You Want to Buy an Autoloading Shotgun?
Shotguns, as a practical matter, have been perfected since the 1880s. Since the days of my great-grandfather, farmer and market hunter George Chamberlain Wakeman, shotguns are no more reliable and no more dependable.
Great-Grandpa, who I knew well, didn't take very good care of his guns. Yet, his Marlin .38-55 rifle and Remington Model 11 shotgun still function today, after several lifetimes of use. My grandfather, Earl Spies Wakeman, had only one firearm that I am aware of, a Browning A-5 Light Twelve. It did everything, for when it is the only gun you have, it pretty much has to.
My Dad saved his paper route money when he was a boy and bought his first shotgun, a used 1897 Winchester pump gun. Dad loved to hunt; he loved his days in the field with my Great-Grandpa.
Dad was electrocuted courtesy of a 11,000 volt high power line. The electricity entered through his left hand and exited the back of his head. It could have been fatal, but it wasn't in Dad's case. The doctors wanted to amputate his left arm. Fortunately, one doctor was adamant, declaring: "We will not take that boys arm! We will wait until there is no other alternative and then we will wait a few more days." Gangrene and resultant septic shock could kill, of course, and more so back in those days. However, Dad recovered and neither his left arm or left hand was amputated.
The problem was, after his release from the hospital, his left hand was a claw and he could not shuck his Model 97. Therefore, he traded it for a semi-automatic Browning A-5 16 gauge gun.
That gun turned out to be a problem gun, for it baffled local sporting goods pro Hank Williams during several trouble shooting sessions. The problem turned out to be a tiny crack in the mainspring tube, but Dad moved on to a 12 gauge A-5 with which he hunted everything with for close to 40 years. This gun still functions perfectly. Later, Dad switched to shooting mostly 20 gauge guns and never looked back.
Shotgun manufacture in 2018 is mostly simple metal-forming (and plastic molding). What has changed is the elimination of essentially all hand work and hand fitting from mass produced guns, along with hand checkering and hand engraving, even on guns with wooden stocks.
Although it is not particularly romantic to admit it, most shotguns today are made primarily by machines, not people. Many are made from parts sourced world-wide. There is not much difference in raw materials between brand names, for shotguns are both low-tech and low pressure firearms.
The difference in cost between entry level models and upscale models is in the finish, and possibly the substitution of a machine made walnut stock for the standard injection molded plastic stock. This is no different than an automobile, where the difference between a $30,000 vehicle and a $45,000 vehicle is often just trim level, cabin materials and accessories that have nothing to do with basic transportation.
(All of this, of course, applies only to repeating shotguns, which are almost 100% mass produced. Fine double guns are generally of much higher quality and sophistication; they generally benefit from hand fitting and finishing in their production. -Editor)
Shotguns today are a bit more reliable than they were decades ago, but this is not gun related, as much as it is ammo related. Hunting with paper hulls and fiber wads is long gone, for the most part, and that is a good thing for dependability.
From a purely functional standpoint, once you realize that specific bore diameters within a given gauge do not matter, differences in forcing cones don't matter, porting does not matter and barrel length does not matter (except in gun handling), it is easier to make a new purchase consistent with what you are willing to spend.
Of the common action types available today, only gas-operated shotguns help in the felt recoil department. Sure, recoil pads help, as do some of the springy plastic stock things, but that has nothing to do with the action type of the shotgun; such devices work for all guns. A shotgun that fits you better is normally more comfortable to shoot, but that is a separate issue from action type.
WHAT ABOUT BARREL LENGTH?
Barrel length is no more important than the overall length of the gun, the length of the receiver and so forth. Barrel length does not exist in a vacuum. The stock shape and length of pull, the receiver and the barrel all combine to create balance and swing qualities. Just because barrels are the same length does not mean they have the same weight. Barrel steels and wall thicknesses vary.
Nor does barrel length have any affect on patterns and it has scant little effect on velocity. Due to wad drag, 24 to 25 inch barrels produce the highest velocities with most loads. 30, 32, or 34 inch barrels usually produce lower velocities, but not by enough to worry about, perhaps 20 to 25 fps.
Shorter barreled repeating shotguns with 24 or 26 inch barrels are generally faster to shoulder and handle better. A repeater with a 26 inch barrel is about the same overall length as a side-by-side or over/under gun with 30 inch barrels, due to the repeater's approximately four inch longer receiver.
GAUGE and RANGE
Jack O'Connor, the Dean of American gun writers, was quick to point up that the gauge of an upland game shotgun does not count for much in terms of effectiveness, at least between 12 and 28 gauge guns at ranges to 40 yards. O'Connor dubbed the 20 gauge as the "Queen of the Uplands."
What does matter is sorely neglected and rarely talked about: the distance to the target. Range makes all the difference in the world. The complication is, upland hunting has no specific range.
This is where the notions of gauge, choke and shot size get complicated, as no one really knows what is being referred to when someone says they want a shotgun for upland hunting. It could mean grouse in the timber at 10 yards, pass shooting doves at 55 yards, or a rabbit at 25 yards. It could be a pheasant over pointing dogs at 20 yards, or it could be a nervous, wary pheasant jumping and cackling at 45 yards. This is, of course, a wonderful prescription for confusion reigning supreme.
I constantly hear questions, such as "What's a good load and choke for doves?" You will get advice, as in "I use a modified," but the starting point should be the range that you expect the pellets to hit the bird. Without that information there can be no rational discussion.
You might be in a blind near a waterhole for slow, close range work, you might be standing in a wheat field taking what comes, or you might be jump shooting out of sunflowers. Most of us do not pay great attention to range, but we should. We must know how far we are shooting. A laser rangefinder can be a great help in determining this.
Jack O'Connor ordered his custom Winchester Model 21 twenty gauge double in 1955, chambered for three inch shells. He felt three inch shells made a real duck gun out of the twenty gauge. (He was, of course, shooting lead shot shells.)
Jack also wrote glowingly of the Federal Cartridge one ounce 28 gauge load introduced in the 1950s. This made the 28 gauge a practical pheasant gun out to 30-35 yards.
O'Connor generally preferred short barreled guns and his observations about barrel length were ahead of its time. He wrote that most upland pumps and autos would be far better handling guns with 23-24 inch barrels. He preferred 26 inch barrels on his skeet and upland doubles, with a nod to the Churchill 25 inch light twelves.
WHERE IS IT MADE?
Where is your coffee-maker made? Your smartphone, your PC, your clothes, your socket set and your car? Country of origin is no guarantee of quality, for low quality products are produced everywhere. Price is what you pay, but value is what you get. If you pay for junk, that is exactly what you get. How well it is made is far more important than where it is made.
(I think it is fair to add, however, that while crummy guns can be made anywhere, high quality guns are almost exclusively made in first world countries; Japan, Western Europe and North America, for example. Off hand, I cannot think of any first rate shotguns made in third world countries. -Editor)
Regardless of who makes it or sells it, there is no such thing as a premium blow-molded thermoplastic stock, a premium matte finish, or a premium fake enhanced wood finish. These things may be important to you, or they may not, but there is no easy way around unfinished, poorly or erratically finished parts. Production economies lower the cost of the product, but also the value of the gun.
THE BEST AUTOLOADERS FOR ME
As a gun writer and Guns and Shooting Online Senior Editor, I frequently get asked for new gun recommendations. Here are some of my current favorites.
For general upland hunting, the Fabarm L4S 12 gauge has been my favorite autoloader since it was released. With a 26 inch barrel, the L4S carries and handles extremely well and it weighs only 6-3/4 pounds. The L4S is soft-shooting, as it is gas-operated, but certainly not as soft-shooting as a heavier gas-operated shotgun. Recoil is inversely proportional to gun weight.
When I make a suggestion, I try to address the potential negatives. With the Fabarm L4S this is not easy, as it has few. The L4S series are all walnut stocked guns and might not be what you are looking for if you use a shotgun as a canoe paddle. You might laugh at this, but some do regularly paddle with shotguns.
The Retay Arms Masai Mara, made in Turkey, has been a pleasant surprise. You will not find a better looking shotgun for $900 than a Retay Arms Masai Mara Dark Black with its excellent walnut and polished blue barrel. With a 24 inch barrel, my preference, it weighs 6-3/4 pounds.
The Masai Mara is inertia operated, which is essentially a variation of the short recoil action popularized by Benelli. Inertia guns inherently kick harder than gas guns, but they also need less cleaning, which is part of the appeal. The Masai Mara has easier loading than standard Benelli's and improves upon the basic inertia design by eliminatiing the "Benelli click." They also do not have the point of impact problems of many Benelli guns.
For hunting waterfowl, a Remington V3 (7-1/4 pounds) is an excellent choice, particularly with a camo finish. It is a bit heavier than the L4S or Masai Mara and it is not as well finished. However, it is easy on the wallet and kicks less with common 1400 fps, 1-1/4 ounce duck loads. The Remington V3 roller trigger is very good and a V3 can go a long time without cleaning the action. It is as close to self-cleaning as a gas action has ever gotten.
If you shoot more clays than hunt, or rarely hunt at all, a heavier gas gun is appropriate. I am impressed, to say the least, with the Fabarm L4S Sporting (7-1/2 pounds as tested). As a budget clays gun, the Remington V3 Walnut (also weighing 7-1/2 pounds) is the gun to beat for low dollars and high utility.
Certainly, the Fabarm L4S Sporting is the better finished gun and it comes with stock shims, a tapered rib, etc. In the L4S Grey Sporting and L4S Deluxe Sporting trim levels it comes with better walnut and engraving.
Like most clay target shooters, I like heavier guns with a somewhat longer length of pull and longer barrels for clay target use. Balance is still important, but if you shoot with the gun pre-mounted, as in American trap and skeet, then shouldering dynamics isn't a factor.
THE BEST AUTOLOADER FOR YOU
There are many repeating shotguns that are essentially as reliable as the ammunition we feed them and our maintenance practices allow them to be. This is small consolation if you do not like the controls, find the gun awkward to load, cannot stomach its appearance, or cannot afford to pay the price.
Many years ago, I mentioned in a casual conversation with my mother that I had a few more 20 gauge shotguns than I actually needed. Mom asked how many I had; at that time, it was seventeen.
Mom asked, 'What in the world do you need 17 20 gauge guns for?"
"Well, you wouldn't want your son to be unarmed, would you?" was my cheery reply.
I have been on a 20 gauge austerity program since then and now own only seven 20 gauge guns, which is the bare minimum for my purposes. They all do some things superbly well, but none of them do everything perfectly for all applications.
The point is, shotgun selection has more than one correct answer. Tastes and preferences change, and hopefully mature, over time. So may the types and amounts of shooting you do. Buying a shotgun is a reversible decision, as your preferences and uses change. New models appear that you might find appealing and old guns can be sold or traded.
Today, very few people with an active interest in hunting and shooting settle for just one or two guns over the course of a lifetime. The "lifetime" gun has become more myth than reality. As your preferences change over time, so does the type of equipment needed to best satisfy those personal tastes. One thing for sure, good gun fit is critical for accurate shotgun shooting and must always be a primary consideration in any purchase.
Copyright 2018 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.