The Good Autoloading Shotgun
The quest for the “good” autoloading shotgun used to be easier, back in the the day. It wasn't uncommon for your dove gun, pheasant gun, duck gun, and recreational clays gun to be the same gun: that was the case with my great-grandfather, grandfather, and even my father for much of his life. It wasn't that tough, for a 2-3/4 inch chamber was all that was needed or wanted, lead was shot at everything, and something like a Browning A-5 Light Twelve 12 gauge with a “modified” fixed choke did it all. In the specific case of my grandfather, it had to, for that was the only firearm he owned. Back then, no one much cared about wild shell variations, for it was the standard 3 dram equivalent 1-1/8 ounce 1200 fps “low brass” shell for dove, crow, rabbit, clay pigeons and the 1330 fps 1-1/4 “high brass” shell for everything else: pheasant, prairie chicken, wood ducks, mallards, even geese.
Only the more “advanced” or prosperous hunters bothered with 1-1/2 oz. “Baby Magnums” for geese or turkey. Few bothered with recoil pad selection, for most of the 2-3/4 inch A-5's had no recoil pads and they were not needed. Nor did most folks obsess over center beads, for a ventilated rib or solid rib (or any rib at all) was deemed completely unnecessary for hunting purposes. Sure, folks that didn't care to hunt much wanted ribs on their Model 12's for trapshooting, but there wasn't much debate about the “good autoloader” or the “good shotgun” back then. If you had a Browning A-5 Light Twelve in an autoloader or a Winchester Model 12 in a slide action, you were living pretty large.
Back in 2012, Phil from Field & Stream commented on the then newly-released Fabarm USA XLR5, saying, “I have not cleaned the gun yet (this is known as “testing” not “laziness”) and after about 600 rounds it started having trouble with my slow 11/16 ounce reloads. Otherwise it has cycled everything from pigeon loads down to subsonic 15/16 oz Winchester Feathers.” I laughed out load, for a slow 11/16 oz. load is a substandard 28 gauge load. Sometimes, we like to make things a lot more complicated than we need to.
In any case, we now have eternal debates about imaginary marketing terms, like shootability, pointability, felt recoil, how much a shotgun is supposed to weigh, and what our “hard-earned” money is. As best as I can determine, money only becomes hard-earned if it happens to be ours, or something like that. I'll try to run down the basic action types, the better offerings in those action types, and why you might wish to consider one over the other.
THE BROWNING ACTION
Now renamed the long-recoil action, it was the only autoloading shotgun action that worked for many decades. It was introduced as the Browning Automatic-Five, the only gun that Browning Arms Company (founded after the death of John M. Browning) sold for a time. The second-best selling autoloading shotgun in history behind the Remington 1100, the A-5 is no longer made, nor are any of its various clones and copies made in 12 gauge. It is a shame, but today the classic Auto-Five would be extremely costly to make and we don't like making any adjustments to autoloaders based on load intensity.
THE SHORT RECOIL ACTION
It may sound like a joke (the big-mouth bass has a larger mouth than the small-mouth bass), but that's what someone decided to call the short-recoil action of the Browning Double Automatic, Browning A500 / A500R, and the Beretta UGB25 Xcel. None of them were commercially successful although their actions aren't that similar, except to say that they are not long-recoil actions. There are no short-recoil shotguns of any consequence still in production or under development that I am aware of. Though I do have a soft spot for the Browning Double Auto, it isn't topical, mainstream, and has not been produced for many years.
THE GAS ACTION
The most popular autoloading shotgun in history, the Remington 1100 introduced in 1963, is still in production. The Remington 1100 still has a strong following, but its action does not compensate as well for load intensity as other actions, and the Remington is the last of the mainstream autoloaders to have a steel receiver. Aluminum alloy receivered guns can be made faster and cheaper, and there are more advanced gas autoloaders out there, at least the way some choose to look at it. The modern gas action significantly reduces felt recoil, and that alone makes gas action autoloaders the preferred choice for high volume shooting. Some claim recoil doesn't matter, but with all the miracle recoil pads, springy stock things, and “low-recoil” shotshells out there, to many people how soft a shotgun shoots remains very important.
The version of “how often to clean a shotgun” to some people is “when it stops working, not before” is still out there. While that approach can work for a good long while for the Browning A-5 and some kinematic / inertia guns, it isn't the best approach with most gas actions. Most are easy to clean, though, and it takes longer to describe it in many cases than to actually do it. Gas actions handle the widest variety of loads and for a given weight class of shotgun, have the lowest recoil.
THE INERTIA ACTION
The modern inertia action was invented by Bruno Civolani and is synonymous with the Benelli brand in many circles. It is the longest recoil action possible, in a sense, as the entire gun recoils and only part of the split bolt remains stationary. The floating part of the bolt compresses a spring and that's how the gun works. Functionally, they are simple, they are high recoil compared to gas guns, but as there is no gas system to clean, they need scant little maintenance. They function dirty, they function wet, and the only thing that tends to stop them up is running them dry. Now that the original Civolani patents have run, there is a glut of models on the market. Though the Benelli brand and associated Beretta family brands have tried, they haven't caught on as clays guns. The SKB brand launched a Turkish made dedicated clays inertia gun, the IS300 / RS300 target in late 2013 / 2014 that hasn't found much traction yet.
THE GOOD AUTOLOADING SHOTGUNS
One of the harshest-kicking gas actions, the original A400 Xplor Unico was a problem gun, following along with Beretta's “500 Years Unmarred By Progress.” Nevertheless, as this is written in 2016, most of the problems in the 12 gauge models have been eliminated although the sub-gauges aren't ready for prime-time yet. The A400 isn't near the gun the Beretta A390 was, though, and both the discontinued the A303 series and the discontinued A390 models remain Beretta's toughest, most durable autoloaders they have ever made. The A400, in 12 gauge, rates as a good gun today, the sub-gauges not so much just yet. For those that get worn out with the funny-colored receivers, Cole Gunsmithing can anodize your A400 receiver into a strikingly good looking gun.
The Franchi Affinity, an inertia gun, is assembled at the Benelli facility in Urbino, Italy. I've tested several and as far as I'm concerned, they are good, solid, reliable autoloaders with better than average triggers and a good warranty. The Italians can be a stubborn lot, though, and the goofy, nearly impossible to replace recoil pad (a hold-over from the Franchi I-12) is something that should be lost in favor of a conventionally shaped pad. If the factory pad is good enough for you, the Affinity is a good autoloader.
The Benelli brand has several solid inertia guns that are very well known. Benelli keeps trying to get rid of the felt recoil, with mixed results. I am impressed with their Comfortech stock system, but less so with their “Progressive Comfort” attempt found on the Ethos.
The Benelli Vinci is, at least according to Benelli, the first shotgun made entirely by automation with no human invention. The stock design on the 3 inch Vinci has smashed fingers with a safety some find difficult to reach. Rather than fix the 3 inch Vinci pistol grip, Benelli decided to make the change on the 3-1/2 inch Vinci but ignored the 3 inch model. After a blazing introduction, the Vinci sales have apparently fallen a bit flat, as evidenced by the various “Vinci Limited” models that have plummeted in street price to a thousand dollars or so. Nevertheless, although the stubborn Italians have refused to redesign the pistol grip and reposition the safety on the 3 inch Vinci, it rates as a good gun if you have no problem with its peculiarities and somewhat startling (or alarming) aesthetics.
By now, most have heard of (or experienced) the “Benelli Click” and the “Benelli Thumb.” Again, rather than fix these potential issues, Benelli again wants you to buy a brand new gun, the Ethos, which is too light and too expensive to have mainstream appeal.
The standard Benelli Montefeltro and M2 models are classic fare, and yes . . . they rate as good guns. Hardly “Simply Perfect” as Benelli likes to brag, not even close, but they are low-maintenance guns with a 10 year warranty that define the old Bruno Civolani action.
Browning / Winchester
Winchester has not existed as a gun manufacturer for some time, but since Herstal Group still boxes up Browning Silver and Browning Gold variants in Winchester boxes, we still like to think Winchester has something to do with making guns. They do not.
The factory triggers in Browning autoloaders are poor, as are the factory choke tubes for the most part. Still, those issues can be rectified if you find they are significant issues to you, and the Winchester SX3 and Browning Maxus are among the softest shooting gas autoloading actions, and they are good guns in general. The new A5 “kinematic action” in 12 gauge remains a hard gun to love.
Weatherby offers their SA-08 models, made by ATA in Turkey, and they excellent gas guns using the “two piston” idea that works quite well. Their walnut versions are great-looking guns, the 20 gauge weighs only 6 lbs., and they remain the only Turkish-made autoloaders I can recommend. They are good guns.
The Mossberg 930 12 gauge is a fairly heavy, bulky gun, but is priced right, is a soft shooter, and has a very good track record. It is great for the money and a good gun in general.
A 7-1/4 lb. gun, currently offered in composite-stocked versions (okay, plastic), but with an extremely low price (starting at $675 or so street), an excellent trigger, 2000 round recommended gas piston cleaning intervals, and the softest shooting shotgun in its weight bracket, edging out the Winchester SX3 and Browning Maxus, it is the best working man's autoloader Remington has ever created. It is a very good gun.
As far as I'm concerned, the Fabarm L4S is the best finished, best overall autoloader on the market. It is a 6-3/4 lb. walnut stocked gas gun, with the best customer service in the industry. In the United States, the L4S marks Fabarm USA first venture into the lightweight hunting gun, with the XLR5 Waterfowler coming out soon. It is beyond good, it is a great gun that looks great as well.
A CONCLUSION OF SORTS, KINDA-SORTA
If you are feeling a bit unflush, consider the Mossberg 930, the Remington V3, or the Weatherby SA-08: all 3 inch chambered gas guns.
For a value inertia gun, the Girsan MC312 (from Bud's Gun Shop) is worth a look at about $500. For the 10 year warranty and a stronger brand name, the Benelli M2 and Benelli Montefeltro are low-maintenance workhorses albeit at a high price level.
For super-soft shooting in a 7 – 7-1/4 pound 12 gauge, consider the bargain Remington V3 or the Winchester SX-3 / Browning Silver models, or the Maxus.
As far as my own preference in 12 gauge, it would be the Fabarm USA L4S as an upland / some clays gun, and Remington V3 as a plain-Jane looking but do everything type of autoloader. In 20 gauge, the 6 lb. Weatherby SA-08 and the 6 lb. Benelli M2 Comfortech are two guns that are tough, but not at all tough to carry.
Perhaps in 2017, the good autoloading shotgun will be invented yet again?
Copyright 2016 by Randy Wakeman. All Rights Reserved.