June 03, 2021
Back in junior-high days when we hunted pheasants, my buddy, Pat, carried a hand-me-down bolt-action 16-gauge with worn wooden stock but I never gave it much thought, carrying my brother’s 20-gauge pump until I, skipping over 16-gauge, got my own 12-gauge double-barrel. Like many, I had written off 16-gauge as a relic, there not being many – or any – choices in 16-gauge shotguns or ammunition in the hardware stores that were our main source of sporting arms and ammunition.
It took years but things started to change. In 2012 I took note when Browning brought out their newly designed A5 and nodded in approval when they introduced the Sweet 16 version, which “put some life in the 16-gauge,” according to Jeff Barry of Kent Cartridge Company. It appeared the 16-gauge and other now-called sub-gauges were staging a comeback, spurred by new interest fed as much as anything by improvements in shotshells that give the smaller gauges improved downrange performance and lethality. Plus, many of the new non-toxic shotshells, like Kent’s bismuth loads, are safe to shoot in fixed-choke shotguns “so we think a lot of guns got brought out of the safe and into the field in recent years,” Barry said.
Still, I was late to the sub-gauge game. Oh, I hunted with a 28-gauge along the way but came away wanting more when pheasants flushed far ahead. And for me, .410 was mostly a snake-charmer until recent ammunition improvements (Think tungsten.) have been a game-changer, making it a legitimate game-getter.
But through it all, 16-gauge remained on the periphery, blipping on the outer circle of my radar as companies began producing more shotguns and more models. Somewhere along the line, the slow-to-glow lightbulb clicked on, maybe on the umpteenth time I read this about 16-gauge: It carries – and recoils – like a 20 but has the knockdown power of a 12.
It hadn’t taken me long to set aside 3½-inch waterfowl and turkey loads, believing the way to make the uncomfortable extra recoil punch unnecessary was to convince birds to close the distance. (My favorite turkey gun is a 20-gauge.) And I was never one to shrink from what my friend and fellow outdoor writer the late Steve Harper called “mindless recoil of high-powered firearms.” He and I enjoyed a good kick, black powder or smokeless. And I’ve patterned all manner of shotguns and sighted in a host of rifles from .458 Winchester on down without a problem. Those sensitive to recoil were much quicker at picking up on the less-recoil advantage of sub-gauge shotguns, including those introducing newcomers to hunting and shooting. Why start with punishing recoil that might turn off a promising hunter?
So something about “recoil of a 20 but knockdown of a 12” stuck. My 12- and 20-gauge world began unraveling. Faster when Franchi brought out their Instinct SLX in 12, 20 and 16-gauge – and then 28 gauge. They had me at 16-gauge.
The Real Test
Franchi’s Instinct SLX arrived in its secure orange carrying case but circumstances intervened to prevent me from getting many chances to put it to use, first blizzard conditions, then covid, then brutal record-setting low temperatures. Anxious, I snuck in a couple quick sessions with clays while waiting for the real test, a pheasant, chukar and Hungarian partridge hunt (and sporting clays) at Pheasant Bonanza near Tekamah, Nebraska.
Lined out for our first morning’s hunt, the four of us hunters waited for Jase Sorenson to give the signal to follow the dogs into the field. The first pheasant rocketed up on my end, the right, and made a sweeping turn to put distance between us. I swung and fired, then the second barrel, but the pheasant showed no reaction other than shifting to a higher gear. “How’s that for a start?” I shouted across the line. Graciously, they withheld comment.
I had the barrel selector switch, located conveniently in the middle of the tang safety, set to fire first the top barrel with its improved-cylinder extended choke, then the bottom, choked modified.
Suffice it to say the misses did not continue, or at least were dialed back to a sporadic level, as we kept Jase and his dogs busy, always two pointers and one retriever which he alternated to provide rest when needed.
Handling and inspecting a shotgun in the workshop is fine and dandy for getting an initial look at fit and feel, as well as appreciating the detail and aesthetics of a shotgun like this Instinct SLX, which is the deluxe version of the Instinct over/under line introduced more than 10 years ago with the Instinct L (with steel receiver) and then the SL, with a lightweight aluminum-alloy frame.
The SLX has the same lightweight aluminum-alloy frame – the 16-gauge version weighing just 5.8 pounds, a measurable plus when toting it day in and day out across upland fields – or clay courses, for that matter. The SLX frames, by the way, are true to their gauge. The 16-gauge is a true 16-gauge frame, not a 16-gauge barrel fitted to a 12-gauge frame, said Daren Cole of Franchi, who was along on the hunt to answer questions just like that. Same goes for all gauges in the line.
Features of the deluxe model include the types of touches seen on more expensive shotguns, like classy floral engraving with gold inlays, gold trigger, crisp checkered AA-grade walnut stock in Prince of Wales style and Schnabel forend. Man, I like Schnabel forends, on shotguns and rifles. Another nice detail is the engraved and cut-out breech locking lever. Fit and finish of wood to metal is Franchi-esque, which is to say top-notch.
But to really appreciate a shotgun, there’s nothing like carrying it in the field, feeling its heft (or lack of), its fit and handling characteristics. This one had nice ergonomics, which is a word I lived without for years but it helps explain the fit and feel of the nicely styled half-pistol grip and narrow forend, and how the stock came naturally to my shoulder and the blued, vented barrels seemed to swing smoothly to catch up to targets, whether bird or clay. And balance, again hard to explain, but it balanced and blended with the motion of putting the shotgun into action, whether predictably on the sporting clays range or on surprise of a flushing pheasant.
Recoil? Never really thought about it and now thinking back over the two days of hunting, plus several trips to the sporting clays range, I can’t say I remember anything about recoil, and that’s the best compliment I could give on the matter. The Instinct SLX does have a nice cushioning black recoil pad so even with the light overall weight of the gun the recoil is mild, to my way of thinking.
And that’s with high-performance shotshells with plenty of umph. We used Kent FastLead in No. 5s and Kent Bismuth Upland shotshells, both of which were smacking birds at decent ranges ranging out to 40 or 50 yards; and were devastating if you didn’t let close-flushers gain some distance. I started with FastLead on Day 1, then on Day 2 switched to the bismuth loads after Cole knocked down a nearly escaping pheasant at an estimated 60-plus yards. Actually, we thought 65, but I’m trying to be conservative here.
“I would say that either our FastLead or Bismuth could be effective out to 60 yards in the hands of a capable wing shot,” Barry said, but at Kent they only “speak to the performance” at 40 yards and let end users speak to longer distances, which I just did. And I guess that means Cole is a capable wing shot, as proven on this and other occasions over the two-day shotgun workout.
But back to the Instinct SLX. Other highlights include the auto injectors that pop the empties out with authority and the tang-mounted safety that resets at the break of the barrels for safety’s sake.
But top on my comment list was the easy-handling weight, or lack of, that didn’t wear me down throughout long trudges over and through a variety of terrain. When hunting in a line with other hunters the rule is to keep your muzzle up. There’s likely someone to your left and right and possibly behind, so up is the safe direction and that was easy to maintain with the Instinct SLX. Noticeably so, especially at the end of the day’s hunt. No arm or shoulder fatigue. So light, it is easily carried with one hand. Easily. Another plus for new or small-frame hunters; why wear them out toting an unnecessarily heavy shotgun?
Downsides, other than missing that first pheasant and other birds and clays over the next couple days, were essentially non-existent. I suppose I could grump about the action that was stiff, understandable in a shotgun just out of the box. I took it apart, added lube and worked and reworked the action and it seemed to loosen as the shooting wore on.
The only caveat, hopefully temporary, is the relative lack of availability of sub-gauge shotgun ammo. The shortage, Kent’s Jeff Barry said, “is simply due to market conditions and needing to focus on producing longer runs of core product to help meet the historic level of demand.” In other words, manufacturers are not going to switch production to sub-gauges when everything they can produce in 20- and 12-gauge is flying off the shelves.
But let’s not let a fly in the ointment, as they say. There simply are not a lot of over/unders in this class I’d call affordable, but this is one. Suggested price is $2,100 for the 16-gauge Instinct SLX but I’ve seen them closer to $1,800. For that kind of money, it’s a sharp-looking over/under that is reliable, smooth-swinging and well balanced; a sharp-looking shotgun that even working stiffs like me can afford to take out in the upland field or clays course without worrying about an occasional well-earned ding or scratch. I’ll tell you this. I’m not so much one enamored by fine shotguns, which is not to say I don’t admire their workmanship, style and price tags but my collection tends to run toward the workhorse side of the spectrum. This one, however, has me thinking I’ve found a classy and classic over/under that can up my game. In 16-gauge, no less.
The Essentials Gear Box.
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