The Remington 870 Tactical — A Guide & Restrospective

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The Remington 870 — the greatest selling pump-action shotgun in the history of firearms — is famous with sportsmen and has also been the gold standard for dependable and ultra-reliable tactical models for users both in and out of uniform.

What is the 870?

Remington 870 Tactical - 870 action shot
The famed 870 needs no introduction.

The famed gun-making concern of Mr Eliphalet Remington was formed in 1816 and specialized in muskets and rifles for much of its early history, later pivoting to innovative handguns.

During the Civil War, the most common revolver in the Union Army was the Remington Model 1858, a platform still replicated by many Italian black powder firms today. 

The Remington-Whitmore & Model 10

In 1873, the firm’s first shotgun, the Remington-Whitmore double-barrel SXS, hit the market. Within a generation, renowned firearms engineer John D. Pedersen introduced his Model 1908/Model 10, Remington’s first pump-action shotty.

The Pedersen design, which served with the military as a trench gun in the Great War, was later replaced just before World War II by the well-liked Model 31, the company’s first side-ejecting repeating shotgun.

Popular — with over 190,000 produced firearms — historian Bruce Canfield details that nearly 9,000 Model 31s were shipped off to serve as riot and training guns with Uncle Sam during WWII, with some seeing combat.

It turned out that, even in an age of radars, guided missiles, and atomics, a reliable shotgun still had a role to play.

The Model 870 Wingmaster 

Following in the footsteps of the Models 10 and 31, which clocked in with sportsmen and soldiers across both world wars, the new and improved Model 870 Wingmaster debuted in 1950.

With receivers machined from a solid, 8.5-pound block of ordnance-grade steel, the gun was rugged– nearly indestructible. 

Unlike many earlier pumps that used a single action bar that was subject to bending in harsh use, the 870 utilized non-binding twin action bars in the slide-action to provide one of the smoothest and surest stroke operations of its age. 

Bottom loaded and side-ejecting, the 870 was rock-solid reliable and, by 2014, Remington had sold more than 12 million examples, making the gun both their best-selling firearm and the globe’s most common pump-action shotgun.

There’s a reason the 870 is akin to the AR-15 of the scattergun world.

How does the 870 Compare?

With a 70-year track record, the Remington 870 may seem dated these days, but to be sure, it just seems that way.

Perhaps the most trusted combat shotgun of all time in addition to its use by hunters and recreational shooters, the 870 still stacks up well against the best pump guns on the market today, such as the Mossberg 500/590, Benelli Nova Tactical, and FN P-12. 

True to form, the 870 still uses a solid steel receiver in a world full of polymers, alloys, and aluminum.

Open to accessories

However, not content to remain stuck in the past, the basic platform has been consistently updated over the years with provisions for optics via a drilled and tapped receiver top, accessories such as lights and lasers due to forearms with M-LOK rails, a catalog of different length and style barrels, and a host of stock options. 

Aftermarket accessories, furniture, and barrels abound and can be swapped out on the fly without the need of a gunsmith. In short, the 870, especially tactical versions, are modular and can be rapidly upgraded.

Remington 870 Tactical - Modularity
The Remington 870 offers unrivaled modularity

Why a "tactical" shotgun?

Going back to the days of 16th Century lightweight calivers– smoothbore matchlocks with a standard-sized shot that was handy enough to be used quickly by a single man in combat at such places as the Battle of the Yellow Ford– compact shotguns have been filling a need. 

During the Revolutionary War’s opening engagements, Minute Men were often armed with converted fowling pieces loaded with a half-dozen balls of buckshot that proved devastatingly effective at close ranges. 

The same can be said for the use of shotguns by irregular units during the Civil War, men who valued a compact weapon capable of dealing considerable damage at bad-breath distances such as in the partisan conflict between bushwhackers and red legs.

Remington 870 Tactical - Civil War
Early Civil War troops were equipped with shotguns, which often proved effective in combat. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Riot Guns

By 1899, the U.S. Army was using Winchester Model 97 pump-action riot guns to curb manic attacks by insurgents in the Philippines, with the promise of ready buckshot still holding sway in close-quarter battle then as at Yellow Ford three centuries prior. 

Today, the shotgun still shines in such a role. Relatively inexpensive compared to a modern sporting rifle or carbine, a dedicated shotgun in the right hands is big medicine for various self-defense roles. 

Unrived Versatility

Versatile, they allow the user to easily carry and switch between shot, slugs, and less-lethal shells depending on the expected threat. Modular, they can be rapidly outfitted to suit the user’s environment and philosophy of use. 

A quality tactical shotgun — with sufficient training — provides a competent user with a range of tools other firearms struggle to match.

How is a tactical shotgun different?

Whereas what we would see today as the shotgun was initially designed in two formats — fowling pieces and blunderbusses — they have evolved along those lines to what we see today.

As their name would imply, fowling-pieces were long-barreled smoothbores meant for hunting and taking game.

These survive today as sporting shotguns, of which the 870 has been made in several models with features such as 28-inch barrels with screw-in choke systems and stocks in various hunting camouflage patterns.

The old-world blunderbuss, a short-barreled smoothbore used almost exclusively as a formidable weapon in close combat going back to the 1700s, survives as the modern tactical shotgun. 

A focus on mobility

Like the blunderbuss, the tactical shotgun by role is typically as short and maneuverable as possible. The same characteristic that made the former a favorite with coachmen and wardens makes the latter a crowd-pleaser for defensive purposes nowadays. 

Similarly, the blunderbuss was popular with cavalrymen– specifically dragoons– and law enforcement, with the circa 1836 Nottingham Police armed with such early shorty shotguns. 

An extension on the blunderbuss

The blunderbuss concept, which was explicitly designed to be quickly loaded and rapidly manipulated, likewise transfers to the modern tactical shotgun, which often has extended magazine tubes and optimized shell lifters/elevators and surface controls.

If you look at it this way, the tac shotgun has been in development for hundreds of years to become what it is today.

Military and police use

Following in the path of past use by the U.S. Army of a variety of trench and riot shotguns in military service– to include the Remington Models 10, 11, and 31 in two successive world wars– Uncle Sam naturally turned to the new 870 after it appeared on the market. 

During the Vietnam era, at least 38,500 early production Remington 870s were purchased and sent to Southeast Asia as military aid.

By the late 1960s, the Marines were looking to replace worn-out WWII-era shotguns with a more up to date model. The 870, which used a hard-wearing hardened steel barrel extension that locked securely inside of a steel receiver and a reliable pump action with twin bars on the slide, was an easy choice. 

Enter the 870 Mark 1

In 1969, the Marines used a modified version, dubbed Model 870, Mark 1, which incorporated a standard M7 knife-style bayonet lug (like that on the M16) along with a 21-inch barrel and full-length magazine tube. 

The Mark 1 was popular enough to be used by the Marines for LE use, security teams, and in point defense assignments such as guarding nuclear weapons on aircraft carriers and gates at American embassies overseas throughout the 1970s and 80s, with some still seeing service in the associated Gulf Wars in later years.

The Air Force and the M870

To this Vietnam-era use, the Navy and Air Force soon added M870 riot gun models to their arsenals by the early 1970s, with SEAL teams being a favored user of the type, with the barrel whittled down to 14-inches to better meet their needs. 

Providing lasting service throughout the end of the Cold War, the U.S. Army came around to the model as well, with 870s popping up with 82nd Airborne MPs in Grenada and with National Guard MP units in the LA Riots and elsewhere.

Likewise, the model continued to clock in with security forces and units through Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

Pulling the hattrick, even the Coast Guard today uses a 14-inch tactical 870 models favored by several federal law enforcement agencies of all stripes, having in the past used plainer riot gun models going back at least to the 1980s.

Used by every branch of the U.S. Military

In short, every single branch of the U.S. military has chosen the 870 at one time or another, which should tell you something.

Remington 870 Tactical - All Branches of the Military
Remington 870s have served in each branch of the American military over the years and continue to clock in today for Uncle Sam. (Photos: Department of Defense)

Likewise, police cruisers and tactical team vans across the country over the past 70 years have often contained these popular Remington shotguns. 

Only the Mossberg 500 comes close

At one time in the 1990s, the company advertised that over 3,000 agencies large and small used the model and, even while patrol rifles have increasingly replaced shotguns in law enforcement service, the days of the police shotgun are far from over, and the 870 remains the popular first choice, with the Mossberg 500 described by a 2019 Officer.com article as a close second.

Remington 870 Tactical - Advertisements
Introduced in 1950 to the commercial market as a sporting shotgun ideal for hunting, the Remington 870 soon passed into police and military service as a riot and combat shotgun.

870 Tactical Models

Remington began making the 870R or “riot grade” models of L. Ray Crittendon’s design as early as the 1960s and continued listing it as such until 1991. The gun was a plain shotgun absent of engravings with a short 18- or 20-inch cylinder bore barrel, 2.75-inch chamber, simplified hardwood furniture with a corncob forearm, and a 4- or 6-shot magazine.

This model saw the most service with military and police contracts during its production run, also selling well for those seeking reliable home protection.

Replacing the 870 Riot models in the 1990s were subsequent updates to include the Model 870P, 870P MAX, 870MCS, and 870P Synthetic, which included 3-inch magnum chambers, extended capacity magazines, better rifle-grade or ghost ring-style sights, improved cylinder chokes, and collapsible stocks.

Some models had barrels offered down to 14-inches in length, with NFA rules attached and tax stamps required.  

The tactical peak

By the 2000s, tactical models of the Remington 870 reached their zenith, which saw the Special Purpose Marine Magnum, with an electroless nickel-plated metal finish introduced.

The Express Tactical Pistol Grip, a PGO model that ran just 26-inches overall and included a specialized recoil-absorbing Pachmayr grip appeared at this time as well.

In this period, the Express Tactical series appeared, with an 18.5-inch barrel, one-piece mag tube, magnum chamber, fully adjustable XS Ghost Ring sights, and the options for either a basic synthetic or Speedfeed stock, with the latter holding an extra two shells. 

In later years, the Express Tactical added Magpul furniture options and in different full-coat finishes such as Flat Dark Earth, Olive Drab, a “hammered” gun-metal-grey powder-coat finish, Tactical A-Tacs camo, and Digital Tiger TSP Desert camo.

The sole shotgun to carry the designated name “870 Tactical” in Remington’s catalog was a model produced in 2006 only.

Offered with either an 18- or 20-inch fixed improved cylinder choke barrel and corresponding 6- or 7-shot mag tube, the gun also was marketed with a variety of finishes and a Knoxx Spec-Ops adjustable recoil absorbing stock with a full pistol grip.

Remington later followed this up in 2012 with the Express Tactical Spec OPS model with an M4-ish collapsible stock with seven positions and SuperCell recoil pad coupled with an enhanced ergonomic pistol grip.

Finally, in 2019, a side-folding model of the 870 Express Tactical with a TAPCO AK pattern SAW grip, and MOE M-LOK compatible forend made an appearance. The same year saw the introduction of the Model 870 DM (Detachable Magazine), which featured a 6-round 12-gauge magazine, bead sight, black synthetic stock, corn cobb fore-end, and Supercell recoil pad.

Moving into the future

No discussion of Remington firearms these days can be had without addressing the elephant in the room: the historic American gunmaker’s 2020 bankruptcy sale that shattered the vast, multifaceted company. 

Today’s rebooted RemArms inherited Eliphalet Remington’s traditional Ilion, New York factory– which had been closed and its skilled tradesmen laid off– and worked in 2021 to restart production with the Model 870 reportedly the first gun to come off the assembly line. 

The new company’s website currently lists the vaunted shotgun in 21 variants with 36 style offerings (down from 26 variants with 49 style offerings in 2020), mostly sporting models ideally suited to deer, waterfowl, and turkey. 

The closest thing to a tactical model slated is the Home Defense, which uses walnut furniture, runs an 18.5-inch cylinder bore barrel with a single bead, and will be offered in 4+1 and 6+1 capacity. Hopefully, this spartan selection, insomuch as defensive shotguns, will soon be expanded.

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MICHAEL CRITES is el jefe around here. He writes about guns and gear.

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