Stevens 520

Browning's "Other" Shotgun

The classic Stevens 520 — though sharp-eyed readers will note Clayton’s gun is actually a
“Sears Ranger 520” outfitted with a chopped 18" barrel instead of the 28" factory tent-pole.

If we start naming all of John Browning’s inventions, we’re going to be here a while so let’s just focus on the shotguns. It’s amazing how many of these century-old designs are not just recognizable but still a part of today’s varied shooting cultures. Auto-5s are still knocking birds out of the sky. Browning’s Superposed over/under shotgun and its derivatives remain beloved in the world of skeet and trap. The Winchester Model 1887 and 1897 are still being made as reproductions and are frequent companions of Cowboy Action shooters.

In this respect, the Stevens 520 is certainly the ugly ducking of Browning’s shotguns. Not just figuratively, mind you: its distinctive “humpback” — egad, even a double humpback — strikes many as an ungainly feature. The relative lack of attention given to this shotgun is also a little unusual considering Stevens produced a few hundred thousand of the guns in multiple variations from 1909 all the way up through 1948. Any firearm so ubiquitous certainly deserves a second look.

The Browning-design take-down feature allows the 520 to be neatly separated into two halves.

The Origins

The Stevens 520 began life in 1903 as a submitted patent by one John Moses Browning, which detailed a new shotgun with an internal hammer, locking-breech block, and a take-down design. The patent caught the interest of the J. Stevens Arms and Tool Company, as they knew slide-actuated repeating shotguns were becoming hot stuff at the dawn of the 20th century. However, they lacked such a model of their own to round out the product mix.

From the gun’s inception, Stevens offered the 520 with two standard, full-choked barrel lengths: 28″ and 30″. Guns were produced with Stevens rollmarks prior to 1929. After this point the design continued on in the form of various “department store” re-brands, which by some estimates are more plentiful than the Stevens-marked shotguns. Such examples of these 520s include the Ranger Model 30 for Sears, the Western Field Model 30 for Montgomery Ward, the Riverside Arms Model 520 and the J.C. Higgins “102.25.” Truly — a rose by any other name!

Two things conspired against the 520, nearly bringing it to death’s doorstep in the 1930s. The first was the introduction of the Model 620 in 1927. Savage (which had become Stevens’ parent company) was keenly aware the 520 was pug-ugly so the company rolled out the Stevens Model 620. Identical to the 520 internally, it differed only by virtue of a more “modern,” rounded profile to the receiver. The second existential threat to the 520 was the Great Depression, which poured cold water on firearms sales across the board.

Given a weak economy and a more-popular sister product cannibalizing demand, Savage began to warehouse 520s in the 1930s. However, the design was given a new lease on life at the dawn of World War II because the U.S. government needed combat firearms in a hurry, and bought up every repeating shotgun in Savage’s warehouse regardless of configuration.

Production of a handier “riot” version with a 20″ cylinder-bored barrel (the 520-30) ramped up quickly for wartime. Many of these military 520-30s were further modified into “trench gun” configurations consisting of a bayonet lug and heat shield. About 35,000 of the Stevens 520s and 620s saw action — a figure exceeding the number of M1941 Johnson rifles used in combat!

Note the “teeth” mating barrel assembly to receiver. This is great machining for the price!
A distinctive or ungainly profile? Opinions are mixed.

Stevens produced a staggering number of 520s under different names, brands,
and rollmarks for Sears, Montgomery Ward and “Riverside Arms.”

Shooting And Handling

Despite the inexpensive prices these guns routinely sell for, it definitely does not feel like a budget gun. The 520 action is far slicker than one would expect, all the more surprising given its single action-bar. Much of this is explained by the firearm’s machining, which is thoroughly impressive outside and in. The precision cuts forming the “teeth” on the barrel assembly and receiver are especially illustrative as they interlock with no discernible side-to-side play. Additionally, hand checkering and nice walnut stocks were standard 520 features. One shudders at how much this gun would cost to produce today.

As might be imagined from a Browning design, the Stevens 520 runs like a top. Shells eject smartly, the lifter never freezes and the gun never fails to give each primer a hearty smack. I also put the gun through its paces with a clay pigeon thrower and from the low-ready position it would blast neon discs out of the sky with gusto — if I did my part.

I’ve heard my shotgun buddies talk about Perazzis and Krieghoffs “pointing” like a natural extension of one’s body. The Stevens 520 doesn’t point. It’s more accurate to say, with a weight of just less than 7.5 lbs. and given the “bank vault” construction of its forged steel receiver, this gun needs to be steered more than pointed. And, despite the 520’s weight, I found recoil to be stout. Trading off between the 520 and a friend’s Auto-5 — a shotgun with a reputation as a hard kicker even despite being recoil-operated — the Auto 5 seemed downright genteel by comparison.

Hand checkering and good walnut stocks were standard features. The checkering wasn’t
the best quality but was obviously done by a human artisan!

Stevens 520 features included a double humpback receiver
and “suicide” safety inside of the trigger guard.

A 520 Of Your Own

There are two pieces of great news for any shooter interested in picking up a Stevens 520: First, they’re cheap, and second, they’re even cheaper when gun stores don’t exactly know what they are. Given production stretched so long and with the plethora of “department store” guns produced, there’s an affordable 520 out there with your name on it. I was able to purchase mine, tagged only as a “Ranger 12ga” for $150 in 2019 dollars.

Be warned, however, prices escalate sharply if you’re looking for authentic police or military surplus versions. Stevens 520-30s in original, period-correct “riot” configurations often sell for a thousand dollars or more. WWII-era trench guns in excellent condition can sell for several times this amount and there’s more — because of the cheap price of commercial 520s, trench gun forgeries abound.

You’ll want to check a few things with any version of the 520 before purchase. Extended use (or bad luck) may crack the receiver around the area of the locking block, and firing pins are notoriously brittle so refrain from dry-firing. Additionally, despite the strength of the design, springs can wear out on these old-timers so function-check the gun with a snap cap if possible.

If the price is right, you should snag one if only to have such a shootable piece of Americana in your collection. It’s downright amazing to see the craftsmanship and design going into even the most utilitarian shotguns of yore. While the sun set a long, long time ago on such an era of firearms manufacturing, the Stevens 520 is a fun and affordable way to take a step back into the past.

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