October 17, 2022
By David Draper
As my friends marched across a small stand of corn stubble, I followed my lab through the marshy bottoms bordering the field, hoping to push any skittish, late-season pheasants their way. As it turns out, they flushed a wild rooster that caught the wind and angled toward me. The shot would be a long one—50 yards or better—but I didn’t hesitate. This time of year you take what’s given. I pushed the muzzle across the fast-flying bird, made some space between its beak and the barrel and pulled the trigger. As the bird fell stone dead to the ground, my buddies roared their approval from the adjoining field. It was only when I glanced down at the shotgun did I remember I wasn’t carrying my usual 12-gauge upland gun. No, this was a downsized version of Benelli’s Super Black Eagle 3, chambered in the diminutive, yet surprisingly deadly, 28 gauge.
Rise of the 28
Sub-gauge shotguns, and particularly those chambered in 28 gauge, have risen in popularity in recent years. While afficionados will claim the 28 holds some kind of mystical ability to punch above its weight class, the reality of the situation is smaller-gauge autoloading shotguns recoil less. And for modern hunters—whether that’s an older upland hunter tired after a lifetime of taking a 12-gauge pounding or one of the new generation of young or female shotgunners—recoil, or lack thereof, is an important part of the argument supporting the movement to lighter-kicking guns.
That lack of recoil, and the fact a sub-gauge shotgun built on an appropriate frame is lighter and easier to carry, creates a more effective hunter, one that is likely to shoot better at the moment of truth. It’s not a coincidence the rise of the 28 gauge has matched in lockstep with the exploding popularity of the 6.5 Creedmoor—American hunters want easier-shooting options, whether it’s for birds or big game.
I will give those 28-gauge fanatics some credit. The round can be deadly, as evidenced by my miracle shot on that South Dakota pheasant. Much of that can be attributed to recent improvements in shotshells, from new wad designs to buffered bismuth. My long-range rooster fell to a 1 1/16-ounce load of No. 5 lead shot from Fiocchi’s fan-favorite Golden Pheasant line. Many ammo manufacturers are now loading 3-inch, 28-gauge offerings, including non-toxic shot, which has given the 28 gauge a growing following among duck hunters gunning greenheads in timber and other tight quarters.
Legacy of the Super Black Eagle
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the introduction of the original Super Black Eagle, which quickly became the shotgun of choice for waterfowlers around the country. The reliability of its inertia-driven action, and ability to accept the then-still-new 3 ½-inch magnum 12-gauge shotshell, won over thousands of fans in duck blinds and goose fields around the country. Over the years, Benelli has tweaked a few things to make the Super Black Eagle even more reliable and, even more importantly, easier on the shoulder—which the original model was most definitely not.
The most recent iteration, the Super Black Eagle 3, was unveiled in 2021 to rave reviews. As they’d been doing for years, Benelli’s engineers took a good thing and made it better. The updated Comfortech 3 stock greatly mitigates recoil by absorbing the blow and dispersing the force through multiple chevrons placed along the buttstock. I first tested the original Comfortech stock on a Benelli Ethos years ago, and was so impressed, it became my go-to shotgun for stout pheasant loads. A new Combtech cheek pad also cushions the blow by moving additional recoil down and away from the face.
Of course, in the 28-gauge version, all this recoil-reduction technology is really an afterthought. Yes, it’s nice to have, but even without it, the lightweight shotgun wouldn’t give shooters much more than an easy push. During my pheasant hunt, and subsequent testing on the range, I barely even registered the SBE3’s recoil pulse, but I did immediately notice I was much quicker on my followup shots as secondary target acquisition was fast and easy.
As for the action, the inertia-system has been so finely tuned over the years that it would be hard to make it any better. Benelli did make some tweaks a few years back when they first launched the Ethos. Most notably, the company perfected the lock-up system, so the bolt head rotates into battery, reducing the chance of a misfire. Much like the original 12-gauge Super Black Eagle was built to accept 3 ½-inch shotshells, the new 28-gauge version is designed to accommodate both 2 ¾- and 3-inch rounds. That makes the new subgauge SBE3 even more versatile on the range, in the field and in the duck blind.
Fast in the Field
One thing I was expecting from such a small shotgun, with a heavy bolt-mechanism that slides into the stock to drive the action, was some whippiness or difficulty controlling the lightweight barrel throughout the swing. Surprisingly, that wasn’t the case. The SBE3’s Crio-treated, 26-inch barrel swung as smooth as a hot knife through butter, sliding across the targets without wavering or jerking. In short, the designers got the balance just right on the sub-gauge frame, giving the shotgun a natural feel in the hands from the very first shot. I’d be interested in how an extra two inches would affect that balance on models fitted with a 28-inch barrel. Note, both barrel lengths do have a carbon-fiber rib which contributes little additional weight to the front of the gun.
Because of the Benelli’s light overall weight (just 5 ½ pounds unloaded), carrying the gun on long days in the field was pleasant, with none of the sluggish shouldering that I often fight later in the afternoon. The 28-gauge SBE3 was lively, jumping to the shoulder instinctively at the first hint of a pheasant’s flush.
Designed for Ducks
Despite all this talk of the Benelli’s ability in the uplands, what I’m most excited about is taking it to the duck blind later this fall. And obviously I’m not the only one who sees the 28-gauge as an ideal choice for waterfowling. For the initial launch, Benelli has no plans to offer the sub-gauge SBE3 in a classic, woodgrain stocked version. Instead, we get the choice of black synthetic or three duck-centric camo patterns: Gore Optifade Timber, Realtree Max-5 or Mossy Oak Bottomlands. This obviously isn’t intended to be an heirloom upland gun. It’s designed to get dirty and do serious work in the swamp.
Most of the water I hunt is small: meandering sloughs and tiny creeks, overgrown with willows, Russian olives and cattails. It makes for some fun gunning, with ducks dropping through the surrounding cottonwoods right into close-range situations—perfect for sub-gauge shotguns. In recent years I’ve been carrying a 16-gauge and have found bismuth loads to be lead-like in the deadliness. Buffered bismuth loads from Winchester, Federal’s non-toxic options and bismuth and TSS loads from small, boutique manufacturers like Boss and Apex have proven more-than-effective on everything from plump, late-season mallards to close-decoying Canadas. I would expect similar performance from the 28-gauge, though I would keep it to headshots on the honkers.
Other field-friendly features include oversized bolt handle and bolt-release button, larger trigger guard to accommodate glove-covered fingers and a bigger, beveled loading port on the bottom of the action. In the polymer hard case, Benelli includes a shim kit for stock adjustment, three standard chokes (cylinder, improved-modified and full) and two extended chokes (improved-cylinder and modified).
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