Customizing My Stoeger Coach Gun For Cowboy Action Competition

By Thundervoice

Last summer, I got involved in cowboy action shooting and started out using my grandfather’s Winchester Model 1897 as one of my competition guns. I soon realized my heirloom shotgun wasn’t competition-friendly for several reasons, including shell ejection issues and a barrel that was too long. So I decided to get a new shotgun to replace what needed to be a safe queen.

There are three primary shotguns used in cowboy action shooting: the Model 1897 with a 20-inch barrel, the Model 1887 lever action shotgun, or a side-by-side coach gun. The 1897 and 1887 guns are both John Browning designs. The 1897 and coach guns are the most common used by cowboy shooters so that’s where I started with my research.

Knowing that many of the faster shooters were using the 1897, I decided that was my first choice. Then I started looking at free advice from the internet (worth every penny!) and was consistently seeing that if you want to shoot an 1897, you need to get a gunsmith to slick it up. And you need a backup.

There are over 100 parts in an 1897 and something is always breaking. While there are still companies that manufactured 1897 clones, I read conflicting information about the quality of the clones and I didn’t want to buy one for competition that would be older than I am.

So I started looking at whether a coach gun would be a better option. The term “coach gun” is a generic description for a side-by-side shotgun with an 18-20 inch barrel. It is called a coach gun because it was widely used by stage coach guards in the Wild West days.

Coach guns are used by a lot of beginning cowboy action shooters and some of the better shooters use them at my local competitions. They are a good choice for beginners because they have few moving parts, are relatively inexpensive, and easy to find.

There are several manufactures of coach guns, but I decided to go with the 20-inch barrel Stoeger Coach Gun because that was the brand used by most of those I was seeing at competitions. But even after picking the Supreme model, I still had to make a few more decisions. I had to choose the gauge (I went with 12 gauge as that is what most use at matches), finish (blued, stainless, or nickel – I picked blued), single or double trigger (I chose double based on advice from others), and standard or Supreme model (I went with the Supreme because it has screw-in choke tubes and a thicker recoil pad).

The ability to change the chokes was the main reason I went with the Supreme model. The gun I chose lists for $549. I found one online for $100 less (plus shipping and FFL fee) and it arrived just in time to use in the next cowboy match.

I shot that match using the shotgun pretty much straight out of the box, which turned out to be a mistake. It was just another day of education in my journey to improve my cowboy shooting skills as I had to overcome several challenges associated with shooting a new gun.

For those who want to criticize my use of a new gun in a competition, at that point in time, I was measuring my shooting times with a calendar instead of a stopwatch. I was focusing on safety and technique, not speed, so I was comfortable with the few rounds of practice I got with the gun the day before the match.

The struggles with the gun were many. The biggest was its stiffness when trying to break it open. It took a lot of effort to open after firing both barrels, but at least I wasn’t breaking it open over my knee like one of the other shooters who also had a new Stoeger.

The next challenge was the safety. The factory Stoeger resets the safety every time the gun breaks open. So I had to remember to flip the safety off before pulling the trigger. Pretty much every shooter at the match that day pulled me aside and privately told me that I needed to “fix that factory safety.”

Finally, the chambers were tight enough that the shells didn’t fall out after firing like they were with the other cowboys’ guns. I may not be the brightest bulb in the pack, but I knew pretty quick that my new shotgun was going to need some work.

After the match, I picked the brains of a few cowboys and got a lot of good advice. That next week, I watched several YouTube video on how to slick up a coach gun. With that knowledge and three engineering degrees, I decided that I could slick up the shotgun myself and bypass the gunsmith’s services.

The essential tools for slicking up a coach gun are a grinder, sandpaper, and polishing compound plus a screwdriver and socket for removing the buttstock. The steps I took included:

1. Shortening the lock impeller The lock impeller is the rod between the lever cam and the safety. When you press the lever to open the action, the cam rotates and pushes the rod back. This engages the safety. Everyone told me that the first thing I needed to do to the gun was shorten the impeller so that it would not engage the safety when I broke it open.

I removed the stock to access the action, removed the spring and rod, and then took the rod to my grinder. A grinder made all the difference in the world in doing this. I ground off a little at a time and reinstalling it to see if I needed to grind off more. Eventually, I got it to where the safety would not reset on opening. The photo below shows the lock impellor after I finished my grinding chores.

2. Shortening the lock impeller spring The spring around the lock impeller is stiff and requires a lot of pressure on the lever to break it open. Removing some of the spring makes it easier (and faster, the real reason) to open the shotgun. At the same time I was shortening the rod, I was also cutting small amounts off of the spring. I was not able to actually cut the spring with any of my tools, so I had to grind off segments of the coil.

Most of the online advice recommended using a Dremel tool for cutting the spring, but I couldn’t find mine due to a recent move (it’s since been located). Each time I took off a little bit from the spring and the lock impeller, I would reinstall both to check safety function and lever pressure. I ended up adjusting the spring and impeller at the same time because the impeller is hard to remove and reinstall with the full-length spring. As the spring is shortened, the impeller and spring become a lot easier to take out and put back in.

3. Polishing mating surfaces Everyone had told me that the shotgun would loosen up over time with use and become easier to break open. But they also told me that I could speed up that process by polishing the surfaces that slid against each other when opening. I started by polishing with fine grit wet/dry sandpaper to get the finish off of the parts. After using sandpaper, I put toothpaste on the surfaces, reassembled the shotgun, and opened and closed it several dozen times.

Like the spring, a Dremel tool is recommended for this process. I proved that sandpaper, toothpaste, and elbow grease can achieve the same effect. Eventually, it got to where it would just fall open when I pressed the lever, which is what I was looking for. You can see in the photo below that the surfaces are still not smooth, but they are smooth enough to meet my needs. The image on the left is the receiver and the one on the right is the forestock.

4. Enlarging the chambers Once I finished the action, I moved to the barrel, making the chambers a little larger so that shells would slide in easier and fall out with a short jerk. I took wet/dry sandpaper and worked it into the chambers until a shotshell would fall out without resistance. You can also use a honing stone to do this, but I couldn’t find mine due to the move (unlike the Dremel, the honing stones are still hiding in a box somewhere the garage). If I ever find them, I’ll use them lightly to make sure the chambers are smooth and even.

5. Funneling chamber mouths The final step was to make take a spherical grinding stone to the chamber mouth. This creates a funnel effect that makes it easier to insert the shotshells. I originally took off just enough material to remove the sharp edges of the chamber, which were catching the plastic of the shotshells as I tried to insert them. This is the one bit of gun tinkering where I stopped too soon.

The photo on the left is my chamber mouth as it currently exists and the photo on the right is the chamber mouth of a champion shooter’s coach gun. I was surprised to see how much material he actually removed when I got a chance to handle it earlier this month. I’ll be pressing the grinding stone back on my chamber mouths some more in the near future until a part of the lip is gone on each chamber.

With these improvements, my shotgun technique at the next match was much smoother than it had been at the previous match. With a few more matches, the gun loosened up even more, just as others had promised it would.

While I still need to do a little more grinding on the chamber mouths and polishing of the mating surfaces, I’m happy with my efforts to stick my toe into the gunsmithing realm, although that term is probably too generous for my fine tuning. Gun tinkering is probably a more adept description for my activities.

There are a couple of additional items worth noting. If you are going to buy new guns to get into cowboy shooting, you can forget about gun warranties. As soon as I ground the first atom of material off of one of the parts, my Stoeger was out of warranty. That’s life.

The gun is simple enough that I think I can fix about any problem that might happen if I can get the parts. And if I can’t figure it out, one of the other cowboy shooters will be able to tell me what to do. So I wasn’t too concerned about voiding the warranty.

The other thing worth noting is that I’m shooting cowboy loads in this shotgun. I started out shooting Winchester AA Low Recoil/Low Noise Target Loads, which use 26 grams (~0.9 oz) of #8 shot with an advertised velocity of 980 fps. They are not cheap locally, so I bought a shotshell reloader and started loading my own light loads. I haven’t shot hunting load shells in this gun, but may do so in the future, although with 20-inch barrels, the recoil from a heavy load may be more than I want to deal with.

This piece isn’t intended to be a gun review in the classic sense of a review, especially since there is already a Stoeger Coach Gun review on TTAG. But I will offer a few review-type comments about this shotgun.

It is a simple gun. Broken down, it will fit in a backpack. The 20 inch barrels are the longest component when broken down. Overall, it is 36.5 inches long.

Fit and finish are nice and consistent with, or a little better than, what I expected for the price point. It’s easy to load and shoot and would be a good first shotgun for someone who doesn’t know much about loading and operating a pump or semi-auto.

It is easy to work on, as I have described above. I’ve heard that repair parts can be hard to come by, but I haven’t had to deal with that aspect of it yet. I’ve been told that competition guns will all break at some point, usually in the middle of a match, so I’m sure I’ll be looking for parts eventually. Or I will have to buy a new one and start the slicking up process all over.

This is a great shotgun for getting started in cowboy action shooting. I have no buyer regrets and will likely get another at some point in the future as a backup. I also hope to try it out at a local skeet range sometime before dove season starts this fall so that I can decide whether it is as good a hunting gun as it is a cowboy gun. But, when I do, I’ll be sure to have a range of shotshells handy and a backup gun just in case.

comments

  1. avatar GunGal says:

    Article all the work on that Coach Shot Gun most interesting in a long time
    Kudos to you for turning an ugly duckling into a beautiful Swan.

  2. avatar jwtaylor says:

    Awesome. Thanks.
    Like cars, anyone can restore a gun. It takes a real man to cut one up.

  3. avatar RA-15 says:

    I like your review. I had a chance to buy a nickle barreled Stoeger short barrell coach gun at Cabellas for $450.00 on sale. I passed due to deciding the $ would be better spent on my colt AR. The Stoeger is a very nice coach gun for the money.

  4. avatar James A. "Jim" Farmer says:

    The contemporary (not 19th century original antiques with Damascus or “twist” barrels)
    double-barrel stagecoach shotgun with 20″ barrels in 12 or 20 gauge remain highly
    practical for other uses aside from Cowboy Action Shooting: Homeland Security! Too,
    due to their “break open” simplicity and manual of arms they likewise would be ideal
    for a group of college age young women (aged 18-21) living off campus, or single women in general. Handguns require more practice and familiarity than owning a simple break open “hammerless” double-barrel shotgun ,and in some jurisdictions (New Jersey for instance) are less regulated and restricted than owning a handgun. Certainly there is a valid place for handguns. Especially for a person who is trained, familiar, and competent with such. But for the novice or beginner the double-barrel stagecoach
    shotgun may be the preferred alternative.

    1. avatar neiowa says:

      AND endorsed by Shotgun Joe Biden

  5. avatar Joseph Constable says:

    I have never seen a side by side shoot skeet.

    1. avatar Big Al says:

      For many years I shot skeet with an Ithaca SKB (side by side). Chrome lined barrels – choked SKEET & SKEET. O/U shotguns are all over on a skeet range. Only difference is barrel orientation. ALSO, on many shotguns, s/s, o/u and some others the safety is RIGHT WHERE IT BELONGS – under the thumb.

    2. avatar Andrew Lews says:

      I have an older Nickel Stoeger in 12.
      I’ve shot skeet with it. My dad was better with the SxS than I was, he could actually break some clays. I preferred my A5 clone.

    3. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

      I do it with a Fox or Parker or an O/U. I’m not much good at skeet.

      Trap, on the other hand, seems to work out well for the Fox. It has chokes that just obliterate clays for me, even at extended distances. The only problem is the splinter fore-end means I need to wear a glove to keep from burning my left hand…

  6. avatar arrowfoxtrot says:

    Good writeup. Ive got a nickel-finish coach gun supreme Ive been working on (Itll still be awhile before Im shooting any SASS matches though). FYI, instead of step 2 you can buy an aftermarket lightened spring on Brownells and swap it it in without having to cut the factory one.

  7. avatar DaveDetroit says:

    Good article. If ever in doubt about how to remove material, drop by your local cutting tool products company that supports local manufacturing. There’s all kinds of abrasive polish and specialty tools available. The real key is not to be too aggressive and know the harness of the various parts. For shortening a spring or that rod, a belt sander would have worked just fine. I’m picky about round things staying round, so I would have used a different tool to chamfer the cylinders. I can see where the more aggressive removal still left a lip to positively stop the shells from going to far forward. Great article! I’ve been looking at the same shotgun.

  8. avatar Ing says:

    Nice. I’ve been wanting a coach gun for quite a while. Also have been wanting to try Cowboy Action Shooting for quite a while, but competition of any kind gets expensive really fast. If I ever do get one, I’ll be sure to give it this treatment.

  9. avatar Ralph says:

    I gave my Stoeger Coach Gun a workout last week shooting full-house, nine pellet 00 buck. My buddy shot it once and said “that’s it.” His technique was awful and the recoil knocked him backwards since he absolutely refuses to lean into any gun — shotgun, rifle or hand gun.

    Fun times.

    1. avatar neiowa says:

      Next time you take Barak the pansie shootin a shotgun get him on the correct end of things.

  10. avatar Mark N. says:

    You have to go through the same routine with any of the black powder Italian clones, i.e., polishing all of the mating surfaces, particularly the surfaces that interface the hammer. I typically use1200 or 1600 grit wet/dry paper on both faces of the hammer and the interior surfaces of the frame. It makes a huge difference. The 1873 Colt clones are better made, but even they benefit from a tuning, since the action is essentially the same as in Colt’s black powder pistols. . I found instructions on what to do and how to do it on the internet, and it is a pleasant evening’s diversion. True competition rigs, which have lightened hammers with a different style tang and a trigger polish, and short stroke actions for lever guns, are best performed by a professional.

  11. avatar Green Mtn. Boy says:

    Pard of mine did much the same work as you accomplished on yours to his and he’s had it serving him since 1995 in the game. He just replaced it this year as it’s starting to unlock on firing and yes it could be repaired however the gun has provided him 23 years of rough service,it’s shall we say rode hard and put away wet.

  12. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

    And now you have learned the difference between a quality gun and a gun slapped together by parts coming off a CNC machine.

    The fit & finish on Stoeger SxS’s isn’t “nice” – they’re rougher than a cob. That’s why you’re sitting there with abrasives, polishing down rough machine finishes on a brand new gun. If take the stock off a Parker or Fox shotgun from 100 years ago, and you look at the lockwork, they look a helluva lot better than what we see in your photo above. Heck, go somewhere in the west where you might be able to sweet-talk a collector into showing you some genuine Wells Fargo coach guns by Parker Bros. Look at the workmanship from over 100 years ago. Now look at the Stoeger. Ponder what we’ve lost in the gun market afterwards.

    You could/should put a good, modern recoil pad on such a short/light gun. Short, light shotguns like this hurt like hell on the recoil when you’re shooting 00 buck 2.75″ loads. Get a good quality recoil pad (I would recommend a Pachmayr “Magnum Trap” pad for this application) and put it on the gun. You’ll need to grind it to fit the outside profile of your stock. This is a job best left to a gunsmith, because while it looks easy, it isn’t, and I haven’t the time to try to explain the process. You could use a slip-on pad if you want to avoid grinding a pad to fit, but they look like crap, IMO.

    Now, as to one other mod you could make, but which requires a significant expenditure on tooling: you could lengthen the forcing cones, which will change the recoil impulse a bit. You will need to measure the barrel wall thickness ahead and behind the forcing cones, then, if you have sufficient barrel wall thickness (which I’m not going to specify, because I know not the quality of the steel in Stoeger gun barrels), you would order a forcing cone reamer from Dave Manson and ream the cones to a more gradual profile. This is a job best left to a for-real shotgun gunsmith, but it can make a significant improvement in the recoil experience on the gun. NB I said “shotgun gunsmith,” because lots of rifle/pistol gunsmiths won’t know how to properly measure the barrel wall thickness, nor will they have the proper reamers for lengthening the forcing cones (they’re spendy little buggers – like $100 + shipping). You’ll also need a proper vise, padded jaws, a t-handle for driving the reamer, cutting oil, a bucket to catch the cuttings/oil, etc.

    1. avatar DrewN says:

      Re: recoil pads. Now, I’ve only dome maybe 5 and all for me. I’m short so I always need to adjust LOP anyway. I just cut the stock, use the cut off piece as a template , rough it down on the disc sander, finish it off by hand, and I’m pretty close every time. Not seamless but pretty fair, certainly mass produced factory close. Sometimes I use a little fixture to make sure everything is square during the rough sanding. I actually find this one of the only parts of stock making and fitting that’s actually doable for me (I can’t checker to save my live despite lots of attempts). Am I missing something, or is it just that last 5% like all real craftsmanship?

      1. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

        It depends on your choice of recoil pad. Some need to be frozen to grind them worth a damn. The ability to achieve a proper profile, down to the same profile as the wood (without touching the wood when the pad is already on the butt) takes some skill. That’s 90% of the issue.

        Getting a good finished appearance is the other 90% of the issue.

        1. avatar DrewN says:

          Yeah, I wouldn’t dream of trying to finish it off already mounted on a nicely finished piece of wood. My palms are sweating just contemplating it.

    2. avatar bontai joe says:

      I thank you, because I learned new stuff today. It’s always a good day when I learn new stuff.

  13. avatar Swarf says:

    This is not a recommendation, but it seems like you could use a 7/8” Flex-Hone to slick up the chambers evenly and quickly.

    Edit: I mean 3/4”!

  14. avatar Hoodlum says:

    My next shotgun will be a Stoeger Condor O/U.

  15. avatar skiff says:

    In the late 1960’s to early 70’s Rossi of Brazil made a similar shotgun with external hammers. My longtime friend still has one. I remember shooting it while standing on a frozen pond and going backwards. Lots of fun. Of course we always pointed the gun in a safe direction.

  16. avatar Black and most hated on all 50's says:

    Hammerless No. I want both barrel boom, me pull both triggers, . Johnny was a race car driver, oh he drove so fast, he never did win a race but he never came in last.

  17. avatar ROBERT says:

    I HAVE ALL 3 OF THE SHOTGUNS YOU DESCRIBE.
    1. 1887 lEVER ACTION – HAS A VERY LONG STROKE OF THE LEVER AND TAKES A BIT OF DEXTERITY TO LOAD.
    2. mY 1897 IS ACTUALLY A US ARMY TRENCH GUN – FAST SHOOTING AND ACCURATE.
    3. MY COACH GUN IS SIMPLY A SHORT 2-BARREL.
    I’ve NEVER had trouble with the pump, and I’ve been using it for close to 40 years. The other 2 have their own problems.

  18. avatar Kevin Loch says:

    Go to an auto parts store and get a brake cylinder hone for the Chambers and some valve grinding compound for the mating surfaces. You can also find some other tools in the automotive industry to accomplish the modification your trying to do

Write a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

button to share on facebook
button to tweet
button to share via email