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There’s not much left for gunmakers to innovate when it comes to the operating systems of new shotguns (John Browning and Carl Sjogren did their jobs too damn well). The platforms—whether it be gas, inertia, or pump—have largely remained the same for decades. The focus now is improving the outside and overall functionality of the gun. You’re seeing larger bolt handles and loading ports, lighter triggers, and custom exterior finishes like Cerakote in production autoloaders.
Side-by-sides and over/unders continue to be accessible to the average hunter because more blue-collar gun companies are building them. Mossberg and TriStar are doing a fine job of making break-action guns that look beautiful and are supremely functional. There was a time that the construction of some Turkish-made doubles could be hit or miss. The receivers often wouldn’t seamlessly fit with the barrels at lockup. And you couldn’t count on them to fire reliably. That’s not the case anymore. You’re also getting more for your dollar with break-action guns this year. There are plenty of affordable O/Us and SxSs with gold inlays, checkered stocks and fore-ends, and engraved receivers to be had.
Gunmakers are also catering to specific hunting pursuits. There have long been turkey guns, but they were honestly just duck guns cut down to a 24-inch barrel with a pistol grip fixed to the stock. In the last 15 years, more shotgun receivers have been drilled and tapped or fitted with a Picatinny rail for the infinite number of aftermarket optics at your disposal. And many of the guns include premium chokes that shoot patterns just for killing gobblers. Snow goose hunters are also being catered to with purpose-built guns that have extended magazines already built into them. Mossberg was one of the first to do this with its Yeti, and Stoeger is following suit this year, tweaking the popular M3500 for spring conservation order hunters.
It’s a pretty good time to buy a shotgun right off the shelf, and these are the best 2021 has to offer.
Browning Maxus II
The Maxus gets a makeover this year with mostly exterior upgrades to Browning’s flagship gas gun. You’ll find that the trigger guard is larger, plus it has been ramped to make “loading easier” though I’ll have to wait to make that determination until I get my hands on one. The loading port has also been enlarged and the bolt handle is oversized (both standard enhancements for most new autoloaders these days). The Power Drive gas system and Lightning trigger are carryovers from the original Maxus (which can handle up to 3.5-inch loads), but you will notice that the latch design to remove the fore-end has been done away with in favor of a traditional screw-on cap. You can also easily remove the Turn-Key magazine cap with any car or door key. Recoil will be softened thanks to a padded cheekpiece and buttstock. The Maxus is available in black, wood, a variety of Realtree and Mossy Oak camos, plus Wicked Wing models, which pair camo stock and fore-end finishes with a Burnt Bronze Cerakote to the receiver and barrel. There is also a Vintage Tan camo, and the Maxus II is available in a rifled deer slug gun as well. MSRP: $1,530-$2,000
Beretta 687 Silver Pigeon III
One of my most favorite over/unders I hope to be able to afford some day, the Silver Pigeon has been upgraded to a third-generation model that’s available in .410, 28-, 20-, and 12-gauge. This elegant line, which I’m sure has actually never actually shot a pigeon, are all chambered for 3-inch shotshells, except for one of the 28-gauge models that has a 2¾-inch chamber. Beretta added its famous Stellium Optima Bore (tri-alloy steel) barrels, which come in lengths of 26, 28, and 30 inches depending on what model and gauge you select. The ejection ports are from the 680 platform, which has been around for three decades with over 1 million guns in use, so I’d say it’s a pretty reliable system. MSRP: $2,699
Benelli Super Black Eagle III 20-Gauge
Sub-gauges continue to grow in popularity with duck hunters, though the 20 has always been a waterfowl favorite for many of us who spend our fall in the marsh and flooded timber. Benelli launched the Super Black Eagle 3 in a 20-gauge this year as well as a 3-inch, 12-gauge version of the SBE3. I’ve loved the M2 line (which includes a 20 and 12) for years, but it does have a different feel/fit to it than the SBE platform, so it makes sense that Benelli would add a 20-gauge SBE3. The inertia gun weighs under six pounds, and Benelli says it will cycle light 7/8-ounce shotshells reliably, which can be tough for recoil-operated autoloaders. It will only be available in a right-handed model this year, but I suspect a left-handed version will follow soon. The 3-inch 12-gauge SBE3 was built for those of us who are done shooting heavy goose loads, and are sick of paying extra for a 3.5-inch gun. The new model is a few hundred bucks less than big brother. Both guns come in Realtree, Mossy Oak, Optifade, and black synthetic options. MSRP: $1,699-$1,799
Winchester SXP Hybrid
It’s damn near impossible to short-stroke an SXP thanks to its rotary bolt design. Combined with its light weight (the 12-gauge is under 7 pounds) and an option for a 26-inch barrel, it has become a favorite pump gun of big timber woodcock and grouse hunters. It also makes for a damn fine truck gun. Browning and Winchester have both been putting a Cerakote finish on the receiver and barrels of all their autoloading shotguns, and now the SXP gets the Permacote finish for added durability in the places your gun is most likely to get scratched up. There is also a 3-inch 20-gauge version of this model, and you get all the standard accessories that come with about any modern shotgun—three flush chokes (IC, M, and F), a chrome-lined barrel and chamber, and composite stock. MSRP: $440
There aren’t many production clay-target guns on the market for women, but Syren is trying to fill that continued need with its latest sporting model, the Julia. The gun is built to fit female shooters from a shorter—but adjustable—length of pull (13.9 inches) to its weight (under eight pounds). The 2¾-inch 12-gauge comes with six Maxis competition chokes, and a DTS trigger system that is also adjustable for travel and length of pull. Thirty-inch barrels have a bore diameter of .735, which is happy medium for shotguns, and means a wider variety of aftermarket chokes can deliver more even patterns. The stock is crafted from deluxe grade Turkish walnut, and the pistol grip and fore-end feature 26 lines per inch checkering. A lifetime warranty is included with the purchase of this over/under. MSRP: $6,050
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Stevens 555 Trap
You don’t see many new single-barrel break-action shotguns anymore, but Stevens deviated from that trend this year with its 555 Trap. The aluminum receiver lightens the overall weight of the shotgun to 7.5 pounds, though I don’t understand why some gunmakers are taking weight out of target guns (most of us want a heavier skeet or trap gun to keep the barrel in motion and tame recoil), unless it’s strictly being done for the benefit of younger shooters. You get all the standard issue features with this 12-gauge: a 30-inch chrome-lined barrel, three chokes (IC, M, and F), and Turkish walnut stock and fore-end. The one added bonus is an adjustable comb height for a better fit. MSRP: $709
Mossberg Gold Reserve
When Mossberg debuted the original Silver Reserve it had more than a few shortcomings, but the subsequent generations of that gun have been a welcomed surprise for anyone looking for an affordable over/under. The new Gold Reserve is a beauty of a gun that will play in the uplands or on the skeet field. It’s available in 12- and 20-gauge, plus .410-bore for you showoffs. Choose from either 28- or 30-inch vent rib barrels (10mm wide), plus the gun includes shell ejectors, a front bead sight, and five extended/checkered choke tubes (SK, IC, M, IM, and F). Polished silver receivers, a jeweled action, and gold inlays on the underside of the receiver give this gun a high-end look at a working man’s price. MSRP $983-$1,221
One of my best grouse hunting buddies once told me that you buy as many guns as you can afford when you are young so that when you retire, you can trade them all in and buy one great bird gun to shoot for the rest of your life. The Fabarm Autumn is that kind of side-by-side, the company’s first to be imported to the U.S. (Fabarm has been making SxSs since 1900). A 3-inch 20-gauge, the Autumn is a monoblock break-action. The stock is made of deluxe Turkish walnut, leading into an engraved case-hardened action, and 28- or 30-inch Tribore barrels (tapered for better patterns) that were constructed with high temperature solder so they will stand the test of time. A rounded, monolithic action was forged from steel, and the selective trigger is inertia-driven, plus spent shells will auto eject when you open the gun. MSRP: $4,095
Stoeger M3500 Snow Goose
The spring conservation order has become so popular with waterfowlers, gun manufactures are starting to build production 12 gauges specifically for snow geese. Mossberg was the first to do it, and now Stoeger is getting in on this trend with its M3500. With the included extended magazine, this gun has a 10 plus 1 3-inch shotshell capacity. It also has an oversized bolt handle, which makes it easier to extract a shell if it gets hung up in the action (a common issue when you’re running so many shells through an inertia gun at once). The gun is coated in distressed white Cerakote—except for the extended mag—and comes with IC, M, and Xtra Full chokes. MSRP: $899
TriStar doesn’t build flashy guns, but they do engineer their shotguns to shoot damn straight. I’ve used many of their over/unders, and can’t wait to try the new Bristol side-by-side, which will be offered in .410, 28-, 20- and 12-gauge. The Bristol features and English-style stock with a case-colored receiver. A Turkish walnut stock, auto-ejectors, five Beretta-style chokes (SK, IC, M, IM, and F), brass front bead, and selective tang-mounted safety come standard. Plus, TriStar gives customers a five-year warranty. MSRP: $1,000-$1,100
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Retay added to its personal defense line this year with its first pump-action tactical shotgun, the GPS. It’s a bare bones gun with no rib and a short-stroke floating fore-end that allows for quick ejects and reloads. It weighs just a shade over six pounds, and includes removable stock chokes from Retay’s MaraPro system. The 12-gauge will shoot 3-inch loads and has a 5 plus 1 capacity if you’re shooting 2¾-inch shells. It’s finished in matte black for added protection. MSRP: $349
Savage Renegauge Competition
Savage has made a variety of firearms over its long history, from machine guns to autoloading pistols. Add race gun to that long list. Savage debuted the Reneguage Competition this year, after introducing the sporting version of the 12-gauge last year at SHOT Show. It was the company’s first shotgun since the 1960s and drew plenty of attention at the range in Las Vegas. You still get all the features from the Renegauge platform with this gun: the unique gas-driven dual-valve D.R.I.V. operating system, fluted barrel with a Melonite finish to the bore, and oversized bolt handle and loading port all come standard. The only real differences are a 9 plus 1 extended magazine tube, red Cerakote finish to the receiver and mag tube, a Hi-Viz front sight, and Skeet2 Light Modified choke. MSRP: $1,959
Stevens 320 Thumbhole Turkey
Thumbhole stocks make turkey guns infinitely more accurate. You will have a better grip and be steadier when you’re trying to put a bead on an old tom with this pump, offered in 12- and 20-gauge. Like the SXP, the Stevens 320 has a rotating bolt head, plus dual slide bars, so you can work the action faster in case that gobbler needs a second dose of lead 4s. A 3-inch gun, the 320 has an ambidextrous cheek riser, a welcomed feature for lefties who have had to shoot so many shotguns that are cast for right-handers. The 22-inch vent rib barrel is chrome-lined and it comes with an extra-full turkey choke. Drilled and tapped for an optic, this compact pump is also a viable home defense shotgun. MSRP: $323
Franchi Affinity 3 Elite Turkey
Franchi started out by making affordable semiautos and over/unders, and has recently expanded to bolt-action rifles. The Italian gunmaker continues to evolve, debuting a turkey gun this year. The guts of this autoloader were already in place with the waterfowl version of the Affinity 3. Franchi added a pistol grip, a raised fiber-optic front sight and Picatinny rail for mounting aftermarket optics. The barrel on the Elite Turkey, available in 20- and 12-gauge, was cut down to 24 inches, making it easier to hunt the tight cover turkey hunters often find themselves in. The receiver and barrel are finished in a bronze Cerakote, and the gun comes with two Rhino chokes (Turkey and Extra-Full Turkey). MSRP $1,249