In my ever-winding quest for the perfect defensive 12 Gauge as a wilderness companion in the North, I have tried a plethora of good guns. I have shouldered even more bad ones, and put them down, ranging from double to semi, and one barrel to three. The moral of this story and all my 12 Gauge defensive gun reviews remains that no gun is perfect, but all are a collection of compromises from which you select the features you appreciate most. For instance, this review is the first part on the Benelli M4 I’m going to do, and what I’ve gained with the M4 in magazine capacity (now at a fully Canadian-legal 8 shells, I’ll explain further on), sights, and semi auto action, I’ve lost a bit on overall length versus my 14” pumps with regards to cost, and weight. Nothing is perfect, but some things are very good; among the later stands the M4. The tough, and incredibly reliable M4 is the US Marine Core’s primary combat shotgun, serving in conjunction with the Mossberg 590A1, which will again be used as my comparison shotgun just as in the Keltec KSG review. The M4 is classic milspec, extremely well thought out with completely tool-less takedown, good and extremely durable controls, and build quality reminiscent of a fine diesel engine. I say diesel, because this gun is no sports car, but one tough bastard of a customer with a finely finished exterior belying its ruggedness forged in gritty conflicts across the globe.
The M4 operates via a gas system dubbed “ARGO” by Benelli, standing for “Auto Regulating Gas Operated”. The system is comprised of two short-stroke pistons with two solid rings, and four spiral fluted rings, the spiral flutes ensure the pistons rotate as part of their self-cleaning function. Self cleaning they truly are, after more than 200 shells the initial cleaning revealed pistons which were still clean with only the slightest traces of carbon, some carbon particles left on top of the magazine tube as the only real indication of use. The system is auto-adjusting as claimed, with my gun now cycling everything from ultra-light Winchester 7.5 shot 1 ounce trap loads in the cheap steel base “low brass” hulls, Winchester reduced recoil grey-hull “Feather” slugs, to 3” Magnum Federal loads. Before break in, the M4 did not like the ultra-light trap loads one bit- I didn’t expect it to, and I didn’t blame it. Much to my surprise, it began digesting them without drama after about a hundred and fifty shells of break in. This was a boon to my speed drills, as burning the two cans for Federal XM127 milspec buckshot I bought with the M4 too fast would prove costly with the volume of practice I enjoy. That is one nice benefit of a pump shotgun, like my 14” 590A1, it will digest anything and I regularly practice speed drills with cheap birdshot. My favourite casual drill is to place fired shotshell hulls on twigs protruding from Northern scrub, in a fan downrange in front of me, at varied ranges. I try to knock them off as fast as possible, and I had planned on this with the M4 but in my rush, had bought ultra-light shells. Well no matter now, it eats them like a fat kid does smarties.
I’ve mentioned before my motivation for owning defensive shotguns is I work remote in Northern Canada, flying helicopters in Grizzly (Brown Bear to my American friends) country. A good bush gun is an insurance policy like no other, and a 12 Gauge by far the most versatile of them all, from stopping charges, to dispensing flares, bean bags or banger shells, or filling the pot with Grouse. It took some acclimatizing, to be comfortable with a semi auto for the role, as I was trapped in thinking only pumps were suitable. With the reliability of this M4, I’m revising that idea, however a pump is still easier to bring into action when carried chamber empty, mag loaded, as in my favoured carry condition. One drawback to the M4 is it requires me to use my trigger hand to cycle the bolt, or my left hand by rolling the gun to the side, before a good grip can be taken and the trigger pulled. This consideration is one true drawback to the semi for my role, but once the chamber is loaded, look out… I can hit with this M4 instinctively in a way reminiscent of my good upland double. It is a true point and click interface, and takes the thinking out of aiming. I hit much to my surprise at a similar rate with my 14” 590A1, however, pellet counts and accuracy lag significantly behind the effortless M4. It’s one of those guns that allows the shooter to forget the forced mechanics shooting, and rather focuses one on simply punching targets. It’s natural, and a feeling in shotguns I normally associate with a good upland double. Trigger is clean, and surprisingly light, allowing rapid “taps” without having to jerk the trigger, a nice and refreshing change from some of the more economy shotguns I’ve tried.
The Safety: Right and Left Sides
Manipulating the gun’s controls is for the most part natural and comfortable, though I prefer the 590A1’s tang safety to the small, behind trigger safety of the M4. This safety would be my only real ergonomic complaint with the M4, it is OK, akin to a Remington 870, but when one is accustomed to Mossberg’s superior and ambidextrous thumb actuated tang safety, everything lags behind. For me, going back to safe causes me to sweep the muzzle slightly to the side to get my fat thumb into the crevice formed by the junction of the pistol grip, receiver, and trigger guard where the safety button lies. I don’t like this and it irks me every time I subliminally do it, I will have to shop oversized aftermarket safeties. The bolt charging handle is on the right side, and can be removed by twisting and pulling it, as always with the M4 no tools required. Speaking of tools, this bolt handle is the tool you use to disassemble the gas system. You can load the M4, provided the chamber is loaded as well, and pull the charging handle off to use it “slick sided” so it will fit in a scabbard like a pump. Reloading is no problem indefinitely, as the action locks back and the first shell in an M4 on reload is dropped in the ejection port, at least that’s the easiest way to handle it. Then depress the extremely well placed and intuitive bolt release, and the bolt slams forward and chambers the shell, from any angle. The magazine is then loaded as normal for any tube fed shotgun. There is a shell release button on the right side as well, that also serves as a cocking indicator with a red flag, it takes some getting used to. The function of this button is to release a shell from the magazine onto the shell lifter, which the M4 does not do unless physically fired. This button allows you to unload the magazine by cycling the shells through the action, or to ready a first shell on the lifter for carry on an empty chamber.
The M4 is also easy to ghost load, boosting capacity one shell. This refers to keeping an extra shell on the shell lifter, in addition to a fully loaded magazine. In Canada, where we are limited to five rounds in a semi auto, the M4 can legally hold eight. This is possible with a magazine extension to hold five 3” shells, as the gun is chambered 3”, which allows six 2 ¾” shells in the magazine, one ghost loaded on the follower, and one in the chamber for a total of eight legal shells. I have my magazine extender on order, and presently have been shooting many seven shell strings from the M4 with flawless reliability. Sights on the M4 are superb, the best ghost rings I’ve used on a shotgun, excellent for placing 100 yard slugs or smoking close up targets with buckshot in a hurry interchangeably, and very solidly made. The sights have some glow compound distributed in two dots rear, one front, but this is not tritium, rather simple photo-luminescent paint/compound. It won’t be much use for a shotgun kept in a safe, and if night sights are important to you, investigate some proper tritiums. Loading shells on the fly is as easy as any shotgun, and feels like a slick, well-worn Wingmaster. Unfortunately, as is required for the M4’s cycle, the shell lifter rests in the down position, like a Remington 870, and must be pushed up and out of the way by the shell being pushed into the tube. Like with safeties, anyone well accustomed to the Mossberg 500/590/590A1 will reflect warmly on the Mossberg’s up and out of the way lifter. Minor detail, and not a detriment to the M4, more just general shotgun commentary.
Now, some are concerned by aluminum receivers, which both the M4 and the 590A1 share in common. Might I remind them, they ride at 1,000kms/h at 37,000’ upon the substance anytime they travel, do 110kms/hr down the highway on wheels of it without a thought, and it is the M16 / AR15’s receiver material as well with half a century of proving. Now, say you’re still put off by aluminum after all the common sense tells you otherwise, well the good news is that in both the Mossberg 590 and the M4 the receiver is not a stressed component. Both guns feature direct bolt to barrel lockup, unlike the Remington 870, and in the M4’s case this is accomplished by a rotating bolt head with two massive lugs. These lugs rotate into engagement with corresponding slots machined precisely and directly into the steel barrel, not the receiver. The bolt also recoils inside an extended shroud of the steel barrel, that reaches back into the receiver. The recoil spring is located in the stock tube, the tube visible on the collapsible stock M4s when their stocks are extended, and its force is exerted upon the bolt via a hinged leg from the back of the bolt through the action over the firing mechanism into the tube. It is a straightforward, and elegantly simple setup, precisely machined. A significant benefit of the aluminum receivers is weight reduction, the M4 while no featherweight weighs in at a very comfortable 7.8lbs, akin to a standard hunting rifle. On top of the aluminum receiver is a Picatinny rail, for mounting any of the myriad of optics and accessories suitable. I will be trying the M4 with an Eotech soon, it’s waiting at home for me.
The Bolt Head, Barrel, and Bolt
In shooting, the M4 recoils extremely softly, it almost doesn’t seem right or shotgun-like. This is a trait many semi-automatic shotguns share, but it is especially notable in the M4. Firing Federal “Maximum” buckshot loads and slugs without the stock extended, so gun held up and only supported by the hands, there isn’t even the slightest discomfort to your pistol grip hand. In fact, I can’t even place the recoil pulse for an apt description of it as I sit here writing, as it made no impression. You can feel the cyclic rate difference between magnum shells and ultra-light, which is interesting, the ultra-lights cycling slowly though assertively. The magnum’s recoil is over in a soft snap, and the ultra-light’s is represented as a ridiculously gentle and slow pulse. My M4 was sighted in perfectly right out of the box for buckshot at 30 yards, and slugs at 100, a nice mix. It groups slugs extremely well, and is very easy to balance off hand. It feels like rifle shooting with the excellent sights, and precision possible, so I would rate its slug performance as perfect. Reliability is flawless of course, with any ammunition it is designed to ingest, such at the nearly full can of military XM127 00 buckshot loads it has eaten, and a variety of slugs from Winchester Ultra-light to Federal Maximum, to 3” magnum loads. As I mentioned earlier, after break in it is even digesting ultra-light 1oz trap loads, tons of fun for practice. The muzzle is threaded for chokes, and the gun ships with one Modified tube installed, a nice choice for most uses.
I believe the M4 is special, as it is available commercially in exactly the same form as the issued guns, minus the easily fixed commercial magazine limiter (in Canada, we add legal extensions to allow 5 shells of 3” in the magazine tube, which nets one extra 2 ¾” as a bonus, in the US you can open it up to full capacity). This is rare today, and aside from the 590A1, sidearms, and some pricey bolt action precision rifles represents one of the few “as issued” guns civilians can enjoy. They typically feature better engineering and excellent durability and testing, due to their military pedigree, and the M4 is no different. It is perhaps the most advanced long arm in service those of us in Canada can purchase in an unadulterated state. Military support for the firearm means a long and bright future of spare parts production for the type, as well. Speaking of military, when buying an M4, buy the collapsing stock! Those of you in the states would likely be mind boggled to learn both models are sold here, the collapsing as-issued stock with the guns direct from Benelli Italy, and the fixed pistol grip variant commonly encountered in the states. As our American friends also know, the collapsing stock assembly is extremely valuable, commanding about $400- you can buy a pistol grip fixed stock for $120. Many people, much to my surprise purchase the fixed stock, it is priced the same as the proper collapsing M4, and the collapsing stock is fantastic. Extremely quick to deploy, or stow, and two extended positions, it shrinks the shotgun by 8” for transport which is hugely helpful from those of us working out of vehicles, boats, and aircraft. It also sets the M4 apart from its competitors and is instantly recognizable from a hundred yards as an M4.
Now, to criticisms, and I have a few, as no gun is perfect. I’ll leave out the #1 criticism of the M4, cost, as to me it is priced very well. It is a much higher quality product than the guns competing at half or less the price, and this is readily apparent to the user. First real gripe, the factory magazine not holding five 3” shells from the get go is a slight frustration, and a bit of a silly neutering done by Benelli to all civilian M4s. It is easily and cheaply remedied, but it would be nice not to have to, as five shells of its chambering (3”) is legal everywhere I have learned about. Next, as touched on earlier, the safety is small, and a bit awkward. It is easy to flick to “FIRE” with a large pad on the right hand side, but less comfortable to switch back to safe. It is also not as apparent to the operator as the 590A1’s excellent tang safety, which even subliminally lets a shooter know the safety’s condition without even looking, I find my thumb instinctively brushing it all the time to double check the position. Third, and this relates to semi autos in general and is not the M4’s fault, but the charging handle snags on cases, seats, and gear when stowed. The M4 can be operated with the handle removed as an option, but this requires carry with a loaded chamber, or open bolt. Neither condition is ideal for wilderness defence use.
Next, due to the slope of the stock / recoil spring tube, the height of the comb changes depending on what length the stock is deployed to. The very short length of pull middle position, which would be useful for tight quarters use, renders the ghost ring sights useless, though it can work with an Eotech or other higher sight. With the stock fully extended the length of pull for males who use traditional stance, rather the shoulders squared to the target and torso leaned in, is also a bit short. I presume this length was decided upon in order to fit as wide of span of servicemen and women as possible, you my find you want buttpad spacers and I’m going to make some for mine. The stock is also a bit tricky to get to the middle position, and requires some finagling as it doesn’t stop at the position on its own like it does for completely extended, and collapsed. If this position is desired in actual use, it would have to be set beforehand to be practical where as the stock can be deployed to full length in half a breath, the mid position can take a few seconds. Finally, the M4 like any aluminum receiver gun will eventually collect small dings around the edges of the ejection port. Does it matter? In my opinion absolutely not, to some, cosmetics are a serious consideration in their shotgun, for me they rate close to whether or not it has a lipstick compartment.
The Collapsing Stock Extended: Showing The Notches for Mid and Collapsed Positions
Now, the question I always ask myself about a new gun; Would I recommend this to a friend? Absolutely, and enthusiastically. The Benelli M4 represents an exceptional package of engineering, and in my opinion, value. This is the single most mentioned criticism of the M4 as I alluded to above, its price, and frankly I don’t understand the fuss. Widely available in Canada for about $2,000 Canadian dollars or just over, it represents only 2/3rds of the Canadian cost of a good non-restricted black rifle, and yet it is a true milspec, as issued package with incredible utility in our Northern country. There is nothing to beat a 12 Gauge for versatility, and as an avid African and dangerous game hunter I can say from experience a 12 Guage would not be my first choice of a charge stopping firearm. Far from it actually, from my experience with it on problem bear, but it still works. This said, I’ve yet to launch a flare, bear banger, or less lethal round with my .375 Holland & Holland Magnum double rifle. Or for that matter collect grouse or rabbit with birdshot, source shells at any northern shop, bust a hundred clays for fun in the evenings, and so forth. Like they say, jack of all trades, master of none- this may not be true on the trap range of the 12 Gauge, but in the bush it certainly is. Would I go out with anything else though? No way, I am glued to my 12 Gauges versatility and will continue to view it as the Leatherman of firearms. The M4, among 12 Gauges, is currently the cream of my crop and my hands down favourite- and I’ve used a lot of them. Thanks for reading folks.
M4 Super 90 Key Dimensions:
Overall Length Collapsed: 34.75″
Length of Pull Collapsed: 9″
Length of Pull Mid Position: 12″
Length of Pull Fully Extended: 14″