Gun Review: Benelli MR1 Tactical Rifle

The AR may be America’s rifle, but the weapon is not without its critics. Some say the system runs too dirty to be reliable. Others aren’t thrilled with the AR’s military demeanor and “assault rifle” rep. Either way, some gun owners choosing a rifle to defend hearth and home find themselves between a rock (traditional bolt-action rifles) and a hard place (AR-15). Enter the Benelli MR1 . . .

The Italian rifle looks like the love-child of a Beretta Storm and a Benelli M2 shotgun; a firearm that somehow bridges the gap between futuristic and familiar without appearing overly tactical. In theory, the Benelli MR1 is an ideal combination: a home defense rifle that blends the latest firing system with Olde Worlde ergonomics. In practice, well . . .  let’s start by looking at what makes this baby tick.

The ARGO (Auto Regulating Gas Operating) system is the MR1′s USP (Unique Selling Point). Benelli originally developed the ARGO system for its shotguns after deciding that the weight of night-vision scopes and other specialized equipment might compromise the effectiveness of their ultra-reliable Inertia Driven system. In both the Marines’ battle-tested M4 combat shotgun and the MR1, the ARGO system uses exhaust gasses to power a self-cleaning stainless steel piston, which operates directly against the rotating bolt.

The blowback occurs in a port just ahead of the chamber, where the gasses are relatively hot and clean. Benelli claims that their ARGO system guarantees “less fouling and more reliable recycling.” The company also says that the MR1′s piston design “eliminates the need for complex linkages found on other, inferior gas systems.”

The Benelli MR1 leaves the factory with a hard chrome-lined 16” barrel with a 1 in 9” right hand twist. The self-proclaimed makers of “the best home defense rifle available” package their gun with a five-round 5.56 mm NATO (.223 Remington) magazine. Just as well that the MR1 accepts full-capacity 20 or 30-round M-16 mags. (More on that later.)

Benelli fits the MR1 with rugged but rudimentary sights, adjustable for wind and elevation. To help us get a sense of the MR1′s accuracy both close-in and way out, Burris provided TTAG with one of their excellent Extreme XTR Tactical riflescopes and a set of rings. The Burris 1.5X-6X-40mm scope is a work of art, with crystal clear optics and ergonomically-sound, common sense controls. [Click here to download the technical notes.]

Mated to the MR1, the XXXL Burris scope looked a little goofy. As would any optic perched atop the MR1′s military-style aperture sights (secured with torx screws and thread-locking glue). Scope the MR1 and you’ll need to practice your chin weld; only extra high rings or an additional riser allows the scope bell to clear the rear sight assembly. It’s a major drawback for AR-lovers who (sensibly enough) heart optics that can co-witness with back-up iron sights, or at least don’t stand quite so proud of the rail.

The MR1′s a solid piece, weighing in at 7.9 lb unloaded. It’s slightly front heavy, which helps keep muzzle flip under control. The MR1′s neoprene pistol grip surface is as grippy as Roger Federer at a UNICEF fund raiser. The Benelli’s synthetic fore-end does a fine job of mitigating barrel heat during rapid fire strings. Though the 16 “ crowned barrel lacks a muzzle device, the muzzle blast is surprisingly tame.

The Benelli’s 5.5-lbs. two-stage trigger is a dream to shoot: easy to control through the slack, and crisp and clean when it breaks. It’s the gun’s single greatest advantage over a standard AR rifle. That said, the MR1′s trigger pull is a bit long. And the ergonomics of the pistol grip place the shooter’s finger down at the very bottom of the trigger, which can degrade trigger control.

Every shooter who fired the Benelli used some variant of the word “fun” to describe their experience—thanks in part to the reduced parts count up front. With less mass heaving to and fro, the MR1 has noticeably less recoil than most AR platform rifles. Not that .223 is a particularly punishing round. But you can shoot the Italian rifle for extended periods without feeling even slightly beaten up.

To that end, ATK supplied TTAG with a stash of high-quality Federal ammo, including 40 and 55-grain Nosler Ballistic Tips, 55-grain Sierra Game Tips, 55-grain Barnes Triple Shocks and 60-grain Nosler Partition bullets. The Benelli ate them up and spat them out without hesitation or deviation, with plenty of repetition. In roughly 300 rounds fired, I experienced a single, mag-related failure to feed.

In terms of accuracy . . .

From the bench at 50 yards, the Benelli was putting 10 shots into 2 inch groups. The MR1 performed even better with the 55 grain Nosler Ballistic Tips and 55 grain Barnes Triple Shock ammunition. At 100 yards, the groups still remained around 2 inches—which is more than acceptable for a defensive rifle.

Firing the MR1 offhand from at distances ranging from close in to 150 yards, Big Ben pointed naturally and delivered hits as fast as the shooter could adjust his aim. This is where the MR1 really shines: close-in combat mode. Once you get the Benelli off the bench rest and start marching downrange, gripping that forend and sweeping for targets with the muzzle, the weapon proves incredibly wieldy and perfectly deadly.

Yes, but—the ambidextrous magazine release was a bit stiff. Only the factory five-round mag dropped free reliably. Unlike the fancy scope addition, the aforementioned 20 and 30-round M16 magazines are absolutely essential to the MR1′s main mission. They must function flawlessly going in, staying in, feeding and leaving the rifle.

Truth be told, the MR1 only likes certain magazines. I attribute the MR1′s single failure to feed (noted above) to a Brownells magazine. As Guns & Ammo also discovered, the Magpul P-Mag is not the MR1′s friend, due to its mid-level (rather than baseplate) lip. Anyone considering the MR1 for home defense is well-advised to do some online and in-store mag-compatibility research before purchasing this gun.

While we’re kvetching, the MR1 shares a less than ideal Benelli family trait: a trigger guard-mounted safety. It’s a real stretch for a trigger finger—which makes it a highly inconvenient device for anyone who needs to run and gun (which hand do you take off the weapon?). Also, if you cradle the MR1 too close to the magazine well, the rifle has an entirely unpleasant tendency to bite a shooter’s support hand between the magazine and the receiver. It’s a mistake you won’t make twice.

The MR1 makes some pleasant concessions to southpaw shooters: an ambidextrous mag release, an ambidextrous bolt release (placed directly in front of the trigger guard) and a charging handle positioned on the right side of the bolt. The butt-stock is ready to attach a sling for either right or left-handed shooters. The cross bolt safety was easy enough to index and to disengage.

The single biggest downside for left-handed shooters: the lack of a brass deflector. After just a handful of rounds, the rifle showed noticeable brass dings along the right side of the receiver. And then I started getting hit in the face with hot brass. Eye protection saved the day. But there’s no doubt that hitting your target becomes exponentially more difficult when you’re trying to duck your own brass. (Right handers have nothing to fear from this quirk.)

To field-strip the MR1 for cleaning, you remove the magazine, unload the rifle, unscrew the knobbed fore-end cap, pull the fore-end forward to remove it. With the removal of the gas system nut and its captured spring, the entire piston assembly, bolt and barrel simply slide forward off the receiver. Reassembly requires a steady hand to line it all up correctly.

Not to overstate the obvious, the Benelli MR1 is not an AR-15. Rifle buyers who embrace the AR’s black gun demeanor, “plug-and-play” adaptability and easy access to endless parts, accessories and expertise need not apply. By the same token, the MR1′s inability to accomodate upgraded non-red dot optics without sacrificing the possibility of a cheek weld reduces the Italian rifle’s utility.

Which leaves us with what?

A $1300 funky-looking close-quarters home defense gun with a five-round magazine that handles like a Ferrari, shoots as soft as baby’s backside and hits what you aim at. A beautifully-built weapon that fills a niche perfectly—but only that niche—that would run reliably through a solid year of zombie killing. But whatever it is, the Benelli MR1 is not America’s rifle. Whether or not that’s a good thing or not is a matter of personal taste. And money.

SPECIFICATIONS:

Caliber: 5.56x45mm NATO (.223 Rem)
Barrel: 16” hard chrome lined 1 in 9” RH twist
Overall Length: 37.1”
Weight: 7.9lb (unloaded)
Action: Auto-Regulating-Gas-Operated (ARGO)
Finish: Black synthetic
Capacity: Comes with one five-round factory magazine, accepts all M-16 magazines (some better than others)
Price: MSRP $1299

RATINGS (Out of Five)

Style * * *

The Benelli MR1 is a bit . . . Reubenesque. Doesn’t scope well with friends.

Ergonomics * * *

The MR1 feels good in your hands; you can shoot for extended periods without fatigue. Southpaws beware; some of the empty brass may have your name on it.

Reliability * * * * *

Definitely 5 out of 5. Benelli has a winner with the ARGO system and this rifle did a splendid job of gobbling up every loading we fed it. Nice and clean when we broke it down.

Customize This * *

Benelli offers an attachable Picatinny tri-rail for the fore end to enable the use of flashlights, lasers, etc. In this AR Lego world of ours, the gunmaker needs to make it easy (i.e. possible) to remove the standard iron sights.

Overall Rating * * *

An innovative weapon system that doesn’t offer a killer app compared to more user-friendly defensive rifles—that cost the same or less.

Federal Premium supplied the ammo for our testing.