Classic Review: Beretta A303 Twelve Gauge Autoloader
A well-centered pattern at 53 yards with a .025 in. constriction Trulock Extended Choke Tube and a B & P F2 Legend 1-1/8 oz. #7-1/2 shotshell.
If there is such a thing as an all-round shotgun, the Beretta 303 qualifies. The last of the 300 series autoloaders to have wide distribution, the follow-up 304 is almost never heard of. The 304's release coincided with the 390 series, and few if any made it to the United States.
The tested example is a three-inch chambered 26 inch Mobil-choked model, the Beretta date code (AS) indicating it was manufactured in 1987, proofed with an 18.3mm bore corresponding to just over .720 inches. The gun weighs 7.25 lbs. and has a very good field trigger, breaking right at 4.25 lbs. The ventilated rib on this model is a bit wider than the spindly "6 x 6" ribs on some more recent Beretta's, at 7mm.
Despite its more traditional gas action with no secondary gas bleed, this 303 had no trouble cycling 1 oz. loads on up, having a moderate bolt speed and a moderate, ideal ejection distance of 5-6 feet with these loads. The same was the case with B&P F2 Legend 1-1/8 oz. shells. The 303 has a magazine cut-off, integral with the forearm as opposed to earlier models that had a lever on the right side of the receiver making for a cleaner appearance in this treatment. The 303 is shim adjustable for drop (45 - 65mm), but not for cast and drop as some of the more recent shotgun releases.
This 303 shot essentially to point of aim, with the patterns well-centered if a couple of inches high, both typical and often desirable for hunting guns. Recoil, despite the lack of a recoil pad (the 303 is finished off with a plastic butt plate) can only be considered mild.
There is some magic in the 303, both for what it is and for what it is not. You might have noticed more and more plastic parts on shotguns and complicated forearm nuts and so forth. Not so with the 303, as the gas system is all steel or stainless steel-- no technopolymers used. The 303 exhibits a slightly forward weight bias, as is common with this genre of alloy-receiver autoloader. The receiver is clean and uncluttered without gratuitous cheap engraving attempts, the trigger guard is still alloy, not plastic, and is slightly enlarged from the previous 302 model for gloved use. The 303 still has a pistol grip cap; it is little detail features like this that are often left off more recent models. Its walnut stock is the real deal, without any fake grain enhancement dips or films. All of this makes for a good, honest, simple autoloader in both form and function.
Armed with a couple of pipefitter's brushes, scrubbing out the gas cylinder and piston takes only a minute or two. Cleaning the gas piston itself in Slip 2000 finishes the task. A drop of two of Montana X-Treme gun oil and you're set. Like a few other things, once it becomes habit it takes longer to describe it than to actually do it.
In my experience, Beretta 303 12 gauges do shoot just a tad high, making them a good choice for skeet, flushing game, just about everything out of the box. I like flat shooting guns for trap, but if you want a more of your pattern above POI at a particular distance, a little experimentation with shims so you see a bit of rib will likely get you there. As 300 series barrels are plentiful and reasonable, you can use the tested configuration for skeet and upland, for example, but pop on a 28 or 30 inch barrel for sporting clays or trap if that is your preference. The T & S AL-2 hull catcher works well with the 303 for trap, so you won't be slinging hulls if you opt for peppier, gassier loads.
Whether you are using a Beretta barrel as supplied, or pick up a B-80 Invector screw-choked barrel, both are chrome-lined for a little extra corrosion resistance and a little easier clean-up. The barrels are approved for steel and other harder no-tox materials, there are all kinds of aftermarket chokes readily available, so use for waterfowling or in other no-tox areas merit no great concern. Rifle-sighted factory 22 inch smoothbore slug barrels are also available, so for short-range deer hunting or for part of a fast-handling moderate recoil home defense plan, the 303 might fit in there for you as well with a thirty-second barrel change. There isn't much to consider as far as long term maintenance; perhaps a mainspring change every eight thousand rounds or so would be the only thing that you might consider if bolt speed and resultant ejection distance tells you your 303 is being worked a bit harder after extended use. A deep-well 19mm socket makes buttstock removal an easy event.
With some of the more recent models hovering at the 7 lb. carry weight or just below, the 303 at a quarter pound heavier or so isn't the lightest on the market. It is certainly a lot more fun to walk with than a portly 1100 or a steel-frame Citori, but there are lighter guns. We all have our own views on what a quarter pound means at the end of the day. The Beretta 303 is out there in 20 gauge as well, though, with one example I have here shaving off a full pound off from its bigger brother to 6-1/4 pounds on the nose. So, there are always more options.
There never will be a perfect all-round shotgun, as everyone's individual ideas of all-around can be wildly divergent. The 303 has better build quality than most autoloaders, more steel and alloy and far less plastic. The 303 out of the box triggers are far better than most, as a generality, and they can be cleaned up rather easily if you want more of a race-game trigger. They are simple in design and function, don't break, and are as versatile as you care to make them. For all the reasons cited here, the Beretta 303, though no longer in production, snags my vote as the all-around 12 gauge autoloader.
Copyright 2010 by Randy Wakeman. All Rights Reserved.