Gas Operated Vs. Recoil Operated Autoloaders, Part 1

By Randy Wakeman

When attempting to compare autoloading shotgun actions, it is easy to break them down into two broad categories: Recoil (short and long) and Gas operated. Further, there are compensating actions and non-compensating actions.

Whether an auto shotgun is called a gas, recoil, inertia, or whatever, it really isn�t the loading part of the shotgun to which we are referring. All self-loading shotguns �self-load� by means of a spring or springs that are compressed during the firing sequence. Many pump-action shotguns will eject shell cases on their own if fed heavy loads and the shooter keeps his hand off the forend. Add the proper recoil buffer and spring to close the action of a slide-action repeater and bingo; you now have a semi-auto shotgun.

It is not quite that easy, of course. After John Browning designed the first truly successful modern repeating shotgun, the Winchester 1897, it took him a while to design the first autoloading shotgun, the Automatic-Five. The Model 97 Winchester, innovative for its day, was quite complicated and retained an exposed hammer. Not only did the A-5 displace the pump action, it also created Browning Arms Company, quite a story in itself.

John Browning�s efforts were prolific; his Model 1896/1899/1900 auto-loading pistols were later improved into the Model 1910 (the gun that was used to start WW I) and continued in production until the 1980�s, along with its variant, the Model 1922. The Model 1910�s recoil spring is wrapped around the barrel, the general design often referred to a �blowback.� However, the Browning design was not the first. The C96 invented by Fidel, Friedrich and Josef Feederle of Mauser was developed in 1895 or so and is now the familiar Mauser 1896 Broomhandle. The inertia spring as found in the Mauser Broomhandle does scant little to absorb recoil, but serves to return its breechbolt back into battery.

With the recoil-operated self-loading pistol so well established by the end of the 1800�s and the delayed-inertia (aka delayed blowback) idea used by Andreas Wilhelm Schwarzlose in Germany in 1902 for the successful Schwarzlose Machine Gun, you might rightly wonder why shotgun semi-autos have proven so problematic (by comparison) over the years. The answer lies in the wide diversity of shotshell loads. While recoil and gas actions were developed for the same cartridge without great difficulty, trouble-free operation with a wide variety of payloads and velocities is an issue that has plagued semi-auto shotguns.

Shotshell propellants, hulls and wad materials were in their early stages when John Browning designed and manufactured his long recoil operated A-5. ("Long recoil" means that the barrel and bolt remain locked together for the full distance of their rearward travel. "Short recoil," the way the Browning/Colt 1911 and almost all high-powered autoloading pistols operate, requires that the barrel only move a short distance rearward before unlocking and allowing the bolt to travel the rest of the way alone on its momentum.)

By proper setting of the bronze friction piece and rings, the A-5 became the first successful autoloading shotgun. It stayed that way with the Remington Model 11, Franchi AL-48 and similar Savage Arms models using the Browning patents by license. Though not a self-compensating design, the Browning system of shock absorber array allowed user adjustment from the standard 2-3/4 inch 1-1/8 oz. loads up to the 1-1/2 oz. baby magnum shells in standard configuration. Its 97-year production history is remarkable, with at least one of its offshoots (Franchi) still being offered in 2009.

The year of 1963 was the watershed year for the gas-operated shotgun; it marks the inaugural year for the largest-selling automatic shotgun in history, the Remington 1100. The Remington 1100 became one of the most influential shotguns of all time, joining the Browning A-5 and eventually surpassing it in sales.

Since 1963, other useable gas autoloaders have appeared. Winchester�s Super-X1 and other short-lived guns like the Browning B2000 and A500G. The Beretta 300 series changed things, along with the similar and Beretta-produced Browning B-80. While the 1100 has endured, two common complaints have surfaced. These are its inability to handle a broad range of shells and its relatively heavy weight. None of these guns compensated for the different gas flow through the barrel ports that operate them.

The A500G, Beretta A303, and Browning B-80 all came with three-inch chambers that could handle 2-3/4 inch to 3-inch payloads, more or less. The �more or less part� reflects right back at the gas action that was not sophisticated enough to compensate. The more gas that goes through the ports, the faster the bolt is propelled backward and the more beating the shotgun (and the shooter) takes. None of this would be an issue if we could standardize what we shoot, but today�s shotgunner apparently wants it all in terms of shells.

Two successful self-compensation designs have emerged, the Beretta 390/3901 and the Browning Gold/Silver/Maxus, also offered as the Winchester SX-2 and SX-3. The difference is the ability of the action to compensate without user intervention.

The Beretta approach was to add a spring controlling a secondary gas bleed beneath the forearm nut, an evolution of the 303 action. Browning designed-in a gas piston with an integral spring that varies the gas bleed in concert with the flow of the shell, now billed as the �Active Valve.� Both systems have been shown to work well, both are the most successful of their kind with Beretta introducing their �391� that offers similar utility to the 390 in a far more complicated, over-engineered manner. That is essentially where we are today in terms of popular and proven gas-operated shotgun designs.

On the recoil-operation front, Browning introduced Val Browning�s short recoil operated Double Auto, a poor seller, and the A500 (renamed the A500R) that became infamous as Browning�s worst semi-auto effort in history. Bruno Civolani offered his 1960�s action design to Benelli, an offspring of the Benelli motorcycle company founded in 1967; that design has developed into what is now marketed as the Benelli �Inertia Driven� action. The inertia idea is a combination of the ideas from the late 1800�s and early 1900�s (Schwarzlose) with the addition of a rotating bolt. Rotating bolts have been used in many sporting arms, notably including the Winchester Model 1400 gas shotgun, Winchester Model 100 rifle and the present day Browning BAR rifle.

As to what is better, we have the usual conglomeration of ad campaigns constantly misrepresenting products. All of the major autoloading shotgun manufacturers these days claim to have the most reliable shotgun. At the same time, they brag of being the softest shooting and the easiest to clean. As usual, they aren�t all being 100% candid. In fact, none of them are.

Benelli/Franchi/Stoeger (all three brands are owned by Beretta) �inertial� branded recoil actions kick more than gas actions, period. Like the Mauser Broomhandle of 1896, the bolt head is blown back where it instantly bottoms out the inertial spring. The more payload your shell has, the more quickly and harshly it bottoms that spring and punishes the shooter. When the spring is compressed, the bolt body unlocks and the �inertia spring� shoots the bolt body backwards, recocking the gun and compressing the recoil spring. The recoil spring pushes the bolt back into battery, feeding a new shell as it does so. It is harsh recoil, harsher than a properly set-up A-5.

However, since the rearward thrust upon ignition moves everything back except for the bolt body and only the inertia spring pops the bolt body backward, there can be no excessive bolt speed, as there can be with both the A-5 and gas-guns, which may result in receiver peening, broken links and so forth. There is less to break and since no gas blows onto the action, there is no gas residue to clean. Recoil operated (including inertia) guns do not tolerate light payloads well. They do handle hot loads well, albeit with a notable increase in recoil to the shooter.

As for modern gas-operated systems, they are not exactly as represented, either. A system that cannot compensate (A303, B-80, 1100) will kick you more as payload goes up, with extra vibration and shock produced in concert with the increased bolt speed. The Beretta 390 compensates. Typically, a harsher shooter than the Browning Gold as supplied, the user can switch in lighter secondary gas springs (Rich Cole) to tune the bolt to a specific load. The newer Beretta 391 can apparently go longer between cleanings than the 390 or 3901, or tolerate more negligent gun care, as the case may be. It is more of a royal pain to clean, however, with a strange barrel nut full of parts that can seize and is very difficult to clean. So difficult, in fact, that Beretta does not even tell you how to do it, or that you should do it.

As to the question, �what is the most reliable?� The answer has more to do with the user than with the best of today�s modern repeaters. It is not possible to say that one gun is more reliable than the others. Used properly, they are all about equally reliable. Bragging about how long you can shoot a gas auto is just about as smart as bragging how long you can run an automobile engine without ever changing the oil. There really isn�t much future in it. If my gun starts jamming four boxes of shells after my friend's gun, not much has been proven, except that neither of us knows how to properly maintain our guns.

As far as current production guns go, the Remington 1100 is still a soft shooter and does a good job if you clean it every 200 rounds or so. It is a good value today and offers a machined steel receiver, albeit at some increase in weight. Not altogether a bad thing, as the extra weight significantly reduces recoil. The Competition grade 1100's come with very nice walnut, engraving and a highly polished blue finish; Premier models have nickel plated receivers and gold inlays. Model 1100's are among the best turned-out repeating shotguns on the market.

The Benelli shotguns are the hardest kicking of the lot. They ask a lot of cash for their plastic stocks, dull metal finish and non-compensating action that prefers you not feed it light loads. No gas action to clean, of course. In terms of fit, finish and value, they are inferior to the Remington and Browning models. The Benelli SBEII/Vinci is still a high recoil option, although the Vinci is billed as being able to handle 12 gauge, 3-dram 1-ounce loads. The new Vinci sacrifices the 3-1/2 shell capability of the standard SBEII for this lighter load handling capability. The basic action remains unchanged from an operational standpoint. All Benelli autoloaders retain the Bruno Civolani platform from the 1960's and have grown a bit dated in terms of features. The primary appeal of the Benelli remains its ability to function despite the lack of regular cleaning.

The Beretta 390/3901 action is Beretta�s best effort to date. It is a pity the up-priced 391 is, in many ways, an advance to the rear. The 391 apparently tolerates neglect longer than the 390, running longer between cleanings, but when you do clean it, it is either obnoxious or nearly impossible. The Beretta 3901 is another good value, but typically is supplied with very low-grade wood and inferior metal finish. The more attractive upscale models, unfortunately, are available only in the complex 391 rendition.

Browning's Silver/Gold are the easiest to clean and the pick of the litter for most hunting applications. Their recent lightweight models have lost ground with trap, skeet and sporting clays shooters; the dedicated clays models have shrunk in the line. The Maxus looks to be a significant advance in trigger, slimmer forearm, ease of cleaning and even less cleaning required; it is well worth investigating.

At the end of the shotgunning day, we have recoil-operated guns that claim to be soft-shooting and gas-operated guns that are promoted as easy to clean or self-cleaning. Far closer to the truth is that gas guns will always be softer shooting than recoil guns. Recoil guns will always need less routine cleaning than gas guns.

Go to Part 2

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Copyright 2009, 2016 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.