As a hunter when you walk the 12.5 miles of aisles of the National Shooting Sports Federation (NSSF) SHOT Show it becomes clear pretty quickly that you’re in the minority. Though this is the single largest gathering of shooting, hunting and outdoor gear in the world with over 1600 exhibitors, more than half serve the tactical/ military/ law enforcement market.
There’s really not that much time to explore this tactical gear, and most doesn’t translate to bird hunting. But it has been clear for a while that the tactical wing of the industry is where the bulk of innovation happens in the outdoor business.
En route to the bird hunting gear I cast longing glances at the rows of black rifles, lasers, optics, super light composites, rugged construction. I’ve got gear envy. The operators get all the cool bells and whistles as bird hunting guns languish in repackaging and dressing up ideas that have been around for decades. How many ways can a recoil reduction system be designed and still be called innovative?
But this year at the clay range I was immediately drawn to the UTS-15 from UTAS who bills it as the ultimate tactical shotgun (starting MSRP $1,250). It’s a 12 gauge pump that looks like it came right out of the video game Halo.
On the range the UTS-15 was fitted with a suppressor and a red ring reticle optic mounted to the picatinny rail. By looks it should weigh a ton yet it comes in right around seven pounds and is lighter in hand than many trap guns. Dual seven round feed magazines actually rest atop the barrel, a bewildering configuration for one accustomed to the standard pump design of the last century. With a selector switch for left, right or alternating magazine feed, the potential to load two different shells and select the appropriate shot for the game at hand exists if adept enough with the unorthodox action. The UTS-15 is outfitted with AR style safety, polymer stock, matte finishes, optional flashlight/laser; truly everything you would expect from a tactical shotgun. They even make magazine plugs for hunting scenarios that require such a buzzkill.
Now I’ll be honest, this gun doesn’t have much place in upland bird hunting. When we get right down to it, I couldn’t hit the broad side of a clay looking through that reticle regardless how cool the shot picture. But I’m not sure there is a funner, faster way to burn a box of shells than this UTS-15 outfitted with a suppressor. The idea of slinging one on and hitting the pheasant fields of South Dakota is hard to resist. The Pheasant Terminator. But it won’t change the three bird limit and the dozen shells that go unspent.
This brings me to the Benelli 828U which was just a couple shooting stations down the line (starting MSRP $2,500). Probably best known for their autoloaders, Benelli introduced their first entry into the double barrel market. The fish scaling on the stock and receiver in place of traditional checkering is the first indicator that Benelli has decided to go about this double in a different way.
In hand it feels like most other field doubles, 12 gauge weighing in at 6.5 pounds. But break open the action, you start noticing this isn’t just a dressed up O/U. There’s a steel plate in the receiver that Benelli has designed as a breech block that locks to the back of the barrels when the action closes. The theory is all shot pressure is thereby contained in the barrels preventing any stress on receiver parts. Wear on receivers and hinge pins is normally only a concern for professional clay shooters and the 828U is billed as a field gun. I suspect this feature has the attention of some on the trap range and may foreshadow Benelli’s future plans.
The easily removable trigger group also hints of design from a professional clay shooting approach. Just a single pin holds the trigger assembly in the action. Benelli believes this will increase reliability. It will be interesting to see the practical application when a trigger assembly offers a much easier access point for dirt and grime from the field. It’s not often in standard field doubles that one needs to clean trigger assemblies. This feature definitely makes cleaning the trigger assembly much easier, but will it also necessitate frequent cleaning? The only way to find out is hike a couple hundred miles with it.
The top opening lever on the 828U cocks/ resets the triggers instead of the normal opening of the action. Maybe the coolest new feature is adjustable break-open tension which will allow the shooter to choose whether the action drops open like butter, or needs a little ‘umph’ behind it depending on preference. This is to be a set it and forget it feature, never breaking-in or changing over time. It will take a few thousand rounds of convincing, but I do like an action that is smooth but not free.
Benelli’s marketing folks even got innovative when they tapped a couple of deer hunters to promote the new double. Hopefully this effort will spawn a legion of archery hunters to evacuate tree stands, get a bird dog and ‘Crush’ some exercise in pursuit of birds.
Regardless whether the aesthetics of these two shotguns appeal to your bird hunting sensibilities, both these manufacturers are making an effort to be different, to improve, to innovate. The trickle down effect from tactical may actually be making its way over to bird hunters. I think that’s exciting for the future of field guns. Light resilient materials, improved ergonomics, quieter shotguns…. what’s not to like? Now if only my inner skeptic would allow me to fall in love with untested design. Because in the end the classic upland double is classic for a reason.