In July, F&S hunting editor Will Brantley came up from Kentucky to meet me and three handpicked local shooters at Highland Hideaway Hunting near Riverside, Iowa. We had 14 shotguns, a pile of Federal ammo, and all the five-stand and sporting clays targets we wanted. Comparing shotguns isn’t straight apples to apples. The gun that stars in the grouse woods may stumble in a goose pit, so we broke the test guns into upland and waterfowl categories.
Testing shotguns is as much subjective as it is objective, and gun fit varies from one individual to the next. So our four-man, one-woman test team was compiled to reflect a variety of shapes and sizes. All told, we shot more than 2,000 shells—at least 150 through each gun—to determine the top performers and the best values in each category. Here are the results.
Guns were judged in seven categories, with a maximum possible score of 100 points.
Ease of Maintenance (worth 10 points): We looked at how each gun came apart for cleaning, how complex it was to care for, and how easy it was to reassemble.
Ergonomics (10): Here, we tested triggers, opening levers, bolt releases, and more. We loaded and unloaded to see how easy it was to thumb shells into the magazine. Trigger pulls were measured with a Lyman scale.
Fit and Finish (10): We examined wood-to-metal (or plastic-to-metal) fit, the quality of checkering, metal finishes, engraving, and wood figure where applicable, as well as overall lines.
Functionality (20): As we shot, we asked: Did it cycle? Did ejectors eject? Were safeties stiff? Did everything work as it should?
Handling and Recoil (20): We used heavy and light hunting and target loads to gauge how hard each gun kicked. For handling, we shot from a low gun start at sporting clays and five-stand targets.
Meets Purpose (10): Shotguns are made to fit niches, so we looked at each gun’s performance and its features to determine how well it fit its particular job description.
Value (10): The standard formula of score divided by price would have penalized high-grade guns, since engraving and good walnut cost so much. Instead, we compared each gun against others in its price range to make a determination.
Federal provided several new hunting and target loads for our test. We shot new Grand target loads, which contain a SoftCell cushion wad that softens recoil and helps cushion shot for tighter patterns. And we shot the new High Bird line of field loads, which uses the same technology, including new 1-ounce, 28-gauge loads. We definitely felt the thump while shooting the latter out of a light smallbore, but we thumped targets hard with them, too.
Top 7 Upland Shotguns
Specs: 3″ 20-gauge (12, 16, 28, and .410 available) • Break-action o/u • 6 bl. 5 oz. • 30″ barrel (28″ and 26″) available
The slim and shootable BR110 narrowly outscored the competition to finish as the top upland shotgun for 2017. Honestly, it breaks no new ground in design. What sets the BR110 apart is value. By forgoing the laser engraving that so often makes entry-level guns look tacky in an attempt to make them look better, the BR110 appears restrained and elegant, for less. The BR110 compares well with other Italian-made o/u’s that cost a fair bit more. Our test model, a 20-gauge with 30-inch barrels, proved a nice marriage of light weight and disciplined balance.
Specs: 2 3⁄4″ 20-gauge (12 available) • Break-action double • 6 lb. • 28″ barrels (26″ available)
Savage has revived one of the great names in American doubles, Fox. The A Grade’s receiver is beautifully case colored, sculpted, and engraved to evoke the original A.H. Foxes, though it’s a different gun internally. With its straight stock, slim fore-end, and double triggers, this well-balanced 6-pounder was an old-school treat to shoot. Stocked to modern dimensions, it’s easy for today’s shooters to handle. Three-inch chambers would make it more versatile. But all told, it’s a steel-friendly, thoroughly modern, American-made, traditional double gun, and that is no small thing.
Specs: 3-inch 28-gauge (12 and 20 available) • Break-action o/u • 5 lb. 4 oz. • 28″ barrels (26″ available in 28 only)
Extensively decorated, the Tempio Light had the nicest looks of all. The alloy receiver and a partially hollowed stock drop the weight to 51⁄4 pounds, putting the gun squarely into “wand” territory. With a pleasing forward balance, it swings as smoothly as a 51⁄4-pounder can. But a target gun it is not. No one shot it particularly well at clays, and we noticed the recoil, but the sporting clays course is not this gun’s natural habitat. It’s a specialty gun, perfect for carrying one-handed through the grouse woods, taking quick pokes at fleeting targets—and looking good on the job.
Specs: 3″ 28-gauge • Gas semiauto • 5 lb. 12 oz. • 25″ barrel
This 28-gauge Turkish semiauto was such fun to shoot that it was Brantley’s favorite gun of the test. There is a lot to like about this gas gun, from its light weight to its nonexistent recoil to the way it smashed clays. The gun did suffer from a heavy trigger and an occasional failure of the bolt to stay open after the third shot.
Specs: 3″ 28-gauge (12, 20, and .410 available) • Break-action o/u • 5 lb. 14 oz. • 26″ barrels
Everyone enjoyed shooting the 555 E. It’s a very attractive and attractively priced Turkish o/u. The alloy receiver trims the gun’s weight below 6 pounds, making it easy to carry. The 555 E (for Enhanced) is an upgrade from last year’s base-level model, with the addition of an engraved silvered receiver and auto ejectors.
Specs: 3″ 20-gauge (12 available) • Break-action o/u • 6 lb. 2 oz. • 28″ barrels (26″ and 30″ available)
The new 20-gauge 690 is a well-balanced field gun. An aluminum fore-end iron helps keep the weight between the shooter’s hands; however, the black anodized metal on this feature didn’t look right on a $3K gun. The 690 is a great shooter, but it could look better for the money.
Specs: 3″ 12-gauge • Break-action o/u • 7 lb. 10 oz. • 30″ barrels
Stocked for women, the Intuition didn’t fit the men on the panel, so we chose not to score it. But it’s well worth talking about. Tester Emily Klein praised the gun’s fit and balance. A well-built natural pointer, the sporting model comes with detachable weights that let you add or subtract weight and adjust the balance.
Top 7 Waterfowl Shotguns
Specs: 3 1⁄2″ 12-gauge • Inertia semiauto • 7 lb. • 28″ barrel (26″ available)
Benelli’s newest Super Black Eagle earned the highest score of all models tested, in both categories. Our test gun functioned perfectly with both target and hunting ammunition. Its enlarged safety, bolt release, and bolt handle were easy to manipulate, even while wearing heavy gloves. All testers found the slimmed, lightened SBE3 easy to point and shoot well, and its Comfort Tech 3 stock and soft Combtech comb reduced felt recoil noticeably. Perhaps the biggest improvement is an Easy-Locking Bolt, which features a simple detent and ends once and for all the “Benelli click” misfire that has historically afflicted inertia semiautos. You can bang this gun around the blind or ease the bolt shut in the turkey woods; either way, it will not go out of battery and misfire.
Specs: 3 1⁄2″ 12-gauge • Inertia semiauto • 7 lb. • 28″ barrel (26″ available)
Franchi’s 3 1⁄2-inch inertia-operated semiauto scored within 1.5 points of the SBE3, yet it costs $870 less. Two testers, in fact, called it their favorite gun of all, and therefore it earned our Best Value award. The Affinity notched a perfect score for functionality. Like the SBE3, it has an enlarged bolt handle and release that make it easier to use in bad weather, although Franchi should have added a larger safety button, too. The Affinity gained points for featuring an action spring on the magazine tube, where it’s easy to maintain. Balance wasn’t quite as sublime as the SBE3’s, and the gun has a more weight-forward feel, but it handled well for everyone. Lightweight for its intended purpose of shooting magnum loads, it kicks a bit. The hundreds of dollars saved should help soothe the pain, though.
Specs: 3″ 12-gauge (3 1⁄2″ available) • Gas semiauto • 7 lb. 2 oz. • 28″ barrel (26″ available)
Winchester’s Super X4 represents a terrific deal in a versatile shotgun, finishing a nose behind the Affinity for Best Value. Basically, the X4 is Winchester’s successful Super X3 with a larger safety, bolt handle, and magazine release—plus a smaller price tag. Wisely, Winchester didn’t change much from the X3’s innards, which are proven to be reliable and soft-shooting. Instead it focused on slimming the gun down and lowering the price with “manufacturing efficiencies” and inexpensive parts like the polymer trigger guard. The trimmed pistol grip and fore-end give the gun a sprightly feel. Stock spacers let you adjust length of pull easily. Overall, our X4 was well behaved, handling all the ammo we fed it. Everyone shot it well and agreed that it would make a good all-around gun.
4. Browning Cynergy CX
Score: 69.8 • $1,740 • browning.com Jeff Wilson
Specs: 3″ 12-gauge • Break-action o/u • 8 lb. 2 oz. • 32″ barrels (30″ available)
The Cynergy CX is intended to be one gun for all target games and some hunting. It’s heavy, with a noticeably weight-forward feel, a hand-filling fore-end, and a slightly high point of impact. Great for clays, it can pull double duty in the blind or the dove field. Not the prettiest o/u, maybe, but it’s a very solid buy.
Specs: 3 1⁄2″ 12-gauge • Break-action o/u • 7 lb. • 28″ barrels
The Swamp Magnum is for those who want an o/u for the marsh, which described exactly none of our testers. But in fairness, with a synthetic stock, camo finish, 31⁄2-inch chambers, sling swivel studs, and mechanical triggers, it’s pretty well suited to its purpose—though I thought it too light for a fixed-breech 31⁄2-inch gun. It kicks.
Specs: 3 1⁄2″ 12-gauge • Pump • 7 lb. 2 oz. • 28″ barrel
Despite a rock-bottom price tag for a 31⁄2-inch gun, the P3500 didn’t dance its way into the hearts of the test team. We liked the smooth rotary-bolt slide action but had a hard time shooting the gun well. The stiff magazine spring made it a chore to load, and it felt awkward to shoot. If you must shoot 31⁄2s and money is tight, it’ll work.
Specs: 3 1⁄2″ 12-gauge • Gas semiauto • 7 lb. 9 oz. • 28″ barrel (26″ and 30″ available)
I hit well with this 31⁄2-inch gas gun and found it soft-shooting. Still, it was a tough gun for us to love. It comes with one gas piston for light loads and another for magnums, but it wouldn’t cycle with the heavy piston at all and also had other functional difficulties.