Did God Create Autoloading Shotguns So They Could Jam?

By Randy Wakeman


My Remchester jams. My Benelli jams. My Berettas jam, in fact they jam with five hundred years of passion for jamming. My A-5's jam, my Xtrema extremely jams, my 1100 was named as that is the average number of jams the owner can expect. There's more jam in autoloaders than you can find at the Strawberry Festival. Every thing I touch jams. Now, I'm afraid to go to the bathroom.

You wouldn't think that the Almighty has anything directly to do with autoloaders jamming, but apparently some folks must. His name is regularly, loudly invoked when autoloaders jam. If you believe part of what you hear, proper jamming is an important design criteria of the autoloading shotgun. No autoloader, properly designed, should function without jamming. We tend to be far too slothful, lazy, and clumsy to be able to learn how to pump. So, autoloaders are a very good option, as now we can blame jamming on something else. Should we?

Part of the problem resides with good old Fred. Fred likes to tell his buddies that his autoloader has never jammed in fifty years. It never jams. What is more remarkable is that it has never been cleaned. Fred just scrapes away enough mud and rust every one in a while to be able to load the thing. Of course, as some of Fred's friends like to point out, Fred's gun, far from never jamming in fifty years, was a horrific jam-o-matic just last week. “Didn't count,” says Fred. “That wasn't a jam, it was just bad ammo.” Fred, like a lot of shooters, has a highly selective memory. It all depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is.

Some of it goes back the favorite saying of my old friend Bob Vondersaar, “We have to be smarter than the thing we are operating.” Sometimes, we aren't. It doesn't help a great deal when we claim to know a lot about shotguns. Lots of people claim to know a lot of things about shotguns, of course. “This new gun jams, darn it! It jams and jams. I've been around shotguns all my life, I really know shotguns. Darn thing jams, I think I'll sue!” We've all heard that type of babble before. When the question comes up how anyone that claims to be so very intimately familiar with autoloading shotguns could possibly buy a shotgun that jams, the answer is more often the sound of one hand clapping accompanied by a deer in the headlight expression. I guess not everyone knows quite as much about shotguns as they like to think?

Part of the problem is the ad-brags of manufacturers, of course. Though no one with more brains than an amoeba would believe that ad-copy is completely genuine, ads do get blamed for our own ignorance. You really don't have to be excessively blessed in the common-sense department to understand that everything that “tastes great” is not less filling and there is no such thing as “the most reliable or dependable” autoloader. The simple reason for this is that all autoloaders rely on the performance of a shotshell to function. A pump shotgun doesn't, so no autoloader can be truly as reliable as a slide-action.

Few manufacturers are guilty of complete, unvarnished truth in advertising. However, we don't need more than a third-grade education to understand this. There are plenty of examples, but I'll use Beretta--hardly unknown in shotgun land. Let's take a look at what the current Beretta brochure says about their Urika 391: “THE BERETTA GAS SYSTEM IS TWICE AS FAST AS ANY OTHER OPERATING SYSTEM.” Let's check out what Beretta says about their Xtrema II with a completely different gas action from the Urika: “fastest cycling, softest shooting 12GA in the world!” Alright, how about the Beretta A400 Unico: “The Xplor Unico, thanks to the new Beretta functioning system, is the fastest shotgun in the world.”

What does Benelli say about their Super Black Eagle II? “The Super Black Eagle II is the quickest shooting and most reliable shotgun ever.” How about the Benelli Vinci? “Benelli presents the fastest-shooting, softest-kicking, most reliable lightweight 12-gauge shotgun in the world.” How about the Benelli SuperSport and Sport II? “These two Benelli shotguns are truly “speed guns.” The SuperSport’s ComforTech™ recoil-dampening system allows the shooter to recover for the critical second shot up to 69% faster than with other comparable shotguns!” Let's not ignore the Browning Maxus, for Browning says it is “The Most Reliable, Softest Shooting Autoloader Ever!” If you put your faith in advertising, most all autoloading shotguns are reliable and fast. More often then not, the advertising is reliably half-fast.

After all this, you might be getting the idea that I have an aversion to autoloading shotguns? Nothing could be further from the truth; autoloaders are my favorite and most-used shotguns. They are a lot more fun than any other action type, in my opinion. What can we do to avoid disappointment? There are quite a few things, actually.

When all else fails, read the manual. Yes, it is hardly a spy novel, but we should become familiar with the operation of a shotgun before we use it. We can also get a good idea of how an individual shotgun works before we buy it, by going through the manual. If we bothered to read manuals, we would be more inclined to choose shotguns better suited to our type of use. We wouldn't be so silly as to buy an A-5 Mag with the intent of shooting cheap target loads; that is the opposite of what an A-5 Mag was designed for. Sure, we can have at it with home gunsmithing attempts and can try to make it do things it was never designed for, some with “results” and some resulting in destroying a perfectly good shotgun. It is hardly the manufacturers fault when we ignore the design parameters of a shotgun.

If we haven't learned how to clean and lube an autoloading shotgun, we should. Firearms are generally not shipped with shooting lubricants, they are shipped with oils or grease designed to protect the gun in the box before it is used. The reason is pretty simple, no one likes rusty guns out of the box, so manufacturers use protectants, not lubes, when they box up a gun. Remove gummy protectants before we start our quest for reliability. Clean and dry is the way to start in most cases, using appropriate lubes only where indicated. This means the type of gun lubrication that does not cake, build up, or sludge up. Montana Extreme Gun Oil is very good, as is the old standby Breakfree CLP. Any metal on metal part needs a light film of oil that does not build-up, sludge up, dry out or harden to be at its best.

We also have to do what many manufacturers state in their manuals: use shotshells with enough payload and velocity to properly work the action. Just common sense. That means managed recoil loads can be a waste of time for autoloaders.

What about reloads? Yes, I reload, but I'd never shoot your reloads and no manufacturer has developed their shotguns with my reloads, or with yours. Small wonder that once you reload, it is our job to produce consistent, appropriate shells and the responsibility of no one else. There are reloads in use around here that don't look much like shotshells at all. You can mash them into the holes of an O/U and they will likely go bang, but we need something a wee bit better than that if we want autoloader reliability.

Regardless of ad-copy or preconceived notions, autoloading shotguns require breaking-in. There is a natural, normal burnishing of parts that work in conjunction with each other that happens only as the shotgun is used. Breechblocks and other reciprocating parts can only lose some of their individuality when they are cycles with their mating parts. For a shotgun not to improve with use normally means excessive slop and play in the original action. Rails on Benelli shotguns get a bit smoother, as do receiver raceways on A-5's. So do gas operated actions. Just as rings and valves on automobiles wear in, so do autoloading shotgun actions.

There is no such thing as the world's most reliable autoloader. If we didn't ask such a ridiculous question, than perhaps the shotgun manufacturers would not have to scream lies about their products to keep us happy. Who do we think wants an unreliable, undependable shotgun, anyway?

To get an honest answer in our quest for reliability, we should ask an honest question in the first place. We often do not mean “reliability,” we actually mean reliability with a gun we don't clean or maintain, the cheapest promo ammo we can find and with junky reloads. We also might mean reliably shooting ammunition the gun wasn't designed to work with. It is an odd concept. We wouldn't expect an automobile to be reliable with vodka in the gas tank or with twenty year old motor oil, but we sometimes expect firearms to somehow do better, except that some of the oil inside our actions may be quite a bit older than twenty years.

If we take an autoloader that the manufacturer states needs 1-1/8 ounce, 1200 fps loads to function and it does not function with 1 ounce loads, that is not a reliability or dependability issue. That is our issue, not the gun's issue. Barney says his individual gun cycles with 3/4 oz. loads! Well, good for Barney, but we can't prove a negative nor can we account for the individuality of mass-produced firearms. Barney doesn't warranty guns or repair them. I've never seen Barney's gun, much less shot it. No one has. We are more interested in our gun, our loads, our ambient conditions.

So, what can we do? Well, there are some pretty obvious things. Avoid new models of autoloading shotguns, for starters. Yes, that may sound like a bit of bummer, as we can also set aside all the ad-brags and hyperbole that goes along with it. We won't be the first on our block, we won't get the owners club belt buckle or coffee mug and we won't be able to able to brag about the new box the first year it came out. It is a bummer in the excitement department, but there is a reason to look at autoloading shotguns this way. I don't know of a single autoloader that has not been improved after the first couple of years. Sometimes the improvement has been discontinuing its manufacture, often one of the best improvements possible.

Not the A-5, not the Super-X Model One, not the Browning Gold, not the Beretta 391 or Remington 1100, not a single major model has been impervious to improvement. We seem to have short memories, of course, and prefer to remain oblivious to the bad recoil buffers on the 391, the running production changes on the Gold gas piston, the Stage III trigger of the SX Model One, the horrific triggers on the original Super Black Eagle and so forth. I'm not even mentioning all the other attempts heralded as technological advances than have proven to be horrific designs.

I know I sound like a real spoil-sport, but if reliability is the important thing, we can up our chances by waiting for the second or third year of production. Sometimes, we have to remind ourselves that the new models of just a few years ago that turned out to be real failboats were also introduced as having been breakthroughs, precise machining, zillions of rounds in torture testing and so forth. This type of new product introduction is just formula, the same formula we have seen for the last fifty years.

Reliability is one thing. Reliability with inappropriate ammunition and reliability with a poorly maintained shotgun is quite another. We find it all too convenient to mingle the two. It is all part of the fascinating human condition. Recoil operated shotguns are, by nature, more reliable than gas guns when cleaning of carbon residue is ignored, as there is no gas system that collects and disperses it. Recoil operated guns are not as forgiving with poor stock welds or shooting from the hip, as their function is contingent on having something somewhat solid to push against. Gas guns, rather than relying on momentum dynamics and springs alone to function, are better equipped to handle wider varieties of loads by being able to bleed off excess gas. They are more reliable with poor or non-existent gun mounts, as they often need no gun mount at all to function. They all need more cleaning and maintenance, which isn't a bad thing if you know how to clean a shotgun. Only when shotshell propellants become particle and residue free can we expect that to change.

This inspires a variation of an old story. Our nimrod, devoutly religious hunter found himself deep in the swamp, with alligators surrounding him. There were also assorted poisonous snakes and rumor has it a directionally challenged grizzly bear was in the area as well. Armed only with his autoloading shotgun, our adventurer fired off a shot at the gator who had just made a snack out of his little dog. His autoloader jammed. “God, please help me,” the man prayed. The growl of the grizzly grew closer.

An owners manual fell from a nearby tree. Our hunter decided not to read it, for he believed with great certainty that God would protect him. Rain started falling and the alligators grew thicker. An air boat, piloted by Beretta Customer service buzzed by, with the yell “Can we help you?” The man ignored the air boat, saying, “No thanks, God will protect me!”

The skies grew dark; night was approaching. A helicopter appeared overhead. Thinking that he was suffering from panic-induced dementia, he saw the face of John Moses Browning poke out of the helicopter. “I'm John Browning, I invented autoloading shotguns, can I help?” the ghost asked. Steadfast in his belief that his prayers would be answered and his shotgun would soon function, our shotgunning explorer ignored the wispy image of Mr. Browning. The chopper flew away, back into the misty mist of the dusky dusk.

Things changed in a hurry. Nightfall came and the man was quickly dismembered by alligators. Various body parts would later be discovered in the bellies of nearby feral hogs. After his nasty death, the man arrived at the pearly gates demanding to know why God had ignored his prayers. The Lord replied, “Well, I just sent you an owners manual, Beretta Customer Service and John Browning.”

And so it goes, one less plate for supper. Our tyro hunter was, of course, a remarkably stupid individual. Anyone knows that a random sighting of Beretta Customer Service could only be due to Divine Intervention.




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Copyright 2010 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.


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