By Bruce Buck
The Beretta family has been making guns in Italy for close to 500 years. The business is said to be the oldest continuously functioning corporation in the world. One thing is for sure: After all this time, they sure know what they are doing. Shotguns are only a part of the more than 1,500 guns of all types that Beretta produces each and every day, but they are an important part. The company’s over/under shotgun line ranges in price from the Silver Pigeon I 686 for $2,350 to the SO10 EELL for almost 50 times that.
With many shotgun manufacturers, the mechanics change very little from the lower models to the upscale offerings. It’s just the gingerbread on the outside that is enhanced. Not so with Beretta. The company’s line of shotguns sports actions ranging from boxlocks to sidelocks and variances within those.
One of Beretta’s latest models is the SL3, which is the subject of this review. It retails for $20,000, putting it in the firm’s Premium range. But it isn’t just the decoration and fitting that puts it there; the gun has a new action. Our test gun was a 28" 12-gauge. The SL3 is available in 12 and 20 gauge with 28" and 30" barrels, but 32" tubes are available on special order. Our gun was kindly supplied by gunsmithing guru Rich Cole (colegun.com), who is intimately familiar with all things Beretta.
The Beretta complex in Gardone, Italy, has two manufacturing facilities: Beretta Uno and Due. Uno is the mass-production, high-tech CNC center, while Due is where the highly skilled handwork is done. The SL3 owes something to both in that the parts are computer machine made in Uno, and then sent to Due for handfitting and -finishing.
The action is a boxlock with Beretta touches, and it is built for the long haul. The locking system is along the lines of Beretta’s top-of-the-line SO10 in that it has hinge-stub trunnions, mid-breech locking pins and a pair of passive lower locking lugs that engage the receiver’s lower sides. But it doesn’t stop there. There are also the Beretta locking shoulders on the monobloc that mesh with recesses in the receiver. And just in case something starts to wear, not only is the main bolt replaceable, but so are the locking shoulders, the hinge stubs and even the bases of the lower locking lugs. Your great-grandchildren will appreciate this when they inherit the gun.
The SL3 was so nicely balanced that it seemed much lighter than it was.
Inside the action, the hammers are mounted on a gunsmith-detachable triggerplate and are operated by leaf springs, to take advantage of their vaunted crisper pulls. The trigger pulls on our gun were 4½ pounds under and 4¾ over—just about perfect. There was absolutely no creep or slop either. This clearly was thanks to the hand-tuning that took place at Beretta Due. The trigger is inertia, and the recoil of the first shell is required to engage the second sear. The safety is automatic and engages every time you open the action. The safety switch is typically Beretta and has a lateral barrel-selector toggle built in.
While the action gets the press, it’s really the barrels that are the heart of any shotgun. The barrels start life as a “Steelium” chromium-nickel-molybdenum alloy. Forgings are cold hammered around mandrels, deep drilled and then stress relieved in a vacuum distention process. Early sample barrels were tested with 11,500 magnum loads without a malfunction.
Action: Break-action O/U
Finish: Bright receiver, blued barrels, 100% engraving coverage
Barrel length: 28”
Weight: 7 pounds 11 ounces
Chokes: Five screw-in flush chokes
Stock: Pistol grip, checkered butt
Accessories: Case, choke wrench, manual, three-year warranty
Price as tested: $19,999
The barrel interiors are cut to Beretta’s Optima Bore HP barrel profile and, with their chromed bores, are suitable for steel. Chambers are 3", and forcing cones are another 2" before entering the barrel proper. Our sample barrels were both .734" I.D., a bit fashionably overbore. Fixed chokes are available, but our test gun came with five Optima Bore HP screwchokes: Cylinder, Improved Cylinder, Modified, Improved Modified and Full. Constrictions were very close to nominal, unlike with many other makers. The chokes were 2¾" long and flush with the muzzles, as befits a field gun. Interior taper was the usual conical/parallel, to choke the shot and then stabilize it. Choke designations are both scribed on the choke bodies and repeated in notches on the rims for when the chokes are installed. The choke wrench is basic but comfortable to use.
The barrels are joined at the rear by the usual monobloc, not the more involved demibloc of the SO10 that allows closer pairing of the barrels. The side ribs are full length. The top rib is vented, 6mm wide, untapered and of a low field profile. A broader 9mm x 7mm rib is also available. The ribs are furnace brazed in place for a lifetime attachment. They also can withstand hot bluing if a reblue is required, unlike ribs that are simply soft soldered in place. Rib attachment seams were flawless, as was the exterior bluing. Unlike on many lesser guns, the screw-choke installation produces no visible swelling at the muzzle.
One of the first things you notice about any gun is the wood, and our SL3 didn’t disappoint. It had absolutely first-class walnut. The wood grain was extravagant. Obviously wood varies, but the SL3 clearly comes with Beretta’s good stuff. Our stock measured 13⁄8" drop at comb, 21⁄8" drop at heel and 145⁄8" length of pull—pretty standard for European-specification Berettas. A custom stock is available for $2,000 extra. Rich Cole personally selects the wood on these custom orders and receives the stocks headed up but unfinished, so that he can fit the buyer.
The butt on our test gun was checkered and without a pad. The forend and pistol grip were hand checkered in a fine-LPI borderless pattern that was classic in its simplicity. (Note: The gun in the photos is sans checkering.) The pistol grip was slightly relaxed, and the forend was slender—both befitting a field gun. The finish was perfectly applied hand-rubbed oil in a low gloss. Unlike on many lesser guns, the oil finish fully filled the wood pores. Wood-to-metal fit was just what you would expect from Beretta Due: perfect.
Once you finish ogling the wood, there is the engraving. The SL3 boxlock action incorporates cosmetic sideplates for a larger engraving canvas. The gun is available in three engraving patterns. Our gun came in the Game Scene, but Light Scroll and Deep Scroll are available, as is a High Polish (which has no engraving at all but is completely polished by hand for an extra $5,000). All three engraving patterns are 100-percent coverage on a silver background.
What is surprising is that the three engraving patterns are laser cut, not hand cut. The engraving is done using a five-axis laser that is capable of engraving around curves with correct continuity of pattern. The result is surprisingly good looking. The Deep Scroll looks particularly attractive. Laser engraving certainly has come a long way.
Our gun came with two cases. The first was a simple PVC case—practical but not special. The second case was snappy. It was a blue cotton-canvas takedown case handmade in Beretta’s Custom Gun Case Atelier with hand-stitched leather accents. The interior was quilted red cloth and contained a leather folder, to hold the chokes and wrench. A six-language manual covering numerous Beretta O/U models was included. The warranty is for three years.
Beretta always has made guns that were good shooters, and the SL3 is no exception. But this gun was a little confusing. With its auto safety, checkered butt and 28" barrels, our test gun was obviously set up for the field. But it weighed 7 pounds 11 ounces. A dedicated upland 12 should come in closer to 7 pounds, if you are going to carry it for any length of time. My guess is that this particular sample would be best as a crossover “do-everything” for driven shooting, clays and some field work. However, with custom stocks and your choice of barrel lengths, you could set up a new gun as you wish.
When putting the gun together, the perfect fit of barrels, receiver and forend was obvious by the little “click” they made when assembled. This is no doubt due to the handfitting by Beretta Due’s gunsmiths, who coat mating action surfaces with dye, to aid in obtaining perfect tolerances. Rarer yet is that when the gun was closed, you could hear the barrels ring instead of clunk. This indicates perfect jointure and barrel seams.
And then there was the balance. When you hold a gun vertically in one hand by the barrels, you can sense the full weight. But when I held this SL3 between my hands, it was so nicely balanced that it seemed much lighter than it was. This wonderful balance was what made it move with fluidity and shoot so well. Mechanically, our test shooting showed no malfunctions of any kind, and the trigger pulls were first rate. You would expect this for $20,000. But that perfect between-the-hands balance is what stood out.
Yes, the Beretta SL3 certainly has the looks but, more importantly, it has the “feel.” You can have your cake and eat it too.