June 30, 2016
By Eric R. Poole
During 1998, I was stationed with a Marine detachment at the U.S. Army Ordnance Center and School in Aberdeen, Maryland. There, I spent most of my small arms repair education alongside soldiers learning to do a similar job for their branch of service, and I filled my downtime at the Aberdeen ordnance museum. Two-thirds of the way through this intensive study, Marine armorers broke off to learn systems that were specific to the Corps' small arms inventory. Many of these fell under a category classified "peculiars," and this segment of training, among others, covered the repair and maintenance of a new shotgun from Benelli.
Each week, an armorer course was concluded with a graded written exam and a skills test to demonstrate one's ability to utilize a technical manual (TM), put to use the proper tools and disassemble, reassemble, troubleshoot and repair an unknown malfunction on a test firearm. By the time I entered training on peculiars, I had learned how to serve Marines issued a shotgun branded with the name Mossberg, Remington and Winchester.
The level of difficulty in training had gradually progressed, and by the time we began working on peculiars, the mechanics of how traditional military firearms operate and why they fail were very well understood. However, peculiars were different in that they featured a unique assembly or a special combination of operating systems.
The HK MP5 and all of its variants, for example, utilize a selection of unique trigger groups, and the bolt functions with a pair of locking cam rollers that time locking and unlocking, the unique key to the MP5's highly efficient delayed blowback operating system. The Mk 153 SMAW rocket launcher brought us training beyond the mechanical and into the electrical with its unique trigger pack.
Up to that point, few in the military had even seen a Benelli shotgun, which were all inertia-driven designs until the gas-operated Benelli M4 (M1014) was pitched to the Marine Corps. It was a little unexpected when instructors briefed us on the differences between the M1 (Super 90) and the brand new M4 semiauto that would eventually become the Benelli M1014. As we would later find out, we were going to be the first armorer class to receive specialized training on the Marine Corps' newest enlistee.
Tip of the Spear
The solicitation for a new 12-gauge semiautomatic combat shotgun went out on May 4, 1998, from the U.S. Army Armaments Research, Developments and Engineering Center (ARDEC). The Marines were designated as the lead service on this program and formulated a specific list of requirements. The shotgun had to be:
- Capable of semiautomatic operation
- Capable of firing DoD-standard 23/4-inch 12-gauge No. 00 buckshot and other shotshells and slug ammunition
- Have a maximum effective range of at least 40 meters (50 meters desired) with DoD-standard 23/4-inch No. 00 buckshot ammunition and 100 to 125 meters with slug ammunition
- Have a length up to 413/4 inches and be capable of reconfiguration to 36 inches or less
- Weigh no more than 81/2 pounds (six pounds desired) unloaded
- Be equipped with low-light-level iron sights and a standard U.S. military accessory mounting rail integral to the upper receiver to permit the use of other sight-enhancement devices
The Marine Corps recognized a need to augment its various 12-gauge shotguns in the field. They obtained funding from Congress, but Congress quickly decided to relinquish those funds and redirected them to a new Joint Service Small Arms Program (JSSAP). They ordered all services to field only one type of shotgun.
Three month after the solicitation was released, five M4 shotguns with Benelli's new auto-regulating gas-operated (ARGO) dual pistons were delivered to Aberdeen Proving Grounds. I graduated armorer school on Saturday, August 1st, and the shotguns used in official testing arrived the following Tuesday, August 4th. Unknown to those military evaluators, by that time armorer instructors had already taught one class how to troubleshoot and repair the experimental M4, the XM1014.
The ARGO system addressed a few concerns expressed earlier by military evaluators regarding Benelli's inertia system. An unknown number of Benelli M1s (and other popular semiautos) were already being fielded in small numbers before the solicitation was actually released. Benelli was receiving favorable reports, but there were notes of concern about a semiautomatic shotgun's ability to reliably function with different loads still in service. It was noted that unusual shooting positions didn't always provide the rear support (like what occurs when a shotgun recoils against the shoulder) necessary for guaranteed functioning of Benelli's inertia-driven system or the conventional semiautomatic shotguns that were available at that time. The M4's ARGO system specifically addressed this.
"Troops who fight day and night need heavy accessories such as night vision capabilities and lights," Benelli said. "The combined additional weight of these optics and accessories would cause underfunctioning of semiautomatics. But at the heart of the Benelli M4 is the ARGO system. This compact action features dual stainless, self-cleaning gas pistons located just ahead of the chamber and operated directly against the patented Benelli rotating bolt, eliminating the need for the complex linkages found in other gas autos."
Just like its competitors, each of the new Benelli M4 shotguns submitted for testing was subjected to extensive protocols to check safety, functionality and repeatable performance. They were immersed in dirt and mud and endured operation in extreme heat and cold temperatures. The Benelli M4 exceeded all of the stringent requirements and met every challenge. This includes a test that required it to pass an endurance run of 25,000 rounds without the replacement of a major component. In April 1999, at the completion of the testing, the XM1014 was redesignated the M1014 Joint Service Combat Shotgun (JSCS). By November 2001, the Benelli M1014 was seeing deployment to thousands of U.S. Marines serving around the world.
The Same, But Different
Like the Marine's battle-tested Benelli M1014, the commercial M4 offering features the unique ARGO gas operating system. During the cycle of operation, these pistons drive the two-lug rotating bolt assembly. It's interesting that the two pistons only move approximately a half inch to completely cycle the bolt, which supports Benelli's reputation for an extremely fast operation with reduced vibration.
Just like the Benelli M1014, the M4 can fire 2 3/4- or three-inch shells of various power levels in any combination and without any adjustment. Unlike pump actions already in service, the semiautomatic operation allows the operator to stay on target with minimal change in sight picture while another round is automatically loaded into the chamber. When the M4 expends the last empty hull, the bolt locks to the rear. Even with the strides achieved by the Benelli ARGO system, low-power munitions such as less lethal rubber balls and pellets that remain in military inventory must be cycled through the shotgun manually. In large part, this is why the Benelli M1014 never fully replaced the pump-action models that continues to serve Marines today.
Like many other shotguns, loading takes place by inserting a shell into the loading gate underneath the receiver. This orientation has been proven to allow an operator to easily top off, even while the shotgun is shouldered. The integral tubular magazine found under the barrel of the military-issued Benelli M1014 will hold up to seven shells plus another in the chamber. Due to restrictions placed on imported shotguns, the civilian M4's magazine tube only allows a capacity of five plus one in the chamber.
The Benelli M1014 receiver is finished in an anti-reflective MIL-SPEC finish, making the Benelli M1014 and M4 extremely corrosion resistant. To add to that, even the hammer-forged barrel is chrome lined. In addition to the black finish and black synthetic furniture, the U.S. commercial market can choose to have the M4 Tactical shotgun finished with Cerakote in FDE or Federal Standard Field Drab, with or without the pistol grip.
Considered one of the more useful features of the Benelli M1014, the collapsing stock shortens the shotgun by nearly eight inches, which can also benefit easier storage and transportation and allow the user to quickly adapt the shotgun's length of pull to different body types or various configurations of body armor. Unlike military-issue shotguns before the Benelli M1014, many Marines attach either an Aimpoint or Trijicon optic to the Picatinny rail that runs along the top of the Benelli's receiver.
Recalling the aforementioned restrictions placed on imported shotguns in 1989, civilians purchasing the M4 equivalent of the Benelli M1014 are not offered the benefit of a collapsing stock. Instead, the M4 comes with a fixed-length modular stock system that brings the overall length of the M4 to 40 inches, which includes a 14 3/8-inch length of pull. The stock is textured, wears a sling attachment point and features a comfortable recoil-absorbing pad. At this point, the aftermarket has responded for the public's desire for a collapsing stock like the M1014's and extended magazine tube.
In February 2009, the LAPD approved the M4 for use by patrol officers under an individual purchase program. This is a tough list to make, and the M4 remains popular among that department's ranks. "Our biggest issue with the M4 has been stock fit with a few officers," a Los Angeles police training officer reports. "The M4 is a little long for some smaller-stature officers, and some have chosen to go with an M4 with a standard stock configuration, the one without the pistol grip. It's proven itself in the field. There have been a number of situations already where an officer had to depend on his Benelli."
Like the Benelli M1014, the M4 carries a Picatinny rail for optics that is especially useful when shooting slugs for accuracy. The military spec for the Benelli M1014 included the ability to effectively engage targets out to 125 meters with slugs. The ability to attach optics such as a red dot or the ACOG makes this kind of performance easily repeatable.
Most tactical users of the Benelli simply rely on the adjustable ghost-ring aperture rear sight and the fixed-blade front. The rear sight can be adjusted for both windage and elevation. As a sign of its intended ability to withstand use in a harsh environment, the sights are protected by metallic wings on each side. Even without an optic attached to the rail, I've tested both the Benelli M1014 and the M4 and had no problem grouping three Federal Tactical slugs in less than four inches from 100 yards in either configuration using the standard sights.
On the Range
Marines assigned to a Security Augmentation Force (SAF) shot thousands of rounds through the Benelli M1014 in training. The first day was often spent in a classroom learning the nomenclature, function, cycle of operation and basic maintenance before qualifying on the range. Familiarization usually concluded by firing off a few rounds, which transitioned these Marines to a second day of live fire on a steel and paper range. Marines were then taught how to perform a shotgun breach entry and room-clearing procedures as well as how to develop a strategy for quickly clearing different scenarios within a shoot house.
Having tested the Benelli M1014 at MCB Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, I ordered an M4 Tactical with a pistol-grip stock for a comparison of results. The M4 provides the same handling, balance and operation as the M1014. At six feet tall with a 29-inch arm, I found the fixed-length pistol-grip stock to be a perfect fit to my proportions. In fact, I actually favor the fixed stock over the adjustable one I last evaluated on the Benelli M1014 because the fixed stock doesn't rattle or resonate small vibrations to the face like the military variant.
Out of the box and on a benchrest, the Benelli M4 placed three Federal Tactical slugs in a group measuring 2 3/4 inches from 100 yards. It averaged four inches after five groups were fired, but the best result was definitely the first. Across the chronograph, the slug leaves the muzzle with an average speed of 1,250 feet per second. Comparing the same load fired from a Remington 1100 and a Mossberg 930, the Benelli averaged 35 fps slower than the other popular semiauto shotguns with barrels of the same length.
When it came to examining the patterned targets, the Benelli M4 patterned a tighter group with 00 buck, kept it centered on the target (even out to 40 yards) and could be shot faster against a PACT timer than any other shotgun. I loaded five rounds into each shotgun and recorded the splits between shots to determine the fastest semiautomatic shotgun. The first series of each illustrated mistakes in my own ability, but after five rounds I fell into a rhythm until I couldn't draw the trigger any faster than the shotgun's mechanical aspects would allow.
With the Benelli, I was able to shoot through each magazine with a split time between each shot of .17 second. The next-fastest shotgun was the Mossberg 930, which produced a split of .22 second. There was nothing I could do to naturally shoot a shotgun any faster. I credit the short distance the pistons in the M4 have to travel in order to cycle its action.
Like the Benelli M1014, the Benelli M4 reliably fed every load for a 12-gauge shotgun that I had on hand. The tightest grouping and most consistent 00 buckshot load came from a box of Hornady Critical Defense 2 3/4-inch shells with eight pellets packed in the Versatite wad. Those pellets move out of the muzzle at nearly 1,600 feet per second and averaged a pattern at 40 yards measuring 13.36 inches. The most accurate slug load was produced by Winchester's PDX1 personal defense load featuring three 00 buck pellets followed by a one-ounce rifled slug. At 40 yards, three slugs averaged 2 1/2 inches apart with a distance of 9.43 inches between the pellets.
Tactical to Practical
The fact that the Marine detachment at Aberdeen began training armorers whom it was about to field on the Benelli M4 seems to indicate that those in charge somehow knew that Benelli would end up being chosen and officially entered into service. I often repaired shotguns in the armories I worked in, but only saw two Benelli M1014s go down in my career and come across my bench for repair. In both cases, a piston was broken from extensive, hard and dry use (the Military Police used to expend most of the annual 12 gauge training allotment). When the repair parts arrived, the shotguns were quickly fixed and returned to service. If you only knew the problems I encountered with other service shotguns.
Due to import restrictions, Benelli USA isn't allowed to offer the Benelli M1014 for commercial sale, but that doesn't mean the M4 is any less of a shotgun. In fact, it is every bit as reliable, accurate, soft recoiling and clean as what the Marines carry. With the shotgun's suggested retail price starting at $1,999, you might have to spend more than you would to buy other semiautos, but keep this in mind: The Marine Corps has already done the extensive torture testing for you, and they chose the Benelli.
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