I’ve been a fan of recoil-operated shotguns since I hunted with an old Remington Model 11 (Illion’s version of Browning’s old humpback) when I was a kid.
Although I’ve been using a Benelli Super 90 for years, my last experience with a new-model Benelli shotgun was with the Super Black Eagle II, a 3 1/2-inch-chambered, synthetic-stocked number that impressed me a whole lot. It ran on anything I could stuff into it, from magnum waterfowl and turkey loads on down to 2 3/4-inch target loads of indeterminate vintage.
I was also enamored of the fact that the ComforTech stock made even the stoutest loads quite manageable in terms of perceived recoil. By the time I sent it back, I’d become a real believer in Benelli’s exceptionally reliable and “clean burning” Inertia Driven action, partly due, I suppose, to the fact that I rarely had to clean it anywhere near as much as I would a gas-operated autoloader.
I recently got my hands on Benelli’s latest–the Ultra Light. In keeping with the gun industry’s eternal quest for weight reduction, the Ultra Light lives up to its billing. It weighs a scant six pounds, and the company claims that it is “the lightest 12-gauge semiautomatic shotgun ever produced.” Considering today’s crop of autos, that’s probably true, although ArmaLite’s plastic-stocked/anodized-aluminum AR-17 Golden Gun (a recoil-operated 12-gauge auto produced from 1964 to 1965) was said to weigh 5 1/2 pounds.
Still, by any measure the Ultra Light is light indeed, thanks to a shortened magazine tube and fore-end (in comparison to Benelli’s bread-and-butter Montefeltro), carbon-fiber rib and alloy receiver. And it’s a pretty good-looking item as well, featuring a WeatherCote-finished walnut stock that enhances the figure of the wood and provides practically bombproof protection from moisture.
I had the opportunity to use (and appreciate) the gun on a combination hunt at Palisdade, Minnesota’s Mallard Club. It included geese, duck, ruffed grouse and woodcock. It was waterfowl in the morning and upland stuff in the afternoon. Naturally, the ducks and geese (which we were hunting in a flooded, half-frozen rice paddy) called for the kind of sustained lead shooting I’m pretty horrible at.
The ruffed grouse and woodcock required the type of reflexive snap shooting that I can manage reasonably well; it doesn’t call for much in the way of calculating, which is all to the good. With a shotgun–any shotgun–if I have to think very much about what I’m doing, I’ve already missed.
The Ultra Light I was using had a 24-inch barrel (it can also be had with a 26-inch barrel). It was a tad feathery for an optimum waterfowl gun but a dead-perfect tool for grouse and woodcock. I did manage to get things together enough to run up a respectable score on greenheads and pintails with it using three-inch No. 4 Federal Premium Ultra Shok High Density Waterfowl loads. The load, in the hands of better shooters than I, simply crushed ducks at medium and long yardage.
We were shooting over decoys, and I stuck with the Modified tube, resisting an ill-conceived impulse to switch it out for the Full tube when I realized that I wasn’t shooting them from as far away as I initially thought. This is a common mistake for guys (like me) who don’t shoot all that much waterfowl. Why? Well, the difference in yardage between where the duck actually is when you shoot it and where the duck hits the water can be considerable, and it’s too easy to get fooled when you’re watching a Lab paddle in with a mouthful of mallard from what looks to be half a mile.
It’s worth noting that recoil, even with mags, was quite tolerable from the Ultra Light. For years I’ve heard guys claim that recoil guns kick worse than gas guns. I’ve never noticed all that much. From the objective standpoint of pure mechanics, it’s probably true, but I’ve always figured that any autoloader is preferable to a pump once you get past target loads.
There are few types of upland bird hunting that require a fast-handling gun quite as much as hunting ruffed grouse. I don’t have a lot of experience in hunting them, but after four days of charging off muddy logging roads into tangled willow thickets, I do know this I want an open-choked, short-barreled 12 gauge–preferably an auto–that’s as quick-handling (read lightweight) as humanly possible to build. And the Benelli Ultra Light seems to be the ideal gun in that respect.
Assuming that you can actually see the birds your dog flushes, the window of opportunity for a shot can be a frustratingly brief one. In the course of three afternoon grouse hunts, I managed to get a grouse each time, using 2 3/4-inch Federal Game Shok 7 1/2s. My hunting partner, South Dakota gunwriter L.P. Brezney, went me a bit better by scoring on a pair of woodcock.
It wasn’t until several months later that I got to fool around with an Ultra Light in a non-hunting environment. I shot several rounds of skeet with it, which reinforced my initial impressions of the gun’s quick-handling capabilities. I generally shoot skeet from a low gun position. Although I love shooting skeet (and probably could improve my scores from starting with the gun shouldered), to me it’s first and foremost an exercise in improving my odds on quail and dove. In short, I’m more than willing to get my clock cleaned on the skeet field in order to bring down my shell-to-bird ratio on opening day.
I think if I were going to shoot a lot of sporting clays with the Ultra Light, I’d opt for the 26-inch-barrel version. It’d still be plenty nimble enough. The red bar front sight is very easy to pick up on, and the fact that the carbon-fiber rib has a mid-bead might break me of my habit of canting the gun. That’s not a critical flaw for snap-shooting California Valley quail (or Minnesota ruffed grouse) in dense cover, but it can cost you birds on longer shots when you’ve got to make some semblance of tracking through the target.
The Benelli Ultra Light is an outstanding upland gun. I experienced nothing remotely resembling a malfunction with it in the field or on the range–which is pretty much in keeping with all my Benelli experiences. From an aesthetic standpoint I’m pretty fond of side-bys and over/unders, but I just happen to shoot autos better. Some may balk at the fact that the Ultra Light costs nearly as much as an entry-level Browning Citori O/U. But for hard-duty reliability, the Benelli is well worth it.