American-made shotguns continued to evolve in the second half of the 20th Century. They had to. There was increased competition from around the world, particularly Italy—Beretta and Benelli have grabbed a large share of the semi-auto and double-barrel shotgun market in the last 30-plus years. Pump-action shotguns continued to sell well but the winds of change were blowing, and the autoloaders dominance began with three innovative offerings from Winchester, Remington, and Ithaca.
1. Winchester Model 50
Ever since Winchester had turned down John Browning’s A-5 royalty request, they chased that niche, looking for a marketable semi-auto shotgun design. The Model 12 pump ruled the roost for decades but in the early 1950s Remington’s 870 was gaining ground fast. They needed a new shotgun and quick, so they turned to David “Carbine” Williams. Williams earned that nickname through his work on the U.S. .30-cal carbine rifles used during World War II and beyond.
The Winchester Model 50 became the fruit of Williams’ labor, and was introduced in 1954 to a somewhat lukewarm reception. It utilized a short recoil system based on a Jonathan E. Browning’s (son of John Moses) design. Val Browning also developed a unique short recoil shotgun with his Browning Double Auto.
Williams made a significant change to the original design, however, in the Model 50. The barrel was static. It did not move back into the action like the A-5 or the Double Auto. Ejection relied on a floating breech system that moved back .1 inches upon firing. That movement causes the bolt to go backwards, ejecting the spent shell and loading a fresh one in the chamber.
A well-made gun, the Model 50 didn’t capture the attention that Winchester was looking for. The gun did have one famous devotee, Nash Buckingham. The author shot a Model 50 Pigeon Grade shotgun later in life, looking for a lighter alternative to the heavy A.H. Fox side-by-sides he favored in his youth. That Model 50 is housed close to Buckingham’s revered Bo Whoop and Bo Whoop II shotguns on display at Ducks Unlimited national headquarters in Memphis, Tennessee.
Winchester tried again in 1959 with the Model 59. The 59 had a fiberglass-wrapped barrel dubbed the Winlite and a creative Versalite interchangeable choke system. A little too ahead of its time, Model 59 production ended in 1965.
2. Remington 1100
Like the Auto-5 before it, the Remington 1100 changed the shotgun game forever. The 1100 wasn’t Remington’s first gas-operated shotgun, that distinction belongs to the Model 58. The 58 was innovative with a magazine cap that dialed, adjusting the gas ports to cycle light or heavy loads. Remington called it the “Dial-A-Matic” load control feature. It was not very effective. Remington later shifted to the 878 version in 1959, doing away with the dial for what they called the Power Piston, capable of cycling different loads without adjustment.
The designers of the 1100, Robert Kelley and Wayne Leek, utilized barrel ports to bleed gasses from fired shells to drive the action sleeve rearward. The sleeve is attached to the bolt carrier, and that rearward motion opens the action, ejects the shell, and trips the carrier release, feeding a new shell from the magazine into the chamber. This system was much more reliable than the 58 and 878 versions.
The 1100 was popular for a few reasons. The first was recoil reduction. Using gas to operate an action is softer on a shooter’s shoulder, leading to less flinching and better concentration on the target. The recoil of a gas-operated auto is more like a shove and less like the sharp jab associated with pumps, break-actions, and recoil-driven shotguns. If you shoot a heavy duck or turkey load in pump, it can be downright painful. The same load in a gas gun won’t emit as much felt recoil.
Another attribute of the 1100 is how well it points. Just like the 870, the 1100 fits a variety of shooters and that translates into more hits and more confidence in the gun. In fact, the 870 and 1100 receivers are identical. Since millions of shooter bought the 870 it was a smart move by Remington to use the same receiver design on the 1100.
Like the 870, the 1100, which is offered in 12-gauge down to .410-bore, is available in a variety of options for clay-target shooters, upland hunting, waterfowl hunting, big-game hunting, law enforcement.
A drawback of the 1100 is its gas system is not very light load friendly and the gun requires cleaning on a regular basis, especially with cheaper loads using dirty powders. Remington made a big change to increase the 1100s load versatility with the introduction of the 11-87 in 1987. That system regulates gas usage, sending more gasses into the piston with light loads and less for heavy loads. That gas regulation method is standard in today’s gas guns.
3. Ithaca Mag-10
Waterfowl and turkey hunters have become small-gauge fans in recent years because better shotshells have made small bores more effective. But when the Ithaca Mag-10 hit the market in 1975, hunters were sure they needed a bigger gun.
Big bore shotguns had a following in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mainly because of shotshell offerings were not as potent as modern loads. Today’s shells in 12-gauge and smaller are far superior to the early black and smokeless powder ammo. Waterfowl market hunters especially liked guns in 10- and 8-gauge for a simple reason: more shot equaled more dead birds to sell. The big 8 was outlawed in 1930s for waterfowl hunting but the 10-gauge lived on in double- and single-barreled guns that saw a fair amount of use.
Then the Mag-10 came along and offered hunters a three-shot gun that could shoot 3.5-inch shells. Goose hunters especially embraced the new Ithaca. It was tough to beat for shooting big Canadas. Equipped with 32-inch full-choked barrels, the gas-operated gun is pretty reliable, damn heavy (over 10 pounds), and still found in duck blinds and turkey woods across the country. The Ithaca had a decent run and lived on in a way after Remington bought the design in 1989, calling their version the SP-10.