Benelli’s ETHOS 12-Gauge Combines
Elegance With Brute Efficiency.
Benelli shotguns have enjoyed the notoriety of being perhaps the most reliable semi-autos in the world since they appeared in 1967. The first time I remember hearing a specific story about them was in the 1980’s when talking to a friend from Memphis who’s waterfowl crazy.
“We had a pit blind dug in a field down on the Mississippi bottoms,” Claude said. “It rained one night and there was a foot of water in the pit, but that’s the reason we wear hip boots. What wasn’t usual was while we were puttin’ out the decoys, my partner’s Lab knocked my Benelli into the pit. I looked around for it and it wasn’t there! Finally found it with my foot. It was full of mud, but I just sloshed it around in the water, then let it drip some. It never missed a lick.”
This reputation is known worldwide. Some friends and I went to Guyascate Lodge in Argentina last April for some of the legendary dove shooting around Cordoba. Instead of going through the hassle and expense of importing our own shotguns (something I’d done before), we rented guns from Guyascate. They turned out to be Benelli Montefeltro 20-gauges, and they’d been shooting around 100,000 rounds a season for several years. They rarely missed a lick while we shot several thousand more, and the few malfunctions were probably more due to the inexpensive ammo than the guns.
The reason for this reliability is Benelli’s inertia-driven action—the bolt essentially “floats” between two springs. When the shotgun is fired, the bolt stays in place for a moment because of inertia (“a body at rest tends to stay at rest”), but as the remainder of the shotgun slows down against the shooter’s shoulder, the bolt moves backward, unlocking the rotating bolt head and ejecting the empty. The rear spring then pushes the bolt forward, picking up another round and rotating the bolt head into place.
This system is far less complex than either the long-recoil system typified by the Browning A-5 or gas-operated actions. Unlike the long-recoil autos, it’s also able to handle a wider variety of ammo without having to change anything, one example being the Super Vinci I reviewed for GUNS a couple of years ago. It functioned fine with a variety of 12-gauge ammo, from light 2.75-inch game loads to 3.5-inch steel magnums. And unlike gas-operated autos, the burned powder is contained in the barrel, increasing long-term reliability and simplifying maintenance.
On the other hand, the inertia system requires some recoil to work, the reason only a couple of very lightweight Benelli autoloaders come in 28-gauge and none in .410. It also doesn’t work well in heavy shotguns, since they slow the recoil impulse—that’s the reason the Super Vinci weighs less than 7 pounds. Both the long-recoil and gas systems also reduce felt recoil somewhat by spreading the backward movement over a slightly longer period, but the inertia system demands some serious kick protection on the butt end of 12-gauge models.
Helmeted guinea fowl are larger than rooster pheasants, and taste even better.
African rock pigeons may be the most difficult-to-hit open-country game
bird on the planet. But the Benelli ETHOS (inset) held its own. Photo: Lee Kjos
Benelli autoloaders also aren’t generally known in the US for their good looks, especially in 12-gauge. This isn’t because Benelli doesn’t make some good-looking 12’s, but because here they’re best known as hard-working waterfowl tools, and waterfowlers usually pick synthetic-stocked models like the Super Vinci.
Recently however, Benelli decided to improve just about everything improvable and designed a new 12-gauge called the ETHOS, a Greek word originating from Aristotle’s three “ingredients for persuasion”—pathos to appeal to our emotions, logos to our logic and ethos to our ethics. In today’s context, ethos applies to the character or guiding beliefs of a culture—in this instance, the culture of Benelli shotguns.
The ETHOS is a good-looking gun, partly because Benelli uses really nice walnut for the stock, and partly because the lines of both wood and metal flow more gracefully than on any previous Benelli. But external beauty is pathos, not ethos, and every working detail of the gun has also been improved.
Or at least that was the claim when a few gunwriters showed up at a wingshoot in the Free State Province of South Africa. The Benelli boys managed to keep the new shotgun secret (even from us!) and our primary mission turned out to be to shoot and shoot and shoot. Our secondary mission was to test the other new features of the ETHOS.
Luckily, my wingshooting was tuned up from the trip to Argentina a month earlier, or I might have become very discouraged by the first morning of shooting at African rock pigeons. (Please note the use of the phrase “shooting at”). Many claim the rock pigeon to be the most difficult target of all open-country birds. They have longer wings for their size than most other doves and pigeons and consequently fly faster while not really seeming to.
I dropped the first two birds, then missed with the other 23 rounds in the box. And that didn’t qualify as the worst shooting in our party. Another guy, who normally averages 80 to 90 percent on dove, never hit a pigeon with his first box. It wasn’t until we took our lunch break and started talking things over with long-time African professional hunter and outfitter Soren Lindstrom and Grasslands Lodge owner Carel Coetzer that we realized we simply weren’t leading the birds enough. The knowledge, however, didn’t make hitting them simple, and some of the other techniques involved in the shooting were interesting.
Mixed bag: Along with rock pigeons, three kinds of doves provided a variety of shot angles.
High-volume shooting defined: The ETHOS got a real workout
during almost a week of hot and dusty wingshooting.
Most Americans aren’t used to the unlimited shooting of birds considered agricultural varmints (though we may become more used to it if Eurasian collared doves continue to increase across our continent). This is exactly why so many wingshooters flock to the Cordoba region in Argentina, where over 40 million eared doves regularly raid the fields, and exactly what happens in the Free State. I heard varying estimates of how much of the area’s corn and sunflowers end up inside rock pigeons and four kinds of doves (lowest 25 percent, highest 40 percent). While sitting in a field of sunflowers, I found every down-drooping head pecked free of seeds for all but a few inches in the center.
That first day, we lined up every 100 yards or so along a big sunflower field and waited for rock pigeons to fly over. They arrived in flocks of one to three dozen birds while Carel and his assistants moved around the field, dispensing water, ammunition and advice. He was standing nearby when one good-sized flock approached halfway between me and the shooter to my right. They were 75 yards out when Carel yelled, “Shoot!”
I looked at him, half-puzzled and half-frowning, and he explained— not too patiently to an ignorant American—that even a dozen shooters weren’t nearly enough to cover the field. As a result, if a flock started flying toward one of our gaps between, we were to shoot at them, regardless of range, to split and spook the pigeons toward the other guns.
This was serious varmint wingshooting because the farmers depended on shotgunners to reduce crop damage. Unlike Argentina—where dove shooting has become a secondary crop and birds are essentially everywhere—the African birds travel from field to field to find enough to eat. One of the jobs of a bird guide is constant scouting to find where the big flocks are feeding.
We lengthened our leads in the afternoon and I dropped 8 rock pigeons out of the first box, supposedly an average percentage for a decent shotgunner, though much lower than regularly occurs in Argentina. Doves are known for taking evasive action after the first shot, but rock pigeons really turn it on. A flock would come over and I’d drop a bird at 30 yards, and the rest would scatter and climb so quickly they’d often be on the fringe of range before the next shot, and halfway across the field after that. They flew more like short-billed falcons than peaceful seedeaters.
The shooting became a little easier by the end of the first day, but it got complicated on the second day when we shot a field with as many doves as pigeons. The three species ranged from red-eyed doves about the size of rock pigeons (though thankfully slower-flying), to Cape turtledoves the size of North American mourning doves, to even smaller laughing doves. Consequently we had to refigure the lead for each type of bird.
The country seemed more like Kansas than Africa, especially when we hunted guinea fowl on the third day. Americans think of guineas as barnyard birds, but they’re descendants of wild African birds, just as our chickens are descended from Asian jungle fowl. Half a dozen kinds of guineas exist in Africa and we hunted the helmeted species, the variety found in American farmyards, a delicious white-meated bird that’s larger than a rooster pheasant. And we hunted them like pheasants in Kansas, in big drives with blockers at the end. We pushed creek bottoms full of tall grass, brush and trees, and cornfields that sometimes stretched a mile.
Incoming birds: The light weight of the ETHOS made it easy to hold at the ready.
Evening spectacle: African sunsets are one of the highlights of any safari.
Once in a while however, it became apparent that, like Dorothy and Toto, we weren’t in Kansas, because Kansas creek bottoms and cornfields don’t contain any steenbok, duikers or warthogs. And even though guinea fowl fly like pheasants, I can personally testify they produce a more satisfying thump when a shooter finally gets the lead right on a bird 50 yards up and it falls for long seconds before hitting African dirt.
One day on a sunflower field being raided by both rock pigeons and various dove types, we each shot several cases of ammo. By the end of the week, 14 ETHOS shotguns had fired over 17,000 rounds, varying from light dove to heavy guinea-fowl loads. It was hot and dusty and the guns weren’t cleaned, and the only malfunction occurred when one gun somehow picked up a pebble the size of a 00 buck pellet, a problem quickly diagnosed and removed. (Here it should be noted that all the birds were eaten, either at Grasslands Lodge, or by the people who owned and worked on the ranches. In fact, on one day a ranch worker wandered by my stand and filled a good-sized bag with pigeons and doves.)
We already knew Benelli shotguns worked. Along the way we discovered the other ways in which the ETHOS had been improved, especially the loading gate. Semi-auto shotguns are well known for biting the thumb that feeds them. In Argentina each of the “bird boys” wore a thick bandage on their thumb because of wounds from stuffing shells into Montefeltros all day. We did our own shotgun loading in South Africa, and even after the big day where everybody shot several cases, our thumbs emerged unscathed and unswollen.
The guns arrived with plugs in the magazines, but on the heavy-shooting days we removed them. This was easy compared to most tube-magazine shotguns, because the ETHOS has a soft magazine cap that’s easily twisted off, allowing the plug to be removed (and replaced) without wrestling with springs or other parts. The cartridge dump lever and bolt release have also been made more glove-friendly.
Many shooters don’t even think about triggers on shotguns, but a light, consistent pull makes almost as much of a difference in wingshooting as on a rifle. There wasn’t any trigger gauge available, but I’d measured the pull on the Super Vinci 2 years before at slightly under 4 pounds. In South Africa we switched shotguns around every day in order to try as many as possible, and the pulls on all I tried felt lighter than 4 pounds.
There are other touches like interchangeable fiber optic fronts sights (more important to turkey hunters, I would say, than wingshooters), and a carbon-fiber replaceable rib that can be switched out to different rib heights and shapes.
But the biggie is the Progressive Comfort System, new for Benelli walnut stocks. It’s a series of stiff but still flexible synthetic fingers, which fit inside the hollowed-out buttstock. When heavier loads are used, more of the fingers engage. The comb is also an interchangeable soft-synthetic pad and can be switched out to pads of different heights for different faces. The cast is adjustable.
Even after firing several hundred rounds a day, none of us ever suffered any recoil fatigue, much less bruising. That’s pretty impressive for a 6.5-pound, 12-gauge auto that balances like a light British double.
The Benelli ETHOS isn’t the sort of shotgun you want to drop in the Mississippi mud, though it would no doubt survive the trauma. It’s an all-around tool for shooting any sort of winged game in the world—over and over and over again.
By John Barsness
Importer: Benelli USA
17603 Indian Head hwy
accokeek, md 20607
Action Type: Inertia-driven autoloader
Choke Tubes: C, IC, M, IM, F
Barrel Length: 26 or 28 inches
Overall Length: 47.5 or 49.5 inches
Weight: 6.5 pounds
Finish: Semi-gloss AA walnut, black anodized or nickel-plated receiver
Sight: Fiber optic bead
Length Of Pull: 14.375 inches
Drop At Comb: 1.5 inches
Drop At Heel: 2.25 inches
Price: $1,999 (black anodized receiver), $2,199 (nickel-plated engraved receiver)
African Adventure Safaris
P.O. Box 616
P.O. Box 264