Two years ago, we limited the Ballistic’s Best Shotgun Competition to semi-auto shotguns. Last year we tested only pump guns. This year, we broke the mold and tested only “non-conventional” platforms. Eleven shotguns made the event, and I had three cops who are firearms instructors (including me) plus one very talented, 20-year-old 3-Gunner for the test. In the end, it turned out our rankings were all pretty similar. From the top-ranked gun to the bottom there is only about a six-point spread. Last year’s spread was over 15 points. The most shocking part is how radically different the guns were from each other.
Best Tactical Shotguns – Non-Traditional
Before I start discussing the guns, there are a number of companies that generously contributed to this enormous project. First, Hornady and Federal contributed the shells. Lots of shells. Despite the ammo shortage, they managed to provide cases and cases of slugs and buckshot for the test. My evaluators seemed as excited about shooting Hornady 300-grain SST Slugs and Federal 9 Pellet Personal Defense 00 Buckshot as they were about the guns. I’m not sure how much of the ammo they all pilfered when I wasn’t looking, but I saw a lot of bulging pockets and happy faces.
Professional shooters know that the ammunition you are using is often more crucial than the weapon. If you want to win a deadly force encounter, you should ask yourself how much your life is worth? In addition, I had received 3-inch Winchester Xpert snow goose shells last year for a snow goose hunt that was cancelled due to Covid. While these weren’t tactical shells, I brought them out to test the guns that would chamber 3-inch shells. All the ammo functioned flawlessly and was surprisingly accurate in these smoothbore guns.
Last year, 5.11 was kind enough to sponsor the shotgun testing by sending all the shooters A.T.A.C. boots. Without planning it, the repeat shooters from last year wore them to this year’s test as well. They are still super comfortable, lightweight and going strong.
More Great Gear
This year Leupold let the shooters pick from their top-of-the-line ballistic eyewear lineup and everyone was wearing Packout, Tracers and Switchbacks for the big day. I’ve never paid much attention to my eye pro, but these scratch-resistant, polarized glasses really stayed put on our faces during a scorching range day and the lens clarity was fantastic.
Last but not least was Caldwell’s contribution of their E-Max Shadows and E-Max Power Cords hearing protection with amplification, shot sound suppression and Bluetooth for phone calls or listening to tunes. Everyone picked which style they preferred and then charged their ear pro while we set up the range. Ear tips were quickly switched to the preferred sizes and then were worn the rest of the day. I have been using the E-Max Power Cords for several months and they now are part of my regular attire for range days. Usually, I listen to music on the range but I had them amplifying sound on that day.
Now, for the shotguns tested.
The VR82 is the 20-gauge version of the VR80. It was the only 20-gauge we tested this year and that definitely gave it an advantage in recoil reduction. The evaluators all liked the AR-15-style controls, but the small safety lever was difficult to put back onto safe without repositioning your hand. It shot some of the tightest groups of any gun tested, plus, it was light and very easy to maneuver. The bolt and mag release are both huge but the reciprocating bolt handle did hit one shooter’s thumb during slow, precision fire. With its skeletonized magazine well, tomahawk-style buttstock, barrel shroud and M-LOK forend, even the older shooters said this is a very sharp-looking shotgun.
Black Aces Tactical FD12 Bullpup
The FD12 Bullpup was our first bullpup of the day and another very sharp-looking shotgun, especially in FDE. Most of us were not overly experienced bullpup shooters so the bolt catch and magazine release seemed awkward. The gun is advertised as weighing 7.4 pounds, but it felt even lighter. Also, recoil felt a little stiffer, but we had just finished testing a 20 gauge so it is relative. I recommend putting the foregrip on it for added recoil control. Other than that, it was loaded with great features: full-length Picatinny rail on top plus Picatinny mounts on bottom and sides, ambidextrous charging handle, safety and mag release, oversized triggerguard, lots of quick-detach sling mounts and extremely compact with a full 18.5-inch barrel.
Charles Daly Triple Threat
While three of us were scratching our heads over this peculiar shotgun, a fourth was giddy as a schoolgirl in anticipation. Why three barrels? Is this really viable as a tactical shotgun? The funny part was how quickly it won us over. One great thing about break-open shotguns is that they are so simple to operate. They have a safety and a lever to open the action, that’s it. To make this gun even better, it features a mechanical reset, which means it cycles to the next barrel after each pull of the trigger whether the gun fired or not. The barrels fire in the same sequence each time.
Recoil was very controllable and the trigger was excellent. In fact, I am guessing this gun can fire its three shells faster than any semi-automatic. Our young 3-gunner fired it so fast it sounded like one long shot going off. The only critiques were desires for a shorter stock and built-in ejectors. A spring held the action slightly closed at first, which hampered reloads, but by the end of the day, it had broken in and that was no longer an issue. With an MSRP of $1,969, it was the most expensive gun we tested.
Escort BTS Bullpup
Our second bullpup of the day had a carry handle reminiscent of the HK G36. But it is removable and it comes with Magpul-style flip-up front and rear sights if you want a more compact look. Besides looking very sharp, it handled really well. “This gun was a joy to shoot,” was the comment from our youngest evaluator, who also praised the light weight and fast cyclic rate. This was the only gun we tested with an adjustable cheek riser to fine tune it to each shooter. The one thing we all disliked was the safety. It did not “click” on and off solidly and was a little too far forward to easily engage. Apart from that, the gun is designed for tactical use with several sling mounting options and side Picatinny rails for a light or laser.
IWI Tavor TS12
I did a full review of the Tavor TS12 when it was first released, so I had the unfair advantage of having already put a lot of shells through this gun. The other shooters quickly learned its unique manual of arms. It was arguably the blockiest, least stylized gun of the day. But it is packed with features. Three rotating magazine tubes allow this bullpup to hold a whopping 15+1 shells. The cross-bolt safety seemed clunky, but was easy to manipulate and worked great. The slots down both sides are all M-LOK compatible, and the full-length Picatinny on top allows the mounting of any style sight.
The law enforcement shooters appreciated the non-reciprocating charging handle because it is less likely to be knocked out of battery when hanging from a sling against your chest. It malfunctioned with low recoil shells, but IWI does recommend 1,200 feet per second (fps) minimum. The accuracy was second to none: At 15 yards there were five 1-ounce slug holes touching each other. The most amazing thing about this shotgun is how quickly we found we could blow through 15 shells. Fortunately, it was also one of the easiest guns to reload, with ports available on either side of the stock.
This was the second time the KelTec KS7 has made it to Best of the Best’s Tactical Shotguns. To me, this was the perfect backpacker shotgun. I believe it was the smallest, lightest shotgun of the day, but it still holds 7+1 shells. Our tallest shooter felt it was too short. It is a pump-action bullpup that loads and ejects out of the bottom of the gun, which is a great ambidextrous feature. The safety is a cross bolt, but two of us felt it should be reversed. Like all the guns tested, this is simply a training issue because we found it very easy to manipulate. I noted that it loaded much more smoothly than the KS7 did last year but I don’t know why.
The fiber-optic sight also seemed better than I remembered, but it still wasn’t my favorite. Most of the evaluators noted the recoil is sharp to say the least. Lighter guns usually kick more, and this is no exception. However, this isn’t the gun to shoot eight boxes of shells one afternoon. This is the gun you keep behind the seat of your truck or sitting next to the bed for things that go bump in the night. Then you won’t notice that recoil.
The gun closest to “conventional” was the 590M. At first, it looks like a regular Mossberg pump shotgun until you realize it is magazine fed. The magazines are enormous polymer constructions that hold anywhere from five to a mind-blowing 20 shells, and they all worked great. However, I will say that 20 shells in a gun adds a ton of extra weight. The magazine also loaded easier than the metal magazines that accompanied several of the other shotguns. The 590M has excellent ghost-ring sights with an orange blade front sight. The barrel has a vented heat shield that gives it a WWI trench gun kind of look. I thought that was a little unnecessary, but I guess if you start plowing through those 20-round magazines, it might serve a purpose.
The magazine release is ambidextrous as is the famous and well designed Mossberg shotgun safety that sits in the center of the tang and is manipulated by the shooter’s thumb. My one complaint was the length of pull seemed ridiculously long for a tactical shotgun. I would swap it out for a recoil reducing collapsible one from Mesa Tactical, switch the pump to one with a light from SureFire or Streamlight, pop in that 20-round magazine loaded with slugs, and I would be ready for Armageddon.
SDS Imports Lynx 12
I’m not an AK guy so when I saw the Lynx 12 my expectations were low. It looked fairly low-frills compared to many of the stylish guns we were shooting. But what it lacked in flair, it made up for in performance. The sights are small, but it literally tore one ragged hole with slugs at 15 yards. The trigger was long, but light. The AK-style safety has a “shelf” so you can flip it on and off with your trigger finger. It does have a bolt hold open, but the bolt does not lock to the rear with the last round fired. It can load from a closed bolt, but it is a lot easier to load with it locked back.
Everything about the gun just handled well, and it quickly became a crowd favorite. It has a four-position gas system, but we never touched it and it ran flawlessly with every shell we threw in it. It takes Saiga-pattern magazines and I was wishing we had a few more because as one evaluator said, “The gun basically shoots itself.”
Smith & Wesson M&P12
The M&P12 is another gun that I have tested recently so it again had a small advantage. This dual-magazine pump bullpup is built like a little tank. It has an ambidextrous safety, an ambidextrous pump release, ejects out of the bottom, has a full-length Picatinny rail for sights, push-button magazine selector, M-LOK slots for lights or lasers and great ergonomics. The universal complaint was it is slow to load. You have to sit it barrel down and use one hand to feed in the shell while the other hand manipulates one of the “assist” buttons. Once you learn how, it loads fairly quickly, but it isn’t a gun that you could readily top off during a gunfight. On the other hand, it holds 14+1 so realistically, how many more shells do you need?
Standard Manufacturing DP-12
The DP-12 was also a former contender on Best of the Best. It is a bullpup, pump action witTh dual magazine tubes and…wait for it…two barrels. You work the action once, then pull the trigger twice, then work the action again. It holds 14+2, has a full-length Picatinny for sights, lots of M-LOK slots, AR-style ambidextrous safety, ejects and loads out of the bottom, and is ridiculously fun to shoot. It feels very heavy, but that weight soaks up recoil. Despite such an unusual design, every evaluator commented that it was very user friendly and loaded easily, although in an unusual way since there are two tubes and you reach up through the ejection port. It was one of the more expensive shotguns, but with the fantastic engineering and construction it is easy to see why.
Tristar Compact Tactical
Our last shotgun was the HALO Battle Rifle—I mean the Compact Tactical, but it looks just like the HALO BR. It is a semi-automatic, gas-operated, magazine-fed bullpup with an AK-style safety. Basically, it is a clone of a Saiga 12 gauge dropped into a bullpup chassis. It feels solid despite being primarily made of polymer. It has peep sights on the carry handle, but that can be removed, and Magpul-style flip-up sights are also included. The trigger leaves a lot to be desired, but this is a combat weapon, not a sniper rifle.
It also comes with a forward vertical grip, but we didn’t put it on during testing. The shotgun handled great without it. It can load from a closed bolt, but it is difficult. A small button under the safety locks the bolt to the rear and makes it much easier to load. The biggest complaint was the rearward location of the safety. But the coolness factor had everyone saying, “Yes sir, I need a weapon.”
This year’s competition was the tightest ever despite the wide diversity in styles of shotguns. Every shooter said, “If I only had one of these guns for personal defense for the rest of my life, with practice, I would be good to go.” That’s high marks. When the scores were all tallied, IWI’s Tavor TS12 came out on top, but just barely. Something about the rugged workhorse won over the shooters. The SD Lynx came in second and won the vote for “Best Bang for the Buck.” The rest trailed, but not by much. If you are looking for a home-defense weapon, you should look long and hard at this list. And if you get the chance to take one out and burn through a few cases of shells, I seriously doubt you could have as much fun as we did.
For More Information:
This article originally appeared in the Ballistic’s Best 2022 issue of Ballistic Magazine. Get your copy today at OutdoorGroupStore.com.