November 08, 2010
By J. Guthrie
Benelli jumps on the bandwagon with a tactical carbine. But this one is different...
By J. Guthrie
Benelli USA has always been a company that marched to the beat of its own drum. Its revolutionary shotguns are like no other and are as innovative as they are tough and reliable. So it should come as no surprise that when Benelli decided to get into the tactical/home-defense carbine market, it would not be with an AR clone.
Yet, while it is certainly not a clone, the MR1 was not built from scratch either. It utilizes Benelli's proven auto regulating gas operated (ARGO) action that first appeared in 1998 when several samples were submitted to the boys at Aberdeen Proving Ground to compete for the Joint Service Combat Shotgun contract. The M1014 beat out other numerous competitors by passing some nasty endurance testing. The shotgun was able to fire 25,000 rounds without replacing any major parts and an average of 2,500 rounds without any failures to function. Known in the civilian world as the Benelli M4 Super 90, it quickly became a favorite of those who could afford it and has seen extensive use in the hands of our dear friends in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Engineers soon modified the action to handle higher cartridge pressures and along came the centerfire R1 in 2003. The rifle has interesting lines and evidently, since it is still in Benelli's catalog, is selling enough to stay viable. It has a real following in Europe, according to company officials, where shooting multiple shots at driven game is a common occurrence.
The rear aperture sight is windage and elevation adjustable and probably a bit small for CQB work.
In 2004 Beretta, Benelli's parent company, borrowed the ARGO action for its short-lived Rx4 Storm. The carbine was designed specifically for military and law enforcement applications but never made it to market. Beretta has since moved on, but Benelli decided to revisit the concept and introduced the MR1 officially at this year's SHOT Show.
While inertia-driven guns are Benelli's bread and butter, it is gas that powers the ARGO action and all four aforementioned shotguns and rifles. We are accustomed to seeing the port near the muzzle end in most gas guns and all sorts of complicated linkage parts between it and the bolt, but not so with the ARGO. The MR1's gas port taps propellant gases just 4 inches away from the chamber. Using high-pressure gas helps to ensure reliable cycling and reduces ammunition sensitivity. The M4/M1014 is a darling of the Corps and law enforcement because it reliably functions with 2¾- and 3-inch loads. Only super low-pressure nonlethal rounds must be cycled manually.
The MR1 uses a modified M4 stock that is comfortable, functional, and robust. A soft, tacky recoil pad helps reduce the .223's recoil to almost nothing.
The rifle--much like an AR--is split into upper and lower receivers when disassembled. The MR1's aluminum-alloy lower holds the trigger group, fire controls, and most of the operating system. The button-rifled barrel is threaded into the upper receiver, and the bolt rides in a carrier with a long operating rod attached to its rear.
The front sight post is well protected by two wings molded into the fore-end.
When fired, high-pressure gas is bled into a sturdy expansion chamber/gas block that wraps around the rifle barrel. The block is held in place with a large, staked nut. Additionally, two tabs match cuts in a shoulder machined into the barrel profile to keep the block from rotating out of spec. The gas impinges on a stainless-steel piston that rides on an inline shaft protruding from the front of the lower receiver. That piston pushes on a second, lobed piston, and those lobes match two small transfer rods that impinge on the bolt carrier. A recoil spring contained in the buttstock returns the bolt carrier home and holds things in place. The ARGO system vents excess gases through a release valve that is pointed away from the shooter and contained under the wrap-around fore-end. The bolt looks very much like those found in the shotgun line. It has three locking lugs, a big extractor, and a plunger-style ejector.
If the ARGO system sounds complicated, it is not, and that simplicity--a design philosophy found in all Benelli guns--is what makes the action beautiful. To start, there are very few parts, and only a few of those parts actually move. The design is self cleaning, self regulating, and can be taken apart for maintenance and cleaning in a few seconds without tools. All the piston parts are captured on the inline shaft. Once the upper and lower receivers are separated, removing the charging handle frees the bolt carrier group for cleaning.
While I had shot the M4 Super 90 on several occasions, my most serious examination of the ARGO system came shortly after the R1's introduction. The rifle's appearance coincided with the introduction of Federal's low-recoil ammunition. Some co-workers, Benelli representatives, and I made our way to a big South Texas ranch with a handful of R1s and several cases of ammo to cull whitetail does, pigs, and coyotes. I was greatly impressed by the R1's accuracy and the fact that it could handle any kind of ammo--full power and reduced recoil--without cycling problems.
A Pure Defensive Carbine
Quite a few years later, I opened a Benelli box and picked up the R1's little brother for the first time. While the receiver and trigger guard share similar lines and utilize the same operating system, that is where similarities between the R1 and MR1 end. The R1 is all hunting rifle, and the MR1 is a pure defensive carbine. Engineers designed the MR1 around the .223 cartridge and scaled down nearly every part, so there is no interchangeability between the two rifles.
The gas block is mounted on the barrel and directs gas downwards to the twin-piston sys
tem. The ARGO system is proven and first debuted on the M1014 shotgun.
Benelli fans will immediately recognize the M4 stock, which was modified--no interchangeability here either--to fit. The beefy grip has a tacky, rubber overmold that will allow shooters to maintain a solid grip despite any amount of mud or blood. While the length of pull might look slightly long, it measures around 14 inches and fits the majority of shooters. The drop is perfect for the stock ghost-ring sights and a touch high for low-mounted, micro optics like the Trijicon RMR, InSight Technologies MRDS, and Aimpoint Micro. Taller optics, such as EOTechs, ACOGs, and full-size Aimpoints, will require a head-up posture that takes some getting used to.
The MR1's bolt release sits in front of the crossbolt safety and is pushed up to lock the bolt to the rear. Pulling the wedge downward releases the bolt.
The fore-end fills the hand and keeps delicate digits off a hot barrel but is a little on the slick side. Benelli could fix the problem with an overmold to match the pistol grip or some molded-in checkering. Homeowners can steal a few strips of skateboard tape from the kids to make the fore-end bite back. Another fix is the ever-popular vertical foregrip. Benelli makes a bolt-on, tri-rail attachment that also allows the mounting of lights and lasers at the 3- and 9-o'clock positions.
A nut cinches down the fore-end against the receiver, covering up the piston system. A spring-loaded detent pin in the fore-end locks the nut in place and is also used to disassemble the piston system.
The fire controls are simple and ambidextrous, though quite unlike others on more common tactical rifles. Well, almost ambidextrous--the crossbolt safety at the front of the trigger guard is set up for right-handed shooters. The bolt release is close by, at the front of the trigger guard. Pushing upwards on the polymer wedge will hold the bolt open and pulling down on the tab releases it. Two large, textured magazine release buttons sit on the magazine well and are pressed inwards to drop the magazine.
Speaking of mags, the MR1 is serendipitously compatible with standard AR magazines. Though it probably took a lot of effort in terms of engineering, this was a smart, smart move on Benelli's part, considering the number of magazines already on the market. A polymer magazine well is pinned onto the lower and has a really nice rounded surface should you like gripping the magazine/mag well when firing. The gun is shipped with a little, five-round magazine that sits flush with the magazine well and is great for bench shooting and little else, other than complying with stupid gun laws in some states. I used standard, 30-round aluminum GI-issue mags with no problems. My favorite plastic AR replacement part of late, the Magpul PMAG, was a little sticky and would not drop free but functioned just fine.
The bolt and bolt carrier are very similar to those found in Benelli's excellent shotguns. A massive extractor and chrome-lined chamber make for reliable function.
|BENELLI MR1 ACCURACY|
|100-Yard Accuracy (Inches)|
|Factory Load||Group 1||Group 2||Group 3||Average|
|Winchester 40-gr. JHP|| 1.66 || 2.15 ||2.11|| 1.97 |
|Black Hills 50-gr. V-Max|| 1.48 || 1.32 || 1.33 || 1.38 |
|Black Hills 52-gr. Match HP|| 1.26 || 1.29 || 1.38 || 1.31 |
|Hornady 55-gr. V-Max|| 0.87 || 1.22 || 1.01 || 1.03 |
|Remington 55-gr. AccuTip-V|| 1.66 || 1.49 || 1.58 || 1.58 |
|WARNING: The loads shown here are safe only in the guns for which they were developed. Neither the author nor InterMedia Outdoors, Inc. assumes any liability for accidents or injury resulting from the use or misuse of this data. NOTES: Accuracy is the average of three, five-shot groups fired from a benchrest. A Leupold Mark 4 2-8X 36mm MR/T scope and a LaRue mount were installed for the accuracy testing.|
The MR1 was an accurate carbine, as these 100-yard groups attest. The 1:9 twist is well-suited for .223 bullets in the 40- to 62-grain range.
A Real-World Appraisal
I kept the MR1 for nearly three months, shooting it on a half-dozen occasions and handling it quite a lot during writing breaks. At first I had some big reservations, most notably that, with the exception of the safety, none of the controls could be reached by the firing/strong hand. Keeping your hand on the pistol grip when manipulating firing
controls or changing magazines is a cardinal rule taught in the majority of shooting classes I have attended. Most of those classes, obviously, are centered around the AR-15. My hands are best described as average, and I could not reach the magazine release or manipulate the bolt release with my firing/strong hand. This is not an uncommon occurrence, and I have experienced similar challenges with other rifles like the AK-47, M1A, and FAL.
The solution is to run the controls with the weak hand, and the manual of arms works pretty well with some practice. Instead of dropping the magazine with the firing-hand index finger while drawing a fresh magazine from a vest pouch with the supporting hand, I simply picked up a fresh magazine and punched the left-hand release button with my supporting-hand thumb. After locking the fresh magazine in place, I "ripped" the bolt release downwards, pinching the release between my thumb and index finger. While this magazine change technique is nowhere near as fast or as smooth as an AR magazine change, it is almost as fast as an AK mag change and probably faster than the M1A and FAL, depending on how many thousands of times the shooter practiced the maneuver.
Comparisons to the AR are inevitable and warranted, since Stoner's design sits atop the tactical/carbine heap in terms of numbers deployed and ease of use. One of the big reasons the AR is so liked is the ability to run the rifle with the supporting hand and the economy of motion it takes to accomplish things like magazine changes and clearing stoppages. I run an optic on all of my CQB rifles and love not having to reach over the glass or under the magazine to grab a charging handle. In most home-defense situations, magazine changes are unlikely unless it has really hit the fan, but rectifying stoppages is not. Most instructors teach an immediate transition to your sidearm, which makes sense standing on a range wearing your pants and a holster. At home responding to a threat will likely be done in skivvies and little else, leaving very few places to hang a sidearm. Wearing a drop rig to bed chafes and tends to cut down on snuggling.
A five-round magazine comes standard and is great for bench work. The MR1 accepts standard AR-15 magazines, and it's worth obtaining a couple for the additional capacity offered.
But putting several hundred rounds of all types of ammo through the MR1 resulted in zero stoppages. The rifle has a chrome-lined chamber--the bore is not for some reason--to improve reliability. Like the M1014 and R1, the rifle ran like a top and was very soft shooting. The combination of a recoil-pad-equipped stock, sticky pistol grip and fore-end, and magazine well free of sharp edges combined to make the MR1 very comfortable and controllable. It is compact and fast handling, especially when using the magazine well/magazine as a grip for the support hand. The other hold that worked pretty well was wrapping the support hand completely around the fore-end, using the molded-in wings that protect the front sight as a thumb stop. It looks pretty unconventional but gives a tremendous level of control. (I mounted an MRDS mini-dot sight, and it is just high enough so that the thumb does not interfere with the sight picture. Iron sight lovers will have to come up with another arrangement.)
|Manufacturer:||Benelli USA, 800-264-4962, www.benelliusa.com|
|Type:||Gas-operated, short-stroke piston repeater|
|Magazine Capacity||Any standard AR-15 Magazine|
|Barrel:||16 in.; rifling: 1:9 twist|
|Overall Length:||37.1 in.|
|Weight, empty:||7.9 lbs.|
|Stock:||Synthetic, M4-type with rubber overmold pistol grip and soft rubber buttpad|
|Length of Pull:||14 in.|
|Sights:||Windage and elevation adjustable rear aperture; fixed front post; Picatinny rail for optics|
|Trigger:||6 lbs., 3 oz. pull (as tested), single stage|
It seems the MR1's trigger received some attention and was an improvement over the long, spongy R1 trigger I squeezed so often in Texas years before. There is a slight amount of takeup before a crisp break. It averages 6 pounds, 3 ounces.
Some may take issue with the barrel's 1:9 twist rate since a 1:7 twist is better for stabilizing the longer, heavier long-range bullets of 69 and 77 grains so commonly in use today. I think the slower rate is actually better, considering the carbine is strictly a self-defense/home-defense carbine. Having conducted my own barrier tests, I lean towards frangible 45- to 55-grain bullets because they deliver a lot of energy to the fight but are less likely to over penetrate.
All things considered, the MR1 is a viable option for home defense. With an MSRP of $1,300, the MR1 is an expensive rifle that needs a fore-end upgrade to mount a weapons light, which is a necessary, essential home-defense accessory. But the price is certainly in line with other high-end tactical carbines. Other accessories like stocks, bipod mounts, and rails found on so many ARs are not an option for the MR1, but they're not necessary for a home-d
efense rifle. My limited 500-round test proved that the MR1 is utterly reliable with any of the various ammo types and bullet weights.
When considering the now long list of rifles that would make excellent home-defense carbines, the new Benelli MR1 certainly warrants a close look.