TriStar Vipers: Great Budget Semi-Auto Hunting Shotguns
TriStar Arms – the king of budget-friendly, reliable shotguns – delivers with even its early Viper line of semi-auto shotguns. While this is hardly the newest of the TriStars on the market, it proved reliable and effective in the field on my last hunt, and one should expect even better performance from newer Vipers and other TriStar shotguns.
More than affordable, I would go so far as to call TriStar’s semi-auto shotguns budget, workaday firearms built to fill freezers without seriously denting pocketbooks or hurting your feelings after some nicks and dings in the field. That’s my opinion, sure, but it lines up with the popular sentiments I’ve gotten from numerous other shotgunners, both hunters and those who spend their days behind the gun counter. In fact, as far as gun shop recommendations go, I’ve heard a few folks mention they love selling TriStars because they very rarely ever see them again. That’s a nice nod to the quality of these affordable shotguns.
The sample TriStar I’ve been testing on the range and on a recent duck hunt is an early TriStar NWTF Viper chambered in 12 gauge. While, yes, the NWTF marking would suggest this is a turkey gun, it proved nice and wieldy in the tight spaces of a well-camouflaged duck boat. But no matter where I took this shotgun over the last six months, it cycled perfectly and shot comfortably.
For testing purposes, I pulled a used TriStar from the Guns.com Vault that had a little bit of wear and age to it, aiming to try something that was both very affordable and had done more than sit in a safe. Let’s kick it off by looking at some general specs and history.
TriStar introduced the Viper G2 line back at SHOT Show in 2013 as their flagship semi-auto shotgun, with the even newer Viper Max finally offering a 3 1/2-inch option. So, this used Viper seemed like a good place to start looking at the performance of the platform that launched the line.
The Vipers are gas-operated guns, and the bolt locks to the rear on the last shot. You can clear the chamber by simply pushing the elevator up from the bottom and gently racking the bolt rearward to remove the loaded shell. This cuts off the feed from the magazine tube.
Clearing the tube itself is very simple. Simply push the elevator up and press the bolt release. This will spit shells out one at a time with some gusto. This Viper has a capacity of 4+1 with 3-inch shells and 5+1 with 2 3/4-inch shells. I’ve listed some additional specs below:
The metal finish on this Viper is matte black and quite durable, a feature noted and appreciated during the bumps and dings normally associated with hunting from a boat. There is very little shine to the gun, and even the ventilated rib on the barrel is aggressively textured to remove glare while shooting. There is only one sighting feature, a fiber-optic front rod, and it’s easily acquired while shooting. For a relatively small semi-auto shotgun, the action consumes a lot of the recoil. A waffled butt pad eats up most of the rest.
Speaking of shooting, the trigger breaks very predictably at 6.9 pounds. The semi-pistol grip offers some texturing, as does the forend furniture. This TriStar also boasts a Mossy Oak Obsidian camo, which is nice but somewhat more slippery in the hand. That said, I never had any control issues while shooting this shotgun on the range or while hunting. That includes well over 300 rounds at this point with a mix of shot sizes and types, limited only by the ammo shortage and not confidence in the gun.
I will almost unfairly ding the Viper for having a rearward safety located behind the trigger. These are just not to my personal liking, and I missed a shot on a fast-flier duck trying to jam a front safety that didn’t exist. That failure is mine alone, and this style of safety is quite common. The gun also has pre-installed sling mounts that are appreciated and well placed for the various slings I tested on it.
First Shots & Hunting
So, what do the specs actually translate into for the end-user? Well, that’s best left to my time on the range and in the duck boat. First, the gun is wieldy in tight spaces, but it has just a tad front-heavy feel. It is not as swingable as the Remington 870 Wingmaster I recently tested, but I was easily able to chase high and low targets while hunting or shooting sporting clays.
My favorite feature, aside from the price, is the reliability of the simple gas-operated action. The gun cycled everything from cheap 2 3/4-inch target loads to 3-inch hunting loads without a hiccup. The first duck this “turkey” gun claimed was with Winchester Blind Side Hex Steel Shot with a velocity of 1400 fps. But it also cycled various other loads, such as the new-to-me Migra #2/#3 stack-loaded shells with a 1515 fps velocity equally well with very manageable recoil. I haven’t yet found 2 3/4 or 3-inch shells it won’t cycle.
My second favorite feature of the TriStar line is its use of Beretta/Benelli chokes, which opens a wide range of affordable choke options for whatever type of hunting or range shooting you want. I spent most of my time running a Carlson’s mid-range choke and enjoyed it on the range and in the field.
While my test gun is hardly a looker, it did well for me on sporting clays. TriStar’s Viper G2 and Viper Max lines do offer much more attractive models now with what I would expect is an equally solid performance.
First & Last Impressions
I’ve had shotguns that required a bit of babying for maintenance, but this is not one of them. The gas system is simple, and so is takedown for maintenance. It was a repeated joke on my last hunt that the 12-gauge shotguns sit dirty in the corner while the hunting rifles get a thorough cleaning after every outing to the range or field. So far, this TriStar seems like it would be fine with that.
In fact, I drove into the range a few months ago and found a buddy burning through the better part of a large stockpile of 20-gauge slugs with his TriStar – I’m talking a full range visit of just shooting slugs. While I would always recommend routine maintenance, that gun ran for what I can only assume was hundreds of rounds over months if not a year or two with no thorough cleaning.
After an excessive amount of shooting with my range buddy's TriStar, all that was needed was some simple tightening of the stock screw. Frankly, the durability testing has proven the shotgun to be nothing short of a rock-solid performer, but that’s not the only benefit of the TriStars to me personally. I know this budget gun will work when I need it, and I do not feel burdened to baby it in the field. Like I said at the beginning, it’s a workaday shooter. If it takes a few dings along the way, I would chalk that up to adding character to the gun.
The test period for this TriStar is officially over, and it’s headed back to the Guns.com Vault. But at the price, I’d certainly consider adding a Viper, particularly the Viper Max with its 3.5-inch chambering, to my collection for future hunts. I’ve been leaning harder on my pump-action guns lately, but the look, feel, and performance of this Viper has my eye wandering for a reliable TriStar.