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The Gun Room

May 28, 2021

It’s hard to express just how significant the subject of this week’s   podcast was in my life. It represented a right of passage. A passport to adventure. Membership into the exclusive club of hunters that included my father and his friends. I would no longer be related to observation, but rather would be able to participate. Though the first shotgun I ever shouldered was a single shot .410, when I turned 10 years old and stepped into the field for the first time it was a Remington 870 that I held in my hands. Ownership of this gun would motivate my first lessons in gun care, taught in our basement amidst the smells of Hoppes Number 9 and WD40. Dad would clean his 1100 and I, my Youth Model 870, side by side at his bench. Obvious lessons aside, I learned other valuable things cleaning that 870. Exactly how razor-sharp the insides of a shotgun action can be. Why we take solvent out of the ‘big jar’ and put it into a small jar when cleaning. 


Spilled cleaning supplies and cut up fingers aside, the Remington 870 was my first real shotgun as it was for so many young hunters. It is not surprising this is the case as there have been some 11 million 870s made since its introduction in 1950. Back then there were many fewer models, no rem chokes, vent ribs, or synthetic stocks. 


The story of the 870 begins with the Remington family of pump shotguns which includes models 10 and 29, 17, and 31, each of these having a significant place in the history of American pump shotguns. The 10 and its successor the 29 were both bottom ejection guns designed by John Pedersen that saw limited production. The 10 and 29 were adapted for military use, but remained in the shadow cast by the Winchester 97 and then Model 12, which were favored over Remington pumps.


The 17 was an improvement on the 10 and 29, and a shooter familiar with the Ithaca Model 37 might mistake one for the other. The Remington 17 was designed by John Browning and would eventually give rise to the Ithaca 37. The 17 is also a bottom load and eject gun like the 10 and 29 that came before it. It also did not see wide acceptance, again because Winchesters Model 12 was still favored. 


Remington developed the Model 31 from lessons learned with the 17, though the biggest step was moving to a side ejection action. In fact the 31 was Remingtons first side ejection pump shotgun. It was meticulously machined and gained the name the ball-bearing repeater because of the smoothness of its action. With this level of machining came a significant cost. Not to mention that parts were not necessarily interchangeable because parts in the 31 were machine-made but hand fitted. Remington would need to go back to the drawing board one more time.


During these post-war years, one might remember that there were significant changes to other guns in the Remington lineup - guns like the Remington 700 - that were taking advantage of modern machining, metal stamping, and other processes to make more economical- or cost friendly - options for consumers. These lessons carried through all of Remington’s production and gave rise to the 870.


Four Remington engineers are credited with the development of the 870 - L. Ray Crittendon, Phillip Haskell, Ellis Hailston and G. E. Pinckney. From the outset, it seemas a clear goal of development was to utilize tested and well-known parts from other guns in the Remington line to create the 870. Actions were borrowed from the 11-48 one of the 11 series of auto loaders that were popular at the time. The fire control group borrowed some parts from the 760/7600 series pump action rifles that were in production. 


Borrowed features provided a solid base for the 870. Actions were machined from a single piece of steel. Barrels fitted to actions via a barrel extension that also contained the locking surface for the bolt. Bolts were located on a carrier that was connected to the fore grip or slide with dual action-arms. Unlike the popular Winchester Model 12 with a single action bar, these dual action bars would provide extra stability and eliminate any potential twisting during the action cycle.


It is significant to note that unlink the Model 31 that came before it and other competitor pumps, the 870 was designed for parts replacement and interchangeability. Fire control groups were one unit and could be removed by taking out two pins. Another fcg could be swapped in or in the case of being in the marsh or woods, the fcg could be cleaned, tested and put back in the gun with very little effort. 


Another consumer-friendly feature was that barrels could be swapped from one gun to another without the need for fitting. This meant that if you owned a 12ga receiver you could own several barrels for different uses; a full choke vent rib for ducks or turkey, an open choke barrel for upland or skeet, or a slug barrel for deer could easily be swapped making the 870 extremely versatile. Rem-chokes, Remington’s screw in choke system, was brought out in 1986 making barrels even more versatile. 


870’s were introduced with the base model AP landing at 69.95 about 15$ cheaper than the Winchester Model 12 at the time. There were 15 variations from the plain AP to the ADL, BDL, trap, skeet, and premier, tournament and special grades, to name a few. 


Of note, the summer of 1950 saw “Mr. 870” Rudy Etchen shooting the first-ever 100 straight in doubles trap at the Grand American Handicap solidifying the then new to the field 870’s reputation. The clout of the 870 grew as the gun was adopted by hunters and shooters alike. It proved over and over to be a true workhorse gun, versatile and nearly indestructible. A testament to its reliability, the 870 has been used by the military, carried by all divisions of law enforcement, and trusted for home defense. 


More models and variants were added as the years progressed. 1966 saw the 1 millionth 870 sold, with sales steadily increasing through the following decades. .410 and 28ga versions were released in 1969 and left hand variants were introduced in 1971. The economical Express Model was introduced in 1987, swapped walnut for ‘hardwood’ and blued finish for matte finish, saw sales of the 870 redouble. 1996 saw the 7 millionth 870 sold. Needless to say over the last 70 years the 870 has become one of the most popular shotguns ever sold.

My personal 870 was a Youth Model express. It was a 20ga with a short 21” barrel and 12” stock suited will to my 10 year old frame. It had the parkerized, no-glare finish and a basic piece of hardwood for the stock and forend. It could shoot 2 ¾ or 3” shells and had rem-chokes that I could swap out, though I believe I shot a skeet choke for most everything. 

There can be no doubt that the 870 has earned its place among the most popular guns ever sold.