The Best Autoloading Hunting Shotguns
I have been hunting with autoloading shotguns for fifty years. This, if nothing else, makes me more than half-way to the barn.
At one time, autoloaders came in one largely accepted flavor, the Belgian Browning Automatic-Five (produced in the USA as the Remington Model 11). Needing scant little maintenance, the very thin-slotted screws discouraged the user from much casual tinkering. The internal parts are mostly steel and machined, as is the receiver.
Like anything else, they can wear out. However, in a lifetime of hunting my great-grandfather's Model 11 still is not worn out, nor is my grandfather's A-5 Light Twelve, nor is my father's A-5 standard weight.
The Auto-Five is too costly to make today. It was too costly to make in Belgium when I was in high school, for manufacturing was shifted to Kabushiki Kaisha Miroku (Japan), in order to fight the escalating cost of production.
Belgian-made Browning A-5's were well finished guns. The checkering was done by hand, as was the engraving. A Grade I A-5 had polished and blued metal, something that is rare today. Long ago, Jack O'Connor decried the high cost of hand work. Little did he know that shotguns would be made, in several cases, with no craftsmanship at all.
It is hard to wear out a good hunting shotgun, for with good care they last longer than your roof, your floor, or your furnace. Today, now that the once revolutionary Browning long recoil action has run its course, there are two basic types of autoloading actions that remain: the short recoil operated "inertia" type and gas-operated designs.
THE CIVOLANI INERTIA GUN
Originally, no one wanted to produce Bruno Civolani's inertia design. Finally, the now defunct Benelli Brothers organization used it as a way to start the arms making off-shoot of their motorcycle business. Although the inertia action did not gain much traction and Benelli eventually went out of business, it is a popular action today.
It is cheap to make, relying on a split bolt and a spring, and does not need much maintenance. Many folks do not bother to clean their inertia guns at all, until they stop working.
Folks do not like the complex cleaning protocol required for autoloading shotguns. That is a big part of the appeal of the Civolani action. The downsides include high recoil, exacerbated by the many inertia models that tend to be on the lightweight side. I suspect that the inertia gun has sold more recoil pads than any other autoloading action.
To many, the great appeal of the autoloading shotgun is its ability to mitigate recoil. If you approach load selection for an inertia gun the same way as you would for a slide-action, SxS, or O/U, you will probably be happy. If you are expecting the same extremely soft shooting experience of a Remington 1100 in an inertia gun, you will be disappointed.
THE GAS AUTO
The Remington 1100
"Gentlemen, this is the new Model 1100 and it is going to revolutionize shotgun shooting." - Wayne Leek, 1962.
The reliable, soft shooting, streamlined Remington 1100 12 gauge, introduced in 1963, changed the landscape of the autoloading shotgun for good. The 16 gauge and 20 gauge 1100s quickly followed in 1964, with the .410 bore and 28 gauges following a bit later. The latter are small bores for which the Browning Automatic-Five was never offered.
By the 1970s, the majority of shotguns in use at major skeet events in the United States were Remington 1100s. One million were sold, then two, three and four million. For those who subscribe to the notion of "being proven," nothing much is more proven than the 1100 in gas-operated autoloaders. The 1100 / 11-87 is the only mainstream autoloading shotgun made today with a receiver machined from a solid block of steel.
The Beretta 300 Series
By now, the Beretta A302 / A303 / Browning B-80 platform can be considered a classic of sorts, along with the Beretta 390 that built upon the 303. They just do not break, at least not easily.
My oldest B-80 has upwards of 200,000 rounds through it, from long nights under the lights, a visit to Argentina and a goodly portion of "you name it." It was the older 300 series that put Beretta on the map, with cleaner machining, better welds and a better level of finish than any subsequent Beretta models.
The Browning Active Valve
The line of active valve alloy autoloaders appeared in 1994. In the last 23 years they have been praised and damned by various groups of hunters and shooters. Whatever your persuasion, the Gold (and Silver, Maxus, SX2, SX3, SLP, etc.) line has been quite successful for Herstal Group.
The Browning active valve series is not without its warts. Poor, excessively heavy triggers are standard equipment and the factory choke tubes have been universally inferior. The active valve itself is a sourced part, with intermittent spring breakage, but that seems to have been more or less addressed.
On the positive side, the Browning Gold and related shotguns are soft-shooting, clearly a full notch easier on the shoulder than the Beretta 300 series and subsequent models. The Browning gas autos, at least so far, have been generally well finished, staying away from the fake wood of Beretta and some others and often having alloy trigger guards, rather than garish plastic with visible mold lines.
Fabarm Pulse Piston series
The much older Fabarm Red Lion series, imported by H&K, was not a particularly impressive line. However, the "Pulse Piston" action was introduced in 2003 and redesigned in 2005 with an improved action bar.
Fabarm hunting autos have been imported into the United States by Fabarm USA / Caesar Guerini since 2015, featuring the L4S series and the XLR5 Waterfowler. They are in 12 gauge only at this juncture and I would love to see the L4S action make the jump to 20 gauge. The current Fabarm autoloaders are the best finished autoloaders on the market, with even bluing, generous chrome-plating of the internals, choke tubes that stay astonishingly clean and don't loosen.
The TriBore HP barrels developed in 2005 are drilled from solid bars and held to closer tolerances than anything else on the market. As a result, the choke tubes do what they are supposed to do and you can use steel shot.
With no springs in the Pulse Piston, there is nothing to break. The barrels mate with the receiver very precisely, so there is no rocking, twisting, or unwanted barrel movement. At 6-3/4 pounds, the L4S three inch chamber guns are lighter than most three inch autos, gas or inertia, making them the top choice for wild pheasants and flushing game.
Remington Versa Port Shotguns
By improving on the ARGO action, shell length automatically controls the amount of gas available to the dual gas pistons of the Versa Max and the V3. The gas essentially bleeds right out of the chamber. As a result, it is hotter gas. With 2-3/4 inch unfolded length shells, you can expect a three foot instrumental velocity loss of about 35 fps with the V3, but only a fraction of that with three inch unfolded length shells. A slight velocity loss is there, but it is negligible.
Due to the gas action and the SuperCell recoil pad, the V3 ranks as even softer-shooting than the Browning active valve models, with better triggers, choke tubes and a lifetime written warranty. The 26 inch V3 synthetic is also better balanced.
At 7-1/4 pounds for the synthetic stocked model and 7-1/2 pounds for the walnut model, the V3 is at a good general purpose weight and is lighter than the 1100 / 11-87 series.
The V3 is the best in its quite affordable price class. The fundamentals of handling a wide variety of loads, good triggers, good chokes and a low-maintenance action are all there. I would like to see higher grade models and, of course, a 20 gauge version.
With the discontinuation of the Browning long-recoil action, there are only two basic actions popularly available. All inertia guns are based on the Bruno Civolani action and most gas-operated guns are based, at least in part, on the Remington 1100.
The hunting autoloading shotgun has suffered the same fate as the bolt action rifle, in that how cheap, not how good, is the mantra of most recent models. It is a shame, as the manufacturing capability is clearly available to make properly finished, cleanly machined shotguns that are as pleasurable to look at as they are to carry in the field. Consumers vote for cheap and it should surprise no one when that is exactly what they get.
However, it is wildly misplaced economy. By the time you go through enough ammo to smooth out a crude autoloader, have the trigger taken care of and add some properly machined choke tubes, the "value" shotgun may be more costly than a high quality gun that needs no extensive user-tuning and user-finishing. Needless to say, cheap guns will not last as long in service as better guns and have inferior resale value.
Copyright 2017 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.