Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Remington 870 built for home defense


On the list of firearms held as suitable for home defense, the nearly undisputed king is the 12 gauge pump action shotgun. Whether it’s the unmistakable noise of a round being chambered or the (rightly or wrongly) perceived massive stopping power, the big bore shotgun has a respected place in self defense.

In use since the very beginning of firearms, the shotgun rapidly gained a reputation for bringing down it’s target, whether two legged, four legged, or on wing. When ‘rifles’ did not exist and a single ball hitting it’s target was iffy, a handful of pellets fired from a .75” smoothbore usually got the job done. During the 18th century a coach was often guarded by a man armed with a ‘blunderbuss’, which was nothing more than a short barreled shotgun with the muzzle belled to make loading easier on a bouncing coach seat. From the classic western lawman to today’s patrol car, the shotgun has been a comforting resource to police officers for generations.

The same things that make it suitable for police use make it desirable as a home protection weapon. Heavy firepower over a short range, coupled with an intimidating visual image and ease of operation.

Shotguns can be found in many configurations, but the defensive role is dominated by pump action and semi-automatic 12 gauge guns. Mechanically identical to their hunting brethren, defensive shotguns differ in barrel length, magazine capacity, and sighting hardware.

While a typical hunting shotgun might have twenty eight or thirty inch barrels, this would be too long for easy maneuverability anyplace other than the field. The long barrel that makes easier swinging on a pheasant in flight would prevent effective gun handling in a hallway or small room. For this reason defensive shotguns usually have barrels that are eighteen to twenty inches long.

Hunting shotguns are often limited to three rounds capacity, or maybe five with the ‘plug’ out of the magazine. Defensive shotguns sometimes have a longer magazine tube bringing capacity up to eight or nine rounds. There are even special ‘shorter’ shotgun shells designed to boost the capacity of a shotgun, made just for defensive use. Many shotguns built for home defense also have spare ammunition stored right on the weapon, in special carriers.

While a bird gun might have a ventilated rib with a gold bead at the end, the shorter defensive shotgun more often has a plain barrel with a rifle sight on the end. There is a common misconception that shotguns throw so wide a pattern that aiming is not necessary. Nothing could be farther from the truth, and only a few ‘pointed’ shots at the range will prove this. It’s embarrassing to miss at short range with a shotgun when bowling pins are the target, but it can be disastrous in a home defense situation. Rifle type sights on the shotgun are a helpful aid to aiming accurately.

In this article, a typical 12 gauge pump action shotgun will get a simple conversion to a home defense weapon. In this case, a Remington 870 Express, but any decent quality hunting shotgun can be drafted to house duty with a few changes. While the 870 is worth investing some funds into for a project such as this, it’s possible a decent working 12 gauge can be bought used for well under $200. As long as the basic quality is there, outward finish means nothing. Worn bluing and a scratched stock don’t really matter much in a defensive shotgun. Dependability and usefulness do.

When I was shotgun shopping, the choice was narrowed to the two major suppliers; Remington and Mossberg. I liked the reliability and pricing on both, and a wealth of accessories are available for both. So, what clinched the deal on the Remington? I handled both at the store, and while I was looking over the Mossberg (a turkey gun) the rear sight fell off in my hands. To me, this is not a good sign. If one part I can see is made that cheaply, then what is there I can’t see?

This Remington came to the author as a used hunting shotgun. It’s been carried in the field, and also spent many an evening shooting trap under the lights. The original barrel is twenty eight inches long and is threaded for interchangeable chokes. It has a ventilated rib with a gold bead at the muzzle, and can hold four 2 ¾” shells in its magazine.

As a hunting shotgun it’s dependable and sturdy. Since it’s the cheaper Express model it came with a matte finish and plain wood. That doesn’t affect its usefulness or sturdiness, and it’s still a Remington 870, a shotgun with a long history of service.

As a home defense shotgun, it needed some changes. First and foremost, it must have a shorter barrel. The original was just too long to navigate the hallways and doorways of a house. It’s possible to cut down a shotgun barrel without too much fuss, but there are some factors that must be taken into account. The barrel length cannot legally be made shorter than eighteen inches without an expensive tax stamp issued by the BATFE. Eighteen and a half is usually the shortest a factory barrel comes, and most police shotguns are that length. Citizens have been killed for cutting off that last half inch… don’t risk it.

Once the gun is fitted with a suitably short barrel, what more is required? Many people seem to think any number of gadgets must be bolted, screwed, or Velcroed onto a shotgun before it can be a real defensive weapon. The reality is… simple is better. One need not feel under gunned because their shotgun does not have a vibrating green laser aiming device capable of highlighting the space shuttle in orbit, nor a twenty seven position tactical recoil absorbing stock with optional cup holder. The gun needs to work every time, and with a minimum of fuss. It needs to be maneuverable inside a building. Once that’s achieved, everything else is fluff and something to break or distract. It’s far better to spend the extra cash on ammunition and training time, which is a better investment in self defense.

If the shotgun is one that’s common, then a shorter barrel can usually be found that’s easy to install. Remington sells police length barrels for most of their shotguns, and Mossberg makes defensive barrels for both their guns and the Remington 870. Winchester has ‘Defender’ barrels for the 1300 and 1200 series of shotguns too. For roughly $110 to $150, a new police type barrel can be bought, and installation is a snap. This is usually a better idea than cutting down a premium hunting barrel, unless the shotgun is a cheap used gun with a value little more than the cost of the barrel.

For this build a new Remington police barrel was purchased from Cabelas. It’s a smoothbore with no choke, 18 ½ inches long, and fitted with a bead front sight. The finish is matte to match the Express shotgun it’s going to be mounted on. At $119 out the door, the price was not exorbitant.

Installing the barrel could not be easier. Simply unscrewing the magazine cap is all that’s required, with the action open, and the barrel will pull forward off the shotgun (beware the magazine spring, as it will probably come un-caged with the cap removed). The new barrel is fitted into place and the cap reinstalled. Nothing else needs be done. The original hunting barrel can be cleaned, oiled, and put away for next year’s pheasant season.

While the barrel is being replaced, the magazine spring will likely be removed to get it out of the way. It’s an excellent time to set aside the ‘plug’ that limits the magazine capacity to meet some states hunting regulations. Also, it’s a fine time to install an extended magazine tube if one is desired. For about $45, a machined metal magazine extension can be bought that will give another two, three, or four rounds capacity.

In this build, the added expense was declined, and the original magazine cap reinstalled.

To carry reloads on the shotgun, many companies make ‘side saddle’ shell holders that bolt to the receiver, or even on the butt stock itself. These can hold an additional four to eight rounds in a convenient place for reloading on the move.

In our case, a simple shell holder sleeve was installed on the butt stock. Made by Uncle Mikes, it holds five shotgun shells securely in elastic loops. Since it’s of neoprene construction it tends to stick to the stock, and won’t slide around during movement. That’s important, and worth a few extra dollars. At $12, it’s an inexpensive answer to the issue of carrying extra ammunition.

Whether it’s a side saddle or an elastic shell holder such as this, strong consideration should be given to carrying reloads on the weapon. Even with the longest magazine tube the shotgun will hold only eight or nine rounds at the most. In the event the long gun is used in home defense the user is almost surely going to be under pressure and rushed. Grabbing extra ammo can’t be counted on. The fight will be fought with what’s on the gun. A ready reload mounted on the shotgun is the way to go.

The Remington 870 Express usually comes with swivels already installed for a sling. This is something to be considered. Combat slings in a dozen formats can be had, and our troops use them every day. That said… do we need a sling on a home defense shotgun?

A sling is for carrying a weapon. In a home situation the shotgun will be carried in the hands, not on the shoulder. Unless there is property to be patrolled, or a guard post to be maintained, a sling just isn’t needed. On the other hand, a sling can be a problem when moving through a building. It catches on things, and is a loose grab point for an opponent to use in taking the weapon for themselves.

Sling mounting points are not a bad idea; just for the thin chance a sling would be helpful. In a situation such as hurricane Katrina when long watches might be held over house and home to deter looting, the ability to sling the shotgun could save fatigue.

There are slings which double as bandoleers, holding an extra twenty or thirty shells in elastic loops. While they might appear pretty menacing, accurately firing a weapon with five pounds swinging loosely from it can be difficult. If there is a need to carry that much extra ammunition there are excellent cross shoulder bandoleers available, and they won’t get in the way of using the weapon.

A home defense shotgun does not need to be fancy, just dependable and suited to the job. Once the ‘riot gun’ is put together or bought, one more thing needs to happen and that is practice. Like any other tool, a shotgun won’t use itself. Practice is demanded, just as with any other weapon for self defense. Range time getting used to the recoil, noise, reloading, and aiming of the shotgun is central to its effective use. Even if it’s just a box of shells a month, the practice needs to happen.

Converting this shotgun from faithful hunter to reliable defender cost less than $140. Considering the return on investment, it might be the best way possible to spend money on home security. Its value won’t go down, and in the event it must be used every penny will be well spent.

In upcoming pieces we'll gut some shotgun shells and look closely at what is found, and discover how they perform on various targets. We'll also look at some simple drills for using a shotgun defensively.


Michael W. said...

A well written and unfortunately timely article. I suspect folks might need one of these around their homestead sooner rather than later.

Looking forward to the drills as well as shot-shell test.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your assessment completely. The 870 pictured would fulfill the defense needs of 90% of the people looking for a “combat” shotgun. I have a Ted Williams 300 auto that I use as my home shotgun, it holds just 3 rounds and the only modification is the shortened barrel, but I by no means feel under gunned.

A. Mattock said...

Great post, I just found your blog and have bookmarked it. I also agree with the above commenter that this type of weapon is is going to become hugely important in foul economic times. Side note. In my experience carrying shells primer up on the stock tends to be more secure as raising and lowering the weapon to the shoulder can strip shells loose. Upside down is faster in competition but you don't seem to be afflicted by Tacti-cool syndrome.

Excuse me while I go read all your back posts.

Thanks Again

Gun Blobber said...

I have found that the $120 price of a new barrel actually is kind of exorbitant, considering that for roughly $50 more I can buy a whole new shotgun with the 18.5" barrel included (Mossberg Maverick, around $175 at Academy Sports).

Carteach0 said...


I agree that base up is more secure, but I carry base down for a reason. When I post about some drills, it will become clear. I hope to video some of that....

Carteach0 said...


I had a shorty maverick once. It was fun, but I ended up giving it away. It just never felt like someting I wanted to bet my life on.

On the other hand.... it's WAY better than having nothing at all, and probably better than even a decent double barrel.

Little Joe said...

I had a fellow a few months back that owed me a couple of hundred dollars. He offered me a Mossberg 500 12Ga pump with pistol grip and a 20" barrel.

I never thought much of pistol grip shotguns but this one looked like it was brand new. He didn't have the money he owed me but had no problem giving me the gun straight-up for what he owed me so I accepted it.

It took some getting used to but now that I've put a dozen boxes of shells through it, I kind of like it.

I guess it's all in what you can get used to. I have no problems hitting every time with it. I've owned other Mossbergs and they have all been reliable guns.

I think the only thing I don't like about this particular Mossberg is it has some kind of door breaching doohickey on the end of the barrel. It kind of gives the gun that Ninja Tacti-Cool look that I don't care too much for.

I think your 870 conversion is a great way to get a low cost home defense shotgun.

Given my druthers, I'd take a Remington over any other shotgun. I think it's the best useful, all around shotgun made. I've never thought much of high end ($2000+) shotguns that are more status symbols than useful guns.


JAFO said...

hmmm, I feel a leatherworking project coming on.... stock wrap for shells...

Phil said...

In reference to keeping rounds on the weapon, I have had issues with the elastic stock wrap shell holders. Namely that once you get down to the the 4th & 5th shells that "stretch goes out of the wrap and you end up with the wrap not letting the shells loose and letting itself get pulled around the stock.

I finally just cut a small hole in the wrap and slipped it over my sling swivel stud and then remounted the swivel.

This did not fully solve the problem, but as long as I remember to pull the front shells first, it works OK.

I've now got a receiver mounted sidesaddle.

I also carry bade down. Probably for the same reason you do.

Carteach0 said...

This buttstock shell holder is neoprene. The loops are plain old elastic, but the wrap around itself is almost as sticky as rubber. It hardly moves at all.

Anonymous said...

Nice writeup. I wrote a response here.

flashman said...

I cut off the barrel of an old High Standard pump with a pipe cutter. To make sure it wasn't too short, I dropped a dowel rod in with the action closed and measured 18 1/2". Think I'm OK on length. Couldn't get the barrel off like I can with my 870, so that's the measurement method I used.

JAFO said...

since someone is sure to ask:

the spec calls for the measurement to be made from a closed boltface, with the action empty and must be at least 18" barrel length, 26" OAL (IIRC).

I gave them another inch. I'm generous like that.

Anonymous said...

Check this guy for fast and efficient tactical reloading of the shotgun.

Anonymous said...

I disagree about the sling. Being retired Army, we used it on the M16 not only for carry, but also to secure the rifle while aiming and shooting, to keep it from bucking and jumping so much, for faster target re-acquisition on the follow up shots.

B Woodman
SSG (Ret) U S Army

nothernug said...

Excellent article. Like yourself, I was faced with the dilemma of choosing Remington 870 or Mossberg 500. I always had a preference for the mossberg and already had one.
We live in the country and I was stalking a "bump in the night" one evening when my, then new, wife came outside to see how things were going. Now, 20 years later, she knows to stay firmly put under cover in the bedroom without a formal "all clear" from me. Mor to the point, I had realized when she came out the I had a thumb on the safety and a finger on the trigger, a very, very bad idea in any, let alone a tense, situation. While that natural tendency can be overcome with training, the Remington's triggerguard safety provides a most natural and safe place to put that trigger finger almost without thinking. That's no minor consideration. While many of us like to think we practice home defense drills, remember, it takes something like 3,000 repetitions of an action to instill muscle memory.

A second consideration for the Remington over the Mossy are the 870's dual action rods to the pump. This means a smoother, more consistent and less likelihood of jamming. Though there's not a great chance of that occurring, it's always possible. Another benefit of the dual acting rods are that, and this is important, they are quieter. Twist you Mossy500's pump handle side to side rapidly... it rattles.

The Mossberg is an excellent hunting gun. The Remington is better suited to combat. Older versions of both weapons are better... less plastic.

nothernug said...

One other nice feature of the 870. The "combat load." I'm have a kids so can't leave the gun loaded. I keep the shells stored separately but close to hand. I leave the weapon uncocked, safety off.
Come alarum, Grab a shell with left palm, rack open the slide, flip in the shell and jack it home. You're ready to fire one round right now! Then if there's breathing room, thumb some more into the mag and determine if you need the safety on or off (i.e. immediate need to shoot.)

Again, nice article on the home def. shotgun!

Everett said...

Just bought my 870 today.Got the wingmaster version. It is in very good shape for having been used moderately. Got a spare barrel for 50 bucks from another customer in the store at time of purchase. $50 barrel is better than installed one, so will now cut that one down. I'm on the way! Been wanting to do this for years!

theotherryan said...

Interestingly enough I did almost the exact same thing. Got an 870 for $165 used and put an Uncle Mikes Neoprene buttstock shotshell carrier on it and then got an 18.5" cylinder bore barrel.

I got the new barrel because I figured it would be good to have a long barrel for a shotgun lying around.

Anonymous said...

Great article, as are all on your blog! One of the best sources for real world Firearms information on the 'net.

I too have had the problem with the "fabric" stock mounted shell carrier slipping around, I wasn't even aware they made them in Neoprene, I'll have to pick one up.

I had one question, you state:

"Citizens have been killed for cutting off that last half inch… don’t risk it."

I agree 100% about keeping things legal, I'm just curious what scenario involved someone being killed for having too short a barrel?

Thanks for such a great Blog!

Carteach0 said...

Anon: Read up on this incident...

Huey said...

Just picked up a 1976 870 Wingmaster with a 18.5" barrel for under $160, the entire time I was buying it I kept thinking of this article....thanks!

Carteach0 said...

Great buy Huey!

Huey said...

just to share....

thanks again for the article, in my favorites menu now and going to be a sticky on my blog for others...

Anonymous said...

Nice write up about what makes a good home defense shotgun. Besides military, corrections, and federal law enforcement shotgun training, I also have attended Front Sight shotgun training. Additionally, check out what Clint Smith of Thunder Ranch has to say: & Also, check out J.D. McGuire at AIP Tactical: These guys are recognized experts, one a trainer and one a builder, both with on-the-street experience, and they both push "keep it simple." Cartech0 knows what he is talking about.

Anonymous said...

Per your article, I bought a Remington 870 Express, used, added police 18" barrel, tritium sights with ghost ring, mag extension and my special reliability work. Stocks are Speedfeed with integral 4 rounds on butt. Thank you for your post. What is great, with every pull of the trigger sends 9, .357 round balls down range at 1400 fps. Bad as HECK!! Again, thanks.

Mick said...

Catching up on old posts today. I have nothing bad to say about the 870; it's robust, excellent track record, etc., but as I was initiated into shooting first by hunting birds and bunnies, I went through about 8-10 various shotguns before I found one I could both afford AND hit birds with consistently; that was, surprisingly, the Mossberg 500. I bought the then-upgrade "Regal" model with 28" bird barrel and 24" smoothbore slug barrel with rifle sights; have since picked up a 18.5" barrel, a shorter stock (I bought a "factory second" and shortened it an inch); it's now good for everything from trap to home defense with a vest on. I use a sling to catch the gun if I switch to pistol rather than reload. We have a similarly-equipped 20 ga. Youth model for my 5' tall wife, as well as anyone else that needs it quick-in-a-hurry. Mags full, hammers down, no lights/lasers/cupholders, just #4 Buck or BBB steel-- hard to find 20 ga. buckshot sometimes.

Rem870 said...

I like reading articles about Remington 870 shotgun. And this is second good post which I found in your blog! Thanks, it was interesting to read it.

Anonymous said...

I've had a Wingmaster since the early '80s when my room mate talked me into duck hunting. Nice shotgun. 30" vent rib, hi gloss wood, polished steel etc.
But if I ever go duck hunting again it will be too soon.
I considered making it into a defense gun, never got around to it.
A couple years ago I acquired a Stevens 620 as a deal sweetener in a complicated swap.
In good condition, little wear, nice bluing. A few little dings on the stocks. A JMB design, appears post WWII manufacture. Research indicated the Stevens 520 and 620 were supplied in military and police/riot versions.
I figured "Why not" and proceeded as follows:
Cut the barrel down to the correct 20" length
Ordered a repro M97 trenchgun heatshield/bayo lug from Sarco
It was necessary to hone it about .025" to accept the barrel, and mill clearance slots for the mounting screws.
I ordered an M1917 sling swivel and inletted it in the correct location on the buttstock. Also got a WWII milsurp canvas sling.
Stripped and refinished the stocks in clear poly to simulate an oil finish.
Removed the mag plug.
Entire project took maybe 10 hours, cost about $175 including the value of the shotgun.
Results- I now have a decent replica trench gun. Looks pretty intimidating, especially w/ the bayo mounted.

Kicks like a mule.

(870 is still in the gun safe...)