January 2007

Benelli SBE II Is Our Pick Over Beretta, Remington Autoloaders

The Super Black Eagle II led the way when tested against the Beretta Urika Trap Optima and the Remington 105Cti. But all three are classy autoloaders with slightly different missions.

It’s always been sound advice to buy the best quality one can afford. But Americans are often conflicted consumers since a red, white and blue trademark doesn’t always mean top quality.

That’s because, we suppose, U.S. manufacturers have to cut corners in order to pay decent wages, workmen’s compensation, life insurance, medical/dental benefits, pensions, and other sundries that don’t clutter up the overhead of some off-shore competitors.

Right: All three of these 12-gauge guns feature back-bored barrels, stepped ventilated ribs, three-shot magazines, cross-bolt safeties and smooth, crisp trig-gers. They all came with plastic cases.The Beretta Urika Trap Optima, $1250, left, is primarily a target gun, which its 30-inch barrel sug-gests. Center, the Remington 105Cti splits the difference between the wood-and-metal Urika on the left and the polymer Benelli on the right, with a carbon/titanium receiver and some slick features, such as bottom ejection and a great trigger.Of the trio, however, we’d pass on the gas-operated designs and pick the Benelli Super Black Eagle II, a thoroughbred hunting gun with a inertial action.

One of the affected areas, in terms of quality and durability, has long been the area of semiautomatic shotguns. American designer John Browning’s classic Auto-5 was made by FN in Belgium and later by Miroku in Japan a lineage shared by the company’s (and sister company Winchester’s) subsequent autoloaders. The Mossberg autoloaders that are still made stateside are designed with popular price points in mind, not history. Ithaca Guns USA no longer makes autoloaders; nor do Ruger or Savage, and aside from Remington, American manufacturers import semiautos rather than make one of their own in this country.

In fact, when it comes to truly classic designs, Remington’s 1100 gas gun may be the only American-made autoloader to merit consideration. The 1100’s autoloading predecessors the recoil-operated Model 11-48 and the pioneering gas-operated Sportsman 58 and 878 Automaster designs never caught the public fancy for a variety of reasons. And the gun’s successor, the 11-87, still has sufficient warts almost two decades after its introduction to merit the 1100’s continued prominence in the Remington product lineup.

Introduced in 1963, the 1100 still maintains sufficient interest for Remington to evolve the design more with the "Competition" in 2005 and the G-3 (for third generation) in 2006. But we’re not here to dissect the 1100’s tried-and-true physique, which is merely dressed differently in the Competition and G-3. No, the Remington autoloader in today’s limelight is the new-for-2006 Model 105Cti.

Billed as lightweight, but with soft-recoil and extraordinary patterning performance, the 105Cti is the first Remington autoloader whose base model wears a four-figure price tag, which puts it into a pretty spiffy neighborhood.

The Italians, on the other hand, are long-term residents of said gated community with Benelli’s Super Black Eagle II and Beretta’s 391 versions today arguably representing the royalty in autoloaders.

We tested point of impact and did initial patterning of all three guns from a Caldwell Lead Sled to achieve a solid rest and absorb recoil. Trigger pull was measured by a Lyman digital trigger gauge.

Some may label a head-to-head comparison of these particular three guns as "apples and oranges." From here, however, it’s more of a "tangerines and oranges" deal. Though the Benelli SBE II (No. 10016) is a thoroughbred hunting gun, the Beretta Urika Trap Optima No. J391501, $1250, is primarily a target gun, and the Remington 105Cti (No. 29521) is still in early-design limbo between the two, they are all classy, expensive auto-loading designs worthy of state-of-the-art designation.

All three 12-gauge guns feature back-bored (.735-inch interior diameters compared to the 12-gauge nominal .729) barrels, stepped ventilated ribs, three-shot magazines, cross-bolt safeties and smooth, crisp triggers. They all also came with classy plastic cases befitting 4-digit retail shotguns, with molded impressions to fit the various gun parts, choke tubes and wrenches.

How We Tested

Initial function testing came on a trap range. To get a feel for the heft, recoil and cycling of each gun, we waited until the range was empty on a low-traffic night, then took advantage of the voice-operated callers to shoot a rapid-fire five-shot volley at each station. The chamber and magazine were emptied as fast as the targets were thrown and gun’s triggers could be worked.

Wingshooters will be impressed with the balance of all three guns, although all three had different balance points they also have different applications, giving good-to-excellent between-the-hands weight distribution for autoloaders.

This particular session covered 300 shots, more than a case of Remington’s 2 3/4ths-dram, 1,235-fps Premier STS 1 1/8ths ounce target loads, without a cycling malfunction in any of the guns. We then shot a round of doubles trap with each gun, using 1-ounce versions of the same Remington target loads 50 shots per gun, fired in pairs in quick succession. All three guns again acquitted themselves flawlessly. On the second round of doubles trap, however, the Beretta and Benelli each hung up on second shots once, while the new Remington remained pristine. We had to view those malfunctions as aberrations, however, since subsequent shooting was faultless.

On the skeet field, in fact, the Beretta and Benelli were flawless with 1-ounce loads while the Remington began to balk, hanging up three times on second-shot doubles during a 50-bird outing.

None of this was surprising in that all three guns are rated for a minimum of 2.75 dram, 1 1/8-ounce loads (maximum 3-dram, 2-ounce loads, or 2.25-ouncers in the case of the heavy duty 3.5-inch-chamber Benelli SBEII). The idea was to test to the point of failure, and we didn’t get consistent cycling failures on the Beretta or Benelli until we dipped into 1-ounce, 1,000-fps skeet handloads.

Subsequent trips to a local pheasant hunting preserve drew praises for the handling characteristics of all three guns, and flawless cycling of 2.75-inch, 1.25-ounce field loads.

The Benelli was further field-tested in two early-season goose blinds where it was flawless, and relatively comfortable to shoot, with 3.5-inch, Federal Heavyweight 2-ounce loads.

Understand that, given their propensity for chucking spent hulls at the guy on the next station, semiautomatics are as popular at a trapshoot as ants are at a picnic. But we took the Remington 105Cti to a registered trapshoot during the test session and drew a crowd of curious rather than furious shotgunners when the unique bottom-ejection shucked the empties into a neat pile at our feet at each station.

The conventional side-ejection Beretta 391 Optima similarly acquitted itself well in the handicap trap event that day, but had to be fitted with a shell catcher to avoid the ire of squad mates.

All three guns drew rave reviews from those assembled for handling, and performed extremely well.

The Beretta 391’s gas-operated system was virtually pristine despite the abuse and, in fact, functions well even today after nearly 900 rounds without a cleaning. The Remington did encounter fouling problems and tended to malfunction when it got extremely dirty. The Benelli SBEII, having no gas piston, has virtually nothing to clean and was as dependable as the day is long.

Autoloaders have always had clunky triggers simply because the sear has to be moved out of the way while the action cycles. The sear is static in pump and bolt guns, moving only when the shooter manually cycles the gun after the shot. It requires multiple mechanical linkages to move it automatically in an autoloader.

All three of the tested guns sported good-for-autoloaders triggers, but the newly patented Remington Cti trigger was clearly the best. The new design rises smoothly on a simple roller sear that produces a crisp, almost lever-like pull that is difficult to describe but a delight to operate.

Here’s an individual look at each of the impressive trio:

Remington 105Cti No. 29521

12 gauge, $1349

It requires only minor license to call Remington’s 105Cti design revolutionary. Light weight and soft recoil are uncommon partners in any firearm. But Remington has pulled it off with the use of titanium and carbon fiber in the receiver and rib, a backbored barrel and unique recoil-softening system, combined with a large, proprietary Sims R3 recoil pad.

The gun is extremely light (7.1 pounds with 28-inch barrel as tested; 2 ounces lighter with the 26-incher), and remarkably soft on recoil.

Other than the absence of an ejection port on the right side of the receiver (it’s the first bottom-ejection autoloader), the new gun maintains the traditional rounded receiver Remington autoloader lines that have carried through the 48, 58, 878, 1100, 11-87 and even the ill-fated 11-96. Despite the visual similarities, however, it is a totally different package, one unique unto itself.

Buttstock and forend were satin-finished walnut and wood-to-metal fit was good, but a couple of miniscule overhangs kept it from being excellent. Checkering was a neat laser-cut with a similarly-inletted Remington "R" and "105Cti" in the forend. An almost gaudy commemorative grip cap adorns this, the debut model of the gun, presumably to give it a stage presence on retail racks.

It’s a nice start, and we assume that subsequent issues will incorporate synthetic black, and probably camouflage stocks that may shrink the heft and retail even more.

The new Black TriNyte coating protected the metal finish so well that there was nary a nick despite the gun being rode hard and hung up wet during the testing process.

The unique skeletonized receiver is made of titanium with a carbon fiber panel spanning the top and flowing down the sides; a union that reduces the weight but maintains rigidity. The barrel rib was also fashioned of carbon and aramid fibers for the same reasons.

The test gun’s trigger broke consistently at a little under 5 pounds with no creep. The fire control system is easily removed from the receiver for cleaning or adjustment by drifting out two retaining pins, a longstanding Remington design.

To its credit, Remington didn’t design the 105Cti to handle 3.5-inch shells. There are some who’ll view it as old-fashioned to chamber for only 2.75- and 3-inch loads, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the notion of one-gun-for-all-loads simply doesn’t work for gas autoloaders. No one else has ever successfully done it because there is simply too broad a landscape for one set of springs to adequately traverse.

Remington is quite content to issue the initial 105Cti as an upland hunting gun with a crossover sporting clays application, leaving the 1100 to carry the bulk of the line’s current target-shooting needs and the 11-87 to handle the heavy lifting in the goose fields and turkey woods. As such, drop at the heel and comb was the most of the three guns tested, but the Beretta 391 was a target version and the SBEII was purely a hunting gun.

We have to admit skepticism when Remington announced last winter that its latest autoloader was finally ready. The "05" designation was supposed to denote year of introduction. Big Green had been, in fact, on the verge of introducing it for more than three years, and had been understandably gunshy ever since the introduction of the ill-fated 11-96 Europa that fell on its face 10 years ago before it even got into full distribution. And, let’s face it, there was a reason that Remington brought back the 1100 a few years ago after introducing the 11-87 as an improved, 3-inch (and later 3.5-inch) chambered replacement in 1987.

The initial production runs were with 26- and 28-inch vent-rib, backbored barrels and IC, Modified and Full choke tubes. But rest assured that we’ll eventually see cantilevered rifled deer barrels and probably smoothbore tubes with fiber optic sights for deer/turkey hunters who eschew glass optics.

The backboring helped reduce recoil and produced clean, consistent patterns, reducing trauma on the shot charge by giving it elbow room in the barrel. The patterning was, in fact, excellent pellets typically evenly distributed in clean, circular array thanks largely to the overbore. Regular Remchoke tubes cannot be used in the 105 due to the overbore, the Cti requiring its own Pro Bore tube design, just as Browning’s backbored guns require Invector Plus tubes rather than the Invector series used in their conventional-diameter barrels.

The operating system is simple, with fewer moving parts than its predecessors and a one-piece inertia sleeve and gas seal designed to reduce carbon build-up in the tube.

Another welcome feature of the 105Cti is "auto feed" the gun loads the first shell to the chamber directly from the bottom port. With the charging bolt open, a shell fed into the magazine transfers immediately to the chamber when your thumb is removed and the bolt automatically releases, a feature found on high-end Browning autoloaders.

To unload, the chamber is emptied by pulling the operating bolt rearward to a locked position. The magazine can then be emptied by depressing a feed latch inside the feed/ejection port that releases each shell individually.

These are neat features, but the 105Cti design really shines when you shoot it and experience the unique fire control and recoil-reduction systems. The ingenious Rate Reducer recoil suppression system is built around a hydraulically operated piston in the stock that regulates and dampens bolt velocity and the attendant collision with the rear of the receiver, the severity of which the gun transfers to your shoulder. The 1.25-inch-thick Sims R3 recoil pad further softens the blow.

The crossbolt safety was readily accessible at the normal Remington position in the rear of the trigger guard. The balance point was about 1.5 inches forward of the gun’s mid-point, which gave good feel and balance.

The trigger, patterning and soft recoil were outstanding, but the gun’s gas system tended to foul much too fast, making reliable cycling problematical after 500-600 shots.

An earlier version of the gun that we’d encountered had experienced cycling problems with some target loads, but Remington made a pre-production adjustment in design to supposedly improve that situation.

Due to variability in the marketplace in light target loads, two compensation springs were added on the gas cylinder. The springs allowed an increase in power (to trigger cycling) on the light side without increasing it the magnum side.

The extractor was also re-contoured to better match shotshell rim geometry, providing a larger surface area in contact with the shell rim.

Beretta Urika Trap Optima

No. J391501 12 ga., $1250

There is little argument that the Beretta 391 line is the most sophisticated autoloading design in the world. The Brescia-based designers didn’t work up migraines trying to make the 391 an all-purpose semi, but rather recognized the improbability and wisely segmented the product line accordingly.

Today the 391 comes in the Xtrema2, Urika Optima and Teknys variants. All feature the same gas-operated recoil-reduction systems, efficient cycling systems and the famed 391 bolt. All are so efficient that the gas systems seldom require cleaning a far cry from virtually every other autoloader on the market.

And each model has its own function and place in the line-up.

The Xtrema2 is a bulked-up (the receiver is nearly 1.125 inches longer than those of the Urika and Teknys models), synthetic-stocked, 3.5-inch-chambered yet suitably well-cushioned 12 gauge designed for waterfowlers and turkey hunters. The Teknys is a nickel-finished, high-grade wood, Cadillac version of the Optima while the latter is the workhorse for sporting clays, trapshooters and upland bird hunters. Both feature 3-inch chambers and backbored barrels.

We tested the sleek Optima Trap target model with a 30-inch vent-ribbed barrel.

The wood on the Urika Optima test gun was Turkish walnut with nice grain and neat laser-cut checkering. The rounded edges on the ample recoil pad (two pads came with the gun, ostensibly for both mounted handling as in trap and skeet, and for low-gun handling in the field or in clays) made mounting smooth and trouble-free. The gun was virtually ambidextrous as a sophisticated system of shims, individually mounted between the receiver and stock, allowed the gun to be adjusted for pitch, drop and cast.

The wide, rounded comb on the Optima made cast off necessary for this right-handed shooter to readily line up the beads. We feel that the gun would be better served with a narrower comb to more readily fit all shooters.

The gun’s balance point was nearly 2 inches ahead of its mid-point, which was excellent for a long-barreled gun made to be shot from a mounted position.

The barrel ID measured in the .735 neighborhood and came with five chrome-finished external Mobilchoke tubes (Skeet, Improved Cylinder, Improved Modified, Modified and Full), a specialty wrench and a tube of gun oil.

Patterning was excellent, as it was with the other test guns full-coverage, rounded, well-spaced patterns being the norm with all the chokes, undoubtedly the effect of the backbore and longer forcing cones.

Benelli Super Black Eagle II

No. 10016 12 Gauge, $1515

The laws of physics have always defined shooting comfort. There seemed to be no way around it if you wanted less recoil, use a lighter shot charge or a heavier gun. Unfortunately, one limited terminal effectiveness of the load and the other dampened the speed and liveliness of the shotgun.

Gas-operated autoloaders tweaked Sir Isaac Newton’s findings somewhat, reducing recoil by prolonging the curve of the recoil event, even when using heavy loads. Despite that still-troubling weight thing since the gas piston technology was heavy they invariably shot softer than recoil-operated semis.

Benelli seems to have leveled that particular playing field, however, largely through the reliable physics of its short-recoil (they call it Inertia-Driven) system surrounded by the ergonomics and energy-absorbing flex of the ComforTech approach.

According to Benelli, the space-age ComforTech stock and attendant big, soft, ergonomic butt pad reduce felt recoil by as much as 48 percent, a significant facet of a light gun without a gas-operation.

ComforTech features a deep, soft gel-foam buttpad, a similarly cushioned comb and stock sidewall cuts fitted with chevrons of the same foam that serve to make turn the entire stock into a recoil pad.

A space-age butt pad is ingeniously designed with a longitudinal peak in the middle that makes it comfortable for both left- and right-handed shooters. Weighing in right at 7 pounds, the SBEII is about a pound lighter than the average autoloader, but ironically, within ounces of the tested Beretta and Remington guns.

The barrel is cryogenically treated (cold tempered to -300 degrees), which changes steel at the molecular level, making it harder and far less porous. The result is reduced harmonics, meaning consistency shot-to-shot, and far easier cleaning. Recoil spring and guide are easily removed from the recoil tube in the stock cleaning.

This gun is a hunter. The length of pull was listed at 14.4 inches in the catalog but measured 14.125-inch on the test gun with the smallest recoil pad. We found that length to be ideal for the hunter wearing a coat, and the trigger guard is enlarged to accommodate gloved fingers. Another concession to the hunter was sling swivel studs molded into the buttstock and the magazine cap.

There is no evaluation of walnut grain or wood-to-metal fit on this gun since it is synthetic-stocked, as are all but one version of the gun. We tested a black and matte version, although camo synthetics are also available. The comb is comfortably narrow, which makes it fit most shooters readily. Shims were included to adjust drop and cast, like the Beretta 391, and two recoil pads allowed adjustments in length of pull.

Stimpling replaces cut checkering in the grip and forend (Benelli calls it AirTouch) and gives good hand purchase, wet or dry.

It was difficult no make that impossible to make one system work for loads of all three 12-gauge chamber dimensions. Hunters were burdened by adjustable gas valves, o-rings and complex mechanisms that were difficult to understand and even harder to keep clean.

The SBEII came the closest to pulling off the trifecta any autoloader we’ve ever encountered. It handled 2.75-inch, 1 1/8-ounce trap loads just as easily as 3- and 3.5-inch waterfowl and turkey loads. Only when we dipped into subsonic 1-ounce target loads did the remarkable shooter occasionally fail to cycle, and that was probably an unfair test, as we were lowering charge size to the point of failure.

Benelli designers found that the answer was alleviating the gas system (and thus saving weight and bulk) and simplifying the short-recoil system instead of making it more elaborate. The entire bolt and cycling mechanism in the receiver can be removed in one jointed piece.

The barrel and top half of the receiver are a single piece, ala the AR-15/M-16 rifle (or the SBE’s cousin, the Beretta Pintail), adding rigidity to the simplicity. Don’t try to drill and tap the upper receiver/barrel for aftermarket sights, however, since the cold-tempering makes the steel virtually impenetrable.

The trigger broke consistently at nearly 7 pounds, which sounds heavy but was actually preferable for high-volume shooting in hunting fields.

Gun Test Recommends

Beretta Urika Trap Optima No. J391501 12 gauge, $1250. Buy it.The Beretta 391 is royalty among autoloaders; a well-thought, efficient and time-tested design. The gun tested has given us thousands of rounds of flawless and smooth performance on clays courses and the trap range.

We didn’t care for the thick comb, but the stock design was nevertheless by far the best of the three guns for trapshooting (mounted gun). The balance, for the model’s designed application, was excellent, being a tad barrel-heavy. The comb was similarly ideal for the designed target applications. We’d go with other 391 designs for hunting, so the lack of versatility cost the Optima top honors in this particular comparison.

All in all, it’s a superb shotgun and the consumer can’t go wrong, despite the haughty price tag.

Remington 105Cti, $1,349. Conditional Buy.The newest Remington is the lightest-recoiling (we have no reason to disbelieve Remington’s claim of a 48 percent reduction in recoil over other gas autoloaders), smoothest-operating autoloader we’ve ever encountered and the trigger is of rifle-like match quality. The bottom ejection element is a plus in both the field and at the range, and we were delighted to find that balance and grace were not sacrificed when designers pared ounces off the gun.

The assumption here is that we’re witnessing the birth of another American classic shotgun, and it narrowly missed Buy It honors, despite a few warts. It was probably too early in the fledgling design’s evolution to be comparing it to the well-established Italian designs, but if you’re charging four figures for a shotgun, it should meet lofty criteria.

The pedestrian choke tube system and tendency of the gas cylinder to foul both drawbacks that will change as the gun evolves changed our focus at the 11th hour.

Benelli Super Black Eagle II No. 10016, $1515. Our Pick. The latest version of the evolving Super Black Eagle design is a comfortable, ever-functional hunting gun, with the capacity to shoot 2.75, 3-, and 3.5-inch ammunition. GT

REMINGTON 105CTI NO. 29521 12 GA.

BERETTA URIKA TRAP OPTIMA NO. J39150112 GA.

BENELLI SUPER BLACK EAGLE IINO. 10016 12 GA.