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When it comes to shotguns, there’s probably no more hotly contested debate than Benelli vs. Beretta. Both smoothbore camps are well entrenched, firm believers that the brand they shoot is better than the other. Some think that an inertia-driven shotgun is better than gas operation and vice-versa. However, it’s not that cut-and-dry. There are benefits and drawbacks to both operating systems and the way each gunmaker builds its shotguns.
Benelli and Beretta also excel in their own shotgun niches. Sure, they crossover, mostly in waterfowl—the Super Black Eagle 3 and A400 Xtreme Plus are two of the most advanced, high-functioning auto-loading shotguns in the world—which is where the majority of this debate is rooted. But in many other areas of shooting sports and self-defense, it’s pretty clear that one shooting house has the edge—even when both shotgunmakers build a smoothbore for that specific purpose. Which is fine. Because all shotguns and shotgunmakers have strengths and weaknesses. Not every gunmaker is meant to produce a tactical 12-gauge for the Marines and a 28-gauge side-by-side that’s almost too beautiful (and expensive) to take afield from the same factory.
The point being, Benelli does certain things well, and so does Beretta, which makes brand loyalty rather silly. Plus, Beretta Holding owns both Beretta and Benelli, so no matter what brand you choose, your money is ultimately going to the same place.
If you only shoot Benelli or only shoot Beretta, you’re leaving a lot of gun on the table and potentially missing out on the benefits of a proven platform.
Gas vs. Inertia: The Pros and Cons
Most every Benelli semi-auto shotgun is inertia-operated—the M4 uses a gas system called ARGO, which I’ll get to later—which means the guns use recoil to function. When you pull the trigger, the entire shotgun moves backward but the two-piece bolt stays in place, compressing a spring inside the bolt and briefly locking the action. As recoil dissipates, the spring expands and opens the bolt so the fired shell can eject. An action spring returns the bolt forward, the carrier lifts the next round from the magazine. The shell is loaded into the chamber as the bolt slams home.
Almost all Beretta semi-autos are gas-operated, except for the Pintail, which is an inertia gun that functions just like a Benelli. When you pull the trigger of a Beretta gas gun, the expanding gasses from the shotshell’s powder send the payload down the barrel. The action is driven by the gas bleed off, which is done by drilling holes in barrel. In some cases, these ports are located near the fore-end of a shotgun as well. Gasses push against a piston, typically housed near the end of the magazine tube, which drives back a sleeve with a rod connected to the action. The bolt opens and the fired shell is ejected. A return spring—just like in the inertia guns—sends the bolt forward, the lifter presents another shotshell, and the bolt sends it into the chamber.
There are benefits and limitations with each platform. Inertia guns are simple to breakdown and clean. They don’t get as dirty because inertia guns don’t need to bleed off gas to function. That allows a Benelli to run longer between cleanings (though you should keep it as clean as possible). I talked to a Benelli gunsmith who did not like that the guns had become known as workhorses that never needed a field strip and wipe down. They do, just not as often as a Beretta. Inertia guns are typically light and sleek in comparison to gas guns because they don’t house a piston or sleeve with a connective rod inside the fore-end to work the action. This makes them much more enjoyable to carry afield, and they feel good in the hand. I liken hunting with a Benelli to shooting a really long No. 2 pencil—they are that trim.
The major drawback with inertia smoothbores is they need a solid backing—your shoulder—to operate. If you duck hunt from a layout blind, sometimes these autos won’t run properly because they are mounted off the shoulder and don’t encounter enough resistance when the trigger is pulled for the action to cycle, which is why shotshells hang up. Shooting from a sitting position sometimes does not give a Benelli the solid backing it needs to function.
Benellis also use a rotating bolt head which can leave the shotshell out of battery when the shooter presses the bolt release button after loading the first shell. The gun will not fire when the trigger is pulled because the firing pin does not strike the shotshell’s primer. This is being addressed with new models like the SBE3 by putting a detent in the bolt to make it virtually impossible for the bolthead to not close properly. Recoil is also more stout in inertia guns due to their lightweight and the operating system itself.
Gas guns are slightly more versatile than inertia autos because they can cycle just about any shot charge. Inertia 12-gauge guns can struggle to reliably cycle anything less than a 1 1/8-ounce payload, though I have shot Benellis that had no issue with a 1-ounce shotshell. And because Berettas are often heavier and use gas to function, they do not produce as much recoil. You can also safely lighten trigger weights more in a gas gun than an inertia gun because shooters don’t experience as much recoil.
However, there are tradeoffs when you’re shooting a light-kicking gas gun. The first issue is that they are heavier and have fat—some will say clunky—fore-ends because the piston is housed there. So, Beretta autos often are not as enjoyable to carry afield. The A400 is a 7.8-pound gun versus the SBE3, which weighs 7.2 pounds. That may not seem like a big difference but trust me you will feel every ounce when you’re making a long walk down a public levee. Gas guns also get dirty much faster and require more cleanings to operate reliably because they use the propellant gasses from the shotshell to run the action. Breaking down a Beretta is also more of a chore than a Benelli because gas guns have more parts.
Benelli vs. Beretta: The Waterfowl Gun Debate
In duck hunting you’re either with Benelli or Beretta, very few shoot both. Being a gun writer, I have used both brands extensively and hunt with a wide variety of folks who shoot one or the other. And full disclosure, my favorite auto-loader is a Beretta A390 Silver Mallard, but the SBE2 and SBE3 left-hand models are close seconds.
The main reason a duck hunter chooses a Benelli auto is because of the operating system. They are almost as reliable as a pump if you shoulder the gun properly (remember inertia needs that solid backing to work the action). But these guns can malfunction just like any other shotgun. Cold stiffens the rotating bolt so it doesn’t always send the shotshell into battery. Wearing bulky jackets in freezing conditions can make it hard to give a Benelli the solid surface it needs to operate. As hunters get older, I see many of them switching to gas guns because they are done with heavy recoil.
Duck hunters who love Berettas do so because there are so many more options. Benelli has the SBE, M2 and Vinci—all of which cost over $1,200—but that’s about it for dedicated waterfowl autos. Beretta has a host of old guns that are no longer in production that can be had for $500 to $1,000 on the used market, plus the new A300 Ultima costs around $800. That’s a big deal these days when you must shell out up to $2,000 for a new Beretta or Benelli. My A390 cost $550 and I would bet my son will be able to shoot it long after I’m gone. Berettas also fit so many shooters well. The old A300 series guns (301, 302, 303, and 390) are legendary for that. And since Berettas are gas-driven, they are much easier on your shoulder.
The knock against some Beretta shotguns is they don’t always cycle. I haven’t experienced that much, but when I have, it’s been a cleaning issue (with one exception I will get to next). I understand there is some merit to not wanting to clean your auto-loader, but if you shoot a Beretta, it is a requirement. Gas gums up bolts, springs, and firing pins, there’s no way around it.
When the A400 Xtreme debuted, some of the guns had trouble cycling shotshells reliably. I shot a few different ones and only had a couple hang ups. But a few of my hunting buddies owned an A400 and had some trouble with them, mostly shooting 3½-inch loads, but 3-inch shotshells were sometimes problematic as well. At the time, there was plenty of speculation as to why the guns weren’t running properly. I asked a product manager from Beretta about it in a snow goose pit after another friend’s A400 kept jamming during our hunt. He referenced the Kick-Off recoil system, but his voice began to trail off into mumbles and I never got an exact answer. However, the newer A400 Xtreme Plus has had no such issues that I am aware of and has proven itself to be a fine auto-loader.
Myself, editor-in-chief Alex Robison, and two editors from Field & Stream patterned, shot sporting clays, and hunted teal with the gun extensively during our test of the best shotguns for duck hunting in Texas. We picked the Beretta A400 Xtreme plus as our editor’s choice—it narrowly edged the benelli SBE3—because it was softer shooting and more accurate.
Beretta Break-Action Shotguns
Beretta specializes in side-by-sides and over/unders. In the 1930s—almost 40 years before Benelli was founded—Beretta started importing break-actions to the States to compete with John Browning’s Superposed. And the Italians have certainly made their mark. In 1956, Liano Rosini, an Italian trap shooter, won the first Olympic gold medal in clay pigeon shooting. It started a trend that continues today—Beretta shotguns have won more international competitions than any other brand. Two of the most celebrated American clay shooters—Kim Rhode (six-time Olympic medalist) and Vincent Hancock (three Olympic golds in skeet)—shoot Berettas. Even a skeet shooter named Benelli (Andrea Benelli) won gold in the 2004 Sydney Games with a Beretta in his hands.
Also consider that break-actions, like Beretta’s DT, Paralello, SO, and Silver Pigeon series are some of the best competition and field guns in the world (with price tags to match). Through the Beretta Gallery, customers can have many of these models custom fit to their body type and shooting style. Beretta also employs some of the top engravers in the industry, and they will spend hundreds of hours detailing the action of your shotgun should you have the funding to afford such a smoothbore.
Benelli Tactical Shotguns and Turkey Shotguns
Since 1999 the U.S. Marines have employed Benelli’s M4 tactical shotgun, which is also available for civilian use. Unlike every other Benelli, the M4 operates on the ARGO (Auto-Regulating Gas-Operated) system. Instead of using a gas piston to push against a cylinder that is linked to the bolt to work the action, ARGO uses dual-stroke pistons just forward of the receiver than send the bolt backward to eject spent shells. It’s a much cleaner gas system, and you pay for that technology (M4s cost up to $2,300). Benelli also developed the M3, which is an auto-loader-pump-action hybrid. One of the most versatile defense shotguns ever built, you can switch from auto to pump with the flip of a latch located on the fore-end.
Benelli also specializes in turkey guns with its Performance Shop SBE3 and M2, partnering with gunsmith Rob Roberts, Burris, and Federal Premium ammunition. Roberts lengthens the forcing cones and outfits these guns with a custom turkey choke. The Benellis are pattern-tested with Federal ammo and computer printouts are provided to show point of impact inside a 10-, 20-, and 30-inch circle. A Burris FastFire red-dot is also included so hunters can make more precise shots. I patterned over 100 turkey loads through and hunted with the SBE3 trim this spring. Once the Benelli was sighted in, it made acquiring a longbeard’s head and pulling the trigger much easier. And I ended up needing the accuracy of that red-dot because I shot a Merriam’s at 50 yards when I thought the tom was much closer.
Deciding between a Benelli or Beretta has far more to do with what you are looking for in shotgun than brand loyalty. For duck hunters, if you choose a Benelli, you’re getting a workhorse auto-loader you don’t have to clean as much as a Beretta. But, it also produces more recoil. Pick a Beretta, and you’ll be killing mallards with a soft-shooting semi-auto that has the same reliability as a Benelli if you keep it clean. Clay shooters and upland hunters are likely going to lean more towards a Beretta and core turkey hunters and tactical shooters will almost certainly choose a Benelli.
Even though they are competitors, the two Italian gunmakers actually complement one another. Beretta fills niches Benelli does not, and vice-versa. And since they are owned by the same company it makes perfect sense that their guns operate using two different platforms—to give shooters more options—and that each brand excels in different categories, which is why they remain two of the most popular shotgun brands.