Firearms trainer and expert witness Massad Ayoob once observed that while certain firearms may be equivalent, such as the Colt .38 Special Agent and Cobra revolvers, the names attached to each could have very different impacts on legal proceedings following a defensive gun use.
Like it or not, we live in a judgmental world, where appearances and first impressions can take on disproportionate significance. This is one of the reasons so-called “assault weapons” have been defined largely by cosmetic features, and prejudice against scary-looking firearms remains even as the ranks of enlightened gun owners swell. Just as legal open carry of holstered handguns can be provocative, the handling and transportation of a long gun may be interpreted harshly if the item in question appears militarized.
It is always tempting to contemplate the most effective choice for a defensive or utilitarian firearm—one that offers the most features, has the highest capacity, and is purpose-built for the most extreme encounter. Top picks for tactical shotguns are typically black in color and have short barrels, extended magazines, exotic sights, specialized stocks, and multiple mounting points for lights, optics, slings, spare ammunition and even bayonets.
In addition to the added bulk, weight, and complexity of such implements, shotguns of this type will often be met with alarm by the observer. If the observer is a home invader, this can be a good thing, but such a reaction needs to be measured against the negative equivalent from the public and first responders alike.
In addition to the subjective response to a fully outfitted modern tactical shotgun, there are also jurisdictions where some of these features are illegal on their own or in combination. Even before the landmark Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, it was possible to lawfully own a shotgun in Washington, D.C. (if properly stored and registered) as long as it held no more than five rounds in the magazine and had a barrel length of at least 20 inches.
Whether you worry about appearances, travel or live in a restrictive community, or simply want to get multiple uses out of a sporting gun, a shotgun capable of filling more than one role can be an asset.
This article focuses on four currently available shotguns that are well suited to sporting, utility, and self-defense roles, with the added benefit of having classic cosmetics that are the least likely to upset those with tender sensibilities. All have medium-length barrels with three-inch chambers, wooden furniture, polished blue metal finish, and a manual safety located in the tang position and easily accessible to right- and left-handed shooters.
The Browning BPS Upland Special is a 12-gauge pump shotgun with 22-inch barrel and single brass bead. Among its more innocent-looking features are an English-style straight pistolgrip stock and the high-quality polished wood and metal typical of Browning guns. It has a capacity of four plus one.
The bottom load and ejection design is fully ambidextrous but does not allow for single loading with an open action. This model is similar to the Remington Special Field 870 that is no longer made and had one less round magazine capacity. The BPS Upland Special can also be had with engraving on the receiver.
The Mossberg 505 Youth is a 20-gauge pump shotgun with a short buttstock and dual bead 20-inch barrel. The wood is light in color and the receiver is tapped for an optic or similar accessory rail. The reduced weight of the aluminum receiver, short stock, and lighter recoil of the 20-gauge make the gun ideal for smaller individuals. Options and availability for ammunition are not as good as with 12 gauge, and the standard buckshot load consisting of 20 #3 buckshot pellets will pattern wider than the reduced-recoil loads common in tactical buckshot loads.
Both pump-action guns feature studs for sling swivels, removable choke tubes, four-round capacity tubular magazine, gold colored trigger and a similarly located pump release on the rear left side of the trigger guard.
The abbreviated magazines coupled with the mediumlength vent rib barrels make for a classic sporting look while retaining a short gun’s functionality for maneuvering or storage in the compact spaces of a house or vehicle. Both guns have clear access to the magazine for reloading without the interference of a spring-loaded shell lifter.
The two double-barrel shotguns described here are both 12-gauge, overand- under break-open actions with single triggers that are reset for the second shot by the recoil of the first.
What they lack in firepower they make up for with a more innocuous appearance and simplified function. Compactness is also maximized because double-barrel guns do not require the length and complexity of a pump or semiautomatic receiver and, when disassembled, each gun’s barrel set is equivalent in length to the stocked receiver, so transportation and storage require minimal space. Both have safeties that automatically engage upon the opening of the action. On the downside, the extractors are not spring-loaded for extraction of fired shells and must be removed from the chambers by hand.
The Lanber Unifrance is a Spanish over-and-under double with sling swivels, 21-inch vent rib barrels, and two color adjustable fiber optic sights. The two-tone engraved receiver and dark grain wood have an aesthetic that goes beyond the average hunting arm.
While this model does not have removable choke tubes, it does have a selectable trigger that allows the user to decide which barrel to fire first or to overcome a failure of the recoil system to reset the fire-control mechanism. Double trigger and rifled barreled versions of this model are also available.
Stoeger’s Condor Outback has a plainer appearance, including fixed iron post and notch sights, but it has slightly shorter barrels that include removable choke tubes. It does not come with any sling attachments, and the barrel firing sequence is always bottom then top, but of the four guns reviewed here, it may be the most rugged. A polished nickel version that should resist corrosion better than plain blue steel is also available.
None of these guns is the likely first choice of a dynamic entry team and, if one is engaged in serious long-range waterfowl hunting, a better sporting option is surely out there. But when it comes to bridging the gap between the needs of a field and fighting gun, all four of these offer advantages on both sides of the equation.
The essence of shotguns has always been versatility, and while semiautomatic pistols and rifles dominate the tactical world, there is still a place for a firearm capable of defending one’s home, vehicle or campsite with birdshot, buck, or slug.