Factory Models or DYI Versions – 8 Useful Upgrades
The Remington 870 12 gauge pump action shotgun is a familiar sight in many American households, and for good reason. They’re affordable, reliable, and versatile. Much like the modern sporting rifle, they can also be customized to fit different needs. Here we’ll look at how to convert a Remington 870 into a more tactical shotgun.
My Buddy Neal
A friend called the other day for advice on a home-defense shotgun. Like most others across America, his concern was increasing crime. I knew Neal wasn’t a full-blown gun nut, but typical of households throughout our rural area, his collection encompassed a few core firearms: a .22 rifle for small game and garden pests, a centerfire rifle for deer, and a shotgun for waterfowl and upland birds.
Household shotguns are often “pumps,” which could be anything from a vintage Winchester Model 12, to a current Mossberg 500, or the very common Remington Model 870. Thus, it came as no surprise to hear Neal owned a 12 gauge Model 870 – a well-used wood-stocked Express with a 28-inch ventilated-rib barrel.
Although a formidable defensive choice in its own right, with home invasions a growing concern, Neal was after something more maneuverable. The gun that caught his attention was a Model 870 Express Tactical. This made for an easier conversation due to a lengthy relationship with these guns.
My initial experience during the mid-1970s involved a glossy 16 gauge Model Wingmaster, but it eventually grew to include an armory full of 12 gauge Police models.
Remington Model 870 – Quick History
The Model 870 has been in nearly continuous production since 1950, with more than 11 million produced. Manufacturing ceased briefly during 2020 when Remington Arms shut down due to business problems; but within a few months, the company was back under new management. Interestingly, initial firearm production resumed with the time-tested Model 870.
Makes perfect sense given the M-870’s ongoing popularity and proven record of reliability. It’s also an easy system to maintain. Disassembly is nearly toolless to include easy removal of the barrel. Spare barrels of different types and other parts are readily available, along with plenty of aftermarket custom upgrades.
Right and left-handed versions have been produced (although the safety is easily reversible) and, over the years, Remington has produced these guns in all of the popular gauges, ranging from high-grade Wingmasters to pedestrian Express models. When Model 870s began to reappear, two versions that showed up early on were the Express Tacticals, and the same 28” Express sitting in Neal’s gun cabinet.
Both are built off the same steel receiver. The comments that follow center on 12 gauge versions, by far the most popular for defense.
Between used and new guns, the Express M-870s are pretty much everywhere. Common examples feature wood or synthetic stocks, bead-blasted blued metal, and 26 or 28-inch barrels, machined to except interchangeable Rem-Choke tubes. Chambered to feed 2 ¾” or 3” Magnum shells, their tubular magazines will hold four of either.
These shotguns are the go-to choice for legions of upland bird and waterfowl hunters. For the latter group, there’s the extremely feisty 3 ½” Express Super Magnum – overkill for our purposes.
Remington also markets shorter barreled Model 870s in several configurations for turkey and deer hunters. Of possible interest to defensive shotgunners, The Express Deer has a 20-inch fixed I.C barrel with rifle sights – not a bad bump-in-the-night gun as is.
M-870 Express Tacticals
As of this writing, Remington is showing two Tactical models on their website. The heart of either is a standard M-870 receiver, but some useful defensive features have been added, the most noticeable being a 2-shot magazine extension. The stocks are standard synthetic 14” designs, but the forends are abbreviated law enforcement versions.
These guns are short enough to be manageable in tighter quarters, but their 7 ½-pound weight (empty) is enough to soak up recoil, and a useful set of QD sling swivel studs are part of the system
The least expensive and easiest to be found at the moment is the Express Synthetic Tactical. It has a plain bead-sight 18 ½-inch barrel with fixed improved-cylinder choke.
The Express Tactical that piqued Neal’s interest has some extras. The most prominent features are the combination Ghost-ring peep-sight/Picatinny rail mounted to its receiver, and a tactical-looking choke tube protruding from the 18 ½-inch barrel.
The sighting system (from XS Sights), incorporates a rugged front ramp. I share Neal’s opinion: It’s a darned good choice for defense – assuming that is the gun’s primary purpose.
Barrel Fit Caution: The Tacticals won’t except standard barrels, a possible deal-killer for those planning on reconfiguring their M-870s for sporting purposes.
Additional Tactical variations are variations of the above. The simplest of all, the 18 ½” fixed I.C. Express Synthetic Tactical, is a synthetic-stocked version of Remington’s basic 4 +1 Model 870 Hardwood Home Defensive.
The Model 870 Special Purpose Marine Magnum is a shiny 7 +1 version. Food for thought: either of the simpler 4 +1 models could serve as useful a bird gun through the addition of a 26-28” vent-rib Express barrel.
Buy an Express Tactical or Build Your Own?
For Neal, and many other rural residents in my area, a firearm is as much a tool as a family heirloom. The standard heat source is a woodpile, vegetables are grown in the family garden, and red meat comes from the woods.
Money is always tight so, like a chainsaw or other essential implements, a gun is expected to cover its intended purpose without hemorrhaging the household’s budget – a situation that probably has a familiar ring to many preppers.
That said, either Express Tactical is a solid defensive choice. Of the two, for Neal, the Ghost Ring version also offered a reassuring backup to his deer rifle. Loaded with slugs, it could cover easily hunting within our thick woods, good insurance if his rifle was damaged.
Save Money – Build Your Own
Another possibility: Pinching pennies. A spare slug barrel with rifle sights could easily attach to Neal’s existing 28” Express for a savings of several hundred dollars.
By also adding an aftermarket magazine extension, he’d have a darned close facsimile of the same Remington Model 870 Police guns lining the walls of my agency’s armory – that is, assuming, the extension was even necessary. Stick with the standard 4-shot tube and you can swap barrels in seconds. The result is useful multipurpose shotgun system.
That’s the route Neal chose. After searching for a spare Remington M-870 Rem-Choke slug barrel, he stumbled on to Carlson’s version: an 18 ½” smoothbore with rifle sights, machined to accept Rem-Chokes. This was a great choice for Neal since all of his existing choke-tubes fit, including his ultra-tight extended turkey tube.
The one extra item Neal did buy was an extended rifled choke tube for use with slugs during deer season (see note). Foregoing the extended magazine, he still wound up with a viable home defense shotgun compliments of the Carlson’s included cylinder-bore choke tube.
Carlson’s, by the way, is a well-known producer of aftermarket choke tubes so they’re no stranger to shotgun barrels.
Slug notes: Having run around a bazillion slugs through a bunch of smoothbore M-870 slug barrels, I’ll go out on a limb here by predicting three plain lead 12 Ga. WW Super-X 2 ¾” 1-ounce slugs will produce 50-yard groups of 3-inches or less. Surprisingly, despite the short length of a rifled choke tube, groups often tighten a bit more – sometimes even when using sabot loads intended for fully rifled barrels.
Starting from Scratch
If your interest is mainly defense, the Express Tacticals are solid picks. As noted above, the Ghost-sight version could also handle big game or turkeys thanks to its Rem-choked muzzle. If deemed necessary, its railed receiver could even accommodate a small electronic dot-sight.
Another option is the above basic Express Deer (SKU #25565). It’ll cover most defensive needs as is, and provides a good foundation for further hunting purposes via an extra 26-28” Express barrel. Spare M-870 barrels are available at Brownell’s.
You can also start with a basic 26-28” Express like Neal’s, and look for the shorter barrel – such as the rifle-sight 18 ½” Rem-choked barrel from Midway.
Remington still offers a two-barrel combo-package; however, the present slug-barrel is fully rifled; a good choice for deer, but a poor one for shotshells. Previous two-barrel sets were offered with smoothbore slug barrels (or separate barrels), possibly still in circulation. Same story for the run of smoothbore Remington slug barrels cut for Rem-chokes.
8 Accessories to Convert a Remington 870
Those of us heavily into firearms tend to add all sorts of accessories – whether we need ‘em or not. Because of Murphy’s Law, these items always seem to detach at the worst possible moments. The KISS approach is usually a safer bet with stress and recoil in the mix, and shortened lists are also more affordable.
1 – Sling Studs & Sling
A sling can free up both hands for everything from cellphones to decoys. QD studs and QD swivels are the way to go, and several alternatives exist. If it doesn’t have one, the stock will need a stud. The forward end of the sling (a basic nylon version will work) can connect to a simple plate trapped by the mag-cap, or a QD stud in the cap.
- Item Package Dimension: 4.69L x 2.76W x 1.54H inches
- Item Package Weight - 0.2 Pounds
2 – High-Visibility Follower
We retrofitted all of our agency M-870s with bright-green solid-plastic Scattergun Technologies magazine followers. This simple upgrade provided an easy to tell if the magazine contains a shell. Beyond the obvious visual difference, the small central nub provides a tactile means to verify an empty magazine.
Weird Follower Caution: Although uncommon, a follower with a rounded projection could detonate a primer during recoil – if the shell contacting its nub was inserted backwards. This concern was eliminated by filing small flats on some earlier versions that we encountered.
3 – Oversize Safety
Among my agency’s large inventory of M-870 Police guns, all except one had problem-free standard safety buttons. A giant-head safety isn’t an essential feature (and it could become a liability in some circumstances). But mine was never inadvertently knocked off “safe”, and it did offer speedy disengagement, especially while wearing gloves. Installation is easily accomplished by removing the trigger assembly. Either type can be reversed for southpaws.
This oversized safety can be purchased through Midway USA (follow the link).
4 – Choke Tubes
The cylinder or I.C constrictions common to fixed-choke LE-type shotguns (and slug barrels) are well-suited for home defense. But, as noted above, hunters can benefit from interchangeable chokes. The three common constrictions are I.C. Modified, and Full-Choke, which throw progressively tighter patterns (turkey chokes are even tighter).
Maximum 00 Buckshot pattern-density often occurs with “Modified” tubes, suitable for greater ranges (out to around 40 yards). Remington and other manufacturers sell these chokes with the standard Rem-choke threads.
Rifled barrel/choke note: Although rifling can improve slug accuracy, it’ll produce widely “blown” patterns with shot loads – on the order of 40-yard spreads at 7 yards!
4 – Wrench & Case
While more of a tool than an accessory, a proper wrench is helpful (don’t over-tighten). If you remove the choke during cleaning and lubricate the threads, it won’t wind up fused to the barrel. A case can prevent skirt damage from impacts with hard surfaces, while also serving as a handy organizer.
- Holds six extended or nine short tubes
- Keeps chokes safe in your pocket
5 – Tactical Light
Tactical lights are a topic onto itself, numerous options exist from mag-cap units to barrel and/or magazine-mounted designs – and even forends with integral lights. The latter is a worthwhile upgrade for a dedicated defensive shotgun.
Olight offers decent tactical lights at a reasonable cost.
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Using an independent light, an extended magazine (to include its hardware) will serve as a good mounting point, but even a basic 4-shot magazine will work with a screw-on magazine cap replacement.
- THE AXEON SHOTLIGHT 120 for Mossberg 500, Remington 870, and Winchester 1300
- The ShotLight replaces the end cap of the magazine tube on these shotguns and provides you with easy to access, powerful, bright light
6 – Extended Magazine
Tube extensions are available in different lengths and capacities and, although they provide an edge, they’re the better choice for a dedicated defensive shotgun. The reason involves barrel swaps. Configured as a basic sporting model, the barrel can be removed by simply unscrewing the magazine cap (a nice spot for a QD sling stud), but an extension connects via the same threads, and most require additional hardware, turning barrel swaps into projects.
Fit note: The magazine spring retaining plug of recent sporting M-870s is retained by two swaged indents in the factory magazine tube. Installation of an extension will require their removal. I’ve ironed ‘em back flush by driving a lubricated socket through the tube. Others just remove the indents with a drill.
7 – Side-Saddle Shell Carrier/Picatinny Rail
We equipped all of our agency M-870 Police shotguns with receiver-mounted Mesa aluminum 6-shell side-saddle carriers. They’re more rugged than plastic versions but, like the others, their two pass-through mounting bolts do complicate removal of the trigger group.
That said, Mesa’s integral Picatinny rail version could be of interest for the tactical crowd – or owners of the plainer Express Synthetic Tactical.
The latter two items add weight as well extra cost, especially when combined but, of course, they could be added incrementally to judge their worth. For more about both and other shell management systems, read my prior article about shotgun shell holders.
A Dedicated Defensive Shotgun – or Not?
The final choice will likely be budget-driven. A dedicated gun is the way to go if funds exist to justify the purchase.
If so, the Express Tacticals are pretty much good to go as is. My choice would be the Ghost-ring version because of its additional sporting capabilities. I’d add the above accessories, except the superfluous extended magazine and bulky side-saddle.
If the choice boils down to a single gun, with wingshooting in the mix, a basic switch-barrel 4 +1 Express could be just the ticket. The starting point could be the rifle-sighted 20” Express Deer OR a 26-28” vent-rib Express.
Hunt down an extra barrel, stick with the KISS principle, and call it good. Accessories? A sling, a few chokes, and the case (you could barrel-mount a light to the slug barrel or mag-cap).
Note the absence of pistol-like Shockwave guns with abbreviated stocks and short barrels. Yes, they’re maneuverable, but they’re also much more difficult to master without lots of additional practice. On the other hand, a conventional M-870 seems to fit most people well.
Patterns typically go where the gun is pointed with a cheek-weld and solid gun mount. Control during follow-up shots will also improve – if they’re needed. Hit probability increases exponentially via a conventional stock.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the latest Mossberg Model 590s, configured similarly to the Express Tacticals. What sets the Mossberg apart is its ability to digest the latest genre of ultra-short 1 ¾” Mini Shells. The 20” M-590-S is configured similarly to the M-870 Express Ghost-ring Tactical, but 13 Minis will fit in its magazine! That oughta do it.
For more shotgun info, consider my book Shotguns: A Comprehensive Guide.
- Amazon Kindle Edition
- Markwith, Steve (Author)