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The Greatest Field Gun: The Remington 870

RemExpress

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.

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41 Responses to “The Greatest Field Gun: The Remington 870”

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  1. Charlie McLravy says:

    Anthony,

    I bought a Remington 12 gauge 870 Wingmaster in 1982. I used it last Friday. It is far and away my favorite shotgun, and the only one I ever shoot.

    One Fall morning, we were setting up in a field for geese. My hunting partner backed his 3/4 ton pickup over my 870. The stock cracked and twisted severely to the left and the rib on the sight line bent. I shot a limit of geese that day. I replaced the stock but the rib is still bent.

    I wouldn’t trade my 870 for anything.

    Charlie McLravy

  2. Terry J. says:

    Anthony,

    I,too, got my 870 Wingmaster in 1985.
    It would be interesting to survey all PF/QF members to see how many own an 870 or ever had.

  3. Laurence Friedman says:

    I love my 870 Wingmaster, but don’t shoot it anymore because whenever I fire it my right thumb whacks me in the nose when it recoils. The stock even with the supplied butt pad is too short and was designed for the average sized man of the 1950′s and anyone over 6 feet tall probably has the same problem as I have. Nonetheless I loved it with it’s modified choke when shooting over flushing dogs. Since I got a pointing dog, I prefer a double gun with IC and modified barrels.

  4. David C says:

    “It’s the only gun I’ll ever need.”

    Dear God, your wife didn’t see this thread, did she?

    If the 870 were ambidextrous like the Browning BPS, we’d have one. Wife shoots lefty, I shoot righty. But I agree, a good pumpgun should be in everyone’s stable. It just isn’t the only gun I need. ;)

  5. Spencer K. says:

    Truly a classic gun! Grew up watching my dad and grandpa harvest untold pheasants with the 870. In a similar vein, we recently ran a post on what makes the perfect grouse gun (for those who hunt timber chickens as well) in case you are interested!

    http://featherandfinblog.com/the-great-grouse-gun-debate-poll-results/

    Keep ‘em coming!
    Spencer
    featherandfinblog.com

  6. Todd says:

    The Remington 870 is the only shotgun I own, and it always gets the job done. If I were a competitive shooter, I could see the case to be made for getting a pricier gun. But I am a big believer that time spent at the range is more important than money spent on a gun. Better save your money for all of the great Remington 870 accessories out there.

  7. M/W says:

    I picked up my 870TC Wingmaster at a pawn shop about 35 years ago. It had been somewhat abused and the beauty of the wood was obscured. I bought the gun, refinished the wood, cut down the full choke barrel and installed a Lyman choke. It has shot many rounds of skeet over the years but for serious work I replace the beautiful wood with synthetic. It has downed hundreds of birds over the years. The bag includes doves, pheasants, quail, chukars, huns, pigeons ducks and geese. It’s action is so smooth it seems to pump itself. Many years ago I had the receiver engraved with a chukar scene and my GSP on point. It is without doubt one of my most treasured tools. I’ve just returned from a short hunt bagging a couple of chukars.

  8. rjl says:

    Bought my 870 in 1956 and still using it today

  9. Rick says:

    My dad got his the year I was born, 1965. He baught me mine when I turned 16 in ’81. I got my kids a youth 20 ga. in ’02 and baught each of them an 870 Wingmaster 12 ga. when they could handle it. My youngest is 12 and has graduated from being the “birdog”. He will be going on his firs hunt with a youth 870 Wingmaster in his hand this weekend. You could say that the 870 Wingmaster runs in our family we have six of them.

  10. Mike Mendenhall says:

    Not only is my 870 Express the first gun I purchased it is the only gun I use! I hunt everything with it. I bought mine in 1995 just out of the Army and hunt pheasant, quail, grouse, squirrel, deer, turkey, dove and rabbit with it. It has even helped thin out the local coyote population. I don’t think there is any other gun anyone truly “needs”.

  11. Ken says:

    I bought my 870 Wingmaster in 1974. As a newly wed it was a luxury purchase and have used it every season since then with out fail. It wouldn’t be fall with out it and my setters ready to go.

  12. Dennis Larson says:

    I am a retired law enforcement officer. Every dept I worked for used the 870 wingmaster riot gun. So I bought one for hunting and have used it for over 40yrs. It has never failed me. I have failed it a number of times but it has brought down countless pheasants and quail. It is the best shotgun ever built.

  13. Mark says:

    Ithaca model 37′s one 12, and one 20. Bought them in ’72. I love them both. Being left handed, I like the bottom eject.

  14. Greg T says:

    My 870 Wingmaster was the first firearm I ever owned. First year in college, picked it out at a local shop, and had to have them put it on a lay-away plan (anyone remember what that is?!). Couldn’t wait to get her broken in. The wood on that gun is beautiful! Still have it after 25 years – still in great shape – wouldn’t trade or sell it for anything – too many memories!

  15. Robert Jones says:

    Grandpa gave me his wingmaster just before he died. It was the first gun he ever bought new when he purchased it it 1953. That gun sparked my obsession for upland hunting. Its the first gun I ever took a bird with and the first gun I shot at the first rooster I had ever seen. Its semi retired now but makes its way to the field a few times a season out of respect for for grandpa. I know he is proud looking down on me carrying his gun, whether I bag a bird or not. Thank you for passing on your love of the outdoors grandpa, I wish I could walk a field with you.

  16. Doug Murray says:

    I have been married 23 years. Although my wife does not share my love of hunting. She knows me and bought me a 870 for our first wedding anniversary!. I later bought my newborn son his first gun…an 870 Express youth model 20 gauge. He used it until he was 15… he never missed a bird. The 870 is the work horse of the industry.

  17. charles Nunemaker says:

    Tired of my old Auto 5 jamming in bad weather back in the 70′s, my hunting buddies said, “get an 870.” I would have but the Nikko 870 copy had beautiful wood so I bought that. I’m a woodworker. A few years ago, I bought an 870 express combo for deer and birds. Excellent gun with plain synthetic stock. Shoots slugs well and I only take a couple of shells with me for pheasants. My dog, a Griffon, is that good.
    I’m making a walnut stock for the 870 from the farm we hunt and train dogs.

  18. wayne says:

    Bought my 1971 870 Wingmaster and still have it as my only 12 ga. and love it love it love it. I have a 30″ full choke barrel, and have brought down more than one pheasant that seemed it was a mile away so I just fired to see how close I could get to it? Down came the bird! I swear this gun can almost aim itself! It is perfectly balanced and is as good as new. I got mine as a gift to myself as a combination birthday present and college graduation gift. Best $172.00 I have ever spent.

  19. swamprat says:

    shot one didn’t like it. couldn’t hit the braod side of a barn with one. i like my 1300 winchester

  20. Mike Russell says:

    Bought my first (12 ga. Express) in 1998, and I’ve taken deer, turkey, and pheasant w/ it. Since then, realizing what a great design it was, bought a Police surplus riot gun (ca. 1971 which sits next to my bed, loaded w/ 00 buckshot/slugs) and a Wingmaster LW 870 20 ga (ca. 1982, DU edition, gold trigger), which is like a natural extension of my arms/eyes when I upland hunt.
    Best damn shotgun ever made, period.

  21. Jay says:

    I own 2, my most recent is just a straight brush gun with a syntheic stock. I bought it to replace the youth model that my pops got me as a kid ( which I still use as a slug gun since it doesn’t have screw in chokes ) I hope both will someday be my grand childs even if it is a wall piece.

  22. Steve Freidin says:

    Moved from my 11-87 to an 870 for skeet. Tha 870 racks beautifully.

  23. mike says:

    had a 870 for 45 yrs best gun I ever owened. and I`ve had lot`s

  24. Johnny says:

    I bought a Remington 870 Express two years ago. It’s terrible. Remington’s quality has gone downhill. It fails to extract shells. I lend it to people I don’t like.

  25. Ross says:

    I purchased my first 870 Wingmaster for $125 in 1969 using paper route earnings. Forty plus years and many thousands of rounds later, it still shoots just fine. I’ve hunted waterfowl with it in rain, sleet and snow but the only two times it failed were the result of improperly crimped reloads allowing errant bb’s to roll into the trigger mechanism. The fix? I popped out two retaining pins that hold the trigger assembly in the receiver, pulled out the assembly, tipped it upside down, administered a couple of quick shakes to release the bb, put it back into the receiver and was back on the line in five minutes. What a great gun!

  26. Billy says:

    Great article. My Dad gave me an 870LW 20 gauge for my 14th birthday in 1973. After many guns(some very high grade European SxS), it is still my favorite gun to shoot. Absolutely the greatest field gun ever.

  27. Willis F. Fry says:

    As each of my grandsons have reached “Hunting Age” Old Gramps has bought each of them a Remington Model 870; four so far with three more to go. Do you think I should have asked for a “Group Discount” in the price?

  28. Alan W says:

    Bought my first shotgun as a poor college student in the late 60′s-a used 12 gauge 870, plain 30″ barrel for pheasant hunting. Paid $40 (a whole week’s pay back then) for the gun, hunting coat, and a box of shells. Added a couple different barrels along the way-paid more for the barrels than the original gun purchase. After many years of use I intrusted it to our son who still uses it occasionally. Need to look the serial number up to determine its true age however it is probably 50 years old. Hopefully, one of the grandsons(now 8 and 5) will treasure it as much as my son and I have.

  29. Matt H. says:

    My dad bought me my 870 Express in ’97 for Christmas, after dropping hints for 2 years that at 20 yrs old I had outgrown the 20 ga. Mossberg that he had given me on my 13th birthday (incidentally I still shoot that youth model 20 for doves). I have since acquired some additional guns (Webley & Scott pre-WW II double gun, a Benelli Legacy and a Beretta OU) but the 870 is still my duck blind pump gun. And also the gun that sleeps under my bed the rest of the time…

  30. Jerome Raupp says:

    I bought my first Wingmaster in 1983. 12 GA vent rib fixed full choke. Had a 32″ barrel. Must have been some over runs from the DU gun that had a 32″ barrel. My second a few years later. That was an 870LW Magnum 20 GA.

    I still have the first one. I now have the rem choke barrel for using steel shot and the TA trap wood on it. The TA wood has that long forearm that comes all the way to the receiver like the Competition trap.

    For those with a length of pull issue. Try that TA trap wood. 14.25″ length of pull and easily changed by the recoil pad. It’s discontinued by Remington. It was an early 80′s custom shop gun.

    Numrich gun parts has new old stock wood from Remington. Mine was direct install no fitting required.

    I’ve since bought an 11-87, a 332, and a Winchester 101 light. When the birds are high and I want fresh Goose, the Wingmasters the only choice. I’ve put this gun through hell and back in the duck and goose blinds the last 30 years. My life long hunting partner’s on his third Mossberg. When it comes to waterfowl the Wingmasters the ONLY choice

  31. Irving Cryderman says:

    I wish they would make a 16 gauge Wing Master 870 one more time, I would be all over one.

  32. erzola says:

    very reliable, but so is the Ithaca Model 37 and much more pleasant to carry

  33. K. Perry says:

    Starter gun? Definitely! And if you can afford just one gun-a great place to start. If that is you-read no further. GET ONE and go Hunting!!
    Modest? Absolutely
    Working man’s gun? Hmm…depends on that salary of that ‘working man’ I’d think.
    Reliable? No more so than a high quality over/under or side by side with the gold engraving that Anthony chides about in paragraph 2.
    Bottom line: For the once a year hunter-it is fine. If you hunt multiple times a season, you probably have the income (and time!) to afford something better.
    Evidence? Go to the high doller clay target competions when the big $$ are on the line. Trap, Skeet, Sporting Clays, International Trap/Skeet (Olympic events) and look for a Remington 870. Don’t think you’ll find one. Ya, I know, that is not Pheasant hunting, but hard to argue the point.

  34. Anthony Bono says:

    Ithaca 37 just as good only easier to carry, pumps smoother and much faster.

  35. Chuck D says:

    Bought a new 870 with a slug barrel in 1964 at a liquidation sale for $65, then spent an additional $65 on an extra barrel 26in imp/mod with a vented rib.I’ve had the best of both worlds for wing shooting and deer hunting in the shotgun only state of N.J.

  36. Tyler says:

    I have the same issue as @Johnny – great gun when it works but often fails to extract shells.

  37. Mike says:

    I gotta say, love the 870 or hate it, this has to be one of the best gun articles I’ve read. In an age where lazy magazine writers boast about garbage guns, and deliver inflated numbers to sell them, I have to say I’m impressed when a writer gives truly nostalgic thoughts on a classic that doesn’t have the flash of some of the newer stuff out there.

    I happened to look up and down the line of hunters I was with this weekend, and noticed 870′s and 1100′s were the overwhelming favorite. Sure, we were all envious of the Citori in the pack, but in the end, our workhorses performed as they should’ve when we needed them, and we got our roosters. Isn’t that, and having a cold one with your buddies at the end of the day, what it’s all about?

  38. erzola says:

    I understand the appreciation for an 870, but did you ever carry an Ithaca Model 37 in the field? Evidently not, because if you did you would be throwing stones at your 870. The Ithaca is about 2 pounds lighter, better balanced and fits nicely in the hand.

  39. erzola says:

    OK, I will skip to my point that I have been glossing around with 2 other Posts. The 870 feels like a CLUB compared to the Ithaca 37. Do not reply unless you have hunted with both.

  40. Duane says:

    I just bought a Remington 870 Express and I love it. I went on my first pheasant hunt since the 1980′s, no luck but I got a chance to shoot and I love the shotgun. The pump and trigger action are effortless.

  41. erzola says:

    We are on subject of shotguns, NOT clippers and schnauzers. Thank you very much.

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