What is the best 12 gauge shotgun?
Let there be little doubt – the 12-gauge pump-action shotgun is probably the most recognizable firearm on the planet – both in terms of how it looks and that unforgettable sound of racking the slide.
We love pump-action shotguns and decided it was high time to pull together a Best Of list for this classic firearm.
To find the best pump shotguns, we worked with an expert trap shooter as well as a known Pacific Northwest hunting guide, who spent over 10 hours field-testing 15 different pump shotguns in a variety of situations and ranges.
After testing this collection in the mountains and forests of Eastern Oregon, then on 3 different indoor and outdoor shooting ranges, our experts broke down the best performing pump shotguns by specific use case (and provided a few general recommendations) which offered the best mix of performance, functionality, and price.
With this guide, you’ll be able to find the right shotgun and avoid overpaying for features you don’t need.
Quick List: The Best Pump Shotguns For Any Budget
The Remington 870 has stood the test of time – both in terms of battle-tested reliability, and that standard stock & pump configuration. These are attributes that make the 870 incredibly familiar to firearms enthusiasts and confidence-inspiring.
Solid build & capacity
The Remington 870 hits the capacity sweet spot with 6+1, and when paired with that 18-inch barrel you get the perfect size for close-quarters effectiveness & flexibility.
The 870 is one of the most popular shotguns on the market, so in addition to a huge number of configuration options you’ll also find a tremendous number of accessories, so you can extend the shotgun’s functionality well beyond bone stock.
What we liked:
What we didn't:
Given that the 870 comes with a front rifle sight, a logical additional addition would be to add an adjustable rear sight.
Paired with an integrated flashlight, adjustable stock, and sling – the 870 will have reduced recoil and make an easy-to-use pump shotgun for home defense or range time.
Interchangeable barrel system
Our experts pointed to the fact you can switch out any 870 barrel without modification as well, which gives the 870 a modular feel much like the AR platform.
One of the things our experts pointed to with the 870 is the safety position – it’s near the trigger – which is a familiar position (vs a Mossberg which places the safety on top of the receiver) and makes the shotgun very user-friendly.
Best Home Defense Pump Shotgun:
One of the most battle-proven pump-action shotguns available today (matched only by the Remington 870) the Mossberg 590 is reliable, upgradable, and an all-around performer.
Used by law enforcement pros around the globe
The legendary 500 series has been around the globe in combat and tactical scenarios since its introduction in the 1960s, and you’ll see everyone from law enforcement, SWAT, and military personnel sporting a 590 series Mossberg when the situation calls for it.
There’s no second-guessing the more than 60 years of history behind this firearm – but should you get behind one as well?
Multiple build options
This 590 comes with a standard black synthetic stock and with a little over 14-1/2” length of pull, might be a little long for some users. Compared with the 870’s 13” pull, racking the 590 can be a little more involved.
That said, it’s two action bars make for consistent performance and a satisfying “get of our my house or else” sound.
Due to the popularity of the Mossberg 590 there are a great number of stock options and accessories, so you should be able to customize the shotgun to fit your size and preferences – be it a pistol grip, M4-style, or anything in between.
Easy-to-use factory sights
The ghost ring sights are clear and clean – even if they’re a little unusual for a shotgun. Our test unit had adjustable and easy to use front gold-bead and oversized rear sight – which was dialed in enough that we consistently hit steel at 20-25 yards.
Overall we feel the Mossberg 590 is a fantastic tactical shotgun option that can be customized to nearly any specification.
- Mossberg quality
- Ultra reliable
- Slightly longer pull than other options
- Top-mounted safety different from other styles
Best Budget Pump Shotgun:
Mossberg shotguns are on this list more than once for a reason – they’re high-quality products. The Maverick 88 is a lot like our home defense recommendation, the Mossberg 500, but can be found for about half the price.
Similar features as the 500
The amazing part is even with the lower price point you get a lot of the features of the 500 – with the single major difference being the placement of the safety, which is a cross-bolt safety near the trigger (vs the top-mounted safety on the 500).
For anyone on a budget the 88 will give you a good range of applications – ranging, home defense, & plinking, but really benefits from a few basic upgrades (not unlike any shotgun, really.)
Deep accessory pool
Another great feature of the 88 is most accessories that work on the 500 (and there are plenty) also work on the 88 – so you’re saving money and getting access to a huge array of upgrades.
- Mossberg Quality
- Not as durable as other options
Best Premium Pump Shotgun:
Who doesn’t love the Benelli M4? They’re beautiful, incredibly well-engineered, and offer you multiple fire modes – both pump-action and semi-auto. This combination gives you the speed of semi-auto firing and the reliability of pump-action if you’re shooting unique loads.
Simple transition from pump to semi
The transition from pump to semi-auto with a simple twist and you’ll have one of the fastest cycling semi-auto shotguns available.
Front and rear sights included
The Benelli has both front and rear sights so it’s built for quick target acquisition and offers all the combat-ready bells and whistles (like the oversized charging handle, ghost ring sights, and that sexy pistol grip).
Coupling all that with the legendary Benelli build quality makes the M4 the kind of firearm you buy once and treasure forever.
- Multiple fire modes
- Unbelievably well-engineered
- Beautiful firearm
- May be more than most need
Best Youth Pump Shotgun:
Often when we’re at the range, we see younger shotgunners shooting trap practice for a school or competitive team sporting shotguns that simply don’t fit their size. Kids just learning how to shoot (10 or under) with guns that are hard to balance or have too much kick.
Shorter pull & easier to balance for kids
Starting kids on shooting when they’re young – in third or fourth grade – means ensuring they can effectively use the firearm – and that often means a youth pump-action shotgun that’s sized right for their frame, offers a shorter pull, and light enough to balance without straining.
All the components of the full-size SXP
We really like the Winchester SXP youth line, and the 20 gauge is a logical choice for your younger shooters. You get all the quality components of the full-size SXP line but the smaller frame means young shooters can get the weight of the gun closer to their body – making for a more stable shot.
Plus the shorter 24” barrel makes balancing the shotgun much easier for kids.
Your kids will be able to focus on maintaining their fundamentals shot-to-shot rather than wrestling to keep the gun in position.
- Smaller frame
- Shorter pull
- Same quality components as SXP line
- Kids will grow out of the youth size at around 12-14 years old
Best Hunting Shotgun
The SX line of shotguns, introduced in 1974, has gone through a number of iterations over the years (SX1/SX2/SX3) and the SX4 is the product of Winchester and Browning (both owned by FN Herstal) to evolve the platform.
The SX4 has a lot of features that simply make it a fantastic shotgun – both from the standpoint of technology as well as basic practicality.
Lots of models to choose from
Practicality comes to mind by virtue of the multiple SX4 models available – which means there’s probably a version of this shotgun that will meet your needs.
All of the SX4 models are based around the Active Valve Gas System action, which made its first appearance in the SX3.
Its main advantage is the self-adjusting piston, which accommodates a wide variety of ammunition loads through self-regulating action. The required amount of gas for a given load is maintained to drive the action, while any excess, vents out through the four Quadra-Vent Ports.
This makes for smooth, reliable action that translates into accurate, crisp shots. Plus, it’s easy to clean and works beautifully with all loads 1 1⁄8 ounces and above.
Hunting-focus means 12 gauge only
The SX4 line is only available in 12 gauge (which makes sense given the hunting focus) with 3-inch chambers (3.5 chambers are featured on the Cantilever Turkey gun and Universal Hunter models).
- Classic, proven action
- Quality components
- Many models & features available
- 12 gauge only
Selecting the Right Pump Shotgun
Ammo Options: Shotguns are incredibly effective for a number of reasons, but one major factor is versatility. You have a huge number of options when it comes to ammunition and projectiles – making them amazingly effective for anything from pest control to small and big game hunting. Your primary loads are birdshot, buckshot, and slugs.
- Birdshot: A load containing small pellets, with the type of load determining the final quantity of pellets. Birdshot tends to give you dense patterns of small impacts and was (like the name implies) intended for bird hunting, trap/clay pigeon shooting, and small game. We do not recommend birdshot if your primary concern is home defense.
- Buckshot: Fewer pellets but larger diameter, generally from No 4 (.24) to Triple Aught “000” (.36). The ball caliber determines the final number pellets in a load, but with double and triple aught you’re looking at 7-9 pellets per load. Buckshot gives you a decent spread per shot but each pellet has much more stopping power than birdshot, making it ideal for hunting and home defense.
- Slugs: 1 oz of solid lead. These will drop even the largest of prey and have devastating effects on impact. They’ll allow for longer shots so are generally reserved for hunting applications. The lack of spread coupled with the focus on range makes them less than ideal for home defense.
Barrel Choice: Shotguns are often very modular, and many platforms are built with addressing different needs from the same firearm.
Looking for a home defense shotgun? Use an 18 or 20-inch barrel to keep the overall length down and increase ease of movement. You can’t go shorter than 18 inches legally without ATF red tape. Looking for a hunting shotgun? A 24” or longer barrel will give you a tight shot spread at range – or add a choke for even coverage or a suppressor for stealthier tracking.
Variety of Action: There are as many varieties of shotguns as there are targets to shoot, and while we focused on pump-action shotguns for this guide, if you’re still feeling out which kind of action is best for you, take a look at semi-automatic shotguns, lever action, bolt action, and even single or double barrel varieties. When it comes to home defense you’ll want to stick with pump or semi-auto as they provide the fastest action and best capacity. Some shotguns will use a tubular magazine, others accomodate a clip-based system for higher magazine capacities. Either way, try a few configurations at your local gun shop and see what feels most natural to you.
Wrapping it up
Each of these pump shotguns offers gun owners a variety of different features but our top picks are as follows:
- Best Overall: REMINGTON 870 EXPRESS 12 GA
- Runner-Up: Mossberg 590 Pump Action
- Best Budget: MOSSBERG MAVERICK 88
- Best Premium: Benelli M3
- Best Youth: WINCHESTER SXP YOUTH FIELD 24″ 20 GAUGE
- Best Hunting: WINCHESTER SX4 WATERFOWL HUNTER
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. You can also take a look at our article covering the best tactical shotguns for even more options.
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.
Pump Shotgun Frequently Asked Questions
What is a pump-action shotgun used for?
Pump-action shotguns are widely used for hunting, self-defense, and trap shooting. They are popular with police forces around the world due to their reliability and ammunition capacity.
What is the correct way to shoulder a shotgun?
The shotgun’s stock should first be brought to your cheek height, then back to your shoulder. Lowering your head and cheek to meet the stock is a common error. When your head is completely erect the gun butt should always land on the same spot on your shoulder.
What distance should be used to pattern a shotgun?
40 yards is the generally-accepted distance for patterning a shotgun. Smaller calibers such as the .410 are patterned at 25 yards due to reduced ballistics and smaller shot payloads. 40 yards is used because it was formerly the maximum effective range of shotguns. You should, however, adjust the patterning range to the range you generally shoot birds. If your average shot is 30 yards for flushing birds you should then pattern at 30 yards.
What is the shortest legal shotgun barrel length?
The shortest legal shotgun barrel length is 18 inches. Any barrel shorter than 18 inches (or shotgun with an overall length of less than 26 inches) will be subject to the NFA registration.
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