The Last Gun You'll Need?: A Dedicated Handloader Puts Benelli's Nova Tactical Through Its Paces

There is little debate that times in this country are currently tough. The national unemployment rate continues to hover around the ten percent mark, employers are reluctant to take on new workers, and the jobs that are available are often low paying endeavors that will barely allow a working stiff to make ends meet. Such conditions are bound to impact hunting and the shooting sports which can, if one is not careful, can be excessively expensive hobbies.

These truths beg the question, what does a firearm enthusiast do if he or she can only afford one gun? What sort of firearm can do an adequate job of defending hearth and home while also being perfectly capable of bagging game from the size of a quail all the way up to the size of a moose? The answer is, and has always been, the 12 gauge shotgun. Loaded with standard birdshot loads, such an arm is ideal for taking small game while a good buckshot load will take care of any home defense situations that may arise. When big game is in season, a magazine full of slug loads is more than adequate for all manner of large animals, if the hunter does his or her part and keeps distances to 100 yards or less.

One such jack of all trades shotgun is the Benelli Nova Tactical. For the most part, the Nova is like any other pump action shotgun with a few notable exceptions. For example, the 18.5” barrel sports a set of ghost ring sights that make placing slugs on target at distances beyond 25 yards an easier task than with the standard bead found on most sporting shotguns. The Nova’s 3.5 inch chamber allows for the use of a wide variety of different loads adding to the gun’s overall versatility. The guns’ tube magazine holds four rounds of 2 ¾ inch shot-shells, but aftermarket extensions are available for those who want greater capacity. Perhaps one drawback of the Nova Tactical is the fixed improved cylinder choke. I personally appreciate the option of an interchangeable choke system and may decide to have the barrel threaded to accept choke tubes.

benelli nova tactical

The Benelli Nova Tactical, pictured above, is a short, handy, and rugged shotgun that offers a lot of versatility at an affordable price. While it won’t score high in the category of aesthetics, it is a good multi-tool for a variety of applications.

ghost ring rear sight

The ghost ring rear sight on the Nova Tactical is click adjustable for windage and elevation. Such a sight is an improvement over the bead sight found on most shotguns when shooting slug loads.

An additional interesting feature possessed by the Nova is a magazine stop button which allows the operator to eject the round in the chamber without another round being released from the magazine. This feature is useful for situations where it is advantageous to replace the round in the chamber without altering the charge in the magazine.  I can see this feature being useful if hunting deer with a magazine full of slugs when a hapless rabbit or grouse makes the mistake of wandering within striking distance. The slug in the chamber could easily be replaced with a shot load suited to small game.

magazine stop button

The magazine stop button on the underside of the fore-end allows the user to eject a round from the chamber without chambering another from the magazine. Such a feature is useful in situations where it is prudent to change the round in the chamber without altering the order and balance of the magazine.

When it comes to fit and finish, the Nova is not going to win any beauty contests and calling it downright ugly would not be out of line. The gun sports a black, synthetic stock and a polymer coated receiver that should go a long way in keeping it resistant to weather, scratching, and other various abuses that may befall a working gun. The gun’s overall length is 40 inches and it weighs in at 7.2 pounds empty making for a compact, fast handling platform that will be right at home in terrain where the brush is thick. Admittedly, the Nova is not the most comfortable gun I’ve ever shouldered and the hard rubber butt pad does little to take the bite out of heavy recoiling loads, but none of its ergonomic issues are severe enough to make it a chore to shoot. Ultimately, it’s a no-nonsense, all business shotgun that will handle any job that comes its way.

When reviewing any firearm, the million dollar question is, of course, how does it shoot? I was recently able to the answer this question for the Nova Tactical on a weekend trip to a snow covered range where I sent a variety of different slug and shot loads through the gun in an effort to determine how it grouped and patterned.

loads the author used

Pictured above are the loads the author used in his initial range trial of the Benelli Nova Tactical. In addition to a variety of factory loaded slugs, buckshot, and birdshot, a handload consisting of 1 ounce of size F buckshot was tested.

Slugs and the Benelli Nova Tactical

I began my range session with a test of various, factory loaded slugs designed for smooth bore shotguns. As a side note, I feel it is important to address the common misconception that the “rifling” on a rifled slug causes the projectile to rotate in flight. The true purpose of a slug’s rifling is to allow the projectile to swage through any type of choke from cylinder to full. It should be noted that there are a few slugs on the market that are composed of a hard lead alloy or other material that will not allow them to squeeze through tighter chokes.  And it’s always important to check manufacturers’ warnings prior to firing any kind of ammo.

Slugs intended for use in smoothbore arms are actually stabilized by keeping most of the projectile’s weight in its nose. For Foster style slugs (such as those found in Remington Slugger loads) this weight distribution is achieved through the projectile’s hollow base. Another type of slug, known as a Plumbata slug, will have a plastic skirt attached to a lead projectile giving it an appearance similar to that of a shuttlecock used in badminton.  In both instances, it is the weight-forward design of the projectile that facilitates a nose first orientation while in flight.

The test procedure for the slug trials was fairly straightforward. I set up 8-inch by 8-inch square targets at a distance of 45 yards and fired three shot groups from the bench while employing the use of an adjustable rifle rest. I decided to fire three shot groups rather than 5 shot groups for both economic and physiological reasons. I wanted to retain two rounds of each type of slug for a planned future round of terminal performance tests while at the same time mitigating shoulder fatigue. Even firing a series of three shot groups left my shoulder somewhat bruised and weak.

I did not bother to adjust the sight between shots as the purpose of the exercise was to determine potential accuracy and not to shoot bullseyes. Zeroing for each load would have used more ammo than I had. As a result, most groups printed high and right of center. It is likely that groups would have been noticeably smaller had I been able to employ the use of an optical sight and a steadier rest.

The last thing I did before firing a shot was to establish what I considered a reasonable accuracy expectation. It would be unfair to expect a smoothbore shotgun, even one with good sights to print cloverleaf groups at 100 yards. What I really want out of a smoothbore slug gun is enough accuracy to consistently hit the vitals of a deer at ranges of 75 yards or less. It follows that any group I can cover with an 8 inch circle would more than meet such requirements.

Remington 2 ¾ inch 1 ounce Slugger

remington 1 ounce sluggers

The first slugs I tried were Remington 1 ounce Sluggers, which are among the best known and most widely available slugs on the market. The advertised muzzle velocity of these slugs is 1560 f/s, but actual figures are likely lower out of the Nova’s short barrel. Since this was the first trial of the day, I fired a total of six rounds rather than three. This was done in an effort to adjust the sights enough to make sure all shots were at least hitting the target. The first three shots in the above photo struck the paper above the upper right corner of the target. A few clicks of the sight brought the second three shot group onto the target. The diagonal line formed by the second series of shots measured 6.5 inches in length. Recoil for these slugs was stout, but not extreme.

Winchester 2 ¾ inch Super X 1 ounce rifled slugs

muzzle velocity of 1600 f/s

These slugs yield a muzzle velocity of 1600 f/s (according to the manufacturer) and strung all three shots along a diagonal line just under 7 inches in length.  Recoil was about equal to that of the Sluggers.

Brenneke 2 ¾” K.O. 1 ounce slugs

brenekke k.o. slugs

The Nova loved the Brenekke K.O. slugs, placing them into a near cloverleaf group which measured 2.5 inches at its widest point. The manufacturer muzzle velocity figure for these slugs is 1600 f/s meaning recoil was the same as with the other 1 ounce loads I tried during the range session. The K.O.s grouped better than any other offering tested during that day’s trials.

Federal 2 ¾” 1 ounce Truball rifled slug

1 ounce truball rifled slug

@font-face { font-family: “Calibri”; }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 10pt; line-height: 115%; font-size: 11pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; } @font-face { font-family: “Calibri”; }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 10pt; line-height: 115%; font-size: 11pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; }Federal Truball slugs incorporate the use of a plastic sphere that links the hollow base of the lead projectile with a hollow crater in the front of the gas seal. According to the manufacturer, this system is supposed to help center the slug in the barrel of smoothbore guns for more consistent accuracy. The advertised muzzle velocity of this load is 1600 f/s. These slugs seemed to recoil the most of all the 2 ¾” loads I sampled, but the effect may have only been perceived as my shoulder was starting to feel a little gelatinous at this point in my range session. The three Truballs I fired resulted in a triangular group that measured just over 4 inches at its widest point.

Federal 3 inch 1 ¼ ounce magnum rifled slugs

federal 3 inch 1 ¼ ounce magnum rifled slugs

In spite of having donned a recoil pad prior to touching off these heavy hitters, I was unprepared for the amount of recoil I would have to endure and thus botched the first shot, missing the paper completely. While I would describe the recoil of the 2 ¾ inch slugs sampled earlier in the day as stout, uncomfortable, or unpleasant, the Federal magnum slugs (which send a 1 ¼ ounce projectile out of the muzzle at an advertised 1600 f/s) were downright painful.  With no regard for the increased chance of tendonitis in my shoulder later in life, I endured another three shots which printed a linear group that measured 4 ¼ inches long.  I can see this load as useful in circumstances where a little extra horsepower is needed over a standard 1 ounce slug, but I certainly won’t be using them for casual plinking any time soon.

Remington 2 ¾ Slugger 7/8 ounce rifled slug

remington 2 ¾ slugger 7/8 ounce rifled slug

I expected this load to exhibit less felt recoil than the previously tested 1 ounce offerings, but the increased velocity (advertised at 1800 f/s) seemed to nullify any recoil reduction that may have otherwise resulted from the lighter projectile. Recoil had a quick, unpleasant, snap to it while the 1 ounce loads resulted in more of an extended push to the shoulder. Two shots hit the target 4 inches apart while the third missed completely. Admittedly, shooter error and fatigue may have resulted in the flyer.

Slug test conclusions

Based on my first extended range session with the Nova Tactical, it seems that a few more boxes of Brenneke K.O. Slugs would be a worthwhile purchase. I’m inclined to wonder if any other loads offered by Brenneke will perform as well or better in the Nova. It also became clear that I shouldn’t fire 3 inch magnum slugs through the gun unless I’m being charged by a large angry animal. My next project involving shotgun slugs and the Benelli Nova will be to develop a handload that will offer manageable recoil, low cost, and enough accuracy to provide hours of water jug busting fun.
Shot loads and the Benelli Nova Tactical

Before concluding my range visit I wanted to fire a few shot loads (buck and bird) to see what kind of pattern the gun threw. I moved my target stand in to approximately 12 yards, and fired at sheets of 14 inch by 22 inch poster board.
Sellier & Bellot 2 ¾ inch 00 Buckshot, 9 pellet load

sellier & bellot 2 ¾ inch 00 buckshot

I unleashed three rounds of this very standard buckshot load and found that at 12 yards, all pellets hit within the borders of the target. Recoil for this load was light enough to rapidly fire all three rounds and remain on target.

Experimental handload: 1 ounce (27 pellets) of size F buckshot

1 ounce (27 pellets) of size f buckshot

The second shot load I tested was one of my own creation. It consisted of 1 ounce (27 pellets) of size F (.22” dia.) buckshot loaded into a standard Winchester AA trap wad and hull. I rapidly fired three shots into the paper and found that most of it was covered with a pattern of fairly even density. I have conducted some terminal performance tests of size F buckshot loads and I am of the opinion that the size is underrated for close range, inside the house, defensive duties.  That, however, is another topic for another article.

Remington 2 ¾ inch Express 1 ¼ ounce of size 7 ½ shot

remington 2 ¾ inch express 1 ¼ ounce of size 7 ½ shot

I was pleased with how evenly a single Remington birdshot round patterned and filled most of the paper with holes. While there are some gaps in the pattern, none of them are large enough for anything larger than a chickadee to slip through.

Federal 3.5 inch Strut 2 ounces, size 6 shot

federal 3.5 inch strut 2 ounces, size 6 shot

Just because I’m a glutton for punishment, I decided to end my range session with a single round of turkey load. While the 2 ounces of shot were spread fairly evenly over the entirety of the target, the Remington 1 ¼ ounce load fired immediately prior seemed to yield a denser pattern. Needless to say, recoil was murderous.

Shot load conclusion

Overall, the Nova patterned well with all tested shot loads. While the short barrel and fixed improved cylinder choke make it less than ideal for turkey and waterfowl hunting, and the ghost ring sight makes it less than ideal for wing shooting, the Nova is capable of handling either task in a pinch. Stocked with a good buckshot load, the Nova would be well suited to home defense duties should the need arise. Disclaimer: Jason Wimbiscus is a dedicated and expert handloader with many years of experience.  As shown by the depth of knowledge in the articles he produces for, Jason possesses a degree of expertise in the science of handloading.  Handloading is both a science and an art without much room for error.  Accordingly Mr. Wimbiscus and the would like to caution anyone attempting to recreate the activities described in this article.  Handloading is dangerous: take all advice and instructions found in any article at your own risk.

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