

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.