Which are the best tactical shotguns?
Picking the ideal tactical shotgun doesn’t have to be hard if you follow a few simple steps to cut through the bluster and propaganda to find something that really works.
Combat shotguns are not new
Shotguns have been around as far back as the early muzzle loading “handgonnes” of the 12th Century, which were essentially small portable cannons stuffed with assorted projectiles intended to fill a pattern downrange with a variety of flung shot.
Later developments in firearm technology brought firelock, mechanical lock, flintlock, and percussion-fired muskets that, like the handgonne of old, could be filled with a handful of lead shot of various sizes.
Make no mistake, while these long arms could be used as fowling pieces to put meat on the table, they were also used widely in both personal defense and warfare, filled with “buck and ball” loads that saw combat in the Revolutionary War and Civil War.
By the 1870s, dedicated breechloading shotguns with loaded paper- or brass-hulled shells were on the market and still used for security and law enforcement, with many an Old Western sheriff carrying one in their gun rack.
Fast forward to 1899 and the early John Browning-developed pump-action shotgun of the day, the Winchester 1897, became the first modern combat shotgun used by the U.S. military in an effort to stem brutal attacks from rebels in the Philippines.
Since then– despite the advent of tanks, the guided missile and laser dazzlers– American fighting men have continued to use increasingly advanced shotguns to augment their arsenal.
Likewise, law enforcement today has access to tasers, chemical sprays, acoustic disruptors, and the like– but more often than not a good tactical shotgun is readily available. The more things change, right?
Quick List: The Best Tactical Shotguns For Home Defense:
Benelli’s M-series shotguns hail back to the mid-1980s and evolved from the vaunted HK512 FABARM. From the inertia-driven M1 (Super 90) to the M2 and M3 evolutions, today’s Benelli M4 is for many the gold-standard on tactical shotguns.
Having come out in extensive testing by the Marines in the Joint Service Combat Shotgun program to become the M1014 in military parlance, the piston-driven gas-operated M4 proved itself durable enough to survive hard use, which is quite the accomplishment for any semi-automatic shotgun.
Today, these guns are used around the globe by commandos and special response units, and with good reason. On the downside, they can be a little tricky to figure out– something that can be fixed through proper training– and have a problem cycling low-powered less-lethal loads, a common issue with autoloading shotguns.
Current production models on the commercial market run 18.5-inch barrels, come standard with ghost ring sights, a durable synthetic stock, and offer a 5+1 capacity, which can be extended when paired with a longer barrel. Those who know, know.
Fastest Shooting Tactical Shotgun:
With a low-profile receiver based on the storied Italian gunmaker’s A400 series semi-auto shotgun action, the Beretta 1301 Tactical is both fast– billed by the company as the fastest on the market– and soft-recoiling. Like the Benelli M4, it is a modern gas-operated shotgun that utilizes a clean-shooting piston for reliability.
One downside on the 1301 is that it is just currently offered in a single model, with an 18.5-inch barrel and 4+1 capacity, although it does come standard with ghost ring sights and supersized surface controls that can really help in demanding field conditions.
Best Pistol Grip:
Introduced in 2008 the FN Self-Loading Police shotgun was billed at its debut as the world’s fastest cycling tactical shotgun.
Like the Beretta 1301 and the Benelli M4, the FLP uses an aluminum receiver to cut down on weight as well as a piston-driven gas system.
While the gun is a sleeper as FN hasn’t done a great job in letting the public know it exists, make no mistake, it is an exceptional 12 gauge that has been showing up increasingly in 3-gun practical/tactical shoots. Importantly, the standard 22-inch barrel format SLP MK I comes standard with an extended 8+1 capacity which is downsized to 6+1 on the 18-inch models.
For those who are looking for a pistol grip, the FN SLP Tactical model is the ticket.
Ithaca has been in the shotgun game for a century– Annie Oakley used their scatterguns back in the day– and their flagship pump gun, the Model 37, goes back almost as long.
Designed in part by the legendary John Browning, it is an icon of rugged simplicity that predates almost every combat or tactical shotgun on the market today and hails back to the days when such tools were called trench guns or riot guns.
Used at one time or another by the U.S. Army and Marines during World War II, the Korean conflict and Vietnam, as well as the NYPD for decades, the much-updated Model 37 is still in production and the Defense model, is available with wood or synthetic furniture, 18.5- or 20-inch barrel lengths, and a corresponding 5- or 8-shot capacity. One bonus about the 37 is that it is a bottom-eject pump, which means it is ambidextrous for both left- and right-hand shooters.
Sure, this shotgun is a little “retro” in many regards, especially as it is not available with adjustable stocks or accessory-ready foreends, but if it isn’t broke…
Taking the company’s super successful Model 500 series action and beefing it up to make it gorilla-proof, the Mossberg 590A1 is the shotgun equivalent of a dump truck.
Durable, easy to maintain, and hard to kill, it passed the Army’s Mil-Spec 3443E test, which required trial guns to digest 3,000 rounds of full-power buckshot without fail.
While, due to their heavy walls and use of a metal trigger guard rather than the much more commonly used plastic ones, they are a bit more expensive than comparable Model 500 security and home defense shotguns, the M590A1 is much more affordable than a quality semi-auto tactical gun.
Sporting a parkerized finish rather than more commercial blued finishes, they are not pretty, but they are pretty effective.
With more than 12 million made over the years, Remington says their Model 870 is the most prolific shotgun in history.
Of course, the bulk of those made was for the hunting and sporting markets, but it is safe to say there are probably a million or more 870 Police Magnum or equivalent 870P and 870 MCS models floating around – these guns have been a staple in both military and law enforcement use for generations.
Intended to meet tough demands, they typically utilize a more rugged all-metal trigger group, fewer MIM parts, and were produced with an extensive QC process.
The only problem is that these guns are often just sold through government channels but a good substitute more commonly available on the commercial market is the 870 Express Tactical, which includes a 6+1 capacity.
Traits of a good tactical or combat shotgun today
While the muzzle-stuffer double barrels of the 19th Century along with the 20th Century’s reciprocating barrel autoloaders and single-bar pumps had their moment in the sun, today their technology is dated and, while it can work in a pinch, should you need a shotgun to bet your life or the life of those in your home on, you want to be on the cutting edge of lessons learned from past designs.
At the same time, you want to know that it is a proven design that has been in the trenches, so to speak, and come back the better for it. High capacity, Picatinny rails, and the best front sight in the world won’t mean a thing without reliability you can count on. Here are some guidelines to look for:
Now don’t get us wrong, this is not an issue of gun snobbery or being down on “the poors.” This is basic firearm logic. Established shotgun makers that have been around for decades build upon designs they already have on the shelf to make a progressively better product.
If a company has made millions of firearms, no matter how well-built, they have had the benefit of seeing hundreds of those come back into the factory for warranty and repair work. This byproduct is priceless for R&D – as in-house engineers take that direct feedback and use it to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it, so it doesn’t keep happening.
If a fix is big enough, it can revolutionize the process and lead to entirely new models. This is what makes companies like Beretta, Benelli, FN, Mossberg, Remington, Saiga, and Winchester something to seek out rather than choose a no-name clone of one of their shotguns made in China, Turkey or elsewhere that has just been reverse-engineered.
The cloners do not sink money into research and development. Instead, they look at a great gun, with patents often just out of copyright, and crank out a reasonable facsimile – with price in mind rather than quality – so they can be competitive with the original shotgun’s improved descendants hoping people will say it is “just as good.”
For example, overseas-made copies of the Remington 870 often use an old-style shell carrier that is prone to jams via short stroking. Meanwhile, responding to such complaints, Remington long ago updated their carriers to eliminate the issue.
Since the days of the old Winchester ’97 trench guns, the benchmark of a tactical shotgun has been at a tubular magazine capable of holding at least five shells as well as one in the chamber.
Guns with a shorter capacity, typically seen as only two- or three shells deep, are usually marketed for field purposes such as in upland bird or deer hunting.
While they often utilize a version of the action as the same company’s other offerings marketed to home defense or LE use, and their magazine tubes can be modified with aftermarket kits, the investment in time, money and effort to do this begs the question of why not opt for the tactical shotgun right off the bat.
Many of today’s better offerings, such as the Mossberg 590, tend to come with a 7+1 or 8+1 capacity without adding length to the gun. For those who prefer a quicker reload or extended capacity, several reputable companies market proven shotgun designs that incorporate detachable box magazines.
Keep in mind, however, that some of the longer mags can be unwieldy to use in practice, which in turn requires more training to master efficiently.
Reliably built for hard use
This goes hand in hand with a company’s reputation. For instance, the two most popular shotguns in regular police and military use– the Mossberg 500 series and the Remington 870 series– have both been around for over 60 years (and are included in our guide to the best pump shotguns).
Both are remarkably similar in layout, being bottom-loading and side-ejecting fed via a pump-action running on dual-action bars from an under-barrel tubular magazine.
Sounds simple, right? The thing is, don’t confuse the basic models of these guns for those intended for hard use in demanding environments.
Tactical shotguns often incorporate more durable materials, substituting steel for aluminum and plastic components seen in sporting guns from the same maker.
For instance, compare the Maverick 88, which is built by Mossberg as a basic general-purpose shotgun, to Mossberg’s 590A1, the latter intended for the tactical market. While both have a 500-style action, the 590A1 is built to MilSpec standards with a heavy-walled barrel and parkerized finish along with a metal trigger and safety button as it is designed for military end-users.
Not to throw stones at the Maverick, which is still a decent shotgun and is affordably priced but it has a thinner barrel and lots of polymer to help keep those prices down.
You can do the same comparison with a Remington 870 Express and an 870P/Police Magnum.
The true milestone of a combat or tactical shotgun’s recognition of excellence comes from looking at who uses it.
Now we are not talking about the full-throated endorsement of a particular shotgun by random YouTube personalities, exhibition shooters and gaming girls, or in a gun’s appearance in a video game franchise, TV show, or big-budget action film.
Instead, we mean looking at who is paying to use the gun, rather than those who are being paid to be seen using the gun.
Respectable military and LE end-users will vet their arms to make sure they, first, meet their standards and then meet their budget.
This usually means grueling field testing, trials, and evaluation periods conducted by an array of highly qualified subject matter experts often with decades of first-hand experience. The adoption by those agencies and services after such T&E is the quiet endorsement that matters.
Wrapping it up
Each of these tactical shotguns offers gun owners a variety of different combat-ready features – our top picks are as follows:
- Best Overall: Benelli M4 Tactical Shotgun
- Fastest Firing: Beretta 1301 Tactical
- Best Pistol Grip: FN SLP MK I Tactical Shotgun
- Classic Option: Ithaca 37 Defense
- Most Durable: Mossberg 590 Tactical
- Also Great: REMINGTON 870P 12 GA
Each of these shotguns met the requirements of the role they were designed for and met the criteria for any firearm we’d recommend:
- Stable shooting platform
- Comfortable to use
- Purposeful, quality design
There are quite a few options out in this category, but we hope this article steers you in the right direction. If you have any questions or feedback please drop us a line. If you’re in the market for a firearm you might want to take a look at our guides to Handguns for Beginners, gun safes, holsters, and the best places to buy guns or ammo online.