August 04, 2020
I have always loved shotguns, at least once I got over the whole “how much do you lead those dog-gone clay birds, anyway” period. Of course, being a skinny 12-year-old, using a borrowed trap gun on a skeet range might have had something to do with those frustrations.
But as soon as I got into 3-gun competition, boy did I love shotguns. I loved them even more when I became a gunsmith, because while many worked well despite the utter neglect they received, a bunch didn’t. And fixing them was easy work, for good money.
The big change came, however, when I realized an interesting thing in bowling pin shooting: on three-man teams, the pump guy was always the hard guy to find. Teams needed a handgun guy, an auto shotgunner, and a pump gunner. If I got good with a pump, I’d always be asked to be on a team, or two. That’s how I came to snatch up an orphaned 870.
Which is the long way to explain that I could have saved myself a lot of trouble, had Bill Wilson been making shotguns back then. Well, he doesn’t exactly make shotguns, but by the time his crew at Wilson Combat are done, they might as well have.
Enter the Wilson Combat Border Patrol 870. This is not marketing fluff, the Border Patrol issues thousands of 870s, configured this way, to its agents. Those shotguns get transported through rough, dusty terrain, for long periods of time, and are expected to work. They do.
Now, the 870 is no great mystery. It can’t be, since Remington has made over eleven million of them since its introduction in 1950. That is a good thing, as everyone who knows anything about firearms (besides Glocks), knows about the 870. And it is so simple to use, if you were patient, you could teach your golden retriever to operate one. Well, maybe your Labrador.
Wilson Combat starts then, with a solid canvas on which to paint.
Each 12-gauge 870 arrives at the Wilson Combat facility in Berryville, where it is completely disassembled. Yes, 12-gauge, made for 2-3/4" and 3' shells, there are no Wilson Combat shotguns in other gauges. Then, it is inspected, anything that might have slipped by the Remington assemblers is corrected, and then it has all the operating parts slicked up. What, you ask? Things like the ejection port and loading port have their edges deburred, so your hands won’t feel like a day at the range involved petting a basket of hyperactive kittens. The action bars are gauged for straightness, and checked for proper timing. The action bars must engage the shell stops properly as this is an important part of the reliable and smooth functioning of a shotgun. The Wilson Combat shotgun ‘smiths check these details, and if there is anything improper, they correct it.
The polished parts (polished only on the bearing surfaces) are then re-assembled, and the 870 is then given a test run. Actually, several runs, as each 870 is tested with low brass shells, buckshot and slugs. If there is anything that appears incorrect, however small, that 870 gets looked at in a way we would not like to be looked at. If there is a problem, it is corrected. I have to think that the test-fire crew at Wilson, who work on the shotguns, really know how to run a pump. If that’s what you did all day long, you’d be good, too.
Once it performs to the expected level, it goes off to be stripped back down to the bare parts, which are parkerized before each 870 is then built up as each customer specifically orders it.
Not all the original parts make it back into the Border Patrol 870, nor any of the Wilson Combat shotguns. Gone are the original magazine spring and follower, to be replaced by a new spring made of stainless steel, and providing more power than the originals. Also, the follower is replaced with a high visibility one, and it is designed to prevent binding as it slides down the tube.
One of the original parts that does make it is the Flex-Tab lifter. Back in the old days, the 870 was notorious for one very aggravating fault: if you didn’t thumb the round you were loading all the way into the tube where the shell stop could catch it, that shell would pop back out when you let go of it. Then, with the shell trapped underneath the bolt carrier, but held by the lifter, the 870 in such a plight was wedged tightly shut. If you had a round in the chamber, you’d get that one to fire, but you couldn’t work the action. What we did in the prehistoric days was machine or dremel a slot in the lifter, parallel to the receiver length, so if you had that problem you could insert a key (I kid you not) or a knife blade, and could push the shell forward far enough to unlock it and get back to shooting.
The Remington Flex-Tab update involved them making the lifter with a square u-shaped cut in it, and machining the bottom of the bolt carrier for shell clearance. If you mis-loaded a round, you simply pumped the action, cleared the round, and got back to business. The 870 now comes standard with the Flex-Tab lifter and carrier mods, and Wilson Combat would have it no other way.
Each barrel is given a chance to pass the testing. If it does, it goes on. If it doesn’t, then the Wilson Combat gunsmiths take a few steps to see if it can be made good. If it doesn’t respond, they pitch it, grab a spare out of inventory, check it, and when it passes, that becomes the barrel with that Border Patrol.
The barrel receives a fixed blade front sight, and the rear is a ghost ring, mounted on the receiver. The front and rear sights are the Trac-Lock II design, with the rear adjustable for windage and elevation. You can have the front sight as a plain blade, with a fiber optic insert, or a tritium insert. The rear, the ghost ring, can be had with a pair of tritium inserts flanking the ring, so you can have a three-dot night sight arrangement, should you wish. And yes, you are correct: you are looking at rifle sights, not a plain old bead, as a lot of shotgunners might expect. This is a good thing, which we’ll get into in a bit.
The extended tube (you can have shorter if you wish) brings the capacity of the Border Patrol 870 up to 6+1, so you can have seven shots of 12-gauge emergency problem-solving ready to go.
The original stock and forend are discarded, and replaced with Hogue over-molded furniture. The stock has a sling swivel (actually a sling swivel stud) in the left side in addition to the standard stud location, on the bottom of the stock, with the left one matched up with a sling bracket on the left side of the magazine tube, attached to the extended magazine tube.
If you want a sling, there’s a place for it. If you find slings to be a non-essential accessory in your use, then you can simply unscrew the magazine tube and replace it with one lacking the sling bracket. The rear sling hardware is easily unclipped from the stud. The front one, on the Border Patrol, is a permanent part of the mag tube. If you want a Border Patrol 870, but not the front sling bracket, then you’ll have to explain that to the order desk at Wilson Combat. Oh, and if you find the regular length of pull a bit too long, you can order a shorter stock, which also works quite well for those who might be wearing body armor or a vest.
Now, I’m of two minds on slings on shotguns. On the one hand, I find them useful when I don’t need to have the shotgun in my hands at the moment. Having a sling is greatly preferable to putting the shotgun on the ground. As for leaning it up against something, that is a temporary solution, because it is going to fall over, onto the ground, anyway. On the other hand, I had a bad (and embarrassing) experience with a shotgun with a sling on it many years ago. I was working in Flint, as a DJ, and was renting a house in a bad part of town. (OK, redundant, then and now; “Flint” and “bad part of town”.) The main bedroom had two pegs over the door, perfect for a shotgun, which was a clear indication (looking back) that I should have been staying someplace else.
One early dawn (I worked the midnight shift) there was a rattle at the front door, so I got up, snatched the shotgun off the pegs, ready to handle the situation. Alas, the sling on my shotgun hung up on a peg, and in the tumble, it swung around, and the buttstock whacked me in a delicate location. (Do not worry, it was hammer down on an empty chamber, AKA “cruiser safe” and basically a metal stick at that point.) It only took a few minutes to recover, remove the sling, and vow to never do that again. The noise? No idea. So, slings on shotguns? Yes and no, depending on the situation.
Back to the present. As a final touch, the trigger mechanism on each Border Patrol 870 is cleaned up, the springs in the assembly are replaced with stronger ones, and an oversized push button safety is installed. The trigger pull is much more like that of a rifle, than of your expected shotgun press-crunch.
Once all the work is done. Then each one gets stripped back down to bare metal, and the Armor Tuff is applied. You have a choice of colors,
You end up with a compact, handy, well-balanced pump shotgun, ready for serious social events.
Now, the big deal with a pump shotgun is “How smooth is it?” The smoother it is, the faster you can work it, without it being work. When I jumped into being the pump guy for Bowling Pin shooting, I did so because an 870 came along, an 870 I could salvage. The owner had taken it apart, and in trying to reassemble it, he had: 1) Bent the action bars trying to force them into the receiver, 2) Dislodged the shell stops, also in trying to force the action bars back in, and 3) dropped the bolt carrier, putting a big ding on one corner.
The combination of these errors resulted in an 870 that even King Kong could not cycle, as the twisted action bars, the now-loose and not staked in place shell stops, and the ding on the carrier kept the parts from moving. Luckily, he hadn’t forced it any more than he already had, and brought in the parts. He was not interested in getting it repaired, as he had lost all faith in 870s. (Silly of him.) We gave him credit towards something else, and I set about repairing the 870. It took some work to straighten, slick up and properly time the action bars and shell stops, which is how I know how to judge the work done by the Wilson Combat ‘smiths. Judge, as in first-rate.
The ghost ring sights on the Wilson Combat Trac-Lock II are not just for use with slugs. The sights allow you to shoot the Border Patrol like a regular shotgun. Just watch the front blade, or the dot on the blade if you have a tritium, of fiber optic insert, and shoot it like a shotgun with a bead. But if you need a bit more precision with buckshot, or slugs, then you use it like rifle sights, and get hits at impressive distance. Like, ringing the club’s 100 yard gongs with regularity.
The use of a ghost ring sight system on a shotgun was pioneered by Jeff Cooper and if you go to Gunsite you’ll get lots of instruction on it. And if you show up with a shotgun with just a bead, you’ll get lots of instruction on not winning shoot-offs, or getting hits as fast as others. The ghost ring system is wicked fast, once you learn it. Which pretty much describes everything in life.
The testing was pretty simple; fire up the radar-driven chrono, my Labradar, and check the velocities of various buckshot and slug loads. It has been a long time since I chrono’d anything shotgun, mostly because chronos with skyscreens, and shotgun payloads, do not play well together. The usual results are your sun shields being stripped off by the wad, then the supports go, and finally the screens themselves fall prey to an errant pellet. With radar, no problem. The ballistics of the loads tested were pretty much in-line with the published stats. This was not always the case, as in the very early days of chronographs it wasn’t uncommon to find velocities that were, shall we say, fudged.
The key to selecting buckshot for your shotgun comes down to two things; how much recoil do you want to pay for the payload delivery, and what kind of pattern do you want? Sir Isaac Newton could explain it simply: the more you deliver, the more it costs you in recoil. The heavier (more pellets) and the faster, the more it whacks you. And going up to three-inch magnums is just simply awful, in my experience.
Fans of wide-open patterns may be disappointed. The days of “cover the far wall” patterns are long gone. Buffering plastic and wad design keeps patterns tighter than ever, and you have to aim.
Simply put, you will have to find what your shotgun does, with ammo you have available. And, if the manufacturer changes anything in the loading, then your results may change. This is most definitely not a one-size-fits-all. I cannot tell you that manufacturers offering “X” is the best, both because we may differ on what is best, and your shotgun might also have an opinion on the matter as well.
The results with the Wilson Combat Border Patrol 870 I had were impressive. I tested the patterns at fifteen yards, mostly because I didn’t want to walk any further than I had to, but also I feel that much beyond that you need to be thinking slugs. I shot five rounds of each load tested, and averaged the pattern sizes. Typically, you’ll find that your pattern is tighter than you’d like, but also it would be tighter still “if not for that darn pellet there.” Often there is a stray, a pellet that wanders out of the pattern, despite the best efforts of barrel and shell maker.
So, it comes down to pattern size and recoil. Of the loads tested, in this shotgun, if you wanted the tightest pattern, you’d opt for the Federal Premium 00 buck lead-free. If you wanted good pattern size and least recoil, you would select Federal Premium 00 buck flight control wad.
But, the Hornady Critical Defense 00 buck eight-pellet load has a tight pattern, and a bit less felt recoil than the velocity would suggest, due to having 8 instead of 9 of the 00 buck pellets in the wad. And if you wanted spread, then you go with Winchester low recoil, and get soft recoil (relatively speaking) and a pattern a bit bigger than your hand at fifteen yards.
But again, your mileage may vary, test loads yourself and see what works.
Similarly, with slugs, here is one given, and that is that the Brenneke slugs will be often (but not always) the deepest penetrators. I’ve talked with guides and hunters in Alaska who depend on 12-gauge pumps with Brenneke slugs as camp and bear guns. The downside of that is recoil, as most Brenneke offerings are full-velocity.
And if the patterning of buckshot from your shotgun is a wide-open variable, then slugs are a variance from another planet. As long as your bore is smooth (no rifling) you have to use what the shotgun likes. Now, in the old days that was really wild west country. When I was test-firing and sighting-in customers guns, I could have two otherwise identical shotguns that shot well with radically different loads. Now, with bores and ammo being much more consistent, the changes are not so great, but you still have to do your due diligence. You have to find what your shotgun likes, and feed it that.
On the slug front, the recoil varied from the Winchester one-ounce slug at a clocked Mach 1.25 down to the Hornady American Gunner, at a mere 1211 fps, which is still a stout load. I tested the slugs at fifty yards for groups, again in part because I’m lazy and walking 100 yards for each set, to check shotgun groups, is just about a careers worth of work. And, unlike rifles, shotgun groups at 50 yards will tell us how well a shotgun is doing. On this test, the Border Patrol was a lot more consistent, which is good. And also an easier task for ammunition manufacturers. Shepherding a bucket of 00 buck down a bore and to the target is not a task for those easily frustrated. It has taken many years for ammo makers to get as good as they are. Slugs, on the other hand, can be a lot easier. And the groups show it.
One aspect of shotguns that everyone gets around to worrying about is capacity. As in, are seven shots enough? That depends. If you are using it for hunting, then seven is too many, make sure you get a plug in that magazine tube bringing the total down to five. For social events, if seven isn’t enough, then you have bigger problems than magazine capacity. Spare ammo at hand is always a good thing. But remember, you do not opt for a shotgun because you want lots and lots of ammo. You select a shotgun because when you bring your efforts to bear, you want each shot to be the hammer of Thor.
Power Factor is a quick way to measure delivered ballistics. Weight times velocity, drop the last three digits. On a .45 ACP+P, that can be a 200 PF. (230 gr @ 870 fps) With a .44 Magnum, that can be a 288 PF (240 @ 1200) A shotgun? Well, the slowest 00-buck load, the Winchester low recoil, hurls 9 00 buck pellets, for a 544 PF. (9 pellets, 54 grains each, @ 1118 fps) The Federal Premium lead-free load is even more robust, delivering a 736 PF.
Slugs? You have to ask? And by the way, shooting slugs, for groups, from the bench is not fun. It wasn’t even fun when I was younger and getting paid to do it. The winner here is the Hornady American Gunner, a one-ounce slug at 1417 fps, for a PF of 620. You can get more speed if you want, by going up to a three-inch shell. The Border Patrol is chambered for three-inch shells, but that testing you will have to do yourself, as I feel moving up to those is too much of a good thing.
The beauty of the 12-gauge is the sheer horsepower of the shell. The downsides are the recoil, the low ammo capacity, and the non-bonded projectiles.
And the beauty of the Border Patrol is the operating system: you. You don’t have to worry about the gas system, or the settings, or anything else. Just press the trigger, pump and repeat. If you need to check the chamber, or to unload, you use the locking tab on the left side of the trigger guard. Press it, and the locked (if it is locked) action will unlock, and you can ease the forearm back to check the chamber. Or open it up fully and begin unloading.
Oh, and one small detail: when you go to the gun club, the practical shooting one, not the clay birds one, use your big-box sporting goods store target loads on the steel. Shooting the falling plates, or gongs, with buckshot or slugs, will dent the steel, and you’ll pay for replacements. Even plates rated for rifles can be damaged, so ask before you shoot. Birdshot? No problem, as long as it is lead, not steel.
When you go to the clay ranges, be prepared to get some sharp looks when you uncase a pump shotgun with rifle sights and an extended magazine tube. Break the birds, however, and they will be less worried about the gun, and more worried about your score.
One question that gets asked is the price. Is $1135 a fair price for a pump shotgun? After all, if you wait for a sale, you can buy an 870 from the sporting goods store for a third to half of that. Sure, you can, but you won’t get the details of the Border Patrol. You won’t get the deburred edges, the slick action, the already tested to deliver barrel with tight patterns and accurate slugs, and you won’t get the Armor-Tuff finish. This is America, after all. If all you want is an out-of-the-box pump shotgun, you can have that. Those of us who appreciate the added quality of the Border Patrol can get one, and benefit from the extra performance.
Wilson Combat Border Patrol 870 Specs
- Type: Hammer-fired pump
- Caliber: 12-gauge, 2-3/4" & 3"
- Capacity: 6+1
- Barrel: 18.4"
- Overall Length: 39" (37" with short stock)
- Weight: 7 lb 7 oz
- Finish: Parkerized steel, WC Armor-Tuff
- Forend: Hogue overmolded
- Stock: Hogue
- Sights: Trak-Lock II
- Trigger: 4.5 lb, single stage
- Price: $1,135 (as tested)
- Manufacturer: Wilson Combat; WilsonCombat.com
Wilson Combat Border Patrol 870 Chronograph and Accuracy Results