Understanding The Semi-Auto Shotgun

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There's most likely a great semi-auto shotgun out there for you. You just need to take the time to understand how they work and what best fits you.
There's most likely a great semi-auto shotgun out there for you. You just need to take the time to understand how they work and what best fits you.

Semi-Auto shotgun makes and models abound. Picking one that will enhance your shooting ability and enjoyment means understanding their operating systems and yourself.

The turn of the 20th Century must have been an amazing time to be alive. The advent of the electric light, moving pictures, the internal combustion engine and, of course, the semi-auto shotgun. The mind reels at the technological advancement. Particularly the smoothbore.

Not to take anything away from the horseless carriage and illumination at the flick of a switch, but the autoloading scattergun must have been mind-boggling to the folks of the age. Five shots with little more than the pull of a trigger? The devil you say! Two short decades before 1905, shotguns were exclusively single barrel or side-by-side affairs, complete with external manually cocked hammers. Not exactly the stuff for rapid-fire. Moving to an autoloading system was dang near akin to jumping from ox-and-cart to GTO.

No wonder the semi-auto shotgun dominated much of the past century and only continues to get better with time.

Why A Semi-Auto Shotgun

Avoiding the obligatory Why not a semi-auto shotgun? there are some solid logical reasons to consider this type of smoothbore. The two most significant: firepower and ease of use.

Beretta-1301-Tactical-Shotgun-2
Seriously, who doesn't want a beast such as the Beretta 1301 Tactical. Photo by Robert Sadowski

The first is fairly self-explanatory, in most cases, a semi-auto shotgun is capable of delivering more shot downrange in a shorter period of time than anything else. Competitors understand this, with various semi-auto models—such as the Remington Versa Max Competition Pro—dominating 3-Gun Matches. This advantage translates over to any endeavor you might need to send a mass of pellets on target and quick, from knocking down white wings to protecting hearth and home.

As for ease of use, well that too is pretty simple to get a handle on. Once you know how to load a semi-auto shotgun and chamber a shell, the only thing you concern yourself with—barring a malfunction—is aiming and trigger pull. That’s quite a load off the mind—and muscle memory—allowing you to focus on what’s important—hitting the target.


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  • Though, don’t confuse ease of use with a less complex system. Compared to its cousins—the double-barrel shotgun and pump-action shotgun—the semi-auto shotgun is most certainly not a simpler machine. Granted, its operational systems—recoil (inertia) or gas, we’ll get to those in a second—aren't beyond the grasp of a well-seasoned novice. But they do involve a bit more understanding to troubleshoot, which means dedication to learning exactly what goes on under the hood.

    So, what is going on under there?

    Recoil Operated Semi-Auto Shotgun

    Now dominated by the inertia system, shotguns that cycle via the kinetic energy from a shot being fired have been with us for some time. The semi-auto alluded to at the beginning that got its start around the time light bulbs were becoming a thing, was recoil-operated. In fact, it was an all-time great—John M. Browning’s Auto-5, which ruled semi-auto shotgun sales for the first 60 years of the last century. Though, its operation was much more complex than what we see today.

    Consider by many, especially waterfowlers, one of the finest hunting semi-autos around, Benelli's inertia driven Super Black Eagle is a classic.
    Consider by many, especially waterfowlers, one of the finest hunting semi-autos around, Benelli's inertia driven Super Black Eagle is a classic.

    A long-recoil gun, the A-5’s barrel and bolt both moved rearward in unison after a shot, the barrel returning first and ejecting the shell, then the bolt to load a fresh round. After Browning ironed out the initial bugs, the “Humpback” —so-called due to the prominent rear of its action—became renown for its reliability. Replacing the long-recoil semi-auto is a system that draws upon the same force to cycle the gun, but in a slightly different fashion.

    In the inertia operated semi-auto shotgun, the bolt carrier and what is known as an inertia spring float freely in the receiver. When fired, the shotgun as a whole recoils rearward, while these components initially retain their position in a state of inertia. The difference in motion compresses the very stiff spring. The force of the spring decompressing unlocks the bolt head, throws the carrier rearward and cycles the gun.

    It doesn't get much simpler than this. An inertia drive system from a Franchi shotgun. The carrier, bolt head and spring (inside the carrier) are the only moving parts of the action.
    It doesn't get much simpler than this. An inertia drive system from a Franchi shotgun. The carrier, bolt head and spring (inside the carrier) are the only moving parts of the action.

    While the system gained popularity with Benelli engineer Bruno Civolani’s improvements of the late 1960s, the system came about soon after Browning’s A-5, developed by Swede Carl Sjögren. The genius of Civolani’s design was its simplification. Sjögren’s system required a separate weight, while the Italian made the bolt carrier the weight. A small detail, but one that gives inertia semi-auto shotguns one of their most favorable attributes—simplicity.

    The Benelli proudly boasts its modern inertia operated shotguns only have three moving parts—bolt head, inertia spring and bolt carrier. In turn, they are easy to maintain and tend to stand up to a licking. Waterfowlers love them, given they’ll take all their marshy abuse and still fill a bag.

    Inertia guns are also light, which might be good or bad depending on your standpoint. It’s good if you value a nimble field piece you won’t get bogged down carrying all day. The bad of it, light means thump. By and large, the guns generate more felt recoil than gas-operated guns, which can prove problematic for the recoil sensitive and high-volume shooters.

    Gas Operated Semi-Auto Shotgun

    High Standard was the first to cobble together a gas-operated semi-automatic shotgun in the late 1950s, sold by Sears and marketed under the retailer’s J.C. Higgins brand. But for the most part, the development of the system—especially as we know it today—was a Remington affair. And while it came out with a few models prior—Model 58 for example—Big Green’s Model 1100 set the standard of what became the dominant style autoloader of the latter half of the 20th Century. Reliability of what was considered a finicky system up to that point, along with shootiblity are what etched the 1100 into shooter’s hearts.

    Autoloaders-3
    Remington Model 1100 12 gauge. Although a bit hefty at around 7-1/2 pounds, it was still very popular with upland gunners through the 1960s and 1970s. In the lighter 20 gauge at 6-1/2 pounds, it continues to be a popular upland gun.

    Opposed to recoil, gas-operated shotguns bled off some of the expanding gas of the deflagrated propellent to cycle the gun. The gas drives a piston(s) reward with it the action bars that subsequently operate the bolt. Out with the old, in with the new, hammer cocked and you’re ready to do it all over again. Simple enough, but it is a slightly more complex system that does overall have more components than inertia guns.

    Given this, gas-operated semi-auto shotguns tend to be heftier. This aspect is actually a benefit for many, given the weightier firearms soak up more recoil, thus has built a reputation of being easier to shoot. Trap shooters and the like have gravitated to gas guns exactly for this benefit.

    Of course, this can make gas guns more burdensome when you’re on the hoof. On top of that, and compared to inertia guns, they're dirty. Even if it isn’t the poop where it eats AR rifle situation, gas-operated semi-auto shotguns require regular cleanings, lest carbon fouling, well … fouls everything up.

    A look at Remington's VersaPort layout. Shorter shells cover up fewer ports allowing more gas to escape, while larger shell cover up more venting less gas. In turn, the shotguns self regulate to cycle no matter what they're fed.
    A look at Remington's VersaPort layout. Shorter shells cover up fewer ports allowing more gas to escape, while larger shell cover up more venting less gas. In turn, the shotguns self regulate to cycle no matter what they're fed.

    This style of semi-auto shotgun, in the past, has also proven difficult to run a wide spectrum of shells through reliably. While most will kick high brass out like it’s late on its bar tab, low brass often doesn’t have enough oomph to cycle. This has changed in recent years with Remington’s Versa Max and V3, and Savage‘s Renagauge shotguns. Each is designed cycle shells with no gas adjustment, no matter the load. Remington does this through numerous ports and Savage values.

    Gas Vs Inertia: Which Wins Out?

    The correct answer is both. Honestly, if you buy a reputable brand, which there are many nowadays, you’ll get a semi-auto shotgun that will run like a top. What you have to decide is, given the strengths and weaknesses of each operating system, which fits you best as a shooter?

    If you shoot mountains of clays each month and want to stay sharp first shot to last, the slightly milder gas-operated semi-auto might be your cup of tea. If you head into the depths of flooded timber for duck season and need a gun that will function no matter if you drop it into a mud hole, well the inertia system will most likely shine for you. Be honest with yourself about your endeavors and you’re personal preferences as a shooter and the right choice should standout.

    Benelli M4, is it the right gun for you? Could be, if you're in the market for a tactical option known for it's manageable recoil.
    Benelli M4, is it the right gun for you? Could be, if you're in the market for a tactical option known for its manageable recoil.

    The same holds for self-defense. Overall, both gas- and inertia-operated shotguns are more than capable of holding their own as defensive guns. And there are many fine examples of each with a tactical bent, from Stoeger’s inertia-driven M3000 series to Mossberg’s gas-operated 930 Tactical options, among many others. You just need to figure out what will enhance your shooting and not hinder your training.


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