August 05, 2005
Layne thinks the AL 391 semiautomatic might be the best autoloader Beretta has ever built.
Beretta (Dept. ST, 17601 Beretta Dr., Accokeek, MD 20607; 800-797-2205; (www.berettausa.com) has been in business since 1526, but the company did not get around to adding an autoloading shotgun to its line of firearms until a few hundred years later. First to be introduced was the 12-gauge Model 60 in 1956.
At the time the Italian company was manufacturing a semiautomatic military rifle called the BM59, which was basically a copy of America's M1 Garand. Data gathered during the development of the BM59 was used when designing the gas-handling system of the Model 60 shotgun. The Model 60 was quite reliable but rather plain, so Beretta refined it a bit, added a ventilated rib, and, in 1961, renamed it the Model 61. Additional refinements along with improvements in the gas system resulted in the first of the Model A300 series in 1965. As its model designation implied, it was the first Beretta shotgun to have an aluminum receiver. The Model A300 was also the first Beretta autoloader capable of handling both light and heavy 2 3/4-inch shells interchangeably.
Then in 1971 came the first Beretta 20-gauge semiautomatic. Also available in 12 gauge, the A301 went on to become Beretta's most popular shotgun up until that time, and it was eventually available in a number of variations including a 12-gauge slug gun. The A301 Magnum was the first Beretta autoloader capable of handling the 3-inch shell. The A302, which came along in 1980, introduced a magazine cutoff located on the bottom of its forearm and its receiver would handle barrels chambered for 2 3/4-inch and 3-inch shells interchangeably. The A302 also ushered in Mobilchoke, Beretta's first screw-in choke system.
Until 1985 Beretta had built only hunting guns, but during that year the first target guns configured for trap and skeet shooting were introduced. The receiver of the A302 was reshaped a bit to give it a more modern look, and the A303 was born. By pushing out two pins, its trigger could be removed for cleaning and that was its biggest mechanical improvement over the A302. The next variation came along in 1992. Called the A304, it differed mainly from the A303 by relocation of the magazine cutoff to the side of its receiver and by a factory-included spacer system that allowed its owner to easily change the drop and cast of the buttstock.
With a new self-compensating gas system and a safety button capable of being converted for left- or right-hand use by its owner, the A304 became known as the AL390 in 1994. A thinner forearm and stock reduced weight by almost a pound.
What Makes The AL391 So Good
No small number of shotgunners consider the A390 the finest autoloader ever built by Beretta, but though it is a very good shotgun, I believe a further improved version of that gun called the AL391 Urika, which was introduced in 1999, is even better. It may not be better mechanically, but I certainly shoot it better because it feels so much more lively when I shoulder it.
This is mainly due to a forearm that is thinner on the AL391 than on the AL390 as well as a noticeable difference in the shape of its grip. In 1998 I shot sporting clays with the AL391 for the very first time at The Willows clay target complex near Tunica, Mississippi. Then and there I fell in love with the 20-gauge version. In fact, of all the 20-gauge semiautomatic shotguns I have shot through the years only three others perform as well in my hands as the AL391.
Early on, I learned how durable the AL391 is. While at The Willows, nine of us decided to shoot a fast-paced clay target game called the flurry where each shooter can squeeze off upwards of 100 rounds in only a few minutes. Having three 20-gauge AL391s at our disposal, we split up into three-man teams and took turns shooting. As soon as members of one team finished a round they would hand off the empty guns to the next team and they would immediately step forward and start banging away.
We were shooting at such rapid pace that heat migrating from the barrel, through the receiver and into the trigger, would force us to stop shooting. On several occasions we had to set the guns aside long enough for their triggers to cool down a bit. Then it was back to shooting until the triggers again became too hot to touch. In less than a couple of hours we put hundreds upon hundreds of rounds through those three guns without experiencing a single malfunction.
The AL391 has also proven that a shotgun with a modern look will sell like hotcakes to today's hunters and shooters. During its design stages, Beretta enlisted the creative input of Italian industrial designer Giorgetto Giugiaro who is known for his styling work on a number of successful automobiles such as the Lamborghini Miuara and the Volkswagen Golf. My wife Phyllis often accuses me of being a bit too far on the conservative side in my tastes, but I still like the looks of the AL391. Or maybe I shoot it so well I could care less about its racy styling.
Overbored barrels (called Optima-Bore) were introduced to the AL391 in 2001, and about a year later the Xtrema 3.5 version capable of handling the 31/2-inch 12-gauge shell joined the Beretta lineup.
New for 2005 Beretta has replaced the Xtrema 3.5 with the Xtrema2 3.5. I will detail the Xtrema2 3.5 in a future installment, but briefly it has a new redesigned grip and forend, an improved trigger, and a new optional kickoff recoil reduction system that features two hydraulic recoil dampeners incorporated into the stock "spacer" unit. You have a number of options to choose from in the Xtrema2 3.5.
During autumn of 2002 I used one of the first A391 Xtremas to come off the assembly line while hunting near Stuttgart, Arkansas. After a hunt for nonexistent ducks finally ended, Nick Sisley, several other writers, and I subjected seven of the guns to a high-volume test on the local five-stand course. The Xtrema was designed to handle just about any 2 3/4-, 3-, and 3 1/2-inch recipe, ranging from light target loads to shoulder-pounding waterfowl and turkey loads, and it most certainly lived up to its billing.
We had a generous supply of Federal ammo on hand and after shooting up our remaining supply of heavy steel shot loads, we started to work on Gold Medal trap loads with 1 1/8 ounces of No. 7 1/2 shot. Within less than two hours, 3000 empty hulls were resting in the Arkansas mud.
I tried my best to make the gun I was shooting malfunction and even went so far as to put several rounds through it while holding it upside down, right side down, and left side down. It never missed a lick. Two of the other guns had one malfunction each, and those may have been due to shooter error rather than any fault of the guns. This is quite remarkable when you consider that we mostly shot light target loads in guns designed to handle extremely heavy hunting loads.
AL391 variations grow in number like weeds in a vegetable garden. The original field gun with its blued-steel barrel, gold lettering on its receiver, and wood stock is still with us and is probably still the number one seller in the line.
|Model:||AL 391 |
|Operation:||Gas Operated autoloader |
|Gauge:||12 or 20 |
|Barrel Length:||24. 26. 28, 30, 32 in. |
|Overall Length:||51 in. (28-inch barrel) |
|Weight:||5.9 punds (20 gauge); 7.8 (12 gauge Xtrema2) |
|Sights:||Vent rib with TruGlo |
|Stock:||Walnut, synthetic, or X-tra Wood |
|Length of Pull:||14.7 inches |
|Magazine Capacity:||2 (plugged), 3 (unplugged) rounds |
|Finish:||Blued, matte black, camo metal; black, camo, semigloss, oil stock |
|Price:||$1095 - $1895 |
Available in 12 and 20 gauges, it comes with several barrel-length options, including 24 inches for the AL391 Youth. The AL391 is also available with camo finishes from butt to muzzle, and unlike some manufacturers that charge an arm and a leg for that option, it runs anywhere from no charge to four bucks on the AL391.
The field gun is also available with a black synthetic stock, and of all the synthetic shotgun stocks available today, I like this one best because the rubber inserts at its wrist and forearm offer a no-slip grip to slippery hands. Beretta also offers target versions of the wood-stocked gun in sporting and trap configurations, the latter with or without a Monte Carlo-style stock and both available with a 28- or 30-inch barrel.
The big news in 2003 was the AL391 Teknys, a real crowd-stopper at any gun club. I know this to be true because I have been shooting skeet and sporting clays with the 20-gauge version and everybody who sees it wants to shoot it.
The distinctive shape of its nickeled frame gives it a serious look, and anyone who is not familiar with Beretta's X-TRA Wood finish is easily convinced that the stock and forearm on the gun I am shooting started out as AAA-grade walnut blanks costing about twice as much as the price of the gun.
Then when I confess to the eye-popping figure being on the wood rather than in it, nobody believes me. The 20-gauge Teknys weighs around six pounds compared to about a pound more for the 12-gauge version. The interchangeable ventilated rib system of the Teknys Gold clay target gun allows clay target shooters to switch back and forth until they decide which rib makes them break the most targets.
Regardless of which variation or grade you decide to buy, the Beretta you take home will come in a durable plastic storage case along with accessories such as four extra chokes and wrench, quick-detachable sling swivels, a bottle of Beretta oil, and, depending on the model, a spare buttplate or recoil pad. The stocks of all Beretta autoloaders have a cavity for housing an extra-cost, "spring-mass-type" recoil reducer, which adds 8 1/2 ounces to the weight of the gun.
Beretta has most of the lineup covered, but there are three slots I would like to see filled. One is a 20-gauge AL391 turkey gun. Believe it or not, Beretta has never built a 28-gauge autoloader so that option in the AL391 is No. 2 on my list. My third item is a 20-gauge gun built on the 12-gauge AL391 receiver; skeet shooters and the hundreds of sportsmen who venture to Argentina and other places each year for high-volume dove shooting would welcome it with open pocketbooks.
The present 20-gauge AL391 is comfortable to shoot, but the one I am proposing would have it beat. Considering how aggressive Beretta has been in autoloading shotgun development during the past half-century, I won't be surprised to see more than one of the items on my wish list happen before many more hunting seasons have passed.