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. This 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 bored modified 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 12 gauge, 1-1/8 ounce, 1200 fps, low brass field load for most upland game and the 1-1/4 ounce, 1330 fps, high brass "duck and pheasant" shell for everything else, even geese. Only the more "sophisticated" hunters bothered with 1-1/2 ounce 2-3/4 inch 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 pad. Nor did most folks obsess over ribs and beads, as a raised/ventilated rib was deemed unnecessary for hunting purposes. (The A5's recoiling barrel made fitting a full length rib impossible. Full length raised and/or ventilated ribs were very popular on double-barreled guns. -Editor.)
Sure, folks wanted ribs on their Model 12s for trapshooting, but there wasn't much debate about the "good autoloader" or the "good shotgun" back then. If you had an A-5 in an autoloader or a Winchester Model 12 ("The Perfect Repeater") in a slide action, you were good.
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 ounce Winchester Feathers." I laughed out loud, for 11/16 ounce of shot is a .410 bore load or a substandard 28 gauge load. Sometimes, we like to make things more complicated than we need to.
In any case, we now have eternal debates about terms, like shootability, pointability, felt recoil and how much a shotgun is supposed to weigh. I will try to run down the basic autoloading action types, the better offerings in those action types and why you might wish to consider one over the other.
THE LONG RECOIL ACTION
The long recoil action was the only autoloading shotgun action that actually worked for many decades. Designed by John M. Browning in 1898, the Browning Automatic-Five was first produced by FN (Belgium) in 1902 and licensed to Remington Arms in 1905, who produced it as their Model 11 until 1947. The A-5 was the only gun that Browning Arms Company (founded after the death of John M. Browning) sold for a time. Browning later licensed the design to Savage, who produced it from 1930-1949 as their Model 720.
The second-best selling autoloading shotgun in history (behind the Remington 1100), the Auto-5 is no longer made. The classic Auto-Five would be very costly to produce today and we do not like making adjustments to autoloaders based on load intensity. (Nor do many shooters like the "double shuffle" recoil of the A-5, which actually increases the felt recoil. -Editor)
THE SHORT RECOIL ACTION
This operating system dominates centerfire autoloading handguns and was the system used by the famous Maxim machine gun, but it has never sold well when applied to shotguns. The Browning Double Automatic, Browning A500 / A500R and the Beretta UGB25 Xcel used short recoil actions. None of them were commercially successful. There are no short-recoil shotguns of any consequence in production. Although I have a soft spot for the Browning Double Auto, it is not mainstream and has not been produced for many years.
THE GAS ACTION
The most popular autoloading shotgun in history, the Remington Model 1100, was introduced in 1963 and is still in production. The Remington 1100 still has a strong following, but its action does not compensate as well for load intensity as some other actions and the 1100 is the last mainstream autoloader to have a machined steel receiver. Aluminum alloy receivers can be made faster and cheaper. 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 managed-recoil shotshells out there, to many people how soft a shotgun shoots remains very important.
How often to clean a shotgun means, to some people, when it stops working and not before. While this approach can work for a good long while for long recoil and some kinematic / inertia guns, it is not the best approach with gas actions. Most are easy to clean, though, and it often takes longer to describe it than to actually do it. Gas actions handle the widest variety of loads and, for a given weight of gun, have the softest 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.
Inertia guns are high recoil compared to gas guns, but as there is no gas system to clean and they need scant little maintenance. They function dirty or wet and the only thing that tends to stop them is running them dry.
Now that the original Civolani patents have expired, there is a glut of inertia models on the market. Though the Benelli brand and associated Beretta family brands have tried, they have not caught on as clays guns, due to heavier recoil than gas guns. The SKB brand launched a Turkish made, dedicated clays inertia gun, the IS300 / RS300 target, in late 2013 that also hasn't gained much traction in the marketplace.
THE GOOD AUTOLOADING SHOTGUNS
The Benelli brand has several solid inertia guns that are very well known. Benelli keeps trying to reduce 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 intervention. The stock design on the three inch (shell length) Vinci has smashed fingers with a safety some find difficult to reach. Rather than fix the three inch Vinci pistol grip, Benelli decided to make the change on the 3-1/2 inch Vinci, but ignored the three inch model.
After a blazing introduction, Vinci sales have apparently fallen a bit flat. This is evidenced by the various Vinci Limited models that have plummeted in retail price to a thousand dollars or so. Nevertheless, the Vinci rates as a good gun, if you don't mind its peculiarities and somewhat 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 they rate as good guns. Hardly "Simply Perfect," as Benelli likes to brag, not even close. However, they are low-maintenance guns with a 10 year warranty that define the old Bruno Civolani action.
One of the harshest-kicking gas actions, the original A400 Xplor Unico was a problem gun. Nevertheless, as this is written in 2016, most of the problems in the 12 gauge models have been eliminated, although the sub-gauges are not yet ready for prime time. The A400 isn't near the gun the Beretta A390 was and the discontinued A303 series and the discontinued A390 models remain Beretta's toughest, most durable autoloaders.
The A400, in 12 gauge, rates as a good gun today; the smaller gauges not so much. For those who get worn out with the funny colored receivers, Cole Gunsmithing can anodize your A400 receiver into a strikingly good looking gun.
Browning / Winchester
The Herstal Group puts Browning Silver and Gold variants in Winchester boxes and the Winchester SX3 and Browning Maxus are among the softest shooting autoloading actions. They are good guns in general, although the factory triggers in Browning autoloaders are poor. Still, this can be rectified if necessary. Browning choke tubes are often not the best, but good aftermarket tubes are widely available. The new A5 "kinematic action" in 12 gauge remains a hard gun to love.
The Franchi Affinity, an inertia gun, is assembled at the Benelli facility in Urbino, Italy. I have tested several and they are good, solid, reliable autoloaders with better than average triggers and a good warranty. The Italians can be a stubborn lot 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.
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 pound, walnut stocked gas gun with the best customer service in the industry. In the United States, the L4S marks Fabarm's first venture into the lightweight hunting gun field, and the XLR5 Waterfowler is coming out soon. It is a great gun that also looks great.
The Mossberg 930 12 gauge is a fairly heavy and bulky gun. However, it is priced right, a soft shooter and has a very good track record. It is a great buy for the money and a good gun in general.
A 7-1/4 pound gun, currently offered in synthetic stocked versions, but with a low price (starting at $675 or so). It has an excellent trigger, 2000 round recommended gas piston cleaning intervals and is 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 and it is a very good gun.
Weatherby offers their SA-08 models, made by ATA in Turkey. They are excellent gas guns using the "two piston" idea that works quite well. The walnut versions are great looking guns, as befits a Weatherby. The 20 gauge weighs only six pounds. These are the only Turkish made autoloaders I can recommend. They are good guns.
A CONCLUSION OF SORTS
If you are feeling a bit strapped for cash, consider the Mossberg 930, Remington V3, or Weatherby SA-08. These are all gas operated guns with three inch chambers. For a medium priced, soft shooting gun in a seven to 7-1/4 pound 12 gauge, consider the Remington V3, Winchester SX-3, Browning Silver, or Browning Maxus.
For a value inertia gun, the Girsan MC312 (from Bud's Gun Shop) is worth a look for 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.
As far as my own preference, in a 12 gauge it would be the Fabarm USA L4S as an upland gun and the Remington V3 as a plain-Jane looking, but do everything type of autoloader. In 20 gauge, the six pound Weatherby SA-08 and Benelli M2 Comfortech are tough guns, but not at all tough to carry.
Copyright 2016 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.