February 22, 2023
Introduced in 1999, the Benelli M4 Tactical is considered by many people to be the finest tactical shotgun ever made. It was designed specifically to address a solicitation by the U.S. Army’s Armaments Research, Development, and Engineering Center (ARDEC) for a new semi-auto 12-gauge combat shotgun for the U.S. military. The M4 won the testing. It has been in use by the United States Armed forces for over twenty years (as the M1014) and has seen combat all over the world.
Historically the 12-gauge shotgun has been considered the most versatile firearm in the prepper’s armory. But in truth it is a specialized weapon with huge advantages…and huge disadvantages. Let’s take a look at the functionality of the 12-gauge for preppers, through the lens of what is undoubtedly the most combat-proven semi-auto shotgun in history.
Benelli’s Door Buster
First, let’s cover the specs of this Benelli, in case you’re not up to speed on the current state of the tactical 12-gauge. The Benelli M4 Tactical is a semi-auto 12-gauge shotgun with an 18.5-inch barrel and a 3-inch chamber. You can get it with a standard or pistol grip stock, black or Titanium Cerakote finish. You can also buy a commercial version of the M1014, which is identical to the M4 Tactical but equipped with a 3-position adjustable pistol-grip stock. Benelli lists the weight of the M4 Tactical (all models) as 7.8 pounds. My digital scale put this pistol-gripped sample at 8 lbs 5 ounces.
There are only two differences between the commercial M4 Tactical/M1014 and the version issued to the military. The commercial version accepts Benelli’s interchangeable choke tubes (it ships with a Modified choke in place), whereas the military version has a simple improved cylinder bore. To make it legal for import the Benelli M4 Tactical has a 5+1 capacity. It comes with a non-functional extension to the magazine tube that makes the gun look like the 7+1 military shotgun…but it’s not. Many companies make +2 extensions specifically for the Benelli M4 Tactical, so this is an easy issue to address…with the application of more money.
The M4 was Benelli’s first gas-operated shotgun and uses the proprietary ARGO (Auto Regulating Gas-Operated) system. Gas is bled off to cycle two short-stroke stainless steel pistons, which directly work the bolt body. There are only four parts in the gas system, making it simple and robust, but not so light. This gun is built to withstand military-grade abuse. The bolt head rotates as it goes into battery and is chrome plated, as is the barrel extension, for extended life. The magazine follower is high visibility, anodized bright red.
The safety is a cross-bolt design, behind the trigger guard, with a larger triangular button on the right side. The bolt release is a button on the right side of the receiver. The bolt handle is oversize, extending over three-quarters of an inch past the receiver, and is easy to work while wearing gloves. The Benelli has what is known as a free carrier—if the hammer is cocked you can work the bolt without rounds feeding from the magazine tube or the bolt locking back. This allows you to more quickly and easily swap out the shell in the chamber if, for instance, you wanted to throw a slug in.
The pistol grip has a non-slip rubber coating, and there is a thick rubber buttpad at the back of the stock. There are sling mounts on either side of the buttstock and at the front of the forend. No matter your model, you have only one choice in sights, Benelli’s well-regarded ghost ring/rail setup. The front sight is a beefy post protected by steel wings. The rear sight is a protected ghost ring (a large aperture), fully adjustable for windage and elevation via screws that have very robust click adjustments. Both front and rear sights have small dots of photoluminescent paint, which will glow nicely for a short time if you go from a well-lit to a dimly lit area.
Forward of the rear sight is a 5.25-inch section of “Picatinny” rail for mounting an optic. I’ve been resistant to red dots on shotguns simply because I considered them unnecessary, but recent testing has shown me that they are indeed faster than other sighting systems, and provide added functionality when shooting slugs. For testing I mounted the new RFX 35 reflex sight from Viridian. It features a green 3 MOA dot and a sizable 22x26mm window, and uses an RMR footprint. MSRP is $289.
Some Disassembly Required
So now we get to the question of why, as a prepper or someone interested in a defensive firearm, you might want a shotgun, and what its strengths and weaknesses are. With shotgun slugs you can throw a single massive (+/-1 ounce, .72 caliber) bullet downrange. And it’s nice that shotguns afford you that option. But that’s not what shotguns are for, shotguns are meant to send expanding clouds of shot pellets downrange. If you only want to throw one projectile downrange with every pull of the trigger, get yourself a rifle.
Strengths: Shotguns are brute force weapons. Modern battle axes. To paraphrase a gentlemen from the British SAS, referencing his experience in Iraq: “The 5.56 pokes holes, the .308 blows chunks off, but shotguns disassemble people.”
At appropriate ranges there really is no more effective firearm to make bad guys immediately stop what they’re doing. The ubiquitous 00-buck load sends nine .33-caliber pellets downrange at roughly the speed of a 9mm handgun bullet. When it comes to “terminal performance,” a 12-gauge buckshot load is basically the standard against which everything else is judged. You’ve heard “One riot, one Ranger”? With shotguns, with very few exceptions, it’s “One round of buckshot, one bad guy down.” Power and effectiveness are never a concern with a shotgun, provided you’re using the proper ammunition within its effective range.
But that’s another strength of the shotgun, ammo diversity. You can load it with a slug and use it similar to a rifle, or stuff it with buckshot for anti-personnel use. But you can also load it with different size shot and take it hunting, using it to harvest all manner of birds and wild game. With appropriate ammunition you can use it to breach doors. You can fire signal flares from it and even Less Lethal cartridges. It is far more powerful than a pistol, and far more versatile than a rifle. A shotgun is fully capable of not only putting food in your pot, but defending both your meal and family as well. This is its great strength in the eyes of the prepper and survivalist.
But it’s not all good news: in exchange for throwing an ounce or more of payload downrange, recoil, even with light birdshot loads, is stout. It’s much more than you get with pistols or AR-type rifles. Semi-auto shotguns have less recoil than all other types of shotguns, but it’s still significant. And shotguns are large, if not also heavy, and the Benelli is both.
Big, maybe heavy, with significant recoil—which means shotguns are likely a bad choice for people of small stature. Especially the Benelli, which is well known for having a long length of pull (14-inches on this gun). And those shotgun shells are not small or light. Which means magazine capacity will always be limited, and spare ammunition is bulky and heavy. If you’re patrolling your property, worried about riots and looting, you can’t have too many shells in your gun, which is why every “riot” or tactical shotgun sports an extended magazine tube. However, you’re still talking single digits. Not only is capacity low, so is your reload speed. With an AR-15, you can grab a fresh magazine, slap it home, and you’re got 30 more rounds in your gun. With a shotgun, you’re reloading one shell at a time, perhaps in the dark, with cold fingers.
The Short Arm Reflection
A shotgun’s strength is also its weakness. It throws an ever-expanding cloud of pellets downrange. Up close that pattern is tight, and devastating. At mid-range that pattern expands to a point where you can still score hits even if your aim was a bit off. But at a certain distance that pattern becomes so spread out that you can’t even be guaranteed a single pellet hit, much less an incapacitating injury.
At what distance does a shotgun become ineffective for hunting and/or self-defense? Let me give the completely accurate, technical answer—it depends. On a lot of stuff. Traditionally, a pattern expands one inch for every yard it travels from the muzzle, when fired out of a shotgun with no choke. As a result, twenty-five yards was often considered the maximum effective range of a shotgun loaded with buckshot. But every shotgun is different, and there can be huge differences between brands of ammunition. Whether you’re using your shotgun for hunting or self-defense, birdshot or buckshot, you should pattern your gun with that specific load at various pertinent distances.
How effective your shotgun is will also depend on what load you’re using. Birdshot is loaded with tiny pellets. Up close, flying in one ragged fist-sized cloud, they can easily be fatal. But nobody recommends birdshot for self-defense because once you get past spitting distances that pattern spreads out, and those individual tiny pellets don’t penetrate deeply enough.
Buckshot is considered the defensive shotgun load of choice. It was originally invented to shoot deer (hence the name), and there are seven different sizes of buckshot (000, 00, 0, 1, 2, 3, and 4, going from largest to smallest). I’ve heard some people swear by 000 (“Triple-Ought”) buckshot, simply because the pellets are the biggest and heaviest (.36 caliber, 70 grains per), but you only get 8 pellets in the standard 2¾-inch shell. Others prefer #4 buckshot, simply because of the number of pellets (27 .24 caliber pellets, each 21 grains). However, the most popular buckshot load on the market is 00-buck. A standard 2¾-inch shell offers 9 .33-caliber 53.8-grain 00-buck pellets heading downrange at approximately 1200+ fps. “Double-ought buck” has nearly become the standard buckshot load, to the extent that it is hard to find anything else.
As an experiment, I decided to pattern the M4 Tactical with Federal’s reduced recoil 00-buck load. This is by far the most common buckshot load in use by American law enforcement and sends 9 00-buck pellets, cradled in Federal’s FliteControl wad, downrange at 1,145 fps. I patterned this load on USPSA cardboard silhouette targets at five different distances (7, 15, 25, 50, and 75 yards) in an attempt to determine at what distance it is no longer effective for self-defense.
At 7 yards all nine pellets grouped inside a two-inch pattern. I think the wad made a bigger hole in the target. At 15 yards this ammo produced a tight 4-inch pattern. At 25-yards, an excellent 7-inch pattern. But beyond that… At both 50 and 75 yards I fired multiple rounds, to get an average, as the shot patterns had spread so much. At 50 yards I had 4, 7, and then 4 pellet hits, for an average of 5. Five pellets of 00-buckshot would likely incapacitate someone, and would perhaps be fatal, but I consider this pushing the maximum effective range of this load, with this shotgun. Of course, and let me repeat, every shotgun and every buckshot load will pattern differently.
At 75 yards, I had to fire three rounds just to get two pellet hits on the target. Which brings up an interesting point, some people prefer smaller but more numerous pellets (i.e. #1 or #4 buckshot) simply because of their performance at extended ranges. Fewer holes in the pattern, which means more pellet strikes at 50 and 75 yards. You have to decide how you want your shotgun to pattern at what distance, and that will determine your ammunition choice.
I also tested ammunition that is almost the exact opposite of the Federal 00-buck load. Winchester has a new Defender Close Range load that contains 11⁄8 ounce of #2 copper-plated shot (100 pellets). As Winchester says, it offers substantially more pellets than 00-buck, and less risk of over-penetration. At 10 yards this load produced a nice 9-inch pattern and would likely penetrate 6-9 inches, which means I consider 7-10 yards the maximum effective range of this properly advertised “Close Range” shell. Out of curiosity, I fired one round of this ammunition at 75 yards, and got twelve pellet strikes—far more hits than the Federal 00-buck, but with pellets too small and light to do much damage, unless you’re after coyotes.
The Benelli M4 Tactical is the softest-shooting 12-gauge I’ve ever fired. It cycled both buckshot and birdshot shells flawlessly. As they’ve been on the market for years, there are plenty of aftermarket accessories available, and if I was buying this shotgun, I definitely wouldn’t leave it as-is. The first thing I would do is buy a +2 extension for the magazine tube. Next I’d attach a side-saddle to the receiver to hold spare shells. Perhaps the best value on the market is the elastic EssTac shotgun “cards.” They mount to your receiver with Velcro so you can swap them out instantly. Next I’d add a red dot. The Benelli M4 Tactical is big, heavy, and expensive. However, it is as combat-proven and bank-vault-tough as a semi-auto shotgun gets.
Benelli M4 Tactical Specs
- Type: Gas-operated semiautomatic
- Caliber: 12 gauge, 3-inch chamber
- Barrel Length: 18.5 in.
- Stock: Black synthetic
- Capacity: 5+1 tubular magazine
- Receiver: Aluminum
- Muzzle Device: Benelli choke (modified installed)
- Overall Length: 39.75 in.
- Weight: 8 lbs., 5 oz.
- Safety: Manual
- Sights: Post front, ghost ring rear, photoluminescent dots MIL STD 1913 rail for optics
- Trigger: 5.5 lbs. (tested)
- Accessories: None
- MSRP: $2,099
- Manufacturer: Benelli
About the Author
James Tarr is a longtime contributor to Firearms News and other firearms publications. A former police officer he is a USPSA Production Division Grand Master. He is also the author of several books, including CARNIVORE, which was featured on The O’Reilly Factor. His current best-selling novel, Dogsoldiers, is available now through Amazon.
This article was originally published in Be Ready magazine. You can find the original magazine on the OSG Newsstand. If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.