By Brian Lovett
Editor’s Note: This article first published in the October 2017 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine. It is reprinted here with permission. For more information go to www.gundigest.com.
For years, many waterfowl and upland bird hunting rituals were passed down through generations.
Fathers gave decoys to their sons. Oldtimers bequeathed wool hunting coats to grandchildren. And season after season, semi-automatic shotguns would jam in the field — likely at the worst possible moments. Even some of the all-time great autoloaders sometimes failed to feed or eject, especially if the owner hadn’t cleaned the gun properly. And that annoying tendency was no secret.
“It used to be if you were a waterfowl hunter 30 years ago and you wanted something reliable, you used a pump,” said George Thompson, director of product management for Benelli. “None of the semi-autos could hold up in those harsh environments.”
But today’s scene is different. Thanks to technological advances, modern semi-auto shotguns are far more reliable than their predecessors — even those from 20 years ago — and hunters no longer have to wonder whether their autoloader will go bang after the first shot. Further, manufacturers have reduced the weight, the number of moving parts and, in some cases, the cost of semi-autos, making today’s options even more appealing.
The Era Of Innovation
Many observers agree that the autoloader revolution started 26 years ago when Benelli introduced the original Super Black Eagle with its Inertia Driven operating system, which was actually created in 1967. The technology provided consistent, reliable cycling with no adjustments. Further, because the system blows gas and debris out of the barrel instead of using it to cycle shells, the guns continue to function without requiring much cleaning. Benelli has only tweaked the system once or twice since then. In fact, it’s still featured in the Super Black Eagle III, which was introduced in 2017.
“The way it caught on was somebody bought one, and they used it and told their buddy how great it was,” Thompson said. “It was just pure word of mouth from one duck blind to another. That reliability just became revered.”
Still, some hunters and shooters prefer gas-operated semi-auto shotguns because they produce less recoil. And gas autoloaders began to see tremendous improvements in reliability in the late 1990s, about the time Winchester Repeating Arms introduced its Super X2. (The company unveiled the Super X4 in 2017.)
“It’s pretty straightforward and very simple as far as why things have improved,” said Scott Grange, director of public relations and shooting promotions for Browning and Winchester Firearms. “It’s the same reason why everything around us has improved, and that’s manufacturing techniques. Our ability to manufacture things today is so incredibly better than it was 20 years ago. We can hold closer tolerances, which, in the case of a gas gun, is very critical, because most of these gas guns are what we call self-cleaning.”
Basically, Grange said, that means the gas piston shaves off some of the carbon residue left on the magazine tube when a shotshell is fired. Tight tolerances on those pistons let them reduce buildup, which can slow down the system and disrupt its timing.
“Timing is extremely critical in a semi-auto gas-operating system,” he said. “All you have to do is disrupt that timing a little bit and you’re going to create malfunctions. These tight tolerances allow us to keep a closer tolerance between the magazine tube and the piston, which ultimately results in a cleaner system.”
Andy Haskin, director of research and development for long-gun programs at Remington, said high-tech improvements allow modern gun designers to perform at an incredibly high level, accelerating developments. Remington introduced its revolutionary Versa Max gas-operated autoloader in 2010 and has followed that with the V3.
“The advancements in technology of the tools that we have available as research and development engineers (such as fine-element analysis, dynamic analysis and high-speed video) have improved greatly, which enables us to design and test much more accurately than we were able to in the past,” Haskin said. “The consumer expectations have increased as well. This has driven all the manufacturers to design and build guns to a higher standard.”
Thompson said modern gun makers also have incredible computer-numerical-control manufacturing capabilities. In fact, Benelli uses robotically controlled CNC centers, which eliminate human error.
Further, Grange said modern spring technology has improved autoloaders. Depending on the design, semi-autos might use several springs, so consistency is critical.
“Our spring technology today is a quantum leap over 20 years ago,” he said. “Springs used to drive us crazy because there was just so little consistency from batch to batch that it would affect the timing of these mechanisms. With spring technology today, the improvements there have contributed significantly to the improvement and reliability of semi-auto systems, shotgun or rifle.”
Technical talk is insightful, but many hunters and shooters just want to know if the gun can cycle a wide range of loads in various conditions?
Thompson pointed to Benelli’s continued reliability, as today’s Inertia Driven-system guns can fire light — even 7/8-ounce — loads up to the heaviest 3.5-inch magnums in all types of conditions.
“I struggle to find many negatives about a Benelli when it comes to pure reliability,” he said. “And there’s a difference between reliability in a laboratory and reliability in North Dakota in December.”
The Remington Versa Max and V3 use Versaport technology, a self-regulating gas system that adjusts to the size of the shell, letting you fire light 2.5-inch loads to 3.5-inch magnums (in the Versa Max).
“Versaport is a system that has a series of gas holes in the chamber area of the firearm,” said Daniel Cox, senior product manager of shotguns for Remington. “When shells of various lengths are used, the shell hull itself seals off the appropriate number of orifice holes, thus allowing the correct amount of gas to flow through the gas block to manipulate the pistons. This is a significant advantage to the consumer because it gives them the flexibility of using practically any shell length and payload combination out of the gun with reliable function without having to make any change whatsoever to the firearm itself. This mixed lot of shells can be used in any combination at the same time, and the gun will always function reliably.”
The Winchester Super X4’s Active Valve Gas System automatically adjusts to allocate the precise gas pressure needed to reliably cycle a wide range of loads. When firing the heaviest 3.5-inch loads, gases vent upward, and some vent forward out of the Quadra-Vent ports in the forearm to help regulate bolt speed. The 3- and 3.5-inch guns will reliably cycle 1 1/8-ounce 2.75-inch shells.
The Browning Maxus’ Power Drive gas piston has large exhaust ports that dump gases faster with heavy loads, and the piston has a stroke that’s about 20 percent longer for better reliability with light loads.
Shooters also enjoy another aspect of modern gas systems: They don’t require as much cleaning as their predecessors.
“It’s not like you need to clean them every time out,” Grange said. “The average guy, barring any unforeseen extreme conditions, can usually get through a season — depending on how much he shoots — without completely ripping the system apart and cleaning it. But it doesn’t hurt to clean it every once in a while.”
And Cox said modern design has made the cleaning job far simpler.
“The Versa Max barrel is removed, like most any shotgun, and the gas system is all captive and contained in the barrel gas block, so there are no small or delicate parts to risk losing or damaging in the field,” Cox said. “Cleaning requirements are minimal, often only needing them every several thousand rounds, as we have seen at this point in many years of the gun being available. Lubrication on the moving parts to keep them moving freely is really all that’s needed because the Versa Max gas-piston system is designed to be self-cleaning through normal use.”
Experts admit that the latest top-of-the-line autoloader iterations aren’t considerably more reliable than their earlier versions, mostly because those guns had already become very trustworthy. That reliability leaves manufacturers with a quandary, however: Designers must determine how to improve shotguns — even if they can’t better their shell-cycling capabilities. And the answer often involves a gun’s shape and features.
“The X3 and X2 are so time-tested and so reliable that to tell people we came out with a system that’s more reliable — I would have a hard time saying that,” Grange added. “But with the X4 we utilized modern technology and manufacturing techniques to help us cut the price down on that gun. The X4 is less than the X3 was. We carved a little bit out of there without cheapening things.”
More significantly, Grange said, the Super X4 features many ergonomic improvements, including a lighter overall weight and a slimmer forend and pistol grip to allow a better swing. It also features a larger safety button, operating handle and magazine-release button. The shell carrier and bolt-release button are coated with nickel Teflon to reduce friction and prevent corrosion. It even has a larger, more open trigger guard for hunters who wear gloves, and its Inflex Technology Recoil Pad helps reduce felt recoil.
“Ergonomically, we really improved that gun while hanging onto the reliability the Super X has gained throughout the years,” Grange said.
Cox said the Remington V3 Field Sport Walnut, introduced in 2017, continues the line’s high-performance expectations — but in a sleek platform that offers easy handling and pointability.
“We have a platform that we are confident will continue to provide many years of continued innovation and excellent performance for our consumers,” he said. “Looking for a way to make field guns lighter while not increasing recoil would be a logical next step.”
Thompson said Benelli also looked at form and practical function when designing the SBEIII.
“We started on the SBEIII 10 years ago,” he said. “One of the reasons it took so long is we were trying to find ways to improve it, because the SBEII was such an amazing gun. The way I like to say it is, ‘How do you make a Ferrari faster?’ It’s tough to do.
“Our guns, the SBE in particular, are made for waterfowl hunting,” Thompson added. “Waterfowl hunting generally never occurs on a 70-degree, sunny day. You’re trudging through swamp water sometimes. Stuff is getting in the gun, falling in the action the whole time. It’s about making the gun better in those conditions. It’s accounting for the fact your hands could be wet and cold, or you could be wearing gloves or a big, thick layered jacket. It’s accounting for excitement, like you just shot two birds out of your first three shots, and there’s another above you and you have to reload really quickly — those ergonomics.”
The SBEIII features an oversized safety and bolt handle, plus an outward-angled drop lever to make it quicker and easier to operate with gloved hands. A beveled loading port, redesigned carrier and new two-piece carrier latch make loading the magazine easier, and the new Easy Locking System prevents the gun from coming out of battery. Plus, engineers reduced recoil by using Comfort Tech 3, which uses shock-absorbing chevrons to turn the stock into a recoil pad, along with Combtech, which reduces facial impact and vibrations.
As fit evolves to complement in-the-field cycling function, shooters continue to reap the benefits. However, that again puts gun companies in a tight spot: How can they top these ultra-modern franchise semi-autos?
“It’s a constant battle as far as where we go with the next new product,” Grange said. “Sometimes, ammunition development kind of dictates it. We thought we had world by the tail years ago, and then along came the 3.5-inch 12-gauge loads. That turned the world upside down and created a whole bunch of opportunity for firearms manufacturers. Sometimes, ammo manufacturers and technology can create new products for the firearms side.”
Grange and Thompson said manufacturers would probably look at different chamberings, such as sub-gauge guns. Haskin said gun makers would likely continue striving to decrease recoil while making guns lighter. Tomorrow’s semi-auto shotguns might look different than today’s high-functioning models. And perhaps a technological breakthrough will let manufacturers make guns that are even more reliable. The future looks bright, and thanks to innovations set in motion over two decades ago, the present is pretty great, too.
About the Author: Brian Lovett is a freelance writer from Oshkosh, Wis. Follow him on Twitter @BrianLovett131.
Other Superb Semi-Autos
1. Beretta A400 Xcel Sporting Black: This competition shotgun is designed to shoot softer, cycle faster and be better balanced than other semi-autos. Using the A400 action, it delivers fast follow-up shots, and its advanced recoil-reduction system makes it easy to shoot. Featuring sleek ergonomics, the gun has a 10-millimeter-wide carbon-fiber rib that reduces barrel weight by 4 ounces to improve swingability and target acquisition. It also has an oversized bolt handle and release for faster loading between shots.
2. Browning Maxus Wicked Wings: These gas-operated semi-autos have a Cerakote Burnt Bronze camo finish on the receiver and barrel. The oversized bolt release makes it easier to manipulate the gun while wearing gloves. Also, it has a fully chromed bore for added corrosion resistance and longevity. The Maxus’ Power Drive Gas System can cycle a wide range of loads and reduces felt recoil.
3. Mossberg SA-28: This easy-handling 28-gauge autoloader is ideal for competition or recreational wing shooting. It uses a gas system that vents excess gases to increase recoil reduction and eliminate stress on operating components. It comes with a 26-inch barrel and weighs just 6.5 pounds.
4. TriStar Viper Max: This gas-operated autoloader lets you shoot light target loads up to heavy 3.5-inch waterfowl loads using a two-piston system. The light-load piston works with 2.75-inch shells, and the heavy-load piston works for others. The gun comes with four Beretta Mobil Chokes and features overmolded rubber grips on the stock and forend. It’s available in four 12-gauge versions, with 26- to 30-inch barrels. — BL