Randy Cain’s Shotgun Class

One of the best things about Randy’s classes is his encyclopedic knowledge firearms equipment. Randy’s philosophy is that the most important aspect of a defensive weapon is that it is reliable, and the goal of shooting is to hit the target. As a result his gear selection tends toward the tried and true, with availability of replacement parts weighing strongly in his selection. Hence, his choice of shotgun is the Remington 870 as much for its ubiquity and availability of parts as for its inherent reliability.

Moreover, you will get a chance to see other people with various options and how they work, giving you ideas for your own gear, both what works and what doesn’t. And of course Randy will try to help you steer clear of transfer devices—gear whose main purpose is to transfer your money to the vendor.

This fall, I took Randy Cain’s Shotgun class. In preparation for the class, I have already posted a couple articles on the shotgun in general and what to look for in a Remington 870. Now that I have taken the Shotgun class, I will be posting an article on recommended modifications to the Remington 870. But this article is dedicated to the class itself.

Videos from the class are available for friends and family. E-mail me.

Day 1

Shotgun I is the second class that I have attended with Randy, and it followed the same pattern as Tactical Handgun 101. The first thing is a discussion on safety. You will learn Jeff Cooper’s safety rules for firearm safety word for word. Following safety is a general orientation to the shotgun as a whole and the Remington 870 in particular (everyone in our class had an 870) including how to load and how to unload the shotgun.

Then we were out on the firing line with buckshot to pattern the guns. Patterning consists of shooting buckshot at paper at varying distances to see what the pattern (or shot distribution looks like). You will need (at least) six rounds of two different types of buckshot (12 total) There are three reasons for this exercise:

  1. It helps you determine the best ammunition for your shotgun. Every barrel shoots every load differently.
  2. It helps you to understand your shotgun’s capabilities with buckshot at various distances.
  3. It demonstrates the folly of the Hollywood school of shotguns. At 7 seven yards (across the room distance), the pattern on my shotgun was only 4 inches across—so much for the “just point and you can’t miss” myth.

We exchanged our buckshot for birdshot and went to the steel plates and practiced various drills such as firing on the move, searching, and Rolling Thunder. Rolling thunder is a team exercise designed to put you under a bit of stress while manipulating the shotgun as quickly as possible just to keep it loaded. We would repeat Rolling Thunder with different variations several times over the next few days. This was followed by a competition to see who could knock down three steel plates the quickest.

Day 2

The next day, Randy showed us various slinging techniques and how to shoot from them. We then had a demonstration of how quickly one can shoot from African Carry. After some more birdshot drills, we exchanged shot for slugs and began the process of zeroing our shotguns, while Randy instructed us on prone shooting, the seven points of contact, and natural point of aim. The idea is that the prone shooting should be totally relaxed, and the sights should only move up and down as you breathe—easier said than done.

thumb_870_exp_combo_ban1.jpegRandy’s preferred zero with the shotgun is at 25 and 75 yards. The parabolic trajectory of a slug makes the zero the same at 25 and 75 yards, allowing for a very versatile zero. Our day was scorching hot (the following weekend was cool and crisp), so we had frequent breaks where class members picked Randy’s brain for gear selection. Here we learned that the clamps that most extension tube manufacturers use affect the zero of the shotgun, and you must re-zero after every time you remove the barrel for cleaning. So Randy doesn’t use the clamp and has his gunsmith drill and tap the metal between the barrel and retention ring to mount his slings (see picture).

Then we learned various shooting positions, sitting, squatting, and reinforced kneel. We shot several exercises in various positions followed by yet another Rolling Thunder and called it a day. Depending on the time of year and level of the class, Randy sometimes has a night shoot, but our class did not.

Day 3

After recapping the basics and what we had learned the previous two days, we shot several birdshot drills, refined our zeroes, and proceeded to shoot several several slug drills and competitions (some of which you can see on my videos page). We also performed select slug drills and a drill where Randy gives you a sequence of slugs and birdshot to shoot, and then you must load the shotgun correctly and hit the appropriate targets (hint: don’t shoot slugs at the steel targets).

And then all too soon we were saying good-byes and driving back home.

Last thoughts

Randy’s courses are incredibly fun and educational. They can also be incredibly frustrating if you show up with the wrong gear. In the case of the shotgun, you’ll get the most out of the course if you have a Remington 870 with Rifle sights with a recoil pad. (A maxi pad under your shirt also helps.) A sling is mandatory. You should cut the stock down to a comfortable length of pull (this will help your shoulder immensely). Get a fanny pack or military style drop bag to hold your shotgun shells, but make sure you can close it with a zipper or pull string, because some of the drills have you getting up and down, going prone, and spilling your shells everywhere. Also bring a mat or blanket of some kind. If you forget to, you can use your car’s floor mat in a pinch. Other than that, wait until you complete the course before spending any additional money on your shotgun.

And finally come with an open mind. As Randy says, you’re paying him good money, so you might as well try it his way first. You can always go back to what you were doing if it doesn’t work out for you. Take good notes, and start saving up for your next class.

Review of Randy Cain’s Practical Rifle

AAR Randy Cain Practical Rifle, Lakeland, FL, 7-9 Dec 09

You may be asking something like, “What is a thread (and a long one at that) about a rifle class doing here on a 1911 board?

The answer would be this: If you’re reading the Training section, you probably have an interest ranging from moderate curiosity to diligent attendance and practice about how to use a firearm for defensive purposes. And like many of us, you probably own at least one bolt action rifle in a caliber suitable for man stopping. As discussed on Training Day 1, that bolt gun is arguably the last type of weapon that an over-zealous government would attempt to prohibit and/or confiscate. And everyone knows that compared to things such as AR15s and pump shotguns, bolt guns are hopelessly slow to fire, clumsy to handle and pretty much worthless for anything except the annual zero and deer hunt, right? No place in the arsenal of a really serious defensive tactician, right? Wrong on all counts. And that’s not a big surprise, given that Randy Cain is a rifleman at heart, and his love of the long gun shows not only in his carbine and shotgun courses (“are we really going to shoot all these slugs he told us to bring?”), but particularly in Practical Rifle (http://randycain.com/Rifle.htm).

Unlike most of my AARs from Southern Exposure, this one has zero pictures in it. That’s because from the minute the class began, we were either under the overhead getting schooled (beginning with the non-negotiable subject of safety), on the range running and gunning from near contact distance out to 200 yards, giving our rifles a quick cleaning at lunch, inhaling water and Gatorade, trying to take notes about the massive amount of information Randy put out, or putting our rifles back in their cases at the end of a long, physically demanding day. Even after dinner, it was time to take the rifles inside the motel and clean them well for the next day’s training. It took about six seconds to fall asleep each night….

There were eight of us in the class, ranging from a couple of fellows in the Tampa Bay area who’d done some serious long range, precision shooting, to a hunter who’d driven over from Mississippi. Our bunch included an orthopaedic surgeon, a pilot for a major US airline, a salon operator, and the owner of a great motorcycle shop (if you’re looking for a Beemer or a Duck in Tampa, Joe’s the man at EuroCycles). It was quite a diverse group. Rifles ranged from a box-stock Winchester Model 70 Featherweight in .308, a Browning A-Bolt with one very tapered, thin barrel, a Remington LTR with 20 inch fluted tube, a couple of Savage Precision Carbines (20” medium taper barrel and AccuTriggers, one .223 and one .308 with an AccuStock), plus a couple more, including one with a bipod hanging on the front of it. Several of the rifles sported Ching slings from arguably the best in the business, Andy Langlois (www.shottist.com).

The Model 70 was one of the new ones, built almost to a T like the sweet pre-64s: Mauser-like claw extractor and controlled round feeding. All rifles were .308 Winchester, except for the one .223. Optics included a Nightforce 2.5-10×32, a Nikon Monarch, a couple of Burris scopes, and a few Leupolds, one of them a Mark IV Tactical 1.5-5 with illuminated reticle (the NF had the other lit reticle). More later about hardware.

Since all three days ran together for me, I can’t give you a detailed account of each TD, so here’s a summary while it’s all still reasonably clear in my mind. After the safety conversation and initial discussion about the utility of bolt guns, we took some ammo to the 50 yard line and began the first step in establishing a good zero. All rifles save one were pretty much on paper and close, so between that and the time required by some of us to pull together decent groups, there was no flurry of adjustments made to the scopes. After a while, Randy told some of us to make a few adjustments.

We shot a number of close-in drills from offhand that would be familiar to students from a carbine or pistol class – shots to the body, shots to the head (don’t forget to hold over when you’re up close, or all you’re doing is putting a round in the bad guy’s mouth – painful, but not instantly decisive), failure drills. We covered moving at low ready, forwards, searching, backwards, easing away, all with fire commands and occasional admonitions to keep the line straight and not let anyone wind up in front of it.

To Randy’s way of thinking, the essence of a good rifleman is the ability to select, get into, and accurately shoot from different positions. The closer you are to the ground, the more stable you’ll be when you press the trigger. Not surprisingly, we spent a lot of time practicing the positions and shooting from them. First he covered military prone, then Olympic prone. We spent a fair amount of time wrapping our heads (and bodies) around the concept of natural point of aim. It’s easy to get intellectually, harder for most to put into practice, but once you find it, your crosshairs stop moving back and forth – they only move up and down with your breathing, or with the position of your support arm elbow or hand on the forestock. You’re no longer muscling the gun onto target, it just falls there easily, without tension. Randy then covered several variations on sitting, all of which provide skeletal support for the rifle.

From there we learned the squat, which gets you quite low and can be very stable. For those of us who’ve had a few too many trips to the ortho docs for our knees, it was a challenge, but everyone hung in and executed. From there we went to braced kneel, again challenging the less flexible among us (our oldest shooter was 60, and there were several in their 50s). And finally, we shot some more offhand. Works real well at relatively short distances, but the next time some blowhard tells you about the deer he dropped on the run at 325 yards from a standing position, your BS detector will probably be shaking itself to pieces, and for good reason.

We shot again on the zero targets at 100 yards, and the groups opened up somewhat. Randy showed us how to use the Ching sling to best effect (and how the guy in a gun shop who wraps his arm around a carry strap isn’t doing himself any favors). In theory, you get a 15% improvement with the Ching sling or other loop-type sling that ties the front of the gun to your upper arm/body. I was amazed at how much steadier I could hold and shoot with it. More adjustments were made as long as the groups were consistent enough to warrant them. Then more drills. Up to this point, Randy had pretty well given us time to top off the rifles in between drills. He showed us how to keep a bolt gun topped off, similar to keeping a pistol running during a handgun class. By the end of the third day, we had gotten real good at sneaking in one or two more rounds in between drills. When your magazine only holds four or five rounds (and one in the chamber), every round really matters.

TD2 included the night shoot, which began at the onset of dusk, at about 75 yards. We began learning to shoot with each other at exactly the same time, something that the SEALs off Somalia did to great effect earlier this year in rescuing the captain of a hijacked ship. After that, Randy told us to assume a firing position we’d be comfortable holding for a while (all of us went prone, save for one shooter who went to sitting). He said that we were to keep our crosshairs on the vital zone of the target, ready to shoot at his command. Minutes (which seemed more like hours) went by, as the light gradually faded from the sky. The evening chorus of birds and bullfrogs was occasionally shattered by “Fire!” and rifles fired in response, bolts run in unison like a percussion section. “When you can no longer hold your position, when you can no longer see your crosshairs or your target, or when you can no longer guarantee a hit on a vital zone, clear out your rifle, leave it on the ground bolt handle up and forward, and step behind the line.” There were a couple more iterations of “Fire!” followed by silence and increasing discomfort. Finally, there was one shooter left on the line, and Randy commanded him to fire.

This wasn’t so much a physical endurance test, such as a sniper might face, but a good lesson on the difference that good optics can make. The last shooter was running the Mk IV Leupold with an illuminated reticle, that he continued to dial down in intensity as the light continued to fade. The shooter with the best glass, the Nightforce, would likely have been able to stay on target even longer due to the superior light-gathering ability of the 32mm objective and better glass, but physical limitations kept him from holding his position. I mention this not to pimp for Nightforce, but to illustrate that with some things, you still get what you pay for. Santa, are you paying attention?

On TD3, Randy started with a detailed demonstration of properly cleaning an accurate rifle (or at least one you want to shoot as accurately as possible). I expect that Brownell’s will be busy this week, filling orders for things such as bore guides, good rods, cotton flannel patches, Shooter’s Choice, Kroil and Sinclair chamber & lug cleaning tools. I was glad for the quality ball bearing-handled rods from Denny Ivy and the superb bore guide I’d gotten from Mike Lucas, as well as shooting buddy and fellow windowlicker Russ’s coaching on using it properly. We then shot at 200 yards from prone, grateful for the slings and lots of practice with the seven points of contact with the rifle, understanding how they affect the accuracy of your shot. We covered the different ways to transition from your rifle to a pistol if circumstances demand it, and practiced with empty rifles. We saw a demonstration of just how fast you can get a rifle on target and shoot from African carry when matched up against someone drawing a pistol from a holster (you wouldn’t believe the results if told you – you have to see for yourself). From there, it was more drills, more position work, the covering fire drill (easy with 28 rounds in your AR magazine, a little different proposition with a bolt gun), and the five shooter metronome drill. We finished up the day starting with head shots from prone at 100 yards, then advanced, taking up the different positions as the range decreased, finishing up with fast and furious offhand fire, and even a little surprise once we were unloaded and cleared out.

To briefly return to equipment, a couple of observations. It’s surely the Indian more than the arrow, but the arrow does matter. I’ve heard Randy Cain go on (and on, and on) about the virtues of the pre-64 Model 70s for years now (and more recently, the re-introduced Classics, that improve on the pre-64 design). I learned, both from observation and personal (painful, expensive) experience that there’s a good reason for that. The guy running a new Model 70 Featherweight in .308 never missed a beat the entire class (except for one late-breaking case of operator-induced error). You can run the bolt on that gun with a single finger, to include unlocking and re-locking it. It was an absolute gem. On the other hand, the light factory trigger setting on my gun that was so delicious when breaking in the gun and zeroing it apparently had a price – whenever I ran the bolt home vigorously (as you should), it would lock up the trigger, and the gun wouldn’t fire until I re-set the bolt, slowly and deliberately. Can’t tell you how many times that happened.

The hinged floorplate magazine showed itself to be the preferred setup, with internal box magazines and detachable box magazines running behind. The DBMs in my gun were very handy during the covering fire exercise, but other than that, they were a huge disappointment – prone to double feeding at the worst possible time. As Randy presented me with my course certificate, he looked my hands, still bearing dried blood from being shoved into the action to force out the magazine and clear double-feeds: “Damn, you look like you put your hands into a coffee grinder.” What do you suppose my next rifle will have? And finally, when the gun heated up, lifting the bolt handle became a real effort, one that would often cause me to break my cheek weld on the stock. Not good.

Again, in fairness to this rifle and its maker (that I shall not name, since I will contact them and give them the opportunity to address these issues), for 99% of the rifle-shooting population, it would be a great, accurate gun. But for use as a real practical rifle, including realistically hard training, it fell short of the mark. I spent as much time fighting the gun as I did running a demanding course. So at the end of the day, I still want a left handed bolt gun that will pass the test. But since I can’t afford a Dakota or Brockman right now, that right-handed Model 70 Featherweight is starting to look mighty good….

That’s a fair amount of discussion about equipment in a training AAR, but believe me, the right equipment can make a world of difference in the value of your training. I can’t wait to do this class again with a rifle that is up to the task, so that I can focus on the training and get my head (and bloody hands) out of the gun.

We do love our handguns in general, and our 1911s in particular, and they serve us well in daily carry. But as Randy has often said, “A handgun is a weak, puny, inefficient weapon.” I took a lot of good things away from this class, including some that will make me a better hunter. But perhaps the most striking conclusion we reached over the course of three days is that a bolt gunner doesn’t need to feel at all disadvantaged should he find himself having to rely on that weapon as a defensive tool. The ability to put accurate, effective fire on target, including quick successive shots, turns out to be (surprise) mostly a matter of training. And first class training is something that Randy Cain excels at – I can’t recommend him highly enough to any serious student.

Finally, I’m pleased to recognize Irv Lehman, the training coordinator at Southern Exposure, a great place to train in Central Florida. Despite his many annoying traits, the truth is that Irv and his wife Watfa make every student feel like he or she is part of the Southern Exposure family, and Irv brings in some of the best instructors in the business, starting with Randy Cain. Southern Exposure may lack the cache or fancy facilities of some of the big name resident schools, but the quality of training there is equal to that of any of the famous ones (and in many cases, that’s because the same instructors do the training at both). You can view the coming year’s training schedule (which is always being updated as new classes are confirmed) here: http://southernexposuretraining.com/schedule.php

I’ll continue to train with my 1911s more than anything else because that what I carry more than anything else, but carbine, shotgun, edged weapons, improvised weapons, empty hand and practical rifle round out the curriculum for me. Practical Rifle was an eye-opening, fun class that left me with a few more good tools in the toolbox – I’m glad I took it, and will take it again. I recommend it highly.

NRA Life Member

Shotguns: Truly, you have a dizzying intellect.

Those famous words were spoken by Wesley (Cary Elwes) in The Princess Bride in response to Vizzini’s convoluted arguments.  I feel the same about anyone who can understand all of the intricacies of firearms.  I have already written about some of my adventures into the realm of handguns, but this did nothing to prepare me for the dizzying variety in the world of shotguns.  Shotguns have infinitely more variety than handguns

This little article will describe some of the choices and options to consider when purchasing a shotgun.  (Please keep in mind that I have not yet had the opportunity to take a shotgun class, so much the information here will most likely need to be updated afterward.)

As always, the first question to be asked of any gun purchase is the gun’s intended purpose.  With shotguns, the basic purposes boil down to recreational shooting such as traps and clay birds, hunting birds and small game, hunting larger game (such as deer), and self defense, especially home defense.  If you are on a tight budget you will probably want one shotgun that can serve multiple roles.  This can be accomplished because most shotguns allow multiple barrels that, in combination with different types of ammunition, can be configured for different roles.

The shotgun I am buying is first for self/home defense, and second for hunting/sporting (two things I do not do that often).  The key things to consider when purchasing the shotgun are the action, the gauge, and the barrel.

The Action

The action refers to the type of shotgun.  The basic (most common) three actions are break-action, pump, and autoloading.  The break-action has a pivot between the chamber and the barrel.  The action “breaks” or pivots open and the shells are loaded into the barrel.  This is the traditional shotgun and comes in two basic varieties.  Single barrel, and double barrel.  Double barrels may be side by side or over-under, which describes the placement of the two barrels.  These shotguns are very simple, very durable, and the barrel can be changed out for different purposes.  They have been around for hundreds of years and vary from extremly inexpensive to very expensive.

The second type of shotgun is the pump-action shotgun.  This is the iconic police shotgun from just about every movie featuring a policeman.  Pump shotguns offer the advantage of quicker follow up shots when compared to break-action shotguns but are more complicated and can be more expensive.  The shotgun shells are typically loaded into a magazine tube mounted below the barrel.  The user loads a new round by sliding (pumping) the action.

The third type of shotgun is the autoloading (or semiautomatic) shotgun.  These shotguns use the recoil of the shotgun to load the next round.  These offer the quickest followup shots but are the most complicated and most prone to mechanical failure. 

Generally speaking, the pump action is preferred for self defense purposes, due to it combination of quick follow up shots and rugged, reliable action.  Of course reading any internet forum will bring a myriad arguments in favor of all three.  So which did I go with?  The pump action.

The Gauge

The gauge refers to the size of the round the shogun will accommodate. Gauge is typically measured as a fraction, so 12 gauge is actually larger than 20 gauge (1/12 > 1/20).  The most common gauge by far is the 12 followed by the 20, with the oddly named .410 recently gaining in popularity.  (The .410 is measured in inches and would be equivalent to 67 gauge.)   Other relatively common gauges include the 10 and 28 (probably best known for being the gauge former vice president Dick Cheney used to shoot a hunting partner by accident).

Shogtun shells are verstaile creatures, able to accommodate, birdshot, buckshot, slugs, and specialty rounds such as flechettes (tiny darts) or tear gas cannisters.  For civilians, the first three are the most common ammunition.  The size of the gauge determines how much shot or what size slug can be used.  The trade off is the amount of shot vs the kick or recoil of the gun.  Shotguns are notorious for their kick, and new users are often steered to the smaller gauges because of their lighter recoil.

Randy Cain (my gun guru of choice from reputation, accessibility, and experience) maintains that this is a mistake.  There is more 12 gauge ammunition available than any other choice, and if recoil is an issue, low-recoil 12 gauge shells have less recoil than traditional 20 gauge rounds.  Anne Langlois also offers that loading a 20 gauge magazine is more difficult than a 12.

So what did I go with?  12 gauge.  I haven’t paid for Randy’s advice on shotguns yet, but I might as well try to do it his way first.

The Barrel

The barrel on most shotguns can be replaced, so a single shotgun can be configured for multiple purposes.


Generally speaking, a short barrel is desirable for self defense applications because it is more maneuverable.  The shortest barrel that can be owned by civilians without hassle is 18 inches.  Shorter barrels are also used for hunting in more densely wooded areas.  Generally speaking, a longer barrel is used to for hunting game that moves because the heavier barrel swings more smoothly.


The bore refers to the inside of the barrell.  There are two types of shotgun bore: smooth and rifled.  Rifled barrels are a more recent development and are generally used for hunting with slugs.  Smooth bores can be used for shot or slugs.


Some shotgun barrels are choked, which means the muzzle end is constricted.  Choking the barrel prevents shot from spreading as much, allowing the shotgun to be used for longer distances.  Some shotgun barrels have interchangeable chokes so that the same barrel can be used for several different purposes.  For self defense shotguns,  cylinder or improved cylinder barrel is preferred.


The traditional shotgun sight is a single bead at the muzzle end of the barrel.  The shotgun is pointed not aimed.  However for slugs and longer distance hunting, traditonal rifle sights or vent-ribs may be used.  A vent rib is a tube or ridge that sits above the barrel and aids in sighting.  For a defensive shotgun, rifle sights are preferred. Note: Jeff Cooper decided that ghost ring sites were best for tactical shotguns, so that is what is most popular, but in more recent times, instructors such as Randy Cain have discovered they shoot faster and better with traditional rifle sights.

The Conclusion

We have only begun to scracth the surface of shotguns, but hopefully, you have enough basic vocabulary to choose  a shotgun for home defense.  The preferred home defense shotgun is a 12 gauge, pump-action, shotgun with an 18 inch, improved cylinder barrel with rifle sights.

The Contenders

The two most common types of shotgun that meet these criteria are the Mossberg 500 series and the Remington 870.  (Please note that I have no experience with the Mossberg, so this information is either factual or 2nd hand anecdotal).  The Remington 870 has been around a long time and is a standard among armed forces, police, and hunters.  It seems to be the standard by which all other pump shotguns are measured.  There are a ton of replacement parts and accessories available for it.

The Mossberg 500 series is both stronger and weaker, more and less reliable, more and less rugged than the Remington 870 depending on who you listen to.  Generally speaking, the major factors in its favor are that it is often less expensive, and the safety is located on top of the receiver and is completely ambidextrous, making it attractive to left handers.

The choice

Randy Cain’s preferred shotgun is the Remington 870, and since I have no preferences whatsoever (my shotgun experience is only with break-actions) I went ahead and bought a Remington 870.   Of course, that brings another set of dizzying choices with it.  The next article will highlight the different models of Remington 870 and guide you through some of their major features.

Choosing a Remington 870 Pump Shotgun

In the last article I highlighted some of the major choices that must be made in choosing a shotgun.  Having narrowed my choice to a Remington 870, I thought that I simply needed to find the best price on one and buy it.  If only it were that simple.  This article will detail some of the choices and options available for the Remington 870.

The first thing to understand is that the Remington 870 comes in four different models or levels:

  • Remington 870 Express
  • Remington 870 Wingmaster
  • Remington 870 Police
  • Remington 870 other

This link has some nice information regarding the differences between the models although the information is a few years old and may be subject to change.

The most basic is the 870 Express.  The internal workings are not as nice, the action does not slide as smoothly, and the finish is quite terrible (reports of it flaking off abound on the internet).  Its major advantage is that it is 50%-60% of the price of a Wingmaster.

The Wingmaster has much more attention to detail than the Express, a much smoother slide, and high quality blued finish.  The Wingmaster is considered vastly superior to the Express.

The Police model (870P) has even more attention to detail, is assembled in a special part of the factory to ensure quality, and features a parkerized finish.  The 870P is also the only model to come with a 18 inch factory barrel (14 inch is also available if you want to go through the NFA hassle).

The other models include the Marine model which is identical to the Express but has a nickel plated corrosion resistant finish and is intended for salt water use.  The HD and Tactical models are sold with home defense and tactical accessories.  Some are based off the Express model while others are based off of the Police model, so care should be taken when choosing one of these.

Generally speaking, in order of desirability for home defense, the Police is preferred, followed by the Wingmaster, while the Express is deprecated.  So now you have decided to get a Remington 870 12 gauge pump-action shotgun with rifle sights.  Congratulations.  But if you want an 18 inch barrel, it’s only available in the Police model.  You could of course, get 20 inch barrel and have a gunsmith cut down the barrel and resolder the sight.  But care must be taken because a quarter inch too short will land you in trouble with the ATF not to mention that resoldering the sight means refinishing the barrel.  (Also keep in mind that although you can use other 870 barrels with the 870P, the finish will not match.)

So you might decide to get a Police model with a factory barrel.  But the police model is only available from authorized LE (law enforcement) distributors, which means your chances of finding a super discount are close to zero.  On the other hand, you could keep an eye on the pawn shops looking for police trade-ins.  In the four months that I looked, I was unable to find a used 870P for  a decent price, and finally ended up buying a new one with the exact features I was looking for.  Four days after I called in my order, I found a good deal on a police trade in on a local gun forum. (Customizing a used gun can end up being more expensive than simply buying it the way you want in the first place.)

This website has a decent guide to the various 870P models.  I decided on the 4421 (includes extended magazine tube), although I was told by one distributor that the 4421 was discontinued (of course that same distributor told me they didn’t know what the 4418 model was).  Another store said they had no 4421s in stock but sold me a 4417 with a magazine extension tube for less than other stores’ price on the 4421*.

The best price I found was from Firingline, Inc.

The next article will detail some of the possible accessories you may want to add to your Remington 870.

Update: Both of the models I mention above are synthetic stock shotguns.  I originally went that way because I wanted the OEM extension tube, and it was only available on synthetic stock shotgun from factory.  Because they were either discontinued or out of stock, I ended up getting the shotgun tube separately (although it’s still OEM).  Knowing what I know now, I would have gotten the 2505 version which is 18″, rifle sights, but with wooden stock and then installed the magazine extension.  Wood is prettier and also easier to cut to the correct length.  (Cutting your shotgun down to size is the topic of a future article.)

Choosing a handgun: What kind of trigger action (Updated)

One of the most confusing aspects of choosing a handgun is choosing a trigger action.  The discussion of trigger action can get very confusing very quickly, especially since some of the same words can mean different things when talking about revolvers or semi-automatics.

If you don’t care about the definitions and just want to know what to get, here are the Randy Cain recommendations:

  1. Revolvers take longer to shoot well.  Most beginners should start with semi-automatics, because they can become proficient quicker.
  2. The most important thing in a trigger is that it works the same every time.  (This rules out DA/SA triggers unless they can be carried like SA, cocked and locked).
  3. 1911s can have the best triggers if they’re worked on by a competent gunsmith.  Glocks and Glock-like guns (e.g., M&P and XDs) are next.

I will just cover the basic definitions and then some thoughts about the advantages and disadvantages. We’ll start with revolvers because they are more intuitive to understand.

Revolver Single Action (SA)

A revolver single action trigger is one where the only thing the trigger does is make the hammer fall.  The gun must be manually cocked by pulling back on the trigger.  This is the traditional cowboy action seen in Westerns.

Revolver Double Action (DA)

In a double action revolver, pulling the trigger cocks the hammer and makes the hammer fall.  The two actions in one trigger pull make it “double action.”  (For you purists out there, you could argue that pulling the trigger also turns the cylinder, but that’s really a side effect of the hammer cocking, so they don’t count it as three actions.)  Double action revolvers can also be manually cocked and used as single action.  Because the trigger pull does more than one thing, the trigger pull is typically longer and heavier than single action, but the guns are simpler to fire.

Revolver Double Action (DAO)

Some revolvers are “hammerless” so they cannot be manually cocked.  These are often called double action only, because you can’t shoot it single action.  Rand Cain advises against hammerless models.  Instead, he prefers shrouded hammers (where a hammer is relatively hidden by a “shroud” of metal to prevent the hammer from snagging on clothing.  Shrouded hammers offer a compromise (or is it the best of both) between DAO and DA revolvers.

If you can understand the revolver actions, the rest of this article should be fairly simple.

Single Action Semi-autos (SA)

A single action semi-automatic is one where the trigger only makes the hammer fall.  The recoil of the gun re-cocks the hammer for the next shot.  The hammer is cocked the first time by “racking the slide” and chambering the first round.  Most SA pistols have a manual safety and can be carried “cocked and locked”.  The major advantage is a consistent trigger pull.  The major disadvantage is that it takes practice to release the safety before firing (and  to re-engage the safety before holstering).  The most famous American gun of all time, the Colt 1911, and its clones are SA.  Some SA pistols are not safe to have a closed hammer on a live round which can lead to dangerous situations with people not properly trained in their use.

Double Action Semi-autos (DA) or (DA/SA)

Double action semi-automatics are similar in concept to revolver double action except for one major difference.  On the first round, the trigger cocks the hammer and then makes it fall.  The recoil then re-cocks the hammer so that the next shot is a single action shot.  (Hence why they’re sometimes called DA/SA.)

The major advantage is that the hammer can safely be carried down on a live round.  The first shot will then have a heavier, longer pull.  The follow up shots then have the lighter trigger pull of the SA.  The major disadvantage is that some people cannot get used to the transition between the DA and the SA trigger pulls.  This can be ameliorated by manually cocking the pistol before the first shot.

The Crunchentickers as they are derisively known are notoriously difficult to shoot well from a holster.  As Randy Cain says when the class starts to learn to shoot from a holster, “Now you’re going to learn to hate your gun.”  And I did, and I no longer have it.  DA/SA guns should be avoided (despite the penchant for law enforcement to use them) unless they can be carried cocked and locked like a SA gun.

The trixie part:  DA/SA guns may or may not have manual safeties.  The thinking here is that the hammer down, long trigger pull is a safety mechanism, so some guns omit the manual safety in favor of a decocker that is designed to safely lower the hammer onto a chambered round without an accidental discharge.  In guns with a manual safety, some guns will not allow the safety to be engaged unless the hammer is cocked, while others will allow the safety to be engaged only with the hammer down, and others will allow both.  Know what your gun will do before your purchase it.

Double Action Only Semi-auto (DAO)

Every trigger pull cocks the hammer and makes it fall.  The recoil does not re-cock the gun.  DAO triggers typically have long relatively heavy trigger pulls.  This is very popular with politicians who know that their police officers are not adequately trained in the use of their weapons.  The New York politicians (like Guiliani and Bloomberg) think their policemen are so inept that the trigger specified for New York policemen has its own name–you guessed it, the New York trigger (essentially a very heavy trigger).

The advantage of the DAO is that every trigger pull is the same.  The disadvantage is that every trigger pull is relatively long and hard.

Striker fired Semi-autos

Striker fired semi autos have gained increasing popularity throughout the world thanks to Glock.  A striker is an internal firing mechanism instead of a hammer.  Think of it kind of like a slingshot hidden inside the gun.  Here is a nifty animation  that helps to explain it.

The major advantage of a striker fired gun is a consistent trigger pull (much like a single action).  Glock calls theirs “Safe action”  Other companies call theirs single action, and others double action only depending on whether the striker is fully cocked, half cocked, or uncocked between shots.   Whatever; the important thing is that the trigger pull is always consistent. Some striker fired weapons have no manual safety, while others do.  The trigger pull is usually a little heavier than a single action gun and often has some kind of  safety lever on the trigger itself to help  prevent the gun from firing unless the trigger is deliberately pulled.

The striker is generally fully cocked or half cocked, so when disassembling the weapon, the tension on the striker must be released.  Some striker fired guns, like Glocks require that the trigger be pulled, which has caused at least a few negligent discharges (I thought it wasn’t loaded).  Other companies have a decocker whose only purpose is to prevent the trigger from being pulled while disassembling the gun.

Other Trigger Actions

There are other trigger actions out there, but these are the major ones.  Another that is growing in popularity among law enforcement is the Double Action Kellerman (DAK), named after it’s creator.  This is a variant on the DAO, where the first trigger pull is long and heavy, and the follow up shots are short and heavy.  This kind of trigger breaks Randy’s rule that  a trigger should be consistent.

A Note on Trigger Weights and Pulls

Trigger weights are a highly subjective matter.  The quality of the trigger, and its design have an influence on the overall feel.  Generally speaking, smooth triggers feel lighter than gritty triggers.  Triggers that travel a short distance and triggers that go straight back rather than travel in an arc feel lighter.  So weight isn’t everything.  Also guns can be modified after market, so this list should be taken with a grain of salt, but generally speaking, for semi-autos:

  • Single action: 3.5 – 5 pounds
  • Double action: 7 – 18 pounds
  • Striker fired: 5 – 8 pounds

Trigger reset

In addition to the trigger action, another important consideration is trigger reset–the distance the trigger has to move forward before it can fire a second shot.  All things equal, a shorter reset will allow for more accurate, quicker shots.

Updated: The information below is outdated and only left for posterity.  Click here to see current recommendations

So, what do I have?  I have a DA/SA with a decocker only (no manual safety).  Why?  Well, a combination of things, but the confluence of price and availability collided with my being left handed.  The guns I was interested in didn’t fit my hand in the full size, and the compact models didn’t have ambi-dextrous safeties (I’m left handed).  So I went with the decocker version, although I’d prefer a gun that lets me carry cocked and locked in single action mode.  You really do have to practice that first double action shot in order to be good at it or it will tend to twitch the barrel to the side.