What are the best semi-auto shotguns?
In the world of scatterguns, doubles are steeped in tradition, pumps very rugged and reliable, but the fact is that semi-auto shotguns are best. If that is, you pick one up that’s built to perform.
The technology and engineering that powers semi-autos have never been better, so prior concerns about reliability and performance are just that — a thing of the past. Today’s semi-auto shotguns are both dependable and practical firearms — and often will give you the best experience regardless of the kind of shooting you might want to do.
Some shooting sports don’t allow them due to tradition, but the truth is no other shotgun system provides you with the speed, reliability, and performance of a semi-auto.
Be it home defense, hunting, or shooting sports — a quality repeater just gets the job done better than other options.
Quick List: The Best Semi-Auto Shotguns
Stoeger M3000 & M3500
Stoeger, part of the Benelli/Beretta family of brands, quietly turns out some magnificent guns from its Turkish factories for a working man’s price point. The M3000 and M3500 are 3-inch and 3-½ inch guns that use a simplified version of the Benelli inertia action system.
If you want to go down in bore size, the M3020 is the 20-gauge version.
Both are offered in several configurations – hunting models and tactical models with and without pistol grips, extended magazine tubes, and shorter stocks/barrels – so there’s something for almost anyone here. Black synthetic or walnut stocks — even carbon steel — whatever your preference is.
These guns are quietly regarded as some of the best workhorse shotguns you can get for the price point.
Mossberg 940 JM Pro
If there’s a better “gamer” shotgun out there…tell us. This is Jerry Miculek’s signature semi-auto shotgun from Mossberg, and it is feature-packed.
The 940 JM Pro is available in 4+1 or 9+1 configuration, with 3-inch chambers. It’s only offered in 12-gauge, but frankly, it’s so soft-shooting that you’ll barely notice with target loads. It comes with a synthetic stock and a fiber optic front bead sight, in either matte blue or black multicam.
Other features include an oversized charging handle and shell ejector, flared ejection port, an adjustable length-of-pull kit (with spacers and buttpad), and a Briley set of interchangeable chokes.
Owning one won’t make you shoot like Jerry, but you aren’t going to find an out-of-the-box semi-auto shotgun that makes it anywhere as easy as the 940 JM Pro shoot fast.
Benelli Super Black Eagle 2
The Benelli Super Black Eagle — or SBE — brought inertia systems from obscurity into the mainstream. In 1980, nobody used inertia action systems. Today, the SBE is one of the standards by which semi-autos are judged.
The third iteration – the Super Black Eagle III – has all the refinements that make a Benelli a Benelli.
A smooth, reliable inertia system inside a trim, lightweight receiver; a near-perfect field shotgun for any purpose are available in multiple finishes and configurations, 12- or 20-gauge, and in both 3- and 3-½ chambers.
Benelli cryogenically treats the barrels, making them exceptionally long-lasting. SBEs are known for long life cycles and excellent ergonomics, and a crisp trigger second to none. A fiber optic front sight is included, along with three flush-fit and two extended chokes.
The privilege comes a bit dear, to be sure, but chances are you’ll only ever have to buy one.
Beretta 1301 Tactical OD Green Shotgun
Beretta has a long-standing relationship with Ernest Langdon, a national champion USPSA and IDPA shooter and gunsmith. While known for his utter wizardry with the 92 and PX4 series of pistols, he’s now offering an upgrade package for the Beretta 1301, Beretta’s combat shotgun.
The 1301 is a gas-operated semi-auto 12-gauge with a 3-inch chamber. It’s rugged &reliable, but Langdon adds some critical improvements over the base model.
A Magpul shotgun stock replaces the standard synthetic stock. Magpul’s Zhukov forend (typically for Yugo-pattern AKs) is added and incorporates M-Lok slots for attaching a light, sling or other accessories, Nordic Components magazine extension.
An enlarged safety button, shell release and charging handle are added as well for more straightforward operation. You can also choose to add an Aridus mount for a red dot and an Aridus side saddle shell holder.
The Landgon Elite 92 series of pistols is thought of as the perfection of the 92 series of guns. The LTT 1301 is arguably the same for the fighting shotgun.
The Benelli M4 is the modern combat shotgun. If you want a gun for home defense or 3 Gun (or both) and demand no less than the best, here it is. The M4 is the scattergun of choice for John Wick, the US Marine Corps, and many other noteworthy combat operators.
The M4 uses a dual-piston gas-operated system rather than the SBE’s inertia system, which makes it a little softer shooting when you up the load to buckshot or slug. Available in 12-gauge, with a 3-inch chamber, the standard barrel length is 18 inches, with a 5+1 capacity.
Like the Benelli M2 and M3 before it, the receiver’s top offers up a Picatinny rail if you want to attach an optic or red dot. Iron sights are a ghost ring rear and black front blade. Sling mounting rings are located on the stock and attached to the magazine tube.
The M4 is a proven combat shotgun, and while they come dearly, “better” doesn’t exist off the shelf when it comes to the tactical shotgun segment.
What’s old is new again, and Browning’s resurrected Auto 5 — now dubbed the Browning A5 — improves the breed by adding their Kinematic Drive (they call it “short recoil”, but it’s an inertia system) to make it a bit less load-sensitive.
The A5 has the Auto 5’s trademark humpback receiver, which gives it a classic shape and gorgeous lines. The revised internals make the gun simpler, smoother and more reliable than the original ever was. It also comes with a 100,000-round, 5-year warranty; that’s how confident Browning is in these guns.
Multiple finishes and furniture choices are available, including blued steel and walnut or camo and synthetic—all models ship with three Invector interchangeable choke tubes and a fiber optic front sight.
You have your choice across most models of 26-, 28-, and 30-inch barrels and 3- or 3-½” chambers. However, 12-gauge is the only choice outside of a single model. Part of the model lineup is a return of the Sweet 16, a 16-gauge echoing the Auto 5 Sweet Sixteen of so many years ago.
When he developed the original Auto 5, John Moses Browning made the semi-auto shotgun reliable, popular and attainable. The A5 is, by all accounts, a very worthy successor.
Why a semi-auto?
Reasons number 1, 2, and 3.
If you want more than two rounds on board (unlike doubles) and don’t want to worry about cycling the action between shots, you want a semi-auto shotgun.
They’re better in a defensive scenario because less reloading and faster follow-up shots make the user more combat-effective. An M1 Garand in the hands of a fresh American recruit was more effective than a K98 wielded by any German soldier — the semi-auto action of the Garand proved to be a decisive factor in any and every engagement.
In a hunting context, almost all state regulations limit you to three rounds in the tube, but the faster follow-up shots of a semi-auto can make the difference between filling a tag and being left with little more than a campfire story.
Anyone who’s hunted with any firearm, let alone shotguns, knows that sometimes a second shot is required. Few hunting experiences are as aggravating as watching a trophy tom get up after being knocked down only to scamper away when you realize you forgot to rack the pump.
Do we all want the first shot to be perfectly placed? Of course — but follow-ups happen. Semi-autos eliminate any delay in the follow-up shot and don’t require you to compensate the way an offset SxS does.
In the shooting sports such as 3 Gun or clays, the same holds – faster follow-up, more shells in the gun.
How does it work?
Essentially, all semi-auto shotguns break down into one of three classes: gas-operated, recoil-operated, and inertia-operated.
Here’s a brief rundown of each.
Recoil operation uses recoil energy from the projectile leaving the barrel to propel the gun’s bolt backward. This can be further divided into short recoil and long recoil; the difference is that the barrel itself moves in long recoil operation.
Recoil-operated shotguns are exemplified by the original Browning Auto 5, which is (some would say sadly) no longer in production.
Gas-operated shotguns (and indeed, gas-operated semi-automatic firearms as a class) divert exhaust gases created by the burning powder from the fired round from the barrel to (usually) a piston system, which propels the bolt backward.
The bolt on these “gas guns” is shoved rearward by the gas pressure, which compresses a recoil spring. The spring pushes the bolt forward at full compression, chambering the next round, pushing it into battery, and closing the action.
In shotguns, the recoil spring of a gas-operated semi-auto sits around the magazine tube. If you take off the forend, you’ll see a collar at the front of the tube, connected to the bolt (in the receiver) by action bars.
Of course, this action system’s granddaddy is the Remington 1100, which some would contend is pretty much when semi-auto shotguns peaked.
Inertia-operated shotguns are a little more novel.
The bolt, which is connected to a plunger that extends into the stock, has a two-piece assembly with a spring inside it that’s compressed when the bolt is in battery. The spring in the bolt assembly delays bolt travel just long enough for all gases to be expelled out the barrel.
When the bolt does begin to move, it’s doing so through sheer inertia rather than direct propulsion backward. When the bolt travels, the plunger compresses a recoil spring until it’s sent forward, and the bolt returns to battery.
Today, gas-operated is the most common semi-auto action, with inertia-operated bringing up the rear.
Semi-auto operating system: benefits (and shortcomings)
The benefit of semi-auto shotguns is faster follow-up shots, increased capacity compared to doubles, and a bit of extra weight to dampen recoil.
Granted, anyone who’s fired a 3- or 3-½ inch shell full of high-speed #2 has quickly learned they don’t dampen it very much, but the potential is there — regardless of whether your shoulder agrees with your decision.
That said, any semi-automatic system – shotgun or otherwise – relies on the harmony of the recoil management system and the forces applied to it to balance the action’s components and cycle of the gun smoothly and reliably. This proved tricky when semi-autos first came on the scene.
If the recoil spring is too light, heavy loads cause malfunctions or the internals get battered. Too heavy and light loads will cause failures to cycle. Therefore, a semi-auto shotgun is going to be more ammunition sensitive than pump-action or SxS alternatives. How sensitive depends on the gun’s design.
Anything can be tuned, after all.
That’s why most inertia shotguns have a recoil spacer for shooting light loads, and gas-operated shotguns typically come with light and heavy piston heads for balance.
Gas-operated shotguns will require more frequent cleaning, given the exhaust gases (and associated carbon fouling) enter the chamber to cycle the action. They have more moving parts, and more frequent cleaning is also required to ensure proper lubrication.
Inertia guns are more sensitive to rough handling as the bolt has to travel straight back to unlock and begin cycling, much like how a semi-auto pistol has to be held firmly to prevent malfunctions due to limp wristing.
Due to having fewer moving parts and needing less frequent maintenance and less lubrication, inertia shotguns tend – though they don’t always – to be a bit more reliable, especially if hunting in frigid weather.
However, fewer moving parts mean less mass in the receiver and more kick, all being equal.
Deeply experienced shotgun experts, such as Field and Stream’s Phil Bourjaily, contend that while gas guns shoot a little smoother and a little softer, the differences are minor until you’re shooting on the margins — such as a lightweight inertia shotgun loaded with weighty loads.
We've got a semi-auto for that
Just as with any kind of firearm, to choose the best semi-auto shotgun for your needs and desires, you first need to determine how you’ll use it.
There are semi-auto scatterguns for every purpose and to suit every possible aesthetic and budget. Some are configurable for various uses, like swapping your longer hunting barrel for a tactical home defense option or adding a magazine extension when you need the extra firepower and removing it afterwards. Switching between wood stocks, synthetic stocks, and adjustable-length stocks is an option when you need it.
If Phil Bourjaily’s take hold’s any water with you (and it should), a gas gun is excellent for high volume shooting but turn to an inertia gun when you need your weapon to run no matter what Mother Nature has in store.
That said, plenty of people have put inertia guns through heavy firing schedules with no problem, and plenty of people have taken gas guns into the field in below zero weather with no issues at all.
It’s always best to try a few out and see what works best for you — where you live and for your intentions — and go from there. Everything else is essentially speculation.
With that said, let’s run down the six best semi-auto shotguns you can get for any purpose. We’ll cover multiple types of each that are an excellent choice of semi-auto shotgun for a particular niche.
You might wonder a few things about semi-auto shotguns compared to pump-action shotguns and doubles. Let’s go over a few common ones.
How reliable are semi-auto shotguns?
Reliability in shotguns is relative, as it is with any firearm, but semi-autos specifically can be a little more sensitive to ammunition. Gas-operated shotguns require maintenance for best results, or they can become prone to feeding and cycling issues and increased cold sensitivity.
Well-made and well-maintained semi-autos are incredibly reliable. Gas-operated semi-autos can run very well in the cold if you use a dry lubricant or use a gun grease with a lower flow point (lowest temperature for optimal lubricity) for better operation.
Are semi-auto shotguns worth it?
If you’re only firing a few shots here and there with no real-time stress – meaning you’re not doing it on the clock in competition shooting or needing to put a second shot on game animals – then arguably not.
However, when fast follow-up shots are needed, or you’re trying to win a 3 Gun match, few investments are more worth it.
Is it legal to own semi-automatic shotguns?
In every jurisdiction in America, owning a basic semi-auto shotgun – including many of those listed here – is perfectly legal. However, a model with an adjustable or folding stock or a pistol grip can run afoul in states with assault weapon laws, as are barrels less than 16 inches in length.
So check your state regs.
Magazine-fed semi-auto shotguns, such as AR-12s, Saigas and other AK-pattern shotguns are much more likely to be prohibited in such states. The typical semi-auto, as a common type of sporting gun, is generally safe everywhere.
The semi-auto shotguns listed here cover pretty much every base imaginable for a semi-auto shotgun and every purpose you might have for one, from hunting to sporting clays to defense and all points in between.
The semi-automatic shotgun is arguably the perfection of the gun as a firearm. It is more effective in the field. Modern semi-auto shotguns are faster and just as reliable as many pump-action shotguns.
True, the price tag can be daunting, but you don’t have to spend that much more. And if you use it, you’ll get every penny out of your investment.
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