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Remington 870 Wingmaster

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASince its creation in 1950, over 10 million Remington 870 pump-action shotguns have produced. That’s 10,000,000. Think about that for a moment. That’s one for every third person in this country; by any measure, a heck of a lot of guns. So suffice to say that if there’s one gun that needs no introduction, the Remington 870 is it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut that doesn’t mean they’re all created equal. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. Having seen well over 100 variants produced during its continuing production run, at this point identifying one of these popular and populous Remington shotguns as simply an 870 reflects little more than the gun’s basic design and receiver; everything from the gun’s finish, to its furniture, to its very quality can change hugely from model to model. Take, for example, the budget-friendly Express model. Finished to a lesser degree than many other 870 models, with less polishing to components like the chamber and barrel, a plastic trigger guard, and some moulded metal parts supplanting the usual forged components, the Express trades refinement and lustre for cost-effectiveness and value. Conversely, the Police models go the other way, utilizing hand-selected components, heavier-duty magazine and trigger-sear springs, and a tough parkerized finish to  provide police forces with the most durable shotgun possible. But sitting somewhere in between the durable and rugged Police model, and the affordable and basic Express is what many would consider to be the archetypal Remington 870: The Wingmaster.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd they wouldn’t be wrong in making that assumption. Designed and built in the years directly following World War II, the then-new 870 may have been the first American firearm to apply the same lessons to consumer-grade firearms as had been learned during wartime production, and was a direct result of Remington realizing that the days of their superbly machined, hand-fitted, and relatively expensive Model 31 slide-action shotgun had come to a close. Initially panned by critics as a sub-par “tin can gun” utilizing far too much stamped steel and not enough hefty machined lumps, the 870 Wingmaster nonetheless curried favour with hunters and sport shooters who appreciated the 15 different variations offered at the gun’s launch in 1950, and by 1966 had seen its sales rise to the 1,000,000 by 1966, after just 16 years in production. By comparison, the unequivocally better-made but more expensive Model 31 had been discontinued in 1949 after 18 years with just 190,000 units sold.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlthough still available from Remington in everything from .410 to left-handed versions, used Wingmasters can be found in every corner of the country, and often present absolutely stellar value due to their long-running nature and modularity, and can frequently be had for as much or less than a new 870 Express. In fact, the model pictured on these pages was bought for just under $300, with similarly aged and well-cared for simple examples of the breed being frequently available for between $250 and $400. Police, Trap, Skeet, and other special or specific-usage models generally command dramatically steeper price tags.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo what do you need to know before hunting the used gun rack your local shop for an 870? Well, as with most pump-action shotguns, the first thing to examine is the magazine tube. Having been pumped once for each firing, the condition of the bluing beneath the pump handle will indicate the degree to which a Wingmaster has been used. Likewise, looking closely at the surface of the magazine tube to check for scratches can be indicative of the gun’s maintenance record and usage history; sporting guns will have been kept relatively clean and well-oiled, while hunting guns may have collected dirt between the pump handle and magazine tube, resulting in shallow, but repeated, scratches. Also, check over the receiver itself for any evidence of pitting or corrosion on the receiver. Most older 870s will probably bear some thinning of bluing from simple use, and most that have been hunted with will have at least a modicum of pitting and scratching of the finish, but in most cases it’s minor and has no bearing on the gun’s function.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFurther evidence of the amount of care lavished on an 870 can be found inside the receiver. On a proper Wingmaster, the bolt will be a highly polished silver unit, while Express and Police guns will be equipped with a black parkerized bolt. Given the age of many Wingmasters and the degree to which they may have been abused and rebuilt, it’s an easy check that can be worth performing. Similarly, if possible, it’s worth examining the inside rails of the receiver where the action bars slide for excess carbon buildup or irregular wear, as they can prove good indicators of negligence. Check that the ejector, mounted to the inside of the receiver on the left side of the barrel (when looking from the aft of gun) is solidly mounted, as about the only recurring and occasional issue with Wingmasters has been the loosening of said piece after many hundreds of rounds. In most cases, however, it should be fine. Then, flip the gun over and examine the shell lifter that covers the loading port. Finally, remove the barrel from the receiver and examine its bore for pitting and rust, as one should on all used firearms. Also, on newer guns (post-1986 production), the barrel should be fitted with the threaded Rem-Choke system. If so, expect to pay a premium of between $50 and $150 for the added versatility they represent.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHowever, we will be quick to note that in many regards, finding problems with an 870 Wingmaster is not only incredibly uncommon, but in our experience a real boon. The Wingmaster’s as simple as a stump in design, and has amassed an almost limitless amount aftermarket and factory spare parts in its 63 years of manufacture, meaning any broken or undesirable parts (such as a youth stock or bizarre/polychoke-equipped barrel) often decrease the amount of wear a gun will have seen, further reduce the price, and also give you a great excuse to upgrade the offending component. For example, the fully-adjustable trap-stocked version pictured here was purchased as a horrifically ugly field model a previous owner had cut down to youth dimensions, and then installed a similarly horrific-looking lace-up recoil pad on. And that’s really the biggest strength of the 870 Wingmaster: its modularity and aftermarket.  You can turn even the most beleaguered of Wingmaster receivers into a truly lust-worthy rail and light equipped tactical slug gun, or you can dress it up in curly figured walnut and break clays with it. With the 870, the choice really is yours.

The Winchester Model 12

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA throwback to the era when paved streets were still a novelty, steam was a viable energy source, and shotguns ruled the west, the Winchester Model 12 has gone down in the annals of history as one of America’s greatest firearms.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Model 12 was the brainchild of one Thomas Crosley Johnson, who revolutionized shotgun design by popularizing the use of an internal hammer mechanism, re-engineering the shell lifter and bolt in such a way that they were retained within the receiver during operation, and locating a cross-bolt safety in perhaps the most natural place possible, Johnson’s work in the design of the Model 12 was nothing short of superlative. Subsequently, when the Winchester Model of 1912 debuted to the public in that year, it was a revelation. In fact, it wouldn’t be long before the Model 1912, or simply Model 12 as it came to be known from 1919 on, came to be known as “the perfect repeater.”

And for good reason. Hewn from a solid mass of forged steel, the receiver was tank-like in its durability. Of course, being a takedown-style design in which the similarly artfully-made bolt locked up against the receiver rather than within a barrel extension, it had to be. But it was indicative of the manner in which all Model 12s were manufactured and assembled. Almost each and every part was  entirely machined, regardless of how complex the process, and individually hand-fitted to the action to ensure the best possible fit and function. And the materials were top-notch, too. Winchester claimed that only the absolute best forgings were used in their receivers and bolt assemblies, and even went so far as to manufacture their extensively proof-tested barrels in ordnance steel, nickel steel, and most impressively stainless steel as far back as the late ’20s. Not surprisingly, as labour costs rose throughout the post-war period, it became readily apparent to Winchester that the Model 12’s production costs rang the death knell for the beautifully made shotgun, and rumour has it that when production finally ceased in 1964, Winchester was losing money on each and every one they sold.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo it’s no surprise then that they’ve long since been considered highly collectible and highly sought after. The only saving grace is that although production ceased 55 years ago, over two million Model 12s had already been produced, which when combined with their robust nature ensures that there’s still plenty around to keep prices reasonable. Produced in varying grades ranging from field guns to the ultra-exclusive Super Pigeon Grade Trap guns (if you have to ask, you can’t afford it), basic shooter-grade Model 12s can be considered well-bought for anything south of $400, with $450 to $500 generally being the median price for a Model 12 in decent condition. However, dozens upon dozens of various models and gauges muddy the waters, and can result in seemingly bizarre price fluctuations as collectors continually seek out the rarer sub-models, gauges, and barrel lengths.

This of course means that finding one in good shape, at a good price, can frequently be equal parts opportunity and blind luck. But with the 12-gauge Model 12s typically representing the least collectible specimens of the breed, the good news is that arguably the most useful Model 12s remain the most affordable. By comparison, the sub-gauge models, in 16 gauge, 20 gauge (which was the first gauge the Model 12 was offered in, coincidentally), 28 gauge and especially .410 (which was actually known as the Model 42 and is considered by many to the best-handling pump action shotgun ever made) command heavy premiums.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlso, unlike the previously mentioned 870 Wingmaster, purchasing a Model 12 comes with certain caveats that frequently make it much more cost-effective to purchase a gun ready-to-run, rather than build one to suit. Since most are still running perfectly fine with their original parts, the Model 12 remains almost wholly ignored by the vast majority of aftermarket suppliers, and those parts that are available (be they NOS spare parts or aftermarket stocks and the like) are not what most would call cheap. There are substantially more $700 curly walnut trap stocks avaialable for a Model 12 than there are $200 adjustable synthetic stocks. Furthermore, while the Model 12 isn’t overly complex, the same hand-fitted nature that has led to its sterling reputation can also make it something of a daunting gun to repair at home. Getting it apart for cleaning isn’t too bad, but going beyond that often involves removing staked pins and surprisingly  reverse-threaded screws. For that reason alone, it’s usually worth avoiding any used Model 12s that show signs of carefree home gunsmithing. Scratched and rounded-over screw heads, poorly-maintained actions, and blotchy bluing are all indicative of poorly maintained guns, and should at least be examined by a someone with at least a modicum of Model 12 experience, just to ensure that they aren’t catastrophically worn or abused. Even rebluing some of the alloys used by Winchester can be more difficult than on other guns!

But perhaps most obviously, being a takedown-style shotgun, one should take a look at the joint between the barrel assembly and the shotgun’s receiver. Grabbing the stock and the barrel separately, one should not be able to feel any play between the two components. If there is, it can be an easy task to rectify as there is a provision for adjusting the tension between the two, so long as there is some degree of adjustment remaining. To remove the barrel assembly, use the pin at the far end of the magazine tube to rotate the magazine tube clockwise, then push the pump forward to disengage the magazine tube from the receiver. Rotate the barrel approximately 30 degrees to disengage the interrupted threads that retain the barrel within the receiver, and carefully pull the barrel clear of the receiver. With this done, it’s worth taking a look to see how much adjustment remains on the barrel assembly as an indicator of wear and use, as well as looking over the threads on the barrel and receiver for marring, as the fine interrupted threads can be all too easily be accidentally cross-threaded.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA gun of superior quality to most others available in its price range, a Model 12, although older, is easily capable of reliable performance in any use. However, some balk at the notion of purchasing a 50 or more year-old shotgun, when a new model can be had for the same price, but don’t let that dissuade you: Winchester’s Model 12 was the best repeating shotgun the world had seen during its heyday, and by most accounts, that status remains unchanged today. Slick as snot, fast-firing, and getting more desirable (and valuable) by the day it’s a gun for those that appreciate fine workmanship and history as much as they do reliability,  and are more interested in preserving a piece of firearms history than they are reinventing it.

While many consider the 870 Wingmaster and Model 12 to be competitors, insofar as would-be-buyers may find themselves divided between the two, they couldn’t be more different. Finely-made, high-cost guns like the Model 12 were exactly what prompted Remington to create the Wingmaster, and although the strength of that particular gun’s design has lent it similar levels of reliability, that the Model 12 is a much more well-made shotgun is undeniable. While the Remington feels like a perfectly designed collection of parts, the smoother action and increased level of machining makes the Model 12 feel like a single piece of steel, with well-maintained examples having actions that can be coaxed open by gravity alone, without feeling loose or sloppy. But that sort of feel also relates to their best attributes. The Model 12 works best when left well-enough alone. Keep it clean and well-oiled, and it’ll work as well in 50 years as it does today. Conversely, the 870 Wingmaster is at its best when bought with the age old adage in mind: “some assembly required. With everything from barrels to stocks to sights to rails to lights to triggers to safeties all being both widespread and affordable, getting your hands on your dream 870 Wingmaster is as easy as ordering a few parts and doing some simple penance in front of a workbench. But one thing’s for sure, with either of these classic American pump-action shotguns, you definitely can’t go wrong.