This fall, more Americans will go afield with pumpguns than with any other type of shotgun. And that's not totally due to their low price, rattle-blam reliability, and screw-the-weather toughness. The truth is, plenty of shooters can simply hit better with a pump.
But right now the pump's affordable price is a particularly big factor that is bringing thousands of new recruits into the shooting sports, some of whom are carrying brand-new guns which cost less than their boots - a deal the couldn't have found even during the Depression.
Its not that the new breed of economy pumps is "cheap" in terms of shoddy materials or design. It's just that discount merchandising is revolutionizing the retail business, and the pump's brilliantly simple design happens to lend itself perfectly to economical mass production.
It certainly doesn't hurt that the old trombone action can be played in blowing sand that would jam most autoloaders. Or that if the owner forgets to clean a pumpgun, say for a decade or so , it'll probably go right on shucking. Or that there's now a pump for just about every purpose. Some have interchangeable, tapped-for-scope rifled barrels that can enable a bird gun to shoot big-game slugs as accurately as some open-sighted rifles. There are camouflaged pumps for turkeys and waterfowl, non-glare black versions with synthetic stocks that double for home defense or hunting, downright bad-looking pumps with extended magazines and short pistol grips for close-quarters confrontations, stainless-steel jobs that resist rust and are often used for security on boats, scaled-down youth models that are also great for women, pumps that can fire any 12 gauge shell made - including the awesome 3 ½ - magnum - and 10 gauge pumps that have helped waterfowlers bag birds more cleanly with steel shot.
The result is that a whole lot of people are currently interested in pumpguns. And one of the world's most experienced sources of such information - at least the kind that can be backed up with gunfire - is a seventy-two-year-old retired oilman who is often called the best all-around shotgunner of our time. About the only thing "Mr. Pumpgun" Rudy Etchen hasn't been able to do with his forty-six-year-old Remington 870 is wear it out. Etchen was born to shoot. He was a baby when his father, renowned shooting instructor Fred Etchen, used a Model 12 to lead the United States team to the 1920 Olympic gold medal in Trapshooting. His mother was a Kansas State trapshooting champion. By age thirteen he was shucking his way to state titles, ad since then he's won every age category in the North American Clay Target Championship, from sub-junior to senior veteran. Twice he's had long runs of more than 1,000 straight at trap. And after withstanding sixty years of recoil and five-way heart bypass, his registered average at trap still hovers around 99.3 percent. He's done all this with the same old gun he acquired back in 1950, when it was introduced at the Grand American Handicap. (He promptly used it to break the first 100 straight doubles at the Grand.) Rudy's in the Trapshooting Hall of Fame; he's been an All-American twenty times at trap, skeet, or both; and he has won hundreds of clay target and live bird competitions around the world. And although he calls Sporting Clays his "fun game," I've seen him his almost 90 percent on the famed Flint Oak Course in Kansas.
Now retired and living in Scottsdale, Arizona, and Big Sky, Montana, Rudy still does some firearms consulting for Remington. And talking pumpguns with him is like discussing the Ark with Noah.
For example, I asked Rudy why he prefers the pump for hunting birds when he owns so many fine doubles, including a custom-built Purdey he used to win the High-Over-All World Championship at live pigeons. Why doesn't he shoot those graceful guns more in the field?
"I do occasionally use my small-gauge doubles and over/unders on doves," he says, "but I just feel more comfortable with pumps. Having to pump helps me get my head back down between shots with heavy duck or goose loads, and on quail or pheasants that little split second's h4esitation may help me read the bird's distance and speed between shots. Also the longer sighting plane helps me judge angles and leads. A 26-inch barrel on a pump puts the muzzle nearly as far out from the edge as a 30-inch barrel on most doubles."
Rudy doesn't agree with the idea, so often taught by shooting instructors, that gun barrels should be ignored when concentrating upon the target.
"I focus on the target," he says, "but I also know exactly where my barrel is pointing on every shot. The longer sighting plane makes it easier for my out-of-focus (peripheral) vision to see where I'm shooting. And the pumping just seems to make me take my time with a little more positive follow-through." What "taking his time" means to Rudy might translate to "plenty damn quick" for most of us. In winning the Grand National Quail Championships in Oklahoma he has - before witnesses - dropped five bobwhites on the covey rise so swiftly the old pump sounded more like a machine gun.
Rudy recommends shooters practice at trap doubles (or shoot skeet doubles as fast as possible to hone the movements, and speed, of pumping. And he believes the pump's relatively lightweight and between-the-hands balance (no gas-piston system up front) makes it a slightly faster-handling gun than most autoloaders. He shoots a Monte Carlo-style trap stock at everything, with a 1 7/16-inch drop at either end of the raised comb so he gets the identical sight picture even when he's wearing a lot of clothing. And Rudy says the higher point-of-impact of such a stock is a distinct advantage.
"I don't consciously compensate by holding low," he explained during a recent photo session as he casually smashed three consecutive dropping targets precisely where photographer David Sams had wanted 'em to break. "I just look where I want to shoot, and the gun shoots where I look. It's just natural, after all these years, for me to put the barrel six o'clock low to hit dead on, and it lets me see the bird better. If more youngsters had the chance I did to start out with a higher shooting stock, they'd quickly adjust to that sight picture and point the gun instinctively with it. And they'd control the gun easier with a small-around grip on a fairly short stock, one no longer than necessary to keep from bumping their nose with the grip hand. I'm a pretty big guy, but I shoot a 14-inch stock with a grip about as small as you'll see on most Youth Model guns."
Rudy obviously knows exactly what works for him. So here, now, are some pumpgun questions from readers and some answers based on my own fifty-odd years of studying guns and pumping steel:
Q: Is it true that a pump can actually be fired faster than an autoloader?
A: That depends upon the pump, the autoloader, and who's doing the shucking. Winchester exhibition shooter Herb Parsons popularized that "pump is fastest" idea using a tricked-up Model 12 that would fire the instant the action closed if he held the trigger down. I've photographed him smashing seven clay targets in the air so quickly their smoke-balls hung side by side in the sky. But nowadays, exhibition shooter Jogh Satterwhite does that same trick, and more, with Benelli autoloaders, which cycle faster than gas autoloaders (as can Beretta's non-gas Model 1200 series). Sporting Clays All-American Jon Kruger has used pumps for exhibition shooting because he says he can pull the trigger faster than most gas autoloaders will cycle. But he shoots Sporting Clays with a Krieghoff over/under because he says the pump is just a tad slow for him to shuck at extremely fast doubles that are thrown at certain odd angles. In other words, gun-emptying exhibitions are one thing, and real-world shooting is another. Most shooters can get off successive accurate shots a bit more quickly with a two-barreled gun or autoloader.
Q: If Pumps are so great, why aren't they more popular in other countries?
A: Tradition, probably. The pump is about as All-American as a shotgun can get - patented, perfected, and still primarily produced here. The first was the Spencer, which was patented in 1885. John Browning's much better innovation, the exposed-hammer Model 97 Winchester, came out in 1897 and promptly put the pumpgun on its way to dominating bird hunting in this country. What also helped was that the majority of All-American skeet and trap shooters from the 1920s throughout the 1950s used pumps. And lest such a thought tempt us lovers of fine doubles to retch upon our Barbours and Wellies, it was the late British gun writer Gough Thomas - an authority on the use of English doubles - who most articulately described the unique advantages of the trombone action. "The standard American pumpgun is probably the weapon with the highest eumatic rating of all," wrote G.T. Garwood in his Gough Thomas's Second Gun Book. "It was surely a stroke of genius to make the business of cartridge ejection, recocking, and reloading ensure, more or less automatically, from the convulsive reaction to recoil and the instinctive recovery from it." (Garwood coined the word "eumatic," possibly because "user-friendly" hadn't been invented yet.)
Q: Why can I hit waterfowl and doves better with a pump than with anything else?
A: Well, it probably helps that the motions of pumping get the gun moving and encourage directing the gun with the front hand. Ducks and geese often appear to be moving slower than they are and there's great temptation to "aim" rather than aggressively swing. That's why many pump shooters often hit better with their second or third shots (after they get started pumping) than with the first shot that's too often taken with an unmoving "dead gun."
Q: What are the mistakes a new pumpgun shooter would be likely to make?
A: Loading too many shells into the magazine for upland hunting, thus making the gun too front-heavy and sluggish. Forgetting how many cartridges are in the magazine. Failing to keep the action open on a shooting range. For clay target shooting it's safer, and easier, to just drop a shell into the chamber and load only one in the magazine.
Q: Is a pump really the most shotgun for the money?
A: I think so, at least among guns that shoot more than once. Although standard-grade pumps can cost twice as much as economy versions, they're still less expensive than most gas autos of the same grade. Remington's Model 870 Express, with its cosmetic downgrades of less-polished finish and birch wood rather than walnut, has definitely jolted the gun market and prompted deeper discounts on competitive pumps. I've seen the Remington Express advertised on sale for as low as $170, and some Maverick by Mossberg models have been sold for considerably less than that. Add an interchangeable slug barrel to the standard equipment features some of these discount models come with, such as a ventilated rib and barrel with interchangeable chokes, and you have a whole lot of birds-to-bucks versatility for the money.
Q: Will a pump hit harder because it doesn't waste gas operating the action?
A: If so, the difference can't matter much because there's a greater velocity difference between cartridges that come from the same box than there is between the pump and the gas gun.
Q: Is the 3 ½-inch 12-gauge the most versatile of all? How does it pattern with 2 ¾-inch shells?
A: It's plenty versatile at both ends. The 3 ½ inch magnum load is basically a 10-guage load trying to kick its way out of a 12-guage gun, and it will do so with particular brutality with lead loads. The Browning BPS is the only pump I consider heavy enough (in its original form) for those loads. But the lighter Mossberg 835 can certainly be weighted to tame it down. Normal-length (2 ¾ inch) shells in a 3 ½ inch chamber function and pattern fine.
Q: Are the Model 12s made in Japan as good as the originals that were made in America? What about the Winchester Model 1200 made in this country?
A: The "new" Model 12s seem to function and point about the same as the original, and their barrel steel seems stronger than the original in terms of withstanding steel shot without bulging. The Winchester Model 1200 got a bad rap because it replaced the great (but expensive-to-make) Model 12, and shooters at the time were furious with Winchester management. Actually, the 1200 has proved to be a very serviceable, good-shooting shotgun.
Q: I prefer a pump for waterfowl, but can't take the recoil of magnum loads. Any suggestions?
A: Weight the gun. I mostly use Staub Mercury Inertial Control reducers (one in the magazine and one in the stock for balance) from Staub Controls, 261 Herbert, Alton, IL 62002.
Q: If police officers use pumps because they won't jam, wouldn't that make'em the best choice for home defense?
A: Pumps can jam if the pumping stroke isn't completed properly (it's called "short-shucking"), but just the sound of a pump action closing may be enough to stop an intruder who knows anything about close-range shotgun power. An ordinary hunting pump can be easy-to-hit-with, quite safe home-defense gun. When just the magazine is loaded (not the chamber), it can't accidentally discharge, and a very small child is unlikely to be able to pump one into the chamber. Each gun Mossberg sells to the American market comes with a simple cable lock safety device, which prevents the bolt from fully closing into firing position.
Q: Is it true that there are places where I might be laughed at for showing up with a pump?
A: You wouldn't take a pump to a formal English driven pheasant shoot (even if they'd let you) any more than you'd show up in breeks or knickers at a South Texas dove shoot. There are, after all, traditions. But should some shooting-range snob smile condescendingly down upon your All-American gun, just smile back. There are pumpgun shooters around who could probably buy and sell him out of pocket change. Never apologize for a pumpgun - just practice plenty and let it speak for itself.