For many waterfowlers, semi-autos are the shotgun of choice. Semi-autos offer quicker follow-up shots than manually cycled pumps and an extra, and often essential, third shot a double-gun can never afford. Combine that with the fact that all semi-autos, to some degree, help manage and harness the forces of recoil by virtue of their various operating systems, and choosing an autoloader becomes a no-brainer — especially if a steady diet of magnum waterfowl loads is on the menu.
Unfortunately, semi-autos can be downright expensive. Many cost more than $1,000, with several well on their way toward two grand. What’s a waterfowler wanting to upgrade from an old, beater pump to a new autoloader to do? Here are six budget-friendly semi-autos that will allow you to enter the soft-shooting realm of the self-loading shotgun without breaking the bank. Most cost around $600, some even less. Maybe it’s time to switch.
First up is Stoeger’s M3500, a well-balanced, 3½-inch 12-gauge with a laundry list of accouterments usually reserved for guns costing twice as much. Standard features include shims for customizing drop and cast, a drilled and tapped receiver that accepts the included Weaver 93 scope base, 24-, 26- or 28-inch vent rib barrel with red fiber-optic front sight, and five choke tubes — cylinder, improved cylinder, modified, full and extra-full turkey. A threaded recoil reducer screws onto the stock bolt to tame super-magnum recoil. The M3500 is powered by parent company Benelli’s proven Inertia Driven operating system and reliably handles a wide variety of loads, from light 1-ounce target rounds to heavy 3½-inch bombs. A real-world price of $599 for camo (Max-4 or Realtree APG) and $549 for basic black synthetic makes the M3500 one of the best values going in 3½-inch semi-autos.
Another affordable 3½-incher is TriStar’s TSA Magnum. The gas-operated system utilizes two pistons for maximum reliability with various loads. The light-load piston handles 2¾-inch shells, while the heavy-load piston is used with 3- and 3½-inch magnums. Switching between two pistons might sound complicated, but the second piston is conveniently stored in the forearm beneath the magazine cap, so it’s always there, ready to go. Ducks in the morning and clays in the afternoon: simply swap pistons and you’re set. Other standard features include a magazine cut-off action, vent-rib barrel with a fiber-optic sight and three chokes — IC, modified and full. Twenty-six- and 28-inch-barrel guns are dipped in Max-4 camo, the 24-inch “turkey” model in a greener Realtree pattern. All three barrel lengths are available in black synthetic. Real-world price is $595 for camo, $495 for black.
Mossberg’s 935 was designed from the ground up to handle heavy 2¾-, 3- and 3½-inch waterfowl loads. It has the same over-bored barrel as the 835 pump — the original 3½-inch 12-gauge — reamed out to near 10-gauge dimensions for optimum patterning with steel shot. Waterfowl models have a choice of 26- or 28-inch barrels; fiber-optic front sight; set of IC, modified and full chokes; shim kit; scope-ready receiver and sling. The dual-vent gas system relieves recoil and internal stress on parts. Finishes include black synthetic, Mossy Oak Duck Blind or Advantage Max-4 camo. The Flyway model has a 28-inch barrel, Max-4 finish and ported X-Factor IC and modified chokes. Real-world price is as low as $570 for camo, even less for black.
Legacy Sports’ Escort Extreme Magnum is available with both 3- and 3½-inch chambers. The SMART Valve self-regulating gas piston reliably handles everything from the lightest target loads to the heaviest magnums. Raised Soft Touch, non-slip grip inserts on the stock and forearm of this nicely balanced gun provide a sure hold in wet weather. Other features include a magazine cut-off, one-handed speed loading and Hi-Viz MagniSight atop the 28-inch, raised vent-rib barrel. Finishes include black, Max-4 and Realtree AP camo. Waterfowl models come with a mid-range Hevi-Shot choke. Left-hand models are also available. Real-world price is $599 for 3-inch camo, about 50 bucks more for 3½-inch.
The Weatherby SA-08 Waterfowler 3.0 is a trim, 3-inch-chambered 12-gauge. The tough, lightweight synthetic stock and alloy receiver keep weight around 6½-pounds — perfect carrying weight if you’ve got a lot of walking to do. The dependable, dual-valve gas system utilizes two easily swapped pistons to maximize reliability and minimize felt recoil. One is for 7/8- to 1 1/8-ounce loads, the other for 1¼- to 2-ounce magnums. Vent–rib, 26- or 28-inch barrels have lengthened forcing cones and IC, modified and full choke tubes. A magazine cutoff is conveniently located in front of the trigger. Full-coverage Mothwing Marsh Mimicry camo keeps the SA-08 hidden from wary waterfowl. Real-world price: $599.
Our final budget semi-auto is the 712 from CZ. For those who prefer a traditional look, this gas-operated autoloader has a Turkish walnut stock and forearm and tough, matte-black, hard-chrome barrel and receiver finish. Twenty-six- or 28-inch barrels have an 8-mm vent rib and 3-inch chamber. IC, modified and full chokes are standard. This is the same gun shooting legend Tom Knapp uses in his exhibitions, though his has a magazine extension. If the 712 is good enough for Tom Knapp, you know it’ll perform in the marsh. With an MSRP of only $488, real-world price is bound to be even less, making the 712 an extremely economical semi-auto.