WHAT AM I DOING?
I couldn’t shake the thought as I turned the truck into a remote parking lot at the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport. The trees on the boulevard showed early October color. At that time of the year, precious hours out of the office are to be spent with the dogs hunting partridge and woodcock. Instead, I was about to get on a plane, fly through the night to Amsterdam and then on to Milan, Italy.
Why? To witness the unveiling of Beretta’s extremely well-kept secret—something it was calling “The Green Monster of Technology,” and teasing with a scaled dinosaur foot in its online ads. I was anxious to see this new shotgun and honored to be one of just five American writers invited to the press event, but even so I kept thinking, Why in the middle of bird season?
The press event over the next 3 days at a converted palace not far from Beretta headquarters in Brescia, Italy, was lavish and befitting a coronation. About 125 sporting writers from around the world convened for a press conference that included an original musical score, translation headphones like you see at the United Nations, and photo opps with the Beretta family. Meals were lavish and accompanied by wine from Beretta’s own vineyards.
The first opportunity to test fire “The Green Monster” came at a gun club manicured and maintained to rival (and perhaps best) anything I’ve ever seen stateside … in Italy it was just another local gun club. And the gala, multi-course closing banquet was concluded with a huge sheet cake bearing a life-sized, exact replica of the Beretta A400 Unico Xplor—in chocolate!
Impressive? Absolutely, but for me when it comes to testing shotguns, the proof comes in the field under real hunting conditions. After the Italian extravaganza I was anxious to get an Xplor back home and take it hunting. And just over 3 weeks after I drove my truck home from the airport, my own Green Monster showed up at the gunsmith. Let the real testing begin!
Exploring The Xplor
The Beretta Xplor is a 12 gauge semiauto and chambered for 3½-inch magnum shells, but it will accommodate and operate 3- and 2¾-inch shells as well (more on that later.) The gun I received has a 28-inch barrel with interchangeable choke tubes in the new Beretta Optima HP system.
Six core component areas of the Xplor were either created or redesigned from scratch for introduction in this shotgun: the Kick-Off3 recoil reduction system, the Micro Core recoil pad, the Blink semiauto action, Steelium steel technology and the Optima Bore HP combined with Beretta’s Optima Choke HP tubes and a new colored anodizing process for the aluminum alloy receiver that produces the green-gray finish.
Frankly, at the test shoot at the gun club in Italy, I was a little bit timid. I don’t like 3½-inch 12 gauge loads. Except for sponsored hunts and testing purposes, I don’t shoot them. I don’t believe any benefit they offer equals the punishment they deliver.
Here, the test was to have the Beretta factory representative load the gun for you, randomly alternating loads from 7⁄8-ounce superlight target shells up to 21⁄4-ounce 31⁄2-inch pterodactyl-thumpers! Shooting would be at targets … where a guy feels everything.
Honestly, I was amazed. I won’t say the Roman Candles were pleasant to shoot, but they didn’t truly hurt. To me that’s awe-inspiring in a shotgun that weighs just over 61⁄2 pounds.
Beretta offers the Xplor with the Kick-Off3 recoil system as an optional upgrade—about $100 extra. If you’re considering shooting 31⁄2-inch shells, slugs or turkey loads through the gun, don’t consider Kick-Off3 an option—it’s mandatory!
The Blink high-speed mechanics are the new “engine” of the A400 Xplor Unico, combining a new Beretta gas system, rotating bolt, head lock up and feeding system. All put together, Beretta stands behind the claim Blink makes the Xplor 36 percent faster than any other semiauto shotgun on the market. It’s nice to be the fastest, I guess, but that doesn’t mean nearly as much to me as reliability. If you’re touting your gun as all-purpose across the entire gamut of shotshell loads, then functioning with each of them—every time the trigger is pulled—is where the game is won.
The wood on the A400 Xplor Unico introductory model is fine walnut and enhanced with Beretta’s proprietary Xtra Grain technology and oil finishing. Now, I’m all for beautiful guns, and between the enhanced wood and the unique green-gray receiver, the Xplor is a handsome shotgun in my eyes. But that kind of beauty is only microns deep, and with gun in hand, I’d have to chance to see if the Xplor was a performer as well.
A Difficult Pact
To test the Xplor I made a pact with myself … a difficult one for me: I wouldn’t clean the gun for the whole season. If it became soaked in rain or by getting dunked in the swamp, I’d take it apart, lay it out to dry and I’d wipe off the surfaces with rust inhibitor. But no real “cleaning” of any kind.
First outings on American soil for my test Xplor were pheasant hunts for both wild birds and preserve birds. Nothing too strenuous to start. Notes from those hunts remind me how impressed I was from the beginning with its easy-carrying, light weight and its quick pointability. And I sure could hit stuff with it. Like all my hunting shotguns, it wore the improved cylinder choke tube about 90 percent of the time. I also got to test the Xplor when shooting the prototype Prairie Storm pheasant loads for a Federal Cartridge television commercial.
Then one foggy morning I took the Xplor out to the duck hole. My Lab Callie and I sat among some boulders exposed by the low water. Much as I wanted to baby the gun’s pretty finish by padding it with a case against the rocks, I didn’t. Both metal and wood finishes proved very surprisingly scratch resistant.
My next duck trip was to a local public hunting area. It was pouring rain, but I had only the one afternoon to hunt, so I wasn’t going to miss it. This place is a shallow, sucking-mud slough. I killed a limit of mallards, teal and wood ducks. Every time my Lab Huck would come in with a bird, he’d shake and everything—including the Xplor—was covered in mud. Thankfully the continuous rain “thinned” it out. The Xplor fired and functioned perfectly interchanging a variety of 23⁄4- and 3-inch non-toxic loads.
I and the dogs hit that spot a couple more times under conditions just as nasty or worse. With just the dry-it-and-wipe treatment, the Xplore continued to fire and cycle flawlessly.
Then it was time to get back on the road. More duck hunts in the flooded timber of southern Illionis and the shoreline marshes of Lake Erie in Ohio. Hard as it was not to go back to the hotel rooms in the evening and strip down the Xplor, I never did it, and it kept shooting.
By the time I got home to Minnesota, all the water was frozen. Though the hunting regs said we still had time to hunt ducks, the onset of winter made them at least a day’s drive away. So we went back to pheasant hunting, straight through Christmas to New Years. And it got cold.
It was then I came across one “problem.” Not in the Xplor’s performance, but in wearing heavy gloves when hunting late-season pheasants. The Xplor has a new ergonomic, reversible safety button. It’s actually quite large compared to some of the other trigger guard safeties you see on other shotguns, but the Xplor’s is actually half-recessed into the bottom edge of the receiver. With a bare finger or even when wearing shooting gloves, it’s very easy to feel and natural to push, but with bulky winter gloves it’s another story. My notes show that I blamed that safety for missing two roosters that Callie put up for me on a day that was about 0 degrees for the high. I couldn’t get the big glove on the safety button without looking at the gun to do it—at least that’s the excuse I’m sticking with.
Here in the North Country, bird guns tend to get stowed away after New Years, but I made it a point to take the Xplor with me on my travels to shoot trap, skeet and sporting clays whenever the chance came along. I also made it a point to shoot the lightest loads I could get my hands on at each opportunity. Surely after all those heavy, sooty 3-inch late-season pheasant lead loads there’d be a hiccup with the light stuff. Nope.
Nebraska Snow Geese
My spring hunting season began in Nebraska for snow geese. Unfortunately, I caught a flu bug and was sick as a dog laying in the blind for up to 14 hours a day with my head pounding. Long days. Some birds, but not a lot. Tall shooting when it came. It normally would’ve been torture shooting heavy loads, but two things saved me. First, I was testing Federal’s new Snow Goose version of Black Cloud. Even though these shells are faster than standard Black Cloud, they lightened the payload just a smidge to get those results. Second , the gun’s Kick-Off3 recoil reduction system.
Then, with the weather warming, I had the chance for a couple of “teaching days” with the Xplor. I took two groups who had never shot before out to the skeet and clays range and then took one of them preserve pheasant hunting. Many of the newbies tried the Xplor and loved it. Between me and the fellow mentors, we offered them a wide variety of guns for everyone to try, but we got more “this is what I have to get” comments on the Xplor than on any other gun in the stable. And with more very light loads, it never missed a beat.
Early May afforded another snow goose hunt. This one on Ile au Canot in the St. Lawrence River of Quebec for Atlantic Flyway greater snow geese. It was my first chance to hunt these birds I’d read so much about. Until you hold one, you just can’t conceive these birds are at least 50 percent larger than the lessers we hunt on the prairies—actually larger than many of the Canada goose subspecies. We got into good shooting there, burning up a good bunch of Black Cloud Snow Goose ammo. Hunting was from a well-constructed pit blind, and pits can play havoc with semiauto guns. Again, the now admittedly pretty-grimy Xplor didn’t hiccup.
Having found the turkey gun of my dreams, I didn’t take the Xplor turkey hunting, though I have no reason to doubt it would have done just fine with a good camo treatment. Then real summer meant more target shooting.
Which brings me to an outing a couple weeks ago. An old friend invited me to a new sporting clays club. Knowing I had this article to write, I cased the Xplor once more and spent some extra minutes digging way into the back of the ammo locker. I found them—my last remaining box of prototype subsonic Metro Loads from Federal. These were No. 7 steel specially loaded for quietly shooting crows with those 3-foot-long carbon barrel extensions from Hastings. Velocity, if I recall correctly, on these shells was in the neighborhood of 900 fps with low pressures. After 10 months of outright abuse and crud buildup in the Xplor’s system, surely it wouldn’t cycle at least one of these mixed in with the cheapest promo loads I could find. I was wrong again.
When I explained to my buddy, who’s retired from a 30-plus year career at Federal Cartridge, what I’d done, his comment summed it up succinctly. “That’s what happens when you combine well-built shells in a well-built gun.” Amen.
Did I clean the Xplor when I got home? You’re danged right I did. Leaving that shotgun fouled for a whole season was obviously harder on me than it was on the Xplor.