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To NFA or not NFA? Nighthawk Custom 870 SBS 12 Ga.—Full Review

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Based on the venerable Remington 870 12-gauge shotgun, Nighthawk Custom offers a full line of enhanced tactical shotguns. Shown is a custom-built, short-barreled-shotgun NFA variant direct from the manufacturer.

Based on the venerable Remington 870 12-gauge shotgun, Nighthawk Custom offers a full line of enhanced tactical shotguns. Shown is a custom-built, short-barreled-shotgun NFA variant direct from the manufacturer.

For more information, visit http://www.nighthawkcustom.com/.

To purchase a Nighthawk Custom 870 on GunsAmerica.com, click this link: https://www.gunsamerica.com/Search.aspx?T=Nighthawk%20870.

To purchase a Remington 870 on GunsAmerica.com, click this link: https://www.gunsamerica.com/Search.aspx?T=Remington%20870.

So which is right for you? An NFA short-barreled shotgun (SBS), or a traditional 18-inch or longer-barreled tactical shotgun? Well, I like both and have several examples of each. I started my career in law enforcement in 1978, and “riot guns” in those days tended to be a Winchester Model 12, an Ithaca Model 37 or the venerable Remington 870. All three were 12-ga. pump guns and normally had 18-inch cylinder bore barrels. They had wood stocks and fore ends, bead sights, and were either blued or parkerized. While not pretty, they were what we had and they served us well for many years. Over the years, I became very attached to the 870 and added several to my collection. They served as a camp gun, car gun, and in the role of home defense. It is safe to say that I have rarely been very far from one 870 or the other!

The heart of the 870 design is the robust ordnance-grade steel receiver.

The heart of the 870 design is the robust ordnance-grade steel receiver.

Introduced in 1949, the 870 competed directly with the Winchester Model 12. The 870 proved to be reliable, rugged and earned the respect of sportsmen and law enforcement alike. Now, sixty-seven years later, the 870 is still in production and is the choice of hunters, law enforcement and security professionals worldwide.

The key to the 870’s durability and long life is the nearly indestructible receiver that is machined from an 8-lb. block of ordnance grade steel. The steel lined forend operates the action through two, non-binding action bars that provide strength, reliability and a smooth, consistent action. The fire control system features a disconnector that requires a deliberate trigger pull for each shot. In other words, the 870 will not slam fire when the action is run with the trigger in the rearward position. The trigger assembly features a crossbolt safety and is easily removed for maintenance by simply punching two retaining pins.

The shotgun is equipped with a four-round "sidesaddle" for carrying spare ammo within quick reach.

The shotgun is equipped with a four-round “sidesaddle” for carrying spare ammo within quick reach.

Over the years, Remington has worked to update the 870, but the basic design and engineering has changed very little. Magazine extensions have increased the capacity from four rounds to six rounds in the tube the 18-inch model and seven rounds in thev tube of the 20-inch model. Wood stocks and fore ends have been replaced with more durable injection molded polymers and, on some models the simple bead sight was replaced by rifle type sights.  The “Flex Tab” carrier was introduced to prevent a shell from becoming lodged between the shell lifter and the bolt when the action was short stroked. Other than that, it remains true to the original.

The Next Level

While the standard patrol officer and armed citizen are most often armed with an 18-inch model, some law enforcement and special users have a requirement for a more compact shotgun. Perhaps the most famous special purpose 870s were produced for the United States Marshal’s Office. Coined the “Witness Protection 870,” some of these guns featured a modified pistol grip and a 14-inch barrel. The United States Secret Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, along with most other federal agencies, have ordered large quantities of fully stocked 870s with 14-inch barrels and with bead or rifle sights. Along the way, and for the same reasons, the short barrel 870s became the darling of the commercial NFA market.

The sample shotgun was equipped with a Duracoat-finished Magpul SGA stock.

The sample shotgun was equipped with a Duracoat-finished Magpul SGA stock.

SPECS

  • Chambering: 12 gauge, 3-inch chamber
  • Barrel: 14 inches
  • OA Length: 32.75 inches
  • Weight: 7 pounds
  • Stock: Magpul SGA
  • Sights: LPA
  • Action: Pump
  • Finish: Matte black
  • Capacity: 4+1
  • MSRP: Base price, $2,165

Nighthawk Custom is known as one of the premier manufacturers of custom 1911s.  However, the company also offers an “Overseer” line of highly modified 870 shotguns. Being an NFA aficionado, I contacted Mark Stone, CEO of Nighthawk Custom and requested a short-barrel 870 for evaluation. After the obligatory wait on ATF to clear the transfer, I took possession of a very cool, short-barrel 870 custom made from their line.

It is important to note that while Nighthawk Custom offers “off-the-shelf” 870s for sale, it also will do custom work as I requested based on customer-provided Remington 870 shotguns (provided the shotgun is a Remington 870P or Express Magnum in good working order). At the current time, unfortunately, Nighthawk Custom has temporarily suspended production of any NFA shotguns to catch up with current production demands. However, they plan to resume this as time allows. So, if you have a little patience, the NFA route might be right for you.

The sample shotgun was fitted with an option Vang Comp "Big Speed Safety" for enhanced operation.

The sample shotgun was fitted with an option Vang Comp “Big Speed Safety” for enhanced operation.

The talented smiths at Nighthawk start with the basic 870 and then strip the gun down to basic components and perform an inspection. During this process, the action is hand honed for a smooth, consistent action. On my test gun, the trigger pull measured 4.5 lbs., but exhibited a rough spot in the take-up. A Vang Big Speed Safety was also installed to allow the safety to be disengaged using the side of the trigger finger.

To provide a highly flexible sighting system, Nighthawk installs high visibility LPA sights. The LPA rear sight features a ghost ring aperture that is adjustable for both elevation and windage. The adjustment screws were positive and we had no issues with the sight retaining a zero. The front sight on my test gun is a large white dot post that mounted on a wide base and protected by wings.  Nighthawk also offers a fiber optic or tritium front sight blade. At my request, Nighthawk also installed a section of Picatinny rail on the receiver, in front of the rear sight. This allows the option of running a red dot optic.

The buttpad is designed to help reduce perceived recoil, and provided spacers can adjust the length of pull.

The buttpad is designed to help reduce perceived recoil, and provided spacers can adjust the length of pull.

At the heart of any shotgun is the barrel. The Nighthawk 870 came with a 14-inch Remington factory barrel that had received the full Vang VCS treatment. For over 25-years, Hans Vang has been at the forefront of shotgun barrel performance. In the early nineties, he patented the Van Comp System or VCS. The VCS is an internal modification of the factory barrel and consists of lengthening the forcing cone and back-boring the barrel. By lengthening the forcing cone, the pellets have a smoother transition from the chamber to the bore. Back-boring the barrel is a process where the barrel is bored from the chamber to the muzzle, creating an internal choke. This results in less shot deformation and tighter, more consistent groups.  The final modification consists of a series of ports at the muzzle.  The ports reduce muzzle rise and allow for faster follow-up shots.  A side benefit is that this modification reduces felt recoil.

The short barrel of the shotgun extends approximately 1¾ inches past the magazine cap. The factory polymer magazine follower has been replaced with a polished stainless steel unit that should last a lifetime. The four shell side saddle is machined from a single aluminum billet that is hard anodized to military specifications. Unlike other designs, the Nighthawk unit does not obscure the serial number on the side of the receiver.

A matching Mapgul MOE forend was installed on the shotgun. Note the stubby 14-inch barrel of the test gun.

A matching Mapgul MOE forend was installed on the shotgun. Note the stubby, ported 14-inch barrel of the test gun.

The final addition to the shotgun was a Nighhawk-branded Magpul SGA stock and matching MOE forend. The SGA stock is the most comfortable shotgun stock I have used and is user-configurable. The buttpad is designed to significantly reduce recoil, and spacers are provided to adjust the length of pull. The high cheek comb assists in indexing both the iron sights and an optic if so equipped. Optional cheek risers allow this height to be adjusted to fit the individual user. The deeply arched pistol grip is set at a natural and comfortable angle and the stock features recesses for the shooter’s palm.

The MOE forend is longer than the standard factory unit and features traction ribs for position manipulation. A lip on each end is designed to prevent the hand from slipping off the forend during operations. This is especially critical when running a short-barreled model like this one. Both the stock and forend were given a Duracoat snake skin camo finish by Hillbilly223. The 870 also wears the distinctive Nighthawk logo on both the forend and the stock. The finish really set the little gun off and proved to be an eye-catcher during range trips.

Shortest Straw

On the range, the little 14-inch 870 proved very surprising. Testing shotgun performance is an inexact science given the inconsistency of pellet dispersions and loads. Unlike Hollywood’s portrayal, the shotgun doesn’t blow down doors or blow up cars. With traditional 18-inch, cylinder bore, barrels, a general rule is that 00 buck shoots a group that is approximately 1 inch in diameter for every yard of distance.

screen-shot-2016-09-12-at-1-13-49-pmThe old school, standard police load was usually 00 buck shot that consisted of nine .33 caliber pellets. However, over the years, manufacturers have improved the performance their loads through improved shot cups and other technology. In addition, they have developed specific “reduced recoil” loads for law enforcement. We tested the Nighthawk 870 with Remington’s Remington 8 Pellet Reduced Recoil load and Federal’s 8-Pellet Federal Flite Control load. The Remington load averaged 873 fps and the Federal Flite Control load averaged 1,095 fps. We patterned both loads at 15 yards and measured the height and width of the group. The Remington load measured 2.5×3 inches while the Federal load 3×4 inches. Surprisingly, at 15-yards, the Remington grouped consistently better than the Federal Flite Control. We also tested a 27-pellet Winchester #4 Buckshot load from Winchester. This load is devastating at close ranges, but at 15-yards produced a spread that measured 20×24 inches. The advantage of the #4 load is that it reduces the risk of over penetration.

The author patterned the shotgun with a selection of buckshot, including this Remington 00 buckshot.

The author patterned the shotgun with a selection of buckshot, including this Remington 00 buckshot.

The author also shot the Nighthawk for groups with slugs at 50 yards, with this group being a Federal Flite Control load.

The author also shot the Nighthawk for groups with slugs at 50 yards, with this group being a Federal Flite Control load.

Engaging a target from 25-yards with any buckshot load is pushing the operating envelope of most shotguns. From the 25-yard line, the Remington load produced a group that measured 9 inches in height and 7 inches in width. The Federal Flite Control seemed to make a difference at this distance. The Federal produced a group that measured 7¼ inches in height and 5¾ inches in width. With both loads, all pellets stayed well within the silhouette and would have delivered effective terminal performance. For home defense, I would choose the #4 Buckshot, while either the Federal or Remington loads are more than acceptable for general use.

The sights on the sample shotgun are LPA with an adjustable rear unit and white dot front sight with protective wings. Tritium or fiber optic front sights are also available.

The sights on the sample shotgun are LPA with an adjustable rear unit and white dot front sight with protective wings. Tritium or fiber optic front sights are also available.

I was also interested in seeing how the barrel performed with slugs. I moved to 50 yards and shot several three-shot groups off of a range bag. My best group was shot with Federal’s Tactical 1 oz Rifled Slug. The Federal load chronographed at 1,176 fps and produced a group that measured 3.5 inches.  Remington’s 1-oz Reduced Recoil Slug chronographed at 1,117 fps and produced a group that measured 4 inches. I also used the LPA adjustable sights to shoot a group that measured 4 inches. This is outstanding accuracy from a 14-inch tube and really extends the effectiveness of the compact shotgun.

Decision Time

Like the short barrel rifle, the short barrel shotgun is a special purpose weapon and not suited for every application. Due to the increased popularity on NFA weapons and suppressors, the wait times are longer than ever. For the least painful experience, I highly recommend using a dealer that is experienced in NFA transfers and the recent rule changes. Nothing is more frustrating than to wait seven or eight months, only to have a Form 4 returned for a mistake.

The factory polymer magazine follower has been replaced with a polished stainless steel unit that should last a lifetime.

The factory polymer magazine follower has been replaced with a polished stainless steel unit that should last a lifetime.

For those 870 lovers that do not want to go the route of a short barrel shotgun, Nighthawk Custom also offers the above-mentioned complete line of non-NFA shotguns. Or, you can have them work on your own 870. A variety of features are available to include various stock, sight and barrel options. The shotguns are ideal for personal and home defense, certain hunting applications, and having an all-round good time at the range. For me, the little 14-inch gun has definitely found a place in my daily operating environment and, when appropriate, is a close companion. If you have the means and want the full NFA deal, then take a look at this option. If you want to keep it simple, then select one of Nighthawk’s non-NFA guns. I am sure that either way you will not be disappointed.

Images courtesy of Camera1, Columbus, GA.

For more information, visit http://www.nighthawkcustom.com/.

To purchase a Nighthawk Custom 870 on GunsAmerica.com, click this link: https://www.gunsamerica.com/Search.aspx?T=Nighthawk%20870.

To purchase a Remington 870 on GunsAmerica.com, click this link: https://www.gunsamerica.com/Search.aspx?T=Remington%20870.

The shorty Nighthawk proved to be very handy and capable on the range. Note the muzzle blast during this night range shoot.

The shorty Nighthawk proved to be very handy and capable on the range. Note the muzzle blast during this night range shoot.

{ 12 comments… add one }
  • Rem870 October 30, 2016, 6:11 pm

    What a beauty! Nighthawk Remington 870 looks awesome. It has necessary home defense upgrades and accessories. The price is very high but you get what you pay for. It has many expensive upgrades such as VCS barrel, sights etc, You can build the same shotgun yourself but you are going to invest a lot of time and money.

  • Jason A Yates October 10, 2016, 10:13 pm

    I’d only own this gun if you gave it to me. I have lost confidence in Remington products. You can get a Mossberg in almost ANY configuration. I chose the 930 semi. The 590 are equally great. There’s a reason why the Military has chosen Mossberg.

    • Brent Brentzel October 11, 2016, 6:21 pm

      20 years ago I and a bushy lost our duck guns in Lake Adam Rayburn. When we got them back nine months later, his Mossberg was a total loss. My 870 worked with no repair! When I dropped the action out, it looked brand new. It WAS a Special Purpose waterfowl gun with coated metal and plastic stock and I did wire brush the barrel and steel wooled some spots on the outside of the receiver. BUT THAT’S All. I have been killing birds with it now for 18 years!
      You can have all the Mossbergs they make. I’ll keep my 870!!!

  • Tim October 4, 2016, 8:32 am

    Around 12 years ago, I purchased a then new to market Remington SPS Tactical 870 18″ bbl 12 gauge with a 7 round extension. All I’ve done to it is add a side saddle shell carrier, and it’s my go to home defense weapon. Brand new from a local big box sporting goods store for $260.00. The NFA items are sweet, but practical is sometimes best.

  • Ari October 4, 2016, 1:21 am

    I still remember when Hans took my 1300 Defender barrel for two weeks. Just doing the VCS on my 1300 transformed it from a firearm I hated to one I don’t feel comfortable without. I have more than 10k rounds through that gun. It is perfect for 16-20 yard trap. I think it would be a lot of fun to have this 870 set up in a 1300.

  • Rrudytoo October 3, 2016, 4:48 pm

    The short barrel and the ported area around the front sight guarantee night blindness after the first shot fired in the dark. This is not a good thing!!!!

    Semper Fi

  • Damon October 3, 2016, 10:48 am

    While I can appreciate that you had a cool custom built, writing as if anyone else is going to pay upward of 2K for a $400 shotgun is overkill. Next time, just publish more pictures.

  • billy bob October 3, 2016, 9:49 am

    Sit you SBSG next to a Kel-tec KSG and compare size ! Then compare magazine capacity !
    BETTER YET if you want an NFA gun buy a CLIP FED BLACK ACE SHOTGUN !

  • Bob October 3, 2016, 9:38 am

    At that price I could have a Remington 870 Tactical in every room of the house and that would be priceless.

  • Patrick Buechel October 3, 2016, 6:22 am

    When I was 12 my daddy gave me a model 97 Winchester 20″ riot gun,,,I’ve been a fan ever since,,,it’s a devastation piece of perfection, a real 6 shooter,,,you can tout the hyperbole but the guys that know their shit will go 12 and 20/6-9,,,

  • Steve K October 3, 2016, 5:29 am

    Cool Puppy! However, I’d prefer all black.

  • James Summers October 3, 2016, 3:52 am

    What else could be bought for the price of this shotgun ??
    Several regular shotguns ??
    Nice to get paid to tout.

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