21st Century Semi-Autos: Reliability in the Marsh

By author of The Duck Blog

Today's Autos Perform Better Than Their Predecessors

Many waterfowlers prefer to shoot auto-loaders, and thanks to modern technology, worries about jams and other failures have decreased substantially. Photo © Bill Konway

Most modern waterfowlers prefer semi-automatic shotguns when chasing ducks and geese. Sure, pumps remain popular, and double-guns have a strong, opinionated following, but auto-loaders dominate the scene.

And why not? Manufacturers have given us great choices; smooth-swinging, quick-shooting shotguns that spit out and feed shells while we concentrate on the next shot. Still, this time of year (read: cold) can remind us about the semi-auto’s one potential drawback: jamming. Everyone who’s fed enough rounds through an auto — especially a gas-operated model — has probably experienced a stovepipe, failure to feed or other ejection/feeding problem. The good news is those bugaboos are far less common nowadays than even a decade or two ago, and the solution is evident in everyday life.

“It’s pretty straightforward and very simple as far as why things have improved,” said Scott Grange, director of public relations and shooting promotions and Browning and Winchester. “It’s the same reason why everything around us has improved, and that’s manufacturing techniques. Our ability to manufacture things today is so incredibly better than it was 20 years ago. We can hold closer tolerances, which, in the case of a gas gun, is very critical, because most of these gas guns are what we call self-cleaning.”

Andy Haskin, director of research and development for long-gun programs at Remington, agreed.

“The advancements in technology of the tools that we have available as research and development engineers (such as fine-element analysis, dynamic analysis and high-speed video) have improved greatly, which enables us to design and test much more accurately than we were able to in the past,” he said. “The consumer expectations have increased as well. This has driven all the manufacturers to design and build guns to a higher standard.”

And that’s not limited to gas-operated guns. Benelli, which pretty much started the auto-loader revolution by introducing the ultra-reliable inertia-operated Super Black Eagle in 1967, has upped its technical game. The company uses robotically controlled CNC centers in manufacturing, which eliminates human error.

““I struggle to find many negatives about a Benelli when it comes to pure reliability,” said George Thompson, director of products for Benelli. “And there’s a difference between reliability in a laboratory and reliability in North Dakota in December.”

Better, modern autos can cycle a variety of shells, from light 2-3/4-inch loads to the largest 3-1/2-inch magnums, and designers have made them far more ergonomic than their sometimes-clumsy ancestors.

““We started on the SBEIII 10 years ago,” Thompson said. “One of the reasons it took so long is we were trying to find ways to improve it, because the SBEII was such an amazing gun. The way I like to say it is, ‘How do you make a Ferrari faster? It’s tough to do. It’s ergonomics, and not just how you pick up the gun and shoulder it but also about how the gun is actually used. Our guns, the SBE in particular, are made for waterfowl hunting. Waterfowl hunting generally never occurs on a 70-degree sunny day. You’re trudging through swamp water sometimes. Stuff is getting in the gun, falling in the action the whole time. It’s about making the gun better in those conditions. It’s accounting for the fact your hands could be wet and cold, or you could be wearing gloves or a big, thick layered jacket. It’s accounting for excitement, like you just shot two birds out of your first three shots, and there’s another above you, and you have to reload really quickly — those ergonomics.”

Shooters also enjoy another aspect of modern gas-operated semi-autos: decreased maintenance requirements.

““It’s not like you need to clean them every time out,” Grange said. “The average guy, barring any unforeseen extreme conditions, can usually get through a season, depending on how much he shoots, without completely ripping the system apart and cleaning it. But it doesn’t hurt to clean it every once in a while.”

It’s unclear what advancements future semi-autos might hold. Manufacturers will likely continue to chip away at the weight and recoil of auto-loaders. Also, they might delve more into sub-gauge guns or use new materials as they come available.

“We have a platform that we are confident will continue to provide many years of continued innovation and excellent performance for our consumers,” said Daniel Cox, senior product manager of shotguns for Remington. “Looking for a way to make the field guns lighter while not increasing recoil would be a logical next step.”

One thing’s certain: Waterfowlers will reap the benefits.

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