What's Wrong with Autoloading Shotguns?
With a title like that, you might think that I harbor some level of disdain for them. The opposite is true, for I enjoy shooting autoloaders more than any other action type. While some don't like the idea of any mechanical feel, I strongly prefer it. I like to have my shooting instrument working and I don't like the idea that guns have to broken open to load them. That would be found intolerable in many rifles and handguns and just because it uses a shotshell it is no less a firearm.
The most common problem with firearms is maintenance and the problem is accentuated with autoloaders. Autos simply won't work reliably unless kept exceptionally clean--not just the barrel, but the mechanism as well. I know several gunsmiths that make a reasonable living just cleaning guns. Autoloaders are maintenance intensive.
There are two broad classes of autoloaders, recoil-operated and gas-operated. One is not necessarily more reliable than the other, assuming the required maintenance is religiously performed. Actually, no autoloader is as reliable as a manually operated action for the obvious reason: an autoloader relies on shell function to operate. Still, many like to blame the gun when the problem is bad ammo and feel their autoloaders should work as well as a pump gun, not only with reloads, but also with popper loads. You can't get more than perfectly reliable and many A-5's, B-80's and A303's have been just that when fed full power factory loads. Still, it is hard to read ad copy without the hoary drone of "most reliable," which implies a general reliability problem with autoloaders.
As Guns and Shooting Online Owner/Managing Editor Chuck Hawks likes to lament, most current autoloaders are far uglier than they need be. When folks understand that “matte” often means “unfinished” and that properly selected walnut is stronger and more stable than thermoplastics, the scene might change. You never know.
LENGTH AND BALANCE
Shotguns with a repeating action (pumps and autos in particular) are about four inches longer than a double gun with the same length barrels. The extra length means more mass farther away from the middle of the gun and slows handling and pointing. (This is simple physics.) The extra length also results in gun that is relatively unwieldy to carry and transport. Most autoloaders are not "takedown" guns (in the sense that double guns are) and consequently autoloaders are usually transported fully assembled in long, bulky gun cases that are a real hassle to maneuver through crowded airports, train stations and bus depots. Cased autoloaders often will not even fit into the trunk of compact automobiles.
As a class, autoloading triggers are lousy. Almost all autoloaders sold today need of trigger work. That means out of the box examples from most everyone. It is sad, when you consider that many field autos had acceptable triggers 50 years ago. Beretta 391 and A400 have been usually better than most, with most Remington, Browning, Benelli, etc. triggers crying for attention. It is increasingly hard to swallow, when $1500 autos are becoming increasingly commonplace. Since the trigger as the firing control, ignoring it indicates a lack of attention to quality.
Good shotguns should be effortless to load and unload. Speed-loading became standard issue when Val Browning added the two-piece shell carrier to the A-5. Double Autos had it, so did the B2000 and the Browning Gold since its introduction in 1993-1994. Of the newer guns, the Benelli Vinci (one example) is easy to load and unload, but far too many autoloaders are not. I don't like any firearm that is slow to load or unload. Does anyone?
One thing the British got right a century ago is that a shotgun should be "balanced," in terms of gun weight, gauge and the shells it is intended to shoot. We shouldn't have to buy a $1400 MSRP autoloader just to get a new recoil pad. Nor is shoving springs or plastic hydraulic tubes into a buttstock a sensible way to improve a shotgun. It produces a shotgun with an irritating bouncy feeling that may be next to impossible to fit to an individual shooter. Reasonable gun weight, shells that compliment that gun weight, a gun that balances under the receiver and a stock that fits you perfectly has always resulted in a shotgun that is pleasant to shoot, regardless of action type.
The "one size fits all" shotgun has never been a good idea. The more “do everything” a shotgun tries to be, the more it fails to excel at anything. Versatility invariably means compromise. The best SUV is not the best sports car, the best motocross bike is not the best touring bike and the best weed-whipper is not the best garden tractor. Once we collectively wise up and decide what it is we want to do with our autoloading shotguns, the breed will improve (if we vote for that approach with our buying dollars).
Copyright 2011 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.