I can’t deny that modern firearms are technically great–modern metallurgy, coatings, ammunition and ballistics, optics, and synthetic stock materials make for weapons that are accurate and reliable under even extreme climate conditions. So yes, they don’t make them like they used to, and perhaps that is sometimes a good thing. Sometimes, however, you just can’t compete with a classic, and despite the technical virtues of modern firearms, I love, for lack of a better word, the feel of a classic rifle or shotgun. To that end, I give you the Remington Model 31, which is in my view the finest pump action shotgun ever made.
First produced in 1931 to compete with the then market dominating Winchester Model 12, the M31 marks the pinnacle (in my humble opinion) of the development of the pump action. The operation is just incredibly smooth, earning it the nickname the “ball-bearing action.”
No, it doesn’t have ball bearings but it certainty feels as if it does. There is not a piece out of place or a rattle to be heard as the tolerances are tight, even on my M31 which is now 70 years old. There is a really nice article on the M31 in Guns Magazine that summarizes it nicely:
“Finally, there’s the issue of smoothness. These guns do not have ball bearings but I think the description of “ball bearing action” fits perfectly. I’ve never found anything comparing to the smoothness of the M31. It has a lighter stroke than Winchester’s M12 or the Remington’s M870, which replaced it. The stroke on the M31 is the shortest of the three at 3-1/2″ inches compared to 3-3/4″ for the M12 and 3-7/8″ for the M870.”
The action is fast and I can rack and fire a follow up shot with my M31 probably just a bit slower than I can manage with my semi-auto Remington Model 11-87. Unlike a semi-auto, I never worry about stove-piping a shell especially with the light loads I favor for quail and chukkar. This gun is not an over/under showpiece to be trotted out at an Orvis resort; this gun was made to be carried by folks who took to the field in earnest. Perhaps not the cheapest gun in its day, but Remington managed to sell quite a few even in the dark days of the Great Depression.
My M31 was made in about 1946 or 47 and is the “skeet model” with a solid ribbed 26″ barrel and adjustable polychoke. In the field, the gun is quick to shoulder and swing into action. It is comfortable to carry for a long day of upland hunting (just shy of 8 pounds)–it feels light and nimble but solid.
The condition of mine hits the sweet spot for me: it retains a fairly high percentage of the original blueing and has just a few scratches in the stock but no cracks or structural problems. The bore retains a mirror finish and the action is nice and tight. In other words, it is in really good condition but not so nice as to be a collector gun I wouldn’t want to take into the field. I don’t want to own a gun if I have to feel bad about using it!
A few caveats for perspective owners. One, these shotguns will only accept 2 3/4 inch shells. If I want to use a 3 inch shell when duck hunting, I take my M11-87. Two, used replacement barrels are getting harder to find and they are not cheap. And lastly, this is not the easiest gun to fully disassemble. While I can tear down a Remington M870 (which was introduced to replace the M31) in minutes or even seconds, the M31 is more demanding. There are more parts and those parts or fitted to tight tolerances. So, this shotgun requires a little more care and practice. In the end, it was those tight tolerances and beautifully inter-meshing parts that spelled the end of the M31 which finally ceased production in about 1950. Final fitting and assembly required a skilled gunsmith, whereas the simpler action on the M870 did not. That made the M870 cheaper and easier to produce. The M870 is also a great gun that has certainly stood the test of time, but the M31 is in a different class altogether.
I’m always looking around for vintage sporting rifles and shotguns, but it will take something pretty special to overtake the M31 as my go to field gun.