Talk about diving off the deep end. When Benelli made plans to unveil the latest generation Super Black Eagle, the SBE 3, it wanted to make a splash, so it organized a hunt for sea ducks in Alaska.
When it comes to proving a shotgun’s mettle, there’s no tougher environment. Combine salt, sand, cold, and high winds with birds wearing an armor of thick plumage that tear across the open water like Chuck Yeager, and you’ve got the makings of a real test for both hunter and gear.
In fact, talk to veteran sea duck hunters and you’ll find that many don’t think a semi-auto has any business being in a boat trailing a string of eider decoys—even one with the reputation for reliability that the SBE has cultivated over the last 25 years. For these salts, only shotguns that go cha-chunk when you work the action are fit for this kind of work.
They have a point. It doesn’t take much sand and grit to grind a semi-auto to a halt, especially when the temperature drops. So Benelli’s choice of venue—with preproduction shotguns, no less—would either prove to be a display of well-founded bravado or of fate-tempting hubris, depending on the hunt’s outcome.
Weight: 7 lb. 2 oz.
Trigger Pull: 6 lb. 13 oz.
Barrel Length: 26 in.
Overall Length: 50 1/2 in.
|Benelli SBE 3 Review Score|
MANY NEW ELEMENTS
The third generation of the SBE represents a major reworking of the platform, both in terms of the mechanical operation of the gun and its ergonomics.
One of the biggest improvements is with how the rotating bolt head goes into battery. The infamous “click” one would sometimes experience with Benellis inertia-driven actions—where the gun would not fire because the bolt wasn’t fully locked up—is now much less likely to occur. With the production sample that was sent to me a few months after the hunt (and which will also be featured in next issue’s annual gun test), the test team spent quite a bit of time trying to cause this malfunction but was unable to do so.
The recoil reduction system is also better on the SBE 3. Felt recoil on inertia guns is more stout than on gas-operated systems, and to counter this Benelli beefed up the foam chevrons, butt pad, and cheekpiece in the stock. I found the shotgun quite comfortable to shoot even with 3 ½-inch loads.
Ergonomically, the controls on the shotgun are well done. The bolt handle, bolt-release tab, and cross-bolt safety all operate smoothly and are big enough to manipulate with gloved hands without being overly large. The loading port on the underside of the receiver has a slight bevel to its edges, and the lifter is contoured in such a way that it doesn’t catch on your thumb or glove as you stuff shells in the magazine.
The grip in the SBE 3 extends down deeper than it had previously, and its tight radius gives the grip a more vertical and aggressive appearance. Compared to my first generation SBE, the grip is thicker, which fills the shooter’s hand nicely. This is in contrast to the forend, which on my original is much bulkier and more linear than with the new model. The thinner forend, with its swooping curves, provides good grip and control, and all in all the shotgun has a lively feel to it. The forend cap has been reshaped as well—it looks like a rounded triangle—to make it easier to grasp when unscrewing it to take the shotgun apart.
At 7 pounds 2 ounces, the SBE 3 tips the scales at the right weight for a hard-hitting waterfowl piece: Any heavier and its handling would become sluggish; any lighter and it would be needlessly punishing to shoot.
As you’d expect from a shotgun that costs nearly a couple grand, the SBE 3 comes with some extras. It has a really nice plastic carrying case that includes a set of five choke tubes—two of which are extended tubes (IC and Mod), three that are are flush-mounted (Cyl, IM, and Full).
The shotgun comes in plain black synthetic trim or in camo. Realtree Max-5 is the first pattern the shotgun is offered in; later this year, you’ll be able to get it in Mossy Oak Bottomland and Gore Optifade Timber.
RISING TO THE CHALLENGE
But during my hunt, these details weren’t at the forefront of my mind. I was much more concerned with anchoring a limit of the brant that were flying in huge flocks around our layout boats in the eelgrass.
When it came time for me to pop up and start shooting, the SBE 3 connected with authority. Geese fell. Ducks splashed down. It made shots on birds passing overhead, skimming the water at top speed at 40 yards out, and with feet down and wings cupped as they were sucked into the decoys.
I spent more than a week shooting the gun up in Cold Bay at the base of the Aleutian Chain. The gun rested on salt-coated kelp, was propped up against barnacle-encrusted rocks, splashed around in the bottom of a wet Zodiak, and ate a diet of magnum waterfowl loads, many of which were coated with rust by day two.
The SBE 3 took the harsh Alaskan environment and the tough Alaskan birds in stride, as if the gun were born to it.
The loading port on the SBE3 has a shooter-friendly design. The length and shape of the shell lifter make it less likely for a finger or glove to get pinched. And the beveling around the edges of the port, particularly at the end near the trigger guard, help guide shells into the magazine.
There are lots of curves and swoops incorporated into the design of the SBE 3, but, as with the shape of the forend cap, they serve a function beyond mere aesthetics. The triangular geometry of the cap makes it easier to grasp and remove compared to a traditional round design.