July 2007

Midrange Autoloaders: Winners From Beretta and Browning

The Browning Gold Evolve Sporting and Beretta’s AL391 Teknys Gold Sporting share few common elements, but each did a credible job of breaking clay targets with comfort and style.

It is rare that we pick up two guns for testing that are radically different in appearance, balance, and weight and yet don’t have one that outshines the other for whatever their intended purpose might be. But that’s just the case we had between our hands with the new Browning Gold Evolve Sporting semi-automatic 12 gauge 011262428, $1287, and Beretta’s AL391 Teknys Gold Sporting 12 gauge J391T78, $1800.

Midrange Autoloading Shotguns

Beretta’s $1800 AL391 Teknys Gold Sporting 12 gauge, front, and the new Browning Gold Evolve Sporting semi-automatic 12 gauge, $1287, are competitive sporting-clays guns, but they are very different. The Teknys handles beautifully, is handsomely designed, and it chambers the 3-inch shotshell. But the Beretta weighs significantly more, and it has a significantly steeper price tag than the Browning. The Browning has some odd wood shapes, and our sample had plain stock wood grain, but this lighter-weight offering will please a range of shooters. We’d be happy with either one, but we preferred the Teknys.

Though both are aimed at the competitive sporting-clays crowds, the only commonalities these two share are that they’re both 12 gauges and their semi-automatic actions are gas-operated. One weighs significantly more than the other, they possess completely different balancing points, and when it comes to looks, one would never be mistaken for the other on a gun rack. Yet after putting these guns through the rigors of both skeet shooting and several rounds of sporting clays on a course of middling-difficult and diverse targets—and with both sports shot several times with a raging wind that really tested the dexterity of these types of firearms—we felt the race was very nearly a tie when it came to functionality, fit and finish, and handling.

For accuracy, we shot both guns standing at 40 yards as measured by a Bushnell rangefinder (as if for patterning) and from the Shooter’s Ridge Steady Rest on Midway USA’s MTM portable shooting bench for point-of-impact tests on the National Target Company’s shotgun patterning target. Both proved accurately regulated). We used an RCBS trigger-pull gauge provided by Midway USA to assess trigger weights.

Here’s how the race unfolded.

Beretta AL391 Teknys

Gold Sporting 12 Gauge

J391T78, $1800

Like most Beretta’s we’ve opened a box on, the Teknys Gold Sporting is immediately eye-catching. Our sample sported a chocolate-cherry piece of wood that while not fancily figured, showed some very handsome striation. With an oil finish that’s polished enough to look like a lacquer finish, this stock is nice enough that it justifies the gun’s steeper price tag.

The buttstock, as is typical for many Berettas, is tall at its buttplate end. There’s a lot of wood back there, in part because it accommodates Beretta’s super-comfy Gel-Tek recoil pad. Now, the Teknys also comes with a standard soft-rubber pad, but we love the extra-smooth heel and toe of the Gel-Tek so much, not to mention its added ability to absorb recoil, that we can imagine only one reason why anyone would want to switch the two out. That reason is fit.

While both pads are the same width at the center point, the Gel-Tek pad has a more pronounced concave design than the standard rubber pad. It also has a more pronounced heel and toe. However, it wasn’t that the design was so visually exaggerated, but more that its configuration created a near glove fit for tall women or average-height men (roughly 5 feet 9 inches. In fact, our testers said that the pad aided in the consistency of the gun-to-shoulder placement during mounting. The heel and toe "bumps" helped prevent canting. As most competitive shooters who employ a low mount know, consistency in the mount and gun placement on the shoulder are half the battle in gaining more Xs. We feel that all but the smallest shooters will appreciate the benefits of the concave Gel-Tek pad on the Technys. And for those who don’t, they have the alternate pad available.

There’s also a shim kit included for altering pitch and cast. Beretta gets more than a few points for recognizing the variety of shooter sizes and making one gun more fit many people by providing accessories that accommodate such diversity.

We felt strongly, too, about gun fit as it pertained to the rest of the Teknys’ stock. The pistol grip pulls cleanly and deeply away from the receiver and trigger guard. This has two advantages.

First, it accommodates a wide range of hand sizes; even the ham-fisted will find ample room on this gun. Second, it appears to be designed to keep the hand closely in line with the cheek and eye, like a well-thought-out rifle stock (in fact, while not as extreme in its curve, it’s not a far departure from the handgrip designs on many tactical rifles). Combined with the very straight top line of the stock to the slight upsweep of the receiver’s corrugated top sighting channel, this is one the cleanest mounting guns we’ve shot in a long time. It came up dead-on straight every time without trying—no canting, no fishing around for a different hand position to tilt the gun one way or another.

Midrange Autoloading Shotguns

Top: The receiver on the Browning Evolve doesn’t sport much in the way of visual enhancements, just a bit of simple gold scripting and swirling. The Browning’s simple visual scheme stands in contrast to the Beretta, middle and bottom. With its blue enamel inlay that starts at the receiver and carries over to the top of the wrist, the Teknys is one gun that won’t be mistaken for another on the rack. We thought the Teknys’s trim receiver profile contributed to the gun’s put-to-gether good looks. The Beretta trident symbol gets a modernized twist on the Teknys receiver’s right side.

Another aid to mounting and a good view was the sighting channel we just mentioned. Most semi-auto shotguns have a set of grooves in their receiver tops, but Beretta really does this detail justice. There are 10 grooves carved deeply within the quarter-inch-wide channel, which will never appear to the shooter with the gun mounted properly (i.e., the shooter will see no ramping to the muzzle-end bead or sight). What will appear is the shadow created by the divot carved out of the back of the plane. With the gun mounted properly, the notch appears as a short, dark grey horizontal line at the receiver’s top. In effect, it’s a sight of sorts; not one the shooter will use to aim, of course, but when kept in the periphery of the vision, the shooter can instantly tell if his head is on the stock and properly in line. Head too high, the gray line disappears and the ramp shows. Cant the gun, and the line’s pitch is distorted. We found this to be a nice reference aid during dry-mount practice.

Moving on to the forend, we noted the Teknys gun’s front wood is long, nearly a full inch longer than the Browning’s. It is consistently trim (no belly on this one) from beginning to end. The wood is well-matched in quality, coloring, and figuring to that of the butt stock, and it exhibits some exceptionally tight checkering that runs from midway under the forend up to the thumb-roll indent at the side, and nearly halfway past the gas vents at the end. Taller, longer armed shooters will see the immediate benefits in the forearm’s length, while large hands won’t feel like they’re handling a matchstick.

The Teknys receiver sports an underside that is un-belled and well in line with the forend. Curving up and back a bit to rise over the trigger guard and up into the high curve of the pistol grip, sculpting of the receiver’s lower edges emphasizes the gun’s aggressive looks.

The receiver, composed of a high-strength aluminum alloy, has a softly brushed finish, and the overall fit and finish between the receiver and buttstock and on wood edges are very good. On both sides of the receiver appears a blue enamel teardrop-shaped inlay, featuring the Beretta trident at the round. (The pointed end of this inlay is actually placed over the wood of the pistol grip within the checkering.) On the non-ejection side of the receiver is a thoroughly modern rendition of the Beretta trident, cleverly laid out in a way so as to emphasize the gun’s "forward" looks.

And "forward" looks this gun does indeed have. The Teknys has a positive, aggressive appearance, one that says "go to the target." We think this gun is quite the looker.

We were even more pleased that the gun’s shootability echoes its go-get-’em appearance. With just the right amount of forward balance, in our opinion the Teknys really did go right to the target. We found ample precision with this one, making the breaks consistently even when varying our choice of crush points. To us, that demonstrates a remarkably flexible shotgun.

The Teknys is not the fastest semi-auto we’ve ever shot, in terms of handling, but it was no sluggard, either. It did require a bit more push on fast, close-in presentations, but our test shooters managed to break skeet station No. 8 high and low from a low mount and before the stake — and with an improved choke — more times than not. Though we had to concentrate more on a stronger approach to such targets, this one was steady as a rock on longer presentations where long visual air times that can contribute to extended tracking

Functionally, the gun never failed. From the lightest Winchester X-Lite target loads to full 3-dram equiv Remington Nitros, this gun loaded and ejected without flaw and regardless of the combination in which shells were loaded. We were especially impressed that it handled the Winchester X-Lites, as the gun is designed to accommodate 3-inch shells. In our opinion, there are far too many autoloaders on the market today that chamber the 3-inch 12-gauge, but don’t function well with the lightest 2.75-inch loads.

We also found loading to be easy — no pinched gloves or fingers in the receiver underside loading into the magazine, and the bolt was smooth as glass; we never really noticed it cycling during operation. We also didn’t notice much muzzle rise between shots, even with heavy 3-DE loads, and this gun’s not ported. We think this speaks volumes about the mechanical design of the gas system and its ability to redirect recoil without punishing the shooter on either end. Finally, the Teknys’ trigger broke as crisply as a semi-automatic shotgun trigger can be expected to break, with an average pull weight of 4.5 pounds.

Five chokes are supplied with this gun, and they are both extended and well marked in both writing and color to easily and quickly identify the constriction. We had no trouble screwing and unscrewing these tubes and liked that the threads weren’t overly long. The barrel has an integral fiber-optic site in day-glo green, and the works come in a nice, well-organized break-down hard case.

Browning Gold Evolve

Sporting 011262428, $1287

At first glance, the Browning Gold Evolve Sporting is an obvious re-creation of the original Gold introduced now more than a decade ago. But we think this gun’s chiseled appearance is more than just an aesthetic redesign.

The Evolve is radically different in appearance from the Teknys. Where the latter has a combination of traditional design melded with more up-to-date features, the Evolve is all new, all today, right now, hottest thing on the block. This starts at the forend, which has a tapered, front-to-back triangular sculpt to it. More radical than the overall forend design is the thumb ridge that runs at a downward angle back the other direction, toward the front. This actually seems to encourage the fore-finger of the fore-hand to ride comfortably on top of it with the thumb. This is counter to the thumb ridge on most forends where the thumb is accommodated comfortably but the fore-finger is often left to reside on the forend’s side. We do realize that hand placement varies from shooter to shooter, but felt the Evolve’s forend design accommodated better than most those who like to "point" their fore-hand and fore-finger in line with the muzzle (rather than cupping the forend). For those who do like the cupped hand approach, the forward and down carve in the stock is easily identified by finger and thumb tip for consistent placement.

Midrange Autoloading Shotguns

The Browning Evolve comes with a complement of accessories, including a shim kit, cable receiver lock, Hi-Viz fiber-optic-sight pins, and choke tubes. It also comes with two different gas pistons, one for shotshell payloads under 1 ounce and under, one for 1.125-ounce loads and heavier, offering higher functionality over a wider range of shotshells.

The forend’s checkering, as is that at the modified and angular pistol grip, is also cut in a distinctive sharp-edged pattern. It’s not the tightest checkering we’ve ever seen, but sharp enough to be well felt by an ungloved hand. While odd in design, the checkering is in keeping with the gun’s overall appearance, and it’s well done, with no runover at the points or edges.

At the back end, the butt stock has a sculpted cut in it, similar to the forend’s, that runs from the top of the pistol cheek piece down to the buttpad. (The buttpad, too, continues these sharp lines.) While this cut in the buttstock has no functional purpose, it would have been a mistake to leave it off in light of the design in the front end. Browning scores for not only making the look of the Evolve, well, evolutionary, but making it consistent.

There were only two things we were slightly displeased with. One was the design of the pistol grip. The arc of the slope is gradual, and where it tapers back to its bottom, in line with where the hand naturally wants to go at the top of the grip, it’s a bit thick. For those who are used to really wrapping their fingers around a pistol grip, we think they’ll find the splayed feeling in the hand odd. Not bad odd, just a new feeling that will take a round or two to get used to. Small hands will probably not appreciate this design. Those with such anatomy can push their trigger hand further up grip, of course, but our female test shooters found this put the angle of their hands at an odd cock to the line of the arm.

The second factor was the quality of the wood. We liked that it was a satin-finish walnut (the high-gloss on the Beretta stock is pretty, but it shows fingerprints), but the wood itself on our sample was very plain Jane. Though the Browning’s price tag of $1275 is in line with many other autoloaders today, we think they could have thrown a better piece of tree on this one for the money.

While we didn’t care for the quality of figuring on the stock, we did like that it was apparently a very lightweight piece of wood. In combination with the aluminum-alloy receiver, this gun weighed a clean and highly manageable 7 pounds. The weight difference was noticeable when shooting it next to the 8.5-pound Teknys. The Evolve’s receiver is matte black on top to keep down glare and reflection, and high-gloss on the sides, where the gun’s only embellishments of a gold swoop and the combination block print/script "evolve sporting" appear. It is, surprisingly, a receiver that is a full inch longer than the Teknys housing, despite the fact that the Teknys can accommodate the 3-inch shell and the Evolve does not.

Aggressive shooters are going to love the Evolve Sporting. Mounting as straight-on as the Teknys, this gun is all the speed a shooter could want, without a shred of whip. Where the Beretta was perfectly and admirably capable of bustin’ clays from short-window positions like skeet No. 8, the Evolve made such breaks look like child’s play. This gun had the float of a nicely balanced 20-gauge over/under, yet we didn’t find anything lacking on long presentations. In fact, we found it was often possible to break such birds sooner than we’d normally take them, as the gun’s quickness easily accommodated a fast pull-away (or pull-through, as the method may be), that accurately built in the correct lead. We found no bobble in the muzzle due to the gun’s lightness, nor did we find a lack of steadiness when acquiring birds at longer reaches. We attribute this to the gun being well-balanced squarely between the hands that encouraged a clean and fast mount.

Functionality mirrored the Beretta. The Evolve digested and ejected flawlessly the same range of ammunition used with the Teknys, though mechanically the Browning is different. As noted, the Evolve chambers only the 2.75-inch 12-gauge shell and is clearly designed for clay bird use. Yet Browning has gone a different route in having the gun accommodate the widest variety of loads within this sporting definition.

Included in the package are two gas pistons, one for target loads with shot payloads of 1.125 ounces or less, and a second for payloads of 1.25 ounces and heavier. One of our test shooters has owned a Gold since it was introduced in 1995, and has never had an issue with it functioning over the range of light target to heavy 2.75-inch field and waterfowl loads. So why include two pistons now? Other than FITASC, only live-pigeon shooters employ the heavier 1.25-ounce "target" loads. Perhaps this is an attempt to woo the FITASC crowd, traditionally entrenched in Krieghoffs and the like, into trying a semi-auto. Along with the porting on the Browning, which helps control muzzle rise, having a semi-automatic certainly helps take the pounding out of that discipline’s heavier loads. Whatever the reason, we think it’s best not to look a gift horse in the mouth. Having two pistons included is better than finding out one doesn’t function for your needs and having to alter the gun or part or repair the same time and again, or worse, having to buy a different gun after you’ve already laid out the bucks.

Browning’s Evolve Gold Sporting comes packaged similarly to the Teknys. It, too, gets a hard break-down case, multiple chokes (though these are flush-mounted tubes, and we think that for a sporting clays-specific gun, they should be extended), an interchangeable set of various colored fiber-optic pipes, and, glory be, a shim kit, a first for Browning. There’s also a cabled receiver padlock included.