At $800, the A-Bolt costs more than twice as much as guns from Marlin, Mossberg, and Savage. But in our view, the extra dollars deliver extra performance.
If your formative years as a deer hunter were spent east of the Mississippi, chances are you knew someone who started with a slug-loaded, inexpensive bolt-action shotgun—or maybe you toted one. Seems like there was always somebody serving an apprenticeship with a Polychoked Mossberg 195, Marlin 55, J.C. Higgins, Stevens, or Sears 140 bolt gun.
Back then turnbolt shotguns were “starters” reserved for kids—stepping stones to Ithaca or Remington pumps or autoloaders. Or they were multi-purpose ordnance used by folks who weren’t as serious about deer guns as they were in simply having something in the truck or behind the farmhouse door that could be of use in all seasons.
The bolts of those days were at the lower end of the shotgun spectrum. But you’ve also got to remember that shotguns and slugs per se weren’t accurate back then, either. Put three out of five in a gallon can at 40 paces and you had a tackdriver. Firepower had far more appeal and usefulness than that kind of accuracy.
But as I say, that was then. This is now. Today’s bolt-action slug guns are definitely not reinventions of the wheel. Comparisons between them and yesterday’s simple actions are about as valid as racing the Spirit of St. Louis against a Stealth bomber. Slug shooting has evolved eons in the last 10 years.
And, in a way, it was inevitable that the bolt-action gun would re-emerge in this Renaissance of slug shooting. After all, like arrow speed in archery, lane grip in bowling and shaft flex in golf, accuracy has become the Holy Grail of shotgun slug shooting.
Go to a benchrest rifle match and look at what the competitors are shooting. Remember, these are the test pilots of the firearms industry. These guys are perfectionists. They’re apt to retire a gun if they can’t cover its last five-shot group with a dime. What do they shoot? Bolt actions and single shots. No exceptions. Show up with any other action and be prepared for snickers, smirks, and an out-of-the-money finish.
Anybody knowledgeable about slug guns knows that the solid front lock-up and sheer receiver mass that is so critical in rifle accuracy is overkill for slug guns. But enthusiasm often overcomes common sense. Thus the hottest ticket in slug-gun shooting is the bolt-action.
There are now four modern production bolt-action rifled barrel slug guns on the market; “modern” being the operative word here. These are the $800 Browning A-Bolt, the $380 Savage 210 MasterShot, the $350 Marlin 512 Slugmaster and the $293 Mossberg 695. In side-by-side comparison the Browning A-Bolt shotgun is the class of the bolt-action, rifled-barrel slug-gun field. Metal-to-wood fit, wood quality, finish, workmanship, and function are head and shoulders above the other bolt guns. But then it ought to be with an $800-plus price tag.
How We Tested
In a head-to-head comparison that consisted of 100 rounds being fired through each gun in one heady afternoon at the range, it must be said that all four turnbolts acquitted themselves well in the accuracy department. Anchored on a Protektor bench rest, each gun was zeroed at 50 yards until it could shoot one-hole groups, then was tested at 100, firing five five-shot groups at gridded five-bull Visible Impact series targets from Crosman. The relatively slow (1,300 fps to 1,400 fps) loads are vulnerable to wind, but that was not much of a factor on test day as the mild breeze was negligible. Air temperature was 45 degrees at an elevation of 950 feet.
All of the guns tested came scope-ready with Weaver-style mounting rails included. A Nikon 2-7x36mm Lustre rifle scope was mounted on each gun, both to give optimum magnification for the 100-yard testing and because the spacing of the Browning’s two-piece scope rails would not accommodate short-barreled variable shotgun scopes. The rifle scope was also chosen because it is parallax-free at 100 yards while shotgun scopes are prefocused at 50 to 75 yards.
All four guns showed consistently better accuracy than can be expected from the current pumps and autoloaders on the market. The only action that can compete with the bolts on an accuracy basis is the 9.5-pound bull-barreled single-shot H&R; 980 Ultra Slugster.
Groups under 3 inches at 100 yards are exceptional for a production slug gun and commercial loads. Anything tighter than that is outstanding, given the relatively loose fit and ballistic drawbacks of even the most advanced high-tech modern slugs. But all four bolt-action guns tested performed better than the norm, a testimony to the accuracy potential of bolt-action guns with rifled barrels.
Rifled-barrel guns are designed to use sabot loads, the plastic sleeves of which grip the rifling grooves and impart spin to the encased projectile. We tested 23/4-inch versions of the top-end sabots on the market—Winchester Supreme High Impact, Federal Premium Sabot, Lightfield EXP Hybred, and Remington Copper Solid. Winchester and Federal both offer lesser loadings, and all but Lightfield also load 3-inch versions. For accuracy’s sake, we only used the most consistently accurate loads on the market.
The Lightfield at 1.25 ounces with an attached post wad was by far the heaviest load. The Winchester, Federal and Remington loads all averaged in the 440-445 grain area. Performance varied, gun-to-gun, with the various loads but the 16 averages came to a very respectable 2.28 inches. The tightest group was a 1.34-incher achieved by the Savage with Winchester Supreme and the largest a still acceptable 3.51 by the Marlin with Federal Premium.
Following are our individual assessments of each gun:
Browning originally introduced the A-Bolt at the 1994 S.H.O.T. Show in Dallas, displayed it again at the 1995 S.H.O.T. Show in Las Vegas, and had it back at the 1996 show in Dallas, but no guns were ready for distribution until March 1996. Browning’s official comment is that the design was being “fine-tuned” to specifications dictated by the Utah office. The widely held assumption, however, is that manufacturer Miroku Firearms of Japan was having problems with shell feeding.
The gun that’s shipping is actually a beefed-up version of the company’s popular A-Bolt rifle. The A-Bolt Shotgun comes in a Hunter version with satin finished walnut stock and a Stalker version with composite stock and dull finish barrel and receiver. The short, crisp, 60-degree bolt throw, front-locking bolt and choice of free-floating 22-inch fully rifled or 23-inch smoothbore (with extended rifled choke tube) barrels make the gun the ultimate in slug shooting. Rifling is a one-turn-in-32-inches twist rate.
The 7.5-pound A-Bolt also features a detachable-box magazine that can be affixed to the hinged floorplate as well as detachable sling swivels. The front-locking bolt features three lugs and a large hook extractor that pulls the shell case against an ejector stud in the left rear of the receiver. Spring-loaded shell grips in two of the lugs help maintain the extractor’s grip.
The front-locking bolt, like the rifle A-Bolt, turns within a sleeve that remains stationary while the bolt rotates in and out of battery. The sleeve moves back and forth with the bolt, but does not rotate with the head and handle.
Savage 210F Master Shot
The move by Savage into the bolt gun field was rumored to have died when the proposed Mossberg-Savage merger fell through in the summer of 1995. But the Savage 210 Master Shot proved nevertheless to be a reality when introduced at the 1996 S.H.O.T. Show.
The MasterShot is a 12-gauge version of the company’s long-standing 110 series bolt-action rifles and a far cry from the bolt shotguns produced by Savage under the Stevens name (1933-1981), which—like the Mossberg and Marlin shotgun bolts—used just the bolt handle as the locking lever.
Nevertheless, probably with an eye toward the future and possibly toward handloading, the Master Shot’s bolt features three front-locking lugs like the Browning (unlike Mauser-based traditional rifle bolts that feature twin-opposed lugs) and a 60-degree bolt rotation. The extractor is slender, hook-like affair what rotates with the bolt head and is housed in a slot just above the bottom locking lug. Extraction is theoretically via inertia with a blade contacting the case rim though a slot in the bolt head as the bolt reaches the last half-inch of travel.
The 24-inch rifled barrel (1-in-35 twist) is threaded to the receiver and held by a locking collar a la the 110 rifle. The receiver ring is well-vented. The action and stock are mated via two screws, one threading into the bottom surface of the recoil lug, the other just ahead of the trigger guard bow. The gun features a black glass-filled polymer synthetic stock with a ventilated recoil pad.
Like their rifle forebears, neither the Savage nor Browning bolt slug guns have sights—a unique concession to the fact that scopes are essential on today’s rifled barrel slug guns. Without the benefit of a scope, the shooter can never aim finely enough to discern the true accuracy potential of today’s guns.
The 7.5-pound Savage 210 is the only bolt gun on the market that does not use a detachable clip. Instead the Savage features a two-shot integral box magazine that juts from the bottom of the forearm. The gun thus must be loaded from the top, which is a cumbersome task, given the bulkiness of shotgun shells. The Savage is the only bolt gun that can be fed from either the left or right side.
Marlin 512 Slugmaster
Yes, Browning might be getting the most attention but it was not the first production bolt-action gun available with a rifled barrel. That distinction went to the Marlin Model 512 Slugmaster, which was first produced in 1994. Modeled after the company’s long-standing Model 55 models, the most famous of which is the 36-inch barreled Goose Gun, the 512 features a 21-inch fully rifled (one turn in 28 inches) barrel and two-shot detachable-box magazine with rifle sights.
The 8.5-pound gun is built on a checkered birch stock. The 512 is actually a close cousin to the Model 55S (for slug) that Marlin marketed in the 1960s, which featured a 24-inch smoothbore barrel, rifle sights and sling swivels.
Like the Mossberg, the Marlin features a shotgun bolt, not a beefed-up rifle bolt. Neither bolt is front-locking, rather leaving the bolt handle to cam into a receiver slot and lock the action. The two Connecticut-based companies are building for today’s slug shooter rather than the future when handloading of slugs may become more popular and a stronger lockup a necessity.
Today the root of the bolt handle certainly provides sufficient locking strength since shotgun chamber pressure levels barely reach one-quarter of that of a high powered rifle, which must be front-locked.
The Marlin bolt is mounted well forward, Mannlicher style, and notches in a slot in the receiver top, necessitating a side scope mount (Weaver 10M). A heavy recoil lug is set between the receiver and barrel into a recess in the stock.
If you are a fan of the 3-inch slug be advised that 1.) not all 3-inch slugs are the same length and 2.) the Marlin clip can’t handle the longest 3-incher, the Winchester, which tends hang up on the front edge of the magazine and not align with the chamber. To its credit, Marlin warns of this in its owners manual.
Suggested retail for the 512 is in the $350 neighborhood, but they can often be found for $100 less than that.
The Mossberg 695, which also comes in a camouflaged smoothbore version for turkey hunters, is actually a spruced-up version of the smoothbore, fixed-choke Maverick 95 bolt gun.
Maverick, a division of Mossberg, introduced the Model 95, a low-end bolt action shotgun, in 1995. Theoretically, it wasn’t a slug gun, at least not a specialty slug gun, since it has a smoothbore barrel with a fixed modified choke. The synthetic-stocked, internal box magazine (no clip) 3-shot 12-gauge is obviously an evolution of the old Mossberg Model 195 and later 395 models (produced 1963-1983), Polychoked, 26-inch barrel smoothbores that were popular 12-gauge starter guns in the 1960s.
But unlike the old bolt guns, the Maverick didn’t have a Polychoke. It carried only a bead front sight and listed for $175 retail, but is certainly was a precursor of things to come.
The “new for 1996” Mossberg Model 695 has basically the same stock and dimensions as the Maverick Model 95 but features a 22-inch fully rifled barrel (1-in-34 twist) is a turn-bolt affair affixed to the rear of the bolt.
The 7.5-pound Mossberg gun comes with a two-shot clip similar to the Marlin and Browning, but has to win the “Ugly” award for the manner in which the forearm is swelled in goiter-like protuberance to accommodate the bulky clip. The Mossberg offers a front post and rear folding leaf rifle sights in addition to Weaver style scope bases. Like the Savage, the Mossberg features a black synthetic stock with a schnabel forend.
Performance Shooter Recommends
The Browning A-Bolt was virtually flawless during the test. It had by far the best trigger (a crisp 3.5 pounds) and was very accurate with all four of the state-of-the-art sabot loads used in the test. The Browning and the Savage, being 12-gauge versions of existing bolt-action rifle designs, incorporate a rifle-style short-throw (60 degrees) bolt. These bolts are noticeably more efficient and fluid than the Marlin and Mossberg bolts, both of which are updated versions of shotgun bolts long-produced by the two North Haven, Connecticut, companies. The biggest disappointments were the low combs on the Marlin, Savage, and Mossberg stocks. The Browning’s drop is sufficiently short so that the shooter’s eye is level with the scope, but all other slug guns on the market (with the exception of the H&R; 980, Mossberg 500, and Ithaca Deerslayer II) have regular shotgun drop in their stock design and need boosting to enable the shooter to see through a scope. All of the triggers were adjustable, although it would take a gunsmith to do the deed with any gun except the Browning. The rifle-like Browning and Savage bolts featured front-end lock-up, while the Mossberg and Marlin use the bolt lever as the only locking lug. In sum, the Browning A-Bolt slug gun delivered the best accuracy and shooter ergonomics. Despite its high price tag, we recommend it.
If money is an overriding factor, we would look at the Marlin 512 Slugmaster. It has proven itself in the market for three years, had an excellent (crisp 4.2 pounds) trigger, and cycled everything flawlessly during the test. Its accuracy was slightly behind the Mossberg, but was certainly good by any field standard.
The Savage 210F Master Shot shot every bit as well as the twice-the-price Browning, despite a 5.5-pound trigger. The Savage was, however, plagued by a consistent refusal to eject spent shells cleanly. The 210 provided for the test was an early 1996 version, but the problem lessened but did not disappear when the bolt was replaced by one from a 1997 camouflaged turkey-hunter version of the gun.
The accuracy afforded by the heavy-walled, uniquely ported barrel on the Mossberg 695 test gun was impressive. But our test model, an early-1996 version, was plagued by ejection problems. We understand the problem has been eliminated by a slight design adjustment, but we haven’t verified that ourselves. Also, the 695 had by far the worst trigger of the lot, in our estimation, a spongy 7 pounds with substantial creep. In our view, the Marlin is a better value.