The first firearm I ever bought was a shotgun. I wanted something reliable, customizable, durable, which could serve for hunting and self defense if the need arose. I turned to friends, manufacturers, experts, and internet forums for advice. The overwhelming majority of people said to get a pump shotgun and not look back. In fact, they said that I would regret getting anything else. I’m writing this so that somewhere out there in the vast ocean of pump pushers, there will be at least one voice of caution. Pump shotguns are great, but consider a few things before making that purchase.
Pumps are mechanically reliable. Their manually cycled actions are robust and less prone to feeding problems than comparable semiautomatics. But, mechanical reliability isn’t the same as practical reliability. In a high stress—loss of fine motor control situation, a moderately to poorly trained individual has a high probability of short-stroking a pump shotgun. I’ve managed it in non-stressful circumstances and I’m far from inexperienced. In fairness, the experts and shootists who tout the reliability of the pump mechanism are being entirely truthful. If you have years of experience working a pump action combined with professional training, a pump is as close to bomb-proof as you’re going to get without switching to a break open design. If however, you’re a new shooter with hours instead of years of trigger time, that reliability decreases substantially. New shooters haven’t developed the skills to load a shotgun on the fly, instinctively cycle the action, and clear FTEs and FTFs. So, while the machine remains reliable, the relative skill of the user may not.
Then there’s the question of the action itself. I think U.S. gun makers assume that the average shooter is a grayback guerilla. If you have long arms, a pump gun is considerably easier to work than if you have average arms like mine. Because of this, before buying a shotgun it is important that you shoulder the piece and work the slide. After a few cycles, check the reach to forend distance to make sure it’s comfortable. That is to say, that you can work the action without overextending your shoulder. Most manufacturers make youth models and aftermarket stocks for those with less herculean arms. If you can’t comfortably work the action, a shorter break action or semiautomatic may suit your needs better, especially since the length of pull for such guns is the only limiting factor.
Finally, let’s talk about weight; specifically the amount of lifting the support arm has to do to stabilize the front end of the shotgun, keep it welded to the shooter’s shoulder, and cycle the slide. The longer the barrel and the more rounds the magazine holds the more weight that is being propped up by the weak hand. The longer the length of pull, the farther from the shoulder that hand has to be to support that weight and work the slide. The resulting effort of holding up a full sized high—cap pump with extended barrel may be both uncomfortable and impractical for a shooter who wants to get consistent range time in with their new acquisition.
I am by no means attempting to disparage the venerable pump scattergun, quite the contrary. I believe that pump shotguns fill an important place in today’s market. With barrel replacements, they can be used effectively for hunting, self defense, clays, and many other applications. All that being said, the flexibility and relatively low cost of pump guns has caused the market to tout them as the solution to every problem. A well cared for semiautomatic is as reliable as a pump for practical purposes. If speed and magazine capacity aren’t an issue, a break open shotgun (in single, side-by-side, or over-under) is an even more reliable alternative to the pump mechanism. These comments don’t even take into account the lever and bolt action alternatives.
In summary, those who unreservedly recommend the pump shotgun to new shooters undoubtedly do so with the best of intentions. But, the practical reality of getting full value from that selection may prove more challenging than one might think.