Are Autoloading Shotguns Too Gimmicky?

By Randy Wakeman

The answer, for the most part, can be considered self-evident and self-revealing. Certainly, manufacturers have the right (and the fiduciary responsibility) to present their products in the most appealing manner they can. This is even if a marketing department's version of appealing sometimes contains the appeal of a fiberglass clown head wobbling on a spring at a miniature golf course or disposable Bic lighter type cartoonish features.


The shame of it is only that it gets in the way of selecting a shotgun based on clear field advantage as opposed to mythical nonsense. Mythical nonsense is easy to spot. If a claim is not made with basis, if a manufacturer cannot support the claim with “shareable data,” you can bet it offers no tangible advantage.


The puff without substance isn't at all new, but it obfuscates what features and benefits are. How many times have you heard “less recoil,” “more reliable,” and “better patterns”? If you aren't sick of it by now, you should be. Pattern consistency is controlled by two primary factors: consistency and quality of the shell and of the choke. Everything else is secondary to non-existent. Back-boring does not work, porting gives you more loud than anything else, and recoil is contingent on gun weight, shotshell payload, and shotshell velocity more than anything else. So-called 3-1/2 inch “Super Magnum” shells often have no more payload than the 2-3/4 in. baby magnum shells of fifty years ago (some have less), yet still our eyes can sometimes grow wide with fascination that the unfolded length of a shotshell hull is of any great value. It simply is not.


You wouldn't think that the most important gun care product would be Armor-All or all-purpose plastic wax, but apparently we are headed in that direction. Several folks have asked me what possibly justifies a $1750 MSRP for profuse plastic, fake finishes, and techno-polymer? There is no easy answer to that. That the U.S. dollar is not particularly desirable these days is a factor, of course, and it costs money to relentlessly promote the lizard, pistol grip calculators, and fake oil finishes. How often have you heard that you get what you pay for? I suppose you do, if you pay for over-priced, over-gimmicked, over-advertised plasticy anodized things, then that's exactly what you can expect to get. I will confess to a bit of bemusement when sporting clays guns have the benefit of surviving thousands of hours of salt spray. When sporting clays courses are confined to cruise ships, it might be a more interesting feature.


There's little question that advertising works. If it didn't, few would bother with it and if campaign war-chests are any barometer of who gets elected, you can imagine that marketing battle-chests have a little something to do with what gets selected. I'm often asked if firearms are better today than older examples. Well, they certainly can be, some clearly are, but more often then we would like, they aren't on the basis of quality control and durability. The focus on the autoloading shotgun is not because I don't like or appreciate them, it is for exactly the opposite reason: some of the most enjoyable days I've ever had in the field have been with autoloading shotguns: just good ones. Regardless of a manufacturer's desire to make money, I think the consumer has a right for autoloaders to function as described and as promised. When the prices of mass-produced autoloaders soar past 1400, 1500, 1600 dollars, we do have a right to expect some significant level of longevity and build quality commensurate with our investments. Sometimes, it just isn't there. The shame is, it easily could be.


It isn't exclusively the fault of manufacturers, to be sure. Though we really know that one size does not fit all, we quickly cast aside what we already know and have always known. There is no such thing as an optimum versatile shotgun (or much of anything else) as versatility carried far enough invariably means compromise. The combination bicycle, rotor tiller, and snowmobile hasn't arrived yet and to a lesser degree, the horse for all courses and clothing for all seasons hasn't either. Extremely light and extremely soft shooting cannot come in the same box, yet we seem to fall for that on a perpetual basis. We also take comfort in imagining the mystical properties of steel and polymer to be somehow “more,” but they can never be more than what they are, regardless what names are assigned to the same materials.


There are several autoloaders today that, at least in the supplied form, aren't what they could be. I well understand that these are mass-produced guns that rely on sourced and jobbed out parts. It isn't rational to expect a gun manufacturer to make all of their own springs, pins, beads, and small parts. Nevertheless, the manufacturer that brands the box bears the responsibility for what it contains. Who else? Manufacturers need to carefully select their sourced parts, monitor their vendors, and employ quality controls. Too often, they don't. There are examples from many, many manufacturers.


How is it, for example, at this late date, that according to industry sources many thousands of defective shell lifters have been replaced, and continue to be replaced in the Beretta Urika / Urika 2 / 391 series? It is mind boggling. Yet, once properly set-up, the Beretta 391 remains the top volume clays autoloader on the market today, and one of the most desirable. Yet, despite its long history nagging quality control problems remain that frustrate the most devout 391 fans. It is all okay, unless it happens to you.

The same is already apparent with the A400 Unico, essentially phase two of the Beretta Extrema 2. Improperly hardened, soft main bolt pins have resulted in a stream of failures to cycle, breech bolts failing to go back into battery all due to a sourced part lacking quality control. Thank goodness for Cole Gunsmithing, with no Beretta service department to go along with the high-priced lizard price tag, the consumer all to often is on his own . . . unless he is savvy enough to get a problem gun off to Rich Cole.


The same is true of the latest from Remington, the Versa Max. A belated launch, a recall warning not to fire it, then finally guns that have no suspect hammers. I just got through inspecting a batch of Versa Max models. The roughness of the actions was astounding. About an eight pound gun, every single Versa Max had a trigger break that was heavier than the gun itself, ranging from 8.5 to 10 lbs. It is a ridiculous amount of slop and inattention to yet another overpriced plastic wonder. The shame of it is, the Versa Max action excellent. Perhaps working with alloy is a new adventure for Remington, but the rough actions, horrid triggers, overly wide forearms and ridiculously tiny bolt release buttons all suggest that someone just doesn't care or doesn't care nearly enough. There is something wrong when a $475 Mossberg 930 has better build quality, a smoother action, better controls and a dramatically better factory trigger than examples trying to be sold for three times the money. Mossberg must know something that the other guys don't?


A common conversation topic, “Are Guns Better Today?” Well, they certainly can be and sometimes are. Yet, aluminum does not have the durability of steel, and despite more developed raw materials, advanced manufacturing methods, and so forth, technology must be properly applied with equal attention to quality control for a design to come close to its potential. Setting aside proclivities of brand worship, some things are self-evident and not at all subjective. If the bead falls off halfway through the first box of shells, it the stock is poorly fitted or finished, if the action is rough, the bluing uneven, the trigger unacceptably heavy, the rib isn't straight, the center bead not centered on the rib, the wood not matching in color, grain, or tone, the choke tubes looking like they were made with a rat file, etc. These are not tainted observations, they are obvious quality problems. Recalls are all voluntary at the discretion of a manufacturer, no outside body. We should all wonder how increasingly pricey guns could possibly rise to the level of a recall. Moreover, with some guns that have thousands of examples of the same problem, we should also wonder why some manufacturers turn a blind eye to what is clearly a common defect.


Part of it resides with us, the consumer. Talk really is cheap and the only vote that counts is the vote we actually make with our wallet. It is up to us to vote for quality, value, performance, customer service and aesthetics. If we fail to do that, we aren't helping things. If we continually vote for gimmicks and "features," we can hardly be surprised when those things continue, for we have funded and perpetuated them. You can bet your fastest-cycling cryo technopolymer steelium back-bored triple-ported self-cleaning bottom dollar on that one.

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Copyright 2011, 2013 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.