SuperAuto Shootout: Benelli SBE II vs. Browning Maxus (Revisited in 2017)
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 Browning Maxus. These were (and are) plastic stocked autoloaders, with the Benelli as reviewed carrying a 2009 MSRP of over $1700!
Benelli Super Black Eagle II, 26 inch barrel (#10107, synthetic stock w/Max-4 HD Camo, 2009 MSRP $1759)
The Benelli SBE II out of the box weighed in at 7.25 pounds, with a trigger breaking at 5.3 pounds. Although the tested version has a MSRP of $1759, Benelli offers a black synthetic version at $1649, and a walnut model at $1549 (2009 MSRP).
Previously, we carped a bit about the clumsy plastic case the Benelli Vinci came in. We think it is only fair to point up that the SBE-II'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 cardboard box in which the Maxus is supplied. Benelli deserves a bit of credit for this.
We noticed several things about the SBE II right away. Cleaning and lubrication of the bolt and linkage is easily accomplished. Convenient access to the trigger group and ease of take-down and reassembly is something we immediately appreciated, as autoloading shotguns are far more maintenance intensive than other types.
We felt the trigger was light enough for a 3-1/2 inch magnum autoloader of this type, but it was mushy with excessive take-up. The safety, located at the rear of the trigger guard, was very stiff. Normally depressed with the forefinger, it was also extremely noisy when pushed off.
The safety is bad enough to be called defective. The SBE II is a 7.25 pound gun with a 5.3 pound trigger and a 50 pound safety. Some of our shooters couldn't knock it off 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. It was that bad. We contacted Benelli about the issue and 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, easy to use and required 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 it in our test gun. Only one pin secures the trigger group, so it is amazingly quick and easy to remove and replace.
Our replacement assembly had a proper safety, easy to get off and 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. Recoil was more than on a gas-operated gun, but still quite manageable. For a high volume clays gun we would likely look elsewhere, but that isn't the intended purpose of the SBE.
One thing that continues to baffle 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 and just gets in the way.
In the case of the SBE, the red bar front sight at the muzzle is fairly small, a great deal smaller than found on the Benelli SuperNova recently reviewed and also a bit smaller than the bar found on the Vinci. In this case, it presented us with an annoying "silver on red" sight picture, the middle bead obliterating most of the front sight. We swing and point our shotguns: the sights are meaningless at best, annoying and distracting at worst.
The Super Black Eagle is a well balanced, responsive autoloader. The forearm is easy to grasp and relatively slim and trim. We liked it a great deal. It makes many other semi-auto forearms seem like trying to grab a telephone pole. It is one thing to enjoy the feel of walnut, but quite another when you are forced to hug the entire tree.
The SBE II also proved to be completely reliable, even with 1 ounce loads. While the official Benelli line is 1200 fps, 1-1/8 ounce loads at a minimum, many SBEs can handle lighter loads with no hiccups and that was the case with our test gun. The SBE-II's ability to cycle a wide range of loads was better than promised by Benelli.
Benelli claims, "the Benelli Crio System improves patterns by as much as 13.2% and yields denser, more uniform shot patterns." However, Benelli was unable to support this assertion with any data.
By "Crio System," Benelli is referring to the "mysterious things that happen to metal" when it is frozen to 300 degrees below zero F. The "system" means both the barrel and the choke are given the Benelli's version of the deep freeze.
Browning Maxus Stalker, 28 inch barrel (Black synthetic stock, 2009 MSRP $1379)
Browning's Maxus was announced in October / November of 2008. We had the opportunity to shoot some prototypes at the January 2009 SHOT Show in Orlando, but production models were slow to appear.
The initial offerings of Browning's new Maxus autoloader were the matte stalker style we tested and a Mossy Oak Duck Blind version for $1499 (2009 MSRP). It is essentially the same presentation as the SBE II: go with basic matte synthetic, or add roughly $100 for camo.
Browning has made several claims about the Maxus and touted several new features. A few of the features are not 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, especially one directed to waterfowl, where three shots is the Federal limit.
Stock shim adjustments for drop are nice to have and were a bit more remarkable when they appeared twenty years ago. Now, they have become so prevalent that it seems more like a glaring oversight when new autoloaders fail to provide this feature.
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 do note that the Maxus has adjustable length of pull using the included butt stock spacers. These are not an optional accessory, but supplied with the gun.
We like the big, bold, strong look of the Maxus receiver, which bears some semblance to the original Winchester Super-X Model One and the Model 12. Browning has promised not just cosmetics, but a new gas action and trigger system. 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 with one model.
Though we originally had hoped to get our hands on a 26 inch barreled Maxus, the 28 inch barrel version was the first to become available. This Maxus delivered on its promise of being a lightweight gun, weighing in at 6 pounds, 15 ounces (exactly as cataloged, a rarity). It is actually lighter than the SBE-II by a quarter of a pound.
Browning has attempted to make a bit of hay in touting the new Maxus trigger. Browning says, "the new Lightning Trigger System is the finest ever offered in an autoloading shotgun." We do not find that to be true. Our Maxus trigger broke at six pounds. It is noticeably heavier than the Benelli trigger and similar to the 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 crisp break. The crispness of the trigger and the wide trigger blade made it seem lighter than it really is. It is an acceptable hunting trigger, but hardly the finest ever offered.
We do feel Browning has substantially upgraded the Maxus over its previous autoloaders' triggers. Browning also touts the lock time of their new trigger system. This is essentially meaningless, unless you are accustomed to hunting with a flintlock waterfowl gun. However, marketing departments tend to find these matters wildly fascinating.
Browning Arms, in general, has far better than average fit and finish quality. Our Maxus was well done, with the exception of the Inflex recoil pad. This wasn't ground properly, having pieces of its soft exterior coming off at the top of the heel area. It looked like an old tire retread starting to come apart. The pad itself was unevenly fit and finished.
We are finding many of the branded and trademarked pads vary widely throughout the line. Inflex pads are also supplied on Browning Cynergy shotguns and X-Bolt rifles, but they are dramatically different from each other in durometers and textures. This Maxus pad is soft and a bit gummy to prevent shoulder slippage.
The forearm of the Maxus is one of its better and most innovative features, although it slants down, away from the line of the barrel, for no apparent reason. It is slim, trim and latched to the barrel more like what you would expect on an O/U, instead of the typical forearm nut / magazine screw cap found on most autoloading shotguns. It is lightning quick to remove and faster yet to replace. Just slide it on and it locks itself firmly into place almost automatically.
The Maxus forearm is slimmer than that found on prior Golds. It is not as slender as the SBE-II, but it is a substantially trimmer forearm than found on many autoloaders.
The Browning Speed Load feature that we have always loved is back this time as Speed Load Plus. The Plus part is speed unloading, a feature that goes back to the Browning B2000 autoloader. In addition to the speed load, which offers consistent loading from beneath, Browning has brought back their magazine cut-off, making slapping in a goose load to replace your duck load a quick and convenient maneuver.
The Maxus is the softest shooting 12 gauge, per pound, we have ever tested. It is, without question, a softer shooter than the heavier SBE-II. It is also a softer shooter than a vintage, three inch, wood-stocked Browning Gold we shot along side our test pair.
The Browning company stance, we are advised, is 1-1/8 ounce, 1200 fps loads minimum. Straight out of the box, it handled a variety of these loads with no problem. The Maxus also digested one ounce field loads with no malfunctions. We even ran a box of Winchester white box 7/8 ounce loads through it with zero malfunctions.
The Maxus ran the gamut from 7/8 ounce loads all the way up to jolting 2-1/4 ounce, 3-1/2 inch lead loads right out of the box, with no cleaning or break-in. This was without a single malfunction, a superlative achievement for an autoloading shotgun.
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, allowing for a rapid load change or for quickly emptying the chamber prior to crossing a fence or climbing out of a snowy ditch. Afterward, you are instantly back in action with no hassle. We felt this was superior shell handling ability.
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 yet seen.
Shotguns, based on specific application, are necessarily compromises in one way or another. The more time we spent with the Maxus, the more it became apparent how versatile it is. With an unloaded weight of just under seven pounds, it is light enough for upland use. Due to its very soft recoil it is suitable for both high-volume clays use and high volume wing shooting. With a demonstrated payload functionality from 7/8 ounce all the way up to 2-1/4 ounces, it is just as suitable for dove hunting as it is for turkey hunting.
We asked ourselves what this gun could not do and the answer we came up with is "not much." It is an outstanding, versatile autoloader with excellent shell handling capability and a payload spectrum that has not been exceeded.
As noted, neither gun was flawless. Benelli replaced the complete trigger guard on the Super Black Eagle. The Maxus came with a poorly ground, gummy recoil pad, a clear defect. The excessively heavy trigger curse of Browning autoloaders continues today, as well as the inferior Invector-Plus style chokes.
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. It is certainly no better than the SBE-II trigger, which was also bit lighter.
Browning says that their over-bored barrels reduce friction and that, "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, longer Vector Pro forcing cone has a "long, gradual taper that minimizes shot deformation and maximizes pattern uniformity, consistency and density." Like Benelli's Ciro claim, Browning was unable to provide any data that substantiates this claim.
While we have no intention of trying to prove or disprove what these two manufacturers have been unable to demonstrate themselves, we did devise a simple and limited patterning 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 shooting patterns at 40 yards. The question that we posed to ourselves was would the Benelli give better patterns with its factory Full choke with this specific shell, or would the Browning give better patterns with its factory Full choke tube?
We received our answer quickly and it was dramatic. The Benelli SBE-II gave tighter, more even patterns with its factory full choke tube than the Browning Maxus did with its factory full choke tube.
This proves nothing in absolute terms, 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 and uniformity 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 give this shotgun an A grade. The SBE-II did everything we wanted it to do and everything Benelli promises it to do.
In a head to head comparison we necessarily must consider things we feel are of real world benefit. 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 that many waterfowlers love.
Things suffer by 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 points to the Benelli's easier to clean, hard-chrome lined barrel. (On the other hand, while neither gun is attractive, the hard kicking Benelli's trapezoidal trigger guard, weird butt stock chevrons and black comb make it the ugly duckling of this comparison and it listed for a cool $380 more in 2009. -Editor.)
For us, the loading and unloading process of the SBE-II did not compare favorably to the Maxus' far superior shell handling prowess. For a waterfowl shotgun that will fire a lot of heavy loads, the softer kick of the Maxus is particularly important. Overall, this put the SBE-II clearly behind the Maxus.
Jump forward to 2017
For 2017, prices have jumped on the upscale waterfowl models, more so on the Maxus than the SBE3, although the Benelli remains more expensive than the Browning. The 2017 Browning Maxus Wicked Wing has an MSRP of $1869.99. The new 2017 Benelli Super Black Eagle 3 is $1999.99 in camo and $1899.00 MSRP in basic black synthetic.
The 2017 SBE3 sheds a quarter pound of weight, has easier loading, an improved bolt-locking system and a stock redesign now called "ComfortTech 3." This includes a softer comb that Benelli calls "Combtech." The new features on the Browning Maxus are trivial by comparison and there is no evidence that the excessively heavy Browning triggers have been rectified.
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 the first box, but you may be different. If you do plan on a steady diet of 3-1/2 inch shells, then the heavier (eight pound) and softer-shooting Remington Versa Max belongs on your short list.
The Versa Max Mossy Oak Duck Blind Camo has a 2017 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 a 2017 discount retail price around $1300 and Versa Max Sportsman models are low as $775 in basic black.
If you are not hung up on a 3-1/2 inch chamber, your options increase. The Fabarm XLR5 Waterfowler is $1695 (2017 MSRP), the Remington V3 is $895 2017 MSRP in black and $995 in camo. Remington guns are aggressively priced at the street level, for a V3 Camo can be had right now (Feb. 2017) for $750 or so. It is good to have choices!
Copyright 2017 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.