The Best Autoloading Hunting Shotguns on the Market
I've been hunting with autoloading shotguns for fifty years. That, if nothing else, makes me more than half-way to the barn. At one time, living large with an autoloader came in one largely accepted flavor: the Browning Automatic-Five. 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, but in a lifetime of hunting my great-grandfather's Model 11 still isn't worn out, nor is my grandfather's A-5 Light Twelve, nor is my father's A-5 standardweight. The Auto-Five is too costly to make today. It was too costly to make when I was in high school, for manufacturing shifted to Kabushiki Kaisha Miroku in order to fight the escalating cost of production.
Belgian-made Browning A-5'a were finished guns. The checkering was done by hand, as was the engraving. A “Grade I” A-5 had polished metal and polished blue: something that is rare today, while the hand-finishing of the A-5 is close to non-existent. Long ago, Jack O'Connor decried the high cost off hand-work. Little did he know that shotguns would be made, in several cases, with no craftsmanship at all. It takes craftsman to have it, of course, and the artistry of hand-finishing is long gone, for the most part.
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 revolutionary Browning action has run its course, there are two basic types of autoloading actions that remain: the recoil “inertia” type and several gas-operated variations.
THE CIVOLANI “INERTIA GUN”
Though apparently no one wanted to make Bruno Civolani's inertia design, originally, finally the now-defunct Benelli Brothers organization found it as a way to start up their arms off-shoot of their motorcycle business. While the inertia action originally didn't 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 doesn't need much maintenance. Many folks don't bother to clean their “inertia” guns at all until they stop working.
Folks don't like to clean their guns, to make an understatement. That's 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 light side. I suspect that the inertia gun has sold more recoil pads than any other autoloading action.
While, to many, the great appeal of the autoloading shotgun is its ability to mitigate recoil, if you approach loads for an inertia gun the exact same way as you would for a slide-action, SxS, or O/U you'll 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’s going to revolutionize shotgun shooting.” – Wayne Leek, 1962.
The 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: bores that the Browning Automatic-Five was never offered in . 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 2, 3 and 4 million. For those who subscribe to the mythological notion of “being proven,” nothing much is more proven than the 1100 as far as gas-operated autoloaders. The 1100 / 11-87 is the only mainstream autoloading shotgun made today with a receiver made from a solid block of steel.
The “Classic” 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 don't break, at least not easily, and my oldest B-80 has upwards of 200,000 rounds through it from long nights under the lights for race games, 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 Beretta-branded models since.
The Browning “Active Valve”
Since the line of active valve alloy autoloaders appeared in 1994. In the last 23 years, they have been praised and damned by similar 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, their first gas-operated shotgun that has been.
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 poor. 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 what has come after. The Browning gas autos, at least so far, have been generally well finished: staying away from the fake wood of Beretta and 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, with a redesign in 2005 with an improved action bar.
Fabarm hunting autos have been imported into the United States by Fabarm USA / Caesar Guerini just since 2015, featuring the L4S series and the XLR5 Waterfowler. They are 12 gauge only at this juncture and of course I personally 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, and so it goes.
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 in any designation as well. With no springs in the Pulse Piston, there is nothing to break at the wrong time. 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 3 inch guns are lighter than most 3 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 bleeds essentially right out of the chamber: as a result, it is hotter, cleaner gas. With 2-3/4 inch unfolded length shells, you can expect a 3 foot instrumental velocity loss of about 35 fps with the V3 for example, but only a fraction of that with 3 inch unfolded length shells. It 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 as well. The 26 inch V3 synthetic is better balanced and better balanced than the 28 inch models, as far as I'm concerned. At 7-1/4 lbs. for the synthetic, 7-1/2 pounds for the walnut, the V3 is at a good general purpose weight . . . and is light compared to 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 low-maintenance action are all there. Naturally, I'd like to see higher-grade models and of course, a 20 gauge as well.
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, 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 new models going forward. It is a shame, as the manufacturing capability is clearly there to make properly finished, cleanly machined hunting 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 that is exactly what they get.
It is all too often wildly misplaced economy, though, as 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” shotguns that we thought we bought may be more costly than the better quality shotguns are that need no extensive user-tuning and user-finishing.
Copyright 2017 by Randy Wakeman. All Rights Reserved.