The difference: We thought follow-up shots with the hard-kicking AL390 were tougher than with the Gold Hunter.
The 20 gauge has long been known as the little brother of the 12-gauge scattergun, and it can be as feisty as any tag-along sibling. The 20-gauge guns that come fitted with 3-inch chambers carry a lot of pop for their diameters, enough to send fast-flying teal, high-honking geese, and decoying mallards to a date with the stewpot. Also, because the 20-gauge shotgun’s receiver can be slimmer and trimmer than the necessarily more massive 12 gauge, a 20 can be a more carryable firearm than a 12, which means a lot when you’re you’re lugging a nylon-mesh sack filled with decoys across a muddy flat or field.
Of the available 20-gauge shotguns, pumps and autoloaders both take their share of the market, with hunters who favor mechanical reliability picking the pumps and waterfowlers who want to take the edge off the 20-gauge magnum shotshell’s recoil opting for the self-loader design. We recently had a chance to examine, pattern-test, and field-test two of the higher-priced guns in the latter category: Browning’s Gold Hunter 20-gauge and the Beretta AL390. We bought the Gold Hunter for $579.87 and the Beretta for $638.87, purchasing both semi-automatics at Carter’s Country in Houston.
The Browning Gold 20 gauge sports 26-inch barrels and ships with three Invector Plus chokes. Likewise, the Beretta A390 comes packaged with Improved Cylinder, Modified, and Full chokes fitting its 26-inch barrel.
We collected data and impressions of the guns on the range and in the field. At the range, we measured their ballistic performance with an Oehler 35P chronograph. We collected the chronograph data by firing 10 shot strings with the muzzle 7 feet from first sky screen. To collect the patterning and point-of-impact data, we shot the guns at a 6-foot by 8-foot target of brown butcher paper. We assessed the gun’s point of impact by having a shooter mount the shotgun and fire a shot at a 1-inch red dot on the paper. We then repeated the process two more times on the same paper to find the center of the pattern and discern where the gun shot. To collect the patterning data, we broke open several shotshells of each brand of ammunition and counted the number of pellets, then averaged the results. We then fired three shots per brand with both the Modified and Improved Cylinder chokes at 40 yards. We counted the pellet holes inside 20- and 30-inch-diameter circles, averaged the results, and calculated the choke percentages and shot distribution on the target quadrants. To see how the guns handled, three shooters fired almost two cases of shells on a five-stand setup, and we abused them during goose and duck hunts to see if they malfunctioned.
After this head-to-head examination, we found we liked the Browning model the best, for reasons we detail below.
Browning Gold Hunter
This 20 gauge carries an MSRP of $699.95, but we bought our sample for $120 less. As we noted earlier, the 20-gauge iteration of the Gold Hunter isn’t as bulky as the 12-gauge product, which we reported on in the February 1997 issue. The 20 gauge weighs 7 pounds 4 ounces to the 12’s 8-pound heft. The 20 is 46.75 inches long with 26-inch barrels, compared to the 12’s 49-inch length when fitted with 28-inch tubes. As a result, this 20 is simply a more nimble package than its bigger brother, in our view. For timber duck shooters in Arkansas and for waterfowl jump shooters, this could be a decided advantage.
The gun had a 14.25-inch length of pull with a 1-inch field pad that offered relief when testing 3-inch magnum loads. Our test gun had no cast, which makes it handle neutrally for left- or right-handed shooters out of the box, but it might be worth putting cast on the stock for some hunters. We thought mounting the Browning was smooth and easy. The slight amount of pitch fit our shooters’ shoulders well, and we were able to make the stock come easily to the face in short order without the muzzle dipping. The rounded top of the rubber buttplate slipped from underneath the shooter’s arm cleanly. With a little practice, we were able to see just the top of the rib, which thanks to its grooved top surface, offered a flat-black sight picture below the white front bead.
In our opinion, the stock’s high-gloss finish was too shiny. We would have preferred a satin finish on the stock and barrels. Nonetheless, the finish showed off the stock’s nicely figured walnut. Cut checkering graced the pistol grip and forend. The barrel was blued steel with a black-anodized aluminum receiver.
This test gun came with 3-inch chambers to handle a wide range of 23/4-inch to 3-inch loads. We tested one 3-inch magnum steel load, one 23/4-inch high brass steel load, and one 23/4-inch target lead load. On the patterning board, the Gold’s Modified choke shot Win-chester’s 3-inch steel shot No. 2s the best, placing 73 percent of the shot inside a 30-inch circle at 40 yards. The IC choke put 63 percent of the steel shot inside the circle at that distance. The Winchester magnum load wasn’t pleasant to shoot in the Browning, but it didn’t slap the shooter’s face like the Beretta did. The literature with the gun said the barrel had been back-bored, and perhaps this combined with the Hunter’s heavier weight tamed its recoil.
The 5.5-pound trigger pull was too heavy, but it was crisp and consistent. The safety, located behind the trigger, is a large triangle-shaped button. It worked stiffly, in our judgment, but we liked its location and size better than the Beretta’s safety. We encountered no misfires with the Browning, but we did have some feeding problems toward the end of our range testing. Shooters noticed the gun wouldn’t accept the third shell into the plugged tubular magazine with the breech closed and one round in the magazine. A shot of spray lubricant fixed the problem, however.
Like the Browning gun, the 20-gauge Beretta AL390 Silver Mallard weighs in lighter than its 12-gauge stablemate, pushing the dial to 6 pounds 14 ounces, just a tad under the 7-pound weight of the 28-inch-barrel 12 gauge.
Though there was a lot to like about the $638.87 gun, certain aspects of its design bothered us. Most noticeable was its stiff recoil. Shooting the Winchester 3-inch magnum steel-shot loads, our testers felt a lot of stock slap on their cheeks and recoil delivered to their shoulders. This was reason enough for us to pick the Browning over the Beretta. However, we must note that the Beretta allows the shooter to change the drop and cast of the buttstock using enclosed parts, which for some shooters could affect how the gun recoils We weren’t able to find a configuration that we liked better than the Browning in terms of recoil reduction, but we recognize that the ability to shape the fit of the stock to the shooter is an advantage. Other helpful features included a shell cut-off switch and a reversible safety for lefties.
The gun has a length of pull of 14 inches, one-half inch of which is a solid-rubber pad. The pistol-grip buttstock drop was 1.3 inches at the comb and 2.5 inches at the heel. The glossy finish showed off the highly selected walnut stock and forend. The barrel had a satin-blued finish and a black-anodized aluminum receiver. The rib measured 0.25 inch wide with no taper and carried a checkered matte finish. A 0.120-inch silver front bead and no mid-rib bead is standard.
The trigger broke between 4 to 4.25 pounds, not too bad for a field gun. The trigger had a crisp release. The push-button safety is located in front of the trigger, but its small size and location make taking it off more difficult than on the Hunter, in our estimation.
This test gun came with 3-inch chambers. On the patterning board, the Beretta Modified choke shot Winchester’s 3-inch steel shot No. 2s the best, placing 70 percent of the shot inside a 30-inch circle at 40 yards. The IC choke put 67 percent of the steel shot inside the circle at the same distance.
Guns, Gear & Game Recommends
• The Browning Gold Hunter 20 gauge has a couple of strikes against it: The trigger is too heavy (which can be fixed), and the finish is too flashy for a hunting gun, in our estimation. However, it has few other bad habits. That we purchased our test sample for $60 less than the Beretta was also a factor in our decision.
• As we noted, the Beretta AL390 is a good shotgun overall, but our shooters thought it punished them more than the Hunter did. In the field that can mean more missed birds because of slow follow-up or flinching.