For most of us, the hunting shotgun is a working tool, which, under duress, may be used (unloaded, of course) as a boat paddle, crutch, reaching tool, or any of a dozen other unapproved applications. But what it has to do day in and day out is put shot on doves, ducks, geese, coots, cranes and other flying fowl in dust, dirt, mud, and other hostile environments. Any shotgun can perform all of these shooting duties—some better than others—and any shotgun can do the dirty work, but composite-stocked scatterguns are built for the worst conditions we can dish out. Though we’ve seen Perazzis that have been to hell and back, most of us would rather get a plastic gun dirty instead.
If manufacturers’ catalogs are any indication, composites have in fact taken over the shotgun market, with basic-black versions buttressed by more camo versions than you can shake a deke at. Upon further review, this shouldn’t surprise anybody who has had to clean salt-marsh water off a blued barrel before it ruins the finish, or who has had to glue a stock back together because the wood split. Plastic is forever, and if you doubt that, go check out the disposable diapers in a landfill. When polymer is shaped into a buttstock instead of pressed into a sheet that covers Baby’s bottom, sportsmen like it so much more.
Sportsmen also enjoy it when their plastics point well, and we recently sampled three products that did a good job of handling the demands of shooting in the field. We tested two 12-gauge autoloaders, the Benelli Super Black Eagle 3.5-inch Synthetic, catalog number 10015, and the Browning Gold Classic Stalker 3-inch, a model introduced in 1999 and available only through Browning Full-Line and Medallion dealers (call  333-3288 for dealer information). Both guns came with 28-inch barrels.
We had tested neither gun previously, though we had tested the 3.5-inch version of the 26-inch Super Black Eagle in 1992. The Classic is built on the same gas-operation system Browning’s Hunter/Stalker series, but it varies from the mainline guns in two major ways. The Classic’s receiver recalls the squared receiver of the now-discontinued Auto-5, and the stock allows the shooter to make drop adjustments (comb and heel) with provided spacers. Now, this seems to us to be exactly what we advocated manufacturers do more of—shamelessly rip-off good ideas from the competition and adapt them. Though we can’t say for sure, it would seem Browning borrowed the idea, but not the execution, of a consumer-adjustable stock from Beretta/Benelli and incorporated it into the Classic line. It works for us.
We also tested a 3-inch 12-gauge composite over/under from Ruger that stood on its head our concept of what a stacked-barrel gun should look like. To our knowledge, Ruger is the only company offering a synthetic-and-stainless o/u, and we saw an immediate niche for it: Some people like the safety, simplicity, and feel of an over/under to hunt with, but they don’t want to baby it. The Ruger was the answer—until it failed during testing. We detail what happened in an accompanying sidebar. In this part of the narrative, we snap our gloves and begin to examine the two self-loaders, starting with the quick-handling SBE.
Benelli Super Black Eagle
Our recommendation: Even after we treated it badly, the SBE ran like a champ. It is this facet of autoloader operation, reliability, that makes many hunters pass on semiautos. But the $1,200 Black Eagle survived a lot of hard-kicking 3-inch Nitro Mags and never hiccuped. Still, we like the Gold Hunter better because of a number of details that need to be resolved on the Italian gun.
Benelli introduced the SBE 10 years ago and claims it was the first autoloader designed to shoot the 12-gauge 31/2-inch shell. The company’s 2000 catalog lists three satin walnut versions of the gun, three camouflage SKUs, six new left-hand guns, and three right-eject black synthetic options in 28-, 26-, and 24-inch barrels. We tested the 28-inch gun, which came with five chokes (Cylinder, Improved Cylinder, Modified, Improved Modified, and Full).
Overall, the SBE measured 49.6 inches in length and weighed 7.5 pounds, at least half a pound less than the Classic Stalker. It had a 14.25-inch length of pull, and dropped 1.6 inches at the comb and 2.5 inches at the heel right out of the box. Like other Benellis we’ve tested, the stock drop was adjustable.
The SBE operates with an inertial, fixed barrel, recoil-operated system. When a shot is fired, the bolt moves forward relative to the rest of the shotgun, compressing a spring placed between the locking head and the bolt. Once compressed, the spring expands back out, pushing the bolt assembly back and ejecting the spent shell. Many shooters complain that this system kicks more than on gas-operated guns, and based on our subjective evaluation of these two guns, we’d have to agree. But there are many other factors that could contribute to this perception (gun weight and stock contact with the face to name two big ones), so we hesitate to lay everything on the action.
We function-tested the gun with a range of cartridges beginning with the low-recoil Estate Mighty-Lite Target Load, a 23/4-inch 2.5-dram load with 7/8-ounce of No. 8 lead shot. Using this load, we saw intermittent failures to eject, a problem that also occurred with the Gold Stalker. Obviously, this round didn’t have enough oomph to power either gun reliably. (The owner’s manual specifies a base kinetic energy level of 180 kgm needed to make the gun operate correctly.) But Winchester AA 23/4-inch lead No. 71/2s ran fine in a 11/8-ounce load, as did Remington Nitro Mag 3-inch steel No. 4s in a 17/8-ounce charge. We didn’t test 31/2-inch shells in the SBE since the Classic couldn’t handle them, but we gave the edge to the Benelli as a result.
At the patterning board, we saw the Super Black Eagle shoot very tight patterns with steel. The buffered Nitro Mag shotshell shot well above the expected pattern density for Improved Cylinder (72 percent into a 30-inch circle at 40 yards), but we noted a lot of clumping and holes in the pattern. On average, only five pellets hit the center aiming point using the IC choke. The Full choke produced much the same effect, 81 percent density, but with 10 pellet strikes in the center of the pattern. Also, the Full choke tended to flatten the pattern out on a 9 o’clock to 3 o’clock axis. Clearly, the Modified choke did the best, shooting a dense 80 percent without holes and clumping, and with 11 holes into a clay-size center area. Benelli recommends that shooters not use the Improved Modified and Full chokes with steel, and based on our testing, we agree that more constriction isn’t needed to get tight patterns.[PDFCAP(1)].
Of the two lead loads, the Estate load produced a little better patterns than the AA Winchester shotshell. We expect 45-percent density in an IC choke, which the Estate delivered, with the AA lower at 39 percent. The Modified patterns were separated by only a percentage point, with Estate at 68 percent and Winchester at 67 percent. The Full choke results were also within spec, with the AA shooting 75-percent patterns and the Estate 80 percent. The tighter constrictions regularly delivered 10 or more strikes onto a clay target image, and the distribution of pellets was much more uniform than what we saw in the steel load. The IC pattern was even as well, but on average, only about five pellets struck the center target image. Shooting the Super Black Eagle on moving targets, we noted some positives and negatives in its operation and handling. The thin wrist was comfortable to grasp, but it was slick at times. We would prefer stippling or checkering all around the wrist rather than just on the sides. This is no big order on a stock that’s shot into a mold. The safety, a large triangular button on the right rear side of the trigger guard, operated crisply and positively. If the shooter chose to, he could operate the safety with the middle of the finger, allowing the fingertip to slide onto the trigger in the same motion. Benelli thoughtfully radiused the side of the safety as well. We would like just a little more room inside the trigger guard to accommodate thick gloves, however.
It would also be nice to put some cast in the stock to bring the sighting plane to the shooter’s eye better, and we think Benelli should clean up the busy metalwork on top of the barrel. At the rear of the receiver, there’s a shallow groove that leads to a 0.3-inch lined area on top of the receiver, which steps down to the smooth front part of the rib directly above the chamber. This part of the rib sweeps up to the top of the rib itself, which is lined perpendicular to the bore to reduce glare. Midway down the barrel is a silver bead 0.05 inch wide, and near the muzzle, there’s a red bar sight 0.07 inch wide. There is simply too much going on here, and Benelli should simplify the plane.
We thought the Benelli handled well, with its balance point falling very near the middle of the bolt. For the shooter who extends his left arm toward the front of the forearm, this puts the gun’s weight directly between his hands.
The trigger was nothing to write home about either, but it’s been awhile since we’ve seen a good trigger on an autoloader. This one was mushy before it broke at 6 pounds. Mounting the Benelli was a little easier than the Browning, since the top of the SBE’s rubber buttpad had been ground off, preventing the top edge from snagging on clothing. As we would want on a hunting shotgun, Benelli provided sling attachments on the forearm cap and buttstock.
Ruger All-Weather Red Label
Synthetic components and stainless steel haven’t made many inroads into twin-barrel guns; in fact, the only one we’re currently aware of is Ruger’s All-Weather 12-gauge Red Label, which retails for $1,276. Introduced in 1999, the AW Red Label comes in three barrel lengths, 30, 28, and 26. Each gun ships with five chokes, Full, Modified, Improved Cylinder, and two Skeets. We tested the KRLP-1227, a 7.75-pound matte-stainless and composite 28-incher.
Our initial impressions were very positive. The gun pointed well, and the trigger was crisp and broke at 5 pounds—a real change from the two synthetic autoloaders. It was helpful having two chokes in the gun for five stand, since the top barrel could spray pellets out of the Skeet or IC tube, while the bottom could shoot Modified for more-distant targets. Even with two barrels, the gun was lighter than the Browning and weighed about the same as the Benelli. The top barrel shot a little low and to the left, but the bottom barrel was regulated perfectly. Since none of the recoil or gas was bled off to operate the action, the gun kicked more than the others, but it also digested Mighty-Lites without a hitch, making it shoot very comfortably. We saw targets well, and the gun came to the face easily, with a 13/16 inch of drop at the comb and 23/16 inch of drop at the heel. After patterning and about halfway through the aerial portion of the test, we were prepared to issue a strong Buy recommendation for the All-Weather Red Label. But then the gun fell apart.
This is no exaggeration. One GT shooter was standing at the fifth station of a five-stand course when the forearm came loose as he mounted the gun. Thinking the forearm had simply worked loose, the shooter tried to relatch it, but to no avail, and then he opened the top lever to empty the gun and examine it. Of course, that’s the process for taking the gun apart: remove the forearm, open the breech, lift off the barrels.
As the barrels separated from the receiver, a small piece of metal fell to the ground. Our shooter called time, picked up the various pieces of the gun, and excused himself so the others could continue. A cursory examination showed that the forend latch hook on the underside of the barrel—the piece that keeps the forearm on the gun—had fallen off. We didn’t see any metal fatigue or other indications of stress. Without the hook, the gun was broken.
Browning Gold Classic Stalker
Our recommendation: This 3-inch model is available only through Browning Full-Line and Medallion dealers. Browning introduced the Classic Stalker last year, and it differs most prominently from the Gold Hunter/Stalker line in the shape of its aluminum alloy receiver, which is more squared. Also, its stock dimensions can be changed somewhat. But it costs the same, $722. That price edge and the gun’s overall solid performance make it our first pick in this test.
Like Benelli, Browning features a host of autoloaders, but fewer of them with the Classic shape. There are two 3-inch 12-gauge Classics listed in the Browning catalog, one 28-inch and one 26-inch barrel, and the line comes in wood/blued and synthetic finishes. There’s also a Classic High Grade 12 gauge and two 20 gauges. We tested the 28-inch gun, which came with three chokes (Improved Cylinder, Modified, and Full).
The Classic was 48.5 inches long and weighed 8.2 pounds. It had a 14.25-inch length of pull, and dropped 111/32 inches at the comb and 2.25 inches at the heel. Unlike other Brownings we’ve tested, the stock drop was adjustable by using spacers supplied with the gun. The spacers allow the shooter to select a minimum comb drop of 15/16 inches to a maximum of 13/8 inches. The heel drop varies between 2 inches and 213/32 inches. The shooter changes the spacers by removing the buttpad and buttstock and selecting the spacer he wants.
The Classic operates on gas. Upon firing, high-pressure gas from behind the shot charge passes through two ports in the barrel, through the gas bracket and into the gas cylinder. Thispressure forces the gas piston rearward, applying pressure to the piston rod. As the piston rod moves rearward, it recocks the hammer and ejects the spent shell. After fully traveling to the rear, the bolt assembly moves forward, picks up a fresh round from the magazine, and chambers it.
Using the Estate Mighty-Lite Target Load, we saw intermittent failures to eject. But Winchester AA No. 71/2s and Remington Nitro Mag 3-inch steel No. 4s worked fine separately or mixed. The Classic can’t accept 31/2-inch shells, so the SBE had the advantage there.
At the patterning board, Classic shot efficient patterns with steel. The buffered Nitro Mags shot tighter than we expected with the Improved Cylinder choke (60 percent into a 30-inch circle at 40 yards), and there was less clumping in the pattern. On average, seven pellets hit the center aiming point using the IC choke. The Modified choke shot an even 70 percent pattern, with eight holes into a clay-size center area. Browning says in its manual not to use the Full choke with steel shot, since blown patterns can result. We didn’t see that happen with the buffered Nitro Mags. The Full choke produced 80 percent density, but with 10 pellet strikes on average in the center of the pattern.
The Estate lead load produced 42-percent pattern densities with an IC choke, 47 percent with Modified, and 61 percent with Full. The Winchester shell shot 39, 64, and 68 percent densities, respectively.
Shooting the Classic on clays, we first noted how much heavier it felt than the Benelli—no surprise, since it weighed nearly three-quarters of a pound more. The balance point of the gun was about an inch and a half forward of the Benelli’s, with the Classic being balanced at the chamber mouth. Normally, we’d prefer a faster-handling gun, but we consistently shot three to four birds a round better with the Classic than the SBE.
A lot of little things can account for that margin, we think, but the big one would be weight. The Classic’s mass forced the shooter to move its barrels to catch up to targets, and this action may have helped follow-through as a result. We seemed to hit crossing targets better with the Browning. Also, the Browning had a half-decent trigger. The Classic’s trigger broke much more cleanly than the Benelli’s, even at 6.25 pounds.
We also liked the feel of the Classic’s wrist, though like the Benelli, the stock got awfully slick when wet. The safety on the Classic was also a triangular button on the right rear side of the trigger guard, but the shooter had to first operate the safety and then slide the fingertip onto the trigger. We wouldn’t mind a little more room inside the Classic’s trigger guard either.
We would like some cast in the Classic’s stock as well, but Browning outdid the Benelli in terms of the sighting plane. It’s much cleaner on top of the Classic, with a set of recessed grooves on the receiver leading to a ramp and the rib. The Browning’s rubber buttpad needed to be ground down, since the top of it caught on clothing. Browning provided sling attachments on the forearm cap and buttstock. We also like the Browning’s loading system, which on this gun also included a magazine cut-off switch.
With the bolt open and the magazine cut-off forward, the shooter inserts a shell into the magazine. The shell is automatically cycled into the chamber. To use the magazine cut-off, the shooter flips a lever on the left side of the receiver to the rearward “C” position. This prevents rounds in the magazine from being chambered. Hunters who want to quickly change loads can flip the cut-off to C, open the action, insert a different load, and cycle the bolt forward. However, hunters need to be aware that having the switch cut off can leave rounds in the magazine.
Gun Tests Recommends
Benelli Super Black Eagle, $1,200. Conditional Buy. The SBE is a solid hunting tool, but it’s much more expensive than the Gold Classic. Why pay more?
Browning Gold Classic Stalker, $722. This 3-inch model can challenge the standard Gold Hunter/Stalker and come out on top because of the adjustable stock. It wouldn’t be our first pick for a gun we had to tote a long way, but for hunting where the birds come to you, we’d say Buy it.
Ruger All-Weather Red Label KRLP-1227, $1,276. Don’t Buy. We were crestfallen when the Red Label came apart, because it offered the advantages of low maintenance for the shooter who prefers a fixed-breech hunting gun. We don’t know why this small, but important, part failed, but we’re sure it wasn’t because of abuse at our hands.