June 23, 2016
A storm battered the ancient walls of the beautiful fortified city for three days during our trip to Urbino last year. We were the first group of journalists to tour the Benelli plant. Considered one of the most spectacular renaissance treasures of Europe, famous for art and design, the north-central Italian city is a well-suited home for Benelli, a company that in just 45 years has battled to take away a huge share of the shotgun market from long-dominating larger companies, many of which are centuries old.
Despite the setting, there is little that is Old World about the Benelli factory, which is crammed with cutting-edge robots, computers and engineers rather than aging craftsmen. The result is precision manufacturing with almost zero human error, exact tolerances and the ability to churn out 600 to 700 nearly perfect shotguns every day.
After hunting the green, muddy hills of that stunning region with the then-new Ethos semiauto (and happily learning that the Italian food in the factory's chow hall is better than most American restaurants), we were asked to sit down for a brainstorm session where we were let in on a big secret: Benelli was considering building its first double gun, an over/under (O/U), and wanted to know our thoughts on just what a Benelli double barrel should be like. The consensus: It should be a no-nonsense field and hunting gun with trademark Italian flare, yet absolute utility in the Benelli tradition, and it should not be overly expensive. This vision would become the Benelli 828U.
Fast-forward a year and a half to November 2014, and the Benelli 828U was in my disbelieving hands as I stood in a rustic lodge the night before a South Dakota pheasant hunt and test event. I was incredulous, staring at it, having expected a shotgun closer in design to Benelli's sister company, Beretta's, masterful lines of over/unders but one that would please the Benelli brand lover with a few style cues and general toughness.
Like the Ethos, the company set out to make the Benelli 828U unlike anything else on the market. When Benelli's Tom Kaleta and Cristie Gates finally stopped teasing us journalists and handed over the guns, my sweating palms cradled a racy, balanced, lightweight gun with graceful lines swooping along the receiver. Its design cues, it would be revealed, were borrowed from the forward-swept elegance of a mallard's wings in flight, a mildly ostentatious pattern that creates striking, bold looks.
Nobody does style like the Italians, and this is a fascinating gun. The second thing I noticed, after its style, was its airy-ness. The full-size Benelli 828U 12-gauge is wonderfully light in the hand at 6.6 pounds, hoisting like a 20 gauge. Next, the gun practically falls open when you break open the action, like only an old, worn-in double gun can, and even that tension can be adjusted lighter, it turns out. This is because of the next thing that raised my eyebrows: a brightly polished steel locking plate that locks into place behind the chambers as you close the gun, forming the breech face. It is something to see.
Because this locking plate supports the cartridge base and takes all the pounding of the shell explosion (as opposed to simply the flat front face of the receiver forming the breech like every other O/U out there), the Benelli 828U doesn't have to be built so tight that you need gorilla arms to break it open before it's worn in.
There's another reason it breaks so easily. You aren't cocking it when you crack it open. The Benelli 828U is cocked when you push the thumb lever to open it up, which is another reason the receiver has such a nice, slim, low profile. The forestock is just a forestock, with no internal ejection springs or rods. It even has a push button at the end of it for removal, like a typical side-by-side.
Perhaps the most profound of the unconventional features in the Benelli 828U is that locking plate because it enables the use of many other nontraditional features, such as an aluminum alloy receiver, as well as the impulse ejectors built into the sides of the monobloc. That's because recoil is directed back to the barrel assembly as opposed to simply slamming rearward into the breech face (and your shoulder). This is achieved because the locking plate has lugs that hook into the bottom of the monobloc when the gun is closed, effectively making the locking plate (the breech face in this design) a steel-on-steel part of the monobloc.
In a conventional gun, according to designer Marco Vignaroli (the mastermind behind the Benelli Ethos and the Benelli 828U), the explosion from the shot is essentially trying to blow apart the gun, and the hinge pin is what holds it together and takes all that abuse. This is why traditional guns are tight and stiff at first before wearing in wonderfully and wearing out ultimately. After many thousands of rounds, they need to be refurbished.
Also because of the wear-in on traditional O/U's, the release lever slowly works over to one side across the years. The Benelli 828U should do none of this and, according to Benelli, never wear out, nor does it have to be built super tight with stiff hinges, cocking, safety mechanism and release-lever tolerances to endure that pounding.
We are just getting started here. Because the recoil is directed to the barrel assembly, the Benelli 828U can be built with that aluminum alloy receiver, which is one way that divine overall light weight is achieved (hinge pins are steel to ensure steel-on-steel lockup).
For that same reason (redirected recoil), there is no need for traditional metal reinforcement tangs running through the pistol grip of the stock, typically the first place a fancy gun sees wear and rust from hand sweat. This is a big deal because with no metal tangs in the stock, you can use shim systems, like any semiauto, to adjust to more than 40 settings for LOP and cast, eliminating the need for big-money custom-stock fitting typical of O/U's.
Energy is energy, and the recoil is still there, but it does seem less severe from this design for such a light gun. Benelli's new progressive recoil-reduction system (in the buttstock) is part of the Benelli 828U as well. I admit that this system at first raised an eyebrow, as internally it looks like intermeshed teeth of a hair comb that flex and soak up recoil. Simple can be best, and with miraculous modern polymers, it really seems to work and is as lightweight as a recoil-reduction system can get.
This all adds up to a gun that is perfectly balanced right at the hinge (go ahead; you can balance it there on your finger), protecting Benelli's heritage of between-the-hands balance spawned by all of its wonderful internal inertia-driven autoloaders.
More lightness comes from the interchangeable carbon fiber rib, which is a hint that a competition model Benelli 828U is likely in the works since you could easily slap on a raised, trap-style rib. A detachable trigger mechanism in the Benelli 828U is a similar cue, as is the safety. By simply removing a wire in that detachable trigger assembly, the auto safety (great for hunters; bad for clays) is shut off. I loved the oversize safety on the bird hunt because frigid weather meant wearing gloves.
There is a lot of brilliance here, in other words, if it all stands the test of time and that aluminum receiver survives the pounding of heavy field loads. If it all works for the long haul, what you have here is a lightweight, yet soft-kicking, affordable (at least in the world of Italian doubles) shotgun that will never wear out and has infinitely adjustable stock options in a genre of guns that generally have to be restocked for a custom fit because of the tangs. The Benelli 828U is an extremely user-friendly gun, plenty light for smaller users and super-easy to break open, with ejectors that won't launch unfired shells into the water behind your duck blind.
Dog Will Hunt
The gun was born and bred for the field, not as a status symbol, as Tom Kaleta, VP of marketing for Benelli USA reminded everyone the night before our hunt. "From the first prototype to the final design, the Benelli 828U started and finished as a hunter's shotgun. The style, weight and comfort that field and sport shooters appreciate [are] apparent the first time you pick one up," he said.
So, how'd it do?
With subzero lows; bitter, knifing winds; and highs around 10 degrees, South Dakota would prove a tough field test. After the first day, most hunters owned up to having an "I'm not sure this is a good idea" moment at dawn when it was almost too cold to hold your gun as we hiked the brush and snow. Then it soared to 10 degrees, the wind lulled, and rigorous slogging bumped up our core temps.
Great numbers of gorgeous plumed-out ringnecks flew from every field, but these super-spooky late-season birds mostly flushed far ahead of the dogs. The hunt, though, like the comfort level and shootability of that new gun in hand, improved as the day wore on. My group of five bird hunters performed a roundup in a vast field of cattails, circling and closing in. My Benelli 828U finally got a chance to speak as a whopper ditch chicken flew skyward and to the left and rolled cleanly at the shot. No birds were missed under 40 yards with the Benelli 828U in my hands, making for an easy limit. It was incredible, despite the low, hard flight of these paranoid ringnecks. There are no pen-raised birds released at Brown's Hunting Ranch near Gettysburg, South Dakota.
One shot in particular revealed how effortlessly the Benelli 828U swings. A hidden ringneck held perfectly for a double point of German Shorthairs like some old magazine cover, something wild birds rarely do, and sprang out going hard to the right. The gun leapt up as I spun to shoot and subconsciously swung through the bird's beak. At the shot, its head floated off in one direction and the body fell whole and clean to the ground, with no meat ruined. It was a little gory, but it's better to shoot too early than too late, right? When you can snap shoot with an unfamiliar gun like that, there is something right in the way it was designed.
Hiking through the snow and brush, we were all grateful to carry such a light and balanced shotgun because the wildly flushing birds ("To your left! Rooster! Rooster! Shoot! Shoot!") seldom gave warning or held for a dog and were tough to hear flushing in the wind. The gun never misfired or failed to eject in the extreme cold.
Most of us prefer innovation to pure tradition in new guns, but the part of us that loves beautiful guns might miss a conventional metal tang running through the grip. Yet you have to recognize the brilliance that enables its absence, which also enables infinite stock adjustability.
You might not be crazy about the gap between those excellent Crio barrels, but you know the lack of side rib saves money; makes the Benelli 828U lighter, faster-cooling and easier to swing; and helps create that perfect dead-center balance point at the hinge, just like that carbon fiber rib. It's not gorgeous, but it adds lightness and interchangeability. Beyond those things, the gun is an absolute looker, 100 percent pure Italian, even in namesake.
It will be fun to see how it fares. Shooters love doubles for their tradition, grace and beauty less than their sheer practicality. So, are there enough shooters looking for doubles who aren't hung up on nostalgic designs? My first impression is that you are either going to love or hate the Benelli 828U based on that dichotomy.
Fortunately for Benelli, its brand following is among the strongest in shooting, and its name alone will drive much interest. There are plenty of shooters who have shot Super Black Eagles their entire lives, the same people who are now entering or exiting middle age and will be curious to try an exciting new product from their favorite gun company.
In any case, it's a safe bet that, just like the Ethos, anyone who takes it out and shoots it will probably love it. Benelli hasn't been around forever, but with guns like Guns & Ammo's 2014 Shotgun of the Year, the Ethos, and now 2015's Benelli 828U, it's pretty easy to see that they probably will be. As light as the 12-gauge Benelli 828U is, I'm especially looking forward to a model with 20-gauge barrels. Now, if Benelli would just make one with two triggers...
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