Semi-Auto Shotguns: The People's Choice

By Randy Wakeman

Over thirty-five years ago, when I owned my first semi-auto shotgun--a gas-operated High Standard Supermatic Trophy 20 gauge--I fell in love with semi-auto shotguns. And my feelings on the matter haven't changed much during the intervening years. That High Standard was memorable only because it was my "first," as it goes with many things. But, it was a big jump up from the Mossberg bolt action and the Crescent double barrel that preceded it.

Since then I've owned and hunted with multiple copies of every Browning semi-auto ever made, along with SKB, Franchi, Benelli, Winchester, Remington, and Beretta models. You can believe I've formed some opinions over all this time.

Semi-autos fall into two basic categories of actions, gas operated and recoil operated. Either expanding gas from the fired shell is diverted to operate the action and eject the empty case, or we have recoil operated semi-autos. The "long recoil" action is best exemplified by the "square back" Browning Automatic-Five and related guns based on John Browning's design work: the Remington Model 11, Franchi Model 48, and the Savage 750. In these guns, the barrel and breech bolt recoil into the action for at least the full length of the shell.

Short recoil actions include the now obsolete Val Browning Double Auto, Remington 11-48, and the more topical Benelli repeaters. The barrel and bolt unlock after a short movement, and momentum carries the bolt the rest of the way back to eject the fired shell.

Nothing ever displaces fit, and nothing ever will in a scattergun, and personal preferences remain just that. My experience with the Benelli Super Black Eagle and related models has been less than satisfying. They kick, and in high volume shooting situations can pound you into the ground like a tent stake. Their triggers have been universally poor, and are hard to easily improve. No ranked shooter I know of bothers with them, but the SBE's have a strong following in the field, particularly for waterfowlers, as they are touted as "super-reliable." Horses for courses, like anything else.

The Remington 1100 series, known for their soft recoil, are among the most popular shotguns of all time. These are the guns that basically started the gas operated revolution in autoloading shotguns. The streamlined 1100's, with their machined all steel receivers and checkered walnut stocks, are probably the handsomest autoloaders ever made. The later Remington 11-87 gas guns retain the styling of the 1100 and incorporate a gas pressure relief valve that allows them to shoot all shells, from light target loads to 3" magnums, without adjustment.

The Beretta and Browning gas guns claim increased durability, incorporate a gas pressure relief valve that allows them to handle a wide variety of loads and, unlike the 1100, don't need "O" rings to get them to work. Beretta gas guns are just plain good, and have been from the AL1, AL2, 300/302/303 series up to today's A390 (reintroduced as the 3901) and the 391 and variants.

It took Browning a long, long while to replace the A-5 (I don't think it can really be replaced), with the poorly received B2000, A500R, and A500G models. The Browning B-80 was and is a competent gun, but essentially is a Beretta 302 with a steel receiver option. Regardless, Browning finally did it with the attractive Browning Gold (and its variant marketed as the Winchester SuperX2), and various models and stock options continue to be added every year.

It's a lot easier to get that triple with a semi-auto than any two shot scattergun, and with the clear success of the Remington, Browning and Beretta gas-operated semi-autos, there are enough options and configurations to please most consumers. As a friend of mine likes to say, "shotguns are for the birds," and of course he's right. Anyone with an interest in scattergun sports should find modern semi-autos worthy of their consideration.

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Copyright 2006 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.