The name Benelli is synonymous with reliability. My M1 Field, bought 15 years ago, has churned through thousands upon thousands of rounds and withstood filthy hunting conditions and a consistent lack of cleaning that only a lazy gun writer can inflict. It has failed to cycle only twice in all the years I have owned it.
Payton Miller of Guns & Ammo has a similar vintage M1. It has not been subjected to as much field filth and is a far sight more cared for, but it has had about 10 times more rounds through it. According to Payton, he has owned it for 13 years and has shot trap and skeet with it regularly for the whole time. By his own count, he's put tens of thousands of rounds through it, and it has never failed to cycle. Never!
So when you have created something that works — and works so well — what's left to improve? That was my first thought when Benelli unveiled its newest shotgun, the ETHOS, during a recent press junket. As I was to learn, in a quest for absolute perfection, Benelli decided it could improve on a few things.
The Easy Locking System
"Have you ever had your M1 come out of battery?" the Benelli folks asked before they began a 56-page PowerPoint presentation on the ETHOS. Well, yes, as a matter of fact I had. If you can find a hiccup in the Benelli inertia-driven system it is the possibility that it may come out of battery — hit the bolt with your hand or set the gun down too hard on the butt, and the bolt can disengage from battery, thereby stopping the gun from firing. It is something I learned early on, and like all Benelli users, I regularly check to make sure the bolt is engaged. Checking has become a habit.
"When you load your M1, do you slam the bolt closed?" we were asked. Of course I do. Like most autoloaders, when the gun is loaded, the bolt needs to slam home to engage. If the bolt is slowly ridden home, it may not engage, and the result will be the same as if it came out of battery — a nonfiring gun.
"Well, neither is an issue anymore on the ETHOS," we were told as Benelli's shiny new gun was passed around.
Called the Easy Locking System, which enhances the Dynamic Inertia Drive System, Benelli slightly changed the bolt body on the ETHOS and added a detent mechanism that allows the bolt to engage when closed slowly as well as to reengage itself if it comes out of battery. To demonstrate this feature, the bolt was closed slowly, and at the moment where normally the bolt would hang up just out of battery, it rotated clockwise and locked into the receiver. It's a pretty slick system and a major improvement on a nearly perfect design. The Benelli folks had my attention.
The Progressive Comfort System
Next to the new easy-locking action, the stock on the ETHOS is the most notable difference from previous Benelli shotguns. It melds gorgeous AA-Grade walnut with a recoil-absorbing technology usually found only on synthetic Benelli models. Benelli calls it the Progressive Comfort System, and it has some very unique traits.
To begin with, the soft rubber buttpads are interchangeable to adjust the length of pull from 13.8 inches to 15 inches. The comb of the stock also features a soft rubber interchangeable insert for adjusting comb height and reducing felt recoil imparted to the cheek and vibration to the inner ear. Only Benelli offers this system on wood stocks.
In addition, the Progressive Comfort System incorporates more than just a replaceable buttpad; it has a series of flexible synthetic "fingers" inside the stock that compress at a variable rate, depending upon the load, so the pad absorbs recoil regardless if the load is a 2.75-inch light, 2.75-inch magnum, or 3-inch magnum. Unobtrusive, lightweight, aesthetically pleasing, greater recoil reduction, reduced muzzle climb€¦what's not to like?
The Easy Loading System
To be completely honest, I was a bit skeptical when I heard about the Easy Loading System. Essentially, it consists of a two-part carrier latch, a beveled loading port, and a redesigned carrier. I have done similar treatments on my 3-Gun competition shotguns, but I wasn't sure it would make much of a difference on a bird gun. I was wrong. It's a small thing, but after a day of shooting, especially on high-volume targets like doves or pigeons, you notice that your hands are still comfortable. On many shotguns after a day of shooting, your fingers will be sore from loading, your thumb may be raw and red, and more than likely you will have a blood blister somewhere from getting pinched. After I spent days shooting the ETHOS, my hands felt like they hadn't loaded a shell.
With this new 12-gauge autoloader, Benelli refines a proven platform and creates a shotgun that may put your old favorite in the corner.
The ETHOS Progressive Comfort System melds beautiful walnut wood with an advanced recoil-absorption system previously only available on synthetic stocks.
The ETHOS uses a carbon-fiber rib that is easy to change if the shooter so desires, plus the fiber-optic front bead is interchangeable. The gun comes with C, IC, M, IM, and F Crio chokes.
Here is where performance, practicality, and looks combine. Instead of using a traditional blued-steel vent rib soldered on the barrel, the ETHOS incorporates an interchangeable carbon-fiber rib. This allows the user to do a couple of things. If you want to change the rib height, it is easy to do. If you damage the rib, it is easy to replace (not the case with metal ribs). And best of all the carbon is far lighter, adding to the overall dainty feel of the gun. Each ETHOS comes with three high-visibility fiber-optic beads (red, green, yellow), so shooters can change out colors to fit the conditions. Plus, no tools are required to make the change.
The Rest of the Story
The ETHOS incorporates a host of small but important new features that make this gun stand out — the antiseize magazine cap, for example. Essentially, Benelli inserted a synthetic bushing into the cap to prevent it from seizing under harsh environmental conditions. It's a little thing that comes in handy when the gun needs to be taken apart after a particularly dirty or wet hunt. The easy-access cartridge drop lever and enlarged bolt release fall into this same category. The cartridge drop lever has a redesigned, more ergonomic shape with a slight outward angle, and the bolt release is larger. The old styles work just fine, but the new ones work better, especially if you are wearing shooting gloves.
Proof in the Pudding
To test the ETHOS we headed to my old stomping grounds in the Orange Free State of South Africa. We hunted with Grassland Safaris owned and operated by Carel Coetzer and his wife, Carine.
It's a small world. I met the Coetzers 20 years ago while they were visiting the States and learned of their incredible wingshooting. Everything they said about their property is absolutely true.
I have done quite a bit of wingshooting across Africa, and for the most part it is all good. But it was exceptional on the Coetzers' property. While I was prepared for the diversity (doves, pigeons, seven varieties of waterfowl, francolin, and guinea fowl), I was not prepared for the high volume of shooting.
While not as fast and furious as dove shooting in Argentina, it was close, and the conditions were quite a bit tougher on the guns. It was an ideal place to test the ETHOS. Over the course of a week, 14 shooters fired nearly 17,000 rounds — mainly light 7/8-ounce dove loads, but also enough 1.25-ounce heavy loads (for guinea fowl) thrown in to complete the test. We walked cornfields for guineas, sat along tree rows for doves, and waited in blinds in plowed dirt fields for pigeons.
The walking guinea shoot was just like pheasant hunting in South Dakota. It was an easy place to catch a bolt handle on a cornstalk and yank the gun out of battery. Numerous times we had to open the bolts to cross a fence and reload on the other side — never once did any of the actions fail to automatically return to battery.
On the dove shoot, we tested the Easy Load System and the ability to cycle even the lightest loads, burning through thousands of rounds of light 7/8-ounce loads in the course of a day. The light loads cycled flawlessly, and everyone commented on how easy the ETHOS was to load.
During the pigeon hunt, we faced some of the most grueling conditions I have ever seen anywhere. The wind was howling, and the fine dust from the plowed fields coated every surface of the guns — inside and out. The "grit test," as we soon began calling it, should have been enough to stop up any gun, and if it had, we would have forgiven it. But the ETHOS just kept chugging through the cases of shells. After all the smoke cleared, with a massive pile of spent hulls around my blind and a tiny pile of pigeons (can you even call less than a baker's dozen of pigeons a pile?), I was grinning from ear to ear. I had nothing to be proud of — my shooting on pigeons was embarrassing. It wasn't the gun — it was me, not to mention the 60-yard birds cruising in the high wind. I had a ball anyway.
The ETHOS passed all the tests with flying colors. It was a real pleasure to shoot, and recoil was nearly nonexistent. That final day's shooting was pleasure mixed with a bit of sorrow as I knew my M1 was going to be relegated to the gun safe because the new ETHOS was just that much better.
To check out the Benelli ETHOS in action, check out a first-look video at the range.