Prodded, perhaps, by a poor economy, big-name gunmakers are finally offering no-frills base models of their top-of-the-line shotguns for those who want to buy a popular brand but have $1,000 or less to spend.
You can easily drop over $1,800 on a semiautomatic, but you surely aren't paying for hand checkering when you buy a shotgun with a plastic stock. Mostly you are paying for new technology and the years of R&D that went into it. You also pay for extras you may not want or need: camo finishes, recoil-reducing stocks, fiber-optic beads, hard-plastic cases. It's like buying a new car and having no choice but to pony up for the LX version with leather seats and a sunroof when all you want is the base model to get you around.
Now, those base models are available for a real-world price of around $1,000--or much less--listed here from least to most bang for the buck:
Benelli Synthetic Stock Montefeltro
New for 2013, and replacing the discontinued M2 American, this 3-inch gun weighs less than 7 pounds in 12-gauge. The Synthetic Montefeltro is the lower-cost alternative to the regular M2, which gives you Benelli's vibration-dampened ComforTech stock with the extra-soft pad and comb insert. In black, that gun sells for $1,359. This gun, with a black stock and a regular recoil pad, lists for $1,139. It comes in a 12-gauge, 26-inch-barreled version only. Benelliusa.com
You'll save: $220.
You'll miss: ComforTech stock, front sling swivel stud.
Good riddance to: Extra 3 ounces of weight.
Verdict: No ComforTech means a little more recoil. To paraphrase Dirty Harry: "For $220, let it hurt."
Winchester Super X3 Black Shadow
Winchester created the Black Shadow by stripping down the now discontinued Super X3 Composite, which had cost $1,199. Gone is the Dura-Touch finish on stock and fore-end, the rust-resistant Permakote finish on the steel, a nickel-plated bolt, and $200 from the price tag. It's now a bare-bones 12- or 20-gauge, with a 28- or 26-inch barrel in all black for $999. The 31⁄2-inch 12-gauge costs $1,069. Winchesterguns.com
You'll save: $200.
You'll miss: The rust-resistant barrel finish and nickel-plated bolt.
Good riddance to: Dura-Touch finish. It works, but I always feel like washing my hands after I touch it.
Verdict: This one has the most features of any base model. You get the shims and spacers other manufacturers reserve for their deluxe models. And the 31⁄2 costs only another $70. So you spend a little more time wiping down the barrel to keep rust spots away. Cleaning guns is good for you.
Remington Versa Max Sportsman
This gas-operated gun uses a chamber with seven ports that allows it to cycle everything from very light 7⁄8-ounce target loads to 31⁄2-inch shells, all with astonishingly low recoil, thanks to its gas system and 73⁄4-pound weight. I shot a ton of hard-kicking HyperSonic ammo through one on an Alberta waterfowl hunt, an ordeal that would have been unbearably painful with any other semiauto. The Versa Max rarely needs to be cleaned and takes practically no time when it does, although it is the one semiauto that requires a tool to take down.
The first-string Versa Max sells for $1,399 in black. The second-string Sportsman, in black, costs $1,025. It comes in a 26- or 28-inch-barreled version with a single Modified choke, or a turkey version with a 22-inch barrel and an X-full choke. Remington.com
You'll save: $374.
You'll miss: Four choke tubes, shim and length-of-pull kits, soft comb.
Good riddance to: Worthless hard case, ugly overmolded grips, unnecessary HiViz bead.
Verdict: If it fits you out of the box, grab it. Spend some of the dollars you save on another choke or two.
Beretta A300 Outlander
This is a redesigned 391, a great gun that now represents the previous generation of Beretta technology with the introduction of the new A400. The A300 does have an improved piston and exhaust valve design, making it easier to clean. I hunted late-season pheasants several times with the A300 and loved it. My A300 test gun weighs 7 pounds 5 ounces, but it is balanced so well it feels lighter.
The A300 comes in 3-inch 12-gauge with a 28-inch barrel. Cost in black synthetic is $725. It includes length spacers and a shim kit. Berettausa.com
You'll save: $380.
You'll miss: Overbored Optima choke system, two choke tubes, easy-change Gel-Tek pad.
Good riddance to: Worthless case, hard-to-clean piston and exhaust valve, extra 5 ounces.
Verdict: You can get two of these for the price of a single top-of-the-line semiauto. What are you waiting for?