An Old Comparison: SuperAuto Shootout: Benelli SBE II vs. Browning Maxus
Close to eight years ago, in mid 2009, I compared two 3-1/2 inch autoloaders, the Benelli Super Black Eagle and the 3-1/2 inch Maxus. For those who don't like the notion of plastic-stocked autoloaders that have a retail price of over $1700 (most everyone!), it wasn't exactly a new event eight years ago.
Benelli Super Black Eagle II 26 in. (#10107 Max-4 HD Camo $1759) 2009 Pricing
The Benelli SBE II out of the box weighed in at about 7.25 pounds, offering a trigger breaking at 5.3 pounds. Though the tested version has a MSRP of $1759, we note that Benelli offers a black synthetic version at $1649, and a walnut model at $1549 MSRP.
Previously, we carped a bit about the clumsy plastic case the Benelli Vinci came in. So, we think it is only fair to point up that the SBEII’s plastic case is more usable, handier to carry, has some foam padding, and can easily be padlocked. It is a practical, usable case—far more usable than the way the Maxus is supplied in the usual cardboard box. Benelli deserves a bit of credit for this and so they rightfully get it.
We noticed several things about the SBE II right away: it is very easy to assemble and disassemble, and cleaning and lubrication of the bolt and linkage is easy to access and easy to do. Easy removal of the breech-block, access to the trigger group, and ease of take-down and reassembly is something we all appreciated right way.
We felt the trigger was light enough for a 3-1/2 inch magnum autoloader of this type, but it was also mushy displaying excessive take-up. The safety, located at the rear of the trigger guard, was very, very stiff as received. Normally depressed with the forefinger, it was both overly stiff and extremely loud when pushing it off. It is bad enough to call it defective; this SBE II is roughly a 7 lb. gun with a 5 lb. trigger and a 50 pound safety. Some of our shooters couldn’t knock it off at all with their right hand forefinger and had to resort to either using their thumb or pulling it off from the reverse side with their left hand forefinger. Yes, as supplied, it is was that bad. We contacted Benelli about the issue; they agreed to replace the trigger guard assembly under warranty at no charge.
The bolt release button, located on the right side of the receiver, was small in size with little projection. It was, however, very easy to use requiring very little pressure. Had the safety button been given similar attention, we would have thoroughly happy. A replacement trigger group promptly arrived, just as promised, from Benelli; we immediately installed in our test gun. Only one pin secures the trigger group; it is amazingly quick and easy to remove and replace it. Our replacement assembly had a proper safety, quite easy to get off, and it was far less noisy. The trigger itself was a bit heavier than the original, breaking at 5 pounds, 10 ounces— but still noticeably lighter than the Maxus trigger. It was also crisper than the trigger that originally came on the gun; this one had no mushy feel or unwanted take-up. Props to Benelli’s customer service department for prompt attention to the matter.
The SBE II shot to point of aim, we appreciated that. Recoil was more than on a gas-operated gun, but still quite manageable in our opinion. For a high-volume clays gun we’d likely look elsewhere, but that isn’t the intended use of the SBE at all.
One thing that continues to baffle and perplex us is why manufacturers bother to put a center bead, in this case a silver pin, on hunting guns. It makes no sense to us at all and just gets in the way. In the case of the SBE, the red bar “bead” at the muzzle is fairly small, a great deal smaller than found on the Benelli SuperNova recently reviewed, and still a bit smaller than the bar found on the Vinci. In this case, it presented us with an annoying “silver on red” picture, the middle bead obliterating most of the front sight. We swing and point our shotguns: the center bead is meaningless at best, annoying and distracting at worst.
The Super Black Eagle is a supremely well-balanced, responsive gun. The forearm is very easy to grasp, and extremely slim and trim. We liked it a great deal; it makes handling many semi-auto forearms seem like trying to grab onto a telephone pole by comparison. It is one thing to enjoy the feel of walnut; quite another when you are forced to hug the entire tree.
The SBE II also proved to be completely reliable, even with 1 oz. loads. While the official “Benelli Company Line” is 1200 fps 1-1/8 oz. loads at a minimum, many SBE’s can handle lighter loads with no hiccups—and that was indeed the case with the tested article. We experienced no malfunctions with factory recommended loads. We also experienced no malfunctions with B & P 1 oz. F2 Mach” loads, nor did we experience any malfunctions with Winchester 1 oz. steel “Game & Target loads. The SBE-II’s ability to cycle a wide range of loads was better than promised by Benelli.
Benelli claims that “the Benelli Crio® System improves patterns by as much as 13.2% and yields denser, more uniform shot patterns.” Benelli however was unable to support this assertion with any data they could share. By “Crio System,” Benelli is referring to the “mysterious things that happen to metal” when it is frozen to 300 degrees below zero F. or thereabouts—and the “system” is both the barrel and the choke that are given the Benelli’s version of the deep freeze. What that might be, specifically, is mysterious as well—at least to us.
Browning says that their overbored barrels reduce friction and that this “reducing friction from the forcing cone on the shot column also results in fewer deformed pellets for more uniform patterns and keeps more pellets in the center of the pattern.” Browning also states that the new Vector Pro longer forcing cone has features a “long, gradual taper minimizes shot deformation and maximizes pattern uniformity, consistency and density.” Browning also was unable to provide any data, independent or otherwise, that substantiates this claim.
While we have no intention of trying to prove or disprove what these two manufacturers have been unable to show themselves; we did devise a simple random and limited test. As deformation of pellets is part of the theory here, we decided we needed to use shot that actually could deform—meaning lead, not steel. We selected Winchester Super Pheasant 1-3/8 oz. loads of # 5 shot, a high-quality shell, and started printing patterns at a laser-verified 40 yards. Our question, that we posed to ourselves, is would the Benelli give better patterns with its factory “full” choke with this specific shell, would the Browning give better patterns with its factory “full” choke, or would there be no discernible difference?
We received our answer quickly and it was dramatic. The Benelli SBE-II gave far tighter patterns, more even patterns, and patterns with less patchiness with its factory Crio full choke than the Browning Maxus did with its factory Invector Plus full choke. It proves nothing in absolute terms at all, as all firearms remain individuals and we have yet to see two patterns that are identical. It did suggest to us that Browning’s claim of maximum pattern density, uniformity, and density does not always hold true—it was quite the opposite in this specific comparison.
If we were evaluating the Benelli in a vacuum, as a stand-alone impression, we would all give this shotgun an A. The SBE-II did everything we wanted it to do, everything Benelli promises it to do, and does it well. We all agreed that “there wasn’t a thing wrong with the Super Black Eagle II.” It is a fine waterfowling auto, lacking nothing in reliability or dependability for its intended use that we could discern. We very much liked the SBE-II, and it nets a buy rating with no hesitation.
In a head to head comparison, we don’t have that isolated “stand-alone view” luxury—so we necessarily must consider things we feel are of tangible real-world benefit in terms of this match-up. The lighter in weight Browning Maxus was softer shooting than the SBE-II, easier to load and unload, and offers a dedicated magazine cut-off many waterfowlers love. Things suffer by hyper-critical comparison, and that was the case here. Some may well prefer the Benelli on the basis of its somewhat simpler operating system, slimmer receiver, and thinner-feeling forearm. Some may also give a few more points to the Benelli’s easier to clean hard-chrome lined barrel that the Maxus apparently lacks.
We don’t think price is a factor here at all, as Benelli includes extra chokes and a lockable hard case along with a better warranty that closes the price gap to trivia. For us, the loading and unloading process of the SBE-II did not compare favorably to the Maxus’ far superior shell handling prowess. That pushed the SBE-II a clear notch behind the Maxus overall, though we still feel the SBE-II is better than just good.
Browning Maxus Stalker 28 in. ($1379) 2009 Pricing
Although Browning’s Maxus was loudly announced in October / November of 2008, and we had the opportunity to shoot some prototypes at the January 2009 SHOT Show in Orlando, production models have been slow to appear. Though the original suggestion was “late Spring availability,” early Fall delivery has proved to be the case—and then, only for the 3.5 inch chambered models.
The initial offering of Browning’s new for 2009 autoloader is the matte stalker style we tested and also a Mossy Oak Duck Blind camo version for $1499 MSRP. With only the 3.5 inch chambered Maxus models initially available, the 3 inch versions are said to be arriving later this year—again, in either stalker matte black or camo for now. It is essentially the same presentation as the SBE: go with basic matte synthetic, or add roughly $100 for camo. For now, the far more mature Benelli line has far more configurations from which to choose from.
Included in all the “Planet Maxus” hoopla, Browning has made several claims about the Maxus, and touted several new features. A few of the features aren’t particularly meaningful, so let’s dispense with these first. The “Turnkey” quick-change magazine plug is hardly of any use in a dedicated field gun, one directed to waterfowl at that, where three shots is going to be it. Things like shim adjustments for drop are nice to have, of course, and were a bit more remarkable when they appeared twenty years ago or so. Now, they have become so prevalent that it seems more like a glaring oversight when new autoloaders fail to provide this feature, as was indeed the case with the Remington 105 Cti and the recently evaluated 105CTi II. Naturally, we are glad they are included in the Maxus but this is no different from many autoloaders including the Super Black Eagle II we are directly comparing it to here. We do note that the Maxus has adjustable length of pull, with the appropriate buttstock spacers included right in the box—not an optional accessory, but already supplied.
What Browning has promised us is not just cosmetics, but a new gas action and trigger system that moves beyond the similarly weighted Winchester SX3 Composite ($1239 MSRP) and its Browning rendition, the half-pound heavier Browning Silver Stalker ($1179 MSRP). Rather than an afterthought, the Maxus was designed from the start to be a 3-1/2 inch gun, and it appears that Browning hopes to outscore both the Beretta Xtrema2 and the Benelli SBE II tested here in one model.
Though we originally had hoped to get our hands on a 26 in. barreled Maxus, the 28 inch was the first to become available. This Maxus delivered on it promise of being a lightweight gun, weighing in at 6 pounds, 15 ounces (exactly as cataloged; a rarity) actually lighter than the SBE-II by a quarter of a pound. Browning has attempted to make a bit of hay in touting the Maxus’ new trigger. Browning says, “the new Lightning Trigger System is the finest ever offered in an autoloading shotgun.” We don’t accept that completely. Our Maxus’ trigger broke at 6 lbs.—noticeably heavier than the Benelli and similar to the entire genre of Browning Gold / Silver semi-autos that invariably have had excessively heavy triggers. What we did notice and appreciate about the Maxus trigger was the lack of initial creep and its extremely crisp break. The noticeable crispness of the trigger and the wide trigger face made it seem lighter in actual use than it really is—it is a good hunting trigger, but hardly “the finest ever offered”— recently evaluated 12 gauge semi-autos (Beretta 391, Remington 105 CTi II) had lighter and better quality triggers. So, while we didn’t find merit to the “finest” brag, we do feel Browning has substantially upgraded the Maxus over its previous gas-auto trigger offerings. Browning also touts the locktime of their new trigger; a peculiar brag in a hunting shotgun used at moving targets as opposed to a 700 yard varmint rifle. It is essentially meaningless except to marketing departments, who tend to find these matters wildly fascinating.
Browning Arms, as a generality, has far better than average fit and finish quality. Our Maxus was well-done, with one clear exception: the Browning “Inflex Recoil Pad.” It wasn’t ground properly, having pieces of its soft exterior coming off at the top of the heel area: it looked like an old retread tire starting to come apart. The pad itself was unevenly finished with a substandard buttstock to pad fit. A cosmetic issue for the most part, but it was an unexpected and unwanted feature to be sure. What we are finding is that many of the “branded and trademarked pads” vary widely throughout the line. “Inflex” is tagged on to Browning Cynergy, X-Bolt, and other models when describing their respective pads—but they are dramatically different from each other in durometers and textures. The Cynergy pad was firm and slick, this Maxus pad is very soft and a bit gummy. It’s a commonly overlooked item-- something to pay attention to before you buy, though one style versus the other remains more of a personal preference matter than anything else.
We like the big, bold, strong look of the Maxus receiver—bearing some semblance to the original Super-X Model One and the Model 12. The forearm of the Maxus is one of its best and most innovative features. It is slim, trim, and is latched to the barrel more like what you’d expect on an O/U as compared to the standard forearm nut / magazine screw cap on most autoloading shotguns. It is lightning-quick to remove and faster yet to replace—slide it on, and it locks itself firmly into place almost automatically. The Browning “Speed Load” feature that we have always loved is back this time as “Speed Load Plus.” The “Plus” part is speed unloading as well, a feature that goes back to the Browning B2000 autoloader. In addition to the speed load which offers consistent loading from beneath all the time, Browning has brought back their magazine cut-off making slapping in a goose load to replace your duck load a quick and convenient maneuver when desired.
The Maxus, as supplied, is the softest-shooting 12 gauge per pound we have ever tested. It is a softer shooter than the heavier SBE-II with no question whatsoever. It is also a softer shooter than a vintage 3 inch wood-stocked Browning Gold we shot along side our test pair with no question as well.
The Browning company stance, we are advised, is “1-1/8 oz. 1200 fps loads minimum.” Straight out of the box, it handles a variety of these genre loads with no problem. The Maxus also digested B & P and Winchester 1 oz. loads with no malfunctions. We also ran a box of Winchester white box seasonal 7/8 oz. loads through it with zero malfunctions. The Maxus ran the gamut from 7/8 oz. loads all the way up to jolting 2-1/4 oz. 3-1/2 in. lead loads right out of the box with no cleaning, no break in, no nothing—all without a single malfunction—a superlative achievement.
With speed loading and speed unloading, no other autoloading shotgun we are aware of is easier, faster, or more convenient to feed. The magazine cut-off is excellent as well, allowing for a rapid load change or for quickly emptying the chamber prior to crossing a fence or climbing out of a snowy ditch. Then, you are instantly back in action with no hassle. We felt this was just superlative shell-handling ability.
The latch type forearm is very easy to remove; eliminating the magazine screw on cap and its associated issues. The Maxus forearm is slimmer than that found on prior Golds—no, not as slim-feeling as the SBE-II but still a substantially trimmer forearm than on many autoloaders.
As mentioned, we found the trigger of the Maxus to be crisper than those found on prior Brownings, but no better than several other autoloaders: certainly no better than the SBE-II trigger that was also bit lighter. The new gas action on the Maxus is a dramatic improvement over the already very good Browning Gold system. Gone is the synthetic action sleeve: in its place is a one-piece alloy sleeve action valve assembly, with the gas valve itself equipped with comparatively huge exhaust ports. The magazine tube has ringed segmented sections along with an intentionally rough surface that apparently acts a scrubber—isolating the action from gas residue and particulate matter. It seems to work and work well. Heavy shooting formed an easily wiped-off crud ring at the front of the magazine tube, while most of the magazine tube and the action remained comparatively residue free. It is the cleanest, most user-friendly gas system we have ever seen.
Shotguns, based on specific application, usually become compromises in one way or another. The more time we spent with the Maxus, the more it became apparent how wondrously versatile it is. With an unloaded weight of just under 7 pounds, it is light enough for upland use. With its very soft, comfortable, low-recoil—it is quite suitable for both for high-volume clays use and high volume wingshooting as well. With a demonstrated payload functionality from 7/8 oz. all the way up to 2-1/4 oz., it is just as suitable for dove hunting as it is for turkey hunting and everything in between. We asked ourselves what this gun couldn’t do—and the only answer we came up with is “not much.” The Maxus is a shotgun you can have a lot of fun with on the skeet field or running a sporting clays course—and hit the dove field or head to the goose pit with no worries as well. It is an outstandingly good, versatile autoloader—with shell handling capability in payload spectrum that has not been exceeded, and ease of loading, reloading, and unloading that has yet to be equaled.
THE LESS THINGS CHANGE
As noted, neither gun was flawless. Benelli replaced the complete trigger guard on the Super Black Eagle. The Maxus had a very poorly ground, gummy recoil pad, a clear defect. The excessively heavy trigger curse of Browning autoloaders continues today, as well as the poorly-performing factory supplied Invector-Plus style chokes.
For 2017, prices have jumped on the upscale waterfowl models, more-so on the Maxus than the SBE3. The 2017 Browning Maxus Wicked Wing has an MSRP of $1869.99. The new Benelli Super Black Eagle 3 is at $1999.99 in camo, $1899.00 MSRP in basic black.
The 2017 SBE3 sheds a quarter pound, has easier loading, an improved bolt-locking system, and a stock redesign now called “ComfortTech 3” with a softer comb that Benelli calls “Combtech.” The new features on the Maxus are trivial by comparison and there is no evidence that the excessively heavy Browning triggers have been rectified, even today.
The first order of business is deciding whether you are ever going to use 3-1/2 inch shells. Most hunters and shooters do not, after trying that first box, but you may be different. If you do plan on a steady diet of 3-1/2 inch shells, then the heavier (8 lb.) and softer-shooting Remington Versa Max belongs on your short list. The Versa Max Mossy Oak Duck Blind Camo has a MSRP of $1664, while the Versa Max Waterfowl Pro is $1765. Value shoppers will note that you can currently get a Versa Max Mossy Oak Duck Blind Camo for $1300 or so street price and Versa Max Sportsman models are low as $775 in basic black.
you aren't hung up on the 3-1/2 inch chamber, then your options
rapidly increase. The Fabarm XLR5 Waterfowler is $1695 MSRP, the
Remington V3 is $895 MSRP in black, $995 MSRP in camo. Again,
Remington product is aggressively priced at the street level, for a
V3 Camo can be had right now for $750 or so. It is good to have choices.
Copyright 2009, 2017 by Randy Wakeman. All Rights Reserved.