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Mossberg 500 Thunder Ranch Review

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By Trampas Swanson

Regardless if the discussion is about duck hunting, skeet shooting, or Military / Law Enforcement duty, the 12 gauge pump shotgun has undoubtedly played the largest roll, across the board, than any other firearm platform in history. As we began to cover late last year, two models have ruled the shotgun world since the early 1960s, the Remington model 870 and the Mossberg model 500. With over 10 million units of the 870 and 500 each sold by these two manufacturers in basically the same amount of time, one would be hard pressed to say which is better than the other. This is why we decided to spend some intense evaluation time with each model and let the readers decide for themselves. This week, we return to give the Mossberg its due by running a new version of the old classic designed by one of the world’s top tactical experts from the esteemed Thunder Ranch training facility!


Design First Look

When O.F. Mossberg & Sons decided to update the classic model 500 with a “no frills” tactical version, the designers reached out to Thunder Ranch founder and current director, Clint Smith. This hardened Marine veteran has a rich history of teaching firearms tactics based on his service in the U.S. military and later law enforcement as a SWAT team member. As a staff instructor during the early days of the legendary Col. Jeff Cooper’s Gunsite Training Academy, Clint Smith and his lovely wife, Heidi struck out in 1993 to found their own training mecca, Mossberg 500 Thunder Ranch. Now located in Lakeview, Oregon, the Smith family runs one of the top training programs in the world for military, law enforcement and civilians alike who wish to get their firearms skills to the next level.


Renowned for his bare bones, “train with what you got” mentality, Clint had only a few very important function specific shotgun requirements that would aid in winning a gun fight. Obviously, the first would be, the gun had to be reliable in harsh conditions, which model 500’s pump action system as proven over a span of 50 years of combat environments. The robust action bar and easy to use controls make the Mossberg shotgun one of the most user friendly in the industry. The non-reflective, matte black finish bearing the laser engraved Thunder Ranch logo is designed to prevent rust and corrosion that could factor in on reliability.

Next the shotgun needed to be maneuverable. Mossberg started with a stout 3 inch chambered 12 gauge 18.5 inch barrel with a unique flair. The cylinder bore choke with built on breacher-style muzzle allows for this shotgun to be used by tactical teams on a budget looking for a great entry shotgun. I have previously seen this feature described by others to benefit the average citizen in a home defense situation, who may need to overcome a locked or barricaded door flee their home in a hurry. To be perfectly honest, for the average shooter, the breacher end is just a cool looking accessory, nothing more. Needless to say, the breacher end was not a specific “Clint must” as much as the barrel length.


To add to the mobility of the shotgun’s design, Mossberg paired the barrel with a shorter than standard light weight black synthetic stock which provides a 13 inch length of pull and contributes to the compact 31 inch overall length. This shorter length pull allows for a wider range of body types, ages and genders to comfortably shoulder the shotgun. An added benefit of the shorter stock allows for any military / law enforcement personnel to use the 500 TR easier in conjunction with bulky body armor. Not only does this add to the comfort in holding the shotgun, but this also lends itself to being able to reach the forearm easier in order to cycle each round. For those of us less than 6 ft. tall, this scores major points with the end user!

While on the subject of the 500’s forearm, Mossberg took great approach in Clint’s requirement that a long gun of any sort should have some provision to attach a white light. Instead of trying to integrate a generic light into a costly forearm configuration that would drive the price up, the designers simply added left, right and bottom Picatinny rails to mount lights, lasers, grips and anything else the end user wishes. While this isn’t a new discovery, it has been a feature solely lacking with the shotgun platform in general.


Returning to Clint’s list of “must haves,” a clearly visible front sight bead was requested. The brand’s website lists the Mossberg 500 Thunder Ranch as having a standard white dot bead. This is where the truth in firearms reviews comes to light. Since its release, I have seen YouTube “wannabe” reviewers and well-known web blog “experts” review this shotgun and mention the same feature, even when holding the shotgun in their hands at the time. The odd part of this is, the Mossberg 500 Thunder Ranch actually comes with a much better, red fiber optic bead! Whether it’s a rush in trying to be the first to review the product or just a clear failure on the part of amateurs speaking out of the league on a serious topic, these are items that could “make or break” how someone feels about trying this or any product being reviewed. No worries, Raider always has you covered!

Range Time

When it came time to put the Mossberg 500 Thunder Ranch through its paces, I reached out to outdoor writer, Craig Reinolds and a former co-worker from my Law Enforcement days, Mike Daughtridge. These two avid shooters share very similar backgrounds having served as both Military and Law Enforcement personnel during the span of their careers. When it comes to combat ready weapons, these guys understand just as well as I do, what works and what doesn’t. Loading up with assorted rounds provided by Federal Ammunition, it was off to a private training ground in North Florida affectionately known as “The Swamp.”


Starting things off, I attempted to load the 5 round magazine tube but was surprised to find I was only able to load 3. Mike took a close look at the shotgun, quickly unloaded and removed the barrel. Afterwards he began to shake the shotgun receiver with the end of the magazine tube pointed down until a wooden rod fell out of the hole for the barrel screw to insert. As it turns out, the factory shipped the combat shotgun with a round limiting plug inside the magazine tube! Once this issue was taken care of and the shotgun was reassembled, I loaded it up with 2 ¾ inch #8 shot 1 1/8 Oz. shot commonly known as birdshot. As Craig, Mike and I took turns shooting steel plates, we sped up our times with each round of fire to really work the action of the model 500. Placement at 15 and 20 yards was dead on and held to the standard expansion of 1” spread per 1 yard of travel. With machine like precision, the manual action allowed for cycling round after round flawlessly and smoothly as the receiver started to foul and the barrel started to heat.

The easy to see red fiber optic sight made transitioning from plate to plate quick and effortlessly. Early on in shooting, the three of us noticed the Picatinny rail on the left side of the forearm starting to rub into the thumb of the support hand during recoil. This would play a factor later in testing. Controllability using birdshot was so easy. Mike even started scoring hits on steel shooting the model 500 TR one handed! Not to be outdone, I then scored three shots overlaying each other on target shooting from the hip in true movie star fashion. While this isn’t recommended tactical training, some days you have to remember to stop and just have fun with friends.


Moving on to one of my personal favorite combat loads, all shooters switched to Federal’s 9 pellet buckshot with their innovative FliteControl wad technology. This special wad is designed to “cup” the shot load during the first few yards of flight to provide tighter groupings at longer distances for maximum effectiveness and minimum collateral damage. While this is a much stronger load than birdshot, the model 500 TR was very comfortable to shoot. The recoil was not at all too uncomfortable and the added reciprocating force aided in manually cycling the action fast and smooth for quick follow up shots. This special ammunition actually breaks the barrier of the general rule of shotgun spread by cutting expansion almost in half! Traditionally, regardless of the shotgun, my 20 yard spread when shooting has been around 21 – 22 inches, but with the Federal FliteControl, this is reduced to an average of 12 – 14 inches max!

By the end of the second round of shooting with this ammo, I noticed all three of us were nursing sore thumbs. The rub as we all noticed from the left side Picatinny rail while shooting birdshot quickly turned into a bite sensation when using the buckshot rounds. It was the group consensus that a right handed shooter would be smart in adding the white light to the right side rail and then unscrew and remove the left side rail entirely. In a lot of situations where there are 3 rails mounted around a handguard, it is always the bottom rail most shooters complain about, but in this case with the model 500 TR, we never even noticed the bottom rail as an issue at all.


To take advantage of the model 500 TR’s 3 inch chamber, I decided to run a limited amount of Federal’s 2 3/4’” Vita Shok 15 pellet copper plated magnum 00 buckshot. To say this is a powerhouse load is an understatement. This is a ¼ inch longer shell with 6 more pellets than your standard combat load designed for military / LE use. Despite not using a specialized FliteControl wad, the group still stays tight and offers slightly better than standard groupings out to 40 yards of effective distance. Just remember, for what you gain in power going away, you receive in recoil incoming to the shooter’s shoulder. Even with the stiffer recoil sending a shockwave through the relatively light weight 6.75lb shotgun, it was still manageable and easy to get hits on steel at 25 and 30 yards. While extremely effective from first hand use in my “go-to” semi-auto hunting shotgun, it is not my first pick for a combat shotgun meant to be used often in training.

Final Thoughts

To wrap up on this look at the Mossberg 500 Thunder Ranch, I have to say, despite personally owning much more expensive, high speed shotguns with all the “bells and whistles,” this one struck a chord with me. During testing both alone on the range and with trusted friends, it reminded me of my days working for a small Sheriff’s office, living on a shoestring budget and always looking for a way to have the best tools at my disposal for the best price. I wish Mossberg had offered this version of the model 500 back then; it would have been a no brainer to purchase. Retailing around $475 US, the Thunder Ranch edition has been on the market long enough to get lucky and find a used one floating around online for under $400 US if you try hard enough.


The design input by Clint Smith is clear to see by anyone who has ever studied his teachings. With the addition of a standard black padded sling, this shotgun offers everything you would need in a gunfight without all the crap you do NOT. Clint Smith has been one of the voices in the training industry I have come to respect the most due to similar backgrounds and philosophy on life. Any video, article or class plainly illustrates Clint as a simple man who loves God, his country, and family without any feelings of regard for the worthless aggressors who may threaten his way of life. When shooting the Mossberg model 500 TR, this image came to mind about the shotgun. The best recommendation I could offer for this shotgun is in the fact that I now own one myself to add to my collection of higher end Remington and Benelli shotguns. It isn’t the most expensive or brightly colored or even intricately engraved; the Mossberg model 500 TR is simply rugged, reliable and did its damn job just like Clint would want it! 

Trampas Swanson

Born and raised in eastern NC, started shooting firearms at age 6, and life long hunter. Retired Deputy Sheriff serving as a supervisor and SWAT sniper unit with a background in narcotics and crime scene investigations task forces. Now living in Florida as a husband, new father, local gunsmith, firearms instructor and freelance writer for various firearms publications.

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