Premium 12 Gauge Autoloading Shotguns in 2011

By Randy Wakeman


They are all new, or reasonably new. They are all expensive and all of them have extremely recognizable brand names. They have all been announced with their fair share of bravado, chutzpah and perhaps eccentric wackiness, contingent on your point of view. They have been relentlessly marketed to both Cro-Magnon man and the Aristocrat. They have been presented as dinosaur killers, they all are either claimed to be “the best” or at least the best at something. More than one is the fastest-cycling, more than one is the softest-shooting, all of them are the most reliable and more than one is offered only in highly polished plastic made by old world craftsmen.

 

Many are lightweight; all will lighten your wallet. Most are available in 3-1/2 inch chambers, most also claim to cycle what has long been considered a twenty gauge low brass target load for various and sundry reasons. Very few have wood stocks, but some have a plastic picture of pretty wood stuck to a piece of not so pretty wood beneath. Not only are they often presented as recoiless wonders, they recoil so very little that they all come with space-age, medically engineered, aerospace designed recoil pads just to be sure. Not one has a steel receiver, although there are pieces of steel lurking somewhere inside. Some claim to have written warranties, some don't. Many don't have choke tubes that interchange with previous models, so you can't always use the choke tubes you already have. Many of them have "self-cleaning" actions, but also come with owner's manuals telling you how to clean all the self-cleaning stuff. Here's an unorthodox look at autoloaders of 2011.

 

BERETTA A391 URIKA II

 

The Beretta 391 Urika II almost didn't get included, as it isn't that new. There are a couple reasons for its inclusion. It appears to be the last of the “300 series” Beretta's, the basic platform of which has been extended and copied ever since the Beretta 300 appeared back before electricity, or in the form of the AL-1 somewhere around 1969. That is, apparently, when the 500 years of passion in gas-operated aluminum shotguns started. It is more like forty years of experience with gas autoloaders, but rounding it off to 500 years makes it sound a bit better. One qualified, independent view of reliability and durability was a  little 100 million shell (or so) field test that came out in favor of the predecessor to this model, the 390, and well as the top choice, the Benelli Montefeltro.

Those that appreciate the 391 will quickly point up that it is the first choice among active target shooters today by a large amount, with the rest of the avid clays shooters opting for vertical doubles. Those that don't appreciate the 391 quite as deeply will cite the early teething problems such as bad recoil buffers, cracked gas pistons, the shell lifter problems never fully resolved, and the incomprehensible design of the forearm nut as the Rubik's Cube of autoloading shotgun features. In some forms, like the “Teknys,” the 391 has had the dubious distinction of making the $2000 mass-produced autoloading shotgun a reality. Though not a leap ahead compared to the 390 it replaced, it has been quite a successful model.

 

Jim, who uses the pen name "Seamus O' Caiside," has thought enough of his fellow shooter and the A391 to put it all down in a book for us. Jim's book can be the difference between total satisfaction with the 391 and total disappointment. Personally, I can't shake the feeling that the 391 was never really perfected. The vast majority of them are extremely competent gas guns and the 391 remains, in the opinion of many, the consummate clays machine.

 

BERETTA A391 XTREMA II

 

The Beretta A391 Xtrema is inexplicably named after the 391, though the gas action of the Xtrema has little to do with the 300 Beretta series. It is actually more of a variation of the Franchi 912 VarioMax 3-1/2 inch model, a gun that was abruptly discontinued, coinciding with the launch of the Xtrema. The original Xtrema had enough nagging problems to generate the Xtrema II with an improved trigger in short order. The Xtrema II is notable as one of the first “any load any time,” do it all shotgun attempts, though it is far more at home in the duck blind than chasing pheasants or breaking clays. The rotating bolt gets some press, though that was popularized long ago. The rotating bolt takes stress off of the receiver, so the receiver can be made cheaply. Beretta has not introduced a truly bad design under its own name in autoloading shotguns in recent memory. It is perhaps the Xtrema more than any other gun that gave rise to the now perpetual question, “Do I Want a Kick-Off or Don't I?” The Xtrema II today competes with many competent guns for a seat in the goose pit. Look at the A400 as a more versatile rendition of the already versatile Xtrema II.

 

BERETTA A400 UNICO XPLOR

 

The A400 is a very clever design. Cheap to make compared to its predecessors, it extends the notion of the shoot-everything autoloader, whether that notion is practical. Despite the obvious economy of manufacture, the liberal use of “heavy polymer” and the avoidance of high-grade walnut, the A400 #J4OUY retails for a breathtaking $1725.00. It is an impressive, cost-cutting gun, though perhaps not quite as impressive as its retail price suggests.

 

The bolt speed in the A400 would be considered excessive in many designs, but the KO3 backstop for the bolt appears to have addressed that potential issue competently. The fast bolt speed is what enables the use of mouse loads without problem. Why exactly you might want to use whimpy 20 gauge target loads out of a 3-1/2 inch dinosaur killing 12 gauge escapes me. However, the A400 does function as promised with 7/8 oz. loads, although many other models can do the same thing.

 

BENELLI VINCI

 

Of all the new 12 gauge autoloaders introduced thus far, I find the Benelli Vinci the most satisfying hunting gun. One thing I've often mentioned in formal reviews, which this editorial is decidedly not, is this: Whether you say you love something or whether you say you hate it, you are always 100% right.

 

As the most innovative, novel and perhaps unusual of the current crop of premium autoloaders, Benelli essentially got it right the first time. There has been so little in the way of reported problems that I don't think a Vinci II is in the offing anytime soon. Although I mentioned that not one has a steel receiver in the introductory comments, the Vinci actually does (sort of) have one, though perhaps not in the conventional sense. The barrel and receiver are integral and they are both steel. The barrel of the Vinci is essentially the firearm. It doesn't make barrel swapping economical, but barrel swapping is not an economical undertaking for any of the models mentioned here. The Vinci is among the most affordable of the new models and as close to “set it and forget it” as can be had in an autoloader today.

 

REMINGTON VERSA MAX

 

What I'm about to say might surprise you, but I think the Versa Max is the best autoloading shotgun design Remington has ever offered. That said, the credit for the disastrous, fumbling roll-out of the Versa Max goes to Cerberus Capital Management. Misrepresented, slow in arriving and followed immediately with a safety recall, it is difficult to pin that level of incompetence on Beretta, Benelli, Browning, or Al Gore. When I first discussed the Versa Max with Chuck Hawks, proprietor of Guns & Shooting Online, his reaction was instant: “Great. Just what the world needs, another overpriced ugly autoloader.” Alright, Chuck, there is that.

 

More to the point, though, is what Remington has long needed (regardless of what capital management company owns them) is a modern autoloader that is competitive. The Versa Max is a superb design. It should be, as it is the same basic action as the Benelli M-4. It is so obvious, how could anyone miss it? Perhaps the Beretta organization is wondering why they ignored what they already had, but if you check the shotguns already mentioned, it isn't like Beretta offers only one model of autoloader. You have three premium autoloading actions under the Beretta name alone, the entire Benelli line and more offerings under the Stoeger and Franchi names.

 

So, yes, the Versa Max is a superb design and well-proven. As for the always-entertaining recoil claims, the Versa Max is a no kicker. It weighs a reasonable eight pounds, heavier than its competition, and weight reduces recoil. Gas guns don't kick much and heavy gas guns kick less. Despite its clumsy introduction, it is a very good design and should be around for a very long time, if a few of the incidentals can be cleaned up a bit.

 

BROWNING MAXUS

 

The Browning Maxus was a bit on the slow side to arrive, but it wouldn't be the first time the folks at Herstal Group weren't ahead of their own predictions. By now, I've tested three Maxus examples with their new walnut Sporting Clays model on the way. Of the three, the only issue I could find was a cosmetic one: the recoil pad on a Stalker model wasn't properly ground. A minor issue, if I had kept that specific example I would have replaced the pad. All of the Maxus models I tested cycled everything down to the cheap promo shells. Not strongly, not well, but no jams. That's better than they were supposed to do, though, with one ounce the stated minimum limit. With one ounce or better loads, they all worked superbly.

 

As with the last twenty or so Browning autoloaders and pumps I've evaluated, the triggers were on the heavy side. For me, a trigger job is requisite on a Browning repeater these days. There have been a couple of early issues. Some folks have noted trigger reset issues; a replacement spring installed by Browning was the fix. There have been a couple cases of a snapped spring inside the gas piston. Those were replaced at no charge by Browning Customer Service. Neither are issues I have experienced or witnessed.

 

The Browning Maxus is the softest-shooting of the newer autoloaders with target loads. This shouldn't come as much of a surprise, for the Browning Gold series has long been universally regarded as one of the softest shooting autoloaders, softer than similarly weighted Beretta models. None of the shotguns touched upon here is remotely a kicker compared to a fixed breech gun of similar weight.

 

What is an easy thing for me to say is that, in terms of value, the Maxus is an astonishingly good one. While I'm quick to admit that the price of a shotgun for a reasonably active hunter shooter is inconsequential compared to the cost of everything that goes along with it, three inch Maxus Stalker models can be had for $950 or so, with the current bonus of $75 of free ammo from Browning. The 3-1/2 inch models start about a hundred bucks more. The latest Maxus version, the Sporting Clays Walnut, has some truly select walnut costs around $1450 and is, easily, the best-looking of the new crop of autoloaders. The walnut and polished blue Maxus Hunter is also a looker, at about $1100.

 

Times change. I never envisioned the day when someone would buy a Browning because he didn't feel like paying the cost of entry for a Remington or Beretta.

 

Conclusion

 

Gas guns are dirty. The particulate matter in propellant gases ensures that you'll need to clean your gas gun, it just goes with the territory. Some folks spend more time carping about cleaning than it takes to actually do it. If immunity from cleaning gas pistons is what you seek, you might consider a Benelli or a used Browning A-5. Bruce Buck used to say that Benelli's might work under water. Bruce corrected that stance for me at the latest SHOT show saying, with a twinkle in his eye, “They do work under water.”

 

None of these guns are limited edition, rare, or bespoke guns, all are in circulation. For the same reason you try on shoes, pants, or a jacket before you buy, take the time to shoot an example of whatever gun you are considering purchasing. Shims and spacers can be helpful, but they only go so far. They aren't going to change the safety position or the shape of the trigger guard, they aren't going to make the stock or forearm thinner, they aren't going to change the curve of the pistol grip. Just holding a gun up can be helpful, but it cannot tell the full tale.

 

Balance, swing, responsiveness, felt recoil; these are all subjective, individual things. They combine to tell you whether you like one model more than another. Whether you say you like it or say you hate it, you're always right. The gang at your local shooting club will be happy to help, likely a bit happier to help if you buy a pizza or pick up the tab for lunch. Picking up a tab for lunch may be a much better investment than buying a gun you later discover you don't care for.

 

With Beretta, if you get a good one you will probably be happy. I've had it both ways. Rather than joining the growing throng of “I've had it for six years and it never did work right,” you're better off just sending it off to Cole Gunsmithing and getting it fixed properly. Beretta never had a good customer service department, but now they have given up the pretense, using “Service Centers” instead of factory service. Thankfully, Cole Gunsmithing is one of them.

 

Benelli will do a modest trigger job for you and Browning, while having no written warranty, does a good job of supporting their products. In any case, you're far better completely going through your gun and identifying any rough areas today than waiting nine months so you can tell your friends that a gun ruined your hunt.

 

Doubling or pairing gas guns sometimes makes good sense, particularly for the “hunt of a lifetime.” I've always carried a duplicate or a back-up overseas, in Canada, Argentina, or out of state. It all depends how important that event or hunt is to you. Avoiding the lonely gas gun syndrome isn't that bad of an idea, depending on circumstances.




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Copyright 2011 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.


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