Firearms are a mature technology. Nearly every design in production today stems from a gun that existed in one form or another at the turn of the 20th century. Which isn’t to say guns today aren’t any different from those in the past, just that firearms tech won’t advance as rapidly as say the consumer electronics industry.
While this may seem initially disappointing, it has an interesting effect on the used gun market: Guns from 10, 20 or even 30 years ago are nearly as viable today as their modern counterparts. And no firearm better typifies this better than the venerable, pump-action shotgun.
Drop a new production Remington Model 870 decked out in Magpul furniture in the hands of a hunter from the 1920s, and after he’s done scoffing at the appearance, he’ll feel right at home behind the gun. This is all fascinating, but what does it have to do with the modern shooter?
Well, hunters, farmers and those in need of a home defense scatter-gun can often purchase a used shotgun at a pawn shop for far less than the cost of a new production model if they know what they’re looking for. Rather than force readers to do the legwork themselves, I’ve compiled a quick guide on my top three affordable shotguns for the shooter on a budget.
Sears/J.C. Higgins Model 20 /High Standard Model 200 ($120)
Wait a minute, Sears makes shotguns?!
Well, sort of.
Back when Sears was the biggest retail chain in the United States, they used to sell rifles, pistols and shotguns for the working man. These weren’t made by Sears, but rather High Standard Arms Co. – an established gun maker. Sears then re-branded the guns under their in-house brand, J.C Higgins (and later Ted Williams), and sold them at their stores.
These guns have next to no collectability because they’re so prolific – they were the Maverick 88 of their day. Unlike the Maverick, these guns were built back when labor was cheap and materials expensive, so they often show great attention to fit and finish. Also, the Model 20’s receiver is milled from a solid block of heat-treated steel, and the barrels are all proof-tested.
If a gun maker were to attempt building a gun such as the Model 20 today, the labor and receiver alone would drive the price north of $800. The good news? Used examples are often found at pawn shops for around $120! So if you’re a shooter on a seriously tight budget, you can buy one of these ultra-durable shotguns and spend the rest of your extra cash on ammunition and training.
The downside? While the guns are exceptionally robust, customer support is non-existent. If something breaks, a shooter is on his or her own. Thankfully, thousands of owners have posted millions of topics online about the guns – so a quick Google search of the problem normally results in a solution. The other downside is a total lack of aftermarket support. So if your dream is to convert your firearm from turkey gun into tactical door-breacher, you’re out of luck unless you own a 3D printer or a machine shop. But for a $120 gun, these complaints are hardly deal-breakers.
Ithaca Model 37 ($150-$250)
The Ithaca Model 37 is an incredible shotgun with an equally amazing track record whose manufacturer fell victim to circumstances outside its control. Ithaca Gun Company began manufacturing firearms back in 1880 in, you guessed it, Ithaca, New York.
The arms maker built guns for the U.S. military, including the 1911 in World War 2, and the M3 “Grease Gun” submachine gun during the Korean War. While the Ithaca 37 was introduced just prior to World War 2, the Depression prevented the gun from being an initial commercial success. At the end of the conflict, the Ithaca 37 sold exceptionally well and even saw military service in World War 2, the Korean War and the jungles of Vietnam.
Part of the reason for its success is the 37’s rugged, simple design and reputation for die-hard reliability. Feeding from a magazine tube, the 37 is unique in that it ejects through its loading gate – making it suitable for both right- and left-handed shooters.
Additionally, older examples of the Ithaca allow shooters to slam-fire their shotguns in emergencies. (Slam-firing is when the shooter works the pump while squeezing the trigger and the gun fires.) This capability allegedly made the gun very popular with soldiers in need of firepower when clearing buildings in WW2, and the close quarters fighting in the jungles of Southeast Asia.
There are a few downsides to the gun, though. For starters, the overwhelming majority are only available in 2 ¾-inch chambers, and featherweight examples kick like angry mules. Aftermarket support is better than more obsolete guns such as the Sears Model 20, but still not nearly as robust as the Mossberg 500 or Remington 870. Thrifty shoppers can find used examples for $150-$250 depending on condition and grade.
Remington Model 870 (as low as $100)
The only thing more American than the Remington 870 is a bald eagle draped in a tiny American flag perched atop the Washington Monument. This pump-action shotgun is more ubiquitous in the states than Starbucks and McDonalds combined, seriously.
Remington has been churning out these blue-collar pump-guns since the early 1950s, with more than 10 million examples built. The secret to this prolific pump-action’s popularity?
Two words: reliability and durability.
Both these aspects make used examples a great bargain for shooters in need of an unstoppable hunting companion, or fight-stopping home defense gun. Plus, the popularity of the 870 has bred an enormous aftermarket parts trade. This has two enormous implications for used gun buyers.
First, if the configuration of the gun isn’t conducive to your needs, new barrels, furniture sets or sight mounts can completely change the gun’s handling and usability, thus allowing buyers to tailor their 870 to a particular scenario.
Second, the popularity of the gun means they’re plentiful, and often taken for granted at pawn shops right after deer season. Especially if they’re older models, or missing a little finish, some guns are found for as cheap as $100.
For example, I found an 870 Wingmaster from the 1970s at a pawn shop in a small town nearby for $140, that had a damaged high-gloss stock and surface rust on its 27-inch, full-choke turkey barrel. At the time I was in need of a home defense shotgun, so that unwieldy barrel and full-length stock wouldn’t work well.
So I bought the gun and then waited for the next gun show to roll into town a week or two later. While it’s no secret that gun shows don’t have the kind of deals they used to, common parts for very common guns are often found for cheap – especially if they were taken off a used gun. I managed to find a shorter, 20-inch cylinder bore barrel for $65 and a scuffed-up 870 polymer youth stock for $15. I bought an 870 MOE M-Lok handguard from Magpul for $30. So for a grand total of $250, I had a 100 percent American-made home defense 12 gauge with two barrels, capable of serving as either a turkey gun or home defense weapon. Not too shabby.
Better Safe Than Sorry
With any of these guns, it’s important to have a gunsmith inspect them for damage beforehand. While the overwhelming majority won’t have anything wrong, you can never be too careful. I always try to look for rust inside the gun and signs of ham-fisting/’bubba-ing’ of parts. If the magazine tube cap/extension is crooked, remove it and check the threading. Those tubes aren’t made of tempered steel, and can be accidently bent if the cap is threaded on crooked.
Check the barrel for bulges or odd crowning. For bulges, run don’t walk. This means the gun was fired either with the barrel plugged or with a superhot reload. In either case, the strength of both the barrel and receiver are likely compromised. Odd crowning, or a lack thereof, could mean a 28-inch barrel was burst when it was fired full of mud, and the owner simply cut behind the damage.
Lastly, work the action a few times; these shotguns are used, and should feel pretty smooth from years of service. If the gun’s action binds or resists movement at any point, be weary of a gun that might have been dropped off an ATV or pickup at some point.
The next time you have an hour or two to burn, check out your local pawn shop. You never know what great gun deals you might find!