October 25, 2021
Lauded by some, mocked by others, unused by most, the 16-gauge shotgun has clung to life despite numerous obstacles over the years.
It was given the cold shoulder in competitive skeet shooting in the 1920s, not receiving its own category when rules were devised. Throughout the 20th century, the 12 and 20 gauges stole more and more of its share of the shotgun market due to technological advances, like the debut of 3- and 3 1/2-inch shells.
And when the switch from lead to non-toxic shot for waterfowl occurred in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the 16 gauge, with its smaller 2 3/4-inch shells incapable of holding as much of the larger steel shot required, fell even further from grace. With each hit, the 16 gauge’s position in the shotgun world became ever shakier, and as a result, manufacturers devoted fewer resources to it.
Nevertheless, during its most respected days, many hunters—especially upland hunters—loved how the 16 carried and performed afield. Many still do, which is why it persists. The gauge patterns 1-ounce, 2 3/4-inch lead and bismuth loads very well, making it deadly on pretty much every upland gamebird one might have occasion to hunt. The often-discussed tendency of a 16 gauge to "carry like a 20 and hit like a 12" was what endeared it to hunters in the past, and this same rationale—and some degree of nostalgia—is why fans still love it today.
Despite this, few companies offer dedicated 16-gauge shotguns. As part of a recent resurgence in sub-gauge shotguns as a whole, though, a handful of manufacturers have bucked convention to add 16-gauge offerings to their lineups. One of these is the Italian gunmaker Franchi, which has debuted two 16-gauge over-unders in the past three years, the most recent being its new Instinct SLX.
The deluxe version of Franchi’s Instinct SL line, the SLX is a sweet shotgun decked out with features one would expect on a high-end over-under. The lightweight aluminum-alloy receiver has elegant floral engraving with gold inlays, the opening lever is cut out and engraved, and the trigger is gold plated. The gun also wears an AA-grade satin walnut Prince of Wales stock and a narrow Schnabel-style fore-end, both artfully checkered for grip and aesthetics. Barrels, meanwhile, are gloss blue.
There aren’t many manufacturers offering similar features on a shotgun priced around $2,000. Even fewer furnish them in a 16-gauge model. The Instinct SLX stands out on those merits alone.
Still, while form matters—to some more than others—function remains foremost for the majority of hunters. If you want a 16 gauge that feels lighter than a 12 gauge yet packs a similar punch, it should be built on a dedicated 16-gauge frame. Historically, many manufacturers have introduced 16s that were little more than 16-gauge barrels placed atop 12-gauge frames. Hunters looking for a light field gun have, understandably, received these hybrids poorly, as they end up sacrificing power without shedding much weight. Instead of a gun that hits like a 12 and carries like a 20, they get one that hits like a 20 and carries like a 12—something no one wants.
Thankfully, this is not true of the Instinct SLX. The 16-gauge SLX is built on a true 16-gauge frame. Actually, every gun in the SLX line (which includes 12-, 20- and 28-gauge models) comes with a proportionate frame. The result with the 16 gauge is a gun light enough to be mistaken for a 20 gauge but powerful enough to handle any upland shot one might encounter. In fact, with its 5.8-pound weight, the 16-gauge model weighs about the same as, or less than, many prominent 20-gauge field guns.
In two days of hunting pheasant, chukar and Hungarian partridge at Pheasant Bonanza Hunt Club near Tekamah, Neb., I was able to experience the Instinct SLX’s lean form firsthand. While a couple full days of hunting with my 12-gauge semi-auto sometimes leave my arms a bit heavy, I experienced no such thing with the SLX. The gun was not only light, but the ergonomic design of the stock and fore-end made carrying it quite comfortable.
Similarly, shouldering and firing the SLX also felt instinctive. The lightweight 16 was fast swinging, and the vent rib and red fiber-optic sight combined to offer an easy reference point without drawing attention from the target. Recoil seemed minimal, and a cushioned black buttpad helped mitigate what little there was.
The gun’s mechanics and operation were likewise straightforward and effective. Being a new gun, the action was a bit stiff, but additional use will break it in more. The SLX’s tang-mounted safety and barrel-selector switch functioned perfectly. Both the safety and selector engaged positively and audibly, making accidental changes to their status unlikely. The shotgun’s all-steel automatic ejectors, meanwhile, spat out spent shells with force each and every time.
On the front end, the SLX comes with extended removable choke tubes. While some prefer flush-fit chokes, I like tubes that continue beyond the barrel. In addition to creating what I find to be a cool look, they also make it easier to quickly identify which chokes are in the gun.
Although ammo quality affects a shotgun’s downrange performance, I feel confident in the Instinct SLX’s capabilities. My hunting partners and I admittedly used some good ammunition on our hunt—Kent’s FastLead and Bismuth Upland loads—and it did well with the gun. We were each able to drop birds with shots out to 40 or 50 yards. One of the guys had an incredible shot with the bismuth load that folded a pheasant at about 60 yards. Of course, the Instinct SLX also handled shorter crossing and flushing-away shots with ease, too. In short, I felt no less capable of making any shot with the 16-gauge SLX than I would have with my own 12 gauge.
That’s more or less the entire point of the 16-gauge shotgun. It bridges the gap between the 12 and the 20 by combining attractive qualities of each: much of the 12 gauge’s power and a good deal of the 20 gauge’s lightweight feel. Technology advances have blurred the lines a bit; 12-gauges have become lighter, and 20-gauge shells have become more potent. But, the 16 still does everything it was intended to quite well, and guns such as the Franchi Instinct SLX only make this more apparent. If in the process the SLX manages to look good, too, what’s wrong with that?
Franchi Instinct SLX Specs
- Type: Over-under shotgun
- Gauge, Chambers: 16, 2 3/4" (tested)
- Capacity: 2 rounds
- Receiver: Aluminum alloy, engraved
- Safety: Tang-mounted automatic with barrel selector
- Barrels: 28"; vent rib; gloss blue finish
- Sights: fiber-optic front bead
- Stock: AA-grade satin walnut; Prince Of Wales
- Length of Pull: 14 1/4"
- Drop at Heel: 2"
- Drop at Comb: 1 1/2"
- Overall Length: 46 1/4"
- Weight: 5.8 lbs.
- Accessories: 5 extended Mobil choke tubes (C, IC, M, IM, F); fitted hard case
$2,099 | franchiusa.com