December 2009

Super-Auto Shootout: Benelli’s SBE II Versus Browning Maxus

What happens when we take an ‘Our Pick’-rated Super Black Eagle II from three years ago and put it up against the newest flavor from Browning? Find out in this point-by-point comparison.

It is an old story in the gun business: Fancy new model gets announced; months later prototypes leak out for promotional media testing; then, finally, a year (or two) later, real guns start shipping. And so it is with Browning’s Maxus, which was announced in November 2008, with some prototypes available to shoot at the January 2009 SHOT Show in Orlando, and lagging production. Originally slated for late-spring-2009 availability, early-fall delivery has proved to be the case instead—and then, only for the 31⁄2-inch-chamber models.

automatic shotguns

Browning’s Maxus, left, is a new-for-2009 31/2-inch-chamber autoloader in the matte-black Stalker style. It has some things we like, such as stock shim adjustments, adjustable length of pull, a new gas action and trigger system. Also, the Maxus was designed from the start to be a 31/2-inch gun. To test the Maxus in waterfowling and other field use, we brought in a gun similar to an “Our Pick” in the January 2007 issue, a Benelli Super Black Eagle II. The gun this time is the No. 10101 Max-4 HD Camo 31/2-inch 12 gauge, $1759, shown on the right.

The initial offerings of Browning’s new-for-2009 autoloader is the matte Stalker style and also a Mossy Oak Duck Blind camo version for $1499 MSRP, both with 31⁄2-inch chambers. The 3-inch versions are said to be arriving soon—again, in either Stalker matte black or camo for now.

Included in all the "Planet Maxus" hoopla, Browning has made several claims about the Maxus and touted several new features. A few of the features aren’t particularly meaningful, so let’s dispense with these first. The "Turnkey" quick-change magazine plug is hardly of any use in a dedicated field gun, one directed to waterfowl at that, where three shots (2+1) is going to be it.

Things like shim adjustments for drop are nice to have, of course, and were a bit more remarkable when they appeared 20 years ago. Now, they have become so prevalent that it seems more like a glaring oversight when new autoloaders fail to provide this feature. Naturally, we are glad they are included in the Maxus, but this is no different from many autoloaders. We do note that the Maxus has adjustable length of pull, with the appropriate buttstock spacers included right in the box—not an optional accessory, but already supplied.

Burrowing deeper into the Maxus, Browning has promised us not just cosmetics, but a new gas action and trigger system that moves beyond the similarly weighted Winchester SX3 Composite ($1239 MSRP) and its Browning rendition, the half-pound-heavier Browning Silver Stalker ($1179 MSRP). Rather than an afterthought, the Maxus was designed from the start to be a 31⁄2-inch gun, and it appears that Browning hopes the Maxus will outscore both the Beretta Xtrema2 and the stalwart Super Black Eagle II.

There are a number of shotguns against which we could pit the new Maxus, but to clean up the field and make the comparisons truly head to head, we chose to bring in an "Our Pick" from the January 2007 issue. There, we tested the Benelli Super Black Eagle II No. 10016 12 gauge, $1515, rating it above the Beretta Urika Optima and Remington 105Cti. Almost three years ago, we wrote of the SBE II, "The latest version of the evolving Super Black Eagle design is a comfortable, ever-functional hunting gun, with the capacity to shoot 23⁄4-, 3-, and 31⁄2-inch ammunition." If the Maxus could compete against the SBE II, we reasoned, then its successful launch into the world’s autoloading shotgun pool would be assured. Toward that end, we acquired a Benelli Super Black Eagle II No. 10101 Max-4 HD Camo 31⁄2-inch 12 gauge, $1759, to compete with the Browning Maxus Stalker No. 011600204 31⁄2-inch 12 Gauge, $1379.

Here’s what we found:

Browning Maxus Stalker No. 011600204 3.5-Inch 12 Gauge, $1379

We liked the big, bold, strong look of the Maxus receiver—bearing some semblance to the original Super-X Model One and the Model 12. The forearm of the Maxus is one of its best and most innovative features. It is slim, trim, and is latched to the barrel more like what you’d expect on an over/under rather than the standard forearm nut/magazine screw cap on most autoloading shotguns. It is lightning-quick to remove and faster yet to replace—slide it on, and it locks itself firmly into place almost automatically. The Maxus forearm is slimmer than that found on prior Golds—no, not as slim-feeling as the SBE II, but still a substantially trimmer forearm than on many autoloaders.

automatic shotguns

We also compared Browning’s new Maxus to the gun it has displaced, the former top-of-the-line Browning Gold, shown here in 3-inch-chamber walnut-stocked configuration. The Maxus has similar dimensions but weighs less, has a slimmer forearm, and shoots more comfortably. The Maxus’s new gas system is markedly cleaner than the vintage Gold’s system.

The Browning "Speed Load" feature that we have always loved is back this time as "Speed Load Plus." The "Plus" part is speed unloading as well, a feature that goes back to the Browning B2000 autoloader. In addition to the speed load, which offers consistent loading from beneath all the time, Browning has brought back the magazine cut-off, so the shooter can slap in a goose load to replace a duck load quickly. With speed loading and speed unloading, no other autoloading shotgun we are aware of is easier to feed. The magazine cut-off is excellent as well.

Off the Maxus’s trigger, Browning says, "the new Lightning Trigger System is the finest ever offered in an autoloading shotgun." Browning also touts the locktime of the new trigger, a peculiar marketing angle in a hunting shotgun used at moving targets. What we found was that our gun’s trigger broke at 6 pounds—noticeably heavier than the Benelli. But on the plus side, the Maxus trigger had no initial creep and an extremely crisp break. The crispness of the trigger and the wide trigger face made it seem lighter in actual use than it really was. It was a good hunting trigger, our team said.

The fit-and-finish quality was fine overall, with one exception: the very soft and a bit gummy Inflex recoil pad wasn’t ground properly because pieces of its soft exterior came off at the top of the heel. Also, the pad itself was unevenly finished with a substandard buttstock-to-pad fit.

Nonetheless, the Maxus was the softest-shooting 12 gauge of its weight that we have ever tested. Our shooters said it was unquestionably a softer shooter than the heavier SBE II. (This Maxus delivered on its promise of being a lightweight gun, weighing in at 6.9 pounds, exactly as cataloged. It was lighter than the SBE II by a quarter of a pound.) It also shot softer than a vintage 3-inch wood-stocked Browning Gold we shot alongside our test pair.

As far as reliability, Browning recommends nothing below "11⁄8-oz. 1200 fps loads minimum." Straight out of the box, it handled a variety of loads at its minimum power range with no problem. The Maxus also digested B&P and Winchester 1-ounce loads with no malfunctions. We also ran a box of Winchester white box seasonal 7⁄8-ounce loads through it with zero malfunctions. In sum, the Maxus ran the gamut from 7⁄8-ounce loads all the way up to jolting 21⁄4-ounce 31⁄2-inch lead loads without a single malfunction.

The new gas action on the Maxus is an improvement over the already very good Browning Gold system. Gone is the synthetic action sleeve. In its place is a one-piece-alloy sleeve-action valve assembly, with the gas valve itself equipped with huge exhaust ports. The magazine tube has ringed segmented sections along with an intentionally rough surface that apparently acts a scrubber—isolating the action from gas residue and particulate matter. During our testing, it worked well. Heavy shooting formed an easily wiped-off crud ring at the front of the magazine tube, while most of the magazine tube and the action remained comparatively residue free.

Our Team Said: The more time we spent with the Maxus, the more it became apparent how versatile it is. With an unloaded weight of just under 7 pounds, it is light enough for upland use. With its soft, comfortable, recoil pulse, it is suitable for both for high-volume clays use and high-volume wingshooting. It functions with loads from 7⁄8 ounce all the way up to 21⁄4 ounce, making it suitable for dove hunting, turkey hunting and everything in between.

Benelli Super Black Eagle II No. 10101 Max-4 HD Camo 31⁄2-Inch 12 gauge, $1759

Benelli offers three black-synthetic versions of this gun priced at $1649, and walnut models run $1549 MSRP. The other camo-finish units with APG HD veneer are the priciest at $1759. There’s also a gun, a 26-inch-barrel model in Max-4 HD Camo, No. 10107, that similar to our test gun.

The SBE II came in a plastic case that is handy to carry, has foam padding, and can be padlocked. It is a practical container—far more usable than the Maxus’s cardboard shipping container.

We noticed several things about the SBE II right away. It is easy to assemble and disassemble, and cleaning and lubrication of the bolt and linkage is easy to perform. We felt the trigger was light enough for a 31⁄2-inch magnum autoloader, but it was also mushy, displaying excessive take-up, our testers said. The safety, located at the rear of the trigger guard, was very stiff and extremely loud when pushed off. Some of our shooters couldn’t push the button off with a right-hand forefinger and had to resort to either using a thumb or pulling it off from the reverse side with the left-hand forefinger. We contacted Benelli about the problem, and they agreed to replace the trigger guard assembly under warranty at no charge.

A replacement trigger group promptly arrived from Benelli. We installed it in our test gun, noting along the way that only one pin secures the trigger group. It was amazingly easy to remove and replace. Our replacement assembly had a proper safety, quite easy to get off, and it was far less noisy. The trigger itself was a bit heavier than the original, breaking at 5.6 pounds—still noticeably lighter than the Maxus trigger. It was also crisper than the trigger that originally came on the gun, with no mushy feel or unwanted take-up. Props to Benelli’s customer service department for prompt attention to the matter.

The bolt-release button, located on the right side of the receiver, was small and didn’t stand up very far. It was very easy to use, however, requiring very little pressure to engage.

The SBE II shot to point of aim. Recoil was more than on a gas-operated gun, but still quite manageable, in our opinion. For a high-volume clays gun, we’d likely look elsewhere, but that isn’t the intended use of the SBE II. The forearm was easy to grasp, and it felt slim and trim.

While shooting the gun, our team complained that the silver center bead, overlaid on the red bar front sight, presented us with an annoying sight picture, with the middle bead obliterating most of the front sight. If we owned this gun, we’d replace the center bead with a flush-fit screw to clean up the sight picture.

The SBE II proved to be reliable. While the official minimum is a 1200 fps 11⁄8-ounce load, many Super Black Eagles can handle lighter loads with no hiccups—and that was indeed the case with this test gun. Like the Maxus, the SBE II experienced no malfunctions with any of our test ammos.

Elsewhere, the company claims that "the Benelli Crio System improves patterns by as much as 13.2% and yields denser, more uniform shot patterns." Likewise, Browning says that its overbored barrels reduce friction and that this "reducing friction from the forcing cone on the shot column also results in fewer deformed pellets for more uniform patterns and keeps more pellets in the center of the pattern." Browning also states that the new Vector Pro longer forcing cone has a "long, gradual taper [that] minimizes shot deformation and maximizes pattern uniformity, consistency and density."

So whose gun produces better patterns? To find out, we used Winchester Super Pheasant 13⁄8-ounce loads of #5 lead shot (steel doesn’t deform) and started printing patterns at 40 yards. To make the patterns easier to read, we used both guns’ Full-choke tubes.

The outcome: The Benelli SBE II gave far tighter patterns, more even patterns, and patterns with less patchiness with its factory Crio Full choke than the Browning Maxus did with its factory Invector Plus Full choke. It proves nothing in absolute terms at all, as all firearms remain individuals, and we have yet to see two patterns that are identical. It did suggest to us that Browning’s claim of maximum pattern density, uniformity, and density does not always hold true.

Our Team Said: If we were evaluating the Benelli in a stand-alone review, our testers would all give this shotgun an A. The SBE II did everything Benelli promises it will do. We all agreed that there wasn’t a thing wrong with the Super Black Eagle II. But when compared to the Maxus, we found the Browning to be lighter, softer shooting, easier to load and unload, and easier to change loads on the fly. Some may well prefer the Benelli on the basis of its somewhat simpler operating system, slimmer receiver, and thinner-feeling forearm. Some may also give a few more points to the Benelli’s easier-to-clean hard-chrome-lined barrel that the Maxus lacks. Also, Benelli included extra chokes and a lockable hard case along with a better warranty. But our shooters preferred the Maxus, and they would make it an "Our Pick" over the SBE II.

Browning Maxus Stalker No. 011600204 31⁄2-inch 12 Gauge

Benelli Super Black Eagle II No. 10101 Max-4 HD Camo 31⁄2-inch 12 ga

GUN TESTS REPORT CARD SUMMARY