September 23, 2010
H&R's new semi-auto shotgun "excells" in value and performance
H&R 1871 has introduced the value-priced Excell Auto 5 semi-automatic shotgun. The price point and the quality means a lot more shooters will be able to choose a semi-auto over a pump or single-shot shotgun.
A light, but steady drizzle accentuated the pre-dawn calmness at the little farm pond as I sat waiting for the last shades of gray to give way to the colors of morning and legal shooting time. The welcome barometric low felt positively airless compared to the dry and breezy high-pressure bluebird days we'd had for the past month.
Along with the damp weather, my hopes were high that the front would also bring with it the first wave of migrating ducks and make for a good opening day hunt. Only the spirited whirling of the robotic decoy's wings disturbed the tranquility until, as if on schedule, a pair of mallards pitched in from the west to join our half dozen decoys for the morning social hour.
Scott found the Excell swings smoothly on passing shots but was also responsive enough to poke at quick-moving decoying ducks for successful snap shots.
Photo by Ben Connor
As the pair of ducks crossed the brushy line edging the pond, my hunting partner Ben Connor and I stood, picked our targets, and fired the first of two volleys bringing the brace of birds to the water. It was a new duck season and I was hunting a time-proven place with a familiar friend. I was also using a new gun that has time-proven design features combined into a package that offers hunters a versatile hunting tool at a value price.
Marlin Firearms has made good use of the New England Firearms and H&R 1871 names since acquiring them in 2000. Though there is arguably a lot of product overlap between NEF and H&R, having those different names permits Marlin to offer more distinct product lines. The company is taking particular advantage of that situation when it comes to offering shotguns outside of the break-open, single-shot design for which NEF and H&R are both known.
The combination of the Excell semi-auto and a box of No. 6 bismuth handloads at a local watering hole made sure Maizie got a good workout the first few days of duck season retrieving downed birds.
Photo by Ben Connor
New from NEF comes an expansion of the value-priced "Pardner" line with a variety of pump-action shotguns, and from H&R 1871 comes the new semi-automatic Excell Auto 5. There are all-weather, slug and turkey-specific guns to name just a few of the Pardner and Excell variants. If the sample Excell I received is representative of what H&R is going to deliver, then I expect Excell shotguns to not only turn a few heads on the range and in the field, but to also get the attention of some of the major repeating shotgun manufacturers.
Like many manufacturers of late, Marlin turned to Turkey as the country of origin for its Excell shotgun. Over the past decade and a half, I've personally evaluated Turkish-made shotguns from several importers. Ones imported in the mid-1990s were generally nice looking guns and acceptable in the quality department, but there was room for improvement.
Upon firing, a gas piston impinges against the action bar sleeve that surrounds the magazine tube driving it rearward. The action bar is attached to the sleeve and unlocks the bolt causing the gun to cycle.
Back then, I recall one importer telling me to keep my eye on Turkey in the future as a source for some great guns, and it seems he was right. The recently imported guns I've seen are typically more American in style, which is no doubt the result of the new mindset of importers specifying features they can sell, rather than trying to sell what an offshore manufacturer has to offer. As for quality, it seems as though the Turks understood what needed to be done, and H&R's Excell is a good example.
For instance, a semi-auto similar to the Excell that I tested in 1998 (from a different Turkish manufacturer than H&R is using) had hand-cut checkering complete with overruns and flat points. Rather than make that same mistake, H&R has the Excell's checkering laser-cut so there are no slips of the checkering tool. Mechanically, the Excell also has visible improvements. While that earlier semi-auto had its action bar connected to the action bar support by simply fitting into a notch, the Excell has that plus an action bar retaining spring to practically eliminate any possibility of the bar popping out from the support during cycling. On the Excell there is also the addition of a nylon recoil buffer to help reduce wear and tear on the gun.
Another thing I've noticed on Turkish-made guns is that there is a lot of borrowing in design and styling. What Turkish guns may lack in originality, they make up for by combining the best features from different makers. On the Excell, the profile of the receiver is reminiscent of a Franchi while the svelte forearm reminds me of sleek Beretta shotguns.
The gas piston is easily reversed for light or heavy loads. Installation is made idiot-proof thanks to the ingenious arrow stamped into the piston and action bar sleeve. Simply complete arrow using either the "light" or "heavy" point.
Operation is by way of a gas system popular with the Turks whether the gun is an H&R Excell from Sarsilmaz, an EAA Bunda by Seritsan, or a Charles Daly Superior from Akkar. All of those makers use some variation of the same system theme that bleeds gas through two ports at the barrel's mid-point, which then impinges on a piston. The piston moves rearward, and transfers its momentum to the action bar support to which the single, dual-arm action bar is attached. Movement of the action bar tips a large, single locking block into or out of a corresponding cutout in t
he barrel extension to lock or unlock the gun. The innovative distinction on the Excell's variation is a reversible piston that lets the user adjust the gas system to optimize reliability for firing light or heavy loads.
Since the invention of the 3 1/2-inch 12-gauge shell, a lot of fuss has been made about shotguns that can shoot any shell without the need for adjustment. The Excell handles any 2 3/4-inch or 3-inch shell, and personally, I don't have a problem with changing the Excell's piston for different loads. I really don't envision myself ever changing loads in the field, and would point out that changing the friction ring arrangement has served happy owners of Browning Auto 5 shotguns for generations with no complaints.
Gas is bled through two holes in the gas cylinder at about the mid-point of the barrel. Adjustment for optimal functioning with light or heavy loads is by reversing the gas piston (l.). A simple rubber O-ring seals the gas system at the front. Though much maligned, O-rings actually hold up well over time and with use (r.).
Compared to the Browning friction ring arrangement, though, the Excell's piston adjustment is positively idiot-proof. The piston is stamped "LIGHT" and "HEAVY" with the pointy ends of arrows indicating the proper orientation of the piston for the respective load. Whether to point the arrow toward the muzzle or toward the receiver is answered by the rear half of the arrow being stamped on the Excell's action bar support. Simply complete the arrow using the pointy end that says "LIGHT," and you're set up for light loads; complete the arrow using the pointy end that says "HEAVY," and you're good to go with the heaviest 3-inch turkey or steel shot loads.
In the duck blind, I had the piston oriented for light loads. It was early in the season and I expected the birds to come into the decoys without much hesitation and present close-range shots. For a load, I selected a handload using Activ hulls, SR4756 powder and 1 1/4 ounce of No. 6 bismuth in a BP12 wad with a BPGS gas seal at about 1,280 fps.
The steel locking block locks into a matching cutout in the top of the barrel extension. The ejector is a small steel hook staked into the rear of the extension.
The shot column height was adjusted for perfect crimps using one 1/8-inch cork and one 1/8-inch felt spacer inside the shot cup and the shot was buffered to reduce the chance of pellet cracks during initial pellet setback. I had hand slit the wads with three evenly spaced slits all the way down to the felt wad so that when fired through the Excell's improved cylinder choke tube, patterns were dense, evenly distributed and covered a large amount of the airspace in front of the blind. This load has proven to be a really good performer for me, and it was no exception in the Excell. Within 45 minutes or so, Ben and I had our limits of four mallard each, and had fired a combined total of about 12 shots.
During cycling, gas causes the piston assembly to compress. A return spring coiled around the magazine tube closes the action while a nylon recoil buffer reduces wear and tear on the gun.
This is a very nice handling shotgun. The black anodized aluminum receiver is lightweight providing for a good balance and the forearm is easy to grasp and swing. With the 28-inch ventilated barrel, I found the Excell smooth when sustaining a lead on the occasional passing duck, but also lively enough for when a small flock appeared from behind or out of nowhere and presented only a snap-shot opportunity.
The only difficulty I had with the gun was that it ordinarily has a capacity of five rounds so I had to install the magazine plug to be legal for waterfowl. I initially managed to install the plug backward, which had the effect of limiting magazine capacity to one making the Excell a two-shot shotgun. Once I realized the error, it was a simple matter to reverse the plug to put the magazine capacity at two.
The Excell comes with four choke tubes and will accept any chokes with American standard 32 threads-per-inch threading.
Another thing I noted while in the blind was that the drizzle kept the gun wet so I made a mental note to check the end grain of the American walnut stock when I got home to see if it was sealed. It doesn't appear sealed, so shooters who regularly subject their shotguns to wet conditions may want to consider the synthetic version of the Excell, or take a minute to seal the end grain with clear sealant.
Other than that, the only potential weak links I could perceive in the Excell are the requisite rubber O-ring in the gas system, and the staked in ejector. My wife still has the same O-ring in her Remington 1100 LT as the day I bought it for her. It gets a lot of use, and hasn't had a problem, so perhaps an O-ring in the gas system is not the weak link some folks make it out to be. As for the ejector, I've seen them held in with a lot less (or nothing at all) on other guns.
Four stock shims come with the Excell allowing its owner to adjust the stock so that the Excell puts its patterns exactly where the shooter wants them.
In addition to being a well-made and attractive shotgun, the Excell offers a couple of notable features I personally wouldn't expect in a value-priced gun. First, is the inclusion of four choke tubes: improved cylinder, modified, improved modified and full. Both the IC and Mod tubes are rated for steel shot. I'm glad and a little surprised to see the improved modified tube. It's a personal favorite choke of mine, and not what you typically find in the standard assortment of tubes that come with a gun. I like IM for pass shooting waterfowl, but since using this one or the full choke with steel shot voids the H&R warranty, an aftermarket tube is in order. H&R notes in its manual that the "barrel is threaded to accept any chokes with American standard 32 threads-per-inch threading."
The second surprising feature was the set of four stock shims for adjusting t
he Excell so that it hits where you point it. If you have a shotgun that came with stock shims and haven't used them, take the time to pattern your gun with the different shims. You'll find one that when you mount and fire your gun in one fluid motion, will put your pattern right where you want it. Shims are like having your own personal stock fitter, and shooting a gun that fits means more hits.
Offering the Excell as part of the H&R line at a value price will have the effect of more budget-conscious shooters choosing an otherwise unapproachable semi-auto instead of a pump or single-shot shotgun. When shopping in the value price bracket, it can't be overemphasized that there is some junk out there, so such a purchase should be approached with a little trepidation.
Recoil on the Excell is mild, and is further mitigated by a generous ventilated rubber recoil pad.
Value-price consumers need to take the extra effort to research a purchase and resist impulse buying. That said, I'm convinced that the low cost of the Excell is purely a function of low labor cost, and not low quality. Its design is time-tested, the workmanship excellent, and the quality of the parts very high. So long as it is cared for and not abused, this shotgun should not only serve its owner well, but also outlast him.