July 2000

Beretta’s New AL391 Urika: A New Standard For Shotguns?

The newest iteration of Beretta’s flagship autoloader, the AL391 series, has a high hill to scale to knock off its predecessor, the AL390 model, plus other guns like Browning’s Gold Hunter.

Beretta’s $960 MSRP Urika AL391 shotgun,
ûfront, is a name change and model-number
ûupgrade from the company’s well-regarded
ûAL390 series.

We have wondered why gun makers don’t do more of what boat makers do nearly every day: Pop a hull and closely duplicate your competition’s best product. Of course, it’s intellectually dishonest and sometimes illegal to do that, because, designs, like any other intellectual property—are supposed to be owned by their creators. But the reality is that a good-performing boat will soon see clones of itself on the water, with only small degrees of design separation in inconsequential areas.

Certainly, the same process happens in gun manufacturing, and were we not worried about getting our asses sued off, we’d mention a few egregious cases that we’ve noticed here and there. A much more common practice, however, is when design “stealing” occurs within a business unit. Then it’s called “shared technology” or “synergy” or some other pretty phrase. And guess what: In this context, we have no problem with it at all. When USRAC/Winchester borrowed (or shifted or ported or whatever you want to call it) the Browning gas system from its Gold Hunter line to make the Super-X2 line last year, we thought that made sense.

Why reinvent the wheel when you got a shape that rolls pretty darn well already? That was the first question we asked when we read about Beretta’s new Urika AL391 shotgun, a name change and model-number upgrade from the well-regarded AL390 series, which Gun Tests has reviewed positively as Beretta’s Silver Mallard cosmetic package. The AL390s were awfully good guns for what they were: dependable semiautos destined for upland and waterfowl field use. In most respects, the 390s were equal to or better than Remington’s 11-87s, Benelli’s Black Eagles, and Browning’s Gold Hunters, to name a few. In sum, the Silver Mallards were pretty good wheels—but could they be made to roll that much better? Frankly, we had our doubts.

But Beretta apparently didn’t share those doubts. Perusing one of the company’s promotional fliers on the Urika, we noted this understated copy block: “Retaining the features that made the Beretta AL390 a favorite with hunters and target shooters alike, and combining them with innovative new elements, the new AL391 Urika is an unsurpassed value among semi-automatic shotguns.…All semiautomatic [sic] will now be measured against the AL391 Urika.”

Will they now? We decided to see how the gun, specifically Catalog No. J391120 with 28-inch barrels and a 3-inch chamber, $960, compared to another well-regarded product in the 12-gauge semiauto niche, the Browning Gold Hunter 3-inch 12 gauge, $735. In the June 1999 Gun Tests, we said hunters who were considering a 12-gauge Gold Hunter should Buy It, so we acquired one to serve as a benchmark in the test of a Urika, but we didn’t re-evaluate the Browning gun. Of course, we also had a lot of familiarity with the AL390s, and we critically examined the AL391s in light of what had come before them. Here’s what we found:

How We Tested
We fired the guns in three sets, shooting them first for general operation and familiarization at Houston’s American Shooting Centers (ASC) five-stand set-up. Thereafter, we shot the guns at Westside Sporting Grounds’s sporting clays course and at ASC’s Blue sporting course. In between, we patterned and function-checked the guns using a variety of 2 3/4-inch and 3-inch shotshells. Our test shells included Winchester’s 2 3/4-inch AA Light Target loads (2 3/4-dram equivalent, 1 1/8 ounce of No. 7 1/2 shot), Estate Cartridge’s punchier 2 3/4-inch Dove & Quail load (3 1/4 dram equivalent, 1 1/8 ounce of No. 7 1/2 shot), and PMC’s 3-inch magnum steel-shot loads, which carry 1 1/4 ounces of BBB shot sitting atop the maximum dram equivalent.

In performing two of the most crucial elements of shotgun evaluation—point-of-impact and patterning tests—we came to the early conclusion that this matchup would be determined by much more subtle elements. Reason: Because of the stock-adjustment capability of the Beretta gun, practically any shooter could set up the Italian product to perform nearly any job he wanted it to. Though we didn’t care for its over-the-counter set-up, (we missed a lot early), we couldn’t grade it down for that. We simply took out the cast, pitch, and length pieces we needed, fit them until they allowed us to mount the gun right, and eliminated the Beretta’s 4-inch-high POA problem. To the Browning’s credit, however, it shot comfortably to point of aim out of the box. But it lacked the stock-adjustment versatility of the other gun. God giveth and God taketh away.

Likewise any patterning problems. The short version of the extensive patterning testing we did was that load to load and choke to choke, these guns are very adaptable to the shooter’s needs. Were you to buy either gun, you would need to test what specific load you wanted to use and learn how it patterned with the supplied chokes. Comparing the choke performance label to label (IC versus IC, for instance), we didn’t note more than a 5 percentage–point variation between loads and guns, and it changed load to load. In sum, there was no substantial patterning edge one gun held over the other.

With those considerations off the table, we were left with gun-by-gun likes and dislikes. We started with the Urika.

Beretta Urika AL391
Our recommendation: Conditional Buy. The promised upgrades to the AL390s are there, but the Browning still shoots sweeter and for less money, we think. Beretta promises a lot with its updating of the AL390 model line to the AL391 numbering sequence and Urika name. However, in our view, some of the changes aren’t that noticeable, and some minor ones are a step backward.

[PDFCAP(1)].

The Urika series is offered in 19 field configurations, 10 sporting variations, four trap models, and four sport units. Barrel lengths on the series range from the shortest 24-inch tube to the longest 30-inch barrel. The gun comes in standard blued/wood, applied camouflage patterns, synthetic, and gold finishes. Our test unit was the standard field grade 28-inch gun with wood stocks and blued metal.

Common to all the Urika guns are semiautomatic operation with a self-compensating gas valve, an elevated locking lug, an aluminum-alloy receiver, chrome-lined bore and chamber to enable steel-shot use, a two-shot magazine, a polymer trigger guard, plastic and/or rubber buttpads, stock shims and spacers for adjusting fit, and walnut wood with a semi-gloss finish. Five Mobilchokes are included with each gun, ranging from the tightest Full constriction to Cylinder, with Improved Modified, Modified, and Improved Cylinder in between. As we mentioned, this range of choke offerings ensures that the Urika field shooter can adapt the shotstring to perform with nearly any load.

We noted quite a few differences between the AL390 and AL391. For example, the AL391 comes packaged as a self-contained unit inside a 38-inch-long injection-molded polymer case with integral handle. Broken down, the gun fits into molded slots for the buttstock/receiver and barrel. There are separate slots for four chokes (the fifth one resides in the barrel), a bottle of oil, a choke wrench, a space for the buttpads, wrenches, sling swivels, a magazine reducer, and an area for the stock-adjustment pieces. This is very helpful, and the custom case (designed by Beretta and Giugiaro Design) alone might be enough to offset the price between the Urika and the Gold Hunter.

On the gun itself, there are many more tweaks. The gun’s forend, noticeably slimmer than similar pieces on the AL390 and Gold Hunter, lacks a flange between the receiver and the front stock. This allows a clean line to flow from the front of the gun to the receiver. The forend cap has also been reduced in size and reworked, as has the receiver. The top and bottom thirds of the receiver are matte-finished, the top portion to reduce glare. The sides of the receiver are polished. Internally, the back of the receiver contains a recoil absorber, which is said to diminish vibration transmitted to the shooter. The trigger guard has been enlarged and reshaped, and is now made of polymer.

Our evaluation of these and other parts of the Urika began when we unwrapped the various packing bubbles and found the forend and barrel. There were more pieces to assemble than on the Gold Hunter, and a plastic fitting had to be removed, but we had the gun together in short order. To check its functioning, we initially shot a low-recoil, low-report round designed for fixed-breech guns, and learned the Urika wouldn’t cycle it (as the shotshell box indicated it would not). We moved up to a 7/8-ounce load and the gun worked fine. We ran through a range of shotshells including BBB steel magnums, mixing them shot to shot, and had no other function problems.

We then began shooting the gun on a five-stand course, and could not hit consistently with it. Part of the problem was the stock’s factory specifications of heel drop of 2.25 inches, some cast-off, and a length of pull of 14.4 inches. We like less drop, more cast-off, and less length, so we modified the stock so we could see the proper amount of the 1/4-inch-wide matte-finished ventilated rib. More problematic for the avid shooter, this field gun weighed only 7.0 pounds. At the range, we felt the impact of heavy loads more with the Urika than with the Hunter, despite the recoil-absorbing and gas-venting devices built into the Beretta. Of course, the Urika’s lighter weight would be a bonus in the field, where recoil is less noticeable.

Also appropriate on a field gun is the inclusion of a sling keeper, which fits under the forend cap. The forend flange is magnetized to ensure the keeper doesn’t fall off if you have to remove the cap—a thoughtful detail for klutzes worldwide. As well, Beretta provides a buttstock swivel mounted to a wood screw, if you don’t mind marring the select walnut stock. Our choice instead would be to use a wrist sling and keep the wood intact. Another nice field touch is the magazine cut-off switch located on the left side of the receiver. Depressing this allows the hunter to remove the round in the chamber and lock open the action, without having to cycle out rounds in the magazine.

With a few shotshells under our belt, we found we liked other aspects of the gun less, including some of the touted modifications. Foremost among the changes made to the 391 was a reshaping of the grip. We liked the thin, almost English feel of the wrist, but Beretta said the stock boasts “a lengthened, radiused, pistol grip, an ergonomic comb and fine checkering, a comfortable, firm grip is guaranteed, regardless of hand size, as is a correct finger position on the trigger.” We disagree. The pistol grip gave our shooters the feeling of having a shelf at the bottom of the grip. We thought the Browning’s flatter shape was much more comfortable.

One area that Beretta didn’t upgrade—a crucial oversight, in our view—was the Urika line’s triggers. On our test gun, the trigger was among the worst we’ve felt on an autoloader. It had a two-stage feel, very unsure at the beginning of the pull, creeping back to an ill-defined, 5-pound soft release. The Browning trigger, in contrast, had some take-up, but it was smooth to the break, and then it released cleanly and with no travel at 6 pounds. That’s heavy, of course, but repeatable. When we were shooting the Urika, we found ourselves pulling ahead of a target and taking up slack in the trigger. But not knowing when the gun would fire, we moved tentatively on the trigger. On fast targets, that’s a recipe for a station full of misses.

Though it’s a minor consideration in the field, we also preferred the Browning’s range loading sequence to the 391’s. When the hot shooter is loading two in five stand, he turns the gun on its left side and manually feeds the first shell into the chamber, then advances the bolt closed by depressing the breech block release button on the right side. He then slips the second shell into the magazine at the bottom of the gun. At this point, the Browning is ready to rock. But the Beretta requires the shooter to feed the shell into the magazine and depress the tiny carrier stop push button. This allows the round in the magazine to feed. When you’re shooting a lot of rounds, messing with the carrier stop push button is a hassle because of its size, location, and hard edge.

Browning Gold Hunter
Our recommendation: How does this gun compare to the Urika? Very favorably. We wondered why Beretta didn’t adopt some of Hunter’s laudable features, such as a decent trigger, back-boring, and an easy-loading magazine.

[PDFCAP(2)].

Our test Browning Gold Hunter, which we shot side by side the Urika in handling and patterning tests during this test, was nearly identical to the gun we tested in June 1999. Because of the guns’ similarities, we didn’t run a new, full evaluation, but we wanted to recap some of the most important aspects of the gun, since it affected how we viewed the performance of the Urika.

It had a glossy wine-red finish to its walnut stock that set off the dull black of the action and its gold colored trigger and gold-filled highlights very well. The stock had cut checkering that worked well and looked great. The buttstock was fitted with a black rubber ventilated recoil pad. The barrel was glossy blued. The Gold’s barrels accepted Invector choke inserts. It had 1/4-inch-wide ventilated rib with matte finish that led the eye to a white front bead. The barrel was back-bored, producing a lively, pointable, soft-shooting autoloader.

The Gold Hunter’s receiver was fully machined from aluminum alloy. Inside the action everything was cleanly cut and nicely finished. The follower was chrome plated steel, and it was not necessary to push the bolt release button to load the magazine. The bolt was shiny, appeared to be chromed and had only one extractor. The ejection port had smooth, beveled edges that left no sharp edges to cut your hands, or cause ejected shells to hang up.

Beretta AL390 Silver Mallard
Our recommendation: In June 1999, we said this gun was light feeling, quick, and produced low recoil. We said Buy It then, and we’d still buy it now, even with the availability of the Urika.

[PDFCAP(3)].

It’s difficult to judge the new AL391 without some perspective on the gun that preceded it. Though the Urika does have some new, improved qualities, the Silver Mallard was pretty darn good itself. Here’s why we liked it.

Part of the gun’s good feel came from a slight bit of cast-off, which can be changed by a gunsmith if you either don’t want it, or want more. The drop, too, can be slightly altered, a featured carried forward into the Urika.

The AL390’s walnut stock had cut checkering, a glossy finish and a thin but effective rubber buttpad. Overall, we preferred the lines of the Urika over the 390, but we liked the finish of the older gun better. The pistol grip was capped with blued steel. The Urika came with a cap the shooter could install if he chose to. Both Berettas bleed off a big dose of gas to kick the action open. But we couldn’t discern that the new gun shot any softer than the old, once the stocks are fit properly. The 390’s barrel was back-bored, but nothing we saw in the Urika’s specs suggested that this treatment was carried forward to the new gun.

Gun Tests Recommends
Beretta Urika AL391, $960. Conditional Buy. There is a lot to like about this shotgun, in particular its light weight, trim feel, stock adjustability, choke options, sling equipment, and its go-along case. As a field gun, especially for upland use, we’d say Buy It and get the trigger fixed, if need be. For waterfowling, we’re less sure we’d buy the Urika. A heftier gun is not a disadvantage when shooting 3-inch BBB magnums, as we found out when we compared the Browning Gold Hunter and the Urika side by side, shot by shot.

Will “all semiautomatics now be measured against the AL391 Urika?” In our view, no. The Gold Hunter we used as a baseline in this test was every bit as good as the Urika in the most important areas. Yes, it was chubbier. Yes, it lacked some of the Urika’s accouterments. But it pointed well, had a great trigger, and its back-bored barrels seemed very effective in reducing perceived recoil. As far as wheels go, it rolls pretty darned well as it is.