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A Look Into The History Of Semi-Auto Shotguns

A Look Into The History Of Semi-Auto Shotguns
The dawn of the 20th century heralded 100 years of amazing technological progress. Gas lights were replaced by safer electrical lighting, the automobile was not far off, and sportsmen were reaping the inventive genius of the likes of Christopher Spencer and John M. Browning. In 1890, Christopher Spencer's pump-action shotgun foretold the repeating shotgun that gave hunters multiple shots; three, four or more than offered by the double shotguns of the day. Spender's pump was followed closely by the Browning-designed Winchester 1893 pump that gave hunters six shots at an affordable price. Then, a mere six years later, in 1903, an even more revolutionary shotgun was announced, the Browning Automatic Shotgun. Here, by only pulling the trigger, were five shots that allowed the hunter to load and then unleash a barrage on his quarry using only his trigger finger.

Many traditionalists pointed at the semi-automatic shotgun, rightly or wrongly, as the demonic cause of diminished game, and in 1936 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order limiting the magazine capacity of repeaters to two shots; three with a shell chambered. With any cyclical game species, hunting and repeating shotguns, while they had to share part of the blame, were but a fraction of the real problem that was declining habitat. Despite this controversy, the semi-automatic shotgun has been a favorite of hunters through the 105 years since John Browning launched his Browning Automatic Shotgun.

The Browning semi-auto operates by harnessing the forces of recoil. When a round is chambered, the barrel and bolt are locked together. When the shell is fired the forces of recoil drive the locked barrel and bolt to the rear. As they reach the limit of their travel, they impact the rear of the receiver causing the characteristic "ping" associated with Browning autos.

The bolt is then locked to the rear and the barrel released to move rapidly forward driven by the action spring wound around the magazine tube. The fired cartridge is firmly held to the face of the bolt by the extractors, and when the barrel is nearly home, the ejector located on the side of the barrel extension strips the fired case from the bolt and tosses it out through the ejection port. If there's an unfired round in the magazine, it is released, trips the carrier release that pivots the carrier into alignment with the chamber and simultaneously releases the bolt that drives the fresh round into the chamber. Ingenious in 1903, it is only variations of this operating system that are used in today's hottest new semi-autos.

Browning also observed the action of the propellant gasses that made the grass move when he fired his rifle. He understood that those gasses could be harnessed to operate a firearm: First with a machine gun and later with John Garand's M1 rifle, propellant gases were proven in the crucible of war to provide reliable function to a variety of firearms.

Following World War II, returning veterans, who used semi-automatic firearms in war, showed a great interest in buying similar shotguns for hunting. The recoil-operated Browning-style semi-auto made by Browning and Remington were their choice. Then, in 1956, Sears, Roebuck & Co. announced a new gas-operated semi-automatic shotgun.

Developed and manufactured by High Standard, it was sold as the Model 60 under Sears' trade name J. C. Higgins. Simultaneously, Remington launched their gas-operated semi-auto, the Sportsman-58. The Sportsman-58 had a manually adjusted gas-relief valve located at the front of the magazine cap that was set to L or H depending whether light or heavy loads were being fired.

Three shotguns of differing styles that trace the history of the semi-automatic. Bottom to top: The venerable recoil-operated Browning Automatic-5 introduced in 1903 and discontinued in 1997 that sold in the millions, Mossberg's gas-operated 935 Accu-Mag, and, top, Stoeger's inertia-operated 2000 that relies on recoil forces harnessed by a spring in the bolt that hold the action tightly closed until the shot charge has cleared the muzzle, then snaps the bolt open and cycles the action.

The Sportsman-58 was probably the best pointing semi-automatic shotgun ever made. It was the darling of competitive skeet shooters for years, and I recall seeing one that had been converted by a local gunsmith to shoot three-inch shells that was being used in the 1960s by the late Southern Illinois goose-club owner Paul Morgan. Seeking a less complicated model, the Sportsman-58 was replaced by the Remington 878 that did not require adjustment for heavy and light loads. Both the 58 and 878 were made on a modified Model 870 pump-action receiver that was found to crack under the increased stress of semi-automatic use. Although the cracks in 58 and 878 receivers were only cosmetic, in 1963 Remington introduced a completely re-engineered gas-operated semi-auto, the Model 1100, which is one of the most successful shotguns of all time.

In operation, gas-operated shotguns bleed off a small portion of the high-pressure propellant gasses through one or two ports located eight to 10 inches forward of the mouth of the chamber. They are drilled through the ring that holds the barrel to the magazine tube. The gas, under high pressure, squirts through the ports forcefully pushing the piston to the rear. The piston impacts an inertia mass attached to the action bars that push the bolt carrier to the rear unlocking the bolt and pushing it to the rear.

As the bolt moves back, the fired hull is striped from the chamber by the extractor. The fired hull then strikes the ejector that's mounted on the side of the receiver hurling the fired hull through the ejection port. The bolt continues to the rear of the action where it impacts a synthetic buffer. If there's no shell in the magazine, the bolt is locked to the rear, if there's a fresh cartridge in the magazine, it is ejected from the magazine striking the carrier latch, and the remaining function is the same as with a recoil operated shotgun.

Why We Like 'Em
The ability to fire three shots with little more than pulling the trigger is only part of why Americans love semi-automatic shotguns. Serious and casual shooters both recognize that shooting a shotgun with other than light target loads involves a good deal of recoil. While Newton's Law is absolute, a semi-automatic shotgun can make recoil feel less by the way in which they work. The Browning recoil-operated shotgun uses the forces of recoil to push the barrel and bolt to the rear, thereby spreading out the feeling of recoil. However, one of the objections to the Browning system is the double recoil; at the firing of the shot and again when the ma

ss of the bolt and barrel strike the rear of the receiver. Gas-operated shotguns spread out the recoil even farther and because they use a synthetic recoil buffer at the rear of the receiver, they seem even gentler to shoot.

The Guns
In 1997 Browning announced that the venerable Automatic-5 was being discontinued, and in 1999 a "Final Tribute" edition was made, the last of which were sold by 2000, just three years shy of the Auto-5's 100th anniversary.


Browning dropped the Auto-5 in favor of their Gold line of gas-operated shotguns. The first Gold was made in 10-gauge. At that time, steel shot was the only nontoxic pellet of choice for hunting waterfowl, and the large-capacity 10-gauge case was found to be a good match for the heavy loads of large pellets needed to bag big Canada geese. The first semi-automatic 10-gauge was made by Ithaca, the Mag-10 that was ahead of its time as lead shot was still in use for all hunting. Perhaps the Mag-10 was a prophetic prediction of things to come, but it wasn't until steel shot's mandate that the all but dead 10-gauge took wings. When Ithaca went bankrupt, Remington bought the rights to the Mag-10, and produced their own version, the SP-10. Both of these big bores, the SP-10 and Browning Gold, are still embraced by die-hard goose hunters. The big 10 might still be in vogue if it weren't for the 1988 combine of O. F. Mossberg and the Federal Cartridge Company to make the 31â'„2-inch 12-gauge.

Remington's newest gas-operated semi-auto both loads and ejects through the bottom. Made using a titanium receiver covered with a carbon-fiber sleeve contributes to this shotgun's light weight. Recoil is compensated for by means of a oil-dampened recoil reducer mounted in the buttstock.

Using a barrel bored to 10-gauge dimensions (.775), the Mossberg 835 UltiMag pump broke new ground. Soon other manufacturers saw the versatility of this combination that provided near 10-gauge case capacity and performance in the much more common and versatile 12-gauge. Soon Browning, then Winchester followed suit with their own 31â'„2-inch 12-gauge guns in both pump and semi-auto. The Browning Gold 31â'„2-inch Hunter came along followed quickly by the Winchester Super X 2, now updated in the Super X 3, and Beretta Xtrema. Browning and Winchester have been owned by the same parent corporations for a number of years, and the Super X 2 and 3's operating systems are nothing more than a simplified version of the Browning Gold's. Catching the wind they initiated, Mossberg produced their 935 AccuMag 31â'„2-inch 12-gauge semi-auto that is made to shoot only heavy 23â'„4-, 3- and 31â'„2-inch loads, it's a reliable true blue-collar shotgun that uses their 10-gauge-size over-bored barrel that patterns so well with large steel shot.

The latest wrinkle in gas-operated shotguns is Remington's new CTi 105, the first bottom-loading, bottom-ejecting semi-automatic shotgun. Bottom loading shotguns aren't anything new to Remington. Guess who, again? John M. Browning patented the design of the Remington Model 17 in 1915, which was a bottom-loading, bottom-ejecting pump-action shotgun that after being dropped by Remington, became the Ithaca Model 37.

The Remington CTi 105 C stands for carbon fiber, Ti for titanium, both are used in the receiver is simply an adaptation of the Model 17 pump-action design to a gas-operated semi-auto. In use, the CTi 105 is excellent, with mild recoil, and with the hulls being dropped at the shooter's feet, it is good company in a tight blind.

Inertia Driven Shotguns
While the recoil-operated Browning Auto-5 has vanished, Franchi still makes a recoil-operated shotgun, the AL48 that's a light upland bird gun, another shotgun that does not use gas operation to cycle its action came to the fore. Like anything short of space exploration, inertia-operated shotguns are nothing new. In 1905, the Danish gunmaker Chsistian Sjörgren made a shotgun called the Normal. This shotgun operated on what Sjörgren called the countercoil principal whereby the counter motion of a spring-loaded inertia block following recoil opened the breechbolt.

Today Benelli, Franchi and Stoeger, all owned by Beretta, market shotguns using this Inertia-Driven operating system. When the shot is fired, the breechbolt stays stationary while the remainder of the gun moves to the rear. Within the breechbolt assembly is a calibrated spring that compresses, further tightening the locking lugs into their engagement with the barrel extension. When the spring overcomes the mass of the breechbolt, it pushes the locking system open. By the time the spring releases the breechbolt, the shot has cleared the muzzle and the chamber pressure is zero. There are very few working parts, and these shotguns are very clean to shoot. Currently, the Benelli Super Black eagle II is chambered for 31â'„2-inch shells, the Franchi I-12 and Stoeger 2000 are chambered for 3-inch loads. Because of their simplicity and reliability, inertia operated shotguns have become very popular in blinds and pits across the country.

The Browning recoil-operated Automatic-5 is a 3-inch magnum of relatively late production that was made in the Fabrique Nationale factory in Liege, Belgium, where the first Auto-5s were produced. Browning discontinued the Auto-5 on November 26, 1997, and remaining stocks were sold out during the following year.

From The Mysterious Land
My vision of Turkey had been the squeal of the Orient Express sliding to a stop in Istanbul on a misty, rainy night. When someone said shotguns were being made in Turkey, my reaction was, "What!" But that's a fact, and more to the point, some excellent semi-autos are coming from that mysterious land. Labor in Turkey is cheap, hence they can produce both gas- and inertia-operated shotguns at bargain prices. Stoeger, part of Beretta's empire, incorporates the popular Benelli inertia system into the 2000. For those who prefer gas-operated semis, they are being imported by Smith & Wesson, TriStar, Marlin-H&R 1871, Charles Daly and Weatherby, all promising reliable performance for few dollars. Most do not offer the easy versatility of the higher-priced guns of firing both light 23â'„4-inch target loads and 3-inch magnums without adjustment. Some require the change of the gas piston that takes a minute or so, but of the several I've shot and tested, all perform well, and many include features such as shim kits that allow the shooter to better fit the stock to his shooting style, interchangeable choke tubes and camo finishes.

Not only have semi-automatic shotguns evolved, but that evolution has included important developments such as screw-in chokes and shim kits to adjust the drop and cast of stocks. Although many pay little attention to stock fit, that, along with a good consistent gun mount, are the two most important aspects of being a good shot. While manufacturers try to build stocks that fit "M

r. Average," exactly who is that? Mr. Average of 1950, for whom Remington builds its stocks, was about 5-feet 10-inches tall and wore a size 15-30 shirt. Today, one only needs to look around at hunters who are taller and bigger than their fathers and grandfathers.

Shotguns are pointed, not aimed, and hence the stock must fit the individual. In general, stocks have been lengthened, but little attention was given to drop and cast until Beretta, then Benelli, Franchi, Mossberg and Winchester, added shim kits to their shotguns that allow the user to adjust the stock for better fit. When the gun fits and is properly mounted, the shot charge will go where the shooter looks, and shim kits allow the shooter to adjust his stock to place the shot charge where he's looks.

Perhaps the greatest advance in shotgunning has been the near universal use of screw-in chokes. Instead of trying to find a load that patterns well in a fixed choke, the shooter can purchase the load he feels best fits his hunting, then adjust the choke tube to shoot that load with the best patterns at a given range. When conditions change, it takes a minute or less to change a choke tube to adapt the gun to the new conditions, what could be simpler or better?

Mossberg's blue-collar gas-operated 935 31â'„2-inch 12-gauge Accu-Mag whose barrel is overboard to 10-gauge dimensions and delivers very good patters with large shot.

At its birth, some called Browning's Automatic-5 "unsporting," it is evident 104 years later that the semi-automatic, be it recoil-, gas- or inertia-operated, enjoys an immense following among wildfowlers, and for good reason. They shoot well, and with a modicum of maintenance and sparing lubrication are extremely reliable, are easy to load and shoot in the tightest of blinds. With the broad assortment of semi-autos available, it is doubtful that anyone cannot find a semi-auto that fits their shooting style, aesthetic sense and pocketbook.

When the going gets tough, I take one of my semi-autos, because I know I can depend on it regardless of the conditions.

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