The propellers throbbed as PenAir's plane circled and then landed us on Cold Bay's giant emergency runway.
We were just three hours west of Anchorage in the heart of the Aleutian archipelago, but it remains one of the harshest places in Alaska.
Sunny and calm, the skies were blue, and my fellow hunters were jovial. We couldn't have imagined the storms that would greet us 12 hours later the next morning.
This is the place where North Pacific gales travel to the Bering Sea carrying the waters featured on Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch."
The land is raw with burning-cold winds and steaming volcanoes that puff and throw red magma. It's a good place for something to be born — or reborn.
It made perfect sense why Benelli chose this location to launch the rebirth of their archetype: the Super Black Eagle.
Winds gusted to 70 mph and howled straight off the ocean during the pre-dawn hours. Rain and slush flew sideways, and the storm surf pounded as we awoke at "sunrise," roughly 9:30 a.m. We'd have to wait for the winds to calm because no ducks fly in that kind of weather.
But that's not the way of Captain Jeff Wasley. The lodge door burst open, and Wasley blew in with a gust and just stood there, already soaked, and murmured, "Twenty minutes and we roll out!" The mild-mannered bearded sea captain, who is also a biologist, started Four Flyways Outfitters (fourflywaysoutfitters.com) for his great love of ducks and hunting, and he remains at the top of the world. During five days of hunting, my group broke an outboard motor far offshore and stalled a jacked-up Suburban up to the windows in the middle of a gushing river — but we couldn't break these guns.
Benelli's Super Black Eagle (SBE) landed in 1991 and quickly rose to prominence as the duck man's broadsword. The gun set a new standard as one of the first semiautomatics to handle 2¾-, 3- and 3½-inch shells, when the longer shells were developed to help offset the inferior downrange lethality of steel pellets once lead shot was banned in most areas.
Twenty-six years ago, nobody had seen anything quite like the SBE when it came out. Most of the weight is in the receiver where the inertia-driven operating system is housed, giving the shotgun an overall slenderness and lovely between-the-hands balance.
The SBE quickly became a waterfowling status symbol, helping a young company that started building guns in 1967 carve out a niche in a field dominated by centuries-old brands like Browning, Beretta, Remington and Winchester.
The Super Black Eagle 3 (SBE3) is new for 2017, yet it has the same core as the original: That simple inertia-driven system built around a powerful compact spring housed within the bolt. It is the "engine" for the shotgun's recoil operation. Like the old saying, "If it ain't broke €¦," said George Thompson, Benelli senior product manager.
During G&A's exclusive evaluation in Alaska, the new SBE3 was still internally code named "Retriever," and it was easy to identify a dozen new design and ergonomic touches. These are aimed at lighter weight, better handling, shooter comfort and, above all, less recoil.
It is a refined version of the original: softer-kicking, user-friendly and pure Italian, with stylish new accents on the receiver by Marco Vignaroli, which were borrowed from the recently launched Benelli Ethos. The accent lines represent the silhouette of a bird in flight and complement the black model without being garish. The SBE3 will also be available in Realtree Max-5 and Optifade Timber camouflage field patterns.
Another critical addition for the SBE3 was also lifted from Benelli's Ethos: The easy locking detent in the bolt assembly, which assures the rotating face always seats even when the gun is extremely dirty or bumped on the buttstock. (This was a complaint on prior models.) Other major tweaks include an improved ComforTech stock (now in its third generation) to redirect recoil. This time, there's a larger and softer cheekpad.
That's a lot of emphasis on comfort for the tough hunters. And nobody is nastier to their guns than waterfowlers. In Alaska, we threw them into aluminum boats that pounded through waves, exposed them to marine spray, let them bang around with the decoys, get stepped on by muddy dogs and tossed them on the beach between sessions.
Of course, we also shot hundreds of high-velocity, heavy duck loads through them all in near-freezing conditions. The climate was so harsh that choke tubes rusted by day two. We were too cold to care.
On that first morning of hurricane-force winds, we expected Wasley to step forward and explain what we would do when the weather died. But you don't work around the weather in Cold Bay, Alaska; you just try to survive it.
The Cold Bay experience is one of pristine wilderness and a bucket-list adventure for trophy species in wild spaces for hardcore waterfowlers.
It's called "wilderness" for a reason. We piled out of the trucks that first dawn, unsure of our new waders, and fought to close the doors in the wind.
Most of us tromped down to a nearby lake shore — the ocean was out of the question with the giant surf — and hid not far from the road to hunt.
I mentioned that I wanted a rare Eurasian teal or wigeon the night prior, and that earned me a death hike. Wasley lined a few of us out on a cross-country jaunt in the torrent, dropping off two others at the halfway point.
Hoofing around, my guide, Mark Vander Zanden, often opted to wade over greasy boulders, and I had to use the buttstock of the new gun to catch myself a few times on the slick rocks, submerging it violently past the trigger group like a wading staff.
Three times wind gusts grabbed the large, metal-framed pack full of decoys and nearly drove me into the lake. I quickly learned to walk bent over.
It was strange to see winds lift the surface waters skyward off a lake and vaporize them in a reverse rainstorm. The tundra, too, was difficult hiking, similar to jogging in a ditch full of sponges, until you hit a trail.
But here's a concern: These nice trails were created by 1,000-pound brown bears, just as heavy-bodied as the famed Kodiak monsters.
I stumbled along for an hour behind Vander Zanden, and as we strolled past hundreds of half-eaten sockeye and piles of brown bear scat, it was comforting to know that I was carrying a reliable 12 gauge with 3½-inch, 15„8-ounce HEVI-Shot loads should the "Man in the Brown Suit" show up. One stroke of the bolt handle and I'd be ready to defend us.
We finally struck a tiny bay, hunkered under a hummock and threw out a few decoys. The fun started instantly when a pair of stunning drake goldeneyes buzzed through.
The first was too fast, but he left his wingman bobbing in the decoys with a stroke of 3-inch HEVI Metal #2s.
A matching drake bufflehead appeared next, and a clean double on those beauties was followed by some of the biggest mallards on earth splashing feet up.
Strangely, all the birds were glowing, fully plumed drakes from the far north; three are now headed for the taxidermist. Even while wearing layers of Arctic-worthy Sitka gear, the SBE3 proved easy to shoot.
Case in point: As we were hiking out, fighting the wind with five heavy ducks bouncing on the strap against my chest and a loaded pack on my back, we somehow heard the rush of wings and turned as a super-sized mallard burst from the reeds 15 feet below the ledge we were trudging along.
In a flash, I had the gun up and, despite the ducks around my neck, managed to rip back the bolt handle. I turned and crushed a greenhead with one shot from 40 yards.
Mallards in Alaska are massive — over 4 pounds — because most do not migrate, and they gorge on salmon eggs and carcasses. Vander Zanden was delighted at the shot, though we had to wait a good bit for the wind to bring the bird ashore.
Enlarged & Lighter
You can't say much more than that about a shotgun's handling.
The new oversized bolt handle on the SBE3 was welcome every time I'd needed to chamber a round, and the new grip and trigger design were useful even with soaking thick gloves in a critical split-second shot. The safety is enlarged as well.
The rounded triggerguard is forgiving, and the pistol grip is deeper, allowing for more control and better trigger access.
A deeper pistol grip reduces recoil by letting us move into the gun and giving more grip control, which helps to eliminate the "punch." A deep grip also allows us to use our push-up muscles against recoil, as our chest is much stronger than our wrists and thumbs.
The fumbling cold and slippery wet climate was the ideal test for all the accoutrements added to the new SBE3, such as the newly slenderized and enhanced forearm and especially the new enlarged loading port with big grooves in front of the new triggerguard for smooth feeding. A redesigned carrier/lifter also helped the fast action of this shotgun.
It was a grueling 5-mile hike in the unrelenting wind over the squishy moss, but the gun is long and a pleasure to carry. It's lighter than the SBEII, right at 7 pounds.
I was grateful for the power in its chamber (bears), but also the lack of bulk and heft.
"The engineers handed us the new gun and said they could have made it almost a pound lighter, and wanted to, but I told them no," said Thompson. "Lighter isn't always ideal in a 12 gauge firing waterfowl loads."
During the following weeks, back home on the range, I threw my entire stash into the shotgun, feeding it everything from rusty old Black Cloud loads to new 3½-inch high-velocity B&P 1½-ounce #2s. Buckshot, Hevi-Shot, slugs, 1-ounce dove loads €¦ the SBE3 ate them all.
Even the cool Hog Wild two-ball loads from Hevi. I got it to jam once by firing corroded old shells much faster than you ever would afield.
There was a measured evenness in shot patterns due to the proven cryogenically treated steel barrel. I fired several other quality semiautomatics and could detect no difference in recoil with the gas guns.
As a shotgunner, it's pretty cool to feed a wild mix of loads and shell lengths and see it spit them all out. Tungsten, lead, steel — it didn't matter. The SBE3's new two-part elastic carrier latch worked as billed for easier loading into the magazine.
In Alaska, we fed the SBE3 whatever shells we could grab on the frantic hunts for those stunning saltwater geese, the Pacific black brant, which was the highlight of the Cold Bay trip.
Brant from three flyways converge on the giant Izembek Lagoon to gorge on eelgrass before migration, the highest concentration of the birds in the world.
Jumping in the layout boats 20 feet apart in the wind and waves, Jeff Puckett and I barely settled in when gobs of the geese came in low and straight.
I doubled right away and, with only one bird left for a limit, laid the Benelli down and focused on calling for Puckett, who quickly caught up. A single came high and right, then centered up the middle as I called.
He was right in my wheelhouse, but I waited to see if he would skid right, in which case I would shoot him. If he went left, he was Puckett's. At 20, he lifted left, and I yelled, "Shoot him, Jeff!" into the wind. Puckett popped up and missed, then cracked him hard.
The retrieve boat yelled out, "Double-banded!" when picking up the bird, and we shouted with joy.
Puckett scored the bird-hunting trophy of a lifetime. For three days, the brant hunting held just as strong, with so much action that we rotated through the layout boats, and even the guides took turns.
We started calling ourselves the Hecklers, because there was always a half-dozen guys on the beach, watching the layouts just offshore, helping call in birds and cheering the shooters' hits and misses.
It was like a dream come true for brant fanatics. Each day I'd bang out two birds within five minutes, then I'd have to calm down, enjoy the hunt and wait on a third.
The fact that everyone pounded out limits of these saltwater geese and nobody had trouble using an unfamiliar gun speaks volumes about the design.
Despite the lack of local crab legs from these famous waters, the hunt was a pure Alaskan experience. Eagles kept stealing our birds, but the brant made up for it.
When Wasley grilled those breasts, we all wondered how brant are not extinct. It was some of the best wild game we'd ever eaten, on par with elk tenderloin.
Brant die easily but are not sea ducks. On the last day, we were running the heaviest shot loads available through the SBE3, trying to kill the biggest duck in North America, the ghost-like Pacific eider.
It was tough hunting for the toughest birds to kill, and few came close to limits, but we all took home birds for the wall.
On the bigger body of water in the bouncing layouts, we discovered these zipping sea ducks were also some of the hardest birds to hit.
The water was rough enough that I missed twice trying to finish off a cripple on the water and laughed aloud — I'd missed a sitting duck! It was humbling, especially after making hero shots from Canada to Louisiana all season.
I made up for it by doubling on drake harlequin, one of the prettiest birds on earth, killing both and managing to miss the one hen flying with them.
The Proving Grounds
Climate and saltwater aside, a layout boat is a perfect test because it is a lousy place from which to shoot.
Sitting in what is essentially a super-low kayak, you shoot from some of the most awkward positions possible. You can't shoot far to the right or to the left and very little straight up, and the whole vessel is moving in the waves.
The guns had a few mild hiccups in Alaska's extreme conditions due to the difficulty of finding a consistent shoulder mount in bobbing layout boats amid the waves and the fact that we were shooting prototypes.
Lighter than its predecessor, the SBE3 should kick harder, but the test group of hunters generally agreed it was the softest-kicking Super Black Eagle to date, and the trademark system of rubber chevrons in the redesigned third generation ComforTech stock seemed to reduce muzzle lift and combine with the super-soft, oversized cheekpiece (which houses its own flexible shim) to soften the feel of shooting.
That cheekpiece feels odd to touch — big and soft like the tundra — but it is the most noticeable and effective recoil-reducing aspect. The shotgun can't punch you in the face if you pull up a hasty mount and lack a good cheekweld, which is normally where you pay.
The new SBE3 also comes with a slick new case, more compact than earlier models, and boasts a new triangular ergonomic mag cap.
The Super Black Eagle series was already a wingshooter's dream, and the new SBE3 appears to protect that legacy.