December 2004

Gun Tests Guns Of The Year 2004

Which firearms offer the best combination of performance, price, and value? We look back at the previous 11 months of Gun Tests and tell you what we would buy for ourselves.

Every December I take a step back and survey the work Ray Ordorica, Roger Eckstine, Duane Thomas, and Ralph Winingham have done in Gun Tests, with an eye toward selecting guns the magazine’s writers have endorsed wholeheartedly. From these evaluations I pick the best from a full year’s worth of tests and distill summary recommendations for readers. These “best of” choices are a mixture of our original tests and other information I’ve squirreled away during the year. After Ben Brooks or Kevin Winkle (the magazine’s product coordination editors) sell high-rated test products to readers, I try to keep track of how those guns do over time, and if the firearms continue performing well, then I have confidence about including them in this year-end wrap-up.

With the intervention of time, I can take a step back and evaluate those guns which, in our opinion, are can’t-miss products for the Gun Tests reader. —Todd Woodard

----------

Ruger Redhawk KRH-445 .44 Magnum, $685
Though larger rounds have eclips­ed some of the .44 Mag­num’s magic, the cartridge remains near the top of the power curve for most people, especially when day-to-day carry comes into play. If you want to carry this much power and weight, then you would be well served to try the Red­hawk.

If you are going to spend a lot of time firing full-power magnum loads, we think you will be happy with the big and bold Ruger Redhawk.

The shortest barrel Ruger offers in this model measures 5.5 inches. We chose to put aside the rose­wood grip panels that came with the Redhawk in favor of a more shock-absorbent rubber model, the Hogue Monogrip, $22. To adapt the Monogrip to the Ruger, we had to remove a locating disc in the Rug­er’s grip frame and insert a yoke around the bottom of the frame. This provides a thread­ed socket for the screw that holds the Monogrip in place.

We shot two .44 Magnum rounds and a .44 Special round. The 180-grain JHP/XTP .44 Specials shot very soft­ly in the Redhawk. Average velocity was 888 fps, and five-shot-group accuracy at 25 yards ranged from 1.9 to 2.3 inches. The 180-grain JHP from PMC was the most comfortable .44 Magnum round to shoot, and with it we produced groups rang­­ing from 1.8 to 2.1 inches. With the 240-grain JHP Fed­eral American Eagle round, we could only achieve an average group mea­suring 2.8 inches with the Red­hawk.

• Ruger Redhawk KRH-445 .44 Magnum, $685. Our Pick. If your aim is to fire hot loads aplenty and concealment is not an issue, we think you’ll be happy with the Redhawk. Furthermore, even the hottest .44 Specials were a ho-hum affair in the Redhawk.

----------

Benelli Nova Tactical Pump 12 Gauge 3.5 inch, $305
At close range, a shotgun is simply the most effective weapon that anyone can put in their hands to defend themselves or their home. Point and shoot, rather than being concerned with maintaining a prop­er sight picture, gives a shotgun and its easily controlled pattern of shot a clear edge.

Toss in the fact that most shotgun loads, other than slugs, will do their self-preservation damage without passing through walls, and it is easy to see why many security officials recommend shotguns as the best home-defense firearm. Even a homeowner with just a little experience on the range can be deadly with a shotgun fired across a room.

A load of bird shot produces a disabling or lethal pattern 12 to 15 inches in diameter at the typical distance of 20 feet or less, providing the home defender with a much wider range of error than with the single slug of a pistol or rifle. Several manufacturers have designed shotguns specifically for home defense, with short barrels and other unique features — including moderate price tags. One we tested was the Benelli Nova Tactical Pump No. Z194882, $305.

The grip and feel of the Benelli, even with its short barrel complete with rifle sights, was very comfortable. Our testers had no problems handling the short pump even in rapid-fire tests.

Imported from Italy by Benelli U.S.A. Corporation, the ultra-modern look and feel of the pump is both pleasing to the eye and functional, with its action and stock made as one unit, in addition to a sleek forearm. The weather-resistant polymer stock is bonded to the steel action in a single piece, with ribbed grooves on the grip rather than checkering providing a firm hold. Similar ribbed grooves can be found on the forearm, which also features a reces­sed finger groove area at its top.

We were also impressed with the placement of the safety and action- release controls at the right front of the trigger guard. This setup allows the shooter to control the actions of the shotgun with the trigger finger, then simply slide the trigger finger back into the guard for easy firing.

A check of the action found the rotating-head closure system to be very smooth and functional. Internal parts and metal were polished and demonstrated quality workmanship. There were no malfunctions with any of the test ammunition.

Designed for use in close quarters, our test gun measured 40 inches in overall length with an 18.5-inch barrel and open rifle sights. The weight of the firearm was a comfortable 7.2 pounds.

Performance with No. 4 buckshot, which fires 27 pellets, was impressive at up to 25 yards. Most two-shot groups resulted in an average of 36 killing or disabling hits in the silhouette target’s body or neck.

The Nova seemed to prefer the No. 7 1/2 shot over the No. 6 shot at targets set up at 20 feet (about the maximum range for home defense). Average groups of about 12 inches were achieved with the smaller shot, while the No. 6 shot groups averaged about 14 inches. Both groups would be very deadly in a home defense situation.

The LOP on the test gun was 14.5 inches, falling within the comfort zone of most shooters. The drop at the comb was 1.5 inches and drop at the heel was 2.25 inches. While the shotgun came to the shoulder well, many of the test shots were fired from the hip, as in a home-defense situation, and we found the Nova to be well balanced in both type of shooting tests.

• Benelli Nova Tactical Pump 12 Gauge 3.5 inch No. Z194882, $305. Our Pick. Good-looking design, easy to handle and a low price tag put this pump-action shotgun at the top of our list.

----------

FN Model 1949 (SAFN), Argentine Navy, $695
We took a close look at vintage rifles that boldly illustrated early attempts by designers to develop a viable mil-spec self-loading rifle, the best of which was an FN Model 1949, also known as the SAFN 49 or FN49 (our sample as issued to the Argentine Navy) in .308. The FN49 was not only a good mil-type rifle, but it was also a proving ground for some design features that were later incorporated into the world-famous FN FAL. The rifle was a wood-stocked weapon with small nicks and dents. We acquired our FN from Southern Ohio Gun (SOG), 800-944-4867.

Our first impression of this .308-chambered rifle was that it had delightful balance. With its detachable magazine removed, it superficially resembled the Garand. It had no obvious nods whatsoever to the FAL, with the possible exceptions of the front-sight guards and the gas-tube-takedown button just in front of the front sight. One hidden similarity was that the FN could be adjusted to regulate the amount of gas bled to the bolt. Our specimen didn’t lock the bolt back regularly at first, so we thought the gas port had been adjusted for a round with different characteristics from our ammunition. However, on removal of the parts we found heavy grease within the mechanism. Accordingly, we field-stripped the rifle and totally cleaned it, something that should be done with all military-surplus rifles, in our opinion.

This Argentinean rifle (Model 49) used a 20-round detachable magazine that was a quantum leap forward from the fixed 10-round box. The FN49’s mag looked a whole lot like a FAL magazine. We determined a brand-new metric FAL magazine would require extensive reworking to permit it to be used, unless the bolt-hold-open lugs were abandoned. The two types of magazine are similar. The FAL mag was of the same width as the FN49’s, but lacked the rearward extensions for the bolt-stop levers. The supplier of our test rifle, Southern Ohio Gun, has indicated no spare magazines are currently available, but the company is trying to obtain some. The rifle came with a bayonet.

Our FN’s metalwork was covered — inside and out — with black paint, which was seriously chipped or missing in many areas of this test rifle. We did not like this black paint. It was clearly intended as a protection against salt air, but for normal use it was not as good as bluing, we thought.

The stock, as noted, had numerous nicks and dings all over its surface. However, it appeared to be walnut, and had attractive grain beneath all the dirt and nicks. The inletting was excellent. The three-piece wood stock was all tight to the metal, including the upper forend pieces. A good wiping with kitchen cleaner did wonders for its appearance.

The wood was well selected for strength, the grain running in the right direction through the pistol-grip area. The stock was also generously proportioned, and the wood was higher than the metal wherever the two met, so a careful refinish preceded by scraping could renew its appearance.

The well-protected front sight presented a flat-topped post to the shooter. It was adjustable for windage by drifting, though windage was also incorporated into the rear sight via opposing screws, just as on the FAL. The rear aperture sight was guarded by two stout ears. It was marked from 1 to 10 in hundreds of yards, and had a spring-loaded catch that added drag to the elevation button to help keep the aperture where you put it along the sight rail. There was a small cover on the right rear of the action that slid forward to cover the slot behind the bolt, to keep dirt out.

With the mag­azine out of the rifle, the bolt could be held open by pulling it fully rearward and depressing a small lever on the left side of the action, just behind the stripper-clip notches. The safety was on the right side of the hefty trigger guard in the form of a forward-facing lever that, when applied, blocked the trigger and also made it difficult to get the finger onto the trigger. The rifle was set up to favor right-handers, but lefties could operate the safety with the thumb. The trigger pull was very much okay, and moved in a direction that corresponded with the natural movement of the trigger finger. When we measured the pull (7.3 pounds) we found it took almost 6 pounds to overcome the first stage. It broke with very little creep.

Overall workmanship was, we thought, excellent, but the chipped paint made it hard to evaluate the metalwork in some areas.

On the range, we loaded with three shots and tried the rifle offhand from 75 yards, to get a feel for it. We hit the paper only twice, and after the last shot the bolt did not stay open, as already discussed. At this point we inspected and clean­ed it all, and then the bolt then stayed open when it was supposed to.

Accuracy testing was done with Chinese surplus, brand-new Federal Match, and PMC Eldorado (Barnes X) ammo. We found out why we had missed the target from offhand. The front sight was way too far right. We drifted it back and got our groups centered easily. We did our serious bench testing from 50 yards in view of the winter weath­er and questionable daylight during our sessions. Our extrapolated results told us to expect 3-inch or better groups at 100 yards. The new Federal Gold Medal Match fodder did the best, as expected, and gave the lowest standard deviation of the tests. Post-cleaning, there were no failures of the bolt to stay open following the last shot.

• Model 1949 (SAFN), $695. Our Pick. We liked this rifle quite a lot, not only because of its good looks, attractive wood, chambering (.308), fine balance and outstanding sights, and what appeared to be a chrome-lined barrel, but also because of its great historical significance. There was something inherently right about it, especially when compared with the FAL, the Garand, and even with the M14.

----------

Kel-Tec P3AT .380 ACP, $345
Semi-automatic pistols small enough to fit into one’s pocket and avoid detection are naturally called “pocket pistols.” One such pistol is the proven Kel-Tec P32, and we wanted to see how the parent com­pany’s slightly larger model in .380 ACP, the Kel-Tec P3AT, fared against the .32. Here’s what we learned:

The P3AT appears to be the very same firearm as the P32, but with a noticeably larger hole in the muzzle. Capacity is 6+1, reduced by one round from the P32. The P3AT weigh­ed in at 13 ounces, which is only one ounce more than the P32. Width on both models was the same, and again the only protrusion from their slim profiles was the magazine release. Operation and safety mech­anisms were also identical.

The .380’s handling and trigger were also very much the same as the P32, and the increase in recoil was not a problem. We saw it as a welcome addition telling us that there was a little more going on out there on our behalf. The velocity of the .380 rounds was comparable to the .32 Automatic slugs, but due to the increased mass, muzzle energy was greater.

We found it easier to secure a wid­er variety of .380 ACP rounds than .32 Auto cartridges. We tested the P3AT with a 90-grain hollowpoint from Hornady, a 102-grain Golden Saber brass-jacketed hollowpoint from Remington, and a 95-grain FMJ round from Federal American Eagle. With velocities just short of 800 fps, muzzle energy ranged from 122 foot-pounds from the Hornady JHP/XTP rounds to 137 foot-pounds from the Golden Sabers. We experienced more consistent accuracy from the P3AT than from the P32. In fact we were able to land two five-shot groups that measured less than 2 inches, including a 1.3-inch group firing the Federal American Eagle rounds.

But we did find a couple of shortcoming in the Kel-Tec P3AT .380 ACP pistol. For one, the gun consistently grouped low at 7 yards. Is this a real problem? Probably not if it is viewed as a close-quarters weapon. Then again, we think it points out the need for more suitable sights. Perhaps the jump from the light payload of .32 Auto to the .380 would justify changing the rules for this design to include sights that adjust.

We also noticed that our P3AT would not lock back upon emptying the magazine. Although some shooters do prefer a non-locking setup, we are sure that this was not intentional. We noticed that the magazine in our P3AT sat much lower in the gun than did the magazine in the P32. We think each of these problems can be addressed, and that the increase in power with little or no increase in size makes the .380 ACP P3AT a better self-defense choice than the .32 Auto P32.

• Kel-Tec P3AT .380 ACP, $345. Our Pick. The P3AT has all the advantages of the P32 with enough added power to make us feel more comfortable. Both Kel-Tec pistols were fun to shoot, and with the proper retention system should be safe to carry and be put quickly into action.

----------

SIGARMS P220ST .45 ACP, $861
After Ernest Lang­don captured the Custom Defensive Pistol Division (CDP) at the 2003 International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA) championship match shooting a traditional double-action Sigarms P220ST pistol rather than a custom 1911, we wanted to know what was so special about this gun. What we found impressed us.

The P220ST is a variation of the more familiar model that features an alloy frame, the latter of which has a listed weight of 27.8 ounces. In comparison, the P220ST is marketed as a target model with added weight to fight recoil. Why this “target” gun needs an equipment rail puzzles us, but it does position additional weight in just the right position to add control. Our P220ST weighed in at more than 40 ounces.

The P220ST had a 4.4-inch barrel with a portion of the hood cut away for the purpose of visual chamber indication. The cut also served to impress us with just how beefy the barrel was. The slide was cut with rear cocking serrations only and topped with a white-dot sight up front and a white bar-notch sight in the rear. Slide to frame fit was tight. The accessory rail was not added to the frame. It was part of the contours cut from the original block of stainless steel. The frame also featured mild 20-lpi checkering on the front strap and a contour cut on the leading edge of the trigger guard to make room for accessories or facilitate a forefinger hold. The trigger guard was undercut slightly to lower the gun in the hand, and there was a beavertail-style tang in the rear. The grip was rubber contoured to cover the back strap. The finish was matte silver with black accents of the trigger, slide release, decocker, magazine release and breakdown lever.

To measure raw accuracy we fir­ed single action only from a sandbag rest at 25 yards. Our test ammunitions were a popular 230-grain FMJ round from Federal American Eagle, Federal’s 165-grain Hydra-Shok jacketed hollowpoint, and a 185-grain hollowpoint from Zero Ammunition of Cullman, Alabama, (800-545-9376), that we had not tried before. All rounds fired fell into five-shot groups measuring between 2.5 and 3.0 inches. Although this is not spectacular accuracy, this is one of the most consistent performances we’ve seen from an over-the-counter handgun.

Besides standard accuracy collection, we also tested the ability to transition between DA and SA fire. Also, we wanted to find out how easily we could track and reacquire the sights during rapid fire. The drill consisted of a series of 10 strings of three shots each at 7 yards. (A string was a separate and complete succession of shots). To be successful, the shooter had to be physically smooth and precise. We began with the gun on the center mass (A-zone) of a Hoffner’s ABC16 target. The first shot was fired double action, and we followed through with a second shot at the A-zone via single action. Then we tran­sitioned vertically to the B-zone, or cranial cavity as portrayed on the target. This shot was also single ac­tion. Setting the fastest time was not the objective, but we did challenge ourselves to move quickly. We measured the two groups and noted the point of impact relative to our point of aim. The stock P220ST delivered a 20-shot group in the A-zone of DA to SA hits measuring 6.8 inches. More impressive was the “head” shot of 10 rounds that measured only 4.4 inches. Better yet, all hits were dead center, indicating that the shooter had no trouble avoiding sight deflection or difficulty with the trigger.

• SIGARMS P220ST .45 ACP, $861. Our Pick. This may be the best of all full-size TDA pistols currently available. You might want to buy the alloy-framed P220 for carry and an “ST” model for sport. For under $1,000 you can go up against the best 1911s in IDPA competition and, in our opinion, have a darn good chance of winning.

----------

Ruger Model 77RS MKII, $780
We acquired a couple of .338 Mag bolt rifles, the best of which was the Ruger 77, one of the most commonly seen rifles in Alaskan hunting camps. The Ruger had a walnut stock complemented by blued steel. This rifle had iron sights, the rear being a folding pattern that, with some scopes, permitted getting it out of the way. We had to remove the rear sight to mount our 12X Leupold, which had a large objective. We mounted the scope as far forward as we could get it on all three rifles to keep it off our faces in recoil. This caused it to crowd the Ruger’s rear sight. A more appropriate hunting scope would not require the removal of that rear sight. The Ruger 77 also came with scope mounts. The Ruger’s metal was nicely polished, though in certain light it was just possible to see polishing marks on the barrel. The bluing was perfectly done, with the bolt left white. There were no sharp edges on the areas of the action where the fingers needed to go to manipulate, load, or unload the rifle, with one exception. The tip of the bolt release was dagger-sharp. The three-position safety was at the right-rear corner of the action, and though it worked to perfection, we once again wished for the long-absent tang safety that used to be one of the Ruger 77’s finer features.

Inletting was good. The stock finish was serviceable but left the pores slightly unfilled. The barrel was bedded with upward pressure from the tip of the forend, with the remainder floated all the way back to the action. The wood was more-than-decent walnut, with Ruger’s standard, workable, though too-small-at-the-wrist checkering. The butt pad was deplorable, and needs to be replaced if you buy this gun.

We mount­ed our 12X Leupold and tried the rifle with 200- and 250-grain loads by Winchester and Remington respectively. We found the Ruger preferred the lighter bullet, putting three of them consistently into a group just over an inch. Recoil was surely noticeable, but a good pad would make this a far more pleasant rifle. The 250-grain Remington load gave a bigger kick and a visible ball of flame out front. Our feeling was that the rifle would be thoroughly suitable for those who would usually fire a lighter bullet, as when using this rifle for, say, deer hunting. Twist rate was given as one turn in 10 inches, which ought to have worked well with either bullet weight, in our experience. Why it did not shoot the heavier bullets better we don’t know. Groups averaged 2.5 inches with the 250-grainer, which was probably enough accuracy.

Three rounds went easily into the magazine and from there into, and out of, the chamber. Ejection was a function of the operator. Brisk bolt motion gave brisk ejection. This rifle had a clean trigger pull, though we’d have liked it a touch lighter. The rifle performed about as expected, thought the groups we got with the heavier bullets were disappointing to some of our staffers, who prefer the heavyweights. Accuracy with heavier bullets might improve with load tinkering, or fine-tuning the Ruger’s bedding. However, we thought it had enough accuracy with heavy bullets as it tested for most big game hunting at reasonable ranges.

• Ruger Model 77RS MKII, $780. Our Pick. One of the best features of the Ruger was its overall classic look. It looked like a hunting rifle, and was nicely proportioned in all its lines. It was also well balanced, and easy in all its operations. We would fix the trigger and replace the recoil pad, but that’s it.

----------

The Desantis Sky Cop was constructed with one piece of leather wrapped around the gun rather than layered in between. We thought it was a bargain at $53.

DeSantis Sky Cop No. 68, $53
When we decided to take a look at cross-draw holsters, we ex­pected to find a variety of products from which to choose. But the cross-draw holster has never been very popular, and in our search for test samples we found that relatively few were actually available. But the cross-draws may become more popular as their advantages become better known.

We wouldn’t even be talking about cross-draw holsters if it weren’t for the Air Marshal in-flight program. Air Marshals spend most of their time seated in a tight coach-class seat. The need to acquire the gun quickly or unobtrusively from a point forward of the hip has renewed interest in the cross-draw design, and as a result, we will undoubtedly see more such holsters made available in the very near future.

For this article we tested three dedicated cross-draw holsters, and liked the $53 De­Sant­is Sky Cop the best. Here’s what we liked about this product:

We purchased the Sky Cop from DeSantis Gunhide in New Hyde Park, New York (800-486-4433 or http://www.desantisholster.com/). The DeSantis Sky Cop was constructed with hard molded leather displaying the detail of our Sigarms P239. The construction was one piece folded around the gun and sewn sturdily from underneath the dust cover to the trailing loop. The belt slot on the body of the holster extended from the base of the muzzle of the gun to the top and around the mouth of the holster, adding to its rigid form that will not collapse when the gun is removed. This allows for easy re-holstering. The Sky Cop is not lined but the rawhide interior surface has been smoothed with lacquer. We never had to use it, but there was a tension screw for adjusting strength of retention.

We found that a cross-draw holster best fits the body when the holster design and the garment to be worn over it are considered together. But an even more important element may be the body type of the individual. Placing the gun and holster at or behind the weak hand hip was favored by wearers with narrow hips and longer arms. Placing the gun just ahead of the weak-side hip or above the front pants pocket was favored by those with bulkier arms or wider shoulders.

We thought the Sky Cop offered just the right size belt loop and notch for accepting the widest range of belt sizes. The trailing loop measured approximately 1.7 inches top to bottom, forming a “C” shape. The opposite vertical edges were offset to conform to the belt. The corresponding slot on the body of the holster was longer on the top seam to add stability. We carried a Sigarms .357 SIG P239 in this holster for four months, mostly whenever we wore a sweater or sweatshirt. This holster did everything we asked of it and was easy to put on and take off.

• DeSantis Sky Cop, $53. Best Buy. The Sky Cop is a bargain in classic cross-draw holster design. It offers detail, durability and it is versatile enough to fit the widest variety of body types, in our estimation.

----------

Sigarms P226 9mm, $830
According to recent Gun Tests reader surveys, the most popular cartridge among readers is the 9mm Parabellum. Continued allegiance to the 9mm makes sense. Most traditional double action and polymer pistols we now take for granted were first introduced in the 9X19mm chambering. The 9mm round is a well-mannered, easy-to-reload, cheap-to-shoot, powerful-enough choice for self-defense, plink­ing, and many other uses.

We tried out three 9mm pistols in lightweight carry sizes and preferred the $830 Sigarms P226, an alloy-framed stalwart with a traditional double-action mechanism. Is the P226 worth the money? We thought so, and here’s why:

Our P226 pistol had a full-size alloy frame in dark blue. Available options include SigLite night sights, a K-Kote finish and nickel slide that can drive the price up another $100. A much heavier all-stainless model with accessory rail will also be available shortly. Standard sights consisted of a single white dot on the front sight and a vertical white bar in the notch of the rear sight.

The P226 profile was simple and snag free. Finding the trigger, the magazine release and levers for de­cocking and releasing the slide was easy thanks to a smooth blend of contours and plastic grip panels that point the way. The magazine well was gently flared, which plays a part in creating a small lip at the base of the front strap. The backstrap was also rounded off toward the front of the gun, but only those with larger hands will recognize it as a palm swell.

The P226 has been around longer than most semi-automatic pistols available today. Any bugs to be found in the design of this gun have long been exterminated, but popular innovations such as a chamber-loaded indicator and manual safeties were not available on the P226.

Field-stripping the P226 was an easy chore. Lock back the slide, turn the release and the slide comes off easily without having to manipulate the trigger. Anytime pressing the trigger can be taken out of a maintenance routine, the gun becomes that much safer. With the slide removed, we saw that slide-to-frame contact was maximized from dustcover to the tang, that extended over the web of the strong hand.

The trigger system is traditional double action, wherein the first shot is the result of a double-action pull, but subsequent shots are fired single action. To carry the gun safely, push down the decocker on the left side of the pistol, which lowers the hammer safely behind a chambered round. The first trigger press will perform two actions, causing the hammer to move back to a break point at which time the hammer falls, igniting a round. In single action the trigger simply releases the hammer and the slide automatically resets the hammer to the rearward position after each shot.

The face of the trigger was very smooth, and we did not find it hard to maintain a solid grip while pressing the trigger through the longer double-action stroke. Transition to single action was flawless and better than on other TDA pistols.

Our formal accuracy data was collected single action only. Firing the Zero brand ammunition we achieved our best single group of the test and also the most consistency. Results varied only 0.2 inches from group to group at 25 yards. In the case of the Mag­Safe ammunition groups ran an average of 2.5 inches with 566 foot-pounds of muzzle energy. We liked having that much force with this level of accuracy from a 9mm pistol. Firing the budget Winchester USA rounds, variation from group to group was a mere 0.3 inch. The Zero 9mm 115-grain rounds shot 1.8-inch groups at 25 yards, followed by the MagSafe 84-grain rounds (2.5 inches) and the Winchester 115-grain cartridges (2.7 inches).

• Sigarms P226 9mm, $830. Our Pick. This is a proven design executed with top-notch qual­ity control. The Sigarms TDA trigger sets the standard for this type of action. If you’ve got the bucks to buy it, you’ll like it.

----------

Browning Gold Sporting 12 Ga. No. 011103404, $1,105
A couple of the most popular semiauto shotguns finding favor with competitors are the Browning Gold Sporting and the Beretta AL 391 Urika. When we tested the pair in May 2004, we preferred the Browning gas-operated gun. Here’s why.

To start, out of the box the gun is a shooting pleasure. When this shotgun first entered the sporting clays scene several years ago, the most common observation was about how well the shotgun pointed and handled. Our test group agreed with this assessment.

Our test firearm was the latest version of the shotgun to be marketed by Browning. Two of the latest features are a shim-adjustable stock that allows the comb to be raised or lowered up to 1/8 inch; and two separate gas pistons to be used depending upon whether the shooter is using shot charges of 1 ounce or less, or heavier loads of 1 1/8 ounce or greater.

Both options were appreciated by our test group, although the fit and function of the shotgun right out of the box was acceptable for our shooters.

The Browning test gun was 48.5 inches in overall length, with a 28-inch factory-ported barrel and a length of pull of 14.5 inches. Weighing 7 pounds 10 ounces, the shotgun was well balanc­ed, in addition to pointing well for all members of our group. It is rare that this good feel and good pointing ability can be found in any out-of-the-box shotgun.

The drop at the comb was 1.5 inches, with the drop at the heel of 1.75 inches providing a straight stock. The trigger pull was heavy at 6 pounds, but did not cause any major problems in our shooting tests.

Recoil from all loads was within the acceptable range for our test group. The speed-loading function that automatically feeds a shell into the open chamber when it is loaded into the magazine found particular favor with our group.

For our use, the chartreuse-colored light pipe of the HiViz Pro-Comp sight offered the best focal point on the sporting clays course. Also utilizing the center sight bead on top of the tapered, ventilated rib, the pointing ability of the shotgun received very high marks.

The oversized, cross-bolt safety on the back of the trigger guard (which can be reversed by a gunsmith for left-handed use) was easy to use.

Only one malfunction was experienced during our shooting sessions of several hundred rounds, with one of the Remington No. 8 shot loads failing to eject properly.

• Browning Gold Sport­ing 12 Gauge, $1,105. Our Pick. Both the tool of champions and a very fine out-of-the-box firearm that fits and points well for the average shooter, this shotgun edged out the competition as our tester’s choice as a top sporting clays gun.

----------

Savage Model 12 BVSS Varmint, .22-250, $696
We tried out two new varmint-hunting cartridges against one of the old standbys to see if new was better than, equal to, or worse than the old-timer. At the end, we picked a Savage heavy-barrel .22-250 Model 12 BVSS Varmint over a Browning A-Bolt Hunter in .223 WSSM and a brand-new heavy-barrel Ruger Model 77 in .204 Ruger. Let’s take a look at what we found.

Stainless steel and laminated wood make a great combination, we think, and Savage’s natural-finished wood and brushed-stainless Model 12 was no exception. The Savage’s heavy barrel was lightly fluted on its forward portion. During our shooting we thought this helped cut mirage, but it was impossible to tell for sure. At the very least, it looked good and broke up the monotony of all that white steel. All metal finish was matte stainless, nicely done. The exception was the bolt body, polished fairly brightly and emblazoned with the Savage name. The laminated stock had beefy dimensions, which we liked. There was enough wood at the pistol grip to let us slide our hand down so the trigger finger contacted the bottom of the trigger, which tends to make the trigger pull seem lighter because of added leverage.

The front of this heavy and attractive stock was capped with a black forend tip, which looked great, we thought. The forend was wide and massive, which gave lots of options for bedding the rifle prior to taking a shot in the field. The stock was fitted with stainless slingswivel studs fore and aft. The firm, dark-red butt pad was well rounded on all edges. It had enough traction to stick well to clothing. The fit of the pad to the stock was outstanding. The in­letting was also outstanding, as was the finish on the wood, as well as on the metal. This rifle would not take a back seat to many costing three or four times its price, we thought.

The 26-inch, 1:12-twist barrel had a recessed crown, and was free floated back to the action. The action had Savage’s standard bolt release, which requires pressing the trigger (with the bolt open) before you can press down on the bolt release. The action tang held a three-position sliding safety, forward to fire. It was a touch crowd­ed, we thought, but adequate. It worked well. The five-round magazine was blind. There was no floor­plate. Removing rounds from the magazine required cycling them with the bolt, easily done with the safety in the middle position.

The trigger was something new to us. This was Savage’s Accu­Trig­ger, which was superficially like a Glock trigger. Within the blade of the trigger proper was a thin, spring-loaded safety blade that the trigger finger had to first compress before being able to contact the main trigger. If the main trigger were pulled rearward without the thin blade being pressed, the rifle would not fire, even though this uncocked the firing pin. But with the finger in the normal position, we found it was easy to adapt to this thin blade. Spring pressure was very light, requiring about 10 ounces to depress the blade against the main trigger. The main trigger had an outstanding pull, light and crisp, breaking at 2.3 pounds including the blade pressure. We believe Savage has come up with the perfect solution to the “lawyer’s trigger” of 5- to 10-pound pulls found on so many new rifles these days. This one was excellent in every way, we thought.

Our test ammos were Winchester Supreme 55-grain Ballistic Sil­vertips, Federal 40-grain Sierra Varminter HPs, Hornady’s V-Max 40-grain Moly-Coated cartridges, and Winchester Supreme 50-grain Ballistic Sil­vertips. We clean­ed the bore after every six shots. We did this because the first three Winchester 55-grainers went into 0.4 inch, and the second three went into 1.0 inch. After we cleaned the bore, we fired groups that measured 0.5 and 0.4 inch, so we kept cleaning. The rifle was trying to shoot like a very costly custom target rifle, so we gave it every chance. Average for all groups with the 55-grain Winchester was 0.56 inch.

Next up was the Federal 40-grain ammo, and its light bullet promised high velocity. Writing on the cartridge box claimed 4,000 fps. We got 4,065 fps, and 0.75-inch groups on average. Good accuracy at good velocity, two for two. The Savage was acquitting itself handsomely, we thought. Next up, Horn­ady’s V-Max 40-grain bullets were supposed to come out at 4,150, and they did exactly that. They also averaged 0.4 inch for all groups. The Savage was performing like very few rifles we’ve tested. Finally we tried Winchester 50-grain Ballistic Silvertips, and we got only 1.0-inch groups. Take note of that. The most disappointing load with this rifle gave one-inch groups on average. How many rifles do you have in your rack that will do as well? We’ve seen darned few.

• Savage Model 12 BVSS Varmint, .22-250, $696 MSRP. Best Buy. The Savage was in every way a great rifle. It looked good, had excellent finish on metal and wood, a good-looking and durable stock that gave excellent control to the rifle, an outstanding trigger, and accuracy that most rifles simply never approach. The cost was more than fair, we thought, for value received. What’s not to like?

----------

Old West Reproductions’ Bach­man Slide, $75
Some of us have been carrying 1911s for more years than we’d care to admit, and we’ve been toting them in a great variety of ways, from stuck into the waistband to sheathed in the best leather rigs designed for perfect concealment and comfortable, secure carry. Some of the holsters, or carry methods, we’ve tried have been useless and some have been as good as it gets. One of our favorites is made by Old West Reproductions (406-273-2615, http://www.oldwestreproductions.com/).

The first time we saw the rig at the Old West Reproductions shop, we noted that it was a simple-looking holster, consisting of two pieces of leather carefully molded and sewn to wrap around the middle of a 1911. The pistol’s grips stuck out the top and its slide stuck out the bottom. But the trigger was covered, which is mandatory for any good carry rig. The holster held the gun securely, yet it could be withdrawn easily.

The Bachman Slide is Our Pick for ease of carry of the 1911. Users of this simple but effective rig claim great comfort, ease of carry, and versatility. Old West Reproductions makes very fine leather goods. This one has been worn nearly every day for four years. The gun is worn outside the pants, so it requires a long shirt or coat for concealment. The holster goes on and comes off the pants easily.

That early copy of the Bachman Slide has been worn nearly every day for almost four years, and has proven to be the most comfortable means of packing a 1911 its owner has ever experienced. It is versatile, in that it can be worn as a cross-draw rig as easily as strong-side carry. It will pack almost any configuration of the 1911, short and light, or long and heavy. The gun is retained well (by friction) during almost any activity, yet is easily presented when needed. The gun may also be readily reholstered with one hand. Because the gun and holster are carried outside the trousers belt, a long shirt or jacket is needed to hide the setup. Its owner lives in a cold part of the country where outer wear is common, so this rig works very well for his concealed-carry needs. It’s also ideal for field use, where the need for concealment is not mandated by law.

The beautifully simple Bachman slide is not without its limitations, though. It does need a long shirt or jacket to conceal the gun. Some types of front sight can drag on the edge of the leather, especially those with undercut front blades. But those sights are not found on carry-type guns. This holster’s owner has slanted front sights on all his 1911s, and front-sight drag has not been a problem for him at all. In fact, the natural motion of the hand and gun during presentation sweeps the sight rearward, so there is never any drag from it. There’s some leeway for the gun to move along the belt, but it’s not a problem, says its owner. He wears this holster on his right (strong) side just behind the hip bone. One trouser-belt loop is hooked between the two main carry points of the holster, permitting the rig to move about 3 inches backward and forward. In practice, the owner says this has been more of a help than a hindrance, because the gun can be easily shifted to the most comfortable position when seated in an easy chair, or when driving, toting a pack, and the like. The holster has no rake. The gun is carried vertically, which requires a bit of getting used to, before being able to make anything like a fast presentation. This works better than a raked holster for weak-hand presentations, and of course makes this rig viable for cross-draw carry.

Its best features, says its owner, are its lightness and simplicity, the fact that unmodified trousers may be worn with it (inside-the-waistband holsters require bigger pants), and it comes off and goes back on easily. It also packs any 1911 with adequate security and comfort, and also features outstanding quality of manufacture for pride of ownership.

• Old West Reproductions’ Bach­man Slide, $75. Our Pick. The Bach­man Slide is one of the best 1911 holsters we’ve experienced. Our test-holster’s owner generally carries a Colt CCO in the Bachman Slide and often forgets he’s wearing a gun, the setup is that comfortable and efficient.

----------

Springfield Armory TRP Stainless PC9107L $1,560
Shooters who want a solid, properly equipped .45 that doesn’t have the bells and whistles of a gun that costs $2000 should consider this Springfield. Prices for Springfield Armory pistols range from the mid-$500 range for Mil-Spec models to well above $2000 for specialized pistols from the Springfield Armory Custom Shop. The cost of various models depends on the parts used, features offered and the amount of hand labor required for the construction of the individual pistol.

Priced at $1,560, the TRP model offered more features than Spring­field’s “Loaded” series, which is list­ed in the $800 range. The addition of Novak night sights and a magazine well are the most obvious upgrades. In terms of fit, it was our impression that more care had been taken in barrel and slide-to-frame fit than on the lower-priced models.

The list of parts on the TRP is quite long. The hammer was skeletonized to decrease lock time. The grip safety was wide and included a boldly raised surface to ensure engagement. The outer surface of the mainspring housing was checkered at 20 lines per inch. A keyhole for the hammer lock was recessed on the back strap and did not interfere with the shooter’s grip. The front strap was treated with 20-lpi checkering. We felt that the checkered cocobolo wood grips were a perfect fit, forming a comfortable oval-shaped profile. The grips were held in place by stainless steel Allen head screws that are less likely to be marred than slotted screws. A magazine guide was fitted to the mag well. This guide helped speed reloading, but we felt that although the fit was tight and precise, we would have preferred to see additional ma­chining for a seamless look. The trigger was an aluminum adjustable model relieved for minimal weight. The thumb safeties were ambidextrous, with the right-side paddle slight­ly narrower than the left side. We felt the edges of the thumb pad­dles were unnecessarily sharp. They didn’t really present a danger of cut­ting the thumb, but we felt they were in contrast with the rest of the pistol that featured a dehorned slide and frame. The slide featured front and rear cocking serrations and was topped with the aforementioned No­vak night sights. We liked these sights because they resisted snagging on clothing, and the tritium inserts did not distract us from using the physical relief of the notch and post during aimed fire.

Inside the Springfield Armory TRP we found a two-piece guide rod. In our TRP, we removed the top end by removing the magazine, emptied the chamber, and locked back the slide. The tip of the guide rod fit the supplied Allen wrench. Once we released the initial tension, we brought the slide forward and unscrewed the front portion of the guide rod by hand. Disassembly from this point was much like that of a standard length guide rod pistol, except we did use a bushing wrench, (which was not supplied). We pre­ferred to use a wrench because the guide rod plug is cylindrical instead of capped and the edges were too sharp for our bare fingers. Using a wrench to turn the bushing to the 8 o’clock position released the recoil spring and plug. With these parts out of the way, we were able to manipulate the slide and remove the slide stop. During reassembly the key was not to tight­en down the guide rod until the top end was fully assembled and the slide could be locked back. The longer guide rod adds weight at the muz­zle, which helps control recoil.

At the range we tried a variety of different .45 ACP rounds without a single malfunction. The TRP arrived with two 7-round magazines by Met­al­form with rubber base pads. We also fired the TRP with 8-round Wilson Combat magazines and with extended length (170mm) 10-round Metalform and Wilson Com­bat magazines purchased from Brownells (800-741-0015) for $27 and $29 respectively. The Springfield TRP shot reliably with them all.

The accuracy of our TRP was well above average and consistent. We shot our best performance from the bench at 25-yard targets firing the Black Hills 230-grain JHP ammunition. Although our best single group measured 1.6 inches center to center and was in fact our only sub 2-inch group, virtually every odd selection we could find of .45 ACP ammunition printed at least one group in the 2.0- to 2.1-inch range.

• Springfield Armory TRP Stainless PC9107L $1,560. Our Pick. Priced midway between Springfield Armory’s Loaded series and the Custom Shop models, the TRP includes a healthy list of desirable upgrades and solid performance that we think justifies its cost.

----------

Benelli M1 Super 90 Synthetic 20 Gauge No. 11090, $1,000
One of the worst mistakes in bringing new shooters into the sport of wing­shoot­ing or breaking clay targets is to force them to use a shotgun with excessive recoil. If shooting hurts every time the firearm is discharged, the shooter is not having fun. Eliminate the fun and you will eliminate the possibility of a fledgling shooter coming back for another chance to fill a game bag or smash a few clays.

Among the tools to avoid punishing recoil are the semi-automatic sub-gauge shotguns that can be easy to use and don’t pack a big punch. Many veteran shotgunners will rely on their lightweight 20 gauges for field use simply because they are a pleasant change from 12-gauge sky busters.

In particular, we liked the Benelli MI Super 90 semiauto. The Benelli’s action is recoil operated without movement of the barrel. The Benelli innovation requires no outlet for gas operation or barrel movement, with the action system involving a spring between the locking head and bolt. In addition, a revolving bolt head provides a reliable operating system.

To check out how the test gun handled a variety of field loads, we tested with these shotshells: Federal All Purpose 2.75-inch, 2.5-dram shells with 7/8-ounce of No. 7 1/2 shot (muzzle velocity of 1,210 fps); Federal Gold Medal 2.75-inch, 2.5-dram shells with 7/8-ounce of No. 9 shot with a muzzle velocity of 1,200 fps; Winchester SuperSpeed 2.75-inch, 2.5-dram shells with 7/8-ounce of No. 7 1/2 shot with a muz­zle velocity of 1,275 fps; Winchester AA Super Sport 2.75-inch, 2.5-dram shells with 7/8-ounce of No. 7 1/2 shot with a muzzle velocity of 1,275 fps; and B&P Trap-Skeet 2.75-inch, 28-gram shells with 1 ounce of No. 7 1/2 shot with a muzzle velocity of 1,300 fps.

This gun is made in Italy and is imported by Benelli. It became an instant favorite of our group.

“This is the gun I’d love to take to Argentina,” one of the testers said after examining the smooth-handling Benelli. Dove hunters in Argentina can run thousands of rounds through a shotgun in a single day, requiring both an easy-handling and durable firearm. Its thinner synthetic forearm was a perfect fit for all our shooters, and the red-bar sight on the 3/8-inch-high elevated rib really draws the shooting eye down the barrel.

Our test gun measured 47.0 in­ches in overall length with a 26-inch barrel and a length of pull of 14.0 inches. The drop at the comb was 1.5 inches, and the drop at the heel was 2.0 inches.

A thin pistol grip, combined with a narrow forearm, provided good handling abilities for the shotgun, which weighed 6 pounds. The Benelli’s stock featured a soft rubber pad that seemed to soak up a lot of the recoil, even with heavier loads.

Though the trigger pull on the Benelli was 6.75 pounds, which is in the typical range for a field firearm, there was crisp break point and none of our shooters had any problems. The variety of test ammunition was handled without a malfunction, and target breaks on the clay course by our test group were solid and frequent.

• Benelli M1 Super 90 Synthetic Semi-automatic 20 Gauge No. 11090, $1,000. Our Pick. Light, quick and easy to han­dle, plus good pointing ability: These qualities found favor with our test group. This is a fine field shotgun capable of handling hard use.

----------

Savage Arms 10FPXP-LEA .308 Winchester, $1861
An affordable way to get into the NRA’s “F” class competitions is the Savage Arms Model 10FPXP-LEA, which sells for just $1861 and comes with a Leupold Mil-Dot scope, a Harris bipod, a rolling case, plus other accessories.

The package included an aluminum rolling case, sling, Harris 1A2 BR (“bench rest”) bipod, a 6- to 9-inch unit with rubber feet, a 3.5-10X40mm black matte Mil-Dot Leupold scope mounted on a one-piece steel base with flip-open lens covers, and Choate stock. The Choate stock was synthetic with a vertical pistol grip and accessory rail. The stock also featured alloy bedding blocks with integral pillars. The button rifled barrel offered a 1-in-10-inch twist, and it was fed by an internal box magazine rated for four rounds, but we had no problem filling it with five rounds. The action, barrel, and oversized bolt handle were each matte blued. According to the manufacturer’s specs, the 10FPXP-LEA weighed in at 11.25 pounds, but our scale said 13 pounds, including scope and bipod.

The Savage rifle featured the adjustable Accu-Trigger. The most noticeable characteristic was that the trigger face included a center section that must be compressed before making contact with the face of the trigger. Some triggers are so light they can barely be touched before the shooter is ready to fire. But the shooter can engage the Accu-Trigger in stages. Savage claims adjustment in trigger pull weight ranging from 1.5 to 6 pounds. Delivered trigger pull weight was 3.5 pounds, which is heavier than most would expect in a precision rifle.

The bolt action operation was smooth, and the oversized bolt handled helped our shooter work the action. We observed how easily the magazine loaded and how smoothly rounds were fed into the chamber without hesitation. The safety was mounted directly behind the bolt, and the bolt release was above the handle on the right side. Removing or replacing the bolt required pressing the trigger and the bolt release simultaneously. The only problems we came up with were the cap on the front of the scope would not fit tightly, but adding a piece of tape fixed that. Also, the forward stud that was necessary to attach the bipod (Harris bipod adaptor 6A) was not included. We bought this part for $6.60 and went to the range.

We shot three 168-grain selections: Winchester Supreme’s Ballistic Silvertip; the Black Hills red-box boat-tail hollow points; and Black Hills’s Gold series rounds. Each of these rounds shot an average group size of 1.0 inch or smaller at 100 yards. The Savage shot the Silvertips the best, with three-shot groups ranging in size from 0.5 to 0.8 inch.

• Savage 10FPXP-LEA, .308 Winchester, $1861. Best Buy. There is no way the consumer can recreate this rifle for the package price. We shot sub-minute-of-angle groups with one of our test rounds, and we bet it will with other rounds, as well.