A few years ago, having been really good, I rewarded myself with a semiauto shotgun for Christmas. Not that I don’t appreciate socks and sweaters, but that gun made a really thoughtful gift. I can make followup shots and shoot doubles much more easily with a semiauto than I can with a pump gun, even though I used to shoot pumps a lot.

You, too, may have been really good this year, or perhaps someone on your Christmas list has. A semiauto shotgun represents an upgrade from a pump if your interest in shotgunning is primarily hunting or clay target shooting. It’s the choice for serious three-gun competition, and you shouldn’t rule it out as a home-defense gun, either.

Modern semiautomatic shotguns are extremely reliable, and, unlike a pump gun, they can’t be short-stroked under stress. The Marines use a semiauto as their main combat shotgun, which speaks strongly for its dependability.

Finally, gas semiautos make great guns for new or recoil-sensitive shooters.

Semiautos have come a long way since the days when they were known as “jam-a-matics” to many. New guns cycle with clock-like regularity with a wider range of ammunition than ever before. Here are a few things to consider if you’re thinking about putting a semiauto under the tree:

Choosing a Semi-Auto Shotgun

The Remington V3 Field and Sport model.
The Remington V3 Field and Sport model.mfg photo

Your main decisions in choosing a semiauto shotgun revolve around price, action type, and whether—if you’re buying a 12 gauge—you want a 3 or 3-1/2 inch chamber. Here are some thoughts to guide you.

Buy the Best You Can Afford

Most people start their search for anything with a price tag in mind. And, looking at the $2,000 price of top-of-the-line guns can give you severe sticker shock. Don’t fret. There are some very good values around in the $550-$650 range, and if you can live without a 3-1/2 inch chamber (more on this in a bit), you can buy all the semiautos you’ll ever need for $800-$900.

However, a semiauto that hangs up and fails at all the wrong times is no upgrade from a cheap, but reliable, pump gun. Buy the best gun you can afford. There’s no guarantee that a more expensive gun won’t have problems, but you’re taking your chances when you scrimp on a semiauto.

Action

Semiautomatic shotguns have been around since 1900, when John Browning patented the Auto 5. Other designs have since surpassed the Auto 5's long recoil action, in which the barrel and bolt traveled backward together about three inches before the bolt stopped briefly while the barrel rebounded, ejecting the old shell and chambering a new one.

Today, semiautos fall mainly into two types: gas and inertia guns.

In a gas gun, expanding gases from the fired shell bleed out of ports in the barrel underneath the gun's forearm. The gases force a piston linked to the bolt backward, opening the action and ejecting the spent shell.

A spring, usually in the stock, returns the gun to battery, reloading the next shell as the bolt comes forward. Think of it like a little one-cylinder internal combustion engine.

The Winchester Super X3 Compact makes a great youth gun.
The Winchester Super X3 Compact makes a great youth gun.mfg photo

Gas guns have one huge advantage over all other shotguns: reduced felt recoil.

When the gun fires, some of the recoil energy is stored, then released in the moving parts of the gun, which spreads the kick out over a longer period of time, turning it from a sharp blow to a push. For that reason, gas guns are by far the most popular type of semiauto among clay target shooters, who may shoot a few hundred shells in a day.

Likewise, gas guns have a following among hunters who shoot heavy magnum loads for waterfowl, turkeys, and deer. They make great guns for new shooters and anyone who is recoil-sensitive.

Inertia guns, popularized by Italy's Benelli, but now made by several manufacturers, use the gun's recoil to cycle the action. As the gun recoils backward, the "floating" bolt head remains in place, locking the gun tightly until it fires. Then, a spring inside the two-piece bolt throws the bolt backward, ejecting the shell. It picks up a new shell as the action spring pushes the bolt forward.

The advantages of inertia guns are that they shoot cleaner, longer; they require little maintenance; they work well in bad weather, and they are often lighter and slimmer than gas guns. Inertia guns are most popular among hunters, shooters, and 3-gun competitors who prize reliability above all else.

3 or 3 ½-inch?

The two sizes of shells in question side-by-side.
The two sizes of shells in question side-by-side.photo from fieldandstream.com

Twelve gauge guns offer the choice between a 3 and a 3-1/2 inch chamber. Many waterfowl, turkey, and coyote hunters prefer 3-1/2-inch 12 gauge guns because they can fire longer hulls that hold more shot for cleaner long range kills.

A lot of people buy a 3-1/2-inch gun just in case they need that extra capability, but rarely make use of it—instead loading their guns with 2-3/4 and 3-inch shells, which will also, for the most part, function in the longer chamber.

There are some downsides to 3-1/2 inch shotguns, too. A 3-1/2 inch gun usually costs a couple of hundred dollars more than the 3-inch version of the same model and it may be longer and heavier.

Only a few 3-1/2 inch guns—the Beretta A300 and Remington Versa Max are the only two I’m aware of—will cycle with the very lightest target ammo, although most will work with some target loads.

Most 3-inch guns run just fine with very light loads. If you plan to hunt and shoot targets with the same gun and you like shooting low-recoil ammunition as I do, that’s something to consider. For most hunting and all home defense, a 3-inch 12 gauge is completely adequate, and 2-3/4 inch shells are often best.

Semiauto Quirks

The Benelli M2 shotgun.
The Benelli M2 shotgun.mfg photo

Semiautos have their quirks and differences from pump guns. It's nothing difficult, but it’s stuff you need to know.

Feed it Right

Your old pump gun was like a goat. You could feed it anything and it worked just fine. Semiautos can be slightly finicky eaters (not cat-level finicky, as they used to be, but still particular). Very light loads – 7/8 ounce trainers, subsonic rounds like Winchester Feathers, and Aguila MiniShells won’t cycle in many semiautos.

Let the Bolt Slam Shut

You need to let the bolt of an inertia gun slam shut rather than trying to ease it closed, as some hunters do to be stealthy. If it doesn’t seat fully, the gun may not fire.

It is possible, too, to bump an inertia gun’s bolt out of battery, so it pays to double check that it’s fully shut from time to time.

Break it in

Some shooters, and some gun manuals, recommend running 100 or so heavy field loads through a gun to break it in. I find most modern semiautos work function right out of the box, although a few do seem to work better and cycle a wider range of loads after they have been shot for a bit.

Hold it Right

It takes a certain amount of resistance from your shoulder to make a gas gun work properly, and smaller shooters, especially, can have trouble.

If you turn sideways and hold a gas semiauto like a rifle, it may not cycle. I saw that happen with my kids when they were young and weighed 100 pounds, when a gun would cycle for me but not for them. Making sure they held the gun properly solved the problem.

Watch Your Empties

If you take your new gun to the club to shoot trap, you need a shell-catcher (T&S makes some that are brand-specific; Birchwood-Casey offers a universal model that goes on with sticky-tape and folds out of the way when needed), or at the very least put a rubber band around the receiver at the ejection port. Otherwise you risk pelting the shooter next to you with empties, which is bad manners on a trap field.

Pick up your empties after a round of trap or skeet, too. At sporting clays you can usually let them fly without picking them up.

Be Careful in the Cold

Cold weather can turn a semiauto sluggish as the oil thickens. I prefer Breakfree CLP for my guns, but you’ll hear as many opinions on the best lube as there are shooters. What’s most important is to use lube sparingly.

Carrier Release

Some, especially Italian guns and all intertia guns, have a carrier release button near the trigger guard. You have to push it if you want the bolt to remain locked in the open position when you pull it back.

Get the Rings Right

Some older guns —including the still very popular Remington 1100/11-87—feature friction rings (see video below) on the magazine tube as part of their actions. Be sure to put them in per the gun’s manual. Long recoil guns like the Browning Auto 5 have rings that must be set for light or heavy loads. Guns may shoot with rings missing or set up incorrectly, but you risk damaging the gun over time because it will take extra pounding.

Pick a Piston

A few guns come with two gas pistons: one for light loads and one for heavier ones. Make sure you’ve got the right one installed. Your gun will shoot everything with the “light loads” piston installed, but if you shoot the gun a lot with heavy (handicap target or heavy field loads) you risk damaging the gun.

Cleaning

Semiautos require more cleaning than a pump or a break action, although newer guns will run dirty for a long time. Inertia guns, especially, shoot very cleanly. Gas guns require more regular care because they operate by allowing burning gases back into the action.

A friend of mine—son of an artillery officer and therefore raised to be a gun cleaning nut—ran the internal parts of his gas-operated Remington 11-87 through the dishwasher every time he shot it, and he never had a problem.

That works, but it’s not necessary, especially with newer guns. Here’s a schedule of semiauto maintenance:

Every Time

When you come in from shooting or hunting, you should clean the barrel if you fired the gun, and wipe off the outside to protect from rust, just as you do with any gun.

Every Couple Hundred Rounds

Clean off the magazine tube and action parts of a gas gun with a cloth. If need be, fine #00000 grade steel wool will get the burned carbon off a magazine tube and off of pistons and springs.

Clean the barrel, paying extra attention to the chamber. Cruddy chambers can cause malfunctions. Take the bolt and trigger group out per the manual (or Youtube, frankly) wipe them clean and oil them lightly.

One of the best ways to avoid cycling trouble is to lightly (that word again) oil the bolt rails, the tracks on the inside walls of the receiver on which the bolt travels back and forth. Give it a weak spritz of oil, then wipe most of it off with a rag.

Every 1,000 Rounds or So, or At the End of Hunting Season

Semiauto guns need regular, thorough cleanings per the manual. Take the gun apart as far as the manual tells you to. Clean everything thoroughly.

Some parts that get crusted with burnt carbon (gas pistons, especially Beretta gas pistons) are best left in jar of solvent overnight.

Every Several Thousand Rounds

You should clean the gas ports in the barrel every few thousand rounds. On most guns (Remington Versa Max, V3 and Benelli M4 being the exceptions, and those don’t require much port cleaning) you’ll find the ports, usually two holes, in the ring on the barrel. Some people use pipe cleaners. I like a very small drill bit, held in my fingers, for scraping carbon out of ports.

Every 10,000 Rounds, or if Your Gun Took a Soaking,

All semiautos have a return or action spring that drives the bolt forward into battery. A few have that spring on the magazine tube or in the receiver, but most are found inside the buttstock.

If you dunk your gun and water got inside the stock, you need to you need to pull the recoil pad off, undo the stock bolt, take off the stock and take out the recoil spring out of its tube for cleaning and inspection.

Be prepared, it’s a chore—Beretta owners will have to use heat to loosen the Loctite that is put on the tube cap at the factory.

Many shooters believe you should change to a fresh spring (they cost only a few dollars) every 10,000 rounds as preventive maintenance. Otherwise, as springs age, they compress and don’t buffer the bolt’s speed as well as they should.

A Semiauto Wishlist

Here’s a list of semiautos that get my seal of approval.

Great Smallbores

The Weatherby SA-08.
The Weatherby SA-08.mfg photo

The Mossberg SA-20 and SA-28 are light, slim, affordable gas gun in 20 and 28 gauge. Weatherby’s SA-08 is the same gun, available in 20 and also 12 gauge.

Affordable Inertia Guns

The Stoeger 3500.
The Stoeger 3500.mfg photo

The Stoeger 3500 is an unlovely beast of a gun, but at $679 it’s a great buy if you want a 3 ½ inch hunting gun to abuse. Franchi’s 3- and 3 ½ inch sell for hundreds of dollars less than the very similar but pricey semiautos made by its parent company, Benelli.

Youth Guns

The Remington 11-87 Compact.
The Remington 11-87 Compact.mfg photo

A kid will remember that long box under the tree forever. I started my sons with the Remington 11-87 Compact model, which is very soft-recoiling if heavy. Other good gifts include the Weatherby SA-08 Youth model, or, if someone has been extremely good, the pricier Winchester Super X3 Compact.

Entry-Level Auto Loader

The Mossberg 930 Tactical SPX.
The Mossberg 930 Tactical SPX.mfg photo

Mossberg’s 930 looks and feels cheap, and it is, starting at just $560. But, it works, and I find I can shoot one surprisingly well.

All Around Gas Guns

The Beretta A300 Outlander.
The Beretta A300 Outlander.mfg photo

Beretta’s A300 Outlander, Remington’s V3, and Winchester’s Super X4 finish neck-and-neck-and-neck in the “affordable, versatile gas gun” race. All three sell in the $800-$900 range. I often recommend these guns to people looking for a first shotgun.

Tactical Semiautos

The Benelli M4, choice of the USMC.
The Benelli M4, choice of the USMC.mfg photo

The Mossberg 930 gas gun and Benelli’s M2 inertia gun come in tactical versions ready for home defense, and Benelli’s M4, the gas gun chosen as the USMC combat shotgun, is the last word in semiauto tactical guns.

Target Guns

The Beretta A400 Xcel.
The Beretta A400 Xcel.mfg photo

Beretta’s unfailingly reliable, low-maintenance A400 Xcel gas gun with its ugly, I mean distinctive, blue receiver, is the only semiauto serious sporting clays shooters will consider. Remington’s 1100 dominated clay competition for years and is still an excellent choice if you keep it clean.

Value 3 ½-Inch Gun

The Remington Versa Max Sportsman.
The Remington Versa Max Sportsman.mfg photo

Remington’s 3 ½ inch Versa Max is the softest-recoiling gas gun I’m aware of. The stripped-down Sportsman version is the best deal going in a high quality 3 ½ inch gun at $1066.

Flagship Guns

The Browning Maxus Hunter.
The Browning Maxus Hunter.mfg photo

A 3-½ inch gun is the top of the line flagship model of most manufacturer’s lineups. If you want the very best, look to the “B” guns:” Beretta’s A400 Xtreme or Browning’s Maxus, if you like gas guns, or Benelli’s Super Black Eagle 3 if you prefer inertia.