Some are saying that the shotgun is making a comeback in recent years. Others say that its popularity never waned, so a “comeback” is hardly necessary. For nearly 150 years, shotguns have held a special place in the hearts of many shooters and hunters all over the world, and I feel this is doubly true for Americans. This post will explore the disappearing niche of bolt action shotguns, often considered to be a classic slice of 20th century Americana.

For some decades now, it seems we’ve all been enamored with the ever-expanding universe of the AR platform and all its derivatives. Obviously, I dig it too, and have written about it extensively.

It’s a great weapon system, it is adaptive and versatile, and it serves its purpose. I can see why shotguns have taken a back seat to the host of AR-style rifles which have been dominating the scene (yes, I know I’m exaggerating a bit).

With the proliferation of various competitions (3-gun and cowboy action shooting come to mind), shotguns are back in the game big time – even if it is your contention that they weren’t there beforehand.

Cowboy Competition Shooting
Cowboy Action Shooting

More people than ever are getting into the spirit of shooting for pleasure. Incidentally, bolt action shotguns would not be allowed in cowboy action shooting competitions, since the rules of the event only permit use of weapons that are compatible with the era. Lever and pump shotguns are usually the ones that are used.

On a personal level, I feel these competitions are awesome. They emphasize the use of firearms within the context of a friendly and non-deadly sport. This is in complete contrast to viewing firearms as nothing but purveyors of evil and woe, and a constant point of national controversy.

I mean come on: dressing up in a 19th-century getup and competing in ‘Fastest Gun in the West’ activities? Frontier fun!

Alright, so let’s get into it. What’s the story behind bolt action shotguns?

Bolt Action Shotguns

As mentioned, this design came after the time of the mythological Old West. Join me now as we journey to the 1930s – the time of the Great Depression, Dust Bowl farmers, and celebrated engineer and firearms manufacturer Oscar Mossberg. In 1933, Mossberg designed, invented, and subsequently released the first prototype bolt action shotgun.

We’ll talk more about Mossberg later on in this article because the company he founded in 1919 has a place of honor among gun manufacturers by and large, and among shotgun manufacturers in particular.

The bolt action itself was already in the market for years, but it was being used as a rifle system more than anything else. In 1824, the first bolt action rifle appeared on the scene, but it was only a century or so before that mechanism was used to cycle shotgun shells. It is not the most sought-after action for a shotgun, it’s true. Some consider the bolt action shotgun to be a rarity at best, and an obsolete, dang-near-useless firearm at worst.

Military shotgun attachment system
M26 Modular Accessory Shotgun System

Between the 1940s and 1970s (or so), bolt action shotguns were fairly common. Many young shooters received a .410  bore or 20-gauge bolt action shotgun as a starter gun. Although I have to say, learning how to shoot while using such a firearm is probably more awkward than many other choices.

Bolt action shotguns often required more skill to handle and they came with no bells and whistles, but they could be counted on as a serious piece of hardware.

Plus, the price of a bolt action shotgun was cheaper, making it a go-to for those who didn’t have much to spend, or who simply wanted something to keep behind the door for the purposes of security and safety.

Manual actions tend to be cheaper and more reliable, whether we’re talking about a pump, a lever, or a bolt – and even lovers of semi-auto actions will agree there are instances where a manually-operated shotgun is preferred to a semi-automatic one.

That said, semi-automatic shotguns are becoming more reliable with each passing SHOT Show, or so it seems, and they are quickly closing that gap (if any still exists). Granted, you could have a high-quality semi-auto which seriously outperforms a low-quality manual action in terms of reliability, so the simple fact that it is a manual action is no guarantee for superiority.

In the course of shotgun history, there have been some popular bolt action guns, though most of them have since been discontinued. These include models by Browning, J.C. Higgins, Marlin, Mossberg, Stevens, Western Field, and more. Some of those companies or brands aren’t even around anymore, but you can still find their firearms for sale at various gun shows and auction sites.

Marlin bolt action shotgun
Marlin Model 25MG

In recent years, Savage Arms brought the bolt action shotgun back from the dead, sort of, with its 212 and 220 series. These are two groups of 12- and 20-gauge bolt action shotguns, which until now were only available for purchase by special order directly from the manufacturer.

In the spring of 2019, however, the company decided to change things around: they made the series more widely and readily available, and let any Savage Arms dealer place an order for the benefit of customers all over the country. 

The bolt shotguns of yore may be considered archaic, but there are companies which still produce firearms in that configuration.

Bolt Action Shotgun 12 Gauge

Savage Arms’ decision to open up the channels of distribution was done in conjunction with the introduction of two new turkey guns to their successful series of bolt action shotguns, which itself has been around for almost a decade.

The 212 series includes 3 firearms:

  • 212 Slug
  • 212 Slug Camo
  • 212 Turkey (new for 2019)
Savage Arms 212 shotgun
Savage Arms Model 212

Savage Arms 212 Turkey Specs:

  • Action: Bolt
  • Caliber: 12 Gauge
  • Capacity: 2-Round Mag Included
  • Overall Length: 44”
  • Barrel Length: 22”
  • Weight: 7 lbs
  • MSRP: $779

20 Gauge Bolt Action Shotgun

Savage Arms’ 220 series includes:

  • 220 Slug
  • 220 Slug Camo
  • 220 Slug Compact
  • 220 Slug LH
  • 220 Slug Stainless Camo
  • 220 Turkey (new for 2019)

As previously mentioned, this caliber (alongside the .410 bore) was in high circulation. People were training their kids with those gauges, though according to some of the anecdotes floating around, learning on such a firearm was a real pain in the butt. I actually started off with AR-type rifles and handguns and didn’t fire a shotgun until I was a bit older.

Savage Arms 220 Shotgun
Savage Arms Model 220

Savage Arms 220 Turkey Specs:

  • Action: Bolt
  • Caliber: 20 Gauge
  • Capacity: 2-Round Mag Included
  • Overall Length: 44.5”
  • Barrel Length: 22”
  • Weight: 7.5 lbs
  • MSRP: $695

When they began toying with the idea of a bolt action shotgun, Savage Arms wanted to provide the public with a shotgun that closely resembles a rifle platform. Something shooters would be able to get behind without much of an adjustment.

410 Bolt Action Shotgun

The 410 bolt action shotgun remains a firearm used – more than anything – for critter population control and hunting small game. Webley and Scott made them, Lee Enfield made them, and Montgomery Ward sold many variants made by different manufacturers. Just a few examples.

Nowadays, much like its brethren, it is fading away into history. The cheaper prices and more advanced technology made it so this type of a shotgun is no longer worth it.

Some say it is because people are lazy, but I disagree. There is more to it than mere laziness. No matter what purposes the .410 bolt action shotgun was marketed for, there are now different shotguns which can do it better.

Mossberg 183
Mossberg Model 183 410 Shotgun

Sticking to old ways sometimes has merit, and there is certainly plenty of nostalgia there – but you need to know when to give up and say that it just isn’t all it is cracked up to be.

Even when .410 bolt action shotguns were more popular, they were never at the top of anyone’s list, I think. They are considered more like a fad in firearm history. Obviously, some will say I am wrong and cite many models which were produced and successfully distributed all over the country.

Okay, nothing wrong with that. But consider that even Savage aren’t making a .410 anymore, and they just released two new bolt action turkey guns!

Mossberg Bolt Action Shotgun

Mossberg is currently celebrating its centennial! Founded in 1919 by Oscar Frederick Mossberg, this company is the oldest family-owned firearms manufacturer in the U.S.

In 1933, the Mossberg model 10 was introduced. It was a single-shot bolt action shotgun. The Mossberg 695 was the last of the Mossberg bolt action shotguns, and it was discontinued in 2003 after being manufactured in the 1990s.

In between the model 10 and model 695, exists an entire catalog of bolt action shotguns. For 70 years, Mossberg produced and sold some of the best and most popular bolt action shotguns in the world.

Mossberg Model 695
Mossberg Model 695 Bolt Action Shotgun

Some of Mossberg’s most successful models were manufactured after the Second World War. In 1974 they stopped making 16-gauge guns but were still into making 12g, 20g, and .410 models through the 1980s. Some of these bolt guns had Mossberg’s C-Lect-Choke configuration, which allowed for different chokes to be utilized with the simple act twisting the muzzle.

With relatively few moving parts, these shotguns were known for their durability. Even though the bolt action shotguns were overshadowed by the newer and more advanced models later on, and even though Mossberg no longer makes these models, AND even though there are those who claim these guns are junk to begin with – there are plenty of shooters out there who remember them, think fondly of them, and even shoot them!

But make no mistake, there is no shortage of such shotguns beings locked away for decades in some gun safe or attic, waiting to be discovered by an unsuspecting family member.

Mossberg 185
Mossberg Model 185 20GA Shotgun

No manufacturer is without error, but overall this is a company which is fairly synonymous with quality and affordability. This is still true, even if the action these shotguns are utilizing isn’t too popular. It simply comes down to whether or not you want to own an older Mossberg with a unique action.

And by the way, these aren’t exactly the hottest collector’s item – and that is an understatement – so I wouldn’t bank on acquiring wealth or getting to that coveted early retirement just by flipping bolt action Mossberg shotguns.

Conclusion 

While the bolt action is admittedly not the most popular action when it comes to shotguns, it still has its place. Depending on your purpose – and your expertise with the weapon – a bolt action shotgun could very well be what pushes you outside of that comfort zone and confronts you with new and exciting challenges. These will undoubtedly sharpen your skills and enhance your abilities, if you are interested in doing so.

Compared to other mechanisms, the bolt action shotgun seems superfluous. This is probably the reason why we are seeing little of it these days. People are more interested in pulling the trigger and having the firearm cycle on its own. That’s convenient, but it might come with that all-important caveat – reliability.

Bolt action shotguns are not popular, to say the least, and some people don’t even know they exist. But they do, and there are those who still take pleasure in firing them. They are by no means better than anything which exists in today’s market – or so I feel – but still, there is something about them. Some old-world feeling. It’s a modern-nostalgic firearm.

If you decide to get yourself a bolt action shotgun and use it, consider making it one of the newer models. Parts and accessories for the older models are disappearing rapidly. Although, those older Mossbergs (and their variants) are going for $100-150 or so, and some of them are in good shape. That’s a pretty good deal, providing that you have a way to keep it in good working condition and that you know what to expect from it. There is something so satisfying about feeling that bolt travel as you cycle the weapon with your hand, but it has its limitations.

Sam M

Sam is an avid firearms enthusiast who loves sharing his knowledge and experience with fellow gunivores.

Let us know what you think in the comments section!

For suggestions, collaborations, or requests, contact sam@gunivore.com.

1 Comment

  1. I have a Kessler 30c 20 ga bolt action that was my father’s. Not sure when he purchased it but he used it when I was a kid in the ‘50s. Recently I’ve become more active in clays and until I’m a whole lot better shooter, and especially a more frequent/active one, I can’t really justify buying an expensive auto loader. But the important point is, I have found it’s the shooter (me), not the gun that makes the difference. I’ve shot several autos and they are fun, faster, and smooth, but I don’t get any more clays than I do with The bolt. Thank you for your article on the bolts, I was happy to hear they are perhaps making a “comeback”, or at least, not yet totally relegated to the archives. I aspire to one day saying to myself, “you really need to get another shotgun”. One must be fashionable at the range, to be sure.
    Thanks again, great read !

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *