New shooters, especially young ones, usually begin training with a rimfire pistol or rifle because recoil is minimal. This makes it easier for the shooter to concentrate on fundamentals such as sight alignment and trigger control. Introducing a young beginner to shotgun shooting with a bore smaller than 12 gauge is a good idea for much the same reason. In this test we will evaluate three 20-gauge semi-automatic shotguns with reduced-length stocks. A shorter stock makes it easier for the younger or smaller shooter to point the shotgun and achieve a solid mount. Semi-automatic operation relies upon energy from the ammunition to cycle the bolt, so, in effect, each gun offered a built-in mechanism to reduce recoil to some degree or another. Our test shotguns were the $1299 Benelli Montefeltro Combo, Browning’s $1179 Silver Hunter Micro Midas, and the $499 CZ 720 Reduced Length shotgun.
Our first step was to pattern each shotgun. This meant firing at a stationary paper target to determine the size, shape, and density of shot impact each gun would deliver at a given distance. For tips on patterning we visited the shop of Larry Feland located in Cypress, Texas (FelandGunsmith.com). Feland began his career in 1981 and soon found himself bending stocks and making leather pads for none other than Cyril Adams, one of the world’s renowned double-gun experts and author of Lock Stock and Barrel: Making an English Shotgun and Shooting With Consistency. An expert in the field of shotgun fit, Feland specializes in aligning the shotgun with the eye of the individual to deliver shot where the shooter is looking.
The first question we asked Feland was if the procedure for patterning a semi-automatic was any different than patterning over/under or side-by-side shotguns. We also asked if 20-gauge shotguns should be patterned differently than 12-gauge models. The answer was no to both questions. But Feland did advise that the shotgun should be benched and shot like a rifle. This would help evaluate tendencies of elevation or alignment to the right or left by reducing the effects of individual shooter fit.
All three of our guns arrived with removable choke tubes. The choke tube acts like a funnel to regulate the final diameter of the bore and the manner in which shot is metered into the atmosphere. Some shooters feel that patterning with a choke that is more open will reveal more about the bore. But Feland pointed out that using a tighter choke would actually be more definitive. Not all of our test guns arrived with a full set of chokes, so we decided to pattern using the most commonly chosen constrictions, which are Improved Cylinder (IC) and Modified (MOD). Feland advised a pattern distance of 20 yards for testing with the IC choke and a distance of 35 yards to test with Modified chokes. Our pattern procedure was to mount each gun in a rifle rest and shoot one shot per target per choice of ammunition. First, we shot an IC choke at 20 yards, then installed the Mod choke and fired on the 35-yard board.
Each shotgun was capable of chambering 3-inch ammunition. But since were trying to avoid unnecessary recoil, we chose 2-inch cartridges from Remington and Winchester. The Remington Premier STS Target Loads and Winchester’s AA Target Loads each launched a 7⁄8-ounce payload of No. 9 shot over a powder charge of 2 dram equivalent. Our choice of Winchester Super Target threw No. 8s.
Our next step was to put each shotgun into the hands of a young beginner shooter under the watchful eye of an instructor. Our junior shooter was a 15-year-old young lady whose previous experience was limited to informal clay shooting with her father’s Browning A5 12-gauge shotgun, probably less than 75 rounds in total. Our choice of instructor came by way of recommendation from World Side by Side Champion Ed Arrighi. Brian Ash, the son of sporting clays gurus Gil and Vicki Ash, literally grew up in the sport. His input regarding course design has been sought repeatedly by the National Sporting Clays Association for the national championships held annually at the National Shooting Complex in San Antonio, Texas. Ash (email: Bash390@aol.com) teaches at American Shooting Centers located in George Bush Park in Houston, Texas (AMShootCenters.com). Lessons for our beginning shooter utilized several shooting stations along the Blue Sporting Clays trail designated for beginning and intermediate shooters. She shot the stations a minimum of three times to cover all three shotguns. Because the Benelli Combo also shipped with a full-length stock, we enlisted an adult beginner to challenge clay targets on the skeet field. We chose the Winchester Super Target ammunition for the bulk of our field shooting with the supplied Modified chokes installed. Here is what we learned.
CZ 720 Reduced Length Shotgun No. 06039 20 Gauge, $499
Much like the 12-gauge CZ 712 shotgun tested in our August 2009 issue, the 20-gauge Model 720 Reduced Length Shotgun is a gas-operated semi-automatic built on an alloy receiver with Turkish walnut forend and stock. It is the product of the Huglu plant in Turkey. The 720’s 24-inch barrel was chrome lined with a black, hard-chrome finish on the outside. The barrel was topped with a vent rib that was scored laterally with fine lines to diffuse glare. There was a single brass bead at the front. The rib was matched to heavier lines machined into the top of the receiver. The receiver was anodized to match the barrel, but the trigger guard was treated to a shiny hard-enamel finish. There was a crossbolt safety located behind the trigger just below the receiver. The bolt was chromed along with the bolt handle, bolt-release button, and trigger.
The forend was actually a little wider than the receiver. There was checkering that was most prominent beneath the forend but did wrap upward along the sides. The forend was held in place by a steel cap that tightened against a small detent pin. When installing the forend, the first step was to make sure it snapped into place behind the flange attached to the receiver. Otherwise, you could make the mistake of tightening the magazine cap and leaving the barrel slightly loose. It should be noted that the magazines of all three of our shotguns were self-contained, so we never had to work against the magazine spring. This meant the job of the magazine caps was limited to holding the barrel and forend in place. Maximum magazine capacity of the CZ shotgun was four rounds. The buttstock, according to the CZ-USA.com website, was mounted cast off to the right. As with each of our guns, we found the amount of cast to be quite subtle, and left-handed shooters did not find it limited their ability to point the shotgun effectively. No hardware to change the angle of the stock was supplied. But accessories did include a set of flush-fitting choke tubes in Full, Improved Modified, Modified, Improved Cylinder, and Cylinder bore. Plus, we found a key-like choke wrench made from flat stock that could be used with multiple gauges.
One of the surprises we found in testing the 12-gauge model 712 was how comfortable it was to shoot despite having a minimal buttpad. Likewise, our 720 was fit with a rubber buttpad that was only about 0.4 inches thick at its center and the heel, or top of the pad, was fit with a hard cap. This is often referred to as a Sporting Clays design. Pachmayr sells a similar pad and calls this feature the Speed Mount Heel because its smooth surface helps the pad slide into position rather than catch on clothing. Nevertheless, we can report that the 6.2-pound CZ shotgun seemed to shoot with the least amount of recoil when compared to our other shotguns.
Our first impression at the pattern boards was that the trigger weight was heavy, and it measured about 10.5 pounds. Our junior shooter had no complaints, but our first couple of shots at the pattern board landed slightly low and to the left. Paying more attention to the trigger, we were able to land our shots dead center with the IC choke installed, but still a little bit low of a 50/50 pattern. The best performer by far was the Winchester Super Target ammunition. It spelled out a 27-inch-wide pattern with relatively few flyers. Both of our No. 9 shot choices printed a core measuring about 24 inches across with a secondary ring of dispersed hits. From the 35-yard line, the Remington STS and Winchester AA rounds still showed a core of about 24 inches across but was less dense and hits beyond the core were far reaching and more widely dispersed. We placed a 12-inch-by-12-inch square over the center of the pattern to help us judge pattern density. The 1-foot square contained 81 hits of the Remington shot and 89 hits of Winchester AA. In contrast, the No. 8 Winchester Super Target round held its pattern well when compared to its imprint at 20 yards. It wasn’t as round as the 20-yard pattern, but the bulk of its density remained inside a 30-inch circle with surprisingly few flyers. We counted 109 hits inside the 1-foot square.
At the Sporting Clays trail Brian Ash introduced what he calls an instinctive shooting technique to our junior shooter, beginning with the engagement of stationary clay targets propped up at a distance of about 10 yards. Instructed to look at the targets with both eyes open and pointing with the support-hand index finger beneath the forend, the shooter fired the CZ 720 and broke all the targets. The first moving target was thrown from the right hand side of the field in a tall sickle-shaped arc exposing the inside of the clay. That our beginner was able to break the very first thrown target said good things about the CZ as well as the instruction of Brian Ash.
Our Team Said: Our junior shooter preferred the CZ 720 Reduced Length shotgun because it “kicked” the least and seemed to offer the most natural flow. After Brian Ash asked the shooter to simply point at the moving clay target with both eyes open, our beginner was able to transfer the same motion and effectively control the CZ. Choice of ammunition seemed to make a big difference, with much more predictable patterns produced by rounds of No. 8 shot Winchester Super Target. Some of our staff thought the comb was a little wide, but according to Brian Ash, the CZ 720 is a gun that most people will be able to pick up and shoot well right away. We thought it was a Best Buy.
Browning Silver Hunter Micro Midas No. 011389605 20 Gauge, $1179
Our Browning shotgun was easily distinguished from our other test guns by the satin silver finish on the alloy receiver, an extra-thick buttpad, and high-grain walnut stock that Browning also refers to as satin finished. The trigger was anodized with a gold color, which has become one of Browning’s trademarks. The vent rib was noticeably taller than those found on our other test guns. The crossbolt safety at the rear upper corner of the trigger guard was triangular shaped on both sides, and it was nestled into a recess at the rear of the receiver integrated with the contour of the pistol grip. The pistol grip was somewhat flat sided and checkered. The forend was rounded and offered only a shallow hint of a finger groove. Checkering was handsomely applied, covering about 180 degrees of the wood in the familiar X-over-X-shaped pattern.
The 26-inch barrel offered a lightweight profile. The vent rib, fit with an ivory front bead, was checkered but thin, about 0.25 inches across. The line of the rib was continued on to the receiver. The line was machined deeply into the top of the receiver and continued all the way back to where it dropped away toward the stock without ending in a diffuser. Browning calls this a semi-humpback design. A good example of a “full” humpback design would be a Browning A5.
Each of our test guns arrived partially disassembled, but all that was needed was to insert the barrel into the receiver, slip the forend over the magazine tube and/or the gas assembly, and screw down the retainer cap. The Browning with its Active Valve gas system was slightly more complicated, probably because its gas operation is more sophisticated. The Active Valve system is selective in how much gas it uses to cycle the action. When firing lighter loads, the valve will capture and utilize most of the gas. When firing magnum loads much more of the gas will be bled off, reducing felt recoil.
To assemble the Silver Hunter Micro, we began by making sure the push rod was in the proper slot. Viewed from the front of the receiver, the slot was located at about 10 o’clock. The 12-gauge models capture the push rod at about the 2 o’clock position. Next, the gas piston fits into the loop-shaped gas bracket attached to the lower radius of the barrel about 1 foot from the chamber. At this point, it was just a matter of fitting the chamber end of the barrel into the receiver, then applying the forend and screwing down the magazine cap while working against the nominal strength of the sleevebar spring. The cap was checked by a spring-loaded detent consisting of three “fingers” that extended from the end of the magazine to mesh with grooves inside the cap. We doubt the retainer cap will be able to work its way loose.
Extras included a -inch spacer that can be placed between the buttpad and the stock. The Browning also arrived with three flush-fit Invector System chokes in Improved Cylinder, Modified, and Full constrictions. The Invector chokes were the only ones in the test that had their designations spelled out on the surface of the chokes instead of indication by notches along the edges of the tubes. A flat-stock choke-tube wrench was supplied.
At the pattern boards, our adult test shooter decided he liked the Browning a little more than the others. But he felt that the stickiness of the rubber buttpad was making it more difficult to mount. A coating of Slick-Eez could be used to create a glassy surface, letting it slide into position rather than catching on clothing ($30 from KickEezProducts.com). It seemed like the gun had to be moved off the shoulder and then straight back into place each time a change in position was desired. We think this added to the perception that the pad was perhaps too narrow and did not offer a wide enough print. However, recoil pads are like gloves. They are a matter of personal preference and can easily be replaced.
Results in our pattern tests showed that unlike the Benelli and CZ shotguns, the Silver Hunter Micro actually shot a little high. We would estimate about 60% of the pattern was above point of aim. A number of shooters prefer this because they would rather not have to cover the target with the muzzle, and many feel that it’s harder to make up for a gun that shoots low than it is for a gun that hits a little higher. Our test shooter felt that the semi-humpback design did help the shooter aim. We think this paid off in our patterning session where we were concerned more with hard focus and sight alignment than merely pointing the barrel.
From a distance of 20 yards, the Remington STS ammunition produced a pattern with its density concentrated in a somewhat elliptical or egg-shaped core measuring about 17 inches across before feathering out in several directions. Our other No. 9-shot round (Winchester AA) produced a pattern that was noticeably more even and round, measuring about 18 inches in diameter before the density thinned. We wouldn’t use the term flyers for the hits at the edge of the pattern, just further apart. The Winchester Super Target rounds printed a dense circle about 17 inches across. But the hits beyond this core did tend to fly out in a star-like pattern.
From the 35-yard line, shot count inside a 12-inch square window was 81 hits for the Remington STS rounds and 83 hits for the Winchester Super Target ammunition. Just when we were about to wish for a tighter choke, we landed 104 hits of the No. 9 Winchester AA rounds inside the 1-foot window. This made the Browning Silver Hunter Micro the only shotgun to favor the No. 9 Winchester AA ammunition exclusively.
On the field with Brian Ash, our junior noted that the Browning actually felt a little too short. We think this shows just how subjective shotgun fit can be. In fact, both the CZ and the Browning shotguns offered 13.0-inch lengths of pull. Actually, it was the Benelli Montefeltro that had the shortest length of pull, listed at 12.5 inches in length. Perhaps if we had applied the quarter-inch spacer, the report would have been different. In watching our junior shooter, we thought the sticky recoil pad made the gun slightly awkward. Nevertheless, under Brian’s direction, our junior shooter was breaking a lot of clays with the Browning. According to Ash, he felt that of the three guns, the Browning pointed the best. The recoil pad may have been more difficult to shoulder, but once in place, it stayed put. After learning how little the gun needed to move to make each shot, our beginning shooter was able to take advantage of how well the Browning stayed locked inside the mount. This was when we saw her begin to truly grasp the technique of rotating the upper body as one with the barrel pointing at the target.
Our Team Said: The Silver Hunter Micro is a refined-looking shotgun that was heavy enough to negate any tendency to whip or overswing. But its narrow profile made it agile and eager to move quickly, too. As tight as the buttpad allowed the shooter to lock in, we would prefer a recoil pad with a wider print that was less grabby. We think the gun’s preference for only one of our test rounds was largely a product of the choke tubes. Improved Modified might have been a more versatile choice. But there are a lot of good choke tubes available for this gun, including several options from Browning.
Benelli Montefeltro Combo No. 10832 20 Gauge, $1299
The Benelli Montefeltro was the most expensive gun in the test but that’s because the Combo is, effectively, two guns in one. The Montefeltro Short Stock with either a 24- or 26-inch barrel lists for $1139. The Combo is available with a 26-inch barrel only. Based on MSRP, the extra buttstock that comes with the Combo is a $160 upcharge. Both the adult-length buttstock and the shorter “youth” stock were both shaped from handsome walnut to match the fore end. Lengths of pull were 12.5 inches for the youth stock and 143⁄8 inches for the full size stock. Unlike many youth stocks the contact area at the butt pad, and the actual dimensions of width, height and thickness was the same as found on the adult length stock. This is important because someone requiring a shorter length of pull may not necessarily be a small person. Full-length buttstocks that have been cut down often result in a decreased footprint and a smaller contact area, which tends to stab rather than provide adequate dispersion of impact. As with each of our shotguns, the smaller buttstock could conceivably be stretched to an intermediate length simply by mounting a thicker buttpad. We asked Feland about increasing length of pull by installing a hydraulic style buttpad, such as those from Graco or Speedbump Stockworks. Certainly this is possible, but Feland warned that such products also add weight that can alter the balance of the shotgun.
The Montefeltro offered a full-length vent rib above the barrel. There was a red filament bead up front and a brass bead about half way back to the receiver. The rib measured about 0.3 inch wide and was lined to diffuse glare. The lines were continued into the top strap of the aluminum receiver. Below the barrel the forend offered a grip contour that ran its full length with checkering that covered almost 180 degrees of its lower radius. The magazine end cap that seated the forend offered a ratcheting action that prevented over tightening no matter how much the cap was turned. The forend profile was slender, and magazine capacity was four rounds.
The Montefeltro Combo worked from an aluminum receiver, and the trigger guard was a synthetic plastic. Despite the weight-saving materials, the 5.8-pound Benelli did not offer a muzzle-heavy feel. Its point of balance was in the area directly below the bolt-release button. The bolt, bolt handle, cartridge drop lever, carrier and trigger were each chromed in contrast to the black finish of the receiver.
The trigger safety was located at the upper rear corner of the trigger guard and offered immediate recognition by feel and sight. Protruding from the right-hand side, the safety was triangular shaped, indicating engagement. With the safety off, the opposite end of the crossbolt was peg-shaped, protruding from the left-hand side of the trigger guard. The cartridge drop lever was located on the right-hand side at the upper front corner of the trigger guard. This could also be considered a safety feature because it gives the shooter the option of transporting the shotgun with the magazine loaded and bolt closed on an empty chamber. Working the bolt will not chamber a round, until the drop lever is pressed. This feature also allows the shooter to eject a dud or safely switch to a different load, such as from birdshot to slug or buckshot. Ejecting the chambered round in order to load the next round from the magazine can be accomplished by pressing the drop lever rather than by pressing the trigger and firing a shot.
The Montefeltro Combo arrived with a set of shims to change the angle of the stock, cast left or right, or drop up or down. The drop and cast shims were plastic and applied between the receiver and the front of the buttstock. The stock was then slipped over the mounting rod. A steel locking plate coded to match the shim held the stock at the desired angle. A 13mm socket wrench with an extension is a handy tool for tightening down the nut that seats the stock. As with each of our shotguns, the Benelli’s stock arrived somewhat neutral if not slightly in favor of the right-handed shooter. Both of the supplied buttpads connected to the stocks with Phillips-head wood screws that were retained as one with the pad. Unfortunately, the hole for the lower screw in our youth stock did partially strip out. Additional accessories were a full complement of flush-fit choke tubes including Full, Improved Modified, Modified, Improved Cylinder, and Skeet. Also included was a tubular choke wrench.
At the 20-yard pattern board we learned that the Benelli Montefeltro Combo offered shot placement that was approximately 50/50 above and below our point of aim with the youth stock in place. We saw some change towards 60% of the shot above the target with the adult stock in place. But with the supplied shims we were sure we could easily manipulate this result. In terms of density, firing through the IC choke from the 20-yard line we judged that the Winchester Super Target was the most consistent, producing a pattern with a diameter measuring approximately 24 inches. The Remington STS ammunition did, however, show an evenly spread pattern with a diameter of about 20 inches before individual pieces of shot began to print as a ring of errant hits. The Winchester AA ammunition pattern showed a dense 17-inch core surrounded by hits that feathered outward.
From 35 yards fired through the Modified choke, the No. 8 shot Winchester Super Target produced a pattern with its body measuring about 30 inches across with a secondary ring of markedly less density measuring about 4 inches wide. We counted about 35 holes that could be considered flyers. Inside the core we counted 125 holes inside a 12-inch square. The No. 9 shot Winchester AA round produced more of a screen than a core, covering about a 35-inch square. Inside of a 12-inch square at located at about our point of aim, we counted 101 holes. The Remington STS No. 9 shot produced about the same size screenlike pattern as the Winchester AA ammunition. We counted 111 holes inside a 1-foot square.
In the field, our junior shooter immediately noticed that the Benelli was lighter than the other shotguns. Together with its slender profile, the Montefeltro was easy to point and quick to move. One of the reasons our Benelli weighed less was its Inertial Driven system, which utilized fewer moving parts to cycle the action. It also resulted in a more slender forend because there was no need to house a complicated mechanism. For our junior shooter, it seemed like the handling characteristics of the Benelli made the faster shots easier. But it took more finesse to track and break the targets that seemed to move in slower, sweeping arcs.
On the CZ and Browning shotguns, our adult beginning shooter, a large man, felt cramped because of the guns’ short lengths of pull. After the first round of skeet was split between the CZ and Browning shotguns, he tried shooting with the Benelli in adult configuration. After some technical corrections unrelated to the gun, the shooter was soon able to hit birds instinctively.
Our Team Said: Some would say that its agility tempted the shooter to whip the gun around, but we think the fact that our adult beginning shooter was able to connect to the Montefeltro Combo with the longer stock in place says a lot for this shotgun. Our junior shooter might have been able to make the same connection if she had not had the distraction of two other shotguns to choose from. Aside from the ability to fit two different stocks (the ultimate extra in our view), the cast and drop shims would likely go a long way in setting up the gun without having to spend extra money. Once properly fit to the shooter, we think any complaints related to recoil would at the very least be minimized. This is a well made, fast handling shotgun.