MY FIRST ENCOUNTER with non-toxic shot was more than 50 years ago. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service was running a test hunt on Bosque del Apache wildlife preserve in southern New Mexico, and a limited number of hunters were allowed to try their luck on Canada geese.
You had to enter a lottery at 5 a.m., and the lucky winners were issued five rounds of steel shot ammunition. These were, if I recall, loaded in Federal paper cases and roll-crimped. Hunters were then ushered off to blinds, where they’d target the huge flocks of Canadas until noon.
I drew a permit, but my father did not, and so I was teamed up with another father-son duo.
I’m sure the man looked at an underfed teenager armed with a 1930s single-shot and didn’t expect much. I missed four times and was glumly awaiting the long ride home when a single goose floated in to land. “Get ’im!” the man said, and I loosed my last shell in the bird’s general direction.
Miraculously, one magic steel BB hit the honker exactly in the elbow, and it crashed to earth, running in circles, squawking loudly. “Grab him!” I was ordered, and clambered out of the blind to gave chase.
It was nip and tuck who would win the ensuing brawl. I eventually returned victorious, but hardly impressed by the performance of steel shot. No one else was either, but soon enough non-toxic shot eventually was decreed throughout the land.
For a fleeting moment in the 1980s, it was thought the answer to steel shot’s shortcomings was the 10-gauge. I attended a Remington writer event where we were introduced to the SP-10, Big Green’s update of the Ithaca Mag-10, and, since the seminar was in the fall, we tested them on tower pheasants. The results were hard, to say the least, on the pen-raised birds.
The 10-gauge renaissance was not to be. Winchester and Mossberg shortly came up with the 3.-inch 12 gauge. It allowed manufacturers to adapt existing 12-gauge shotguns, but shooting the guns of the time with the loads of the time was a truly grim task.
I’m not sure the 3.-inch 12 would have succeeded had we been limited to the first generation of guns like the Mossberg 835 and assorted doubles. What really made it go was the arrival of the Benelli Super Black Eagle (SBE), a gun that made shooting the 3.-inch far more bearable, if not pleasant.
The Benelli inertia recoil system made scaling up to the 3.-inch 12 a lot easier than working out a new gas system, though there are plenty of purists who prefer the more progressive recoil of a gas gun to the snappier kick of the Benelli.
While developments in guns kept coming, those who refused just to get used to steel shot came up with non-toxic alternatives that more closely replicated the classic lead loads of the pre-steel era.
Bismuth shot was originated for those who wanted to shoot their Parkers and A.H. Fox doubles that would suffer barrel damage if fired with steel shot. It was followed by tungsten-matrix ammo that also provided ballistics more like lead.
These exotic shot materials cost more than steel. Consulting brownells.com, a box of 20-gauge Browning BXD steel loads costs $19.99. A box of Kent Tungsten Matrix 20s cools in at $32.99. But some savvy waterfowlers are starting to make the calculation that, given today’s bag limits, a combination of non-steel ammo and a 20-gauge can make sense.
One could quite logically question the need for a 20-gauge Super Black Eagle. Benelli has, after all, 20-gauge versions of the Ethos, the M2, Montefeltro, Ultra Light and Nova.
None of those have exactly the feature set and looks of the SBE, and I suspect the target audience for the new 20-gauge SBE 3 is existing owners who want to try small-gauge waterfowling with a familiar gun.
A lot of the visible features of the SBE 3 are related to recoil reduction, and they are carried forward in the 20-gauge, even though kick is comparatively minuscule.
The Comfort Tech system is easily identified by the row of rubber chevrons extending from the heel of the stock to the base of the pistol grip. These, and the surface of the injection-molded buttstock itself, flex during firing to absorb recoil. Benelli has now offered this system for 13 years, and it seems to be durable, though purists may object to the look of it.
“Combtech” is the name of the very thick, soft rubber cheekpiece that helps keep your face from getting a whack when you fire. The buttstock has a molded-in sling swivel loop (the front sling swivel goes in the face of the magazine cap), and the pistol grip is generously covered with molded stippling to give you a secure grasp in any weather.
The SBE 3 in 20 gauge is provided with the usual shims and plates for adjusting cast and drop, which can be regulated in 5mm (.2 inch) intervals between 50mm (~2 inches) to 65mm (~2. inches). I recommend you put these to use with testing at the pattern board before you ever so much as shoot at a clay target. Proper buttstock adjustment can make all the difference in your shooting results, as you will see shortly.
The triggerguard is distinctively angular, with a shape that gives you plenty of room for a heavily gloved trigger finger. There’s a dished-out area at the right front the gives that same gloved finger good access to the shell drop tab.
Benelli shotguns broadly come in two receiver configurations: one-piece, all-aluminum; and two-piece, with an aluminum upper and a steel cover. The two-piece arrangement is noticeable on the Ethos, where the shiny blued cover contrasts with the coin-finished lower. It’s hardly detectable in the SBE 3, which is finished in matte black or a selection of camouflage patterns, including Realtree Max-5, Gore Optifade Timber, and Mossy Oak Bottomland.
Benelli has spent considerable effort configuring the receiver bottom to allow smooth loading. There’s a visible upward curve in front of the triggerguard the makes it easy to slide fresh rounds into the tubular magazine. If you’ve ever had to load a Browning Auto-5 in fast firing, you’ll appreciate the difference.
The sort of buyer who will order a 20-gauge SBE 3 will be fully familiar with the Benelli operating system, but we always should keep in mind that the ranks of new gun owners are growing daily.
An industry acquaintance recently told me he took orders for 19,000 home-defense pump guns in two days, and some percentage of those will come to be lifelong shotgun enthusiasts. For them, here’s a brief primer on inertia operation. The rest of you can skip forward a few paragraphs.
The inertia operating system, once exclusive to Benelli but now used by other makers, is unusually simple. It uses a two-lobed bolt head that locks into the barrel extension. On firing, the shotgun begins to move rearward. The relatively heavy bolt carrier initially resists this motion, compressing a heavy spring between itself and the bolt head. The compressed spring then throws the bolt carrier rearward.
A pin in the bolt head engages a curved track in the carrier, rotating the bolt head out of engagement with the barrel extension. The bolt assembly is then free to recoil rearward, ejecting the empty.
A return spring in the buttstock then pushes forward on the bolt assembly, which picks up a shell from the magazine, chambering it as the bolt head rotates to lock again to the barrel extension.
This system has several advantages. It requires few moving parts. Because locking is between the barrel extension and bolt head rather than between the bolt and receiver, aluminum is just fine for the receiver. This is in contrast to a tilting block system such as, say, the Remington 1100 that calls for a steel receiver.
The system works the same for most (though, as we shall see, not all) sorts of ammunition, and requires no sort of compensation or adjustment for lighter or heavier loads.
Because there are no moving parts extending between receiver and forend-like operating rods, and no piston or cylinder is required, the forend can be slim and won’t get hot during firing.
The disadvantage? A distinctive snappy recoil that doesn’t bother most people a bit, but some find annoying. The whole purpose of including the Comfort Tech system is to appease the latter group.
The other Benelli feature that requires some explanation for those looking to step up from something like a Turkish pump gun is the shell stop system. This is actuated by the chrome tab with the red dot at the right front of the triggerguard.
Assuming you can see the tab, you will notice that the bolt will not latch open when you retract it. Press the tab and then retract the bolt. It will lock in conventional fashion. Press the bolt release at the right front of the receiver and the bolt will close, pressing the tab out once again.
This system controls the ejection of shells from the magazine and lets you eject a shell without another passing out of the magazine. This makes it easy to safely cross a fence or board a boat without having to unload the magazine. You also can easily eject a shell and replace it with another. Once you get used to it, this is a handy system, but you also can pretty much ignore it if you choose.
The barrel measured .622 inch in internal diameter, a bit more than the nominal .615 inch. Benelli barrels and choke tubes are cryogenically treated by freezing them to -300Åã F. This relieves stresses induced during hammer forging and provides a slick bore surface for reduced cleaning.
The barrel is topped by a .22-inch stepped rib with a .118-inch diameter LPA red fiber optic. There is no middle bead.
The SBE 3 is supplied with improved cylinder, modified and full choke tubes. These are 3. inches long with a knurled extended portion that will come in handy for changing tubes if you’re on a combo duck and quail shoot.
Content courtesy of Outdoor Sportsman's Group