Autoloading Shotgun Actions: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
There are several autoloading shotgun actions in common use: long recoil, as embodied by the John Moses Browning Automatic-Five, short recoil, the Bruno Civolani action of 1967 renamed “inertial” and the gas-operated action. Beyond that, there are several variations, particularly in the gas-operated segment, for gas actions are not all identical.
The shotgun that changed the world and served in two World Wars, the Korean Conflict and Vietnam was the original Browning Automatic-Five (also Remington Model 11). At one time a reliable autoloading shotgun was considered to be impossible, as shotshell quality from brand to brand varied so much at the time. John Browning began work on the Automatic-Five in 1898 and patented his design in 1900.
John Browning also was awarded a patent the same year for his long-recoil rifle with a rotating bolt head. This rifle was later introduced by Remington as the Model 8 Autoloading Centerfire Rifle, produced from 1906-1936. A later variation became the Remington Model 81 Woodmaster. The Model 81 was produced from 1936-1950.
The short recoil idea came from Hiram Maxim and was first patented in 1883. It was used in the Maxim machine gun, later called the Vickers machine gun. Although the barrel moving a small amount before unlocking from the breech block is extremely popular in pistols (1911, Hi-Power, Glock, etc.) it was never a huge success as applied to autoloading shotguns. The Browning Double Automatic (designed by Val Browning) and the later Browning A500 / A500R are examples of the type.
The fixed breech inertia design was introduced in the Sjögren shotgun in 1908. It wasn't until much later, in 1967, that the far more elegant Bruno Civolani version was designed. After being offered to and rejected by several manufacturers, the newly formed division of the Benelli Brothers motorcycle company picked it up.
In 1908, Søren H. Bang invented a gas-operated rifle that became the M1922 gas-operated Bang Rifle. Gas-operated shotguns have pistons that themselves produce recoil; in this case, reverse thrust or reverse recoil. To the extent that you have mass propelled in the opposite direction of the gun, you have less recoil that you feel against your shoulder.
It wasn't until 1963, with the introduction of the Remington 1100, that gas-operated shotguns hit their stride. An instant smash hit, the Remington 1100 became the best selling autoloader of all time, with over 4 million sold. It surpassed the Automatic-Five sales numbers, previously thought to be untouchable. The most reliable autoloading shotgun in history is a twenty gauge Model 1100. In 1978, a Remington 1100 LT-20 fired over 24,000 rounds with no cleaning, no malfunction, or parts breakage. The gas-operated shotgun went from experimental to best-seller in a few short years. The 1100's graceful lines, streamlined receiver, full length vent rib and soft recoil only enhanced its sales.
Gas-operated autoloading shotguns were dominant in sales by the late 1960's and remain so today. However, changes were coming, although it was not obvious in 1963. Aluminum alloy receivers were considered second-rate by most shooters in the 1960's. Beretta and Benelli were largely unknown in the USA. Beretta had no twenty gauge autoloader until 1971 and offered only hunting guns until 1985, when the A303 was introduced. The A303 used an economical aluminum alloy receiver, was reliable, had a buttstock with replaceable shims for drop and was available with screw chokes.
Remington resisted alloy receivers and was the last major brand to succumb to screw chokes. (For good reason, since with a few exceptions they don't pattern as well as fixed chokes. -Editor) RemChoke tubes didn't became standard until 1987.
1985 was a very big year for the Beretta brand, for 1985 was also the year the M9 pistol contract was adopted by the U.S. Military. The spaghetti gun suddenly became patriotically cool.
In 1999, ARDEC awarded the contract for the M1014 shotgun, Benelli's first gas gun, to H&K. One year later, Beretta acquired Benelli. The story of the M4 (A.R.G.O.) gas action doesn't stop there, for the core design of the Remington Versa Max is a riff on the A.R.G.O. action.
Although the Browning B-80 gas gun was manufactured by Beretta for Browning when Browning had an interest in Beretta, that relationship was dissolved. The subsequent Browning Gold / Silver / Maxus line has become the most successful Browning autoloader line since the original Automatic-Five.
WHAT IS THE BEST AUTOLOADING ACTION?
That is a question you've probably heard more than forty-seven times. Action alone does not define a shotgun, for a lot depends on how well it is done and for what it is used.
The least successful action in autoloading shotguns is the short recoil action. It was done very well in Val Browning's Double Auto and very poorly in the “total recall” Browning A500. The deluxe Val Browning Double Auto was expensive, more expensive than the Automatic-Five in most models, with hand checkered stocks and hand engraved receivers. The action was essentially lubed for life. While it had speed loading and speed unloading, an ambidextrous safety and excellent triggers, it was chambered for 2-3/4" shells only with a two shot magazine and Americans weren't willing to settle for two shots when they traditionally had five in their autoloaders.
In many ways, a case can be made for the original Automatic-Five as being the best. Normal maintenance is low, there is no gas fouling and the reliability of the mechanism is well proven. Properly set-up, the massive forearm spring combined with the friction break makes it soft shooting. In my own testing, using over a dozen 20 gauge autoloaders with the heaviest 20 gauge load on the market, the 1-1/2 ounce Federal Heavyweight turkey load, the A-5 Magnum 20 was the softest shooting shotgun. Nothing else came close. This was despite the fact that my A-5 did not have a recoil pad.
Decisionally challenged Americans didn't like setting the friction array properly and some never could figure it out. Some didn't bother to float the forearm or tighten the forearm nut properly. If you ignore the friction array, you might have a brutal kicker; ignore proper forearm set-up and a cracked forearm may be the result. Receiver strength is important in an A-5, as the barrel is machined to run in a precisely machined channel. Profitably manufacturing an A-5 wasn't easy, although production at Miroku (began in 1975) managed to do just that. In 1988, the writing was on the wall for the A-5 with the introduction of the Mossberg 3-1/2" chambered Ulti-Mag.
What was considered by some to be the greatest waterfowl gun ever made had an insurmountable problem: there was no easy way to make a long-action 3-1/2" gun, requiring barrel movement of 3-1/2", a new receiver with longer channels, a bigger ejection port, a new shell elevator system, a new friction array and so forth. The already costly to produce A-5 could not easily be made from aluminum and plastic, either. The steel trigger plate assembly was strong, so strong that it was the trigger plate and the upper tang that attached the receiver to the buttstock with a single bolt. John Browning's greatest achievement was ill-suited to the use of techno polymer, user stock adjustments and it required user friction brake adjustments to accommodate the modern spectrum of loads. Although production of the A-5 continued for a decade after the introduction of the 3-1/2" shell, it became clear that consumers did not want to adjust their guns for the loads they were using. (Many shooters also disliked the A-5's "double shuffle" recoil, square back receiver, lack of a full length ventilated rib, excessive drop at comb and rather angular lines. -Editor)
Inertia / Civiolani Action
The Bruno Civolani action was slow to catch on, in part because of H&K distribution in the United States. As the story goes, it was a cheap to make and very profitable for the Benelli Brothers. However, the Benelli motorcycle business was floundering and Benelli Armi began selling off to Beretta. Don Zutz, among others, sung its praises, but Benelli shotguns were not widely seen until Beretta bought the remaining shares of Benelli stock in 2000 and melded it into the Beretta USA system. The year 2000 was the end of Benelli as an independent firearms company, for Beretta insisted that they (Beretta) supply all the barrels to the Benelli division when they took control.
The action itself fires like a fixed breech gun and needs rearward movement of the gun to work. A harsh recoiling action compared to the Browning A-5 and Remington 1100, the recoil was exaggerated by the comparative light weight of the Civolani action. The design also requires a very long receiver compared to most autoloaders, due to its split bolt. On the plus side, it was comparatively cheap to make, having very few parts, did not need a strong (steel) receiver, was easily lengthened to accommodate 3-1/2" shells and user stock adjustments (shims) for drop and cast were easy to employ. It wasn't good at shooting light target loads and it kicked hard, but it needed no action adjustments and while it won't work without lubricant, it shoots dirty supremely well. With no gas system to clean, no friction brake adjustments, no barrel changes or gas piston changes, it eventually became a hit, particularly in “Super Black Eagle” configuration.
The Civolani action has its quirks, the “Benelli click” and the “Benelli thumb” being two of the most common gripes, though the Benelli thumb is more of an issue with recent 20 gauge models than with the 12's. As a clays gun, it never has gained great traction, for the heavier you make the gun, the less rearward movement and the less reliable it becomes with lighter loads. Today, one of my favorite pheasant-chasers is an M2 twenty gauge and my 3" Vinci also gets regular use.
Dominating the market since Remington 1100 was introduced in 1963, the gas autoloader further pulled ahead with the “shoots all shells” Beretta 390 of 1994, the equally versatile Browning “Activ Valve” of 1994 and from an unlikely source (Benelli) in the M4 A.R.G.O. action of 1998. While Benelli ignored hunting applications in the civilian version of the M1014, Remington did not. The core of the 3" A.R.G.O. inspired the 3-1/2" Remington Versa Max, which has become a successful model. This is an extension of the M4 action with a port system that, while far from doing any compensating for 2-3/4" loads, does exactly that for 3" and 3-1/2" shells. The Versa Max action was designed by Gian Mario Molinari of Italy, filed for patent on May 24, 2007, claiming priority over the Benelli patent filed a year earlier. On November 29, 2011, it was awarded to Remington.
There have been other notable developments, such as the Fabarm Pulse Piston in their autoloaders, along with a rework of the Activ Valve system in “Peggy,” the code name for what is now the Browning Maxus. The Weatherby SA-08 dual piston approach is another good one. While one piston doesn't do it all, you don't need to buy a new barrel for three inch shells and you don't do adjustments. You just pop in the appropriate (included) piston for the loads you want to use.
The “best” autoloading shotgun action does not exist. The best action or actions for you and your unique set of requirements may. That's the fun, the challenge and the journey: not discovering what is right, but rather finding what is right for you.
Copyright 2014 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.