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Heckler & Koch/Benelli M4 Super 90/XM1014: The US Military’s Innovative New Tactical Shotgun

By Charles Q. Cutshaw

The military shotgun has been in use, primarily by the American armed forces, for well over a hundred years. Throughout its history as a military small arm, the shotgun has been called by many names. It was first termed a “riot gun” and later a “trench gun.” Later still, the military shotgun came to be called a “fighting shotgun” or “combat shotgun.” While the latter terms still prevail among some, we prefer the term “tactical shotgun” because it precisely describes the use of the gun - as a tactical small arm. While the terms “combat” or “fighting” have a certain macho appeal and the acquisition program was for a “combat shotgun,” neither term precisely defines the role of the shotgun as used by today’s law enforcement or the military. Therefore, we prefer to use a more precise designation - tactical shotguns. The shotgun came into its own as a military small arm in World War I, when American “doughboys” came to France equipped with Winchester Model 1897 “trench guns.” The shotguns were so effective in the trench warfare of the time that Germany lodged a formal protest against their use as “inhumane.” The German protest should give the reader a hint as to the devastating effectiveness of the tactical shotgun in close combat when loaded with the proper ammunition, but the shotgun was judged to be no more inhumane than other weapons and the German protest was disallowed. The tactical shotgun has been a fixture in warfare since, usually in jungles, cities, or in other military operations where an effective close combat weapon was required. Although the American military has been the primary user of tactical shotguns, recent developments in ammunition, most notably non-lethal and specialized shotgun ammunition, coupled with changing military roles and missions have brought the shotgun to the attention of the rest of the world. Many of the world’s small arms manufacturers now produce tactical shotguns, but the recent focus of the world’s potential tactical shotgun market has been the US military’s selection of its most recent tactical shotgun, the Benelli M4 Super 90, officially adopted as the XM1014 in April 1999. Once the first articles under the contract pass their testing, the “X” designation will be dropped and the new gun will take on the designation M1014 and begin replacing the Mossberg M590 and other slide action tactical shotguns in US inventory.

Selection of the XM1014 began with a US Marine Corps requirement for a “combat shotgun” that was established in the early 1990s. The requirement was subsequently revised to include the entire US military with the Marine Corps retaining overall program management. The initial shotgun competition was terminated in early 1998 due to technical problems and the program restarted in May of that year. The US military M4 Super 90 project was managed by Heckler & Koch while the gun itself was developed by Benelli. This was probably due to Heckler & Koch’s extensive experience in dealing with the US military and the firm’s demonstrated expertise in managing military small arms projects. Sales of the M4 Super 90/XM1014 will be handled by Benelli, save for US shotguns produced under the current military contract, which are H&K’s province.

The M4 Super 90/XM1014 is a semiautomatic, gas operated, tubular magazine fed tactical shotgun. The bolt assembly is similar to that of the Benelli Montefeltro, with a bolt carrier and rotating two lug bolt that locks into a barrel extension. The shotgun’s gas operation system incorporates a novel design, called Auto-Regulating Gas Operating, or “ARGO,” by the developers. The ARGO system uses two gas ports and tappet type pistons that ride in short cylinders beneath the gun’s barrel. The pistons impinge directly against the face of the bolt carrier to cycle the gun each time the trigger is pulled. According to the manufacturer, the system is unaffected by fouling, requires little or no maintenance and functions reliably with all types of standard shotgun ammunition from low brass target loads to 3 inch (76mm) magnum rounds. We verified this claim in testing, as discussed below. The ARGO gas system is a simple design that we estimate will be extremely reliable in service, based on our brief, but detailed, evaluation and examination of the gun.

Thus far, testing has proven that the XM1014 will reliably function for at least 25,000 rounds of standard ammunition without replacing any major parts. We tested the XM1014 using a variety of ammunition ranging from low-brass target loads, tactical reduced recoil through full power shotgun ammunition, including three-inch magnum and found that the XM1014 functioned flawlessly, regardless of the type of ammunition we used. The XM1014 will not, however, semiautomatically cycle non-lethal ammunition such as rubber buckshot, “bean bags,” or any other similar non-lethal ammunition. This must not be construed as a criticism, because there was no military requirement for the shotgun to function semiautomatically with these types of ammunition. It is merely a statement of fact of which the reader should be aware. The only military requirement was that the gun be capable of manual cycling to operate with non-lethal ammunition. Given the increasing use of the military for peacekeeping operations, however, non-lethal ammunition will probably be used more frequently than in the past. However, the inability to cycle non-lethal ammunition was a conscious decision on the part of the military and we must emphasize that the HK/Benelli gun meets or exceeds every military requirement.

The M4 Super 90/XM1014 is modular in construction so that the user can quickly exchange major components, including barrel, buttstock and forearm to meet changing mission requirements. In its basic configuration with collapsible buttstock, the XM1014 gives the appearance that it would be awkward to handle, but this is not the case. We found the XM1014 to be very comfortable to fire in all configurations. The overall design coupled with the ARGO gas system has the effect of reducing felt recoil and muzzle rise regardless of the type of ammunition used or stock configuration. Available buttstock configurations are collapsible with pistol grip, fixed stock with pistol grip, semi-pistol grip fixed stock and pistol grip only. Changing the XM1014 into any of its various configurations was easily understood and simply accomplished even without written instructions. Disassembly and assembly for reconfiguration or cleaning is straightforward and can be performed without tools in less than a minute’s time. External finish is heavy phosphate black on steel parts and hard anodizing on aluminum components.

Standard XM1014 sights are of the “ghost ring” type with a large rear aperture sight and blade front sight for quick target acquisition. These open sights are adjustable for windage and elevation using the rim of a cartridge. The front sight is fixed in place with a hex nut and can be replaced with a tritium unit if desired. The gun is fitted with a semi-fixed MIL-STD-1913 rail on top of the receiver that will accept any standard optical sight or targeting device. The rail is held in place using locking screws and can be removed, should the need arise.

The XM1014’s 18.5in barrel has removable choke tubes to accommodate virtually any type of ammunition or tactical condition. A 14in barrel is available as an option. Magazine capacity varies with barrel length. The XM1014 with standard 18.5in barrel will accommodate seven shells (6 in the magazine, plus 1 in the chamber) whether they are 2.75 or 3 inch type, while the 14in barrel reduces total magazine capacity to six (5 + 1) 2.75 inch shells or five (4 + 1) 3 inch shells. Overall length of the XM1014 is 39.8 inches with stock extended, 34.9 inches with stock collapsed and 30.3 inches with short barrel and stock collapsed.

Ammunition can readily be changed from type to another as the tactical situation changes. The shell in the chamber can be ejected without feeding a new round onto the elevator by simply pulling the charging handle to the rear. A fresh shell can then simply be dropped onto elevator, the bolt release pressed and the new round chambered. If the user wishes to discard the chambered round and bring up a new round from the magazine, he presses the small magazine release button located on the receiver bottom near the trigger guard and pulls the charging handle, thus ejecting the chambered round and feeding a fresh one from the magazine. The magazine release button is shaped differently than the safety and must be pressed in a different direction for actuation. There is thus little possibility of confusing the two. As stated, the tubular magazine holds six rounds in standard configuration, but tactical reloads can be accomplished at any time during a break in firing by simply “topping off” the magazine through the loading port.

The XM1014 also comes equipped with speedloaders for quickly filling the magazine. This is accomplished by inserting the speedloader tube against the studs visible on the lower edge of the receiver on either side of the loading port. Once positioned against the studs, the speedloader button is shoved forward to recharge the magazine. Speedloaders, however, are bulky, cumbersome to carry and hold only four or five rounds of ammunition. Tactical (partial) reloads using speedloaders is difficult unless the magazine can accommodate all the ammunition in the speedloader. Moreover, ammunition carried in speedloaders is essentially “fixed.” Once the ammunition is loaded into a speedloader, it is essentially in place and cannot be readily changed if the tactical situation demands. The user is thus restricted as to the types of ammunition available, basically as many of the cumbersome speedloaders as he has with different types of ammunition in each. Use of speedloaders thus actually degrades one of the tactical shotgun’s greatest assets - its flexibility. It is for these reasons that the value of devices such as speedloader tubes is questioned by many professionals. Not only do they have all the disadvantages mentioned above, speedloaders are only marginally faster than manually reloading the gun from belt carriers, “on the gun” carriers, or over the shoulder bandoleers.

Our informal test of the M4 Super 90/XM1014 revealed that it is a superb semiautomatic tactical shotgun. The gun is very well balanced. It handled and pointed well, despite the awkward appearance of the collapsible buttstock. With the semi-pistol grip or full pistol grip stock installed, the gun handles even better, but we suspect that most operators will retain the sliding stock. The sliding stock is easily removed by pressing a release, turning 90 degrees and sliding the stock off to the rear, leaving the pistol grip in place. The collapsible stock configuration thus provides the greatest degree of tactical flexibility. The cross bolt safety is located at the rear of the trigger guard. It has an oversized and uniquely shaped head that is difficult to mistake for anything else, even if the user is wearing gloves, and can be reversed for left-handed users. As stated, the XM1014 functioned flawlessly with every type of ammunition we fed through it, from low brass # 7 1/2 light target loads to 3 inch magnum slugs. The example that we tested patterned well with a modified choke tube, placing all 12 “00” buckshot slugs on a silhouette target at 25 meters. Slug accuracy at 50 meters was impressive. Tactical Foster-type slugs fired from the M4 Super 90/XM1014 impacted essentially at point of aim with all rounds remaining within an approximately 4.75 inch circle. Brenneke or Sauvestre slugs would almost certainly be more accurate. The XM1014 field strips quickly and easily without tools, unless one counts the charging handle, which is withdrawn from the bolt carrier and used to remove the trigger group and disassemble the gas system for cleaning.

What didn’t we like about the M4 Super 90/XM1014? First the fact that it is a semiautomatic. This writer may be considered a troglodyte, but he still prefers a slide action gun for tactical work, as even the best semiautomatic will not function with the full spectrum of tactical ammunition now available to military and law enforcement agencies and stoppages are easier to clear with a slide action gun. We find that manually cycling semiautomatic shotguns to operate the gun with non-lethal ammunition to be cumbersome due to the (usually) small charging handle and the necessity to remove a hand from the gun to accomplish the task. We should note, however, that this is a subjective judgement and must be balanced against the fact that a gas-operated semiautomatic shotgun such as the M4 Super 90/XM1014 greatly reduces felt recoil, thus enhancing accuracy. For the average soldier or law enforcement officer, semiautomatic operation also enhances target engagement and eliminates the possibility of “short stroking” the gun, thereby causing a stoppage. All of the preceding attributes are decided advantages in a tactical shotgun. These attributes, coupled with the influx of women and smaller framed men into law enforcement and the military lead us to the conclusion that the semiautomatic tactical shotgun will gradually replace slide action guns, even though the former will not cycle with all types of ammunition and slide action guns can be equipped with recoil reducers. In the final analysis, the user will have to judge for himself which type of shotgun best suits his agency’s requirements. The sole minor criticism we have of the HK/Benelli M4 Super 90/XM1014 is the recoil spring tube that protrudes almost a foot to the rear of the gun’s receiver when the stock is removed and the gun used with only the pistol grip in place. Despite the fact that the tube is used to retain the stock and pistol grip, we found that it was somewhat inconvenient when the stock was removed and the gun was used with pistol grip only. Again, this is a subjective judgement and others may not find this to be the case due to differences in human anatomy. This one minor complaint must be balanced against the other excellent attributes of the shotgun.

Overall, the HK/Benelli M4 Super 90/XM1014 offers the user desiring a semiautomatic tactical shotgun what is arguably the best “off the shelf” semiautomatic tactical shotgun available today. It is reliable, relatively lightweight, well balanced and has outstanding ergonomics. It is without doubt the most flexible semiautomatic tactical shotgun available not only in terms of function, but from the standpoint of configuration. The M4 Super 90 can be arranged into virtually any tactical configuration imaginable, from entry gun with 14 inch (355mm) barrel and pistol grip to full length barrel and fixed buttstock. The MIL-STD-1913 rail allows employment of any standard optic or night vision device. We can thus close by stating that any agency that has a requirement for a semiautomatic tactical shotgun would do well to follow the US military’s lead and look very closely at the HK/Benelli M4 Super 90.

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